Ganghoferlauf 50k and Feeling Like A Skier

At the finish of the Ganghoferlauf classic marathon. (Photo via Ganghoferlauf Facebook page)

Wednesday night I couldn’t fall asleep.

We were supposed to leave on Friday to go to Austria for a Saturday ski race, and the forecast was for rain all day on race day. Would there even be snow left, after the crazy-long warm snap that we’ve had plus even more rain? Would I make it through 50 k of being out in the rain? Should I just bag the trip if it was going to be miserable?

Racing isn’t my whole life so these questions shouldn’t have weighed so heavily, but the next 48 hours provided me with so many highs and lows.

I traveled to Austria. I was disappointed with the ski conditions. I loved our hotel setup! I despaired about the wax. I had a really fun 25 k of racing! I felt so alone and discouraged and stopped dead in the middle of the trail to eat a snack. I got my motivation back and careened another 25 k around the course, stuffing my mouth with Clif ShotBloks along the way.

I felt like a skier. That was the best part, the highest high.

And then, when I crossed the finish line exhausted, a guy asked to take my picture. Sure, why not? I smiled, with the Tirolean Alps in the background. As the shutter clicked, I heard the announcer.

“And this is, from Switzerland, Chelsea Little, she is the third woman to come into the finish after 50 k.”

What?

After all that angst, it turned out to be a very good day.

***

I’m not good at giving up on things, but the idea of skipping the race really was going through my head mid-week. I didn’t know what to do. I’d imagined this classic marathon, the Ganghoferlauf, as my season finale. It looked like it was literally going to rain on my parade.

By Thursday the forecast had changed, and it looked like it would be right around freezing and with a light snow at the start, warming up to the mid-40’s and sunny over the course of the race. How do you wax for that?

I’m not good at giving up on things so I got on the train on Friday, but somehow things didn’t get better once we got to Leutasch.

Midwinter skiing this ain’t. Note all the dirt in the snowbank in the left foreground.

I tested klister on Friday afternoon and nothing felt good. My skis alternately slipped and iced up. The snow was basically slush and as we ate dinner, it rained some more. Completely saturated. Lovely.

I had figured I could buy some of the appropriate wax at the expo when I picked up my bib, but there wasn’t really an expo (or a ski shop within a kilometer). The small collection of the klister in my wax box was all I had to work with: Swix base green, KR 45 purple, and one each of Toko green, blue, red, and yellow. Because I’m not good at giving up on things, before bed I re-applied the KR45 and Toko red to one ski each of my test skis – not at all confident either of these things would work the next day – and a thin layer of base green on my race skis.

“Shit, I really wish I had a riller,” I lamented.

“A what?” Steve asked.

“Never mind.” Right. Riller is not a word used by 99.99% of the human population.

Miraculously, I managed to get a good, deep sleep.

I woke up to the fact that it had frozen overnight, which was actually more than I had dared hope for. The tracks would be fast, so I reasoned that I’d have to suffer for much less time than if it had been slush from the start, like I’d been imagining.

But after eating a quick breakfast and hopping on my test skis, I found that both the KR45 and the Toko red were grabby and iced up. Not good. I was practically falling down on the flats they were so grabby. I tried covering them with a warm hardwax, but then I couldn’t kick up the hill.

I saw a fast-looking young woman out testing wax, but she was discussing with her coach/wax tech and was clearly testing more options. I haven’t had a team in years and this was a problem I needed to figure out on my lonely own.

Thinking about the forecast, I picked the KR45, crossed my fingers that the snow would stay relatively frozen, and heated it into a pretty layer on my race skis using the hotel room hairdryer. And then I went to the start.

The days leading up to the race had been so stressful as the weather forecast changed constantly. I was also mentally exhausted from a very intense three-day retreat with my research group. It was a gray damp morning. I had zero confidence in my skis. I have to say, I really did not want to do this race.

Then the gun went off, and the race started.

***

I’ve had a weird year of ski racing, and really of skiing. There was no snow early, so I bagged the race I had planned to do in December because I hadn’t even been on skis once. Then in January I went to Cortina, Italy, to do the Toblach-Cortina 35 k, but it was canceled.

