Our latest installment of blogs from Craftsbury skiers racing near and far this winter: an account from Peter Harris at the Marcialonga, an Italian ski marathon that draws 8,000 skiers every year. Pretty cool!
“Are you going with bare skis” came the question from Peter, the Swede I had just met in the cramped ski room downstairs in the equally cramped hotel we were staying just outside of Cavalese, Italy, one day before the Marcialonga. “Absolutely” I replied as I applied Cera powder to the full length of my classic skis, ironed and brushed it out carefully. I had been considering the question for several days now and had concluded that double poling almost the whole race was the way to go. The lack of snow had forced shortening of the course from 70 to 57 KM. The race directors and volunteers had done the herculean task of applying man-made snow to approximately 40-50 km of the race. The early climbs of the original course were gone and it was a gradual downhill course with exception of a few sharp ups, until the final 2 km climb up into Cavalese. I was going on classic skis because I had not ruled out putting kick wax on for the final climb. I had double poled the full 45 km of the flat Konig Ludwig Lauf last year, so I knew I could do it, if reluctantly.
We had driven down from Ramsau, Austria, where we have an apartment for the month of January, along with my support team, wife Louise and sister Anne, to do what we had done all month, ski a Worldloppet race each weekend. First was the Jiserska, a 50 k race just north of Liberec, then the Dolomitenlauf, a skate race in Obertilliach, Austria that was substantially smaller with only a few hundred skiers. I had no idea the scale of the Marcialonga until we rolled into Cavalese, a gorgeous hillside town above the Val Di Fiemme under the soaring Dolomites. The town was absolutely decked out, the streets teaming with skiers and families, the main street and side street snowed for the finish of the race. The band was playing, the jumbo-tron streaming footage of races gone by. Registration had a huge expo and a bulletin board filled with countless entries. Packet pick up was streamlined and easy with my bib #2145 and chip ready to go. A perusal of the entry list is daunting at least…over 2000 Norwegians, 1200 Swedes, 2100 Italians , and entries from 30 countries in all, including 13 from USA to make up the 8000 skiers.
We had run into our friends and ski partners Leigh and Joanie Mallory and headed back to the hotel. We stopped back through town to watch the elite skiers be issued their bibs in a ceremony so I could see in person my hero Anders Auckland and meet top American Holly Brooks and her husband Rob Whitney. Then out to a great dinner at a quaint little local restaurant in our town of Daiano. We sat next to our Swedish friends from the hotel and tried to placate Peter’s incredulity that we had been issued bibs in the 2000’s and he in the 6000’s!!
Sleep can be fitful in a strange bed the night before a big event and I’m afraid that night was no different. Breakfast at 6:30 definitely felt early but we were lucky enough to have a car ride with our support team to the start area. Leigh and I donned our bibs and loaded into our start pens depending on bib number.
The starting system was very efficient. We were loaded into starting pens of waves, where we awaited our starting time. There was a long wait, as I did not want to be too far back in the pen, so I loaded early. I was able to keep my warm clothes on and put them in my clothing bag near the final minutes.
The elite wave went off at 9:00 AM, then 3 waves later, at 9:15, we were let into the starting area, where we simply put on our skis and started skiing, with our chip recording our start time as we skied under the banner. No pushing, no shoving, equipment safe! The trail quickly narrowed down to 4 then 3 tracks, but that was enough for traffic to move well, and there were almost always passing possibilities.
The first 5 kilometers or so we went up the valley at a very gradual climb, enough so to really warm up the double pole muscles. We then turned the corner and came down past the start so I could hear the cheering voices of my support crew, then it was time to really settle in to the rhythm of endless double poling. Several times I chanted my daughter Abbie’s mantra to myself: “I can do this all day long!” As a long time ski racer, I am naturally competitive, so I am continually competing the little races that go on all day. I would catch up to a skier, check out his bib, whether he was old or young, and make a decision about how much energy I wanted to expend to pass. At this point in my career I really only care about age group placing, but I am happy to get ahead of younger skiers as well. If I was getting passed by a faster skier, I would always try to jump on and get a drafting ride…sometimes able to stay on for many k’s, sometimes for just a few meters. I was passed by a Swede who looked to be my age and I worked to stay with him for a long time. He was a strong skier who taught me that the middle between the tracks was faster for much of the course. He gradually drifted ahead and I never saw him again.
