Switzerland – Skate 42km 13 March 2011

Hi from Switzerland!

All the pictures you’ve ever seen of Switzerland don’t do it justice, it’s absolutely spectacular with steep magnificent snow covered mountains in all directions. We’ve spent the week in the Engadin Valley near St Moritz, a very expensive ritzy downhill ski resort, where buying a cup of coffee is 5 times as much as Poland. But we’ve had brilliant sunny skies for 4 out of 6 days and impeccable cross country ski tracks to skate on with thousands of other skiers, many dressed in designer outfits.

Bruce, Malcolm and I have shared a little apartment in Pontresina a smaller town about 7kms ski from St Moritz. The apartment is quite unusual in that the flowered lino floor coverings continue up the walls in the kitchen/dining room and in the bathroom. We’ve just learnt that in 3 weeks time the apartment house will be demolished, as it’s 100 years old and cheaper to demolish and re-build rather than to renovate. We’ve been speculating as to whether the same décor will be used in the re-build.  Despite the unusual décor we have a brilliant view of the surrounding 4000 metre mountain peaks. We’ve seen magnificent colours reflected off the mountains in the morning and evening light.

Bruce has continued to rest his leg and treat with elevation and ice to reduce the swelling. Fortunately we were able to buy an internet wireless dongle so he could stay occupied.  He has ventured out on a couple of occasions but even though it is only 200 metres down to the main street, it is a very icy steep path and needs great care when descending.  The main street is ice free so he is  becoming quite proficient on his crutches ie Mr Hop-a-long.  However, the 1.5 kilometre route down to the race viewing area yesterday and return was quite demanding.  So with any luck two more weeks of rest should allow him to begin to use his broken leg more.

As well as skiing on the 42km race course yesterday Malcolm and I ventured on an amazing side trip up to a glacier the day before.  It was incredible sight and quite amazing to read the signs and see how far the glacier had receded in the last 110 years.  We were very lucky to have skied up to the glacier early in the morning and virtually had the place to ourselves as we sat in the sun and marvelled at the view, whilst eating our delicious bakery items for morning tea. On our way back we met dozens of people making the trek to the glacier and knew we had been there at the right time to enjoy the solitude and peacefulness.

This week was a huge contrast to Poland where we met up with the other Aussies most nights for dinner and had a very social time enjoying the cheap restaurants as we all stayed in a small town nearby each other.  The Engadin Valley is made up of St Moritz and many smaller towns so most of us Aussies didn’t stay in the one town and Swiss restaurants aren’t exactly cheap, so we mostly self catered around different towns.  However we did meet up one afternoon for cake and hot chocolate in a café with a sundrenched deck and a superb view. There were 14 of us mostly Aussies, one Canadian and two Americans.  It was great meeting up with friends from other races and some new folks as well.  The cakes were scrumptious, it was very hard to choose from the huge selection of large slices of cakes and pies such as: rhurbarb tart, blueberry tart, baked cheesecake, chocolate cream cake etc, etc.

The 42km Engadin Ski Marathon whilst the shortest European race (same distance as Australia’s Kanagroo Hoppet) is also at the highest altitude of any race – high point is 1820 metres.  This race has the reputation of being the easiest Worldloppet race but I’m not so sure.  It was snowing and windy at the race start with light dry flakes making for slower skating conditions, as the snow accumulates on the track. The race starts on the edge of a frozen lake with the men and women in different start areas and then for ten kilometres you ski across the frozen lake trying to find enough space to plant your poles without being tripped over amongst the 13,000 other skiers.  I noticed how quiet it was despite so many people skiing in such a small area.  Then you hit the first hill which was 4 separate queues of skiers all trying to get up the 250 metre hill as fast as possible and so there were people crashing everywhere as someone stood on their poles or they slipped on the icy bits or got caught in the deep boggy sandy snow in places.  Malcolm and I had caught up to each other on the last part of the lake, but I luckily chose the quicker route up the hill, so I kept waiting for Malcolm to pass me later on in the race but he got caught in the crowds and I didn’t see him until the end.  Through St Moritz we went with a few more small hills with slow moving queues with spectators lining the course cheering us on.  Arriving at the top of the only significant downhill is quite ominous as all the trees have large orange foam mattresses tied around the trees and the TV cameras filming all the stacks as skiers try to weave their way down the hill avoiding the trees and out of control skiers. The hill is therefore known as “mattress hill”.  With the fresh snow the hill turned out to be quite easy and so I then skied onto Pontresina to look for Bruce who had managed a mammoth walk on crutches 1.5km downhill from our apartment to the race course.  Despite the congestion of skiers I managed to spot him and stopped for a quick kiss before heading onto to what I thought would be the easier half of the course as it is flatter and a wider track.  However it was not to be, as the track was quite icy in places and so it was quite tricky skating and balancing one ski without falling over and concentrating because of other skiers all around me. Despite the icy bits there were also some sections of perfect skating when you could look around at the surrounding mountains and enjoy the perfect glide skating on the flattish tracks and be grateful to be in such a magnificent place.

