As I was descending a steep, snowy slope earlier this month, my right snowshoe binding broke off at the frame After 10 years of fun use, I decided it was time for a new pair.
A stop at the Arcadian Shop in Lenox introduced me not only to the vast array of types and designs now on the market, but also to the world a snowshoe racing. Jeff Minkler, associate manager, showed me an aerobic running/racing snowshoe that is smaller and shorter than the recreational or mountaineering snowshoe I had been using and had deep cleats to grip the snow for traction.
The aerobic snowshoe is shaped to enhance your running gait. Its shell, or frame, is lightweight, and usually made out of titanium or aluminum, Minkler explained.
"You don't want to make the snowshoe too heavy as you expend a lot of energy lifting them with your knees and hip flexors," he said. "Most of the people that use the aerobics, strap waterproof running shoes into the bindings and leave them permanently affixed for future use."
Normally when I snowshoe, I use poles, but Minkler told me not to when using aerobics because it's important to imitate a running gait."
He told me about an upcoming snowshoe race in Lanesborough, so on Jan 13, I headed off to watch 92 runners on aerobic snowshoes racing up Constitutional Hill there. Sponsored by the Berkshire Natural Resource Council, Dion Snowshoes, and the Western Massachusetts Athletic Club (WMAC), the race, in its fourth year, is over a 5.
When I arrived, I met an excited and bubbling Carolina Villarreal, an R&D engineer from Costa Rica, decked out in a striking neon outfit. She relocated to Boston last year and had never seen snow. She came with friends for her first-ever snowshoe race. Her grin said it all.
Laurel Shortell, a software engineer and therapist from Northampton, has been running since 1999 and does about 20 snowshoe races per year.
"I love running snowshoe races," she told me as she strapped on her aerobics, "and even though they're harder, my knees don't get as beat up as they do on roads."
Denise and Bob Dion, gold medal competitive snowshoe racers, are the owners of Dion Snowshoes.
"Running or racing in aerobic snowshoes gives you a ‘killer' cardiovascular workout," said Denise Dion. "It's harder work with aerobics than running on roads, but it's easier on the knees and if you do fall you have a soft landing."
Ed Alibozek is the race director for WMAC, which was founded in 1979. He has been organizing snowshoe-racing events since 1995.
"Racers are all ages and come from the tri-state area. One guy here is over 80," he said.
As he looked me over he added, "Seniors race for free."
Handing me a race schedule, he went on to explain that, "Aerobic snowshoe racing is a sport that has been growing by leaps and bounds in the years that WMAC has been participating in these races. We run 15 snowshoe events a year, many in the underused state parks in Western Mass, New York, and Vermont."
Snowshoe competitions are governed by the United States Snowshoe Association, founded in 1977, and located in Corinth, N.Y., which is considered the snowshoe capital of the world.
Competitive events, like the National Championships to be held in March in Bend, Ore., cover all distances from sprints to the 100-killometer "Iditashoe." Some events even have hurdles.
Snowshoe races are part of the Arctic Winter Games and the Winter Special Olympics but, so far, are not in the regular Winter Olympics.
The origin and age of snowshoes isn't precisely known, but historians think they were invented somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago in central Asia to prevent hikers from sinking into snow.
The ones we know today are said to have originated with native North Americans. Early French and then British explorers adopted them and later formed sporting clubs in Canada.
Mark Morgenstein, an acquaintance who is an industrial designer from Great Barrington, snowshoe runs up and down the hills of Kennedy Park in Lenox strictly for recreation.
He's been running on snowshoes for years and feels it is one of the best high-intensity workouts one could have.
"The health benefits are enormous and it's challenging," he said.
His best advice to anybody considering taking up athe sport is, "Go to a good outfitter for a fitting, as aerobic snowshoes have different size frames and bindings. Also, invest in a good pair of waterproof Gore-tex running shoes and socks, as your feet can get awfully cold running in snow."
At the Lanesborough race, I borrowed a pair of aerobics to try out in the open field. Their lightness was startling, even though I had on klutzy hiking boots and bulky winter clothing.
After huffing and puffing while trying to reach a semblance of a running gait, I later learned the winner had already finished the 5.5 K race in just 28 minutes.
Compared to my old snowshoes, the aeorbics made me feel I was traveling in a Ferrari rather than a Mack truck.
Now that I have discovered a new winter sport, I'm buying my own and hoping for more snow so I can run around in my new toys.