My thoughts on Engadin Skimarathon 51 – 10th March 2019.
The Engadin Skimarathon is a 42km skating cross-country ski race from Maloja to S-chanf via St Moritz and Pontresina in the south-east corner of Switzerland. 2019 was my sixth race in 7 years having first competed back in 2013. Below is an account of my latest encounter with the Engadin.
Owing to a broken rib and a lack of specific training over the last couple of months, I went into the week with very few expectations. The Engadin had always been my main training focus of the year until 2017 when work got in the way and I had to give it a miss.
As Linda and I had just got back from Patagonia in 2018 and I hadn’t done any skiing or rollerskiing in preparation, last year was all about requalifying for the Elite C start group – the race is segregated into eight different start groups so that skiers move at a similar pace and there are fewer chances of bottlenecks. Your start group is determined by your best result in the previous 2 years. Over the years I have moved up from the bottom group (the Volkslaufen) in my first year, up to the 4th highest group (Elite C) which comprises roughly the top 3,000 skiers.
Cross-country ski racing is not like running in that your result is determined more by your ranking position and time behind the winner than your actual time. This is because snow and weather conditions can change significantly between years. So for example, in 2016 I had my best ever race in the Engadin and finished in 2,046th place, but my time was my slowest ever at 2:45:02. There was a considerable headwind that year and as a result everyone’s times were about 10-20% slower than usual.
Even though we know this as cross-country skiers, we still want to achieve a certain time on marathons, and a good aim for the Engadin is sub 2 hours.
And so to this year.
I arrived on Monday in good time for the race on Sunday. At 1,850m, the Engadin is one of the highest ski races on the calendar, so it’s important to get there early and acclimatise to the altitude. It’s also important not to overdo it during the week, as recovery takes longer, it’s easier to get dehydrated and sleep never feels quite as deep as normal. Hence I decided to concentrate on long slow continuous efforts and technique. The Engadin is a fairly flat race, so the ability to stand on a ski comfortably at speed is crucial to a fast time.
I joined up, as always, with Alan Eason at Totally Nordic. Alan is an ex British cross-country champion and has raced for Great Britain at two Nordic World Championships. He now teaches and coaches cross-country skiers who primarily want to compete in skimarathons and other races. I’ve been skiing on and off with Alan since my first Engadin in 2013.
For some reason, the Engadin is the most popular skimarathon for Brits with about 200 participating this year. It may be the perception that the race is flat and easy, or it may be the glitz and glamour of St Moritz and Pontresina! Alan often has 20 or more bookings, but this year he just had a handful of repeat clients and a couple of new ones.
Alan kindly lets me join in as much as I like, but often I just go off and do my own thing. Maybe I’ve got nothing left to learn, but more likely, my bad habits have become so ingrained that I’m now unteachable! Generally though, the best thing for me is to just ski a lot and self diagnose what is going on. Alan’s teaching style is minimalistic yet he instinctively knows exactly when he needs to point out what you could do better and even occasionally says something positive! He’s an incredibly effective teacher and my skiing has improved significantly in the last 6 or so years. He just always laments my lack of training and conditioning…
And this year was no different. Having done none of my usual skiing specific training after breaking my rib, my upper body and core were not as strong as usual, and I was probably carrying a little more weight than normal. I had good endurance and strength in my legs from lots of cycling, but the skating technique uses subtly different muscles. So the key to the week was to take it easy on my upper body so I still had some strength left for the race and just to ski well and efficiently.
The organisers of the race introduced a night race on the Thursday of the marathon week a couple of years ago and I’ve done the last two editions for a bit of fun. I always say that I’m not going to race it and just treat it like a long training session, but then I can’t help getting caught up in the excitement once it gets going.
The Nachtlauf (Night Race) is 17km long and runs along the marathon course from Sils to Pontresina. Everyone has to wear a head torch as the course isn’t lit and it’s quite a spectacle at the start looking back at about 800 skiers with their torches on. Some of the torches are so powerful that all you can see when they’re behind you is the silhouette of you skiing, which is kinda cool.
The course includes all the main hills on the marathon course between St Moritz and Pontresina and a bit of the flat frozen lakes from Sils to Silvaplanna. The race is always unusual, racing at night teaches you to react to the sensations coming up through your body rather than just using your eyes to balance, which really helps with stability on the skis.