The Ganghoferlauf 50 k was what I picked to make up for that race. A few years ago I went to Seefeld (just a few kilometers away) for the Kaiser Maximilian Lauf, back-to-back 60 k’s where I did the skating and classic races. They were very well organized, on fun trails with beautiful views. So when I was looking for a late-season classic race in central Europe, it was pretty appealing to go back. I booked a spot in Leutasch.

The race start. (Photo via Ganghoferlauf Facebook page)

And as we headed off the line, I felt like I had made a good decision. There were plenty of classic tracks for the first kilometer or so, and I easily had room to pass people despite starting near the back of the pack.

Very early, after about a kilometer and a half, we hit the biggest climb of the whole race. It was steep and long and much of the field immediately got out of the tracks and started herringboning their way up it, occasionally tangling up with each other.

I stayed in the tracks to the right. My purple klister, which an hour earlier when I was testing had been a disaster, was fantastic. I just strided past people and probably had a big grin on my face because I seriously couldn’t believe my luck. Out of a pretty limited wax box, it seemed like I had nailed it.

A kilometer later on the first downhill, I realized that not only was my wax not so grabby that I’d be falling down, but my glide job was also decently fast.

This was going to be fun. In the space of just a few minutes, my entire perspective shifted.

I cruised around the course, and after skiing through a rolling meadow system for about eight kilometers, we hit the flats of the bottom of the Leutasch valley. I was still skiing with packs of people, and just trying to hold a steady pace. At some point, we started up the hill and into the forest on the other side of the valley, and zig-zagged up and down smaller climbs for a few kilometers.

On the downhill of one of these zags, I caught a woman I had seen in front of me for the whole first 15 k of the race. We double-poled along the flat for a while, and after two more sets of uphill zigs and zags, caught another woman.

For the last seven kilometers of the 25 k loop, the three of us skied together, with the occasional guy trying to jump in between us, as they usually do. It was really fun. Johanna and Sanne – our names were on our bibs, so I weirdly felt like I got to know them – were good skiers. They were fun to follow and we had our own little race dynamics doing on, especially through the “Waldloipe” forest loop that had lots of fun ups and downs, twists and turns. Sometimes one of them would sprint over the top of a hill, but the other two of us would usually catch up.

As we looped back through the start/finish area, Sanne pulled away, and then I watched as she and Johanna turned left.

They were doing the 25 k.

Crap.

***

After I signed up for this race, I was describing it to Steve, and mentioned that it was a two-loop 50 k.

“When you have to ski straight past the finish and go out on a second loop, that’s going to be so terrible,” he said, already half laughing at my future anguish.

And oh boy, was he right.

A view from the 8 k meadow loop, the day before the race.

I’d had so much fun skiing with those two women, and I had worked pretty hard to stay with them over the last few kilometers. Maybe it wasn’t the most clever thing to do halfway though a 50 k, but it had felt good. Except now they were gone, the sun had been out for half an hour, and the snow had turned from ice to slush. I was staring at the big climb again, and could barely see anyone in front of me. I turned around and saw only other skiers turning left.

Yes, this was despair.

I realized that I hadn’t eaten any solid food, and stopped and dug out a Clif bar. On a hunch, I had decided to race with my running vest, something I’d never really done before. I knew it would be hot by the end of the race and that I might need more hydration than usual, and it also gave me the chance to carry some klister in case my wax job sucked as the conditions warmed up.

Now, I was very relieved to have the vest because it had snacks in it. There were a few spectators on the side of the trail who weren’t sure how to cheer for me as I stood there eating a bar, but it was completely worth it.

The calories almost immediately made me feel better, and I tackled the hill. I was tired from my ill-advised battle with two 25 k skiers, but my skis definitely didn’t suck. (I later realized this was because my kickzone consisted entirely of pine needles, not that the KR45 was somehow still working.)

The course consisted of little finger-like loops, the zigs and zags up and down hills. Coming out of one such loop I saw that there was another woman coming out of the next loop. I had no chance to catch her – we were separated by maybe two kilometers – but it was nice to see here there.

