Do you have what it takes to race in snowshoes at 10,000 feet above sea level?

CMC Leadville Snowshoe racers on the campus trails

CMC Leadville Snowshoe racers on the campus trails

Leadville will soon host the highest U.S. Snowshoe Championships ever

By John Meyer, original article shared in The Denver Post Feb 18, 2020

Forgive the breathless prose you are about to read here, but just writing about snowshoe racing 10,000 feet above sea level makes us stop and catch our breath after every paragraph or two.

Nevertheless, if you want to watch the nation’s best snowshoe racers compete for 10-kilometer national championships, head to Leadville Feb. 29-March 1 for the U.S. Snowshoe National Championships. If you’ve got the lungs for it, you can even do a citizen’s 5K on the same course before the elite races.

Keep in mind that running on snowshoes is insanely harder than running a road race on nice, firm asphalt. Then consider the altitude. Leadville will be the highest elevation in the 20-year history of the national championships, which were held in Colorado once before in 2012 (Frisco, elevation 9,100 feet). The 2019 national championships were held in Wisconsin.

The races will unfold on a Nordic trail system at Colorado Mountain College’s Leadville campus.

“It’s going to be a little bit easier than most snowshoe races that I have done because it’s all groomed,” said Race Director Darren Brungardt, who teaches math at CMC and coaches the cross country running team. “I wanted to make something that was a little more user-friendly for those lowlanders that are going to be coming from the Midwest and from the Northeast.”

That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

“It’s very hilly,” said Brungardt, who finished ninth at the 2009 nationals when they were held near Mount Hood in Oregon. “When you start the race, I have a half-mile downhill to get warmed up. As soon as you hit that half-mile mark, you’ll start heading uphill for the next mile and a quarter or so. You’re going to go from 9,900 feet up to the highest point of the race, which is about 10,200 feet.”

Following that is a “roller coaster of ups and downs,” Brungardt said, then “two really steep downhills that are really fun to sprint down. You just let it go, like Elsa says in ‘Frozen.’ ”

If you’re up for the challenge, keep in mind that a runner who averages 8-10 minutes per mile in a road race probably will be running 10-15 minutes per mile on snowshoes. And pity the fool who goes out too hard, which is a bad idea in any kind of racing but can result in severe oxygen debt at altitude in snowshoes.

“You have to play that balance with the red line on your RPMs and make sure you’re not overdoing it, because when you get in that fresh powder and you start running uphill — in snowshoes at elevation — you can get yourself into trouble pretty quickly,” Brungardt said.

In addition to the 10K elite events for senior men and women and college athletes age 20 or over, for the first time, there will be youth, high school and under-20 college national championships awarded in the 5K.

Leadville already is home to a series of 13 hardcore running and cycling endurance events in the summer, including the Leadville Trail 100 running and mountain bike races that attract competitors from around the country, but there’s not much going on there in the winter besides a cross country ski race and a skijoring event. In the skijoring event, a horse and rider race down Leadville’s main street, Harrison Avenue, pulling a skier who gets launched over kickers of snow.

“I really care about this community,” said Brungardt, who was the race director for the 2012 national championships in Frisco before he moved to Leadville. “I wanted to see the nation come to Leadville in a different light than the race series in the summer. I want to see Leadville continue to thrive and grow, and this one extra event was that one thing that I thought could really help our community in the wintertime when things are a little bit slower up here.”

He also wanted to give Colorado’s elite snowshoe racers a chance to compete for national titles in their home state for a change.

“The Rocky Mountain snowshoers, in my opinion, are the best and the strongest,” Brungardt said. “I’d like to see who can try to beat us. I wanted to give those guys an opportunity to come up and take us on in our backwoods.”

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