Race No 2 for Team Zerbaz (Jean Charles is from Zermatt and I’m from Arbaz), and we’d chosen the long course at Kandersteg, the longest, hardest race in Switzerland this year at 36km and 3600m to climb. After some deliberation we chose the 5am start time, the latest one, in order to put ourselves under pressure. There’s a time limit to reach one of the check points, and starting at 5am rather than 2.30 or 3.30am means you only have 4 hours to get there, which is tough. But leaving later means you’re racing with the top guys, you have less racing in the dark, you don’t get as held up by slower racers, and you miss potential bottle necks at the portage, where it’s easy to get stuck behind slower teams. All of which means a potentially faster race time – but with a risk.
As it turned out we were SO lucky with the weather. It snowed in the night, then cleared so the temperature dropped a bit. We then got a window between fronts, even a peek of sun from time to time, and though it was very windy higher up – they had to curtail the final part on the glacier as it was too dangerous – the conditions for the race were excellent. Then the rain/snow then set in again heavily early on the Sunday afternoon. Lucky or what?!
We set off quickly, running to the snow, and then settling into a fast rhythm on the climb. We managed to overtake a few teams on the long climb, and really pushed the pace here. I started to wonder if I’d be able to keep up this pace as I’d been unwell with a virus for the 2 weeks prior to the course and was only now recovering. But no time to ponder that too much as it was onto the first descent. In the first glimmers of dawn it was very hard to see the trail, so it was good there were a couple of others in front of us to follow. Then over the long flat cross-country ski section, skating and pushing as hard as possible. Back on with the skins, and I took a gel just before the first drink stop. Dawn was breaking and everything was coated in fresh white. Beautiful.
Time for a quick fruit tea at the feed zone plus a bottle refill, then onwards and upwards. The snow on the next climb was good, way better than last year, and we settled into a rhythm, zig-zagging our way up the mountain, up to the amazingly sheer cliff face of a mountain we have to descend below. Last year I remember noticing this only when we were right up against it as the first glimmers of dawn broke. This year, starting 2 hrs 30 mins later, we got a great view in broad daylight. Then down the first little portage with a fixed cable to hold onto, back on with the skis and down to the bottom quickly. I got my skis on faster than JC and set off, profiting from a bit of leeway to nibble a bit of a Mule bar. Then back into the rhythm, onwards and upwards. We passed a slower team who’d started 1h30 ahead of us and then the wind started to kick in, quickly covering the track. Amazing how quickly it got covered, and at times it was hard to see where others had gone despite there being another team not far ahead of us. We got passed by a couple of teams nearing Rote Totz, and latched on behind them up to the top, where I wolfed down a gel and water, knowing that I’d need energy for the next big climb.
The traverse down towards the main portage was much better than last year, nice soft snow, easy to take your weight off the left leg from time to time, just had to be careful when hitting clumps of deeper snow and their sudden slowing effect. Back on with the skins and off up to the portage where the helpers took our skis off for us and helped load them onto our rucksacks. Then off up the climb we went, holding onto the fixed rope at times. Very hard, very steep! Back on with the skis at the top and off into lovely snow for the next part of the climb. I started to feel a bit better, started to motor a bit and before we knew it we were at the top: they’d cut the last bit of the climb up the glacier due to strong winds. The descent was great, quick and easier to ski than last year. I got ahead and at the bottom an Italian team caught and passed us. Then there’s the long slog to the Lammernhütte. It does’t look far away, but oh my goodness, it takes longer than expected what with all the little uphills. The organiser had warned us of seeing mirages at this point in the race during the briefing the night before…
At the Lammernhütte feed station we stopped for a bottle refill, some Isostar, and I finally managed to get the rest of the Mule bar in my mouth, plus a small square of cereal bar before we rushed on. 3 hrs15 mins to the hut, well inside the 4hr limit. I then spent the next 10 mins chewing the food while forging ahead before finally being able to swallow it! The race was on, as we were in hot pursuit of the Italians,
We started passing quite a few teams who’d started earlier than us, but there was plenty of space to overtake on the multiple tracks. Back up to Rote Totz where JC said the Italians were starting to tire. He set off on the descent as I finished another gel, but I soon caught back up, then cruised on in the lovely powdery slope below.
Down to Daubensee and the last feed station where we downed a couple of cups of Isostar and quickly got skins back on for the final main climb, the most challenging of the race. We could see the Italians about 200m ahead of us now and one of them was tiring. It’s a long, very hard climb which gets steeper and steeper, and half way up the tired Italian started stopping every now and again, then heading off again. We closed to around 100m, then one of my skins started coming off at the tail. They were getting sabots (bits of snow and ice sticking to them which stops them from sliding forwards and helps them slip backwards) a bit too but I didn’t want to change them in the last 100m of the climb, so I had to use quite a bit of brute strength on the icy track up near the top just to get up. We were on the heels of another slower team in the final part of the climb, and the Italians had managed to pass where there was still space. Once I was on their tails we were between rocks and a very steep slope, leaving no space to pass, and us stuck behind. And in that time the Italians got away again, with a quick transition and speedy descent.
Off we set in pursuit, the snow here harder to ski, and the thighs starting to scream from lactic acid. 2/3 of the way down I had to stop to let it dissipate for a few seconds, then off again for the latter, less steep, part of the slope. Before we knew it we were back on the path and motoring back towards Schwarenbach. At one point 2 people snow shoeing had come onto the race track, walking 2-abreast, and I had to shout for them to get to one side. The women jumped into the middle of the track – agh – and I had to slam the brakes on for a bit. Idiots, they must have seen there was a race on, the whole path was marked with race markers and there were racers streaming past on a continual basis…
We schussed as much of the path as possible and then steamed on over the long flat section, skating. Then at the end of the flats we saw the Italians! They’d just put their skins back on for the last climb, so we decided to skate instead (quicker if you still have the power to do it, but way more tiring). We overtook the tired guy quickly, then crept up to his team mate and overtook him. There was then a very slightly downhill section, where I knew we could get some distance on them before the main climb, where they’d start coming back as it’s easier climbing with skins. The climb was a brute, herringboning up as fast as we could go, and the Italians were starting to close, but they were too late and I think mentally, we’d broken them. The final section was less steep and we managed to get skating again before powering over the line, opening up a 1 min 10 second advantage over the Italians in the last kilometre. It had been a fabulous battle from half way round the course, with us finally getting the upper hand 😉
We got 3rd place in our old fogeys category (Vets 3) with 5 hrs 27 mins 23 seconds, an improvement of 4 hrs 30 mins and 1 second over last year, and some very nice prizes to boot – Julbo sunglasses and Montana skins, plus a nice little medal. An excellent race, great organisation and the opportunity to make lots of super new friends.
Huge thanks to my buddy Jean Charles, a very cool result together.