Alum Update: Chelsea Checks in from Switzerland

by Chelsea Little     [A JNT athlete in the early 00’s and an occasional JNT coach ever since, Chelsea also skied for Dartmouth and was an inaugural member of the Craftsbury Green Team.]

First of all, I want to say congratulations to everyone on the season!  All the Ford Sayre junior skiers have come a really long way since the first Eastern Cup of the season when I was helping with coaching.  I’m really flattered that Adam followed my advice to throw in speeds every day, and very proud that he went on to have a great sprint at JN’s!  As well as leading the relay there.  Way to go Adam.

I have been keeping an eye on results, and it’s equally great to see Johanna and Perrin tearing it up in the J2 division – winning the U16 festival, congrats Perrin! – and so many of the freshman boys going to the festival and having some good races.

And I can tell from the blog that Colin and Erik have been providing some solid upperclassman leadership… although, that one time at Mount Washington…

Chelsea racing in the Engadin marathon, Switzerland

Chelsea racing in the Engadin marathon, Switzerland  (Alphafoto)

… which brings me to the story I want to tell.  This year I have given the ol’ Ford Sayre suit its only representation in Europe (until the next Norway trip!).  [Ed. note: maybe some will appear between Rena and Lillehammer next weekend… there are a few Ford Sayre masters in Norway now preparing to race the Birkebeiner!]

This fall I did some coaching for Adam and ended up rollerskiing with him quite a bit, which was really fun and good for my fitness.  It’s hard for an old lady like me to keep up with you young whippersnappers!  I then began my PhD at the University of Zurich, and for the first two months I was very overwhelmed and overscheduled.  I barely ran at all, and lost all of that fitness bonus I gained from my rollerskis with Adam.

There was, too, the fact that the last race I did was the Vasaloppet in Sweden, a 90-kilometer classic marathon. Not only did it not go well in terms of results/time, it just wasn’t very fun (the parts around the race were fun, not so much the race itself – I wrote up an entertaining race report last year).  It is a traumatic memory and made me think maybe I didn’t want to do any ski races at all.

But I had moved to Switzerland, which boasts its own very large and popular ski marathon, the Engadin. It’s a 42 k skate competition point-to-point from Maloja and S-Chanf (it passes through downtown St. Moritz) and between 12,000 and 14,000 people do it every year.

When in Switzerland, one must do the Engadin, I thought.  So I signed up for the darn thing.  Switzerland has this nifty company called Datasport which handles registration and results for the vast majority of endurance sports events in the entire country, so while I was at it I signed up for another small marathon (just 25 k) a month earlier to help prepare.

The 25 k was fun, but not entirely confidence-inspiring.  I was beaten by a British 16-year-old who I help coach occasionally for the Zurich International School, whose ski team is run by Ford Sayre alum Brook Mullens.  No offense to British people, but when they beat you in a ski race it’s usually not a good sign.

Despite all this, somehow, based on my Vasaloppet time, I had been seeded into the “Elite A” wave of the Engadin.  This is a few hundred skiers who start behind the “Elite” group, a.k.a. the leaders of the FIS Marathon Cup and the some of the top finishers from the previous year’s Engadin.  I knew I didn’t belong in Elite A, but there were benefits.  The course is very flat and has a strong headwind, so the name of the game is to be in a big pack.  The packs can reach ridiculous rates of speed as they skate across the valley’s frozen lakes.  I wanted to catch that draft.

Holly Brooks

Holly Brooks

I think I took race prep way less seriously than most people there, too.  I was staying with Holly Brooks, who was getting her skis done by Salomon.  I was out of luck there, so I combined our two wax boxes and tried to get as close as I could to the Swix wax tip.  Unfortunately, we had literally none of the things they recommended.  So instead of Marathon White, I scraped off my CH6 and put on HF6.  Instead of FC78, I only had FC7 or FC8.  I went with FC7, then freaked out as the thermometer in the car on the way to the start read only -4°C, way too warm for FC7. Holly assured me the snow was still cold, and she was right – my skis turned out to be great.

