Something different for the winter season
St Moritz for the weekend. Some think furs, snow polo, Badrutt’s Palace Hotel and Dracs nightclub but my reality is sleeping in a dorm room with 8 other men and tackling a gruelling 26 mile cross-country ski race for which I’m wholly unprepared. Although I am competing alongside Pippa Middleton and figure hugging Lycra will be involved.
I’m in St Moritz to attempt the Engadin Ski Marathon, the Swiss version of the London marathon, a 26 mile cross-country ski race along the Engadin Valley where the Gucci-clad Eurotrash of St Moritz are forced to share their playground with endurance enthusiasts and the obligatory fancy dressed competitors. Cross-country skiing is not a pursuit that has captured the minds of the British population, most Brits are dimly aware of the biathlon in which you also have to carry a gun but otherwise most people think that I’m too scared to ski down-hill and therefore a wuss. For the record I can ski downhill but cross-country skiing is a new challenge. Fortunately, nearly 13,000 other people think the same.
On the start line we are led through an elaborate warm up routine by Switzerland’s very own Mr Motivator. His soundtrack of familiar Europop is bizarrely interjected with the music from Gladiator which leaves me dazed and caught by surprise when the starting hooter sounds. Having only been on cross-country skis once before (in last year’s race) my technique draws few envious glances and as the race commences, my mostly Swiss fellow competitors look upon me with pity. Their smooth gliding looks graceful next to my clumsy, staccato efforts. But I soon find my own idiosyncratic rhythm as I embark upon the course hoping to beat my arbitrary target time of four hours. Pedestrian by Swiss standards but it'll do for a novice like me.
The views in the opening half of the race are magnificent as the field makes its way across the frozen lake with mountains soaring up all around, but sadly my view has yet to be improved by Pippa as I search for her with little success. I’m told she’s had lessons and her figure suggests countless hours in the gym so I expect she’s bounded ahead at this stage.
After 8 miles the first major challenge presents itself with a short, sharp hill that has half the field scrabbling furiously to fight gravity’s pull and the other half taking their skis off to walk, cheerfully ignoring the signs explicitly threatening race expulsion for doing so. But soon after this comes an altogether new challenge of descending on cross-country skis. Those regular downhill skiers amongst you may scoff at such trepidation but the complete lack of a normal edge on the skis makes parallel or snow-plough turns an impossibility and instead a step-turn must be employed. A hill littered with upturned competitors tells its own story, as do the hordes of spectators who gather round the sharpest descent to cheer, jeer and laugh at the hapless souls colliding into crash-mat swathed trees.
At halfway many racers call it a day and so begins the hard work as a headwind picks up and I try in vain to–as if in the Tour de France–find a domestique to hide behind. My legs and back begin to ache and my poor technique starts to catch up with me. Regular kilometre markers taunt me that my four hour target is tantalisingly close and as I embark upon the final 10km a familiar argument starts in my head with the Olympic inspired, never give-up athlete fighting the desk-jockey sloth who was lured into drinking too much by the attractive German barmaid on the first evening. This argument continues, my mind toying with my rapidly failing body and all thoughts of chatting up Pippa as we gracefully glide along next to each other are expunged from my head.
Then finally with 1 km to go I realised that my arbitrary time target is within my grasp only to be faced with a final sweeping descent guarding the finish. I hurl myself down it, balance tested to its limit on the final corner, this is do or die, glory or failure. In my mind I’m Mo Farah hurtling round the last bend with 80,000 screaming fans willing me on. I see the clock not yet at 3.53 and slump across the finish line even finding time for my own little Mobot. Made it.
If you fancy having a go next year check out the Engadin website here. It's great to focus on another sport in the winter months and teh cross training benefits are extolled by Olympic rowers and Edvald Boasson-Hagen alike. If based in London, Rollerski will provide you with a great intro to the sport and ensure you reach the start line with some idea of what's going on.