That night we celebrated as the Engadin race was Malcolm’s tenth Worldloppet race and thus he officially became a Gold Worldloppet master and I attained the tenth stamp in my fourth Worldloppet Passport thus becoming a Quadruple Gold Worldloppet Master.  We’re already planning to come back again so Bruce too can become a Quadruple Gold Worldloppet Master.

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Poland – Classic & Skate 50km 5 & 6 Mar 2011

Hi everyone, hello from Poland.

It’s hard to believe but we’ve made it to Poland. After Bruce breaking his leg last Saturday in USA I didn’t think we would make it this far but Bruce is one determined person and we wanted me to continue with our planned Worldloppet races so with  a lot of help from friends and strangers we have successfully made the journey.

Travelling with a broken leg brought about many challenges.  Overall the airlines were fantastic and we were able to access wheelchairs in most airports, the only one there was difficultly was in London Heathrow so with an expected one to two hour delay following the ‘system for assistance’, I went and “found” our own wheelchair and we transferred between terminals on our own.

Being in a wheelchair also has advantages – express routes through passport control and electronic checks though trying to find disabled toilets in older airports was like hunting for gold.

Enroute on our booked frequent flier flights Minneapolis-New York-Boston-London Heathrow- Prague we were sitting in New York La Guardia airport and the American Airlines staff announced that our flight to Boston was “overweight” and began offering travel vouchers of $100. To our amusement it then increased to $200, then $250 plus free hotel, then $400.  Then AA staff realised that we didn’t really need to go to Boston and so approached us and said that they would transfer us to New York JFK airport for a direct flight to London. After a stressful hour when at times it appeared we would lose seats on both the Boston and London flights we finally left La Guardia airport on the half hour commute to JFK in a  big chauffeured flashy black Lincoln with the skis upright in the back seat as there was so much room. On arrival at JFK we were met with a wheelchair for kerbside check-in and then taken to the exclusive “Admirals Club” for the afternoon, $20 lunch voucher and $US1000 in American Airline travel vouchers. We flew to London on American Airlines and arrived at a similar time as we would have on our British Airlines flight.

On arrival at Prague we were surprised to be met by Aussie friends Jennie and Greg DeFritas who drove us to our Prague Hotel, which was a real blessing as we were quite tired, having left Karen’s house in Minneapolis at 4am Monday morning and it was by then 3pm Tuesday afternoon with a 7 hour time difference. That night we had dinner with Malcolm and Ronice who had flown in from Helsinki Finland. It was great to catch up with our Aussie friends.

The next day we travelled by bus then taxi for 20kms across the border from Czech Republic to Poland with Malcolm and Ronice to Szklarska Poreba. We again stayed at the Bolero Guesthouse where Marian, the owner who doesn’t English, was very helpful, coming up with some amazing but successful special remedies to treat the swelling in Bruce’s broken ankle.

Szklarska Poreba was a great place to be, as it is cheap and affordable, so we ate out every night in a choice of restaurants that were only 100-200 metres from our guesthouse. By now there were  6 other Aussie friends to have dinner with (Malcolm, Ronice, Greg, Jennie and also Sue and Paul Waller) as well as American friends Jay and Brian.  It was great catching up as the Aussies had been at other Worldloppet races in France, Estonia and Finland or travelling to Spain whilst we had been to Japan, Canada and USA.

Malcolm and I skied Thursday and Friday to familiarise ourselves with the 50km race course of the Bieg Piastow. The course is very similar to skiing in Australia with some reasonable steady climbs followed by exciting descents and the snow conditions were similar in places too. There were also intermittent views of the surrounding mountains in Poland and Czech Republic. Whilst waiting for the bus back to Szklarska Poreba on Friday afternoon, I saw Hannes Larsson, 20 time gold Worldloppet master across the road, so I went over to say hello. It turned out that he was talking to Jacek, one of the Bieg Piastow organisers and Hannes was just about to be interviewed for radio, so in the end Malcolm and I were interviewed too and then Jacek took us to his house for lunch (a special delicious traditional Polish soup that his son had cooked), picking up Bruce on the way.

On Friday night there was a Worldloppet Masters reception so our American friend Jay drove us. After a scrumptious assortment of cakes and much friendly discussion we were each presented with a crystal glass memento of the Bieg Piastow race.

Saturday dawned fine and clear, and turned out to be our warmest day in the last few weeks with the temperature reaching 3 or 4 degrees celsius. It was a glorious day to be outside in the sunshine. This was the first time in over 50 worldloppet ski races that I had ski raced without Bruce, so it was with a heavy heart I made the trek on my own to the race start.  I was the only Aussie of 2000 skiers skiing Saturday’s 50km classic race as everyone else was only skiing Sunday’s 50km skate race.  I was also concerned about my skis as when waxing them late on Friday I had noticed a bubble and bend mark in the base of one of my skis near the tip. Malcolm had lent me his tape so if my ski broke I could tape the tip over and I also hid one of my skating skis near where the second loop began.  As it turned out I had a really good ski on Saturday, taking extra care on the downs as I didn’t want to crash on the icy corners as many people around me were doing. The route reminds me of the Kangaroo Hoppet, as you ski one loop, then ski through the finish area before completing a second different loop. It’s a great venue for spectators as just one kilometre from the starting gun you ski an s course through the finish area, as well as in the middle of the race.

