In the summer, Southcentral Alaska is home to avid mountain, trail and road running communities. But with the first sign of winter, running is largely on ice until next year.
Lance Arnold wants to change that. The manager at the Active Soles running store in Palmer, Arnold transplanted to the state from the Lower 48 a few years ago, bringing with him a background in snowshoe running.
Anchorage area residents may not be familiar with the sport, which is exactly what it sounds — running in snowshoes. Although snowshoe running is popular in Fairbanks, it hasn’t really caught on in the rest of Alaska, Arnold said, likely because Anchorage and Valley residents prefer to spend their winter outdoor time in skis.
Anyone who has ever tried to run in snow knows it’s hard. And snowshoe running isn’t much easier. But it does offer a fun winter way for runners to stay in the game while getting out on trails that would otherwise be inaccessible or simply too challenging.
With at least several hundred snowshoe races under his belt, Arnold wasn’t willing to leave his passion behind when he moved up to Alaska in 2011. Now he’s trying to get the sport to catch on in the Matansuka-Susitna Valley through a race series he’s hosted annually since 2014.
“It’s a great way for runners to stay in shape — that’s why I really like it,” he said. “You’re working harder cardiovascular-wise. It helps make your core get stronger and you become a much better trail runner. If you can run really well in snowshoes I think it translates. … it really helps coordination as well, because you have to be conscious of that or you’ll be tripping all over.”
Snowshoe running can also help runners work through their normal weaknesses. It’s easy for runners in normal road or trail conditions to rely on their quadriceps, instead of also training hamstrings, glutes and other stabilizing muscles. That muscle imbalance can lead to injury down the road.
But running in snowshoes can force a runner to fire those underused muscles, setting them up for success and stronger runs come spring and summer, Arnold said.
“When I used to race in Vail (Colorado)… there’d be world-class athletes and amazing adventure racers that were snowshoe racing to train, they knew it was hard,” he said. “It’s a wonderful training tool.”
Unlike snowshoe races in the Lower 48 which are held at resorts on groomed trails, the racing and running here in Alaska is more rugged. Arnold likes to hit Hatcher Pass and views his runs as more of an adventure series or obstacle course than anything else.
“It’s hard but it’s not too hard. I think for any aspiring trail runner it’s something they should put in their thing of stuff to do. … you make your own trail, you can go deep into the woods,” he said.
Like all running, snowshoe running can be as expensive as you want to make it. Snowshoes made light, fast and with a low profile for running can cost several hundred dollars. The cheap ones go for well under $100.
Beginners can rent shoes from Active Soles in the Valley for $25 a day or $16 for members or $32 for non-members for a day from REI in Anchorage.
If in the market to buy, runners should look for a no less than 8 inches wide by 21 inches long shoe — the United States Snowshoe Association standard — with a middle crampon that has minimal swivel. A shoe with more surface area will allow the wearer to stay on top of the snowpack more easily, but could also mean more weight.
Arnold recommends pairing snowshoes with a low profile waterproof running shoe, such as Icebug. And although trekking poles aren’t typically used in snowshoe racing, he suggests beginners use them.
Like any outdoor winter sport, clothing choice matters big time. Running produces a lot of body heat, Arnold said, and layers that shed easily are king. Snowshoe running can also kick up a lot of snow, so runners should also wear a hood or buff to keep snow from going down their backs. Wool socks and shoe gaiters are also helpful for keeping feet dry.
From a technique perspective, snowshoe running is similar to trail running in snow, Arnold said.
Runners will notice that they must widen their stance slightly to accommodate for the shoes.
And, depending on how deep the snow is and whether or not it’s been packed by other traffic, they may need to pull each stride slightly higher or step heal to toe, sitting back and riding the heel slightly with each step.
How hard they step will also matter in deep conditions; focusing on a light step will keep the shoe on the surface of the snow instead of pushing it down into the powder.
“The more you can move your body efficiently the easier it will make it,” Arnold said. “Really the trick is to keep moving and try not to snag the toe. It really forces you to be light and quick.”
Arnold and Active Soles are hosting a trio of beginner friendly Nunataq Challenge snowshoe races in the Valley this winter, starting with a 6k out and back climb on the Hatcher Pass Summit Lake Road Dec. 23. The second and third races, Jan. 27 and March 10, will be held at the new Hatcher Alpine Xperience ski area.
Racers who don’t own snowshoes can borrow one of Active Soles’ collection of seven pairs — no charge — on a first-come-first-serve basis, Arnold said.
The races are $20 for those who register before the race date, and $25 the day of. Each race includes a 50 yard snowshoe dash for cash and a race afterparty, Arnold said. Racers can register at AlaskaSnowshoeChallenge.com.