By the time Tim Mahoney had crossed the finish line inside the Wilton Wildlife Preserve & Park, the back of his black tights were covered with powdery snow and the hair behind his right ear was coated with frozen sweat.
He had just finished speeding through the forests of Camp Saratoga, a swath of mostly state-owned land inside the preserve that for decades was home to a Boy Scout camp. If it weren’t for the deep snow and snowshoes strapped to his feet, he would have shaved four to five minutes off his 37-minute run. But what fun would that be?
“It’s a fun alternative to running on the roads in the winter,” said Mahoney, 34. “You make the most of winter. It can be so long some years.”
Saturday was the third time the runner from Holyoke, Mass., had made the 100-plus-mile trek to participate in the annual 8K Snowshoe Race. This year’s event happened to also serve as a qualifying race for the 2014 Dion Snowshoes U.S. National Snowshoe Championship, which will take place March 1 at Prospect Mountain in the southern Vermont town of Woodford. In addition to Wilton, qualifying races were held in Maine, Wisconsin, Colorado and Washington state on Saturday.
Mahoney finished first out of about 100 runners in Wilton. It’s his seventh year of snowshoe running — a sport that looks like slow-motion running but requires much more exertion. Depending on the type of snow on the ground, runners will tackle a course at a fast run or a swift hike.
“You’re giving a lot of input and not really getting a lot of output,” is how Mahoney describes it. “It’s more demanding. You use different muscles. It’s more quad-based. You don’t get as much spring. But after all the fresh snow, it can be beautiful.”
The race in Wilton came one week after the annual Saratoga Winterfest 5K Snowshoe Race in Saratoga Spa State Park — a race that has drawn more than 200 racers and for a 10-year stretch was considered the largest snowshoe race east of Colorado.
Jeff and Laura Clark, a Northumberland couple, organize and run both races. Last year, Jeff Clark ran his 100th snowshoe race. This year, he had to sit the races out while he recovers from a back operation. He said the Saratoga race draws a much more eclectic crowd of runners because it’s less demanding than the Wilton race.
“We’ll get top runners on the U.S. Mountain Running Team, and we’ll get people who just come out to stride and walk the course,” he said Saturday from inside a heated cabin at Camp Saratoga. “The serious runners are mostly trail runners. Snowshoeing in the winter helps their quad muscles and keeps them prepared for running in the summer. Some of them are people who aren’t training for anything but who discovered snowshoe running and just love it.”
As a runner, 51-year-old Ken Clark first got into snowshoe running to cross-train in the off season. Not only does it strength-train different leg muscles, but it has increased his lung capacity more than regular running ever could, he said.
“Especially when the snow is something like today, where it gives under your feet, you have to really push yourself, and you breathe way harder than you would just running,” he said.
Clark has made the trek to Wilton from Somers, Conn., for about seven years for the race.
“It’s one of my favorites,” he said. “And when you get snow like this, it’s hard to pass up.”
The Wilton Wildlife Preserve & Park is a nature lover’s dream. It boasts woodlands, wetlands, streams, ponds, hills, fields and wildflowers. It’s home to the endangered Karner blue butterfly and all kinds of wildlife. It’s popular among birdwatchers, hunters, fishers, trappers, hikers, cross-country skiers and, of course, snowshoers.
When covered in a fresh blanket of snow, the preserve takes on a new kind of beauty, said Jeff Clark.
“It’s great, because every year I’ve been at the finish line timing, and people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much, this is just so great, the outdoors are beautiful,’ ” he said. “It’s really heartwarming to hear. These old growth pines are so majestic. You really get an exhilaration from getting out of the house on a beautiful day and seeing the snow on the evergreens.”