MARLBOROUGH — Rich Busa finished first in his age group at last weekend’s state championship snowshoe races in Pittsfield. No surprise there. Busa, a nine-time national snowshoeing champ, took his all-but-assured victory in stride, plopping down in the snow bare-chested to make a snow angel after the race.
“I don’t feel a thing,” a grinning Busa said in a YouTube video bearing the caption, “You’re Never Too Old.”
Busa turned 84 last October. That might seem rather old to be trail racing in snowshoes over a hilly, 5-mile course in blustery conditions that would test a young Winter Olympian. But Busa has no plans to retire from competition. On Saturday, he will race in the 2014 US Snowshoe Championships in Woodford, Vt., in a field expected to reach 400 by race time.
“He’s pretty much a legend,” said Barry Ostrow, founder of the Busa Bushwhack Trail Race, an annual Framingham event named for Busa.
And a mentor of sorts. Other racers tend to seek him out for a friendly chat, a photo op, or even to jog alongside him for a mile or two.
“Typically what you hear from younger racers is, ‘I hope I can be doing what you’re doing at your age,’ ” Busa said at his Marlborough home this week.
“My wife asked me a long time ago, ‘When are you going to stop doing this?’ ” he added. “And I said, ‘When I finish last all the time.’ ”
Mark Elmore, sports director for the US Snowshoe Association, estimates that about 10,000 snowshoers race in one competition or another every winter. His organization has held 38 qualifying events leading up to this year’s nationals, attracting roughly 3,000 entrants, from juniors (14 and under) to super seniors like Busa.
The ranks are growing. According to the latest statistics from SnowSports Industries America, a member-owned trade association, more than 4 million people participated in recreational snowshoeing last winter, up from 3.4 million in 2009-10. Many of them are 60 and older, said Elmore, men and women who have found snowshoeing easier on their joints than road running and a low-cost, aerobically challenging way to enjoy the outdoors in brutal winters like this one.
“They may not be trying to win races or get medals,” Elmore says, “just pitting themselves against the course and conditions. Every race is unique that way.”
Busa is the sole entrant in the 80-84 age category at this weekend’s race, held on a Prospect Mountain Ski Area course and covering 10 kilometers. That virtually assures him another first-place medal. But collecting hardware is not why he straps on a racing bib. Rather, he says, it is the camaraderie that develops among racers of all ages and abilities.
After watching Busa finish the Pittsfield race in 1 hour, 31 minutes (the overall men’s winner, 50 years younger than Busa, clocked in at 42:22), organizer Brad Herder called Busa “pretty amazing.”
“Rich runs like a young guy, not like what you’d expect from an 84-year-old,” said Herder, who, at 56, marvels at the way Busa tackles a race course, aggressively but always with a smile on his face and a supportive word for other racers.
“If someone’s injured, Rich will run with them,” Ostrow said. “That’s just who he is.”
Busa took up snowshoe racing in 1999, adding to an already formidable athletic resume.
Growing up in Belmont, he had a brief career as a minor league baseball pitcher before joining the US Army and being shipped off to fight in the Korean War, where he earned a Silver Star for combat valor. He returned home to marry, raise a family, and work as a micrographics records manager in the high-tech industry.
In the mid-1940s, Busa took up running, an exercise he avidly continued after his military service. The sport was decades away from being cool, though, so he ran mostly after dark, self-conscious about being seen doing something so geeky.
He entered his first marathon in 1983 and would run 70 more, including half a dozen Boston Marathons, before giving up road running for off-road trail racing. At 72, he competed in the Vermont 100, a race as long (100 miles) and grueling as it sounds. Completing 61 ultramarathons (typically 50 or 100 miles in length), among other achievements, earned him a Hall of Fame plaque from the New England 65 and Over Running Club.
Notwithstanding a few nagging injuries, including spinal bone spurs and a worn-disc issue diagnosed six decades ago, Busa says he is good to keep going. And going. Back pain does not bother him while running on trails or snow, he noted, only after he stops. His knees and hips are sound, he added, and his body has always recovered quickly.
Mental toughness and overall fitness — the 5-foot-8-inch, 165 pound Busa is a longtime vegetarian — have also helped keep him in shape. An admirer of all endurance athletes, young and old, he devours each issue of Ultra Running magazine.
“Better than Playboy,” he said with a wink.
In 2005, Busa entered his first US Snowshoe Championships, held in Anchorage, Alaska, and placed first in the 70-and-over category. He has won his age group every year since, including last year’s nationals in Oregon, where he raced all by himself in the 80-84 group.
Out of 137 races, local and national, he has lost exactly once in his age group. Over that time, snowshoe equipment has gotten lighter, shorter, and stronger. His snowshoes measure 8 inches by 21 inches and have interchangeable spikes suitable for different snow conditions and terrains. Racers do not use poles for balance and in most cases race on trails barely wider than their snowshoes. Obstacles such as buried tree roots and rocks add to the danger of a sudden slip or fall.
“People think you’re running on snowmobile-groomed trails, but you’re not,” said Busa. “It’s difficult to pass someone.”
Busa’s biggest liability may be a tendency to get lost during races. On more than one occasion, having lost sight of the pack, he has veered so far off course that his misadventures have become part of the Busa legend. In one New Hampshire trail race, he became so disoriented he was tempted to wait out the night under tree shelter. Hence the Busa Bushwhack race, named to honor the lost-in-the-woods-again lore that is part of his legacy.
“It’s not age,” said Busa with a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m just directionally challenged.”