The Engadin Ski Marathon
I wrote this a few days ago while I was cruising on a passenger train through Germany... It’s been a matter of minutes since we left the highlands and damn if I don’t already miss the Alps. I’m heading back to Utah from Munich tomorrow. As much I have grown to love the Wasatch and Rockies, something about these mountains is magical. I haven’t been anywhere else where the glacial valleys, quaint towns, jagged peaks, stark slide paths and endless views can compare.
I spent the week in Switzerland, first in Davos, then in St. Moritz for the weekend. Last Tuesday, I came over from Planica, Slovenia by train: past Bad Gastein, Kietzbühel, Innsbruck, St. Anton, and many more iconic Alpen towns. In Davos, I stayed with Jon Shafer (aka Fast Big Dog aka FBD) and a very welcoming local, Maurus Kehl.
Maurus took us into his home, a new flat in Davos Platz, without having met me, but Jon has got to know him well over years of business and ski trips to Davos. We hardly saw Maurus, who runs a restaurant at the top of one of the area ski resorts. Like most other restaurateurs, he works tirelessly. Some nights, he sleeps up in the rooms above the restaurant.
On Thursday, we took the two-part tram up the resort for a lunch up at his restaurant, the Sun Peak. I had a “Colorado” buffalo burger with mushrooms that he picked in the fall down the valley. Maurus also happens to be a huge hockey fan. He’s lived in Canada and cheers for the Avalanche, in addition to the Davos Club. The Sun Peak’s menu reflects his North American travels, but with a distinct flair of local harvests and traditions. Combined with the stunning panoramic views, this was an unforgettable lunch. No need for white linen, expensive wine and black-tie servers for a “fine dining" experience.
After a few days of world-class cross-country skiing in Davos, Jon and I were ready for the main event of the week: the Engadin Ski Marathon. We took the train over Saturday morning, with time for a short mid-day ski and logistical preparation for the big race on Sunday. Our World Cup Atomic representative put me in touch with the Swiss Atomic crew, who hooked me up with some killer race skis. I was surprised to see my new contact here, Kevin, was actually a year younger than me, but he certainly knew what he was doing. He was right about my weight, and already had tested skis to select the best pair for me, and then finished the prep with many coats of high flour wax, powders, and an all-important top structure for the base. Without this help, I wouldn’t have stood a chance of competing in this field.
Four-time Olympic champion Dario Cologna often enters, and usually wins this race, but he was busy winning the Holmenkollen 50km in Oslo on Saturday. His absence may have disappointed the Swiss, but it didn’t do too much to diminish the level of the field. The World Loppet is filled with competitive World Cup athletes and professional teams that operate like pro-cycling teams. Sprint World Champion Federico Pellegrino (ITA) was rumored to be showing up. The organizers apparently had bib 1 reserved for him, but on Sunday morning a new big name had the first bib – Peter Northug. Northug is no longer the "king of skiing;" the 18 time World Championship gold medalist hasn’t been a force on the World Cup in two years, but he’s still a wild card with an amazing finish. And I was pretty psyched to toe the start line against a guy like Northug.
Race morning begins with a 5:45 wake-up for an early breakfast: a bowl of Bircher muesli (Swiss overnight oats) and a soft-boiled egg. Shortly thereafter, we load onto a fully packed bus heading directly towards the start. With 15,000 racers and limited parking at the start-line, this was a good time to be in the hands of Swiss public transportation. They must have some sort of call to arms to bring in enough buses to the region for this weekend.
In the Elite wave there’s “only” 150 men and around 50 women starting together. We had the luxury of being able to place our skis in line in the pen, first come first serve. Our wave would go out first. In the groups behind us a race before the race ensued. Clad in throwaway ponchos, old clothes or shivering in nothing but spandex, hundreds of jittery racers were already fighting for their start line spot when we arrived one hour before the start.
15 minutes before the start, I shed my wet warmup clothes and handed my race bag to the Swiss Army workers loading up trucks to be sent to the finish line. I pulled on my homemade raincoat – two heavy duty trash bags cut like a poncho with a skirt. It was still raining, and I kept this on until minutes before the race. In the start pen, I had just a few minutes to stay warm and loose before the gun would be off, which is exactly how I like it. I didn’t envy the thousands behind us in their respective waves, many having stood for over an hour in the sleet and wind for a better starting position.