I started in a slightly easier start group than last year, hoping that I wouldn’t get too caught up with the racing and also not to get demoralised when 200 people overtake me within 50m of the start, which is what happened last year! The skis were going well and I felt comfortable and I was catching people fairly easily. And then we hit the hill off the lakes into St Moritz. The hill is not particularly long, but it’s steep and imposing. Normally it’s too hard to ski up the hill so people herringbone up it (basically walking up with your skis in a V shape to stop you sliding back).
There was no queue at the bottom so I attacked it with gusto cheered on by the spectators at the side of the loipe. The wheels came off halfway up and I resorted to herringbone but I could barely keep this up. The lactic acid build up was overwhelming and I almost brought up my lunch at the top. I had to stop for a brief moment to gather myself and remind myself that I wasn’t racing…
I thought, oh God, this doesn’t bode well for the main race, and I had to stop another 3 or 4 times before the end of the race. Once you’ve stopped once, it’s easy to stop again, and again… But I wasn’t too bothered about my time and the fresh snow that had fallen that day made the tracks a lot slower and heavier than normal. “Mattress Alley” (a particularly nasty downhill section through the tress) was mercifully lit up, but the run into Pontresina wasn’t. It’s not easy to see much in the dark whilst it’s snowing, skiing at 40kmh with a small head torch! God knows how I stayed on my feet, my half snow plough was getting wider and wider and I was worried about doing the splits and smashing head first into the snow…
Having collected myself, I relaxed too much and hit a rut and went down. I stopped soon after for a breather and then headed towards the tunnel under the railway line and the finish. Last year, I came round the corner into the tunnel and it was full of crashed skiers all over the place and I inevitably went down as well. Fortunately, this year it was clear but the turn after the exit is really tight and lumpy and I just about managed to hold it together. Despite all my woes, I still managed to finish the race in just over an hour and was only a couple of minutes slower than last year. And more importantly, I was the fastest Brit in the race!
Next year I’m determined to have more fun and have decided to race as Elvis! Thank you very much…
Friday & Saturday
After a slow start on Friday, we skied over to St Moritz to pick up our race bibs. It’s almost a ritual now – Alan and I always have a coffee in the same cafe, and then go over to inspect the lake (like most athletes, Alan is very superstitious!). We were joined by Malcolm and Gry from Norway (Malcolm is British and Gry is Norwegian). Malcolm has become almost as obsessed about the Engadin as Alan and me, and was skiing really fast. Usually, I’m one of the top Brit finishers after Alan, and suddenly there was competition in the air! My usual racing nemesis (Paul Moonen from the Netherlands) who helps get my competitive juices going couldn’t make it this year unfortunately.
I hadn’t been feeling tip top all week and I woke up feeling rubbish on Saturday after a few drinks and an admittedly fantastic cheese fondue with Sarah, Hazel, Annie, Gry and Malcolm the night before. So I took the day off and stayed in bed. It was probably mostly dehydration and a lack of sleep thanks to a few crazy cheese dreams. Alan persuaded me to come out for a cup of tea and some fresh air. I drank loads of water on his advice and went to bed early to catch up on sleep. I always feel a bit crap the day before a race, probably mostly nerves but on this occasion it was exacerbated by fondue and a head cold.
It’s always an antisocially early wake up call (5.30am) to get to the start of the race on Sunday. I felt a lot better but still not 100%. I shared the bus journey with Hazel and Sarah and I admitted that I was worried about Malcolm beating me especially as I felt I couldn’t push too hard. After chilling out before the start, I decided that I would start in the last Elite C pen and just go out and enjoy it and try to ski well. Each start group is divided up into 3 pens which can hold about 500 people each – you stand there with your skis in the pen and when it’s your turn, you have to run out to the starting area, knock the snow off your boots, try not to panic, put your skis on and then slalom past all the other skiers doing the same – your time starts when you go over the start line.
It’s always a bit frantic in the first pen as everyone is trying to get ahead of each other to improve their times from last year. It’s quite hard to overtake people during a ski race, so if you can get ahead of lots of people at the start, the better your chances. In contrast, my pen only had about 50 people in it, so was very relaxed. And as a result, the course was relatively empty once I got going and I could ski where I liked without worrying about being cut up or bogged down by slower skiers.
