How is it that I’ve been running for 25 years, never lived more than a couple hours away from the snow, love to cross train, but have never tried snowshoe running?
I know people across the country participate in snowshoeing events all winter, but in Northern California, or at least in my group of running friends and acquaintances, snowshoe running is still quite an anomaly.
Full disclosure, our former guest Derrick Spafford (aka “Spaff”) at Spafford Health and Adventure, got me going in this sport by providing me with a great pair of snowshoes from Dion. He’s been a great resource and is extremely knowledgeable on the sport. Please reach out to him with questions or support. Derrick is also a streak runner, Arctic ultrarunner, and serious beer drinker. Here’s our podcast with him.
I also spoke with a few people who live in Lake Tahoe/Truckee about where to go, what to wear, etc., but other than that, I was on my own. I had never even held a snowshoe until last month, so this is truly a beginner’s guide.
This all started as a need to get altitude training in for the Bryce Canyon 100 in May. I live at 30′ above sea level, and the race is at 8,000′. The only altitude training I can arrange between now and then is in the mountains…and the mountains are covered in snow…thus, my need to adapt to snowshoeing.
These people (above) actually know what they’re doing. Notice I’m not in the video!
Where ya goin?
Before you get into this, figure out where you plan on running. That’s going to help determine what type of frames you need. Large surface area for deep snow, or nice and small for trails. Groomed snowmobile trail? XC Ski tracks? Snowy hiking trails? Are there hills?
I asked around and was told there were some good trails this side of Truckee where parking is relatively free at the trailhead and the trails are semi-groomed by xc skiers. My friend said that I could get in 8 miles or so and I scoffed “is that it?” She assured me that that would be enough for my maiden voyage. Ah, what a rookie I was three short weeks ago. Here’s what I’ve learned.
I told Derrick that I’d be on groomed trail and he set me up with Dion 121s. They’re considered minimalist snowshoes, as they have the smallest surface area allowed in competition and they’re light weight, coming in at just over 2 lbs for the pair. That sounds like a lot, but in all honesty when the package arrived on my doorstep, I was afraid the box was empty.
These shoes are handmade in Vermont of aluminum and a stretched nylon. The spikes and straps are all easily interchangeable (I believe Dion is the only company that offers this modular solution) with the turn of a screw and the three velcroed straps easily fit around my running shoes. I chose the deeper cleats for one run and the shallower cleats for the other and couldn’t tell too much of a difference.
For those not familiar with snowshoes, your running shoe attaches at the “front” which leaves the rear of the shoe loose and able to lift off away from the rest of the snowshoe. This allows for an easy running style that won’t affect your gait.
The Dion 121s were a great pick for me, as they’re small enough to allow me to run up and down some fairly technical trails, but have enough surface area to not sink in the snow. They retail (frames, cleats, and bindings) for about $225.
What to wear:
This was a big question mark for me, as the coldest weather I run in is in the high 20s. I wear shorts and a wool shirt and am generally OK. Adding snow to the mix would be a big change. Here’s what I’ve learned.
- Ya gotta wear tights, but make sure they’re going to stay up! I bought some cheapies online and they slip down constantly. Not cool.
- You kick up a lot of snow behind you, creating a rooster tail that turns into frozen ice on your back and head. Prepare accordingly.
- You need waterproof gaiters. Your feet and ankles are going to get wet. Your alternative is plastic bags and duct tape.
- Shoes. I’ve been safe with some old Brooks Cascadias, but that’s only because I’m too cheap to go out and buy a pair of waterproof running shoes (that I’d only use for snowshoeing), but I’ll be buying some for next year. The alternative is wrapping your normal shoes in plastic bags.
- The temp has been in low to high 20s each time I’ve been out and I’ve been very comfortable in a long sleeve wool top. Next time with this warm weather, I’ll pack a short sleeve wool top to change into. You heat up very, very quickly. (Think 180 bpm running 15 mpm pace!)
- I’ve worn my Ultimate Direction AK vest for water, camera, keys, and extra jacket–just in case.
Strapping these things on is a cinch. Three straps, make them tight, and you’re ready to go. I was afraid I’d be walking/running like I had water skiis on my feet, but surprisingly there’s very little difference. I was running “normally” within two minutes of strapping them on.
Because the snowshoes are wider than my normal shoes, I have caught the insides of my ankle bones a couple of times, and that sucks. I’m really surprised how normal running feels, but for some reason my butt/glutes were extremely sore for two days afterwards.
My shoes “poked through” the front/bottom of the snowshoes (see pic), allowing me to use the traction of my trail shoes, along with the monster cleats the snowshoes provide, giving me crazy traction.
Other thoughts on my monthlong snowshoe career?
- Trail people are generally cool folks, snow trail people are really cool, nice people. Everyone I met on the trails seemed to be on some fantastic narcotic.
- Snowshoe running still seems to be an anomaly, as I got weird looks and comments each time I was out.
- I definitely want to find a race to participate in. Can’t imagine how hard a marathon would be at this stage, but a shorter event would be a blast.
- I was surprised how agile I could be with these things strapped to my feet. Jumping and careening down single track was no problem at all, and pushing up a hill with 2″ cleats is a breeze. I’d assume running with larger snowshoes would be a different story.
- One thing that drives me crazy about alpine skiing is the prohibitive cost. Aside from the snowshoes themselves and possible parking, this is a free way to get a great workout and see some gorgeous trails in a different season without the crowds.
- Why in the heck don’t more people do this?
For even more information, here’s a piece by Bryon Powell from a few years ago. Check out the comment sections for the good stuff.
I am 100% there are myriad aspects of snowshoe running I’m overlooking and/or haven’t experienced yet. Please share your experiences and advice. Thanks!
Please check out Spafford Health and Adventure for more information.