Meet Jennifer Chaudoir, the small-business-owning mom who has two world snowshoe titles
Jennifer Chaudoir didn't set out to be an endurance athlete. She just wanted a few moments of peace.
At 30, she felt trapped in an abusive marriage. She escaped by going for an early morning walk each day. She was driven by frustration, isolation and pain.
"I'd try to get away from things," says Chaudoir, who grew up and lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin. "I would walk in the morning before he would go to work, and come home right while he was leaving."
Then, she'd be able to cope. Her sanity restored -- even for just a while -- she could take care of her children, get them off to school, face the day and work.
Over time, walking turned into running. One day, a man asked if she was a marathon runner.
"I said, 'What's a marathon?'" she recalls. "Honestly, I didn't even know what a marathon was. And I was running in like jean shorts and sandals."
But, it made her think. It felt good to run. Why not try a race? She signed up for a half marathon in Green Bay, ran it and finished third in her age group.
"I thought, 'Wow, it was easy for me to run. Like, I wasn't even trying that hard,'" she says. "That's kind of cool. Here's something I can do."
Fourteen years later, Chaudoir, 44, continues to run marathons, half marathons, a few ultramarathons and shorter-distance races and is a national-level snowshoe racer and four-time member of the U.S. snowshoe team. She also does obstacle-course racing, cycling events and has competed in kayak-run-bike triathlons.
It's an athletic life she never envisioned in her 20s, but one that gives her joy. With the abuse far in her rearview mirror, two kids still at home and three making their own way as adults, Chaudoir is forging her own path now. She has a cleaning business, is a personal trainer and also sells phones. She's working for herself, making her own schedules to accommodate for training and races and feeling more empowered than she could have imagined back when her daily walks were her sole refuge.
To this day, getting outside -- whether on a snowy, Wisconsin trail in snowshoes or a summer road race -- is what sets her free.
"Being outside in nature and peace, that's what I need," she says.
As a personal trainer, Chaudoir was approached almost six years ago by a client with autism who wanted to train to compete in snowshoe racing at the Special Olympics in South Korea in 2013. Chaudoir said she would, but not without trying the sport herself. So, she signed up for a race in northern Wisconsin and fell in love with it.
The sport now ranks as her favorite. It's physically more challenging than running, she says, and more beautiful and pristine.
"You're usually in the woods," she says. "You're not on the road, no vehicles, in areas where there's very little pollution. It's easier to breathe. It's just refreshing. The smell of the snow and the pine trees. The course varies so much with uphills and downhills, so it's a different kind of running. Peaceful."
She describes the sport as simply running with snowshoes. The wearer's feet are connected by the toes to a large, flat "shoe" that distributes weight over a wide surface area, so the person doesn't sink into the snow when walking or running. The heel is unattached, so the runner can take a step, push off with the toes and use a running motion while traveling across the surface. In a 10K race in snowshoes, she says, it feels like she has expended the same amount of effort for running a half marathon on the roads. Different muscles come into play -- especially the hip flexors.
"[Your] feet are a little bit farther apart when you're running, rather than your normal stance," she says. "So you're going to use your outer quads and your hip flexors a lot more. In race conditions, the fact you're running in snow and a lot of hills ... you definitely build a lot more muscle in your legs and become a stronger runner. I think it's great cross training, for sure, for people who run all year."
By 2014, Chaudoir was winning age-group championships in races across the upper Midwest, often finishing first among all women. That year and in 2015 she made the U.S. masters snowshoe team. In 2016, she not only won her women's 40-44 age group in the 10K race at the national championships in Ogden, Utah, but finished 11th overall and made the senior national team.
"Masters is over 40, so you can have a little slower time than some of the faster, younger girls," she says. "But two years ago I made the senior team, which means I was in the same age bracket as anyone 20 and older, so that was an accomplishment to me to be able to say, 'OK, I'm right up there with the 20-year-olds and I'm 42.' That felt good."
Twice, she has competed in the snowshoe world championships, winning her age group both times, and Chaudoir has overcome multiple physical challenges in the past few years to continue competing.
In 2017, a car ran a red light and plowed into her while she was on a run. She suffered injuries to both knees, a shoulder and ribs, and got a concussion. After the accident she was found to have cervical cancer (since removed) and she contracted mononucleosis. And then, to top it all off, later that year she was running when a bat flew down and bit her, forcing her to get a rabies shot.
"Everybody was like, 'OK, we don't even want to run with you,'" she says, laughing about the apparent jinx she seemed to be living under.
It was a hard time, as she lost some business clients because she was unable to work and has had a long rehab period to regain her strength -- which still isn't what it was. But, she's training and competing again.
Her daughter, Kaylee, 16, who is a high school cross-country runner and competes in snowshoe racing and training with her mom, says her mother is tough and remarkable.
"She's never 100 percent, but never stops," Kaylee says. "She just continues to do what she loves to do."
Kaylee says her mother inspires her and everyone around her. "I've seen her go through so many things and I look up to her as a mom, as a friend, as a person, and I think she has so much talent," says Kaylee.
Chaudoir says she not only runs for herself, but to help others. She volunteers at the Golden House domestic violence shelter in Green Bay, doing exercises with the kids or baking cookies with them. She runs a marathon each year for Golden House, pushing a shopping cart for donations to the organization while wearing a costume (this year it was Wonder Woman). And, when she once ran a race in Utah, she wrote the names of domestic violence victims on her arms and announced before the start she was running for them.
"I feel like my running, it is a gift and it is a passion, but God gave me that to help me leave a bad situation," she says. "So I want to use the gift for its purpose. If I can help someone leave a bad situation, that's why God gave me this gift."
Despite last year's accident, Chaudoir feels blessed. She has overcome multiple hurdles, has control of her life, can spend time with her kids, help others and competes in high-level snowshoe races across the U.S. She has even been able to travel -- and take her kids -- to national and world competitions with the help of her snowshoe sponsor.
"I never imagined I'd do anything like this. It's given me great confidence. ... I think had I had that confidence as a younger person, I might not have ended up in [an abusive marriage]. I think I would have more self-worth not to tolerate it. I think anybody can only benefit from a sport."