I was happy to have no calamities during the race. I passed countless broken poles, each time counting my blessings and reminding myself to be cautious. The down hills were mostly quick but always with a turn at the bottom, all with snow skied off down to ice, making for technical challenges. Many of them turned across a bridge across a river, giving me PTSD of the time I skied off a bridge in the Canadian Ski Marathon in 1976. I mostly tried to ski the berm, but that was where most of the carnage was. At one corner I came upon at least 10 skiers in an accordion pile up that I narrowly avoided, complete with a polyglot of expletives. That is an easy way to pass 10 skiers!
During the double pole portion of the course there were two significant climbs that quickly backed up to a line of herringbone skiers, making it easy to sit in and march up them with no wax. I felt awkward doing this, making me think more and more about waxing for the final climb.
I was passed by a haggard looking dude in a baggy yellow race suit. I remember seeing him at the Dolomitenlauf, thinking that he looked skinny enough to appear unwell. Well he was plenty tough today, with a strong double pole, and I sat on his tails for many K. We were mostly skiing with younger skiers, and pleased to be passing them. I lost track of yellow suit at a feed station and did not know if I was ahead or behind him.
By the time I saw the 22 K to go sign, I was having such a good time that I did not want it to end. The course wound through about 4 cute little villages right down their main streets and side alleys, all with countless cheering Italians yelling, “Die, Die, Die”. Only later did I look this up to learn that they cheer “Dai, dai, dai!” meaning “go, go”. But my usual response was, “yes, I am dying here!” By the 5 k to go sign, I was ready for it to be over!
Feed stations were well manned, and warm beverages were welcome. Unexpectedly I had some warm coke before the final climb that gave me a good lift. I had carried a bottle with Gatorade that I supplemented with between stations on gradual downhills.
After a couple of gnarly twisting downhills that went under tunnels I emerged into what had to be the waxing station before the final climb into Cavalese. There was a 20 person line for the klister machine so I quickly passed that by. I pulled off my skis and put a good layer of spray purple klister and jumped back on…it was clear that in the sugary manmade snow there was going to be no kick from this. Two guys pulled me over and literally pulled my skis off my feet and gobbed on a soft white hard wax, probably VR 70. They put my skis back on and away I went (thanks, waxing guys).
The kick was fabulous, but the glide a bit grabby, but it did not matter. The final climb is a series of switchbacks that quickly took me anaerobic. The hill is lined with screaming Italians, but all I could hear was my breathing through the fog in my head. Drool was hanging from my chin as I tried to pass some of the 300+ skiers all on the same march. I passed many, and a few passed me. In the results I would learn that it took me 16:09 to ski the final climb…about half of what it would take the overall winner! From my blackening vision I noted that I passed yellow suit…I guess he was in front of me! All I lived for was the final alleyways that the course would wind through on the way to the finish. Then suddenly I was there, hearing Anne, Louise, and Joanie cheering for me…the only three people in the thousands who would know who I was, or who would cheer in English, and then it was over…a hard double pole across the line and finally a chance to stop moving. I couldn’t stop smiling, from the thrill of accomplishment, and the happiness of being able to be in such a beautiful place, doing the sport with thousands of people who love it as much as I do. It took me one hour longer than the elite skiers, but to me it felt like the race of a lifetime. My age group had 769 skiers, by far the largest group I have ever seen, and making the top 5% felt good!
Post-race was a labyrinth of paths leading to a very organized set up of clothing bags, then a ski check-in site, and a luncheon. I was finally able to meet up with Louise, Anne and Joanie, cheer Leigh across the line and think about celebrating.
After lunch and soaking in the post- race glow, we made an attempt to gather all our gear and head out. While getting my Worldloppet passport stamped, I got separated from my crew, but did run into Peter, my Swedish friend with the other two Swedes from our hotel. I had a beer with them and rehashed the race…talking it over with friends is at least half the fun! The music was playing, the bars were packed with Norwegians partying hard as the sun set over the Dolomites. It was hard to think about leaving! While I can check the Marcialonga off my Nordic ski dream list, I know that I will come back.