Mike Walsh | Powder Report: Transitioning to spring? Put on some snowshoes

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This weekend we move inside of eight weeks to go until the 2019 Steel Rail Half Marathon.

Before you know it, May 19 will be here, a scary thought to think when a season of sitting on chair lifts, with my feet up by lodge fireplaces, and the occasional downhill carve have left me in not-the-greatest of shape. But the grip of Old Man Winter still hasn't loosened entirely on Berkshire County, and my patience for the all-mighty Dalton CRA treadmills maxes out at around 30 minutes.

With this new batch of spring-enriched powder falling, I'm not particularly keen on pounding the pavement around the busy Dalton Avenue. Then, however, I remembered a Powder Report from last year with a few local athletes competing in a snowshoe race.

Since-graduated Owen Brandriss and Lilly Wells, and current sophomore Jackie Wells, all of Mount Greylock, picked up some snowshoes and earned spots on the U.S. National team at last years national championships at Prospect Mountain.

That gave them spots in the 2019 World Snowshoe Championships in the town of La Ciaspolada in Val di Non, Italy this past January.

"I didn't know there was a national team until right after that race," said Brandriss a few weeks ago. "When I found out the race was in Italy, I definitely wanted to go. It was a really cool opportunity."

Brandriss is now a freshman at the University of Vermont, but teamed up with his former classmates Lilly and Jackie Wells one more time earlier this year overseas.

"What really struck me was that it's this beautiful little mountain town," said Lilly Wells, who now runs cross-country and track for Williams College. "They have the race there every year and it's this huge tradition. There is the competitive race, which was great, but then there is this citizens race, which like 2,000 people come out and do. You can tell it's something the people in that area are really into. It's special that so many people are excited about getting out there and doing it."

Jackie was the first female finisher in the junior race completing the just-under 5K course in 24:15.93, with Lilly just behind her in 25:50.42.

Brandriss was 10th overall in 22:14.42.

"It was really cool. There wasn't much real snow, so they built this track out of artificial snow through the valley," said Brandriss. "It was beautiful, right through this huge valley and these giant jagged mountains on either side with snow on them. A lot of picturesque towns and you could see for miles."

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The races featured a junior level, a master level and then a community race. The course stretched through the valley and then into a small town all along a man-made track of snow.

The bonus here, and what concerns me in my questionable Steel Rail training, is that one doesn't have to fly to Italy to get some running in during the midst of winter.

"Definitely want to give a shout-out to Dion Snowshoes. A lot of the other American runners use Dion, and have a lot of respect for the company," said Wells of a small North Bennington, Vt. company. "They run a really great local circuit of races. It's great that they're so engaged in supporting the snowshoe running community."

I made the trek up from Pittsfield to Dion's shop, which is tucked off Water Street in a brick factory building. You enter up a wood ramp, and weave your way through some dark hallways before coming on the Dion door. Inside, though, it couldn't be brighter.

Bob Dion met me at the door and gave me the Snowshoe Running 101 lesson, all while building my own pair from the ground up. Dion's claim to fame is its interchangable functionality, which allows you to pick and choose what kind of frames, bindings and cleats you want. The variety is useful for different types of terrain and different types of usage. I went with the Model 121 Racing Frame for my size 11 Brooks Ghost kicks, the Quick-Fit Binding which comes with various strap sizes, but utilizes both a hook and loop set up along with special Velcro that sheds snow and any other material that isn't your strap. I also got the new Ice Cleat, which is stainless steel and for all snow conditions. AKA, perfect for late winter in New England.

I gave them a test run this week, and after a brief get-to-know-you period, it starts to feel like you're just jogging on a nice, soft track. They're unobtrusive, and incredibly lightweight. I was tentative about cutting on the cleat at first, but by the finish of my run, I was making jump-stops and V-cuts like Alie Mendel slicing through the St. Mary's defense. The major benefit, according to Dion, is that there is very minimal impact on the muscles and joints, leaving you feeling fresh as a daisy the next day. It's like swimming, but outdoors in nature instead of a basement pool.

Beyond helping you get in shape for those early-spring road races, the sport of snowshoe running is yet another great community you can become a part of.

"It's definitely more difficult, just because of the things on your feet, but it's pretty fun. The community is more about doing it for fun, than being overly competitive about it," said Brandriss. "It's a great community of people, everyone I met on the trip was really nice."

"There are so many trails around here that people think are only accessible during the summer. But any trail can be a snowshoe trail," added Lilly Wells, who couldn't bring through customs all of her and Jackie's winnings [cartons of local apples]. "When it snows, just take the opportunity to explore. It's a great way to see the Mount Greylock summit in the winter. I think the Clark just started a snowshoe program to use their trails, too."

So, maybe along with the lift lines these next few weeks, you'll also see me out on the trails working towards a Steel Rail media division victory.

Until next time, keep your tips up and stay spoice!

Mike Walsh is an urchin snowboarder who can be reached in the local lift line or at mwalsh@berkshireeagle.com.


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