When a marathon isn’t long enough — winning my first ultramarathon

The thunderstorm had just passed overhead, the hail and rain had stopped, the mist was blowing over the razorback ridge called the Crosscut Saw, and I was just starting to get glimpses into the Terrible Hollow, over to the Devil’s Staircase, and forward to Mt Buggery and Mt Speculation. A strange thought came into my head. ‘Time to write another blog post’, as I concentrated on not rolling my ankle on a loose rock, in high alpine wilderness. After 2.5 years, my final trip to Europe for ski racing, my retirement from elite skiing, winning the World Rogaining Championships (youth division) and many other adventures, the blog is back!

Reason for this post is a 50 mile (81km) ultramarathon on November 17th, which I decided to enter just over two weeks before the race, after someone on the Victorian Ultra Runners Facebook group offered to transfer his entry. The race is the Great Southern Endurance Run, an event which has a 181km run with over 10 000 metres of vertical climb as its main event, making it the fifth-hardest ‘miler’ (100+ mile run) in the world. I was in the sprint/short/kids’ event, at a mere 81km and 4200m vertical.

Long live MS Paint!

https://www.strava.com/activities/1278849852/embed/7d77919928c484166c7b0d6c8158b7e41c0f64af

The day before

We drove up through about 3 hours of pouring rain, to a foggy, windy, and rainy Mt Buller. The overwhelming mood on the mountain was ‘thank god we’re not running today’, but the forecast for the following day wasn’t great – a few thunderstorms and below 10°C.

One of the shocks for me in taking up this sport is the requirement to carry mandatory gear. In cross-country skiing, you have to have skis and poles within regulation measurements (not difficult usually) then it is up to you what you wear. In rogaining, you have to prove you have a whistle and a compass, but otherwise you can choose whether to follow the recommendations for what to carry, according to weather and how long you plan to be out there.

For this race, we were required to carry approximately 20 different items! Most problematic in this race was a ‘200 weight fleece’, which basically means a heavy-but-not-too-heavy polar fleece, or a jacket made of synthetic down. After much deliberation, I forked out a substantial amount of money for the latter option, figuring I would appreciate the space and weight saving. A much cheaper purchase was a $4 high-vis vest, although this didn’t need to be worn anywhere for the 50 mile runners.

It isn’t an option not to take any of this gear — you risk getting disqualified or a time penalty.

Race start

The start was very different from that of a cross-country race — there you have the fear you are about to snap a pole or worse in a start-line collision (I have had a pole smack me in the face before), but here the nervous energy was more from dread about the difficulty of the course. Instead of my usual 45 minute warmup, I walked the 300m from my lodge to the start line at 4:40am, and when Sean called ‘go’ at 5am, 120 of us started to jog or walk, which quickly became a brisk walk for all as we went up next to the Bourke Street ski run, in the dark and in thick fog. Normally I start a race and can barely breathe from all the effort, this was a nice change of pace.

Before I knew it we were climbing the final stretch to the Mt Buller summit, avoiding the snow mounds that were still next to the track because of the terrain park jumps that had been built there in winter. Descending towards Family Run, I noticed some commotion up ahead: the leaders had taken wrong turn in the dark, and were going the wrong way! Fortunately I have skied Mt Buller on enough whiteout days to know where I’m going even when it almost completely dark, and so gained a few places on that turn.

We then dived off the edge of the ski run onto the extremely rocky 4 Mile Spur, which took us down to the Howqua Valley. Many of the other runners complained about the track being non-existent — I’ll concede it was a little faint, but I think the real problem is their eyesight! I ended up leading a group of ten runners down the mountain, and we would often pass people who had been in front but had strayed off the course. Many of these decided to join on the back of our group so they wouldn’t get lost again. Perhaps my rogaining skills were coming in handy…

By 6:40am we were down the bottom, all had wet feet from crossing the river, and were onto the Howqua River track, enjoying the sun which was just poking through the clouds. Perfect!

Loving life, 7am

Climbing

This was my favourite part of the day, and everyone else’s least favourite. I hadn’t done a heap of running before this event, but I am quite good at power-walking up hills, pushing on my thighs with my hands for extra power. The climb to the top of The Bluff took 1 hour 40 minutes, a Strava course record, and it felt good as I was able to overtake quite a few people, although many of these were would be running 100km longer than me. I got to The Bluff feeling over the moon: the wind was blowing, the air was fresh, and the view was magnificent. Little did I know that I had overtaken everyone during the last climb, and was leading the race, 26.5km in!

Having just taken the lead, Ashley Bennett just behind

Running towards Mt Eadley Stoney, 9:30am

Descending

The next 19km were mostly the part of running I’m not great at: descending. I had run the Bright 4 Peaks two weeks before and had lost 2 minutes to one guy on a section which only took me 6 minutes, so wasn’t feeling that confident. Fortunately these runs are so long that no one goes particularly hard, and I didn’t lose as much time as I had been expecting. Some guys overtook me, then overtook me again about 10km later: thanks to a tampered-with track marker, they had gone an extra kilometre by turning the wrong way down a hill, which I had managed to avoid doing by looking at the map. I was glad I wasn’t in their position: an extra kilometre on 181k is sure to hurt!

Most of the descent was on a gravel road, which allowed me to relax a little. At this point the first heavy shower of the day hit, so out came the mandatory gear (a raincoat), and I trudged on, hoping it wouldn’t be like this for the rest of the day.

Aid Stations

At the 45km mark, I arrived at the Upper Howqua aid station at 11:30 to… a crowd of cheering people lining the course, bright sunshine, campfires, the best watermelon I have ever tasted, and people everywhere doing what they could to help me out! I decided to spend ten minutes eating, getting rid of rubbish from my backpack, restocking food, and rubbing sunscreen into my dirty face — delicious! I then set off with Ashley, the guy I had briefly and unknowingly taken the lead from 20km before, up towards Mt Howitt, the second gigantic climb for the day.

Thunderstorms

I caught up to another guy, Charlie, about three quarters up the climb, just as it had started to pour with rain, and thunderclaps were getting closer. We were reluctant to climb into the alpine zone during a thunderstorm, because neither of us fancied getting struck by lightning, least of all Charlie, who had a close call the previous year in Europe.  We decided to wait for Ashley, and move slowly up together, while the hail pelted down on us.

As we approached the summit, I realised the storm had passed so picked up the pace, and for the rest of the race (28km) I was by myself. Once again it was cold and windy on Mt Howitt, and the view was obscured by the clouds rushing from one valley, over the ridge, and down into the next. About this point I got truly into ‘the zone’, and was able to push through the pain of the steep and rocky Crosscut Saw, while awestruck by the spectacular scenery.

Looking into Terrible Hollow from the last bit of snow on Crosscut Saw

Crosscut Saw, 1:50pm

Episode II: Revenge of the Mandatory Gear

Having just passed a school hiking group, I made my way through the thick scrub to the beginning of the Mt Buggery climb. Yes, it’s still called that, and the name compliments nearby Mt Despair, the Terrible Hollow, the Devil’s Staircase, and Hell’s Window. At this moment I reached to check my backpack, and to my horror my rain jacket was missing. I immediately started re-tracing my steps to find it, trying to calculate the likelihood of finding it, the cost of having to buy another one, and the time penalty of finishing without mandatory gear, against the time cost of backtracking in a race. Fortunately, I had dropped it in front of the school group, and when I asked them to look for it they found it straight away! Overall the incident had cost me five minutes, but no one else had overtaken me.

On the other side of Mt Buggery, I slipped on some mud and landed quite hard on my backpack. At this moment I heard a loud bang, and thought I must have burst my Camelbak water bladder. However, the water down my back never came, and I eventually realised I had burst my packet of Smiths crinkle-cut salt and vinegar chips. Who knew I had been running with an airbag?

