Wednesday, December 17, 2014

In love with ski marathons: La Sgambeda race report & pictures!

Fill your coffee cup because this is long…. Or just scroll through the pictures :) 

12 days, 8 airplanes, 92 kilometers of racing in three days….. What a trip!

3 races, 3 days.... 

photo credit: Swix Ski Classics (SSC)

When I was first designing this trip it almost felt silly to travel thousands of miles for one small race weekend. But, I decided that I couldn’t afford to miss the “kick off” to the marathon season and didn’t want to spend the entire winter trying to play catch up in the chase for FIS Marathon Cup points. Plus, who wants to wait until January to start racing?

The trip turned out to be absolutely perfect and I am SO glad that I went. It was just enough time to get “my feet wet” and build a ton of confidence for my next trip over the pond.  Many of the logistics were downright impossible to figure out from home and now, having made this trip I can put faces to names – I joined a team (!) and I feel really good about my return in January. I am ecstatic to spend my first Christmas at home in a long time and by the end of my break, I’ll be chomping at the bit to put a bib on again. The plan couldn’t be better! 

There were many times this fall that I had night mares about getting to the start of a race and not having my skis or coming up to a hill that was too steep for me to ski up. I had a lot of conscience and subconscious anxiety that I was carrying around. However, the optimist in me prevailed because in the back of my mind I knew that somehow, someway, it would work out – and it did.

Zero days left until the La Sgambeda! 

Only in Italy - perfume & grappa at the race expo

But not everything was stress free and smooth. Thursday night, the day before the skate race I went to the team captain’s meeting to find out what was going on. At 6pm I still didn’t have anyone to wax my skis!!!! Compared to the last 4 years where I’ve had a personal tech this was a huge transition.  (Sure, I could have attempted to wax them myself but at this level you really need someone who knows what they’re doing to be competitive.)     

So wonderful to see my TEAM! Love these girls (just missing Kik who was on the phone)

Spending the first couple days in Davos at Markus and Maurus’s house was absolutely perfect. Arriving in Davos I felt like I was coming home. I got to see many of my World Cup friends and I knew were to stock up on toothpaste. (It's the small things matter!)  Then, Thursday morning we drove over Fluela Pass yet again and arrived in Livigno to meet Max and Johannes.  I was dressed ready to test skis immediately and was pleasantly surprised to find that our hotel balcony looked directly over the racetrack! It was a busy day testing, doing race prep, moving in, getting my bib, and attending the team captain’s meeting, finding someone to wax my skis…

 Ski testing. Photo: Markus! 
Ski testing with help from Johannes & Markus. Photo: Markus

Enzo & a local crew ended up doing my skis - thanks guys! 

Max, me, Johannes - team Salomon at the Hotel Amerikan!

Just as the day was winding down I had a visitor at the hotel – Nils Marius Otterstad, the team leader for the Swix Ski Classics team, Team Santander.  Nils tracked me down through Max Olex and was intent on having me race for his team Saturday and Sunday for the team tempo prologue and the 35k classic.  I had always planned on racing the 35k but Saturday was nowhere on my radar since it was a team event. Plus, the load of racing three races in three days (totaling 92k) to start the season seemed a bit hefty.  But Nils was relentless – and flattering for that matter. It wasn’t until later that I learned that the team’s only uninjured girl, Laila Kvile (winner of the Marcialonga & Vasaloppet!) went home sick.  Without a girl for the team tempo prologue the team would essentially be ineligible for Saturday’s race. If they didn’t race Saturday they would start the winter at a big deficit in a season long quest to win the overall team competition. Needless to say, my restful pre-race routine was interrupted with emails & decisions. I first met Nils at 9:30 Thursday night and he needed to register me for Saturday’s race by 8am the following day – the day of the skate race.

Formerly known as Team Centric, Team Santander has won the overall Swix Ski Classics competition twice (?) Their roster is headlined by Laila (mentioned earlier) and Anders and Jorgen Auckland - legit "bad asses" in the distance skiing scene.  Also new to the team this year is Magnar Dalen, a Norwegian who was a staple on the World Cup. Most recently he served as a the head coach for the Finnish National team and he’s a great waxer. (He even has a popular kick wax simply named, “Magnar.”)  What I’m trying to say is I joined a stacked team!

