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Kalamazoo Nordic Does Europe

The Engadin & Birkebeinerrennet

Wed, Mar  2, 2005 - By Greg Worsnop

[The Engadin is a point-to-point 42 Km Freestyle race from Maloja to Ziel, Switzerland. The Norwegian Birkebeiner (or "Birkebeinerrennet") starts in Rena and finishes at Birkebeineren Skistadion in Lillehammer. Participants have to carry a back pack that weighs a minimum 3.5 kg. over the 54 km classic course. Both races are part of the Worldloppet]

Google Group Rec:Skiing:Nordic stalwarts Norm (John O'Connell), Birkebeiner (Pete D'Arienzo) and the FrontRunner (Greg Worsnop) all went to Europe for the Engadin and for me, on to the Birkebeiner in Norway last week.

Quite a trip to say the least.


We all arrived Friday morning in Zurich prior to the Engadin. Pete and John arrived early so met me at the arrival hall anxious to get the car and get moving. All but my skis arrived in good shape. After reporting the lost skis we were off for the Engadin valley with beautiful weather for the drive. Only one close call in a tunnel, not nearly as close as my two companions thought, but it did elicit a "Yikes!" from the driver as we made a turn at the end on the tunnel. After a hundred switchbacks we made it to the valley, which of course was just like the poster.

We arrived in St. Moritz and picked up bibs, spent money (a recurring theme throughout the visit) on hats, shirts, posters, etc. On to Pontresina to the Hotel Allegra where our hosts were waiting. More shopping, an impulse/insurance purchase of skis (you can never have to many RCS's). Dinner and early to bed.

Saturday dawned with cold temps, but quickly warmed up with the sun. We went down to St. Moritz for a short ski, spend more money and to soak up the excitement around the expo. After returning to the Hotel, I made a call on the skis. They had made it to Europe, but no guarantee that they would arrive in St. Moritz until 9:00 pm that night, if at all. I decided to return to Zurich to pick them up. Seven hours later I was back to John watching Eurosport and Pete making new friends in town.

Race morning dawned with cold temps, but the prospect of a quick warm up once the sun peaked over the mountains. I decided to use the new skis waxed by the shop with cold Helix. Pete chose skis with BD7 and FC7 final layer, John about the same. Bus to the start and a 90 minute wait until the start. Pete and I were in the Elite B wave or the third gate. John was in the middle gate, so we split and headed out to the start area. As with the other time I had come to Engadin, blue sky and abundant sunshine just like the poster. So with 11,000 of our new friends the gun went off at 8:40 am.

A fast track and many skiers made the first 10k fly by, with main goal to stay upright. On either side of the course there was an open lane that allowed us to break out with periods of hard V2 and pass quite a few people. Then back in the crowd for a rest, repeat. By the time we got to St. Moritz at 15k we had moved up quite a bit, but hard to tell how much. Most of the next 10k was narrow and hilly (I do not remember these hills from my earlier trip to this race) so you pretty much held your position until Pontresina where it opened up again and could pass more people. With 15k to go to the finish I hooked up with a guy from the UK and got to the side of the course where no one had skied much on hard fast snow. We proceeded to pass what seemed like a thousand skiers who were just staying in line and skiing steady. We hammered right to finish and came in just over two hours.

Towing a mountain goat?

Racing with a shower curtain?


Pete came in two minutes later. (714th and 797th overall). He was with me until the hills, lost me at that point, but had a similar experience passing loads of people in the last 15k. We went to the bag drop, quickly changed and grabbed a beer to wait for John. We had a couple of beers (well maybe three) and sat in the sunshine watching people ski in. These included clowns, a guy towing a mountain goat, one with a shower curtain, waiters, and all manner of indians, business suits and large bodies in lycra that would have been better not to see the light of day.

As the time ticked by we began to worry about John, who due to poor snow in the Twin Cites, Nat Masters commitment, etc. was not in the best of shape. After the race clock pasted five hours we were paged over the PA and found that John had been pulled from the course and was in the hospital a couple of towns up the course. A frantic collection of skis, clothing and other gear and no word of John's condition other than he was in the Hospital, we finally got word that he was stable. This was a bit of relief, but still not sure of his status.