Three minutes to go, I clicked on my skis for the first time that morning. This was a twist on my normal routine, but I’m comfortable running for a warmup, and equally confident that I didn’t need much of a warmup before 42km of racing. I was near the front, but they added an additional front line, the big names and Loppet leaders. Andy Newell, one of America's best sprinters for the past decade-plus, stood on this line, distinct in his US Olympic race suit. This would be his first Engadin as well, and I was curious to see if I could ski with him at all. I looked around for other racers I knew: a few by name, my Atomic buddy, two kids from Kranjska Gora, Slovenia who I met the day before but had certainly seen out on the trails and in the ski tunnel in the Planica area. I didn’t look at my heart rate before the start, but I’m sure it was higher than at any other start this year with the exception of Olympic Trials. It’s a different feeling starting a race on a new course, point-to-point, of a new distance, against new racers, my first true ski marathon, compared to knowing every meter of course on a 2.5km NC loop.
With a gun shot, the frenzy was on. Like most mass start races, there was a mandatory double pole zone from the start, but it was unclear where it ended, and some risk-takers began skating as soon as possible. The over-zealous quickly caught poles and tips and found their way to the ground, as the rest of us pushed forward, vying for positions and flying onward at high speed. It reminded me of the thrill of criterion bike racing: tightly packed, too many wide to count, constant chaos and hyper-attention – only with poles and less likelihood of bodily harm upon crashing. Early on, I spotted the women’s World Loppet leader in a yellow bib. That’s probably a good one to follow, she knows where to be and how to stay out of trouble. I skied right on her for couple minutes before a skier besides her went down, and tangled her up in the aftermath. I didn’t have a lot of room to roam, but stepped around her flailing in a pure-flow focus. So much for that wheel to ride.
The field gradually stretched out as the course narrowed and pushed past the first lake. My skis were running great. At one point I took a great line and found myself near the very front of the race. After just a moment of relaxing in this position I was quickly back another 20 or so spots. If you’re not passing people, you’re getting passed, moving backwards, another lesson from bike racing… and driving in traffic on the Autobahn.
When the first hills came we were already a quarter of the distance into the race, having covering 9 km in just 20 minutes. I knew that the course would narrow here, and set myself in a pretty good position, feeling good. Despite the incline, the pace hardly slowed down, and I had my first taste of real work. This wouldn’t be all about positioning and openfield technique, it was a ski race after all. My legs didn’t need much at this point to tell me that this wasn’t what they were used to. They seemed to say, “shouldn’t the race already be finished?”
The next 5 km would be the most defining of the race. We flew through the outskirts of St. Moritz and into the trees. The fresh, wet snow was slower, and the field seemed to be shattering into groups. I wanted to hang with the leaders, but there was still a lot of racing ahead. Near my limits, I figured I was in an okay group.
After these defining kilometers, a welcoming descent followed, and we found ourselves back into the wide, flat valley. This should have been a relief, but now I realized that the lead group was all together, close to 40 skiers, with the fastest pushing the pace at the front. In that group, I knew there were plenty enjoying the draft and conserving energy. In my much smaller chase group, we didn’t have that luxury. I took turns with a few other motivated skiers to pace our way forward. We took short, hard pulls in the lead, and then cycled back into the group, once again like bike racing. The lead pack was agonizingly close but catching them was more of a lost cause than we let ourselves admit. I could have saved more energy tucking in the back of this pack but enjoyed sharing the workload to keep our pace high.
A few punchy climbs defined the final kilometers, and eventually I paid for my earlier efforts. I hung tight to the pack, but most of my group surged past me in the final uphill meters. A final tight, technical downhill led into the finish straight. I still had some energy in my legs, but not enough speed or distance to move up the ranks. After 1 hour and 37 minutes of racing, I crossed the line in 52nd, 3:00 back from the winner. Before the race, having looked at previous results, I knew that top 100 wouldn’t be bad, and top 50 would probably be a really good race. All-in-all, it was a great race. It was certainly a fun time, and I finished ahead of a lot of guys who I didn’t know if I could beat. I also can claim the honor of being the top North American on the day. Next time (there surely will be another), I will know exactly what I’m getting into and hopefully will be battling with the leaders for the entire race.
This was my last race of the 2018 winter. It’s strange not to end with a Nordic Combined race. At this point, on normal years, I would be celebrating the end of a season and the beginning of a better one with my teammates and best friends from around the world. I certainly wasn’t alone, with Jon Shafer soon to finish, a few other friends from the US and new friends to be made in the finish line festivities. It was strange not to have my normal crew around me, but we managed to keep the stoke on high, sharing stories from our race and our lives beyond skis.
I owe a huge thank you to Jon Shafer for letting me join and taking such good care of me this trip. Additionally, I'm grateful for Atomic for providing speedy skis and service, all the volunteers who made the event happen, and the many racers I connected with over the weekend. I'm always amazed with how many old friends I run into on the other side of the world, and the new ones I make. It's a small world, after all.
To end this, if you're still crazy for more, here's a professionally made highlight video. If you want to do some recon for your future Engadin race, the entire stream of the event is also on YouTube. Thanks for reading, and, as we like to say, I'll see you out there.
Where am I?