On Sunday Jacek had managed to organise a VIP pass for Bruce, which enabled him to sit in a second story building with huge glass windows looking out over the finish area, so Bruce was able to see all the action rather than staying at the guesthouse. Even though Bruce had an enjoyable day it was tough as he would have much preferred skiing with the rest of us.  We were fortunate with the weather on Sunday too, as the predicted snow didn’t eventuate and we skied mostly in sunshine though there was a cold breeze which became colder as the day wore on. Ronice was the fifth female (3:38) and Sue completed her tenth Worldloppet race becoming a gold Worldloppet master. Malcolm was lightning fast in 3:45 having starting number 200 (elite 1-200) finished in 199th place putting him in the elite category for next year’s race.  Paul had taking his camera and spent his time taking videos as he skied along enjoying the course. Jennie and Greg finished well too. I was very happy to classic 4:06hrs on Saturday and skate 3:05hrs on Sunday. Even though we’ve managed 4 double races, I still find it hard to believe I skied 100 kilometres in two days.

Jennie and Greg has kindly offered us a ride to Prague tomorrow before we fly to Zurich on Tuesday and head to St Moritz for the Engadin Marathon race next weekend.

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USA – skate 50km, classic 54km 26 Feb 2011

Hi everyone!

Our week in the USA started like all our other Worldloppet race weeks but turned out to been very eventful and brought some unexpected challenges – very cold conditions and broken bones, but read on to find out the gory details and the actions of wonderful people in adverse situations.

Usually we travel the day after races but due to public holidays (Presidents’ Day in USA and Family Day in Canada) we had been unable to book flights out of Ottawa until Tuesday morning so we enjoyed visiting the Natural History of Civilisation Museum in Ottawa and learning about the fascinating history of Canada dating back to first European visitors being Norwegians back in 1000AD who had island hopped via Iceland and Greenland to reach the east coast of Canada.  Then, of course the French and British established settlements and fought over land.  It was a relaxing day and a well earnt a cruisy day.  It was especially nice as our hotel was only 5 minutes walk away and so we even went back for a hot lunch before a stroll along the frozen Ottawa River to visit the snow sculpture festival which was very small compared to the previous Japanese snow and ice carvings in Sapporo.

As it turned out there were huge snowstorms on Sunday/Monday in Minneapolis/St Paul USA our next destination and most flights were cancelled so flying Tuesday morning was a blessing in disguise. On our way to the airport in Karen’s Cadillac rental car at 4.30am we were pulled over by the police looking for drunken drivers.  Fortunately Karen was able to convince the police officers that she was just unsure which way to go to the airport.  So we flew out of Ottawa at 7am but Karen wasn’t flying till later in the day so she arranged for her next door neighbours to pick us up at Minneapolis airport and drive us to Karen’s house. We therefore spent the afternoon strolling in the sunshine around the snow covered streets of urban Minneapolis.

On Wednesday Karen took us to a cross country ski area in the Minneapolis metro area, one of some 10 cross country ski areas within half an hour drive of downtown Minneapolis is a huge city set on the banks of the Mississippi River.  We also walked across the Mississippi River and saw the sight of where the bridge had collapsed killing some 13 motorists just a couple of years ago.  It was amazing being in a huge metro area covered in snow and the residents just go about their normal lives with a metre of snow on the ground.  There was a declared a snow emergency which means on the first day after the storm the main streets are ploughed, the second day is when the even streets and the third day the odd numbered streets, so everywhere there was piles of snow waiting to be loaded into tip trucks to be dumped at a secret location elsewhere.

On Thursday Karen drove us 3.5 hours north east of Minneapolis to Hayward, Wisconsin (population 2000) which is where the 50km American Birkebeiner finishes in the Hayward’s main street.  The cabin we were staying in, Ullr Haus, was located another 50km north near the start of the race so we drove up there and had time for a short ski before it got too cold.  In this area there are numerous cabins sprinkled in the woods mostly owned by private groups of friends as was the case with our cabin.  There were 12 of us staying in Ullr Haus, most of the people part owners or family or friends.  We felt very fortunate that Karen had been able to arrange us to stay at this cabin as it was great opportunity to meet a wonderful group of Americans who certainly were welcoming to us.

Friday morning was a breakfast meeting of WorldLoppet masters from around the world.  There was a talk by a doctor researching MS as this race is a substantial fundraiser for MS research, so Bruce was acknowledged with his achievements for keeping on skiing even though he is an MS sufferer.  All of the multiple masters including us were recognised and our brightly coloured Australian Kangaroo Hoppet vests were a great visual ambassador for our country.  It was an excellent opportunity to meet other Worldloppet skiers.  An article had also been written about us in one of the online ski magazines so some people had read that and knew of our goal to ski 14 worldloppet races this season.  After bib pick-up we had time for another short ski to stretch the legs and see a little more of the course before waxing our skis for the expected extremely frigid temperatures.

On checking the thermometer when we woke on Saturday morning the temperature was an unbelievable -22 degrees celsius????? This was our coldest morning so far and over breakfast there were lots discussions about what clothes to wear in such extreme temperatures.  The temperature hardly increased by race start time so it was a chilly wait for the gun to go, but fortunately we could easily walk to the start from our cabin so we timed it so we didn’t have to stand around for too long.

