The Engadin Skimarathon was another incredible experience in 2012. Every year, the weather is near-perfect for the majority of the days leading up to the race, and 2012 was no exception. Though the course was clearly thin and a bit dirty in spots prior to race day, the course preparation was expertly completed and on race morning the skiers were presented with a relatively hard, fast marathon trail.
The ESM had an all-star cast from the USA this year. The top ladies included Holly Brooks, Nicole DeYong, Evelyn Dong, Morgan Arritola, and Caitlin Gregg; for the men, Lars Flora, Matt Liebsch and Torin Koos made the trip. Torin’s gal, Bettina Gruber, a super nice and super talented Swiss skier, also joined us. On Saturday, the day before the race, we had the pleasure of watching the telecast of Bryan Fletcher winning his first Nordic Combined World Cup event in Oslo, and teammate Billy Demong skiing magnificently from 12th place to finish fourth. This event actually had links to the ESM…..Billy and a pal of his immediately left Oslo after Billy’s fourth-place finish, hopped a plane to Zurich, arrived in the Engadin valley at 1:30AM, caught a few hours’ sleep, and lined up at the ESM start line with the other Elite skiers by 8:30AM.
After watching Bryan’s historic finish, J.D. Downing (XC Oregon/Director of AXCS) arrived in town, fresh off the Master’s World Cup in Germany. After giving me the complete and exciting rundown of Kent’s amazing performances at WM this year (!), we talked about the ESM strategy. JD and I were seeded in the same wave (Group), fortunately, and JD wanted to ski along and experience the ESM with me firsthand. This was a great opportunity, being that I’ve worked with JD quite a bit over the years and this would give him a real-time look at how I ski marathons. The adventure that awaited us moments after the start was beyond either of our expectations, but the experience of doing a ski race with a coach provided benefits that were beyond expectation as well.
We arrived at the start area very early in the morning, and were rewarded with a front-line position to place our skis. I’d never before had such a great start position so things were looking up already. A few hours later, when we arrived back at the start in “race-ready” mode, I found the start area incredibly civil and nowhere near as compacted as in years’ past. Perhaps this was because we were right in front…but I was again super optimistic and very pleased with how things were already shaping up. I’d never before felt the huge “start ribbon” against my chest and thought “wow, this time I’m really in front!” There is about a 20m gap between our “Elite B” group and the 500 or so skiers in the Elite “A” group lined up ahead of us, and there is about another 20m gap between “Elite A” and the “Elite” (the “Elite” being comprised of the top 100 skiers in the race). The “Elite B”, “Elite A” and “Elite” groups all start together, totaling about 2000 skiers. I stared in amazement at the empty space ahead of me and the colorful race suits scattered 20m away….wow….empty space at the start of the ESM…in the front line of my group…thought I’d NEVER see the day. JD was on my right and we discussed finer points of “quick double poling” to blast out as soon as the start ribbon was lifted. And within seconds, it seemed, we were off.
Both of us double poled quickly and remained in front of our group, and within a minute or so we’d already caught the Elite A group ahead. This was what I was always looking for – a good fast start, immediately hooking up with good skiers in the Elite A group, and as an added bonus….a guy on my right who would make sure nobody careened into me. The pace was pretty fast and the mildly icy conditions had me floundering a bit but soon enough I was starting to feel comfortable and after a few km’s, JD and I settled into a solid pace within the mass of skiers. Everyone was able to skate, somewhat compressed, but relatively comfortably. There was a definite headwind today but we didn’t feel it. I watched JD carefully move around skiers and he waited patiently within the crowd as I followed him. The pack was definitely tight but everyone seemed to be predictable today and the “mosh pit” feeling was beginning to subside. JD was tight to my right side so I only concerned myself with skiers coming up on the left. Everything was great.