Note to athletes, take advantage of the fact that Ford Sayre teaches you to wax your own skis!  It can come in very handy.

Anyway, I knew I had no business being in the front of Elite A, so I put my skis down about two rows from the back.

Like a complete idiot, I didn’t realize that every row you start farther back means another row of mayhem which can unfold in front of you at the start.  The Engadin does not have double-pole tracks at the start, even though most skate marathons do in order to make things more orderly.  Instead, you’re crammed together like sardines and all of a sudden several hundred (or several thousand, if you’re in a farther back wave) people try to start skating all at once.  The Swiss are usually quite organized, but this arrangement seems to represent a serious lapse in judgement.

So the gun went off and we slowly, slowly, began moving.  A double-pole here, another one there.  I had made it about 25 meters when, sure enough, a bunch of people in front of me got tangled up and crashed.  I tried to stop but skied right into it, and then the few people behind me skied into me.  When I stood up, my left pole was broken.

Drat!!  This had been my biggest fear – breaking a pole. I didn’t have a support team of any kind (actually, I don’t even own a second pair of skate poles anyway), so how would I get a new one?  I looked around and saw several other skiers also freaking out, skiing along the sides of the trail asking for poles.  That seemed like the thing to do.  So I did it.

The first guy I accosted wanted to help, but had already given away his left pole and only had a right one.  The next woman definitely had a ton of poles, but was supporting the French national team skiers and refused to give me any.  The third guy finally agreed and, miraculously, the pole was exactly the right height.

He looked me in the eye and said, “You are bib 709, I will find you at the finish.”  It sounded intimidating but when we did meet up at the finish, we chatted for a while and he was super nice – it turns out he is Jonathan Wyatt, a six-time mountain running World Champion and one of the winningest mountain runners of all time! Cool!

But before that… there I was, on the lake, new pole in hand.  Yes, I was ready to ski! Too bad the entire wave had already left at a high pace of speed.  I was literally the last one.  They were more than a minute in front of me, and had the draft.  I at first tried to catch the stragglers, but it was no use.  I skated across the giant lake all by myself.  It was kind of peaceful, actually.

And, like you guys at the Mount Washington Cup, there I was in a race all by myself, for a little while at least not really in the real race.

Eventually the wave behind me caught up, but it didn’t make things much better initially.  The first skiers were middle-aged Swiss men who were offended they hadn’t qualified into “Elite A” and so were out to prove something.  They wouldn’t let me into their pace line.  As more and more of these skiers surrounded me, it was apparent that they were super competitive, didn’t want to be beat by a girl, and also had horrible ski technique.  They were stepping all over my skis and poles and sometimes falling down, then blaming me.

I was pretty discouraged, but by about halfway through the race my competitive drive kicked in and I started moving up through the field, catching on to any faster group that came by.  I caught up to Canada’s Karen Messenger, who I had met in the start pen.  She races wearing a full superwoman costume, so I could notice her when she was still quite far ahead of me, her gold sparkly skirt shining in the sun.

We had quite the little battle in the midst of our pack of middle-aged men, but in the final kilometer I was just toast and she dusted me by about 20 seconds I think.  It was all I could do not to fall down from exhaustion.

One of the the most incredible things about the race is the speed.  Even though I’m in terrible shape and had a really bad start, losing the all-important draft that can literally make or break someone’s race, I still finished the 42 k in just over 2 hours.  It’s the fastest course out there, I’m pretty certain.

(I wasn’t sure I’d even skied the split so fast ever [that would be 21 k in 1:02], but I looked up the results from my last-ever U.S. Nationals in Rumford and I did finish the 20k a bit faster than that.  Still, I bet I trained only one sixth to one tenth as much as I did that season, and I’ve only been able to get on skis once a week starting at Christmas, and some weeks not at all!)

Anyway, the Engadin was really fun, and I think it would be a perfect place to see more Ford Sayre suits in the future – students?  Parents?  Masters racers?  It’s a great place for a trip as there are also lots of beautiful trails to explore on distance skis in the Engadin valley.





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