The Birkebeiner is different to all of the other races in that  they conduct a 54km classic race and a 50km freestyle race at the same time with the same start and finish locations although for some 25kms the courses are separate.  There is also a shorter 28km race starting at the same time, so some 8,800 skiers lined up to start in various waves according to your previous race times and technique.  The elite started at 8am on perfect tracks.  Bruce and Karen started at 8.50am in classic wave 5 and I started at 9.05am in freestyle wave 4.  The first 10km was very congested as is usual in races.   At about the 4km mark there were about 15 people playing the bongo drums in the middle of the track giving out badges to the classic skiers.  The course is rolling hills, the locals had told me that the hills eased off after about half way but I must have missed that part as it seemed hilly nearly all the way until the last 4km where you ski across a frozen lake.   After about the 10km mark it started lightly snowing and continued for most of the race.   The hills were short and sharp so even though it was bitterly cold I would sweat going up the hills then zooming down the hills the sweat would freeze and I was very cold.  At many places skiers were stopped swinging their arms trying to get warm up, I was very glad I had decided to wear my warmer mittens and gortex jacket with hood. My feet were cold for the first 10km then warmed up for about 15km and then were like lumps of wood on the ends of my legs for the rest of the race. I was able to imagine what it’s like for Bruce to ski with limited feeling in his legs.

Finally after 3hrs and 45 minutes I skated off the lake across the highway and into main street of Hayward to ski 3 blocks with people cheering who had lined the streets despite the extreme temperatures.  I was very very pleased to finish and was keen to quickly get changed, however I just had to try and take a photo of a man with a totally frozen beard and long icicles hanging down from his chin. (Unfortunately the camera was frozen and wouldn’t work!) Any exposed hair was frozen. During the race an icicle had formed I the corner of my eye and it had been difficult to remove.  In the end whilst going down a hill I held it between my gloved fingers to melt it enough to fall off.

Even after getting changed I was still bitterly cold so I went into the heated tent and grabbed a warm drink and soup which did the trick to warm me up a little.  A sheer mass of skiers provided the heat whilst I waited for Bruce and Karen to finish.  After an hour of so I went to the finish line to try and squeeze amongst the spectators to hopefully see Bruce and Karen finish.  There was constant stream of skiers finishing so I was concerned about missing them, then the announcement that you don’t want to hear a request for me to go to the Birke office.  I instinctively knew something was wrong and so tentatively walked the 2 blocks, hoping for the best.  On entering I saw Bruce with his leg elevated.  I was so glad to see him and see that he was ok, even though he had broken his left ankle. At about 6km into the race two skiers had fallen in front of him on a small hill.  They had moved their skis so Bruce thought he had enough room to go around but at the last second one of the skiers lifted his ski a ankle height and tripped Bruce over thereby snapping his ankle.  Fortunately the ski patrol wasn’t too far away and so Bruce was skidoo-ed to a heated tent and then many other means of transport, back of truck, bus, and finally ambulance to Hayward Hospital where his ankle was immediately x-rayed and confirmed that he has a clean and in-place fracture of the fibula.  A half-leg plastic cast was attached immobilise his leg for the next four weeks.  Bruce was discharged with skis in hand to hop to the exit door and leave.  He had to ask the nurse to call him a taxi, but she didn’t know the number so he asked her to call the Birke office and so Patty, a wonderful caring lady from the Birke office came and picked Bruce up and fed him cookies and coffee until I was located.

Next step was to get the pain killer prescription filled, begging for more than 1 day’s supply, then find Karen and work out how to get back to our cabin.  With 8,800 skiers finding someone is no easy feat but we had a pre-arranged meeting place which worked well.  Karen rang the cabin and one of the guys volunteered to drive the 40 minutes down to pick us up instead of trying to get Bruce across the snowy, icy ground to a bus stop and onto a yellow school bus.  This was a real blessing as learning to use crutches is quite tricky especially in the snow and ice and when you have a very weak right leg from MS.  Bruce insisted on me taking the time to get my Worldloppet passbook stamped which turned out to be another stroke of luck as the Hayward couple when hearing of Bruce’s accident offered to give us a pair of crutches that were stored in their back shed as they said they had no plan of needing them again!

On arriving back at the cabin we were truly looked after with genuine hospitality, as was Jim who had frostbitten fingers from the race  (Bruce had met many many people in the Hayward triage response facility who had a similar fate).  Our hospitable cabin friends in their haste to make Bruce a cup of tea, somehow managed to put salt in the cup instead of sugar so we all had a good laugh.  We had an extremely pleasant evening chatting with our new friends swapping race stories, it was as if we had known them for years. 71 year old Gerry was especially happy to finish the shorter Korteloppet as he was recovering from a hip replacement and this was his first race since the operation, so he had been concerned about falling.

On Sunday Karen drove us back to her home in Minneapolis and we had to make the big decision about what to now do.  Bruce is keen for me to continue skiing the remaining four Worldloppet ski races as we had planned.  I’m not so keen as we set out on this adventure to do it together and it’s not the same without Bruce, plus I don’t want to put any extra pressure on Bruce.  So we’re heading for Prague as per our planned flights to meet back up with Malcolm and will reassess once we’ve tried travelling with Bruce incapacitated.  We’ve severely culled all our gear leaving Bruce’s skis and any excess gear with Karen to arrange sending home to Australia and are now travelling with one pack and just my two pair of racing skis.

