Athletes Vie For Spots On Snowshoe Team

With spring just around the corner, hard-core road runners, bicyclists and other devoted athletes are starting to hit the streets. But where have they been spending the winter? Some of them have been strapping on snowshoes, and competing for a spot on the national snowshoe team.

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So we've now moved into spring, but just a few weeks ago, athletes in New York State were strapping on snowshoes and competing for a spot on the National Snowshoe Team. Julie Philipp of member station WXXI was there.

JULIE PHILIPP: Highland Forest, a county park, is a pretty low-key venue for a national-level competition, the 2010 U.S. Snowshoe Association's national championship races. It's located off a rural, hilly stretch of Interstate 81 south of Syracuse, New York. But there's a good 18 inches of packed powder underfoot, making racers like Marcia Geary very happy.

Ms. MARCIA GEARY (Snowshoe Racer): Thank you, Lord, because it could be raining, which would be a nightmare. There could be no snow, and that wouldn't be any fun.

PHILIPP: Like most racers here, Geary looks incredibly lean in her spandex running attire. Her cheeks have that healthy glow that comes from looking old man winter right in the eye and laughing.

Mark Elmore of the U.S. Snowshoe Association says Geary is a typical racer.

Mr. MARK ELMORE (U.S. Snowshoe Association): Athletes are turning to this as a means of cross training. There's tri-athletes here. There's cyclists, road cyclists, mountain bikers. There's cross-country runners, marathoners...

PHILIPP: For most fans of the sport, he says, snowshoeing is a wallet-friendly way to get outside on a nice winter day. But for the serious contenders here, it's a seasonal adjustment to a high-octane lifestyle.

Unidentified Man: Folks, we have representatives here from, of course, the local areas, also Mississippi, Vermont, Colorado, Wisconsin...

PHILIPP: Many racers are eyeing the course nervously. After running either five or 10 kilometers, they face a steep, 200-foot climb that ends at the finish line.

Unidentified Man: They're underway, ladies and gentlemen.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

PHILIPP: The pack quickly disappears into the woods. It will be another 30, 40 or 50 minutes before the leaders begin to trickle back out for the final push.

Unidentified Man: Finish it up, man. Man, he looks tired coming up that hill. We know it.

PHILIPP: And finish, they do.

(Soundbite of music, "The Star-Spangled Banner")

PHILIPP: But earning a national medal doesn't mean the winners will ever participate in a Winter Olympics. The U.S. Snowshoe Association is trying to get the sport accepted into the Olympics. For now, being outdoors and in shape weeks before the snow melts seems to be enough reward.

For NPR News, Im Julie Philipp.

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