PlanetSKI completes Engadine ski marathon.
Our reporter Yolanda Carslaw was among the 12,540 starters in last Sunday's Engadine Marathon in Switzerland. She was one of 153 Brits to complete the course, along with James and Pippa Middleton, who were among the speediest Brits.
Tuesday March 12, 2013 - Email this article to a friend
I'm a fanatical downhill skier, of average fitness, and I've taken part in a few Alpine races, from the Inferno in Mürren to the Weisse Rausch in St Anton.
But propelling myself 26 miles around the Engadine Marathon on flimsy cross-country skis has never been top of my wish-list.
Last year, persuaded by my boyfriend, Peter - a regular there - that it would be fun, I signed up, then got out of it a month beforehand when I crashed to the ground out running and hurt my shoulder.
This year, I agreed again, did some unconvincing fitness prep - Boris-biking round Hyde Park, a couple of treadmill sessions, some walking, yoga and horse-riding - and joined 12,540 langlaufers to attempt the largest ski race in the Alps.
It proved a bit of a revelation.
A glance at the start list a few weeks beforehand revealed that 165 Brits were taking part - including Pippa and James Middleton, who both registered impressive times in the Vasaloppet in Sweden (an even longer race) last year.
Pippa subsequently vanished from the list - whether to avoid publicity or for some other reason I'm not sure - but turned up on the day.
Also on the start list were Swiss celebrities: the extreme climber Ueli Steck (of speed-climbing-the-Eiger fame), Christian Wenk, a paraplegic doctor racing in a sitski, and the marathon runner Viktor Rothin.
For results purposes, classes are split according to age and gender - the range was 16 to mid-80s, and about a fifth of racers were female - though the starting order, arranged in well-organised waves, corresponds to estimated speed.
There were nearly 40 nationalities, and second to the Swiss contingent were the Germans, with more than 1,200 racers.
There were 400-plus Italians - the Engadine has a strong relationship with its close neighbour - and farther down the list were Russians (177 of them), Swedes (136) and other European countries. There were a handful of entries from farther-flung places such as China, UAE and Singapore (two racers each) and Tanzania and Mexico (one each).
Peter and I arrived five days beforehand to practise and acclimatise to the altitude - the race takes place roughly between 1,800 and 1,650m.
Peter and Yolanda
Based in Pontresina, we rented skating skis and boots from the very friendly and helpful langlauf centre near the station.
Peter had done the race four times - the first time joining a course to learn to langlauf, culminating in the race.
I have cross-country skied at least a dozen times, including wobbling round the langlauf section of the Inferno. But both of us benefitted from a lesson arranged through Pontresina langlauf centre.
Our teacher, Nora, taught us to keep our hands below shoulder level when poling, to keep our baskets behind our sight line and to bring our hands to the front after each push, rather than "resting" them behind us.
She told us that stretching out the palm behind at the end of each push could increase its power by 10 per cent.
We learnt the difference between the "two-one" (double-poling every other step, for fast sections), the "one-one" (double-poling every step, for gentle uphills) and the "lady-step" (single-poling every step; for proper hills).
Importantly, we learnt to glide for as long as possible with each step, and to find a rhythm.
We practised on some of the 200km of tracks, covering 15km on the first day, on the last section of the course, near S-chanf, and exploring 22km of tracks around Pontresina the following day. After this, and the lesson, I had a sore shoulder and Peter a stiff neck: when he went for a sports massage he was told to quit langlaufing until race day, which left us free for downhill skiing on Diavolezza and Lagalb, plus the Morteratsch glacier run, on Friday and Saturday.
On Sunday morning the forecast for cloud proved wrong. We arrived at the start, in Maloja village, by bus in bright sunshine (free shuttles transport racers there from all over the valley).
Ready to go
So how do 12,540 racers pile onto the course without causing pile-ups?
The answer is with Swiss precision.
My start group, due to set off at 9.30am, was the last of the five "waves", each with its own enormous pen, at the edge of the frozen Lej Segl ("sailing lake", I think).
There are separate pens for skating style (which the majority use) and classic, for which pairs of grooves are carved most of the length of the course.