As I scrambled up the small cliff faces of Mt Speculation, and looked back at the ridiculous terrain I had just moved through, and noticed I couldn’t see anyone else. It started to dawn on me that I might be leading this race, but I made a conscious choice not to think about it too much.

Still all smiles on Mt Speculation, 3pm

Final Aid Station

I arrived at the Speculation aid station, which was very different from the last: no support crews were allowed up there, so it was just four race officials. I asked them how many had been through the checkpoint from the 50 mile race, and they said none! I quickly scoffed down the once-again-excellent watermelon, and trotted off, feeling the pain in my quads but with a spring in my step, for the first time knowing I was in with a chance! I was on a 9km section of flat 4WD track, which gave me a break after all the mountains, but I knew I was slower than many others on sections like this. I could also feel my quads getting noticeably heavier by this point. It was a relief to get back onto the Mt Cobbler climb, an out-and-back before the last descent to the finish, as I knew I was faster up the climbs than the others, and I would be able to see how far behind second place was on my way down. I was also slightly anxious however: I could once again hear thunder rumbling in the distance and getting closer, and didn’t fancy having to wait for a storm to pass, and potentially losing my lead.

As it happened, it was beautiful and sunny on Mt Cobbler, and I could even see the lake next to the finish line a few kilometres away. On the way back down I saw second (Ashley) and third place (Garry), but they were well behind, and I knew that, barring any disasters, I had this in the bag.

Mt Cobbler summit

View down to Lake Cobbler

The final descent dragged on and on, and it started to rain, which made me worry about slipping over. The further down I went, the rockier it became, and by the end there were dozens of small fallen trees across the path, which I might have jumped over had my legs been fresher, but by now my quads were so dead that I sort of sat on the log and then swung my legs round to the side, not very gracefully.

I got to a creek crossing in the pouring rain, having heard cowbells and cheers in the distance: the finish crew had been told via the GPS tracker that I was nearby! I smashed my shin on a rock which moved unexpectedly while climbing up through rocks on the other side of the creek, but I knew by then I could make it even by limping to the finish.

I finally rounded the final corner, put my hands in the air, and finished in 12 hours 52 minutes 33 seconds, 18 minutes in front of second place.

Although it hadn’t felt quite as hard as some other events I have done (like almost any 24 hour rogaine), I still felt a wave of relief wash over me. Speaking of washing, I had been thinking about having a dip in Lake Cobbler at the end for much of the race. Unfortunately it was pouring with rain when I finished, so I wore my raincoat to the lake shore (to avoid getting wet!?) and had a towel in a plastic bag to keep it dry while I scrubbed the dirt of me as best I could.

A few minutes later, after the shower had passed

Aftermath

We had a presentation with an audience of about five, including the guy who came fourth, and the fantastic people crewing the finish area in the sporadically pouring rain. I then managed to get a lift back to Mt Buller with the third-placed getter Garry’s family, which was a huge relief as otherwise I would have been waiting until 1am for the official bus!

The next day I attempted to walk around Buller Village, where I needed my hand held on the downhills because my quads were cramping so much. This occasional cramping continued for almost a week, and only 10 days later was I able to stand up without using my arms to push myself up! I think next time some more training in the lead-up might solve this problem…

I’m not sure what my next race will be, but in January I will be helping Jackson and Cassie on their epic run from North Queensland to Melbourne! Check out their social media on the web, on FacebookInstagram and Twitter (click hyperlinks).s

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Neverest, the hardest day of my life

I’ve done plenty of hard things in my athletic career, from 12 hour skis, to 60km races, to 700km of bike riding in 4 days, to extremely painful interval sessions that make me want to vomit. None of those come close to this. I’ve been tired before, but nothing like this. I’ve collapsed to the ground at the end of something before, but nothing was as satisfying as this. Most importantly, this one I’ve done for a good cause, not just for myself, although as you may guess there is a certain amount of personal satisfaction that comes from this…

The Reason

Neverest is an on-foot version of the cycling challenge ‘Everesting’, or climbing 9000 vertical metres in a day, by doing laps of a hill. Founded by Jackson Bursill last year to raise money for earthquake relief in Nepal, this was its second year, and it was held on Mt Ainslie in Canberra, and the Lyrebird Track in the Dandenong Ranges, near Melbourne. Once again funds raised are going to the Australian Himalayan Foundation to provide school scholarships to girls, disabled and ‘untouchable’ kids, i.e. those that otherwise wouldn’t get an education. These scholarships cost only $200 a year so money raised goes a long way. The program also has trained over 1000 teachers over the last 15 years, who can then go out and train other teachers, which improves the education of thousands of kids. Last year, after an initial target of $10000 was smashed ($41000 was raised) it was looking like a huge challenge to match it again this year, particularly because Nepal has receded from everyone’s consciousness, but has no less need of support now.

I’m thrilled to announce that at the time of writing, the campaign is at $39420, a whisker short of the $40000 goal for this year. Check out projectneverest.causevox.com/nick-montgomery to donate specifically to my page, or projectneverest.com. Cash donations in the next few days will still be doubled by Westpac, so if you can find me I’d love to take cash off you!

The Event

Cassie and I were running the Melbourne leg of the event, which consisted of 34 laps of the Lyrebird Track, which many may know as the one they walk down after walking up the 1000 Steps. Thanks to our local sponsors:

  • The Bread Street bakery in Mont Albert, for the bread and other baked goodies
  • The Wursthütte butcher in Glenferrie Road Malvern, for the delicious sausages that pulled us out of our hungriest moments
  • Toscano’s in Hawksburn, for the bananas and oranges
  • Melbourne University Athletics Club and
  • Strathcona Girls Grammar School, for the tent, tables and other necessities.

After not sleeping more than a couple of hours due to nervousness, a hardy band of us turned up at 5am to set up the ‘base camp’ on the track, where people in relay teams would be hanging out, eating and sleeping through the extremely long day. Once 6am hit, I set off, as I had the furthest distance to walk of anyone. Others started soon after, including three teams of two who would be running a true consecutive relay, and a whole lot of others who decided to summit Mt Everest concurrently.

Fresh-faced immediately before starting

Fresh-faced immediately before starting

The Challenge

I did my first of what I thought would be 36 laps in the dark, as the sky slowly began to brighten. I set a solid pace, hoping that I’d be able to hold sub-30 minute laps, which would have me finish in 18 hours. Already there were a few others out on the track, and this trickle became a flood during the day, to the point where it became irritating, and then later in the day and into the night slowly reduced to no one. We also witnessed the full variety of people who use the tracks, from the gym junkies to the very fit to those who are still a fair way off fitness. They were wearing everything from high tech running gear to jeans and a shirt, but what stood out was the multitude of inane and ‘motivational’ slogans, which wore me down with their… uhh… Donald Trump-like level of cleverness.

At the end of each lap I would mark off my lap on our specially produced lap counter (thanks Jackson) or more likely would get someone else to do it for me, grab something to eat and a drink of water, then turn around straight away and head back up. It may have been an extremely long event but I did not want to stop if I didn’t absolutely have to, knowing that any time wasted now was time I would have to pay for in the middle of the night while still out on the trail.

To numb the repetitive nature of the task at hand, each lap I would think about how many vertical metres I’d done (265 per lap) and then think of something that height. For example,  after one lap I’d done the International Poma at Falls Creek, after three laps the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (the world’s tallest building), after 6 laps the height of Falls Creek village, 8 laps the top of Karel’s T-bar at Thredbo, and 9 laps the top of Mt Kosciuszko. I then had to start moving around the world, mentally summiting the peaks of the European and New Zealand Alps. This brought me more or less to what I thought was half way, at 18 laps, shortly before 3pm. I was on track, but suddenly keeping under half an hour per lap was becoming a daunting task. I was still power up the hills at basically the same speed, but jogging most of the way down was no longer an option, and at various times my feet, calf muscles, hamstrings and quads started to tell me it was time to go home. I was starting to doubt my ability to finish this thing: I had been moving for almost 9 hours, walked 50km, climbed the equivalent of the Eureka tower 16 times,  I had indigestion from eating on the go, and the thought of having to do the whole thing again gave me a huge fear of failure.

