Hugh Pritchard, Biathlete

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Hugh Pritchard

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Diary March 2000
10-12 March

The Engadin Skimarathon, Switzerland. An area I know well, and I stay with John Spotswood in Pontresina. The snow is very bad, due to the warm afternoon temperatures. Still, I manage to ski Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, choose my race skis and feel pretty good.

On race morning, we catch the train to St Moritz and bus to Maloja in plenty of time. The surface of the lake is quite soft and wet, and we are asked to keep off it until the last minute. My start is at 0840, the first one, so at 0825 I make my way towards the start pen through the puddles. As I near it, I am surprised to see so many people warming up on the track so near start time; a little nearer and I realise that the pen is empty, and some 2,500 people have already started.

Furious, I and a couple of other stragglers strike out and soon come to the backmarkers; after 15 minutes the track is so full that I cannot overtake easily, and I experiment with skiing on the ice beside the track and double-poling in the classic tracks. Both work, but are hard ways to get ahead.

Soon we come to the constrictions and uphills: frustrating to have to slow to a walk, when the guys up front have been able to ski this flat out. Found a short-cut up the first hill, and away again. Through St Moritz and up again; this time I try a traverse in the steep rough beside the track which turns out to be a mistake. Over Lej da Staz, then down through the 'washing machine'. Everyone is snowploughing here, which is really unnecessary and will leave the later runners with no snow at all. I spot a gap, skate a bit, and am clear for a fast schuss to Pontresina. One more sharp, narrow uphill: here I run up the grass beside the track and gain a lot of time. Then the wide, open tracks of Samedan and beyond, and at last I can ski freely. Spotty's advice to me was never to ski alone, but I do not have the option as I want to go faster than the groups. There is a bit of a headwind so every so often I duck behind a group for a rest as I am getting quite tired now, before going on. The finish nears, and I am still passing people. Down, over the river, up to the line. Ran into Jon Sampson there, whom I must have passed in the last half-mile, and Stephen Worthington, the 'Brit' with a French accent who lives in Geneva and also beat me in the Transjurassienne. Also Bernhard Senn of the Swiss biathlon team who has retired in favour of a career. He can't be more than 21, poor chap.

Back to Pontresina, lunch bare-backed on the balcony, then the train back to Zurich. Frustrated. 705 of 12,000.

Engadin Skimarathon web site


21-28 March

The Arctic Circle Race, Greenland. A dream for me: I found my first experience of the Arctic, Kiruna in Sweden, haunting, and now am going to race where Gino Watkins died in his kayak, Norsemen lived for 500 years before mysteriously disappearing, and Inuit scratch a desolate living out of the sea with whaleskin their sole source of vitamin C.

Arrived to find less snow than expected, but blue skies and an intense cold. On the first afternoon, met an old Norwegian (who spoke no more English than I do Norwegian, ie 4 words). He turned out to have won his age group in the Birkebeiner 3 times; I went out skiing with him for 45 minutes and ended up exhausted.

A sociable race: participants from a real mix of backgrounds, mostly not hard-core racers, but with a commonality of purpose which gives us all something to talk about. I thought I was making progress learning German but cannot make much of what the Swiss say - it sounds more like Swedish to me.

Some frantic last-minute visits to the sports shop, much debate about the waxes required for a 160km race, a church service (in Greenlandic, but with familiar hymn tunes), and a safety briefing with frightening film from two years ago. Then an early but sleepless night.

Day 1 dawns sunny and surprisingly warm. Much cheerfulness and some apprehension at the start, as few of us have ever done anything like this before. I plan to take the first day very conservatively, and ski with Andrew Gardner from the US.

The course undulates and rises. The feed stations come regularly, with the highest at 420m above sea level; there follows a terrifying descent back to sea level, which takes off all my grip wax, and after double-poling to the far edge of the fjord I stop to rewax; Andrew catches me here having taken the hill easily to save his knee. We ski on, almost half way now. Andrew stops to adjust some gear and I do not see him again. I keep skiing steadily and arrive in 4 hours 43 minutes, 20th place and with 2 women in front of me - a long way in front!

My bags are given to me, and I go straight into the heated drying tent, change, find my sleeping tent and dig out some of the vast supply of food I have brought. My tent-mate has already arrived, and it is not hard to work out who he is as so few people are yet there in the great mess tent. He has already worked out to use the Trangia stove we have been issued, and soon I am refuelling furiously. Then to the 'hospital' tent for my statutory 15 minutes massage - there are not many races where you get that.