After the first 2-3 kms the spacing was starting to open up a little and I was beginning to feel like we had our position pretty well established, and I could start planning strategy for the upcoming portions of the course. JD always stuck close by and he expertly maneuvered among everyone, always careful and aware that I was with him, as I was certainly not as deft on skis as he was. We were near the middle of the pack, still in front of our group, when JD came upon a skier who had a gap in front of him. Time to move around and fill that gap! JD slid in behind him and then made a move to the right to go around, and I followed. As soon as JD moved, the guy dropped. Neither of us still has any idea or explanation for how and why he dropped so suddenly and so hard, especially since JD wasn’t close enough to obstruct his skiing, and it didn’t look like he tripped up on his pole…but down he most certainly went, sprawled out all over the place. Just….boom…on the ground! JD made it around him and since the guy was falling towards the right, I had to maneuver a bit more to avoid him. I moved to the right fast enough but my left ski just barely caught him…and it caught him square. I heard a loud “pop” and JD quickly glanced over his shoulder to find me moving along on my right ski, headed to the ground, absent of my left one. He hollered quickly and was immediately lost in the sea of swishing skiers and vibrant color. I quickly picked myself back up and stared back at the endless wave of skiers rushing towards me…
I was reminded of the Long Island Expressway at rush hour; the view was almost hypnotic. I carefully tried to weave and duck my way back to the lonely ski, sitting painfully in the middle of the trail on its side like a small beached vessel, amidst an onslaught of irritated skiers. Luckily my ski was lined up perfectly with the flow of traffic and took no further abuse, though it was still ominously out of place in the middle of the race course. I managed to avoid another collision, tip-toeing my way against traffic enroute to my ski, and instead racked up a fair amount of cuss words in about every Euro language there was.
When I had the ski in hand, I noticed the binding plate was still attached but the binding itself was still connected to my boot. A quick inspection revealed it was probably salvageable….but now I had to get to the side of the race trail in order to commence the field repair. Crossing four lanes of traffic would be impossible at this point…and I realized if I only waited a bit more, the entire wave would pass and I could move around freely. Quickly…entirely too quickly….everyone blew by and I was alone. I moved to the side of the trail and took stock of my situation. Within seconds JD hollered again…he had turned around and “crust cruised” back to my location along the side of the race trail, in order to come help. I couldn’t figure out how to put the binding back together, and JD and I began studying the configuration. We took off our poles and tried a few different ideas until finally JD figured it out. With a “click” and a test tug…we realized we had it back together. A few seconds later we had our poles back on….I took a look around….it was oh so quiet and lonely. The Birkie all over again. But hey…I’ve been here before….no worries, right?
However I couldn’t see anyone…and we were skiing over an open lake. JD gave me a quick glance: “Stick to my tail. We need to catch the stragglers before the hills”. Looking ahead I wondered how far we were behind…it was really hard to tell. JD took off and I tried to keep up and he quickly created a gap. He dialed it back a little and found a pace I could handle….and soon enough, we started catching stragglers. JD kept moving back and forth, working the lines of skiers and finding better snow, and occasionally glancing over his shoulder to make sure I was still around. My water bottle was lost during my earlier melee so JD made a point to stop at all available feed stations, watching to be sure I was getting enough. I was amazed at how well we had done by the time we hit the hills, and I was starting to feel a little better. Through the hills, JD again expertly maneuvered around skiers, sometimes moving over to the classic tracks and “marathon” skating to get around people; other times employing a “half-V1” to make himself smaller to squeak past stragglers on the narrowing trail. Clearly this was a form of skiing that was very necessary to master in a huge mass-start race like this one. I had trouble keeping up, and JD routinely pulled up and skied easy until I caught up again. Despite this, we made decent progress through the hills and all the while I was learning some great new skills.
Once out of the hills and into flatter sections, at 25kms, JD took control again and led the way, fighting a 10 MPH headwind and never seeking the refuge of the long lines that were now forming. He continued to work both sides of the trains and continued moving up. From time to time other skiers would hop in behind me, or sometimes into the gap that always formed between JD and I, but generally they didn’t last more than a minute or so. As JD pushed he continued to assess my situation and adjust his pace accordingly such that our “two-man pursuit train” could continue. As we continued to move up I tried to concentrate on being efficient, but I couldn’t quite find the gear I was looking for.
After 12 kms of relatively flat skiing, we entered another hilly area and the final 5 km. JD again worked in an out of the masses of tiring skiers, seeking and taking advantage of every opportunity, but again, I couldn’t keep up. This was like a lesson, I thought….watch him do what he’s doing, make mental notes, and work on it for next time. JD waited patiently at the top of each hill and coached me on the way down, having already recognized throughout the day that high-speed turns and “being in a tuck” were weak (and occasionally humorous) aspects of my skiing. We pushed the last km and managed to finish within about a minute of my best ESM time. What an experience! Of course, the post-race festivities served to prolong the excitement of the moment, and by the end of the day we were all already planning next year’s activities. Though this ESM didn’t result in my fastest time, and everything certainly didn’t go as planned, the experience clearly categorizes this race as one of the best ever.
EPILOGUE: Matt finished 25th (15 seconds back), Lars was 35th, Billy was 38th (54 seconds back), and Torin broke several poles and ended up 130th. Holly was the best gal at 8th, followed by Bettina, Morgan, Evelyn and Nicole. Caitlin hit the ground hard at about 35kms while positioning for a feed, and wasn’t able to finish.