And then, a miracle! People started reporting that the vertical on the climb was more than we’d expected, thanks to some dodgy contours. What we’d previously estimated at 255m vertical on the map (although other maps showed 265 and 270m) was turning out to be more like 265 or 270m, which, dividing our target height of 9000m by this number, gave us only 34 laps to finish! Suddenly I was over half way, with *only* 16 laps to go, and it wouldn’t be too long before it’d be only 10. Combined with one of the donated sausages, I had a huge energy boost and recovered some of my mental spark.

It didn’t last more than about 2 laps; I was soon back to the exhausted state I’d been in before. The end was coming closer, but then I’d realise it would still take more than 7 hours more to finish, more than double what a normal ‘long’ training session is. The sun set, most of the teams had gone home, and soon it was just me, six girls doing the half distance, and a collection of parents and supporters. Our perfect cool sunny day had turned into a dark (duh!) and stormy night, with a few lightning strikes visible in the distance. The dread of not being able to finish because of exhaustion was now replaced by the dread of having to stop because of external factors. All I had to do was keep plodding, as each downhill got more and more painful.

To be honest I don’t really remember a whole lot of the last few hours, except that I decided I couldn’t bear the thought of any more sugar (which I normally don’t eat), everything hurt, and that at some point the girls all finished their relays and went home, which I completely understand because it was after midnight. Extra kudos to Xanth and Ellie who, after finishing at the top and then driving down, called in one last time to see me at bottom of the last climb.

The last four or five laps was the hardest thing mentally I’d ever done, and with accumulated vertical of 8000m, I gained some appreciation of the term ‘Death Zone’, which describes the dangerous upper reaches of Everest above 8000m elevation. Sure the air wasn’t thin, but I was approaching the 100km mark, which was already more than twice as long as I’d ever walked or run (45km in 2011 or a marathon in 2013), and about three times the vertical.

At the top of the second last lap I saw blue and red flashing lights, and thought ‘oh god the cop’s going to pull me out’. As I approached the top, where my mum was waiting for me with a drink of water, I considered turning off my headtorch so I could avoid the policeman and hide in the dark, so desperate was I not to fail to finish. It wasn’t necessary; he was just a little concerned why there was a woman going for a hike at 12:15am.

Bottom of the last lap

Bottom of the last lap

The last lap was easier than the second last: spurred on by the girls at the bottom I actually set a fairly good pace and made it up in 20 minutes, which compares to about 15 minutes on my faster laps. Rounding the last corner before the top (where I would finish) I even broke into a celebratory run, although in reality it probably wasn’t much faster than a normal walking pace. I finished, but instead of crying out in celebration I just lay down on my front on the cold gravel, and stayed there. I was too exhausted to do anything. At 12:46am, after 18:46 minutes of which 17:42 actually moving, over 9000 metres vertical, 34 laps and 103km, it was over.

Sweet, sweet gravel

Sweet, sweet gravel

The Aftermath

I was pretty much useless for the next two days, rarely leaving the couch and sleeping at random intervals. My form of mobility was shuffling rather than walking, every single muscle in my body hurt, and I just felt a deep exhaustion. I had pushed my body very much to the limit in a way I’d never done before. It took me a full four days before I could even contemplate exercise again, and a couple of days of hobbling around uni and trying not to fall asleep in class.

I still can’t quite fathom just how long it was, or just how much climbing I did. Even half the distance is a huge amount even by my standard (congrats Melbourne girls who did it), so it’s almost like I have to pinch myself to realise I’ve done it. Kudos to Jackson Bursill (who completed it for a second time), Chris Wilder, and Thomas Banks (the latter of whom finished his 53rd lap of Mt Ainslie at 8am the next morning)! Also there were two who Everested on bikes at Mt Ainslie: William Barker and Sebastian Wende, plus Mark Pollock fell agonisingly short doing it on foot.

The lap counter the day after

The lap counter the day after

Thanks to everyone who donated to my page or to Neverest in general; I was blown away by your generosity, although I won’t name you here! Also a huge thanks to everyone who volunteered on the day, particularly my parents, and even more particularly my dad, who was there from 5am until 1am the next day, and then cooked me scrambled eggs at 2:15am before I crawled into bed!

It’s still not too late to donate, the link is projectneverest.causevox.com/nick-montgomery and the Facebook page is fb.me/projectneverest. To view the files check out https://www.strava.com/activities/561080339 or https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1152925350.

Namaste!

Wieder Dahoam – und ein großes Dankeschön

*English Translation Below*

Danke an…

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Dieser Post ist das erste auf Deutsch in diesem Blog, aber zum Ende meines Aufenthalts in Deutschland muss ich etwas für die Leute in Deutschland schreiben. Mehr als 14 Monate nach meiner Ankunft in Deutschland bin ich wieder in Australien, um ein neues Studium zu beginnen, und ein Kapitel in meinem Leben ist jetzt fertig. In dieser Zeit habe ich sehr viel gelernt, viel hartes Training absolviert, und viele nette und hilfreiche Menschen kennengelernt.

Das erste Dankeschön geht an meinen Mitbewohner, Martin. Er hat mir an vielen Stellen geholfen, zum Beispiel beim Einzug in die Wohnung ganz am Anfang, oder wenn ich ein Auto suchte, und musste zu jedem Händler gefahren werden. Wir haben oft zusammen gekocht und gegessen, sind mehrmals zusammen geradelt, und haben sogar Langlauf gemacht (er macht es ganz gut!).

Danke an meine Vermieterin Andrea: für die regelmäßigen Brotlieferungen aus dem Holzofen, für die Gläser Prosecco die wir getrunken haben, für die Sylvester Party vor einem Monat, und für die guten Konversationen. Die anderen im Gebäude dürfen nicht vergessen werden: Brigitte, Klaus und Wolfgang haben alle das Leben in der Wohnung verbessert.

An meine zwei Trainer: Michi für die Saison 2014-15 und Markus für diese Saison. Ich weiß, dass es ungewöhnlich ist, einen Australier in seiner Gruppe aufzunehmen, insbesondere wenn er in der Nacht vor dem Trainingsbeginn einen SMS schickt, um zu fragen ob er mitmachen darf. Danke, dass ihr mich jeden Tag geduldet und geholfen haben. Danke auch an die Mitglieder der Trainingsgruppe, besonders Laura, Luci, Sofie und Pia, von denen ich sehr viel über Langlauftraining gelernt habe. Ihr habt alle die Schwierigkeiten der langen, regnerischen Einheiten vermindert.

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Auch an die Leute im Skiinternat: meine Arbeit als Nachhilfelehrer war eine Herausforderung, aber hat auch Spaß gemacht. Elisabeth und das ganze Team da waren alle sehr Hilfreich, und ich hoffe, dass die Schüler und Schülerinnen etwas von mir gelernt haben! Jetzt kenne ich mich viel besser mit den Unterschieden zwischen ‚simple present‘ und ‚present progressive‘ aus… ich wusste nicht, dass English so schwierig ist!

Danke auch an Stefan, Renate und Alaia: ich habe mich auf meine Besuche dort immer gefreut, und es war sehr nett, dass ich zwischen dem Allgau und den Sudalpen einen Ort hatte, wo ich mich wohlfühlen konnte.

Ich kann natürlich nicht alle hier nennen, also ich sage einfach: danke für die guten Zeiten. Wahrscheinlich werde ich in den nächsten Jahren für keine lange Zeit im Allgäu wohnen, aber ich werde immer zurückkehren, entweder zum Urlaub oder fürs Training. Es ist wirklich eine der schönsten Regionen Europas, und trotz dieses schwierigen (und komischen) Dialektes, des manchmal fehlenden Schnees und des Regens.