It’s the first year that I’ve timed the race with a GPS watch and my Garmin would happily buzz into life every time I completed a kilometre. The skis were feeling pretty fast and the track was hard and icy. There was also a fairly substantial tailwind pushing us along and to my surprise, the first few km splits were all well below 3 minutes which meant if I kept it up, I would be on for a sub 2 hour time…! I concentrated on not working too hard, keeping relaxed and letting the skis (and wind) do the work.
It was all going so well until I hit the steep hill off the lakes. There was a queue about 20 deep in front of me and everyone slowed to a complete stop. At that point, everyone stops racing and it’s pretty orderly – everyone gets their turn to ski up the hill without too much argy bargy. The hill was particularly icy, hence the hold up. It only takes a couple of people to make a mistake and fall or slip and suddenly there’s a massive traffic jam.
The lumps into Pontresina which had gotten the better of me in the night race were much easier during the marathon – maybe it’s a different mindset. I tried to keep to my race strategy and not overcook it. So rather than try to overtake slower skiers in front of me, which takes a big effort on the hills, I sat in behind them and preserved my energy.
I got to Pontresina (halfway) in about 1 hour and 10 minutes, which put me in line to beat my best time to date if i could hold it together. The course narrows after Pontresina for a couple of kilometres and can be a bit of a pain, with queuing up small inclines, rubbish snow, and having to move at the speed of those around you.
It opens up again at Samedan airport and with the wind on my back I flew down this section. It was so fast that I could free skate most of it, so much fun, and I picked out targets ahead to catch and pass. The section between the airport and the last feed station (about 5km to go) is fairly straight forward and I just tried to keep my intensity up without overdoing it. I concentrated on skiing well with a good, engaged flat ski and nice long glides. I wasn’t really gaining or losing many positions – you seem to swap places with the same people time and again.
The last 5km, after the final feed station at Zuoz, is a real sting in the tail. There are 3 or 4 nasty little climbs on a slight camber and if your legs have gone, it can be miserable. Fortunately, my conservative race plan meant I had plenty left in the tank and with the wind on my back, the climbs seemed easier than ever. I kept looking at my watch, working out what my likely finish time would be and trying to keep up the pace without overdoing it.
The final km can be a little tricky with a sharp left hand bend, over a bridge, up a small incline and into the finishing straight. Everyone around you is giving it full beans, and it’s easy to get entangled with other skiers. Fortunately, they changed the finish a couple of years ago so it’s not as bad as it was. The turn into the finish straight was back into the wind and it suddenly hit me how much assistance it had given me during the race. I always try to do a bit of Skate 2 over the line but with the combination of the wind and chopped up snow, I changed back to Skate 1 and eased over the line in 2:15:39 – my best time ever!
I was really pleased given the build up and how I had felt the day before. My technique and general fitness had got me through, however, I knew instinctively that it wasn’t particularly fast compared to those around me. Again, it all comes down to ranking… Although it was my fastest ever time, I had dropped about 900 places from my best result 3 years ago. It’s still enough to requalify for Elite C next time, but if I’d had the form of 2016, I would have finished in just over 2 hours and tantalisingly close to my ultimate aim of a sub 2 hour Engadin.
It’s a shame as the conditions were particularly good for a very fast time – as proven by Dario Cologna who broke the course record to win it in a time of 1:22:22
I found out afterwards that Malcolm had managed to beat me by just over a minute – an incredible ski from him starting in the class behind me and inevitably having to deal with more traffic and queuing. He had been ill the week before as well, so I can’t really use that as an excuse either! Hopefully, being so close will spur us on to be even faster in the future and push us closer and closer to the magic 2 hour figure. And hopefully Paul will be back next year to add his good humour and competitive spirit to spice things up once more.
I have the same conversation with Alan every year after the Engadin. He swears blindly before the race that he’ll do something else next year and then inevitably falls just short of where he wants to be and ends up entering again almost immediately. The Engadin is like crack cocaine to both of us – it’s a wonderfully fast, exhilarating race which rewards good technique, bravery and aggression. There’s always a feeling that you could have done better, that you could have pushed harder, or been smarter, or trained harder.
So, we’ll be back again next year, go through the same pre race rituals, get up at stupid o’clock to go and stand in the cold for 2 hours before jumping on our skis and competing against 12,000 other people in one of the best experiences you could ever dream to have. Bring on 2020!