A Tale of Two New York State Snowshoe Races

The following snowshoe race report was written by Laura Clark. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.

Once more, the Saratoga Winterfest Snowshoe Race in New York’s Saratoga Spa State Park seemingly justified Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction of an early spring, leaving us to contend with treacherous ice melted layers. Yet only a week later Wilton Wildlife Preserve’s Camp Saratoga Snowshoe Race featured a magnificent landscape pulled directly from a scene out of Frozen. But then, in his role as weather prognosticator, Phil, like his human counterparts, is only expected to produce a 50% accuracy rate. So I guess he hit it right on the nose. Or maybe he felt sorry for us.

Another weird fact: While Winterfest, a traction-only race, attracted 36 snowshoers, Camp, which required actual snowshoes, garnered 30 participants. A number of possibilities present themselves. Are folks attracted to shorter races? Were road/trail runners simply thrilled to find a winter race that did not involve snow? Or, in the spirit of Turkey Trots everywhere, were folks just interested in earning those extra Super Bowl calories? Of course, the horrific weather the day before Camp might have had something to do with it…

Photo by Jen Ferriss.

For Winterfest, co-race director Matt Miczek and I advised, “This is not a race.” An odd statement for two race directors to make. But because of the thick ice on the trail, we advised folks to stick to the sides or even venture off into the woods if they were uncomfortable. Once more, Jamie Howard brought his screw set and set up shop for anyone without traction. Especially for our Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) College students who understandably did not bring tons of gear with them to decorate their dorms. Amazingly, although there were a few tumbles, there were no serious umfalls (German for fall—that term seems so much more expressive to me!). Once more, our thirty year-old chronoprinters limped along, prompting the Saratoga Stryders who wrestled with them to vote for new models for Camp.

Camp featured every brand of weather Groundhog could throw at us. Friday morning as I was loading supplies into the Lodge I was greeted by rain, sleet, hail and the occasional errant snowflake. In a move that made perfect sense at the time, I elected to wear a thick hoodie over my waterproof gear so the gear would stay cozy for our afternoon foray to check trail markings. What was I thinking??!! This necessitated another trip home to change outfits. Fortunately, I shoved a few Cliff bars and a drug store flashlight into my pockets “just in case.” Soon after our 1PM start, Matt and I were heartened to discover that the precipitation had switch to a fast-falling snow, rapidly covering all the previous day’s brown stretches. We were in business…or so we thought.

Photo by Jen Ferriss.

We soon realized, however, that the aftermath of the ice storm turned our route into a version of Albany Running Exchange’s famed December Adventure Race, a Dodge the Debris experience. So we set to work. At first it was rather fun, in an Arctic explorer sort of way. Except for the part about the falling pine tree branches. Initially, we looked upwards every time we heard a crash, but after ten minutes or so we ignored the carnage and soldiered on. We were on a mission, after all – foolhardy or not. Hours later…it grew dark, and as gloves and hand warmers played out, it began to be not so much fun anymore. We’d no sooner clear a section, walk a few feet and round a curve only to discover more carnage ahead. Our standards began to sink lower and lower. At first, we diligently cleared each scrap, then we left branches that could be easily run over, then we finally decided climbing over tree trunks in snowshoes was a good idea. One neat thing were the spider web curtains of flexible tree branches that had to be parted as you would glass beads hanging in the door frame of a Turkish restaurant. When we slogged through the Opdahl Farm section, the sun miraculously made a brief appearance, casting pastel pink and purplish light over the glittering trees. It was almost worth it.

As darkness became reality and we still had “miles to go before we sleep” and one drug store flashlight between us, we learned that it is not a good thing to hang flagging onto pine trees the day before a major ice storm. If we couldn’t find the trail, how could we expect others to? By the time we reached the road crossing, with an average pace of one mile per two hours, we were thinking folks could just head down the side of the road and call it a race. Then we noticed there a live wire and figured the mighty boom we had heard earlier was the power grid giving up. So we had to bushwhack around the wire to make it back to the parking lot, only to discover our escape route to Route 50 was blocked on one side by the downed line and on the other by a National Grid truck blocking traffic under a one-way bridge! I was grateful I had filled my gas tank earlier when I had picked up the drinks from Stewart’s Shops.

Photo by Brian Teague.

Eventually, we made it back to our respective homes, only to discover there was no power. I spooned supper from a jar of peanut butter, layered on dry clothes and went to bed. Matt was still hopeful we could do a modified course, but with the power line still down and more trees blocking the portions we had cleared, there simply wasn’t enough discretionary time left in our pre-race budget. Part of me thought an adventure race would be rather neat, but that would not exactly be truth-in-advertising, and this was, after all, a Snowshoe National Championship Qualifier. Everyone seemed to have a good time circling around the loop we managed to clear that morning and the snow was wonderful. Afterwards we traded “Did you lose power?” stories while consuming cold chili and lentil soup.

Folks later commended us for carrying through despite the conditions, but since it is well-known I rarely cancel, I figured it was a case of “If you build it they will come.” And really, with all communication lines down for several days, there was no way to get the word out anyway to a bunch of athletes anxious to get in their daily run.

Race winner Tim Van Orden. Photo by Brian Teague.

Editor’s Note: Enjoy a visit with the American Trail Running Association team at the 20th U.S. National Snowshoe Championships presented by Dion Snowshoes on February 29-March 2, in Leadville, Colorado. Read about what makes Leadville a great place for trail running and snowshoe in our most recent Trail Town article. There are still more snowshoe races in 2020 – see them all on our event calendar.

Tags: ,