Lucky enough to call this home, and to have this view to wake up to!

Rennbericht

An meinem letztem Tag habe ich auch ein Rennen gemacht, nämlich das längste Langlaufrennen meines Lebens, das ‘Ski-Trail’ 60km Skating im benachbarten Tannheimer Tal. Das wäre normalerweise kein Problem, aber diesmal musste ich am gleichen Tag 35 Stunden Reisezeit beginnen, und die Bedingungen waren sehr langsam und schwierig. Ich hatte für das Rennen Regen erwartet, aber am Start war schon 10cm Neuschnee, auch auf der Straße, was die Anreise mit Jessis Auto schwierig gemacht hat. Danke Jessi für das Auto!

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Dieser Neuschnee kam nach ziemlich viel Regen, deshalb war die Fläche teilweise grau, nass und langsam wegen des Wassers, teilweise war sie trocken genug unten und der Schnee da war nur tief und langsam. Aus diesem Grund war auch die Bestzeit mehr als 3 Stunden.

Ein Schneemobil fuhr gleich vor den führenden Läufern, um den Neuschnee zu walzen; leider war die Spur nicht breit, und 200m nach dem Start ist einer auf mein Stock getreten – weil wir alle auf der Schnellen spur laufen wollten – was den Stock natürlich gebrochen hat. Als wir kurz danach wieder durch das Start/Zielgelände gelaufen sind, habe ich ‚Stock! Stock!‘ geschrien, aber niemand hat mir einen gegeben. Dann hat ein anderer Läufer mir gesagt, dass ich umdrehen soll, um eine kürzere Distanz zu machen, aber das wollte ich gar nicht hören, und sowas zu einem anderen Teilnehmer zu sagen finde ich schlecht. 300m danach hat eine Frau mir einen gegeben, aber die Handschlaufe machte es schwierig, den Stock im Griff zu halten. Ich wollte meinen neuen Stock nicht brechen, sonst hätte ich entweder den, der mein Stock gebrochen hat, oder den, der sagte, dass ich umdrehen sollte, geschlagen.

Nach 5km war ich wieder bei den Führenden, und nach 10km habe ich die Führung übernommen, weil ich den Tempo am langen anstieg Richtung Oberjoch kontrollieren wollte, und ich versuchte es, die Gruppe zu verkleinern, mit ein bisschen Erfolg. Das bedeutete auch, dass ich mehr Gegenwind bekommen habe, also vielleicht war diese Entscheidung nicht optimal. Nach 33.5km sind wir wieder durch das Stadion gelaufen, und in dem Moment habe ich bemerkt, dass die anderen 4 in der Gruppe jetzt schneller waren, und dass mein Ski nicht mehr gut ging.

Die nächsten 26km zählte zu den härtesten Kilometern meines Lebens: ich hatte Hunger, nachdem ich mein Gel nicht öffnen konnte (ich hasse Powerbar Gel, aber konnte nur diese Marke in den Geschäften finden), und ich habe dann fast 9 Minuten gegenüber den Siegern verloren. Auch einer, der Weit hinter mir war, hat mich überholt, und dann kurz vor dem Ziel war ein anderer plötzlich gleich hinter mir: glücklicherweise hat mein Sprint ganz am Ende gereicht. Fazit: 6er Platz, aber schade, dass ich mit den ersten 4 nicht mitlaufen konnte.

Der Start am Tag davor

Der Start am Tag davor

Die Rennstrecke, auch am Tag davor

Die Rennstrecke, auch am Tag davor

Vorbeifliegende Gedanken

Einige Kleinigkeiten, die ich gelernt oder gedacht habe, in den letzten Wochen.

  • Die Öffnungszeiten der Supermärkte haben mich bis zum Ende genervt. Bei uns in Australien kann man auch um 22 Uhr einkaufen gehen, oder am Sonntag. Sehr gut wenn man das ganze Wochenende weg ist, und kein Frühstück für Montag kaufen kann.
  • Auf der anderen Seite: es staunt mich, dass die Post am Samstag geliefert wird. So nützlich ist es für mich nicht, aber trotzdem…
  • Die Müllentsorgung ist viel zu kompliziert, aber jetzt kann ich sie mit Selbstbewusstsein machen.
  • Deutschland hat auch zu viel Bürokratie und zu viele Regeln. Ich hatte Angst, dass jemand mich verklagen würde, weil ich etwas Falsches gemacht habe.
  • Anderseits ist es wunderschön, dass es in Bayern so wenige Blitzer gibt, und dass das Bußgeld so niedrig ist. Auf den Straßen kann man sich entspannen und nicht immer auf das Tacho schauen, obwohl ich in Deutschland niemals geblitzt wurde.
  • Die ethnische Vielfalt mit der deutschen Küche fehlt ein bisschen, aber es ist toll, wie viele Arten Gurken, Wurst und Milchprodukte (insb. Quark) in den Supermärkten sind. Schade, dass Wurst jetzt Krebserregend ist…
  • Kässpatzen und Maultaschen will ich weiter in Australien kochen… sau lecker! Und der Bergkäse im Allgäu ist auch nicht schlecht!
  • Ich beichte, dass ich an einem Wochentag meine Reise mit einem Bayern-Ticket um 8.44 Uhr begonnen habe.
  • Jetzt verstehe ich, warum Englisch schwierig ist: diese verdammte Zeitformen!
  • Trotz der wechselnden Stimmung in Deutschland, ist es noch bewundernswert, wie viel man da für Flüchtlinge macht. Der Horst (Seehofer) fordert eine Obergrenze von 200 000, was für fast jedes anderes Land noch sehr viel ist. In Australien haben wir einmal nur 12 000 zusätzliche Syrer genommen, und wir haben uns gesagt, dass wir so großzügig sind.

Naja, jetzt ist Schluss. Das Allgäu und die Allgäuer werden mir immer am Herzen liegen, und es wird bestimmt nicht mein letztes Mal in Deutschland sein, also, mach’s gut und Pfiat euch!

Vilsalpsee

Vilsalpsee, Tannheimer Tal

*Translation*

Thankyou to…

This was the first post in German for this blog, but for the end of my stay in Germany I thought I ought to write something for people in Germany. Over 14 months after my arrival in Germany, I’m back in Australia to start a new university course, and a chapter of my life has now finished. During this time I’ve learnt a lot, done much hard training, and met many lovely and helpful people.

The first thanks go to my housemate,, Martin. He helped me at many stages, for example with moving into our apartment at the beginning, or when I was buying my car at the start and had to be driven to each dealership. We often cooked, ate, sometimes cycled, and even did cross-country skiing together (he’s quite good at it!).

Thanks to my landlady (I really hate that word so let’s use Vermieterin) Andrea: for the regular deliveries of home-made bread from the wood oven, for the glasses of Prosecco, for inviting me to your New Year’s party, and for the great banter. The others in the building mustn’t be forgotten: Brigitte, Klaus and Wolfgang have all improved life there.

To my two coaches: Michi for the 2014-15 season and Markus for this season. I know it’s unusual to take on a random Australian in your group, particularly when he asks to join by text message the night before the season starts, but thanks for tolerating and helping me every day. Thanks also to the other athletes in the training group, particularly those for the most recent season: Laura, Luci, Sofie and Pia, from whom I’ve also learnt a lot about training. You all helped to lower the difficulties of long, rainy training sessions.

To the people at the Skiinternat (ski boarding school): my work as a tutor was a challenge but was also a lot of fun, Elisabeth and the whole team there were all very helpful, and I hope that the students learnt something from me! Now I am much more familiar with the differences between ‘simple present’ and ‘present progressive’… I didn’t know English was so difficult!

Thanks also to Stefan, Renate and Alaia, in Austria: I always looked forward to my visits at your place, and it was lovely to have a place between the Allgäu and the Southern Alps where I could stop and visit.

