Snowshoe racing creeps into the limelight |

Snowshoe racing creeps into the limelight

Ryan Slabaugh
Special to the DailyHelen Cospolich likes to run in the snow. In fact, as a member of the U.S. Snowshoe Team, she's an ambassador of the sport.

On the cover of this year’s Nike ACG holiday catalogue for pro athletes, a photo shows a woman ripping through the snowy slopes of Mount Hood on a pair of snowshoes.

That’s Helen Cospolich, and she’s about ready to run off the page. However, the 26-year-old Breckenridge resident is more than just a cover girl.

Cospolich is new to the U.S. Snowshoe Team this season and has already shown why she deserves a spot. In the first event of the Beaver Creek Snowshoe Series (the biggest series in the country), Cospolich finished third, just behind U.S. champion and teammate Anita Ortiz, who lives in Eagle.

“Our job is more to be ambassadors in the sport,” Cospolich said. “Snowshoe racing is really an easy sport. People come out of the woodwork and win races. It takes strength and significant leg speed, which you need in a lot of sports.”

While “easy” is a debatable way to describe racing on snowshoes, Cospolich did start out as a rower in college, and switched to running after moving to the mountains. She competed in her first 100-mile ultramarathon last summer and wants to make that the focus of her training. She’ll compete on a national ultramarathon circuit (the Montrail Ultra Cup) this summer, but only after the snow melts and her Atlas ultralights are packed away.

“The best part of snowshoeing is the camaraderie,” added Cospolich, who works for the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. “It’s an attitude. You get to the start line and everyone’s joking around. Somebody will throw a snowball at somebody else.”

Olympic dream

Snowshoe racing is beginning to be a serious business. Not only will a racer show up on a Nike catalogue, but U.S. head coach Mark Elmore has made four trips to meet with International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials about making the sport an Olympic event.

“By 2010, we’re at least hoping to be conducting an event at least as a demonstration,” said Elmore, a volunteer coach from Pittsburgh, N.Y. “We need 40 national governing bodies to sponsor it as a sport. We’re a long ways from that. But we’ve accomplished a lot in a couple years, and there’s a lot of new countries getting involved.”

One of the biggest snowshoe racing events takes place in La Ciaspolada, Italy, where the sport was rumored to have started. Thousands of athletes compete and, last season, Ortiz’s eighth-place finish was the best-ever by an American. While Cospolich won’t be going over this year (no funding), she will be competing at the fourth annual U.S. Championships in Squaw Valley, Calif., this year.

Vail’s Josiah Middaugh will return as the defending U.S. champion (if you haven’t noticed, Cospolich lives in a snowshoe racing mecca), while Ortiz finished fourth with a broken heel.

Stirring success

This success has created a minor stir with athletic companies.

Cospolich is an Atlas and Nike ACG athlete, and Middaugh and Ortiz are with Nike as well. All three are U.S. Team members and did receive national team jerseys.

And, like Cospolich, Ortiz and Middaugh started in “niche” sports.

Ortiz is the national mountain running champion and Middaugh was a 2002 terra world champion for his age group.

So, for an elite snowshoe racer, working hard and not getting noticed is a way of life.

“It’s still kind of a matter of education and promotion,” Elmore said. “With all the millions of runners in the U.S. and abroad, we’re still left fighting the old misconception of what snowshoes are about. People still think you stick on these wooden things and walk around like a duck. Having Helen on a major catalogue is helping increase the credibility and visibility of the sport.”

Just like any sport, snowshoe racing and the equipment has evolved with the advance of technology.

New, lightweight metals have made the racers faster and the latest advancement will let runners bolt their racing flats to the top of the snowshoe.

Techniques are still improving and the sport has divided into two disciplines: powder running and groomed running. Races are springing up throughout the Midwest and as many as 400 competitors will race at a Rocky Mountain competition.

These races, for the elite runner, can be easy money. As Cospolich put it, a 10K snowshoe race is “a sprint” compared to ultramarathons. With this winter’s national championships near a large metropolitan area, organizers and racers hope it will put the sport on the map for good.

Prize money will rise. Sponsors will become interested. The Olympics, some day, might come calling.

It’s happened in other sports. Television networks began paying attention to adventure races since their inception and, for Summit County’s Danelle Ballengee, it’s paid off.

Ballengee, who coaches Cospolich, is one of the top adventure racers in the country and won several high-dollar contests this summer, which were broadcast on stations like NBC and the Discovery Channel. Prizes now reach six figures for winning the big competitions and will get you into the catalogue next to Cospolich.

On page 9, Ballengee’s photo can be found next to a pair of Nike Zoom Steens. And on page 20, Copper Mountain Freeride Team’s Ben Dolenc is introducing his favorite sport, telemark skiing.

But that all comes after the cover: Cospolich tearing it up on snowshoes.

Ryan Slabaugh can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 257, or at

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