On Sunday I did the last race of my season, the 42k Gommerlauf in Valais, Switzerland. There are actually two more races in the SwissLoppet series, but I will miss them because I’m taking a trip to Norway. Having done the other seven races (it would have been eight but one was canceled because central Europe has had terrible snow problems), it seems like I’ve locked up third place in the overall series anyway. A series podium had been my goal going into the season so I’m thrilled to be able to check that box.
(It’s a lot harder to check boxes off in my academic life, so at least I have this one thing!)
The Gommerlauf was great, and definitely my favorite race I’ve done this year. Goms is not exactly a town but a region of Switzerland, a valley high up accessed by tunnels and winding mountain passes. The buildings are so old and so beautiful, and because it is fairly isolated the villages in the region don’t receive overwhelming numbers of tourists. Most people who visit in the winter come to cross-country ski.
And it’s easy to see why.
The race was also fantastically organized. As part of the Euroloppet series, it was a bit bigger than some of the other competitions, and as such had to have a bit more order.
This was one big thing I learned: it’s very much worth thinking about what my friend Jonas called a “clever starting procedure.”
At most of the SwissLoppet races, there were maybe starting blocks or maybe not, and maybe classic tracks and maybe not (all of the ones I did were skate races). Even if there were classic tracks, however, people would fill in between the tracks so that at the start you are shoulder to shoulder packed together like sardines. This is no way to start a ski race and unsurprisingly makes the first kilometer or so chaotic, slow, and filled with yelling and broken poles.
In Goms the organizers prevented this behavior with something really simple: they placed a small cone on the start line in between each pair of classic tracks. As a result nobody lined up in this interstitial space. They removed the cones at the last possible second, the race began, and it was so much more relaxed than in any competition I’ve done this season. For me it was a huge sigh of relief.
I’m really interested in race organization, TD’ing, and how people make these decisions. But to me one of the big messages here was that if there’s what seems to be a common problem, you shouldn’t just wave your hands and say “nothing can be done” and assume everyone will deal with it. There might be a simple, but unusual, solution. You should try to find those.
In Goms they also put a few minutes in between each starting block, which also helped keep things relaxed. If all the blocks start at the same time, it’s only marginally better than if there’s no blocks at all.
Still, it’s important to get there early and put your skis on the start line, something that I’d never thought much about before because in junior, college, and USSA/FIS racing starting positions are assigned in mass starts. Much more logical but obviously not possible in a “popular race”.
Another thing I learned: if you have an American name, you are pretty recognizable. My name is decidedly not Swiss. By the end of the season, a few other racers knew who I was and recognized me. I endured many jokes about Americans not knowing where a country was unless we had bombed them. This is a popular joke, which we were luckily able to move past and have some nice conversations.
As was the case when I was living in Sweden, they then asked me why I was ski racing and how I seemed to know how to ski. Despite the success of Americans on the World Cup, there’s still an assumption that there’d be no reason for an American to know how to cross-country ski. I guess reputation is something that changes very slowly.
The number of times I met someone on my way to the race who then later realized that I was top five in the race and acted super surprised? It was a lot. I learned not to be offended when people asked me if I was just in the race to try to finish and have fun.
On the flip side though, it’s satisfying to succeed when people think you are incompetent.
Aside from those smaller encounters, I got to have a friendly rapport with several of the women I was usually competing against. They were incredibly nice, and when women make up such a small portion of the field (often just 10 or 20 percent) you quickly develop a camaraderie. In the end of the Gommerlauf I passed a woman who had often beaten me. It was about three kilometers from the finish and she was clearly bonking, a fate that, miraculously, I had avoided despite missing the first two feeds for various reasons.
“Hopp Hopp Chelsea!” she said as I skied past.
“Ja, Hopp!” I replied.
Some people I would also see after the race. In the U.S. we would all be in our individual cars driving home, stewing in our own analysis about how the day went. Some people drive in Switzerland, but a fair number of people take the trains and buses. It’s totally normal to be on the bus with your skis, and it creates a very different sense of community. Your trip home isn’t just thinking about your race inside your own head, but rather in this common scrum of tired, happy skiers. It’s cool and provides a real sense of community. In a few cases taking the train has even been faster than driving!
I’ve also learned a lot about myself (cheesey, I know). In the middle of the season I was fairly discouraged, but my last race was my best. I guess I have some resilience as long as I keep showing up to race every week; it’s worth pushing through.
Things go best when I’m relaxed, so I have to keep trying to make that happen. That means picking skis and wax the day before, rather than stressing about testing: I’m not trying to win a gold medal, I’m just trying to be fast enough to enjoy myself, and I don’t have so many skis so it should be obvious what to pick anyway. It also means doing a low-key warmup and enjoying the trails. It means reading books and listening to podcasts on the train instead of freaking out about the details of the races.
I’d also like do more skiing for the sake of skiing, though. This year I raced pretty much every weekend through January and February, and because of the snow situation I wasn’t able to get on snow during the week. It would be nice to have some weekends where I’m just out there enjoying the snow and skiing really far, but not in a competitive setting.
Partly for that reason, I’m not planning to do the whole Swiss Loppet series again next year, but I’m glad I did it this year and some of the races were definitely highlights that I’d like to revisit again.