I of course can’t name everyone here, so I will simply say thanks for the good times. I probably won’t be living in the Allgäu again in the next few years, but I will always come back, either for holiday or training. It is truly one of the most beautiful regions in Europe, despite the funny and difficult-to-understand dialect, the sometimes lacking snow, and the rain. So much rain…

Race Report

On my last day I did a race, namely the longest cross-country race of my life: the 60km of skating in the nearby Tannheimer Tal, known as ‘Ski-Trail’. It normally wouldn’t be a problem, but this time I had to begin a 35 hour journey on the same day, and the conditions were very difficult and slow. I had expected rain for the race, but at the start there was already 10cm of fresh snow, including on the road, which made the journey there with Jessi’s car difficult, since I had already sold mine. Thanks anyway for the car Jessi, it was a lifesaver!

The new snow came after a lot of rain, so the track was sometimes grey, wet, slow and deep because of the water soaking through; sometimes it was dry enough underneath and the snow was only deep and slow. Because of this even the winning time was more than 3 hours.

A snowmobile drove just in front of the leading racers, to groom the new snow; unfortunately the track wasn’t wide, and 200m after the start someone stepped on my pole, which of course broke it, because we all wanted to go in the faster track. As we came back through the start/finish area shortly after the start, I cried out ‘pole! pole!’ but no one gave me one. Another racer then said to me that I should turn around and do a shorter distance race, but I didn’t want to hear that, and anyway saying something like that to another competitor is pretty bad I think. 300m later a woman gave me one of hers (returned at the end of the race of course), but the pole strap made it difficult to hold onto the pole. Not wanting to break my new pole, I resisted the temptation to whack either the guy who broke my pole or the guy who told me to turn around.

After 5km I was back on the leading group, and after 10km I took the lead, because I wanted to control the pace on the long climb up to Oberjoch, and I also tried to make the leading group a bit smaller, with some success. This also meant that I got more headwind, so perhaps this decision wasn’t the best one. After 33.5km we went back through the start/finish again, and at that time I noticed that the other four in the group were faster, and that my skis weren’t running well anymore.

The next 26km were some of the hardest of my life: I was hungry, after not being able to open my gel (I hate Powerbar gel, but I could only find that brand in shops), and I then lost almost 9 minutes compared to the winners. Even one guy who was a long way behind me managed to overtake, and then shortly before the finish someone else was suddenly just behind me: fortunately my sprint at the end was enough to hold him off. In conclusion: 6th place, but it’s a shame that I couldn’t keep up with the first four.

Passing Thoughts

Here are a few small things that I’ve learnt or thought in the past weeks.

  • The opening hours of supermarkets annoyed me even at the end. In Australia you can also go shopping at 10pm, or on Sunday. It’s great when you’ve been away the whole weekend, and need to buy breakfast for Monday.
  • On the other hand, it amazes me that mail is delivered on a Saturday. It’s not that useful for me, but still…
  • Waste disposal is way too complicated, but at least now I can do it with confidence
  • Germany also has too much bureaucracy and too many rules. I was worried that someone would sue me for doing something wrong.
  • On the hand, it’s great, that there are so few speed cameras in Bavaria, and that the speeding fines are so low (about $50 for 20km/h over the limit). On the roads you can relax and not look at the speedo all the time, although I didn’t actually get any fines in Germany.
  • The ethnic diversity in German food is somewhat lacking, but it is great how many types of pickled cucumber, processed meat, and dairy products (particularly Quark/rennet cheese) there are in supermarkets. Just a shame that processed meat causes cancer.
  • Kässpatzen (cheesy egg pasta with fried onion) and Maultaschen (German pork ravioli) are things I want to cook again in Australia… so good! And the Allgäu hard cheeses are also not bad!
  • I confess that on a weekday I once began my train journey with a Bayern Ticket at 8:44am (they are valid from 9am)
  • Now I understand why English is so difficult: those bloody tenses!
  • Despite the changing mood in Germany, it is still admirable how much is done for asylum seekers. Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer is demanding an upper limit of 200 000 per year, which for almost any other country is still a lot, but gets criticism for stinginess in Germany. In Australia we have decided to take on 12000 additional Syrians as a once-off, and we praised ourselves for our generosity.

Anyway, now it’s over. It certainly won’t be my last time in Germany, so, have a nice time and see ya!

A somewhat cold selfie on my second-last day in Europe

A somewhat cold selfie on my second-last day in Europe

Crashing into walls at the Dolomitenlauf

As my European season draws to an early close, I once again headed off to a race weekend, this time to Lienz in Austria, to race the 42km Dolomitenlauf and the 700m Dolomitensprint. Both of them involved impact with barriers on the side of the course…

The Dolomitenlauf is a founding member the Worldloppet series, the same one that the Kangaroo Hoppet belongs to, and was first held in 1971. The original course is a 60km loop in the valley below the town of Lienz (650m elevation), the biggest city in Osttirol, but for most of the past decade it has been held in nearby Obertilliach (1400m elevation) as a pretty clear consequence of a changing climate. Just like in the Jizerská 50 two weeks previously, I was the Kangaroo Hoppet representative in the Worldloppet delegation, which entails exceptionally good treatment and getting to meet interesting people from around the world.

The First Wall Collision

The crowds are cheering, I’ve selected my starting lane, the start barrier is up, and the countdown is on. The barrier drops flat just as a large cannon fires, and we’re off. It only takes a couple of double pole strokes before we’re flying along the very slick front straight in the Lienz Town Square. My skis are rockets but it’s also extremely icy meaning a few missed pushes. I slip into third place, we charge up a short but very steep ramp, cross over a bridge, then take a very step left hand drop which takes us into a berm and under the bridge we just crossed. There is one more corner before a 1m drop onto a very hard and flat landing, followed shortly after by a sharp and icy U-turn. I’m still in third place and the race is only 40 seconds in, but we’re half way already. The next lap I take the steep left turn a bit more aggressively and slide right out to the edge of the berm, giving the padded barrier a bit of a punch and a nudge along the way, to cheers from the crowd. I hold onto third place into the finish, but don’t get through to the next round. I breathe a sigh of relief that my carbon-fibre poles have survived.

View from the start ramp

View from the start ramp

Welcome to the Dolomitensprint, a 700m long race around the beautiful Lienz Town Square, known as the oldest sprint race in the world, and also one of the most famous. The course of trucked-in snow and man-made features draws over 1000 spectators to watch skiers slip and slide their way to glory, and €2500. I had nervously accepted my invitation, not expecting anything from the results but still feeling under pressure from the technical course. Thankfully years of racing Alan Eason’s courses at the Lake Mountain SprintX had prepared me for the drops and berms, and I got out of there without disgracing myself.

The bridge and the exit of the steep left turn

The bridge and the exit of the steep left turn

The final was probably the most interesting race of the lot: favourite Andy Newell (USA) broke both his poles and fell on his face going down the starting ramp, while leader and local favourite Tobias Habenicht managed to fall on the last jump of the night, despite having gone over it 7 times during that night’s races already.

I went back to my hotel, conveniently situated 2m (yes, not a typo!) from the edge of the race course, then joined the effervescent and multilingual (German, Italian, English, Spanish, French) Astrid Trojer-Pirker, and the rest of the Worldloppet delegation, for a lovely meal in a converted brewery.

