Thursday, March 31, 2016

Almost Heaven -- Tony at the Engadin

Super Tony tackled the Engadin again this year, and sends back this gorgeous report.  Stories like this make me want to learn to skate, just so I can experience Switzerland like this!  Thanks, Tony, for having a wonderful time and telling us all about it!  PS, bonus observations at the end, on how to manage these huge ski marathons.

The ESM was the typical amazing experience this year.  The weather leading up to the race was marvelous for the entire week prior, with overnight lows in the upper teens and daytime highs in the upper 30s.  There was the typical bright sunshine, great food and the hundreds of skiers, every day, going in every direction.  This is a huge event in Switzerland, and every year I’m reminded of just how special the Engadin Valley is.  
 

   We woke up to this view every day…… 
 The day before the race I had arranged a ride to the start with some other skiers from the US, which included Jon Shafer (a supporter of US skiing and contributor to FasterSkier), Taylor Fletcher (US Nordic Combined) and the President/CEO of the USSA, Tiger Shaw.  Tiger’s story was particularly interesting – he is a former Alpine skier for the US ski team, with very limited XC history.  In fact, his first XC ski race ever was the American Birkie, three weeks prior.  He then flew to Switzerland from Utah on the NIGHT BEFORE the Engadin Skimarathon, woke up the next day and completed his second XC ski race ever.  Tiger hung around for the Alpine World Cup, which was starting two days after conclusion of the ESM.  All week, we watched the folks in St Moritz prepping the Corviglia ski area for this alpine event.  In fact, one day we were able to alpine ski just outside of the fence that lined the downhill course.  Suffice it to say – I have a renewed respect for those alpine guys!  Holy cow, is that steep and FAST….
  
       From the Corvatsch Alpine area – the ESM runs along the valley, from left to right….
 Anyway, back to the ESM.  Everyone was crammed in our van at the start, but the atmosphere was upbeat. The weather, unfortunately, was cloudy and warmer than predicted even the night before.  But worse, there was a direct headwind from the north.  The groans began once everyone stepped out of the van and felt that wind, but at least it wasn’t snowing really hard and the view was spectacular.  I was a little late to arrive at the start area with my skis, so I was near the back again, with over 1000 skiers bunched up in front of me.  But I’d been here before. 
This race began as they all do – when the gun goes off, everyone begins double-poling in the tiny space allotted them by the massively over-crowded start pen.  The key is to stay out of trouble, and avoid anyone who starts skating entirely too early.  This year I was able to do that, finally, and I found that the first 10kms over the frozen lakes were exclusively focused on the skiers around me, and working around whatever they were doing.  I did a much better job of avoiding trouble but it was very difficult to make headway through the crowd.  When we hit the first hills in St Moritz, the lines were fairly long and everyone was walking or going very slowly, so that actually served as a recovery period.  The pace was slow through the spectacular wooded region between St Moritz and Pontresina (the half-way point) and as usual I hit Pontresina feeling pretty well.  But when we left Pontresina, we really felt that wind.  And it was blowing so hard that it was loud (my ears were actually ringing at the finish!).  I moved to the front of every train I was involved in and learned many lessons about how “long” it takes to catch a group that is seemingly not far ahead of you.  I was pretty exhausted at many points during the race but fortunately I was able to recover enough each time.  The entire course had been softened up, too, and as we progressed it became softer and softer.  However I still felt okay going into the last 5km of the race, where the hills begin again, and finished about where I normally do, place-wise.  All in all, a good hard race that provided new challenges and yet another new learning experience. 
 I made some observations during the race this year. Some skiers are REALLY GOOD at passing groups and crowds of skiers.  I watched many do this successfully; often it just means staying along the outside and skiing in a slightly “restricted” manner so you’re not skating so wide or using up so much of the trail.  Some were just really good at picking spots and jumping to better positions quickly, within the group.  I think you have to practice this and there’s probably no better way to practice than in the mass races themselves. Some people move and don’t care if they take someone out in the process, but most of the guys (and gals) I watched made these moves perfectly and fluidly without compromising anyone. It’s a talent worth developing if you plan to do lots of massively populated races. So, the crowds shouldn’t bother you, if you are comfortable with the fact that you will spend some of your race time executing maneuvers to improve your position.  At the ESM, you only need to do this for the first 21km.  From there, it’s pretty much wide open…and although still crowded, there is plenty of room to move if you need to.  It’s a fact associated with these huge marathon races – you need to develop this ability. 
Many believe that a flat race is really easy.  That depends.  The ESM isn’t ENTIRELY flat, though it is for about 75% of the race.  But when you’re skiing on long flat sections, you’re hammering pretty hard and there are no rest periods.  And this is pronounced with a headwind – you’re working harder, for a longer period of time.  It’s necessary to prepare for this – most people who have done the race for the first time state that it was harder than they expected.  The varying snow conditions along the course, the massive number of skiers, and the weather can make a huge difference in the ESM.  Every year is different! And that makes it exciting, every time. 
Next year, you should strongly consider doing the ESM.  If for no other reason, here’s why: the Master’s World Cup will be held the week before the ESM, in Klosters.  Klosters is less than an hour away from St Moritz, and the MWC staff knows this and is planning the MWC events around the ESM.  By doing this, those attending MWC will also participate in the ESM on the Sunday after MWC concludes.  It’s a great way to do a lot of racing in a short period of time, and enjoy some of the best that Switzerland has to offer.  JD Downing (AXCS, see ‘xcskiworld.com’) is organizing the US contingent and the ESM will be included in his plans.  You really need to check that out. 
 Finally, visit the ESM website, http://www.engadin-skimarathon.ch/en/engadin-skimarathon.html, and scroll down to the “Engadin Skimarathon 2016 Summary” video – its just a few minutes long and mostly in German, but you don’t need to understand German fully to get the idea!  Also, as your interest permits, take a look at the “Live Stream Replay” just below the summary video – it is long, several hours, but you can scroll through and watch those guys skiing at the front – it is amazing how efficient, comfortable, and fast these guys are. When was the last time you were able to see the top dogs ski in your own race?  An excellent video all around.
 
 

 My cousin and I a few days before the ESM, enjoying lunch at a restaurant located on the race course
 
See you all next year….?

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