The most pleasant thing about Bruce’s accident is all the wonderful helpful people we have met, many of whom we don’t even know their names.  Bruce is amazing how positive he has managed to stay, I’m not sure if I would have been able to, I reckon I would be extremely disappointed and upset but he has managed to stay upbeat and positive.  We’ll keep you updated with another instalment next week. Hope you are all safe and happy…..We are!

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Canada – 53km classic & skate 19&20 Feb 2011

Hi everyone, greetings from Ottawa, Canada.

The Canadian Loppet race is held in a National Forest about 10 minutes drive from Parliament House in Ottawa, Canada.  Ottawa being the Canberra (national capital) of Canada is a large city with all the modern cons.  Ottawa is in the English speaking province of Ontario, however we stayed across the river in Gatineau, in the French speaking province of Quebec.  Fortunately, we found most Canadians in this part of Canada to be bilingual or at least able to understand some English so it was a real treat to be able to easily communicate and to also hear English spoken in shops or on buses.

Our week began with an extra long Valentine’s Day, as we had another epic flight schedule from Sapporo Japan to Ottawa Canada, including crossing the International Date Line so we had to wind our watches back and we gained a day, therefore arriving and transiting Chicago before we had even left Japan.  It’s always hard to get used to significant changes of time zones and mixed with the fact we got very little sleep on the plane as there were too many movies to watch and electronic games to play on the plane.  We had left our hotel in Sapporo Japan at 4.30am on Monday morning and arrived in Ottawa Canada at 11.30pm Monday night though it was really some 34 hours later.  (no wonder we’re tired!)

Many people warned us that Ottawa was very cold and alighting from the plane into -20 degrees celsius and windy conditions we agreed.  We caught a late night bus into Ottawa city with the bus driver calling us a taxi to take us to our hotel across the river.  Whilst waiting for the taxi we experienced the full force of the cold and wind. We were very glad finally see and catch our taxi, and to reach the hotel. A well-earned sleep-in was enjoyed. We had a short ski on Tuesday, by the time we worked out the bus schedule and where the ski trails were, in the extreme cold temperatures and had trouble getting warm, the cold just seemed to get into our bones.

Wednesday it was much warmer, Thursday even warmer and then Friday temperatures peaked at a record for this time of the year at 11.9 degrees.  It was amazing, it felt just like skiing in Australia on a perfect Spring day. Bruce and I walked around the city area of Ottawa after skiing on Friday with just one layer of clothing on and no gloves, a huge change to Tuesday.

Our American friend Karen arrived on Wednesday and had hired a car (she was given a flashy cadiallac) so we were very lucky as she drove us to the ski trails for the rest of the week.  We had a good time exploring different tracks in Gatineau Park which were supposed to form the race course….

Friday’s huge melt significantly damaged the condition of the ski trails – the powder snow had turned into wet puddles in some places, a nightmare for race organisers to try and provide a 53km safe but interesting race course.  They had several plans depending on what exactly happened to the temperature on Friday night.  Saturday was the 53km classic course and the organisers did a brilliant job getting a course prepared as the temperature had dropped from 11 degrees to -10 degrees overnight, so all the melted snow had snap frozen and turned to hard impenetrable ice.  It was also very windy about 30km/h gusting to 50km/h with a wind chill of what seemed like -35 degrees.  The original course was revised to skip the narrow icy sections and include much more long gradual ascents and long gradual descents. It was a great course which suited us fine.  Bruce, Karen and Marg successfully skied the 51km race, with Marg making a personal best and winning her age group (including being presented with a medal), a huge achievement. 

After the race on Saturday there was a WorldLoppet cocktail party where about 100 skiers from around the world all mingled. It’s great to meet other skiers doing the same thing as us.

Sunday was another early morning for the freestyle race.  When we arrived at the race course the temperature was -16 degrees, though fortunately just a light wind, and the course was different to Saturday with more of the challenging uphill and downhill sections on narrow tracks with icy corners included. It was tricky not knowing where the icy bits would be as all the preceding skiers had pushed the snow to one side. Bruce and I completed the 53km long course and Karen skied the 31km course. One of the amazing things about the Gatineau Loppet is the number of shorter races to encourage the whole family to participate-3km, 5km, 10km and 16km races.  It was great to see so many people including families, school and youth groups out on cross country skis.

Onwards to the next challenge, the 50+km American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin.

Regards and hoping all is well in your patch of the sandpit.

Marg Hayes and Bruce Wharrie

PS: Worldloppet Race programme

  1. Czech Republic – 50km – completed

2         & 3. Austria 2 X 42km – completed

4.   Italy 70km – completed

5     & 6. Germany 2 X 50km – completed

7. Japan 50km – completed

8. & 9. Canada 2 X 53km – completed

10. USA 54km – next

11     & 12. Poland 2 X 50km

13. Switzerland 42km

14. Norway 54km

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Japan – 50km skate 13 Feb 2011

konnichi wa! Hello from Japan!

