When we ran on wood – snowshoe racing in the 1980s
BY DAVE FOLEY
It was the first week of February in 1987, and about 50 were on hand in Munising for the Sixth Annual Pictured Rocks Classic. There were no miniature titanium snowshoes at this race – those wouldn’t appear until about 1990. If you ran in snow, you strapped on oval-shaped Bear Paw snowshoes or teardrop-shaped Michigan shoes. Whatever you wore, you had 2 to 2½ pounds of wood on each foot.
Races were scarce. Probably the best-known competition in the Midwest was this one, sponsored by the Iverson Snowshoe manufacturer. The weekend races featured a ½ mile sprint, a 4-person relay, a 4½ mile race and the 9½-mile long race.
The competitions began Saturday morning with a ½ mile race through the hospital grounds. With snow piles to navigate at the edge of the parking lot, the race resembled steeplechase more than track. In the afternoon, those running the 4 ½-mile run, gathered at park headquarters ready for a fast trek on the park’s hiking trail.
That evening, we all enjoyed a free buffet dinner at the Dog Patch, a local eatery where awards for the day’s races were passed out. Award winners that year received wool stocking camps. I still have mine. Also, I’m still using the tote bags that came with every entry to the Classic. The race committee didn’t skimp on the amenities.
Sunday we all returned to the hospital grounds for the relay. The Wisconsin team was favored, but four of us representing the Lower Peninsula managed to eke out a close win over the Wisconsinites, with the Yooper team in third ahead of four from Illinois. An hour later, I was ready for the long race. For that, I have a journal entry that captures what racing nearly 10 miles was like.
“On Sunday morning, about 20 of us stand by the Ranger Station stamping our snowshoe-clad feet and clapping our hands trying to stay warm on this frigid morning,” I had written. “Ahead of us stretches a snow-covered trail leading up a hill, the start of a 9½ mile race through the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I remember one racer commenting, ‘Only the hardcore or the crazy show up for the long race.’
“At the sound of the starting gun, we lurch forward, making our best effort to sprint in our out-sized footwear. Halfway up the hill, we veer off the packed trail to scramble up a steep slope. I grab saplings to keep from slipping. This is tough. I am gasping for air and I’ve only been running about 2 minutes. At the top, we get a respite, as we pick up a snowmobile trail that we will follow for a couple of miles until we reach the cliffs by Lake Superior, where we join the hiking trail that I had taken on a backpacking trip several years before. Since it’s winter, the trail is not being maintained, and for about two miles, we clamber over a few logs and slide or tiptoe down ravines, then scramble up the other side.
“When we leave the path and go inland, there is no established trail, and we must follow pink ribbons hanging from trees. Later I learn that the three snowshoers in the lead take turns breaking trail. Being first meant having to deal with a foot of untracked, powdery snow. My training partner Brent McCumber had been running next to me. Since the first mile, we had seen no one. As we reach 8 miles, we see Marquette’s Jim Cihak up ahead. Here the terrain becomes hilly. I realize I have a chance at a fourth place, so I began to push harder, gaining steadily until I was within 10 yards of Cihak. Then I fall, and by the time I untangle my legs and get up, Cihak is out of reach. I follow him down the last hill to a fifth-place finish in 1 hour and 38 minutes. A trio from Wisconsin, led by National Champion Joel Braatz, is first in. Braatz posted a winning time of 1:28.“
Even though I have run 20 marathons, a couple of ultras and would do snowshoe races for the next 20 years, That 9½-mile run might have been the most exhausting race in my lifetime. The Iverson Classic continued to be held until the early 1990s, but as metal snowshoes began to dominate the market, it was clear that the time of wooden snowshoes had passed. By the mid-1990s, I too was competing in metal snowshoes.
Racing was still fun, but my fondest memories come from those weekends up in Munising. Days of racing over untracked snow following trails through a National Lakeshore, and nights socializing at the Dog Patch created a camaraderie among us. We’d look forward to seeing the same faces each year at that annual event.
I continued to race until a few years ago, but as the events became more popular, now attracting hundreds rather than dozens of competitors, even the off-trail sections soon became trampled by all the foot traffic. I sometimes felt that snowshoes weren’t even needed to run on the packed snow trail.
Nowadays, when I head out for snowshoe runs or backcountry walks, unless it’s icy, I leave my metal snowshoes hanging in the garage. Wood snowshoes, the only option we had for snowshoeing back in the 1980s, are still my first choice today.