Unable to get us a ride to the Hospital we hopped on the train to Samedan to the Hospital. We arrived to find that he was in intensive care, so the worrying began again. Finally, after what seemed like forever, they let us in the room. John was laying down relaxing and seemingly OK, but they were going to keep him over night to be sure. An orderly said, "So you bonked". We discussed that it was only a fifteen ft. drop from the window - we could probably spring him that night with bed sheets, make our escape, and continue the adventure. Wiser heads prevailed.

We were scheduled to fly out of Zurich early the next morning, so a change of plans was in order. Pete hopped a train to Zurich to catch his original flight. I hung around an extra night in the Hotel and sprung John the next morning to catch later flights. The owners of the hotel were great and helped with trains, planes and automobiles. A plug here for our hosts, when staying in the Engadin valley the Hotel Allegra in Pontresina is a great choice.

Off to the Birkebeinerrennet..

After discussion with KLM and Northwest it turned out I was screwed and had to buy another ticket to Oslo to the Birkebeiner. Let me digress, never but never fly NW or KLM unless you absolutely have to....bastards.

I arrived in Lillehammer around midnight, slept for a few hours and got up early to drive up to Sjusjøen. Crystal clear day, 10f, solid tracks, Birkebeiner trail: Priceless. I got in two hours of great skiing, than headed back to town for a $60 pizza and beer and welcomed nap.

The next three days were a similar program: skiing around Sjusjøen, the Olympic trails, and up the last 15k of the course from the stadium finish to Sjusjøen and back down to get a feel of the down hill to the finish.

Race morning started early at 3:00 am for coffee, light breakfast and to the bus station for a 4:30 bus to the start. It was supposed to be cold and clear so I waxed with LF4 with FC7 top layer for glide and Rode Super Blue with VR40 on top.

As we drove through Hammer on the way to Rena a temp sign said -20c, a bit brisk, but it is a winter sport. I said to the guy next to me that I didn't need to see that.

We arrived in Rena at 6:40 or about two hours to my start time. We switched busses and headed up to the start are with the sun just coming up and fortunately no wind. I quickly tested my skis and had great kick and acceptable glide, tested the weight of my pack, and spent an hour or so just trying to stay warm. They changed the start program this year to a seeded start rather than by age groups. I was seeded in the second wave. As a concession to age, the 70 and over group went off at 8:00 am, followed by the Elites and wave 1 at 8:30 and my group next at 8:37. They preloaded and then you hustled up 75 yards to the start after the previous wave started. This of course created a jam up with everyone carrying their skis followed by backing up in the tracks to allow skis to be set down and clipped in. Much polite discussion ensued until this was sorted out.

The gun went off.

Did I say that climbing for 10k, with a thousand or so skiers, with an 9 lb. backpack, and much clicking of skis is hard? Basically the course climbs, levels off ,climbs again, a few downhills and more climbing until Sjusjøen then 14 km downhill to the finish. The first 40k took 2:55, the last 14k 32 minutes.

At one point during the climb I switched lanes into a tight spot with the skier behind taking offense and smacking me with his pole. Damn it stung! I would have preferred an ancient Norwegian curse. Tracks were great until the top, where wind blown snow slowed things up a bit, but the wax held good kick and glide throughout the race. I found that in Norway they have not perfected the art of the double pole on the flats, so I held my own on the uphills and passed quite a few on the flats by DPing while they strided.

The last 5k to the finish levels off and I hammered past quite a few skiers until about a km and a half from finish were someone took my hammer away and I just skied in. 3:27:33, 69th in my class, 732 overall, and the mark by about 13 minutes in my class.

Lessons to be learned about European World loppet trips:

  • Drink lots of fluids
  • Bring lots of money
  • Engadin is always just like the poster
  • Never ever fly Northwest
  • Climbing carrying a baby king is hard
  • Bring lots of money

The FrontRunner (aka Greg Worsnop)