And coming out of another loop, I saw two other women just beginning it. They were perhaps another two kilometers behind me. This provided some good motivation: they probably wouldn’t catch me unless I really ran out of steam, but this was a marathon so you never know. I had to keep pushing just in case.

For most of the second 25 k I was in no man’s land. I could see a guy in a pea-green suit ahead of me, and sometimes I got within 20 meters, but then he’d pull away again.

I kept drinking from my vest and eating snacks, and trying to push on through the deepening slush. I was striding on the flats because it was so slow, and it made my back hurt. Then there were the road crossings, where the crossing guards let cars through between racers and only sometimes shoveled snow back onto the road. I cringed for my poor race skis, which were surely going to have a permanent reduction in speed by the time the day was over.

By the time I made it through all the zigs and zags and around the Waldloipe – no friends to chase this time – I emerged into the big field to see that there was nobody behind me. It was a relief, because there was a kilometer of flat to go and I had no sprint in me.

I took a purposeful but relaxed double-pole to the finish, and was smiling by the time I crossed the line.

***

On the podium! (Photo by Steve)

It turned out that I was third (out of just 25 women) in the race, and won my entry fee back. It had been impossible to tell my place when I was racing because of all the 25 k racers mixed in with us. So it was a legitimate surprise to realize I was on the podium.

It was a very nice reward at the end of the season, and I got a funny antler trophy as a prize.

But the result was just gravy. The best part of the day was feeling like a skier.

As I wrote, it’s been a weird year for me for skiing. In some ways it has been great; I have done a fair amount of skiing in some of my favorite places, including making time before work once a week many weeks (okay, getting to work extremely late once a week many weeks…).

But I’ve raced a lot less than planned – the Ganghoferlauf was just my third race of the year. The first race was not a positive experience. The second race was pretty fun, but on my “home” tracks in Einsiedeln and quite low-key.

In this 50 k, I felt like I was competing. I had a blast skiing with the sixth- and seventh-place women in the 25 k. I was engaged and focused, using my technique and my strength.

And then came the hard part: going another 25 k alone. It was hard, but I did it!

I did it because I’m decently fit and I planned my training to be rested (physically, if not mentally) for this race.

I did it because I used my experience and logic and a little bit of luck to make good skis.

I did it because diagonal stride is my favorite.

I did it because I wanted to use every tool I had to get to the finish line fastest.

In that lonely loop, I still felt like a skier.

I live in a city where it rarely snows, but skiing is what I love. Sometimes I feel like I’m not a skier anymore because I can’t ski out the backdoor and I don’t have a team or skier training buddies. Sometimes I get to the ski trail and I feel uncoordinated and floundering. Or I get to a race and I look at all the skinny, strong, fast-looking people in trendy ski gear with this year’s skis and boots, and I feel like I’m not one of them.

Those aren’t the things that define who is a skier and who isn’t, but sometimes it feels like it.

When I get to feel like an actual skier – which I am – it’s the best feeling.

Finally, My Almost-Perfect Davos Ski Day

Midway up the Sertig valley, striding along the classic tracks. This is what dreams are made of.

(Before I start: I’ve been featured two places online recently, talking about being a scientist. Check out Episode 4 of the MEME Stream podcast talking about my research on climate change in the arctic tundra, grad school in Europe, and the importance of hobbies (like skiing!). And fellow ecologist xc-skier Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie invited me onto the Plos Ecology blog to talk about reading a lot of papers and combatting imposter syndrome.)

If you’re a cross-country skier, you have probably heard of Davos. There’s a World Cup there every year, and it’s also a favorite training camp location for the U.S. Ski Team, among others. There are always blog posts and Instagram stories showing sunshine and powder days that recharge the soul.

Despite living in Switzerland for four years – and visiting a few times before that – I’ve never had what I’d consider a great Davos ski day.

The best part of the Davos trail network is probably its extensive classic-only trails which go up long side valleys out of town. When I was living and working there in the summer of 2013, these were some of my favorite places to get out for a hike or rollerski, and my gateway to mountain passes.

