National Cyclocross champion Walt Axthelm took a little time off this winter. After nailing down his title in the 80- to 84-year-old age group in Boulder this year, he thought he could use a break.
That was in January. Since then, Axthelm has been getting restless.
So when local race promoter and health and fitness guru Steve Ilg put on the 4th Annual Winter Warrior Snowshoe race at the Durango Nordic Center on Saturday, Axthelm didn’t miss a beat.
“Now I get to see just how far I got out of shape,” he said.
Axthelm joined 23 men and women in the falling snow, with familiar faces in Durango’s competition-race scene. Local mountain bike racer Howard Grotts set a new course record, but others came to just enjoy some fun, or pain, on a serene winter morning in the woods.
Ilg said he started out on shoes built from rawhide and wood. He called the sport magical. An endurance athlete who has run five snowshoe races already this season, Ilg has a laid back, yogi undertone and a passion when he speaks about the sport.
“I’m a snowshoer from way back when,” he said under a canopy of snow-loaded conifers in the San Juan National Forest. “I grew up here, and we’d get out on the old-fashioned webs (snowshoes). There’s just something extraordinary that seems to emerge from the sport.”
Ilg said without snowshoeing, other winter activities wouldn’t have bloomed.
“This is the genesis of all winter sports,” he said. “I want this race to be for anyone that enjoys skiing, snowboarding or whatever. They should come out and get back to the roots in this sport, make a pilgrimage.”
Conditions for the course trails, rolling 5K or 10K through forests, were perfect, Ilg said.
“We’ve been working nonstop for 48 hours, and the sacred snows held off just enough,” he said.
Cardio-fitness madman Drew Gunn showed up for the event, calling conditions “about as good as they can get.” A skier, climber, cyclist and runner, he said snowshoeing is an enjoyable workout with challenges similar to trail running.
“It’s really good for strength and stability,” he said about the awkward snow. “When it gets trampled, it gets uneven, so you’re using a lot of your stabilizing (muscles).”
Durango High School track coach Laura Knapp borrowed a pair of snowshoes and entered the race at the last minute, not knowing she would win her division.
“I’m a runner, and this is definitely different,” she said.
The Nordic center’s manager, Helen Low, said she was trying to get a little bit of everything at the center. Earlier this year she brought fat biking to the trails.
“I just figure that everybody needs some kind of winter sport,” she said while keeping track of racer’s finishing times. “Something to get them jazzed.”
Axthelm said he has to do something, or he begins feeling guilty.
“I start getting ornery at home, and then my wife says, ‘Go out and ride your bike or do something. Just get out of here,’” he said.