In May 2009 I went all the way to Iceland to come last in a cross country ski marathon. Eight months later I decided to try again: not try again to come last—this time I was determined to not come last. The secret? Enter a race with more competitors! The Pustertaler ski marathon is in fact two marathons. On the Saturday there is a 28km freestyle race while on the Sunday there is a 42km classic race. In a classic race you can only use what is called the classic technique aka diagonal stride, this is what the Iceland race was. In the freestyle race you can use whatever technique you like, in reality this means a technique called skate. Skating on skis is a bit like skating on ice or roller skates, you use one leg to push off at an angle, glide on the other and then do the same the other way around. Doing this you can propel yourself forward quite quickly and even climb steep hills.
I can’t skate for toffee. So, I entered both marathons! The two marathons formed the end of a eight day (training) holiday where I hoped to brush up on my diagonal stride and learn to skate. The holiday was in the pretty Austrian village of Obertilliach and I was with 22 other people, most from a London rollerski club. The two instructors, Mary and Alan, were both experienced SnowSport England instructors and both competed in races, Alan at a very high level. Over the week Alan and Mary switched around between teaching classic and skate and so did I.
Obertilliach is home to Austrian biathlon (skiing and shooting) and so it has a small XC ski stadium, an ideal basic training ground. The stadium is surrounded by woodland loops with a variety of hills and turns, again ideal for training. The stadium also has a cafe, Luigi’s, ideal for high-carb meals—the Schlipkrapfen, giant ravioli stuffed with potato is probably the acme of this cuisine. All in all a great place to mess around on snow. And they had lots of snow, even more than fell in the North Pennines while I was away. Every day began with a 20 minute ski to the stadium. Then a few drills to improve balance and technique. The rest of the morning would usually involve a few short ski loops or a trip out re-enforcing the technique. Lunch at Luigi’s punctuated the day. The afternoon would again be drills and loops followed by a ski back to the village and my hotel. Oh, the hotel had an afternoon cake buffet as part of the half-board deal, a great incentive to get back before 5.
During the week I managed two days of skating and started to get a feel for it. The rest of the time I concentrated on classic technique. So come Thursday I decided to pull out of the skate race. Come Friday, bizarrely, I changed my mind and decided 28km wasn’t that far. On Friday night Alan expertly waxed my skis and I felt committed to doing the freestyle race on skate skis. Saturday dawned with a feeling of mild dread and I got on the coach for the short trip over in to Italy, to the small town of Toblach nestling in the Dolomites. Toblach is where I first learned to XC ski a few years ago and I was on holiday there last January so it was familiar territory.
I collected my race packs and discovered I had somehow managed to enter both races twice, though I’d only paid once. The packs comprised proper cloth bibs with my name printed on them, commemorative stickers for my skis and a great race hat. A quick change, a warm up and by 9:45 I was on Toblach airfield with a few hundred other skiers. I was in the third start block of three, ie well behind the experts and the fast guys. In a skate race you are not allowed to skate for the first hundred or two metres. This is because skate naturally involves a side-to-side movement and everyone would crash into one another. So the start involves double-poling in loipe (little railway tracks for the skis), this just uses the arms. It is very hard work from a standing start and by the time I was allowed to skate I was almost ready to give up, only 200 metres in!
As the skiers zig-zagged around the airfield for the first kilometre I started to skate in my functional but inefficient and inelegant style. Then someone else’s pole came across the front of me and I was down for the first time. It turned out to be one of the people I was on holiday with! Picking myself up I settled in to a long, 12km, climb to the high-point of the first half of the race. By the time I was clocked at the check-point I was exhausted; everything ached, my arms especially. What goes up must come down and so began a long gradual descent with a few sharp dips for fun (or torture).
The race route was at points lined with spectators and so there was a great atmosphere. Shout of, “Hop, hop, hop, hop, hop!” would chivvy me along when I was feeling at my worst. Over the course there were a few food stations where they served welcome hot lemon tea, muesli bars and bananas. There were also repair stations where you could replace broken skis or poles. Thankfully I didn’t need to take advantage of those.