The last runner arrives well after dark (and it gets dark late here, even just after the equinox) in 10 hours 56 minutes. It is quite cold once the sun goes down, about -25°C, but that is a long time to be skiing in any temperature.

The feeding tent is quite convivial, with two long tables and an aisle down the middle; it is warm enough not to wear a jacket. It gets crowded later so it is certainly an advantage to be there early. Another advantage is that you get time for two meals.

Mattias Svahn of Team Vasa is a bit of a 'rock star' with his long blonde hair and attitude. He is third after the first day, and keeps borrowing my grip wax for the next couple of days: Swix green special. I have never before used anything colder than blue extra, but this seems to work well. One day I will be such a star that people want to lend their wax to me.

In the night I am stricken with diarrhoea, which is a major inconvenience when it is that cold outside, and I do not sleep much, or feel like getting up to race again in the morning.

However, the sun rises over the mountain and warms us up, and day 2 is an easy one: due to lack of snow we will not be meeting the 620m contour line, but will be staying mostly on a lakefor our 48km. This is fine. I ski with a Canadian, Don Drewcock, mistaking him for the Canadian who finished a minute ahead of me yesterday. In fact Don had finished 20 minutes ahead, and approaching half way he starts to pull away from me. I pass Trude Madsen from Norway, who was 35 minutes ahead of me yesterday; she seems to be having trouble so I let her follow me as we ski through sensational mountain scenery and beautiful weather on near-perfect snow. I decide to leave her to it and try to drop her; but she does not want to be dropped, and when I have worn myself out, she passes me! It is all I can do to stay with her for the next 5km as we pass various people, including Don. Then we seem to be approaching the camp: I pull away up what I think is the last hill, only to find at the top that the camp is not in sight, and Trude and Don catch me again. Then the camp comes into view and we have a sprint finish, which I just win from Trude. She is a fine, hard woman, and taught me a bit about ski racing today!

That night I saw the Aurora Borealis for the first time. The dog-sledge men in their amazing polar bear-fur trousers put on a spread of traditional foods: raw fish, shrimps, whale and seal. Unfortunately I was still feeling too delicate to appreciate it. I did however appreciate the great pile of cooked and frozen ice-crabs left for us to add to our supper.

Day 3 dawned an hour late as we had put our clocks to Summer time on Saturday night, but otherwise much as day 2. My personal challenge for the day was to beat Trude and Uiloq, the Greenlandic woman who had skied 45 minutes faster than me on day 1. I lost touch with them at the start but eventually settled behind Trude. After a while, and thinking that her backside was not very feminine, I passed her and found that I was following some bloke. A great disappointment from all points of view, and I pushed on, eventually meeting Uiloq. I began to tire, and Trude came up from behind with the old Norwegian star. I lead them a while, before tiring and falling away. I managed to get back when we reached the fjord, by being quicker in the feed stations, and followed them over the fjord. I was amazed at their strength on the flat, and concerned as my grip seemed to be going, with the horror climb approaching. I was pondering my tactics with regard to the ascent and my wax, when Uiloq and Trude stopped to rewax. I thought that if I did the same then I could be confident only of starting with them up the hill; if I took the other course and just made the best of my bad wax, then who knows...? I struck out up the hill, and never saw them again.

The top of the hill was a great relief: I arrived level with a very quick-looking Dane disguised as a Norwegian, who promptly fell on one of the ensuing hair-raising descents. The first glimpse of the buildings of Sisimiut in the distance was a welcome milepost; I pushed hard and passed a Greenlander, then to the finish, where the entire population had turned out to watch. Elation, tinged with disappointment that it was over, as I had enjoyed it so much.

The next morning I was sorry not to be skiing again at 10 o'clock, but this soon faded as the weather deteriorated, and we realised how lucky we had been to have three perfect days for the race. A ceremony and great party, with substitute vocalist Andrew Gardner showing that he really is more of a rock star than a skier (I am not surprised he has knee problems, seeing the way he abuses them when the music plays), closed this year's Arctic Circle Race.

Finished 20th on day 1, 11th on day 2 and 8th on day 3: 14th overall. Next time, must ski far harder on day 1, as that is when the differences are made.

Arctic Circle Race web site

Andrew Gardner's article on the XC Ski World site