The Second Wall Collision

Let’s fast forward to Sunday and the 42nd edition of the Dolomitenlauf. Once again I lined up nervously on the start line, mainly because I had been given bib number 5 and thus was in the second row. The main problem with this is that I have very low sprint capabilities and a slow start, which means others had to go around me, even those I would eventually catch up. To prove my statement, have a look at these two screenshots from Austrian National TV:

dolomitenlauf screenshot

dolomitenlauf screenshot.2

I of course lost a few places after the start, but settled into a reasonably comfortable spot in the field as we made our way up the valley on a fairly narrow trail. The Southern Alps have had almost no fresh snow this year and the course was four laps of a man-made and sometimes narrow track. The first lap was skied mostly in level 3 (threshold) while the front of the pack waited for someone to take the lead, and those of us in behind had to double pole and shout at each other to prevent falling off the edge of the course, snapping poles, or stepping on skis. This also meant that we had to stop at the bottom of hills while the ‘concertina effect’ did its thing, then sprint off the top of the hill to try to catch the pack again. On the second lap I could see the main pack just ahead and ended up having to ski with those only doing the 21km, who turned off (almost taking me the wrong way with them) to go to the finish, leaving me unable to see any of my competitors and stranded by myself.

By the third lap my race was looking really good: I had had a drink and a gel on the downhill and was preparing myself for the main hill of the lap. I could see two of the guys behind me had almost caught up, so decided to take a fairly icy corner into a bridge with a bit of a more aggressive line. Unfortunately this did not pay off: I got shot out to the edge of the course, where I managed to clip my ski on a fence post. This spun me around 90 degrees, I hopped and tried to jump out of the way, but to no avail: I slammed into the wooden fence at probably 25km/h. The others went past me as I tried to get over the shock; I thought I must have broken a ski, a pole, a rib, or any combination of the three. Miraculously it was only my pole strap that had broken, so I continued on and tried to find another pole because this one was difficult to hold onto. With no pole apparently available, I skied the next downhill about 15 seconds slower than the previous lack (according to my GPS), and worked on fixing my pole strap on the go. I managed to strap it up in a fashion, but had to fix it probably ten times during the rest of the race.

The hardest thing about a fall like that is not the shock but the loss of motivation that gets into you: when you’ve just been overtaken because of something stupid like that it’s easy to think the race is over. My motivational flat lasted a few minutes before I managed to talk myself into getting back into the race. I could see the guy who’d just passed me, and made it my goal to catch him again and beat him. On the fourth lap I did catch and overtake him on the last big hill but he had a bit more power and weight on the downhill and got away from me.

On crossing the finish line I surprised the guy with the microphone by giving a post-race interview in German, then I was made aware of the large rip in my brand-new Aussie race suit and 2XU tights…

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The Surprise

I finished 23rd (of 240) ,  which was better than my top-30 goal, but it was only that evening when I checked the results on FIS that I saw I’d skied 122 FIS points, my best result outside of Australia so far. I was happy but also disappointed as I was 10 seconds off the sub-120 I needed to move up one grade on the National Team. If only I hadn’t fallen I probably would have been 30 seconds ahead!

The best surprise came two mornings after, when I got a message from Victorian Team Manager Ronice Goebel, congratulating me on 118 points. Sure enough, the points had for some reason been revised down, and I had reached my goal! It was a great and rare feeling to have pulled out a good result.

The 5-Star Hotel

The night before the race I joined the ‘honoured guests’, including the family that runs the Ushuaia Loppet in Argentina, the mayor of Lienz (who made a fantastic joke I can’t write in a public space, send me a message to find out), the race director, the founder of the race, someone from state broadcaster ORF, FIS reps and more, for an amazing dinner in the Grand Hotel Lienz. There we were treated to an amazing meal, where I was required to translate the menu from German into English and Italian for the others; apparently Wolfsbarsch is sea bass in English and branzino in Italian. We were also treated to a series of speeches, each more emotional than the last, extolling the virtues of community and the importance of keeping on fighting against the challenge of climate change, despite the normal course basically being unviable now.

Lienz, where the race is supposed to be held...

Lienz, where the race is supposed to be held…

The Organising Committee in truth did a great job getting a relatively long lap up and running in such a lean snow year, and I wish them a snowy next few years. I also hope to be back at the Dolomitenlauf in future years because I found it a great race with a relaxed atmosphere.

Post-race selfie with Astrid

Post-race selfie with Astrid

The Miracle

I set off after the race back to the Inn Valley in the main part of Tirol, treating myself to a pizza at the famous Pizzeria Hans in Toblach/Dobbiacco, Italy, along the way. I was going to stay the night with some family friends, and was keen to buy a bottle of wine as a gift, but doubted I would find something open on a Sunday. While driving through Sudtirol, Italy, the German-speaking province taken from Austria after WWI, I found the impossible: a supermarket, open on a Sunday, which is a rarity in Europe; in the middle of the day, which is a rarity in Italy. We take some things for granted in Australia, and when I get back home in a week I will take the opportunity to visit supermarkets at oh-so-inconvenient hours, just as an exercise of my consumer freedom.

Post Scriptum

Monday morning saw me spontaneously turn up to the Australian Junior Team training session in Leutasch, I made a cake for my German group to say thanks for the year, as it was my last session with them, and spring seems to have come 5 weeks early, that after winter came 6 weeks late.

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Racing on home turf

One of the main differences in racing in Australia is the ‘home-course’ advantage, where we race every year on the same race courses, learning how to approach particular parts of the course both mentally and physically. For most of us when we come overseas, the season is a series of unknown or vaguely familiar racecourses, with all their attendant stresses and uncertainties. Some of us have courses we know pretty well, but it doesn’t quite come close to racing at ‘home’.

Lucky enough to call this home, and to have this view to wake up to!

Lucky enough to call this home, and to have this view to wake up to!

This weekend, I got to do one of those races. The German Cup was rescheduled from nearby Isny in Allgäu to Balderschwang, known as the ‘German Siberia’ due to its extremely high snowfall amounts, for its 1050m altitude. This also means that in lean seasons, like this one until about 2 weeks ago, it was close to the only place in Germany where XC skiing was possible. What started promisingly in late November, with 40km of trails open, had shrunk to about 5km of very icy, somewhat crowded, and too flat trails by early January. After more than 500km of skiing on the same loop, it’s fair to say I was hoping not to ski there again this year. On the other hand, knowing the trails like the back of your hand (actually probably better, I couldn’t describe my hands that well) does have certain advantages…

Perfect conditions, 27th November

Perfect conditions, 27th November

Glimpse of sun before the rain, 31st December

Glimpse of sun before the rain, 31st December

Skate 3km

This was meant to be a nordic-X kind of event with berms and jumps, but with the change of location it was changed to a 3km skate individual start. We arrived to very wintry conditions, with temperatures under -5 and snow falling heavily. Snow chains were most definitely required to get over the steep Riedbergpass, in order to reach the tracks, and for those without it were apparent where they had tried to snake their way up the hill, wheels spinning.

I hadn’t been up to test skis the day before or view the course, due to inclement weather. Not viewing the course wasn’t a problem as I could probably ski the loop blindfolded, but the skis required guesswork, so I chose the skis I knew were fast in soft snow. Unfortunately, when I went out of the start gate, it became apparent that the skis weren’t quite themselves. The reason was a structure that had been put into my skis in Hochfilzen, which were to adapt the skis for the deep slush there. Normally a structure is pressed into a ski and disappears when the ski is ironed again, but this one was cut in, and the extra grooves in the ski grabbed onto the sharp crystals of fresh snow on the track. This meant that despite well-waxed skis (thanks Allgäu Skiverband), I really wasn’t able to pull out a respectable time, despite skiing pretty well and managing to get my lungs to burn from the effort. I finished 23rd out of 26 which was kind of disappointing, but when the guy starting behind me passed me on the last downhill it was pretty apparent why: I felt like I had glue on my skis! Needless to say the skis are now in the shop getting a new stone grind. I guess the lesson is that having the right equipment, properly prepared, is a crucial element of ski racing. There were no FIS points for the race, but a theoretical calculation would have given 168, which is better than my last result but still not what I wanted.

No actual race photos available, but a quick shot of the start area

No actual race photos available, but a quick shot of the start area

Classic mass start 15km

After another fitting of chains to the Bavarian Ski Association van, we arrived to more heavy snow and even colder temperatures, to the point where we struggled to keep warm before the race, even in the food tent. Nevertheless, I had some new skis suited to cold snow, and was excited to see how they performed.

