US National Snowshoe Championships returning to Bennington
The 18th annual championships will take place March 9-11 at Prospect Mountain Ski Area, in neighboring Woodford. In addition to the hotly contested national title races that will draw a field of top snowshoe racers, there will be a number of events designed for people of virtually all ages and levels of experience.
The success of the 2014 championships, which stand as the biggest in the United States Snowshoe Association's history, was a major factor in the selection of Bennington and Woodford for 2018, according to Mark Elmore, who solicits host community bids for the event and presents them to the 21-member USSSA board.
With approximately 400 athletes, the 2014 event "was our largest national championship by far. People are still talking about it," Elmore said.
In contrast, the 2017 championships, held in Bend, Oregon, attracted 87 competitors.
This represents Bennington's first opportunity to repeat as host. The USSSA rotates its championship around four of its five U.S. regions - Northeast, North Central, Rockies and Western - and past hosts are always invited to submit bids.
Among Bennington's advantages, Elmore said, are its geographic location in the center of the region, the suitability of the Prospect Mountain site, which "just met every single need we had," and the continued involvement of 2014 organizer Tim Van Orden, "who did an amazing job."
Van Orden, who spent 10 years in California before returning to his native Bennington in 2007, said he became involved in bringing the championship here because he's motivated to do something positive for the town. "I want people to see it as a point of pride," he said.
One of his goals is to get more people to strap on snowshoes and discover the beauty of the sport for themselves. Though he at one time had dreams of being an Alpine skier, he came to discover that showshoe racing is his favorite winter sport. In fact, he's the defending national champion in the half-marathon.
"I'm struck by the beauty of the Vermont woods," he said. "It's about being present to the environment you're moving through, and experiencing it and observing it.
"I want Vermonters to see that here is another way we can stand out as a winter sports state."
Downhill skiing, Van Orden said, "is elitist to some degree. The cost of being a competitive Nordic racer is around $3,000. There are a lot of people here who can't afford to be a part of that. But the best snowshoes in the world - which are made right here in Bennington - are $200."
The manufacturer of those snowshoes, Dion Snowshoes of North Bennington, is the title sponsor of the championship.
Owner Bob Dion noted that snowshoeing is enjoying a surge in popularity. "Snowshoe racing now is like snowboarding was," he said. "Ski areas didn't want them, and now they're begging for them." He expects snowshoe racing to become a part of the Winter Olympics "before long."
Dion said interest in the sport is strongest in the Northeast, thanks in part to the region's dependable snow cover. There's also a strong sense of tradition, as the sport migrated to the region from southeastern Canada several generations ago. "At least 60 to 70 percent of the snowshoe racers are in the Northeast," Dion said.
Organizers are expecting this year's turnout to at least equal 2014's. Dion said that for every person who competed that year, he knows of another who wasn't able to make it to Bennington - but might this time. Van Orden predicted at least 600 people in attendance, including friends and family.
There are special circumstances this year that could boost attendance. Elmore noted that these will be the first championships in the Northeast to include a half-marathon, introduced in 2015, and a full marathon, added in 2015. In addition, there will be no qualifying criteria required for the title events, just paid-up membership in the USSSA, whose annual dues are $30.
Finally, there will be "citizens" events that are open to anyone, such as a 4 x 2.5-kilometer team relay, a "Kids Kilo" run/walk, and a 5-kilometer run/walk. Snowshoes will be available at Prospect Mountain, either at a nominal fee or free of charge.
Van Orden noted that advance registrations are well ahead of where they were in 2014. "We're going to fill every hotel and motel in this town, and we're probably going to fill every major B&B," he said.
He said organizers are exploring the possibility of adding shuttle buses, to get competitors and spectators to the venue. "The only limiting factor is the parking lot at Prospect," he said.
"We're definitely expecting it to be very well attended," Elmore said. "We're excited."
David LaChance can be reached at email@example.com.
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