Milling around, queuing for the loos, checking equipment and hurrying towards the pens were thousands of racers - most clad in lycra or sporty garments, though some were in fancy dress - a member of our party was in tweeds, checked shirt, neck-scarf and Jimmy hat; two Swiss men wore frilly red-and-white checked shirts and breeches; another man wore a "fat-suit"; one group wore carnival outfits; another dozen racers were dressed as pieces from a board game.
I wished I'd put on my dirndl.
Trying to be organised, I laid my skis in the 9.30am pen at 8.45, and went to hand in my bag of extra layers at a Swiss Army truck, one of about 20 vehicles that transports racers' belongings to the finish.
As warm-up music (YMCA, an Udo Jurgens medley, Hey, Baby! and Gangnam Style) was blasting away I returned, then struggled to find my skis.
To the soundtrack of Vangelis's Conquest of Paradise, I finally spotted them and just had time to de-ice the toe-pieces of boot and ski, fasten my stick straps, re-fasten my boots and clean my sunglasses before the 10-second countdown.
To the off
Suddenly, Agadoo was blasting from the speakers and we were off.
The first half-hour was a concentration game, picking a way among the thousands of racers, most of whom were travelling at a similar speed, some skating tidily and taking care, some flailing around and tripping up their neighbours, though in fact there were remarkably few proper collisions.
What with thinking about my technique, finding a good course along the wide track on the frozen, snow-clad lake, looking ahead and admiring the mountains, the first 10km passed quickly.
Before I knew it I'd reached the first feeding station, where I quickly grabbed two hot Rivellas, a hot ice-tea (yes, really) and a piece of chocolate.
Then I continued to the wooded section around St Moritz Bad.
When the hills get steeper and the path narrower, bottlenecks form, but these provided a welcome rest.
I learnt to choose carefully who I followed, herringbone-style, up these slopes - at one point a heavy-looking man slipped over in front of me and I was lucky not to get tangled up with him.
Downhill, too, it was worth leaving space between descenders and giving a wide berth to the unsteady, for whom an apparently minor loss of balance often preceded a dramatic crash.
The fastest complete the course in less than an hour and a half; the slowest in six hours.
Passing Pontresina, the half-way mark and the end of the worst hills, I'd been going for 1hr50. There followed an open, slightly downhill section past Samedan airport - soon, possibly, to get instrument-landing equipment, a local told me - and a stretch by the river opposite the village of Bever, well known for its lovely buildings, painted with the sgraffito decorations particular to the region.
Through the oddly named Chamues-ch, spectators lined the track and children offered home-made snacks, such as cake, as well as chunks of banana and orange.
The course, which started firm and fast, had become slushy under the sun, and the last section became hard work. The calls from the sidelines helped push everyone on, and though I witnessed a few frowns as sticks nicked skis on a couple of little hills, the show moved smoothly towards its goal.
As with many ski races, the finish is slightly uphill - maybe it's something to do with ensuring people are upright, so start numbers can be read by photographers.
But I knew about this, having been a spectator last year, and saved a little energy to skate through, rather than collapsing in a heap.
A reasonable - for a first-timer from the lowlands - 3hr30, half an hour quicker than I'd expected.
And how did others of the Brits fare?
Well, Pippa Middleton, at 2hr48, was comfortably the fastest British female, and her brother James, at 2hr17, also clocked an impressive time.
Alan Eason, from Kent, born in 1970 - broke two hours, finishing in a brilliant 1hr41, just 12 minutes behind the leaders.
Conversely a very fit acquaintance of my sister's in his 40s and a first-time langlaufer, took more than five hours. Some first-timers did better: a fit couple in their 30s who had practised roller-skiing but were new to langlaufing, beat me by a minute.
The overall winner was Pierre Guedon, a 23-year-old Frenchman (1hr28) but the top prize, to my mind, goes to the female winner, Riita-Liisa Roponen, a Finn racing her first Engadine Marathon (though obviously she's a seasoned cross-country skier).
Roponen is in her mid-30s, proving that youth isn't an essential weapon.
And further proof comes from the oldest participant, Toni Stoeckli, born in 1926, from Zug, who took only 15 minutes longer than me.
For the full results see here.
Lasy year Yolanda took part in the Inferno race in Muerren - see her story here.
And we have just recived further news about Yolanda. And Peter. They have recently got engaged!
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