The race with U20 juniors and seniors mixed in together, started off both hectically, as lots of people broke poles when the race course suddenly narrowed, yet also at a pretty relaxed pace, which it kept up for the first two of five laps. Having started towards the back of the pack, this meant occasionally having to stop for traffic jams on the steep hills, then sprinting over the top of the hills as the concertina effect spread the field out dramatically as the first people hit the downhill. This is a significant disadvantage for those behind, like me, and after two laps and few others and I just lost contact with the front pack. I felt good, my skis were good, and my classic technique seemed not to be letting me down. The loop was hilly but not too steep; it also was slow because the snow was so cold, with sharp snow crystals hindering glide.

After catching a few people up in laps 4 and 5, it was a battle with one of the local athletes to the end, which I lost. I hit the finish exceptionally tired, and looked at my GPS watch… 17.1km! I don’t know if I should be happy that my €6 entry fee got me an even longer race, or to ask for my money back for false advertising, but it definitely explained my 57 minute time. I ended up 20th of 28, in a field mostly comprised of German Team (Kader) athletes. It’s a real shame this didn’t have FIS points attached, because at 5.5% back I would have had 134 points, which would have been my best classic race. In any case I got back home cold and tired but satisfied at finally doing a decent race.

One last thing: from the U14s all the way to seniors there were over 400 entries on each day: if only Australia could manage those kind of numbers! It shows how large their talent pool is, just one of the many advantages they have over Australian XC skiing.

Training

My blogs this year have been almost all about racing, but a quick note on training. With the recent snowfall the XC network is now almost fully groomed, which means 1000km of trails within one hour’s drive of my place. Unfortunately I only have two weeks left in Germany before I go back to Australia, and I still have a few races to go, so I do have to keep myself under control and not attempt to ski all 1000km, however much I’d love to.

Great skiing with Laura and Luci, south of Oberstdorf

Great skiing with Laura and Lucia, south of Oberstdorf

Today was only the third day this season I’ve skied twice in a day; one other was in November and the other when I was staying in Davos and was right on the trails. I definitely got carried away and racked up 39km in the morning, following it with 11km on a rarely-groomed trail in the afternoon.

I also took advantage of the huge snowfall to go downhill skiing in knee-deep and sometimes deeper powder. I’ll let the photos do the talking.

Skiing the gullies of Bolsterlang

Skiing the gullies of Bolsterlang

Seeing this view by -15 degrees, I sort of laugh-cried-gasped at its beauty

Seeing this view by -15 degrees, I sort of laugh-cried-gasped at its beauty. My village almost exactly in the middle of the photo, Sonthofen on the left.

View towards Oberstdorf

View towards Oberstdorf

Next

I have a total of three races left in my last 12 days in Europe, which are a sprint around a town square (Dolomitensprint), a 42km skate (Dolomitenlauf), and a 60km skate (Ski-Trail Tannheimer Tal). More posts will be forthcoming, I promise.

The Jizzy Fiddy

Relax, it isn’t the name of my debut rap album, although if I had one I would definitely call it that. It describes rather the Jizerská padesátka (the second word means 50) held in the Jizera (pronounced yizaira) mountains. It is normally a 50km classic race, held on a large loop near the town of Bedrichov, in the far north of Czech Republic. Unfortunately, because until about today winter has been almost non-existent in middle Europe, the race had to be held on a 3.4km loop on artificial snow. The race is also part of the Visma Ski Classics series (see my La Sgambeda post), so attracts the best double pole distance skiers in the world. Because of this series the elite category was turned into a 15 lap race (51km) while the tourist/public category was shortened to four laps, and multiple races of 400 people each were held across the long weekend.

With these someone complicated but essential facts out of the way; it is now time to describe the adventure of the weekend. I’m feeling a bit of a themed structure coming on here, so if you don’t like it then you’re welcome to go back to Vox articles or cat videos, or both at once.

The Drive/The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bernhardt

If you have a look at Callum’s blog, you will find him using his car knowledge to pick up great bargains or get away with making extremely cheap cars work. I, on the other hand, possess next to no car knowledge besides that of being able to drive them. It was with a consistent whining noise while turning in one direction that I eventually went to the mechanic, where I was told the Radlager (wheel bearing, I think) needed replacing. I booked it in for the day before the 650km drive to Bedrichov, had a new one put in, which took almost 5 hours because of various problems, then set off the next day for Czech. Unfortunately the car had picked up a new noise, so on my way out of town on Friday I pulled into the mechanic, where they told me the brand new one had broken. It wasn’t dangerous, just loud, they told me. They were correct, but going at 140km/h on an autobahn in the rain with ski bags on the roof picking up more wind and the motor doing 4000rmp AND a broken wheel bearing makes it loud and stressful; 85 DB to be precise, which comes with an exposure limit of 8 hours. Fortunately, the drive time in each direction came in just under that.

On a side note, Czech drivers are amazingly impatient. You can be overtaking a truck and doing 130km/h (the speed limit) and someone will roar up behind you and flash their lights and toot until you move out of the way, so they can continue to do 150+km/h. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen in Germany but I really noticed it on the other side of the border.

Blablacar

Not a spelling error, this refers to the car-pooling site blablacar.com, which allows drivers to post journeys up online and others to ride along while paying a petrol contribution. This weekend was the first time I tried this service, which managed to shave €71 euros of the petrol bill, with only a few short diversions into the outer suburbs of Munich, Regensburg and Prague to pick people up.

My first passenger, Rami, travelled 500km with me from Kempten to Prague, for about €30. He is an Iraqi Christian from Mosul, in the current ISIS territory, who left Iraq in 2010 at age 20 after working as a translator for the US Army and getting death threats from (primarily) Sunni Muslims. Even at school he and his friends received threats from fellow students. The USA offered him asylum there, but he chose to go to Germany because he had family there, then moved to Prague and started a café/bakery. His native language is Assyrian (related to Hebrew), and he speaks Arabic, English, German and Czech. If that’s not a successful example of integration I don’t know what is.

Hospitality

I was travelling with fellow Australian Team member Alasdair Tutt, who is over here to coach but decided to come to this race with me. We were there as representatives of the Kangaroo Hoppet (Australia’s International Ski Marathon, for those who don’t know), and wonderfully looked after by the delightful Jana Valertova, a teacher at the Lycée Français de Prague. This included welcome drinks at the hotel, access to the VIP tent after the race, and a truly stunning meal with other Worldloppet representatives in a hotel on top of a mountain. Tutty and I can’t express enough how wonderful the people we encountered were.

The Friday night wave about to start. Headlamps compulsory

The Friday night wave about to start. Headlamps compulsory

The Race

Tutty and I decided we would attempt the elite race, even though we were certain to get lapped by some of these machine-like skiers before the end. The race day was misty and damp, which is unfortunate because the day we arrived was cold and sunny and stunning, with snow all the way down to Prague.

Morning run the day before our race

Morning run the day before our race. Alasdair Tutt rocking the turtle suit.

Tutty was lapped after 4 laps and I was lapped after 5, which is less than we’d both hoped for. I was 80th of 85 starters in the elite race, which doesn’t sound great until you remember a few things (and yes this will read as a list of excuses)…

  1. Looking at my time for the first 4 laps, which pretty much corresponds to the length of the tourist race, I would probably have won out of the 2000 finishers of that course. Yes the tourist lap was slightly longer but even after adjusting for that my 4 lap time would have been enough. So let’s just say I was 80th out of about 2100 people…
  2. Both Tutty and I knew before the race that our skis wouldn’t be fast, as we had a limited range of wax to choose from and none of them was fast in testing. The professional teams who supply the best athletes also have many thousands of dollars in their wax budgets, and in conditions like we had (man-made and natural, clean and dirty, somewhat damp but fine-grained snow) it is almost impossible to get fast skis without lots of resources. Thanks anyway to Tutty for waxing my skis on a shoestring budget.

