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Almost snowed-in at The Engadin




Pre race day:


A friend from work, Jimi, and I travelled by car from Seefeld to St Moritz in Switzerland. This was my first time travelling by car in Europe. I love public transport, but I was grateful for the convenience of a car, especially when it resulted in a 2 hour journey compared to 6 hours by train. Being able to drive across a border and into another country is a crazy concept to me. No plane or boat needed, not even immigration or border control, just drive on through! Very cool but seems far too simple.

 

St Mortiz is a resort town in The Engadin, a high alpine valley region of Switzerland. It is situated on the southern side of the Swiss Alps at 1800 metres above sea level. Driving towards St Moritz there was a lot of snow everywhere, mountains in all directions and small towns up against the hillsides. We drove past large lakes completely covered in metres of snow. I probably wouldn’t have known they were lakes if I hadn’t looked at the map!



“Slick” and “polished” were some of the words that came to mind as we walked around St Moritz. There were many high-end clothing brands and nice cars. Overall, the place had a very “fancy vibe”. For someone from the south of New Zealand, I was perhaps a bit of a fish out of water. Nonetheless I tried to bring out my inner posh side and really enjoyed exploring a very different place. The language was very interesting to me. I thought Swiss German would be close to German, but some words sounded more French and some more Italian.  The pronunciation of Alice - “Aliche” - even made a comeback, and I hadn’t heard that since my time in Italy. 




 

Race day: 10th March, 40km Freestyle

 

Due to snow conditions The Engadin Ski Marathon course was altered for 2024.  Very large quantities of snow meant it was not possible to prepare tracks across some of the lakes. Instead of starting in Maloja, we would ski from Silvaplana to S-chanf with a few side loops added to make up some of the distance. 


Arriving at the race start we were greeted by a line of over 30 Swiss army trucks collecting everyone’s belongings to be transported to the finish line. It all felt very official! My belongings were to go in truck number 30, and I enjoyed meeting the army personnel assigned to the truck and knowing I would see them again at the finish line. 




Waiting for my time to start, it was snowing very heavily and I couldn’t help thinking as time passed that it would be harder and harder to ski through the fresh snow. 


My wave was one of the last to start and I was surprised by the feeling of the track under my skis. So many people skiing in front of us meant the snow was somewhat compact. The trail took us over frozen lakes and the track was actually more icy than powdery. Unexpected given the amount of snow that had been falling and was still falling.



There were a few up and downhills through a forest. This provided some appreciable shelter from the falling snow. However, visibility was very poor and any obstacles ahead appeared without warning. All of a sudden, I saw people in front of me spin around, slide sideways, backwards, fall over, the whole works. It was total chaos! It was a big icy downhill, one of the ones where the pizza doesn’t help you. Despite falling over a few times, this situation made me smile. What direction are my skis going to take me? What ski technique is going to be created here? All very interesting! I also loved seeing the large crowds enjoying the entertainment of this particular downhill. Maybe this section of the track is renowned for providing some laughter as I was surprised by the number of spectators, especially in these conditions! All a lot of fun but I was very glad to get to the bottom. That downhill was certainly memorable.




From here, things got more challenging for me. We entered more open spaces and the wind and snow picked up! And the snow was heavy and wet. It became really tough!


I am not sure what the scientific definition of a blizzard is, but for me this was certainly it. Windy, very very poor visibility and thick snow coming down super heavy. It was cold and everything became saturated. I could feel pools of cold water in my boots. Snow stuck to my bib which became heavy like a chest plate made from snow. My glasses were on my forehead for slightly better visibility but snow stuck to them, and they would often fall down onto my eyes with the weight of snow. I kept my head down and did off-set most of the way, focusing on seeing the tip of each ski land on the snow at a time. Every now and again I would lift my eyes and squint ahead to check if there were people in front of me and I was still on the right path. I did see a few people accidently ski off the trail and fall into the deep fresh snow on the sides. I really didn’t want that to be me.  




There were a few things that helped me keep going: 

 

I heard them before I saw them. There was loud music up ahead of me and the song was repeatedly chanting “Mexico” “Mexico”. Then I saw a group of at least eight skiers, wearing sombreros and traditional Mexican dress. Two skiers each had a harness around their waist and were working together to pull a cart which had the music speaker and a very very large Mexican flag! They were a lot of fun and it was such a joyful scene to see in such difficult conditions. It also made me smile when I found myself figuring out how to get past them. To me it was a fun puzzle and a great distraction from the cold and other thoughts going through my head. You see, the group and their Mexican flavored pull along cart all together took up the whole trail. It took me a wee while to find a safe path through them, avoiding all people and ropes. This just meant more time to try and soak up some of their joy and energy :)



The second thing that really kept me going was the people! Other skiers were all going through the same thing as me. Nobody needed to say anything, but it was very comforting to know we were all having similar thoughts and facing the same challenges. But most of all the supporters, staff and photographers dotted throughout the course inspired me. At least I was moving whereas these people were standing still. I thought if they could be out here, so could I. Thinking about all these people really made it easier for me to keep going.



 

I was so so happy to get to the finish line. But as soon as I stopped skiing the mission became to warm up. This was possibly the hardest part of the day, where I was no longer moving but still in a blizzard and wearing wet and cold clothes. Let’s just say I was so happy to eventually get in a warm shower. 


This event reminded me that cross country skiing is an adventure. Difficult weather and blizzard conditions are sometimes part of that adventure. Being an outdoor, winter sport it was only a matter of time before I encountered some challenging conditions on race day. Next time I will be better prepared, wiser with my wardrobe choices and have a memory to remind me I can persevere. 


I'm also very thankful to the organizing committee who had to deal with incredibly challenging conditions. They adapted the course multiple times and made it happen! The race was certainly memorable, and I am very grateful that it was able to take place.

 


Post race day:


The day after the race I woke to a bluebird day. I couldn’t wait to go for some relaxed skiing and soak up the nice weather! We took the train up the valley and skied back to the car via some of the route from the race. It was fun recognizing sections of the racecourse but being able to see the surroundings - a totally different view from yesterday!





It was a spectacular day and I felt grateful we could experience the beauty of The Engadin. On a side note it was interesting how often I would smell cheese, especially when we were skiing on trails nowhere near a town. I kept wondering where is that smell of cheese coming from. 




It was the ultimate day to end a weekend in Switzerland. I left thinking what a beautiful area The Engadin is, and what a fantastic network of cross-country ski trails are available to explore. I will have to come back one day :)



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