We have just had a fabulous week in Japan. This was our first time in Japan so it was all new and exciting.

It was an epic journey to Japan: skied a 42km skate race last Saturday, then a 42km classic race last Sunday in Southern Germany, caught a train 2 hours after finishing the Sunday race to Munich. After about 4 hours sleep, we flew out of Munich at 7am Sunday to London Heathrow, a 5 hour wait then boarded the plane to Japan, however we sat on the tarmac for 1.5 hours before beginning our 11 hr flight to Tokyo, followed by a 2 hour transit to the other airport in Tokyo, a 1.5 hour flight to Sapporo a city of 1.5 million people on the Hokkaido the north island of Japan. Collecting our luggage it was a 60 minute train ride to the city, swopped to subway for 10 minute ride, followed by 15 minute walk to hotel.  So we were knackered and ate a junk food dinner from the nearest 7/11 store before collapsing into bed for a well earned sleep.

At 8am the next morning there was a knock on the door, it was an Aussie ski friend Doris Trueman who we didn’t even know was going to be in Japan.  There were two more Aussies in the room next door Craig and Rick Alexander.  They had been told by Minoru, our mutual Japanese friend, that we would be at the hotel.  Since we had to change hotels and to help recover from our flights, we spent our first day in Sapporo exploring the snow festival-an annual event which celebrates winter by having over 250 sculptures of snow and about 100 ice carvings built in the city streets.  They are various sizes mostly about 2 metres in height and width depicting animals and various characters,  but there are some enormous snow sculptures which are 3 stories high (10 metres) and 20 metres wide.  There was one of the Lion King which is just about to open in Sapporo, another of a Chinese temple, a Japanese hillside, Disney characters and other various scenes. They were absolutely amazing one being built with 700 truckloads of snow and made up of 1400 compacted snow blocks, 4 000 people to build it. The scale and effort  is hard to imagine.

On arriving at our next hotel located closer to the skiing we met up with Aussies Doris, Craig and Rick and it began a very social week of many dinners at various restaurants and lots of laughs and good skiing and swopping stories. Lots of other skiers from many different nationalities including Czech, Swedish, Canadian, German and French were staying at the hotel so we were a real multi-national group.  We skied at a local ski park the next day – Takino Ski Trails. Great skiing with lots of ups and downs through interesting forest of bamboo and aspen trees, with intermittent views to the surrounding mountains and city landscape, however hardly any Japanese.

On Friday we skied at the Sapporo Dome which is the start and finish of the race. The Sapporo Dome is shaped like a huge spaceship and is usually used for baseball and soccer matches. The race track is only groomed specifically for the race and since the track was opened we decided to go for a ski there and check out a bit of the course. As we had heard it was quite hilly, but looks very interesting.

A well attended welcoming party was enjoyed late Friday afternoon with many speeches by race dignitaries and some of us overseas representatives.    Japanese hospitality continued to flow with lots of free speciality food (especially seafood products) and drink facilitating meeting new Worldloppet skiers and catching up with many previous race participants.

Race morning greeted us with clear skies, but forecast some wind and snowshowers, hopefully not until we finish the 50km endurance race.  The Japanese race is a little different where we all get changed for racing in large warm carpeted changing rooms at the Sapporo Sports Dome (a large alien spaceship looking structure), then head out to the start area with only 30 minutes to go.   A relaxed atmosphere ensured an orderly start of the first wave including all us foreign representatives. (only 1000 long race and 1500 short race competitors behind us in succeeding waves!)

The first 5 km involved a long uphill followed by a fast downhill, then a sharp totally icy downhill corner – first crash for Bruce!  The course then proceeded with lots of uphills and brutal downhills because of the sheet ice and large perimeter piles of soft snow.   But the amazing thing was the ongoing respect for other skiers who had crashed on the dangerous downhill sections.  Competitors would politely wait for the course to be clear before preceding. On the steep uphills a queue would form. If you were in any other country skiers would jostle to try and get ahead but the Japanese just fall in line and wait their turn without anyone trying to ski up the side over your skis. It was amazing to be part  of.

The first refreshment station was great to see but food and drink was limited, particularly for faster skiers.  Warm energy drink, and a small piece of banana could be enjoyed and then onwards, onwards, onwards.  Now the uphills become a porridge of 15cm deep sandy snow making climbing on skating skis an extreme physical challenge.  Then the hills got steeper and harder before softening.  At the 35km mark straight after a comfortable drink station the race trail visually disappeared….yep, straight over an edge of a 70 degree descent covered in bits of soft green bamboo, bark and dirt. Marg stopped at the top and thought “you’ve got to be joking”, waiting for another skier to descend then followed him down with incredible speed. We have never seen this mental challenge before, but go for it without thinking because the ski run out was safe and consistent.  The following uphill was so steep you were down to a walking pace and many skiers were stopped at the side exhausted. As I passed I kept saying ”You Can Do it”, not knowing if they could understand, but knowing this was the final steep uphill.(Marg) And yet another challenge enveloped the course only 8km from the finish for Bruce (he was a bit slower due to choosing classic skis for the race).  Heavy snow began to fall and as Bruce came out of the forested areas, the headwind hit and visibility dropped substantially. 

