‘It all came together’: World Snowshoe Championships defy warmth, snowmelt

Racers leave the starting line Saturday at the World Snowshoe Championships in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo -- Chris Knight)

SARANAC LAKE — No snow? No problem.

That’s the attitude both organizers and competitors brought to Saturday’s World Snowshoe Championships, held on a sloppy, slushy course at Dewey Mountain Recreation Center.

After a week of warm temperatures, the conditions were far from ideal for a snowshoe race, but everyone had to deal with it, said Brandy Erholtz of Evergreen, Colorado.

“None of us chose to have slush instead of snow, but you can’t control Mother Nature,” Erholtz said before Saturday’s race. “We just have to have the right mindset and go for it. The town did an amazing job of pulling it together.”

The community-wide effort to save the races came right down to the wire. A group of two dozen volunteers showed up early Saturday morning to shovel snow onto the racecourse and dig drainage trenches across it. They were still at work as the competition got underway.

Joseph Gray of Colorado crosses the finish line to claim the World Snowshoe Championships title Saturday at Dewey Mountain Recreation Center in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo -- Chris Knight)

“Some people who were shoveling came down off the upper course after the winner had already finished the race,” said village Trustee Rich Shapiro. “They were out there shoveling the entire time, but it all came together. This is Saranac Lake at its finest.”

The lack of snow forced some last-minute changes to the course, reducing its length from 10 to 8 kilometers. The new layout also created a bottleneck through the woods a short distance past the starting line.

“I’ll feel better after the first 45 seconds,” race director Jim Tucker at the start line. “With the change in everything and funneling them into this narrow (zig-zag) soon after the start, we just have to hope they all stay vertical.”

Cole Crosby of Endicott said he was planning a cautious approach, given the conditions.

“I’m just going to go out there, have fun and compete, and hopefully not slip on the ice and end up in the trees,” he said.

Ragna Debats of the Netherlands claims the women's title in Saturday's World Snowshoe Championships in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo -- Chris Knight)

Unfortunately, that’s just what happened for a few athletes after Mayor Clyde Rabideau fired the starting gun to begin the race. Indian snowshoer Tanveer Hussain, who overcame an initial visa denial to be here, was one of several who took a tumble at the bottleneck. Another racer with a bloody knee was carrying one of his snowshoes as he passed the Dewey base lodge.

“The second half it was muddy. It was wet,” said Eric Sambolec of Ithaca. “I think a lot of people were breaking parts of their snowshoes, but they did a great job holding together what snow they had. For what we had, they did an awesome job.”

The title of World Snowshoe Champion went to Joseph Gray of Colorado, who completed the course in 28:22, more than a minute ahead of his next closest competitor, Nacho Hernando-Angulo of Spain. Josiah Middaugh of Colorado took third.

The top local racers were Matthew Medeiros of Saranac, who took 10th, and Joe St. Cyr of Paul Smith’s College, who claimed 17th.

Organizers had feared that the heavy rain forecast for Saturday would wash away what little snow there was on the course, but the rain held off until after all the races — including the Junior World Championships and the Shoe-Be-Doo walk/run — finished Saturday. Before the storm hit, it was cloudy and unseasonably warm, which brought out a big crowd of spectators.

Saranac Lake Middle School students hand out water and Gatorade to racers in Saturday's World Snowshoe Championships. (Enterprise photo -- Chris Knight)

Among them was Jim McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism in Lake Placid. He was there to cheer on his son Taylor, who flew north from Florida to compete in the championships. McKenna said he was impressed with the size and enthusiasm of the crowd.

“There’s just a vast amount of people here,” he said. “I’ve talked to people from a lot of different states. It’s a good representation of people from other countries. I think it really reinforces how important Dewey Mountain is to the community here. We’re pretty excited about how this happened, and I think this plays well for our entire region.”

“It’s exhilarating,” Rabideau said. “I’ve never seen so much excitement in town ever for an event like this. To bring people from around the globe to our small Adirondack community and to show them our authenticity and hospitality is very satisfying.”

This wasn’t the vision Rabideau had when the village was awarded the championships last year, but it’s the hand organizers were dealt.

“We pictured a big downtown start and finish, and all the focus of activity there, but we made do,” the mayor said. “We came up to Dewey, and I think Dewey is going to benefit long-term by having everything here because everybody’s seen it and appreciated it. That’s a good side of the whole thing.”

Steve Halasz of Saranac Lake hauls snow Saturday onto the World Snowshoe Championships race course at Dewey Mountain Recreation Center in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo -- Chris Knight)

Dewey Mountain is owned by the town of Harrietstown and managed by Jason Smith of Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters. Harrietstown Councilman Ron Keough praised Rabideau and the village for “their vision” and making the event happen. He also heaped praise on Smith for his efforts in getting the mountain ready for the races, given the challenging conditions.

A total of 262 people competed in Saturday’s 8-kilometer race, meaning some people must have dropped out or didn’t show up because there were 282 people pre-registered on Thursday.

Nevertheless, the 262 soundly beats the previous record for the most competitors in the World Snowshoe Championships, which Shapiro said was somewhere in the upper 100s.

“And as you look around, people are having a good time and they’re happy. It’s an amazing turnout from both spectators and competitors,” he said.

There’s no doubt, however, that the event couldn’t have happened without volunteers: the snow shoveling crews, the people registering racers at the Harrietstown Town Hall and the Saranac Lake Middle School students who manned aid stations during the races, to name a few.

“The number of volunteers just blows my mind in all the various aspects of this thing,” Tucker said. “It’s amazing.”

Others volunteered by hosting athletes. Frannie Preston of Saranac Lake welcomed Ragna Debats of the Netherlands into her home. To Preston’s delight, Debats was the top finisher on the women’s side Saturday, completing the course in 34:57.

“I was so lucky,” Preston said. “I offered to host an athlete, and I got Ragna, and it was the best gift I could have been given. She is delightful. She’s been suffering from a stomach bug the entire time, but she’s been upbeat, kind, taking good care of herself and being so supportive of what we’re doing.”

As much as she was excited for her houseguest, Preston said she is more excited for Saranac Lake.

“We do nothing but show what a great community we are and what an extraordinary volunteer spirit we have here,” she said. “It’s just been spectacular.”