Nils, me, Magnar

But back to Friday’s race first….

You can never complain when you land on the podium but I was really hoping to ski with Riita Liisa Ropenen (FIN), last year’s overall winner of the FIS Marathon cup.  However, she had a great start and before I knew it, there were 50 men in between us. A gap opened up and that was it, race over.  For these flat skating marathons it’s all about the draft and what group you’re able to settle in with. If you miss your competition or the draft, it’s virtually impossible to ski up valley into the wind by yourself. So, I settled in with the group of guys around me and did my best to conserve energy and have the best race I could. I skied the entire second lap with two guys and was nervous to look over my shoulder to see a group of 15 or so gaining on us.  There were more girls in that group and while I got to the finish virtually uncontested for second place, the larger group would have “sucked us up” had it been much longer. For my efforts I earned 80 FIS Marathon Cup points, 20# of cheese, and some cash. It was a great!

 The La Sgambeda skate podium. Photo, Salomon/Nordic Focus

When in Italy, win wine at ski races! 

Photos: Salomon/Nordic Focus

It should be said....the organization of the Sgambeda was fabulous – parking was easy, the start and finish are in the same place so logistics are much easier than point to point races. There is a great pasta feed and free massages at the end for all competitors.  Friday was picture perfect and the sun, Livigno’s trademark and brand, made for some gorgeous pictures and a wonderful time.

One thing that I found surprising is that in all my interactions with other people and racers I didn’t meet one North American. Not ONE! I truly hope that next year more North Americans will consider making this trip because the race is truly fantastic!  Part of my job as an “ambassador” for the American Birkebeiner is to share my experiences and spread knowledge and information about other races around the world.  I hope to inspire North Americans to make the trip overseas and likewise, to recruit Europeans and others to come to the Midwest for the American Birkie!

Come for the racing, come for the food.... a typical multi course Italian meal.... 

Next on the docket was Saturday’s race, the team tempo.  Girls started first with a mass start race and the men followed, racing in teams departing in three-minute intervals. This was the first time that this format was used and the concept is modeled off of bike racing.  From the start I told Nils Marius that I’m not a great double poler but he explained that my job was to simply “not loose to much time” to the other our rival teams and keep us in the game. All but one of the girls in the lead pack were completely fresh for the race and some of two of the six went without kick wax at all!  True to girls' style racing the pace was quick from the start and I spent the majority of the 15k race in the back of a pack of six girls. 

Andreas, Me, Anders

 The guys racing their part of the team tempo. Photo: SSC

 Nils was happy to have me join their team :) Photo: SSC

The Swix Ski Classics are a pretty big deal in Scandinavia and thus, I did LIVE interviews for Norwegian TV both before and after the race. We had a snow machine with a camera on us the entire time and a helicopter followed us for 15k! This doesn’t even happen on the World Cup so it was quite a novel experience!

 I got destroyed in the final sprint but I only lost 12 seconds to the winner & our main rivals. I was relieved that I didn’t completely blow it for the Team I was so heavily recruited too! After the race I returned to the hotel to take a shower and accidentally missed the podium because I didn’t know what was going on and had no phone to contact anyone. There went my chance to stand on this awesome podium with these guys, darn!

Whoops! Missed this awards ceremony but fun to know I was a part of this podium! Photo: SSC

On Sunday I stood at the start line and engaged in some serious positive self-talk. My energy felt okay but my back and arms were pretty worked from the day before. Again, there were girls in the field who hadn’t raced at all that weekend, let alone two days prior. I hung on for about 10k before I just got too tired. I skied the middle part of the race by myself that included some big hills that I didn’t have the time or energy to preview at all.  Towards the top of the valley I felt Iike I was skiing at Glen Alps as the headwind was killer, the tracks were blown in, and I felt like I was on Mars. At the high point we turned around and raced mostly downhill towards the finish.  This time I won the sprint and met my goal of a top ten finish.  The men started their race 30 minutes after the ladies and I had just enough time to change and eat something to watch Team Santander skier Anders Auckland (42 years old!) WIN the men’s race in a field that was stacked with World Cup classic specialists!  Also, Andreas Nygaard won the green bib by winning the sprint at 4k. Everyone on the team was on the podium!