But after many hours of hard skiing, our toughest race so far this season we finished the 50km and celebrated.  Not only did we complete our first Japanese Sapporo Marathon, our seventh Worldloppet race for the season, which in itself is a great achievement but we had also fulfilled a long held dream to become “Global Worldloppet skiers”- this means you have completed Worldloppet ski races in each of the 15 member countries on the Worldloppet circuit. We had been to the other 14 countries some several times but hadn’t made it to Japan until now. We were both very very happy especially since it is such a challenging race.

After the race Minoru our Japanese Worldloppet skier friend had organised a dinner for 30+ skiers staying at our hotel. It was a fantastic celebration of all our achievements. Driving to the restaurant was an experience it was bucketing fresh light dry snow and we began wonder if the airport would be open the next  morning for our 8am flight to Tokyo and then onto Ottawa Canada.  Fortunately as with everything in Japan they are very efficient at clearing the snow.

Before we finish our Japanese report it’s worth mentioning some of the interesting things we noticed in Japan as it is a very different country to visit, more different to Australians than many of  the European countries that we have visited.

Some of the major difference included: heated toilet seats, toilets that wash your buttocks by pushing certain buttons, green tea muffins, miso soup, raw fish and salad for breakfast (we did bring some of our own muesli as I didn’t want to race on miso soup), hot and drink vending machines along footpaths, exceptionally helpful polite customer service, cleanliness of public transport.  Eating out was an exciting challenge as most menus are only in Japanese and there is little English spoken in restaurants or shops. Fortunately some restaurants have full scale plastic models of the food which was certainly handy. I bought a 1 litre carton with Megmilk on it as well as Japanese writing, with a picture of white liquid being poured from a jug. I had assumed it was milk. It wasn’t! I discovered when I offered the other Aussies a cup of milk tea. Pouring in the liquid I commented the tea was very strong but on tasting it had an unusual taste of orange juice. Turns out the “milk” was actually some type of white looking fruit juice.  Buying what I thought was blueberry yogurt turned out to be purple jelly!  Not so good on the muesli. Bruce and I spent the day before the race wandering the underground shopping malls which extended for kilometres and kilometres below the city streets. We carbo loaded as well, as there were lots of opportunities to taste test many different sorts of speciality chocolate products (Valentine day is big in Japan) and Japanese foods at the many tiny shops in the underground food halls as many offered free samples.

Alas, it was sad to leave Japan after such a short stay, but their politeness, attention to detail, level of tidiness of public places and Minoru’s transport assistance will remain with us for a very long time.

Sayonara until the next Worldloppet race dispatch.

Hoping all is well in your patch of the universe.

PS: Worldloppet Race programme

  1. Czech Republic – 50km – completed

2  & 3. Austria 2 X 42km – completed

4.   Italy 70km – completed

5 & 6. Germany 2 X 50km – completed

7.  Japan 50km – completed

8. & 9. Canada 2 X 53km – next

10. USA 54km

11  & 12. Poland 2 X 50km

13. Switzerland 42km

14. Norway 54km

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Germany – 50km classic and skate 5&6 Feb 2011

Hi from Germany!

After the Italian Marcialonga race last Sunday we travelled by train to Oberammergau, Germany for the Konig Ludwig Lauf- the German 50 km skate and classic races, but on the way as the train travels through a spectacular part of Austria we decided to stop at Seefeld in Tirol, Austria for a couple of days rest and relaxation, as it is a well-known health alpine resort.  But really we stopped to go skiing in the sun as Seefeld is a very popular cross country skiing area, but the more amazing thing is the hundreds of kilometres of cleared walking trails for winter walkers (known locally as wander weggers!)   The ski and walking trails intersected at many places and it was incredible to see hundreds of people of all shapes, sizes and ages out skiing or walking.  Many, many people were elderly, just out for a short slow shuffle on the skis or a stroll in the forest.   A big local attraction were the sunny cafes and outdoor tables where skiers or walkers could sit in the sun and enjoy the amazing 360 degree mountain views whilst sipping coffee, beer or gluwein and munching on apple struedel.  It was just brilliant to see so many average people enjoying the snow and sun, there weren’t any elite skiers here so we felt pretty expert compared to everyone else.

One morning we caught an early bus to Leutasch about a 30 minute ride away.  We had clipped on our skis at about 8.30am and we saw only one other skier for the first 2 hours skating, probably because the sun hadn’t yet reached the valley and the temperature must have been minus 15 degrees as our skis didn’t glide very well on the super dry cold snow.  By 11 o’clock as the sun hit the valley hundreds of skiers and walkers emerged from their cosy warm guesthouses.  It was great to be out in the snow with so many other winter enthusiasts.

We had a superb apartment right in the middle of Seefeld which was about 2 minutes walk to the trails and 1 minute walk to the supermarket- EuroSpar.  Initially I made the comment that EuroSpar looked just like a Kmart but later had to retract my statement  because as well as all the usual supermarket items at normal supermarket prices, upstairs it also sold fur coats!  I noticed one in the window for approximately 6 thousand Aussie dollars.  Seefeld is a resort and cosmopolitan town which was definitely a place to be seen, you didn’t actually have to ski or walk, just dress in the fur coats and fur boots and sit at the outside café tables people watching whilst patting your fur poodle! Needless to say the shops sold all sorts of designer clothes and jewellery what every cross country skier buys when they are having a rest day!  There was even a secondhand shop selling fur coats and designer clothes-I managed to resist as we’ve just lightened our packs sending home Bruce’s heavy glass trophy won in Austria and other excess gear.

