Snowshoeing through the woods can be hard enough on anyone just out for a slow-going stroll. But a growing number of people are participating in snowshoe races, heart-pounding events that are a combination of trail running and snowshoeing that will push anyone to their cardiovascular limit.
Josh Hoggan was in very good shape after spending all of last summer hiking in Kelowna. Having an outdoorsy bent, he jumped at the chance to participate in the White Rabbit Snowshoe Race, an annual event in Westbank, B.C. The race, in late January, proved even harder than the 28-year-old expected.
"It was incredibly difficult," says Mr. Hoggan, founder of HikingAddiction.ca. "We had a fresh dump of snow that day. Being among the first few leaders in a snowshoe race when you're standing on six inches of fresh snow is just brutal." It may have been harder to run through fresh snow than a path that has been tamped down, but the experience also proved to be addictive. "I'd love to do it again next year."
Even with the World Snowshoe Championship coming to Canada for the first time with races in the Montmorency forest, approximately 70 kilometres from Quebec City, snowshoe racing is still a fringe sport. But the number of people participating in events is on the rise, as is the number of races being held each year. For some, it is a cardiovascular challenge of the highest order.
"You're pushing your body, but you're in a beautiful setting. If you just run a 10k on the road, you don't usually smile. People here are smiling and laughing, and at the same time their heart rate is like 194," says Mike Caldwell, founder of the Mad Trapper Snowshoe Series, which organizes races in the Ottawa area.
Hard-core participants run the entire length of the course, which is typically between 5 and 10 km, while providing a workout equivalent to about twice that distance in a road race. Many others will walk portions of the course, Mr. Caldwell says.
Elizabeth Primrose, a former professional triathlon champion, not only ran the entire length of the Dion Frontenac snowshoe race last month, finishing the 6.7 km race in just under 35 minutes, she also won, qualifying for the World Championship where she will compete in the event for the first time. Her first race, several years ago, was one of the hardest athletic exercises she had ever done up to that point, she says.
"It's such an anaerobic sport," says the 51-year-old.
Many triathletes are drawn to snowshoe races as a way of staying in shape throughout the winter, says Jordie Bowen, co-founder of the White Rabbit Snowshoe Race, which launched in 2006.
The sport is also piggybacking on the rising popularity of running, whether it's on road or off.
"Snowshoe running is not a far animal from road running or trail running," says Dan DesRosiers, a promoter for the World Snowshoe Championship. Of course, the running motion is different, with the legs moving up and down more when it comes to snowshoeing.
Three years ago, Raquette Quebec, a snowshoeing organization, launched a race series that attracted about 15 people to each of its three races, Mr. DesRosiers says. The series has now expanded to four races, which attracted more than 350 people in total this winter, Mr. DesRosiers says.
Many other race organizers are seeing the sport grow as well.
Derrick Spafford launched the Eastern Ontario Snowshoe Running Series in 2010. It was simply one race that year. Last year it grew to three races, and Mr. Spafford expects to add several more events next season to meet the level of interest in the sport.
"You're seeing a lot of people looking for a way of getting stronger and getting fit in the winter," he says.
The Yeti Snowshoe Series, arguably the most prominent snowshoe race series in the country, plans on expanding its number of events to at least six and perhaps even eight next year, with a new race in Banff and two more in Ontario. One of them, a race at Mount Washington, on Vancouver Island, last month, attracted more than 200 participants.
"Runners love to run, and it's an opportunity for them to do something challenging in the winter time," says Kathryn Stanton, owner of 5 Peaks, the company that operates the Yeti series. The company's next event, at Whistler Olympic Park on Saturday is expected to attract approximately 200 racers, Ms. Stanton says.
While events feature many athletes testing their physical fitness, they also have a very laid-back atmosphere, Ms. Stanton says. Some people will wear costumes.
The World Championship in Quebec is helping to raise awareness, Mr. DesRosiers says. It helps, too, that the current world champion, Montreal's David La Porho, will be defending his title.
For those who are curious about the sport, Mr. DesRosiers says the key is to go at your own pace.
"It's like if you asked a road runner how hard it is to run. The answer they're going to tell you is, it all depends on how hard you want to push yourself. Snowshoeing is no different," he says.