Hot foot: Woodbury snowshoe runner

  • Article by: BOB TIMMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 17, 2011 - 3:37 PM

Jim McDonell of Woodbury is a leading competitor in, as well as a teacher/promoter of, snowshoe running.

Two simple winter truths:

• Snow will surely come.

• Jim McDonell will surely follow.

Snowshoe running is the Woodbury resident's calling card when the season makes its presence felt and his favorite area trails demand navigation by alternative means.

For years, cross-country skis were McDonell's preferred approach, until he learned some fellow runners were strapping on snowshoes and, heck, even racing in them. Ever up for a physical challenge, he bought his first pair (Brand: Good Thunders) and has been hoofing it hither and yon the 16 years since.

But erase from your mind the traditional snowshoe image of 4-foot pieces of wood and webbing. McDonell sets out in ultralight, highly durable gear made with aircraft-quality aluminum. The shoes keep him afloat and nimble, working with the rolling terrain instead of against it. Some of his shoes are as light as 2 pounds.

McDonell, 57, is something of a titan in the intimate community of snowshoe racers. He is equal parts competitor, promoter and teacher. His sports résumé is filled with 70 races. Also filled is the back seat of his Prius: New snowshoes are often a top prize. He's qualified for the snowshoe national championships five times. Last year he placed third in his age group (55-59) in Syracuse, N.Y. And he'll be at it again March 11-13 when the Super Bowl of the sport plays out in Cable, Wis.

If his accomplishments are noteworthy, maybe more so is McDonell's outward enthusiasm. You quickly see it in his appearance: On most training runs he wears just a singlet and shorts; his only nod to winter are gloves and the occasional hat or earmuffs. And at a race starting line, look out. "Braveheart" face paint is de rigueur.

Did we mention his kilt?

"When you live in Minnesota, you have to embrace the winter, and snowshoe running is like embracing the winter -- on steroids," said McDonell, sporting a rosy glow after a recent several- mile jaunt with friends through oaks and around aspens in Lake Elmo Park Reserve.

"People who do snowshoe running just think of it as primal. It's just getting out there in nature and enjoying it. The adrenaline rush is just fantastic."

What McDonnell singularly wants beyond another killer workout is getting newcomers into shoes. If a recent race is a marker, he and his tribe are succeeding. McDonnell qualified for nationals at the Twin Cities Snowshoe Shuffle on Feb. 5 at Long Lake Regional Park in New Brighton. Between the 10K regional qualifier (now the third largest in the U.S.) and the 5K race/walk, more than 260 participants were there. Many, McDonnell said, set out just for fun and a hardy day's walk.

McDonnell has simple advice for the curious and the interested: Go and watch a race. Or rent a pair of shoes at a state park and take in a demonstration. Want simpler? Borrow a pair and bushwhack your way through the Back 40 or a nearby field to get a sense of how snowshoes work with you in them.

"Get out there and try some of these spots," he said. "There are lots of people willing to give you tips and tell you anything you want about races and how to get started."

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