Leg swings before the start - this time, wearing Team Santander race suit, representing Salomon. Photo: SSC

Start of girl's 35k event. Photo: SSC
 Post race handshakes with new friends :) Photo: SSC

 Andreas, me, Anders - the guys with their leader bibs! 
Andreas after his sprint win!

The rest of the day was a blur with more pasta, awards & watching USST teammates race the Davos sprint on TV. Then Max and I somehow jammed all our stuff into his tiny car and drove to Davos and Markus’s for the night.  Markus was hosting the Nordic Sport Team’s Christmas party so we got to crash that – in return everyone went home with a huge hunk of Livigno cheese :)  The next day Max drove me to Zurich and to Chelsea Little’s apartment (of Fasterskier/in Zurich working towards a PhD in Ecology) were I spent the night and left all of my stuff!  I’ll use her flat as a "gear locker" to avoid as many baggage fees as possible (sometimes as steep as the plane ticket itself!)

Will it fit?!?!

Nordic Sport Christmas Party spread! 

I know I’ve drug on way, way too long with this post but there was so much to say about my shortest ski racing trip to Europe ever!  Each day and experience was new, fun, and exciting and this is just the change of pace I was seeking when I made my initial ski marathon goal!! In just 12 days I made a ton of new friends, learned a lot from the locals, landed on a podium, and scored valuable points for both the FIS Marathon Cup and the Swix Ski Classics

I won the combined Sgambeda award - for combined results of the 42k skate & 35k classic! 

My new polish friend Michon (who has done every single World Loppet race & the Hotel Amerikan lobby dog :) 

 Finally got to meet Antonella Confrontola - a legendary Italian ski racer and mountain runner! 

Working with Bertrand on skis. A huge thanks to Salomon for terrific skis and race support - Bertrand probably gave me 10 feeds during the 42k which makes all the difference! Photo: Salomon/Nordic Focus

As I write this I’m currently in the air flying from Austin, Texas to Seattle, then to Alaska. Before that it was 4am wake up in Zurich, the tram to the airport, a flight to London Heathrow, then a 10.5 hour flight to Austin. I’m jealous of my competitors who live just a hop, skip, and a jump from this awesome race scene. While many of them are driving home it takes me 35 hours door-to-door, serious jet lag and sausage-like lower legs despite my compression socks. But, I’m not complaining! 

If you’ve gotten this far in the post, congratulations, you have more patience than I do!  I’ll do my best to keep future posts more brief or at least more frequent. In the meantime, happy holidays! I’m headed home to double pole on my Concept 2 skierg (70k double pole at the Marcialonga Jan 25th) and see if there is any snow left in Alaska.

If you want to learn more about the FIS Marathon Cup check out their website HERE.
Or, you can find the Swix Ski Classics team HERE including broadcasts of the two classic races!  (For future reference they have LIVE feeds and ENGLISH commentary!) You can also watch both races in their entirety on the site if you're looking to kill time :) 
That’s enough from me!

Be well and cherish each and everyday. 

 Race weekend dedicated to Lars Spurkland 

Photo: SSC

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Skiing in circles, milking cows & getting ready to RACE!

I've been in Switzerland for four days and when I arrived in Davos, I felt as if I never left.  I've spent a lot of time here over the past couple of years and if I ever had a "home" in Europe, this would be it.  However, it's fun to experience Davos in a different way this year.  It's fun that my first marathon coincides with the World Cup here.  Consequently, I get to see many of International friends right before kicking off my new marathon season. It makes for a great, gradual introduction into my new world. 

Per usual, I love taking pictures so here are just a few from the last four days to tell the story...... 
Thanks for checking in! 

First things first - I had a RIDE waiting for me when I arrived in Zurich. A ride, from a stranger nonetheless is an amazing thing when you're traveling with a duffel, a backpack, 17 pairs of skis, 4 pairs of poles and three pairs of boots. Thank you SO MUCH Kat! 