After the first long descent the course levelled out for a few kilometres before the long climb to the finish. Here I was very much on my own and the weather closed in with heavy snow and strong winds. Great! After what seemed like an interminable climb up the Prags valley things finally started to flatten a little. I crossed the final road crossing and the 26km marker and felt I was nearly home. At a road crossing police stop the traffic and council workers shovel snow to allow skiers to cross. Once skiers have crossed they remove the snow and let the cars pass. I then skied for what semed like ages up the valley without any sign that I was on the right route. Worried that I’d gone too far I turned back. A few minutes later I bumped into the following skier, she was one of my group, Susan. We assured each other than it must be the right way and so we carried on despite the lack of markings. Finally we saw a km marker. 28km it said. Surely that means we’d finished! No, apparently the markers signified the start of that kilometre. What a strange system. So, just one kilometre to go and all downhill.
A few seconds later Susan fell on a really short but very steep hill. I hopped out of the skis and jogged to the bottom of the hill. Susan then tried to clip back in to her skis but something was up. We must have spent five minutes trying to sort out the problem and in that time one of the oldest competitors in possibly the most lurid Jackson Pollack-inspired race suit I have every seen side-stepped down the hill and overtook us! We finally clipped the boot to the ski and set off for the last few hundred metres. The driving snow was in our eyes and we could barely see the finish. In fact we nearly followed the ski-bob ahead of us into the finish the wrong way. A few seconds later we crossed the line together. What a relief! I was then presented with the biggest chunkiest medal I have ever received.
We were both greeted by most of the rest of our group. A quick change, a bowl of pasta, a beer and we were back on the shuttle bus to Toblach and then the coach to Obertilliach. I was utterly exhausted and aching everywhere but relieved I had finished, and I wasn’t, quite, last!
At this stage I should eat and then sleep the rest of the night but with the classic race to come skis had to be waxed. In classic it is extremely important to get the grip wax right as that’s the bit that pushes you foward and lets you go up hills. Alan is an excellent waxing technician and he prepped the skis with glide wax and ironed in a couple of layers of grip as a base. The rest of the grip wax would have to wait until the morning of the race once we knew what the snow was like. After that I slept well.
The Sunday was much brighter and in Toblach we had phenomenal views of the Dolomites. I got changed into my race suit, reserved for the classic race and checked what was happening with wax. Alan’s advice was four or five layers of blue followed by two of violet. It’s a dark art that I barely understand but it worked and got me round the whole 42km without slipping. I passed other skiers who were having to re-wax so Alan’s expert advice probably bought me a couple of places.
The classic race started in the same place but this time loipe ziz-zagged the whole field so that you could stride instead of skating. In fact skating, other than to change loipe, is against the rules and could get racers disqualified. The gun went off and I slowly double poled forward only to see skiers ahead of me getting out of my lane. Once the guy in front moved out I realised why, there was a huge heap of bodies with skis and poles pointing in all directions. It looked like bangers and mash from the Beano! I managed to avoid the pile-up by skating out and moving to another lane, just in time.
The race then followed the same route as the day before for the first 18km but today it returned through Toblach Stadium and went over the new artificial hill, the height of a three-storey building. In fact it was a three-storey building with snow on top! The up was then followed by the steepest down I had ever seen. After the stadium the classic route went along and up the Sexten valley. The climb to Bad Moos was even steeper and longer than the climb the day before. It just didn’t let up. Again, up usually means down and in this case there was a glorious 5km descent on nearly straight tracks, fantastic fun and very fast. I finally got to the finish and found the guy behind me was trying to sprint past to take the glory of 481st place. I wasn’t having that so I double-poled like crazy but stuck a couple of kicks in for good measure as it was slightly uphill. I beat the guy by 0.4 of a second to hang on to my place. We shook hands.
I was so pleased to finish this one in a good time, for me, and nearly 40 places off the bottom. I beat the old guy with the Pollack suit too. A second huge medal was followed by food, drink and the bus journey back to a relaxing shower. That evening I had a great meal with the rest of the group and afterwards slept like a log. The only disappointing thing was that I had to leave the XC ski trails behind and head home…if only I could persuade Durham CC to put in a few tracks for skiing. With three ski marathons under my belt I am now well and truly hooked and looking forward to doing more races. I’m already thinking about how I can manage to do 10 World Loppet races on two continents to get my World Loppet Masters gold medal. Up until now the summers have been about running and dreaming about skiing, now I am going to have to move to rollerskiing if I’m going to improve my technique and get better at these ski marathons.
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