This was made even more obvious when the women I’d just beaten up the hill put 50-100m on me on the downhill, despite weighing 20km less and having skis with stick wax, which normally makes your skis slower…

  1. Only 26 of 85 men actually finished the race.
  2. The top athletes in this race are stronger at this type of skiing than the world cup skiers. Martin Jonsrud Sundby couldn’t beat this year’s Jizerská winner Petter Eliasson in the Norwegian Birkebeiner. On a side note, Eliasson won by 3:14 on Sunday, with a 51km time of 2:12:35.7, for an incredible average speed of 23km/h.
The course, before the dampness moved in

The course, before the dampness moved in

In any case, the race was extremely well organised, especially considering the challenges posed by the snow conditions.

The Pub

On the last night, after the race, we went with some Norwegians we’d met to the pub, a charming German building, with about three large tables, 1 Euro beers, and a wood-burning stove for warmth. The second table was occupied by a group of Czechs who come every year from around the country to the race. One of them had a guitar and they had song books, so I went over and joined them for a group singalong of Hotel California. Later in the night we did local Czech shots, and sang Waltzing Matilda together. I’ve never sung that song in an Australian pub, but in a Czech one in the mountains was something to remember.

Plans

As I write this I have 18 days left in Europe. Winter has just arrived, and I will probably be racing every weekend until the end. The next blog will come after the next race, a German Cup race in Balderschwang on the weekend.

Sbohem!

 

The Ananda Vegetarian Restaurant in Liberec. 5 Euros each for a mountain of delicious food.

The Ananda Vegetarian Restaurant in Liberec. 5 Euros each for a mountain of delicious food.

 

Slush Slogging (Hochfilzen Race Report)

The early part of a European season often involves a lot of Australian Team athletes in many different places. I had planned to do this long weekend of Alpen (European) Cup racing basically by myself, with wax support from the British team, similar to how I did these same races last year. However, I decided on short notice to go up to Davos last weekend for some training and to watch Phil in the World Cup race there, and ended up taking team-mate Jackson Bursill back to Germany with me, as he decided he wanted to do at least one of the races. Junior team member Finlay Clarke was meant to be in Eastern Germany for the weekend, but after that was cancelled he also joined at the last minute, with a bus trip and a slight diversion allowing us to pick him up on the way.

A very snowless morning run in St Ulrich am Pillersee

A very snowless morning run in St Ulrich am Pillersee

 

These three days of racing are massive, with approximately 27 countries represented by over 400 athletes. They also feature fierce competition, with many of the skiers from large skiing nations like Italy, Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland trying to get onto World Cup for their respective countries.

Skate Sprint

Friday was a 1.4km sprint for all the Aussies, and as predicted from a course inspection the day before, the course was soft, deep and slushy. The races were meant to be held in nearby St Ulrich but had to be moved for the second year in a row, due to lack of snow. The Hochfilzen ski trails were used last weekend for the Biathlon World Cup, and the artificial snow was reused for our races. Unfortunately there had been a heavy rainstorm and above average temperatures, almost ten degrees above and not freezing at night, which made for a challenging race on a strip of snow surrounded by brown grass.

The general idea of the course. The first two days were misty and damp; this was taken on Sunday

The general idea of the course. The first two days were misty and damp; this was taken on Sunday

 

Finlay was off first, pulling out a time of 3:21.26 and a place of 92nd of 115 out of all juniors, despite 71 of the 91 people ahead of him being in the U20 rather than U18 category. 21st out of U18 is a fantastic result for a first race in Europe, and in previous years he would have been into the U18 finals, but unfortunately they were all mixed in together. Due to the quirk of junior sprint FIS points, his 417 points were in no way reflective of the way he skied, especially when the fastest junior did almost the same time as the fastest senior, albeit influenced by the rapidly deteriorating snow.

Jackson was up next, his 80-odd kilograms not really allowing him to float on top of the slush and pull out the result he wanted. Added too this was a stumble as his ski tip got caught in 10-15 cm deep slush, which led to a time of 3:14.19 and earned him 85th place (of 98) and 243 FIS points. I followed 9 minutes later, skiing just over 4 seconds slower (3:18.26) with only a minor loss of balance shortly after the start. I was relatively happy with my race, although in the time it took to finish the course I felt like I hadn’t really started to hurt which is always a frustrating thing about sprint racing for me. I was 3 places behind in 88th and 272 points.

Skate 10/15km

Saturday morning dawned damp and misty thanks to a factory just near the race course which spews out steam that settles over the race course and prevents a proper freeze; somewhat amazingly the course had firmed up a bit and was ready to take the assault of 420 skiers skiing a combined 1570 laps, plus people on the course warming up. Or rather wasn’t ready: by the time Jackson and I reached the latter stages of our race the course resembled a slurpee the whole way around, and we’re still amazed Finlay didn’t drown as he was close to the very end. Making matters worse for us was that the starting orders had been reversed, meaning the best people got to go first in each division, giving them a better course to ski on. We weren’t among the best people so suffered accordingly.

I was first off and immediately slipped in behind a German and French skier on later laps (the race was 5 x 3km). I was keeping with them really well until I fell over on the first difficult corner. Despite losing precious time here, it was still my fastest lap, as the course was still in acceptable condition. After that it was just a matter of trying to stay light on my toes and not push too hard with my legs, which only wasted energy and caused more sinking. I had an OK race, coming in 85th out of 107 starters (40:57.5, 179 points), steadily moving up one position with each intermediate checkpoint. Jackson started 30 sec behind but lost time, finishing in 93rd (43:26.1, 236 points) in a hard day at the office.

The second biggest highlight of the day was Finlay’s first distance race in Europe, where he skied to 31st out of 68 U18 starters, finishing 10km in 30:29.9 and 199 points. The most exciting thing for the other two of us was his position improvement through the race, with 46th, 40th, 33rd then 31st at the finish. The temptation to go out hard and blow up is huge in these kind of races, so kudos for that!

Of course the most exciting thing from the day wasn’t even from an Australian, but was British skier Andrew Young’s 3rd place in the World Cup skate sprint. We watched it on British coach Alex Standen’s phone in our shared wax cabin, and together will all the Brits here we got extremely excited for British Nordic’s first ever World Cup podium.

Classic 10/15km

The Sunday of the St Ulrich races is traditionally a mass start, but like last year it was changed to individual start because of the short loop and the chaos that would ensue having so many races running at once on a 3km loop. Jackson decided to rest, while Finlay and I both competed.

It had fortunately frozen overnight, meaning the men’s classic was held in pretty good and firm conditions. I couldn’t shake a feeling of apprehension before the race, and during the race I had a few slips while doing diagonal stride which awakened an old back injury. Before long I was skiing to protect my back, which a) is slow and b) makes you more likely to slip again, this making the problem worse. After 7.5 pretty mediocre kilometres I pulled out of the race, which was a disappointing end to the weekend.

Finlay wasn’t on until 2 hours later, by which stage the course had gone back to slush, although not nearly as bad as previously. Finlay put in another solid performance, coming 41st out of 58, in a time of 33:46 and 278 points. He described feeling a bit slow and relying too much on his arms, which is often a temptation in classic races, particularly in slow snow. While watching the race Jackson and I both commented on how he looked to be handling European racing very well so far; we were both impressed.

Finlay Clarke mid-way through his classic 10km

Finlay Clarke mid-way through his classic 10km

 

Click here and here for a couple of videos I took of the race.

We made a quick getaway back to Sonthofen, where we made a visit to the local water park, because that’s what we do on the Australian team…

Finally

Many thanks to the good, or more accurately excellent, people at British Nordic for helping us out over the weekend. Coach Alex Standen did a great job steering the ship and to have three extra athletes associated with the trip adds a lot of effort, and the wax techs Thomas and Petter did a great job giving us fast skis every day!