 My first day in Europe I didn't waste anytime. I learned that Kat and another friend, Bettina were taking a day trip 1.5 hours & a mountain pass away to Livigno (site of the La Sgambeda) and I wanted to check it out.  To get there you drive over Fluela Pass which has crazy switchbacks up and down both sides and then through this expensive tunnel: 

Let's just say nothing is cheap in Switzerland! 


Meet Markus or "Speedy" as everyone here calls him.  Markus has been a friend of the US team for a long while. He works at Hofmanner Sports here in Davos and is one of the friendliest, caring people imaginable. He's hosting me here in Davos and his hospitality has been four star. 

In addition to performance goals this year one of my other goals revolves around getting to know local people and getting a taste of local culture.  

Markus gave me the perfect opportunity to do just that when two nights ago he was Santa Claus and I was Schmutzli. Schmutzli is Santa's dark side but also his side kick. Markus has arranged to be Santa for some of his friend's kids and I was to accompany. Every December 6th, all throughout Switzerland kids are greeted by Santa and Schmutzli. It's the traditional, "what did you do well, and what can you improve on" theme... however the kids each have poems and in return, they get bags of chocolate, nuts and oranges from my burlap sack. It was a real show - we met the families in the woods by candle light. The entire thing was in German so Markus started off by saying that Schmutzli was sick and needed Ricola (another Swiss reference). Eventhough I didn't understand what was said it was a really fun experience. Plus, the kids never discovered that 1) I didn't speak German and 2) that I was a girl! 

Schmutzli in a Swiss commercial - drinking Rivella (a Swiss only soda) of course! 

It's been really fun getting to know Markus and his family. Yesterday we had his mom AnnaBelle over for dinner. She's a lovely person!  (Today was also "Anna" day, a holiday for everyone named Anna in Sweden.)  AnnaBelle is Swedish so today was her special day. 

Now back to skiing and the snow situation. Davos, like much of central Europe is having one of the driest early winters on record.  You can see how thin the snow is in this picture.  You can also see the dump truck dumping snow directly in front of the Pisten Bully groomer to spread it across the World Cup course. The organizing committee in Davos is blowing snow at a mountain pass above (where it is cold enough) and trucking it down to cover a 5k loop for this weekend's upcoming world cup! The effort and $ going into this project is incredible. I feel very lucky that just over the mountains in Livigno, site of my marathon, there is enough snow to hold the races on a larger, 35k loop. 

Today it was finally cold enough to blow snow at the race site. 

 I had a great interval session on the 1.5k man-made course that has been set here since early October.  Many other World Cup skiers were skiing around the same loop and it was jam packed. Luckily I was able to get a good session in and see some wonderful friends. 
 Left to right: Me, my Swiss friend Bettina who retired this spring and is now in medical school, and Celine, a Norwegian who trained with us in Alaska this summer. Celine was 2nd in the Lillehammer sprint just last weekend! 

Training has been great. I don't feel overly jet-lagged and I'm being careful with the pacing at altitude.  And... the culture has been great as well.  In addition to Schmutzli, what's more Swiss than Dairy Cows? Bettina, who I met for the Livigno ski day lives on a Dairy Farm. When I found this out I asked if I might stop by....... and I may have asked if I could milk a cow too :) 

I have to say, I was extremely impressed with the whole operation & it's really cool to see where food comes from.  She was surprised to learn that "raw" or unpasteurized milk is basically illegal in the US. Here, in Switzerland it's fairly normal. Bettina's family has 26 cows and they get milked twice a day, everyday. It was super fun to learn about the process. 

 Getting PSYCHED! 

 Here is Bettina feeding a cow that's only 4 days old.  This cow was BORN the day I arrived in Switzerland. I got to feed it too!  It's amazing how much you had to hold it down to feed it. I felt like I was on a bit of a bucking bronco! 

A Bettina sandwhich - Bettina, me, Bettina! 

Last but not least, a picture that was taken of me skiing at home the day I took off.  A special thanks to BP - my new headgear sponsor! (photo credit, Rob!) 

Batteries at 4% and it's time to get to bed! 
Cheers - more soon, 
Holly :)