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The Engadin Skimarathon: Ski Racing in the Heart of the Swiss Alps

Thu, Mar  22, 2007 - By Mark Madorski

This year I traveled to Switzerland to compete in the 39th edition of the Engadin Nordic Skimarathon. The race takes place annually on the 2nd Sunday of March and typically draws 10,000 – 14,000 skiers making it the second largest event on the Worldloppet circuit.

The 42 Km course traverses pretty much the entire length of the Engadin Valley which is situated in the southeastern corner of the country.  Numerous picturesque villages dot the valley landscape, the most famous of which is St. Moritz. St. Moritz sits at 6100 feet elevation, houses the race headquarters, and has been a haunt of the rich and famous for over a hundred years. The prices definitely reflect this especially in the area of accommodations. Fortunately for most of us there are less expensive options. I stayed in the village of Pontresina less then ten km down the valley and managed to get a room for about $120 a night (a bargain by Swiss standards).

Three main factors contribute to the immense popularity of this race. First, 42 km makes it the shortest marathon on circuit and therefore manageable to serious and non-serious marathoners alike. Second, except for a 5 km stretch near the middle, the course profile is flat to slightly downhill, again making it seem manageable to a wider variety of skiers.  Third, and I think most importantly, is the incredible scenery of the Engadin Valley.  It’s arguably the most beautiful part of the Swiss Alps and for my money may be the most beautiful place on earth (especially in winter).

5km marker

5km marker

Race day dawned clear, cold (single digits F), and very windy! I got to the start two and a half hours early to secure a decent position in my corral, not realizing there was no structure to stay warm in. This hit me as very strange because the Swiss are nothing if they’re not efficient. I decided I had to find a place to keep warm at least until it warmed up a bit. I put my skis down (in the second row) then followed a group of Norwegians to the nearby village of Maloja where we crowded into a restaurant with about three hundred other skiers trying to stay warm.

I miscalculated my starting time by five minutes and just as I got back to the corral (actually about 10 feet from my skis) the gun went off. I found myself face to face with about 2500 skiers scowling and swearing at me in German. When the last of them passed, another bonehead (who had also missed the start) and I put on our skis, shrugged our shoulders, and quickly caught the back of our wave. The FUN was now about to begin. 

Race tracksThe race is already extremely crowded, but when you start at the back of your wave, it becomes suffocating! For 10 – 12 km I weaved in and out of traffic passing about half the people in my wave. Never once during this time did I skate, as there was simply no room; it was an all-double pole show.  Whenever we encountered the slightest incline (like a berm off of the lake) the pack of skiers would come to a screeching halt and it was often close to a minute before we got moving again. Finally somewhere around the 12 km mark, I managed to start skating albeit at a slower pace then I had hoped. 

Upon entering the town of St. Moritz, the only serious climbs of the course begin. Just as we had begun to ski at a decent pace, the trail once again clogged shut. At around the 21 or 22 km mark the trail flattens out and the final 18-20 km are all slightly down. As the course now thinned out I hoped I would be able to make up for some of my lost time. I soon found out this was just wishful thinking. As we turned a corner and started our descent we were met head on with a 50 km an hour wind.  This part of the course is completely open and unless you happened to be skiing behind Shaquille O’Neal, drafting did little good.

As I crossed the finish in 2:43, I felt totally wiped; so much for an “easy / manageable” race! Trying to make up for my bad start, the overall crowded condition of the course, and the howling wind had definitely taken its toll.

The race may have been a bit of a disappointment but the trip most certainly was not. I skied every day I was there, and the trails (nearly 200 km of them) in the Engadin Valley are some of the best in the world.  They’re immaculately groomed on a daily basis and many of them are wide enough for two or even three skiers to skate side by side. Mornings are cold and the snow is usually very fast. Afternoons find the outdoor café’s filled with people sipping beer or wine and soaking up the sun.  A long sleeved shirt may actually be too warm. The sun felt absolutely incredible!

The only drawback I found to skiing there was the same complaint I had while driving. Several times I almost drove off of the road as I stared agape at the incredible scenery. While skiing I either kept going off the trail or constantly reaching into my backpack for my camera. Not only is the scenery absolutely stunning but mornings in the Engadin Valley also produce some of the best light (for photo purposes) I’ve ever encountered.

Most people traveling to the Engadin Valley from North America fly into either Zurich or Milan, Italy.  I chose Zurich where I rented a car and drove the 200 km to St. Moritz. I stopped in Liechtenstein for lunch before heading onto Chur and then up through Julier Pass. The pass itself (which takes you into the Engadin Valley) is filled with hairpin curves reminiscent of mountain stages in the Tour de France and sits at about 7700 feet elevation. This area is a popular venue for helicopter skiers who get dropped off on various surrounding peaks and then ski down to the pass through virgin snow. 

Julier pass

Julier Pass

I stopped to stretch in a small village called Bivio near the pass. Despite being situated at such a high altitude, Bivio has several km of groomed ski trails. It seemed like a good place to find out what it must be like for a 3-pack-a-day smoker to try and Nordic ski race.

On my way home, I stayed in Old Town Zurich for a day. I shopped for a few gifts (mostly Swiss chocolate) but spent most of my time in outdoor cafes chatting with locals and other tourists while sipping Calanda beer (I’d rate it 6.5 on a 0-10 scale). Zurich is also a great place to people watch. Its citizens provide a sharp contrast to the ultra traditional folk you tend to encounter when traveling through Switzerland’s rural villages.

Zurich

Zurich

The only real drawbacks to traveling in Switzerland these days are the prices.  It’s definitely one expensive place and the watered down value of the American dollar doesn’t help. Even if you’re very careful a week in Switzerland is probably going to cost you over $2000 including airfare (in March). Nevertheless, with everything it has to offer -- great skiing, breathtaking scenery, wonderful weather, beautiful people, good beer, the worlds best chocolate -- you may still find it a bargain.

Auf Wiedersehen, Au revoir, Arrivederci, A revair,

            -- and Happy Ski Travels