I immediately looked forward to coming back in the winter so I could ski them.

When I was in Davos for the World Cup in 2017, it had snowed, so I wanted to explore the Dischma valley. They hadn’t groomed yet though. D’oh.

But things didn’t really work out. For several years I went to the December World Cups to work for FasterSkier, but those years happened to be times when there was barely any snow, just a snowfarmed loop on the race course. (It’s been a bad few years.) This year, there was apparently good skiing, but I was at a conference in the UK that weekend.

I went back a few times to skate, but then you can’t access those long valley trails. And last year I had a long classic ski in a rain/snowstorm, where I did traipse up one of the valleys, but visibility was basically zero and the huge temperature swing made my classic wax a complete disaster.

So I’ve been to ski in Davos at least once each year, but I’ve never had the kind sunny alpine day that dreams are made of.

This really is my last winter in Switzerland, and I realized at some point that I was running out of chances. So on Sunday I woke up early and took the first train to Graubunden. Davos is quite far away (by Swiss standards), so even catching that train, I only arrived just before nine.

If you’ve been watching World Championships, you know that the Alps have been going through something of a heat wave. Switzerland is no different than Austria in that regard, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I stuffed hardwax ranging from blue to red into my drink belt and crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t need klister instead.

Scenery.

Click. Click. Into my skis. It was cold when I arrived, and after days of freeze-thaw cycles the tracks were fast as I double-poled down to Frauenkirch, at the bottom of the main valley. I skied in and out of the shadow of the steep hillsides, and through hollows by the river where the cold had really settled overnight.

But an hour in, the sun had come over the mountains and suddenly, it was hot. I stopped to re-wax my skis. Blue clearly wasn’t right anymore.

I meandered through the Junkerboden, a forested hillside. After a week of relatively hard (for me) training, my legs were feeling tired as I climbed the steep trail through the woods and traversed its switchbacks. But this is a part of the trail system that relatively few people visit, and I sank into the quiet and peace of the forest.

Then I dropped down to the Sertig valley proper, and all of a sudden I was in 50-degree heat and immediately sweating. I took off my headband, unzipped my jacket, took a swig of water. My skis were slow, but miraculously my wax was still kind of kicking.

Heat is not my strong point, and I bogged down as I ticked through the kilometers up the valley. But it was so beautiful. I’d stop to take a breather and look around, captivated by the scenery. This wasn’t the extra-blue skiing of my dreams, but the sun was so bright, the mountains so crisp, the sky so blue. Aside from overheating, it was everything I’d imagined the valley to be as I hiked and ran it so many summers ago.

Everyone I passed was smiling, as if we couldn’t believe our good luck to be out here in the sun. It was the kind of day where even if you don’t feel great, you feel happy.

And I was particularly happy to be striding up the valley. Every time I classic ski, I’m reminded that it’s one of my favorite things in the whole world. It’s so natural to settle into the rhythm of kick, kick, kick. In this snow, a little less glide.

Nearing the top of the valley.

I eventually reached the top of the valley, where you are faced with a large mountain face and, for a ski tour or hike, the choice of two mountain passes, one left and one right. For cross-country skiers, it’s the end of the road, although you can stop for food or drink at a restaurant looking out across the meadow.

Sweaty. Go away tropical heat wave, I want winter back.

I opted out, and instead headed back down the valley. Despite the snow rapidly becoming slush, I whizzed down the trail, trying to thread between the skiers coming up the narrow trail. The fresh air on my face a welcome respite from the heat. Several kilometers were gone in no time, and I was back in the main valley, heading towards town.

By the time I clicked out of my skis, it was almost 60 degrees, and I was happy I had done this ski today. Unless the weather pattern changes drastically, I’m not sure how long the lower-elevation trails will last. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have skied another hour easily, but I was wiped out from the heat.

It wasn’t a completely perfect day, but maybe that doesn’t exist. I got to see the mountains, and the groups of classic skiers striding ant-like up the narrow classic-only trail through the valley. The next day my face was a little more tan and my legs a little more tired, and I added one more happy memory to all my summer memories of Davos.

Keep on skiing.