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Mozart Didn’t Ski the Engadin!

I might not do it either but I accepted the challenge last April so I had to have a game plan. The Vuokatti race training week, a fun holiday, proved I was slow with only just enough stamina to last the week. Then followed a winter dedicated to roller skiing, heart monitors and interval training. Fit as a ‘butchers dog’ for my first telemarking holiday in January, I returned with a throat virus which knocked me out for 3 weeks and training motivation dropped to zero. A last minute booking with the Yorkshire Dales Cross-Country Ski Club in Finland (another excellent holiday!) brought me back ‘on track’. Ready to go.

The Engadin attracts 12000 skiers making it the largest ski marathon in the world and popular with British skiers. I am not one of them. Competitive long distance skiing could be a nightmare: scrabbling for space with a high risk of injury. So my aim was to ski the distance with as much enjoyment as possible without being timed out-and survive!

The Good Shepard plans well with caring attention to his flock. We’ll have an easy week, do sections of the course each day with plenty of tea and cake stops, he says. It’s a steep sided, flat bottomed valley overlooked by 4,000m Pic Bernina. The stretch from Maloja 1817m to St Moritz-Bad 1772m is mostly across a wide lake which has long sections of scarred ice. Coaching tip of the day: the ice is a bonus if you can ride your skis and just glide. Isn’t this great you don’t have to do anything, just enjoy the glide, you're on holiday!


Thus the week continues, easing all nine of us through the next technically challenging section starting with a steep hill (zero effort, says he) and then to Pontresina where we meet Helen and Mike Smith [of the Lakeland CCSC] for lunch at the YMCA. Helen, Sue, Wendy and Glennis came out early to ski the 17km Frauenlauf which they enjoyed. That’s the last section – more hills but also downhills. Tip: use the classic tracks to rest. Expect to overtake skaters and move out when they are overtaking you.

Pre-race day is indulgence day. Eat as much as you like, drink coke and coffee. Alexandria says we should rest today. She is the expert skier from Zurich with a diamond scored waxing iron coveted by Glennis. The girls met her in the waxing room and have been tantalising the chaps with her beauty and waxing tips. Imagine Nicole Kidman in lycra and you have her. Eat your heart out Alan you should spend more time in the waxing room! MCCSC has taken over with 4 homemade travel waxing benches – prototypes of Alan’s web instructions. He has waxed my skies with red fluoride seemingly by chance but it turns out to be the Toko race wax tip! I said I don’t want to go fast Alan!


Do I really have to go through with this? I heard Wendy tossing and turning all night. I didn’t wake up early ’cos I never went to sleep! We catch the 7.30 bus for a 9.20 start. I loose Wendy on arrival as she heads for a huge toilet queue. I’d rather sort out skis and clothing lorry. About 4 neat ski rows in the womens’ pen - where to put mine? Already far enough back for protection from headwind: middle or outside? Nice lady senses my dilemma “my daughter is in the fast pen and she says put your skis on the far side – as far away from the men as possible”. Good idea. Back for a hot drink, shed clothes and don Ros’s microlite smock which will fold into a pocket. No toilet queue now. I find Sue in pen but where are my skies? Nice lady calls me over. Thank goodness. Group aerobics during nerve destroying countdown: minutes..seconds.

Suddenly the river is on the move and I have flowed out into the open sea. Space to ski. I haven’t drowned under skies and poles. I am free. Total control with all this space around me. I intend to follow Alexandria’s advice: enjoy your first race, stop at every drinks station and rest (at least 5min!) halfway. Strong headwind makes the 10km to Silvaplana slower than I expected. By the time I reach St Moritz at 15km I feel in need of more than bananas and Rivella to get me up this next hilly section. No queues. Slow skiers walking up or herring-boning. I occassionally overtake. STREWTH! Mozart’s here after all! Three of them in court dress, silver wigs and music playing from their disguised rucksacks. Not brilliant skiers though perhaps better at dancing minuets – alas, I shall never know.

Into the woods where paths intermingle. I could get lost here (again Patrick). I choose the lower option, others follow. Soon we are at the top of the infamous Mattress Hill lined with spectators with an insatiable appetite for disaster. Everyone chooses the gentler, wider track so I instinctively head down the steeper alternative ice slope knowing that when I fall I won’t be part of a dominoe collapse. I am good at snowploughing steep descents but XC skies aren’t designed for edging on ice. When I realise I am loosing the battle I sit down gracefully and the crowd applauds. Up I get, take a bow and schuss the rest without mishap into Pontresina. “Sylvia Mercer from the UK” is blasted out over the tannoy system. Drinks and more bananas but no sign of Toi Toi. IT is behind the bandstand. Well I have to go so I turn back. “Sylvia Mercer you are going the wrong way!” Something about my body language. “Oh, I see she has a sense of humour!”

Another 17km to go starting with the Golan Heights: 5km of hills. I’m loosing enthusiasm. Secret weapon time. I don’t think Alan will approve. I take a breather to activate my MP3. Many moons ago I had a short spell of running which was best motivated with Annie Lennox tapes. Well, here we are again. Sweet dreams are made of this. Blue skies, sun and easier terrain. This is fun whizzing downhill in the classic tracks hopping out for the uphills and to overtake. No aches or pains. I’m obviously going to make it. Might as well speed up a bit. Overtake these chaps ahead and sprint to the finish. Mission accomplished!

the author gets a bit of final practice!

Loppet races are an excellent focus for a club holiday. Many of us had trained together so we were already a well–bonded and supportive team intent on having a relaxed fun week. Congratulations to Alan for organising, coaching and cajoling us to success. His commitment to seeing new members transfer from roller skiing to XC racing is remarkable. Leif among others has the racing bit between his teeth and has offered to organise next years outing to the König Ludwig lauf. I am proud of my achievement, my fitness and my improved skiing techniques. For a while, I shall bask in the admiration of family and friends!

author: Sylvia Mercer
photographs: author & Alistair Brown
publish date: March 2007

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