Bruce’s chest infection while no longer infectious has lead to torn intercostal muscles in his chest so he spent the Seefeld days resting his body for the next races.  He did really well to remain positive despite not being able to participate in the wonderful skiing that Malcolm and I enjoyed.

Oberammergau, Germany is well known in Europe and around the world as the town of the Passion Play.  Every ten years since about the 1500’s the locals have acted out the death of Christ in a massive production which is well attended by thousands of people every night for all of summer. Therefore many of shops in Oberammergau sell the most amazing collection of wooden carvings which are mementos of the Passion Play.  It is certainly an unlikely place for a cross country ski race.

Our first night in Oberammergau, we had dinner with 3 other Aussie skiers Merv & Bev Trease and Ronice Goebel.  It was good to catch up with other Aussies and share travel stories. They were planning to have Friday off skiing and catch a bus to Neuschwanstein Castle, so they invited Bruce to join them for the day, as Malcolm and I planned on going for an easy ski out on the race course. Bruce had decided to go and so was having an early breakfast, then at the last minute Malcolm decided to go as well,  so I figured I probably should have a day off skiing too in preparation for skiing two 50 km races over the next two days.  Therefore six Aussies boarded the bus for the 1.5 hour bus ride through snow covered farmland to an amazing castle built was King Ludwig II. Since the German race is named after this eccentric king it was appropriate that we visited the castle.  Kilometres before we arrived, we could see the castle perched on a high knoll overlooking snow covered plains and a frozen lake, with steep mountains behind reaching towards the sky.  The castle design resembles the Walt Disney “Disneyworld” style.   It was a dramatic setting.  After purchasing the tour tickets it was a supposed 40 minute uphill walk (more like 20 minutes) to the castle entrance. Tours were offered in many different languages so at 11:05 we promptly began the “English Language” tour.  Although the castle was built in medieval style it was actually only built in the 1880’s. Inside everything was lavish with huge paintings on every wall. Some were religious paintings, some were paintings from opera scenes and others were paintings of other 6 sanctified kings. There were gold chandeliers in nearly every room and intricate wood carved furniture including King Ludwig’s incredible 4 poster bed with a carved cathedral on top.  Apparently it took some 60 workmen two years to carve the bedroom furniture. The castle even had running water, central heating and a telephone to the local telegraph office, all things that were well before their era. It was certainly an interesting diversion to the skiing.

An amazing thing happened on Saturday’s 50kilometre skate race day- the temperature warmed up to an incredible 12 degrees celsius.  Yes, 12 degrees!  Unheard of over here at this time of the year. Because of this the race course was changed due to a grave concern about significant snow melt and dangerous conditions on the hills. Therefore the course was changed to two loops, a common occurrence for one reason or another in Australia’s Kangaroo Hoppet. Initially I wasn’t impressed with 2 loops as this meant we missed skiing through the gardens of another King Kudwig castle and I prefer to ski on different track, but as it turned out 2 loops was great, as on first loop you got to know the terrain and on the second loop you could rip down the hills. The first 10 kilometres of the skate course was very congested with 1500 skiers all trying to skate on the same bit of snow. As every skater takes up a good 2-3 metres of space so when the track narrowed to 4 metres there wasn’t enough room for everyone and the pace slows down considerably. All the time you are trying not to ski over the person in fronts poles and hoping the person behind you doesn’t ski over your poles.  If a pole gets skied over 1 of several things occur: you feel like your shoulder is ripped out of it’s joint, or you fall over, or you break your pole, therefore you ski trying to keep poles really close and hoping no-one skis over your poles. Once the queue hits a hill progress stops completely as happened at the 4km mark today. It would have been a good ten minutes to ski 100 metres as there the queue was so slow. Fortunately from then on the crowd moved and fortunately by the 10 km mark the queue thinned and I started to make really good progress. My skis were gliding well and from then on I felt very few people(except Malcolm) passed me a massive contrast to last weeks race when about 2 thousand people passed me.  The second loop was brilliant as I felt really strong and just kept surging ahead. I was extremely pleased to finish the race in 2hrs 48minutes, just 2 minutes behind Malcolm. Bruce persevered on his classic skis with his crook body and finished in about 4 hours 15 min which is awesome considering his current health and that he classiced which is much slower than skating.

Sunday was another brilliant sunshine day and so we had a more leisurely start as there isn’t nay point in standing around in the cold at the race start any longer than necessary so we didn’t catch a bus until nearly 8am which is the lastest race morning start we’ve had. As it was only a 7 or 8 minute bus ride we still had plenty of time to get ready for the race start at 9am. Because this trip we are using our fish scale classic skis we didn’t even have to worry about what grip wax to use just waxed the tip an and tails the night before and so we were quite relaxed at the start. There were some 2 thousand skiers so it was quite a busy trail for the first 10 kms , then the crowds thinned and it was much easier to enjoy the wonderful surroundings and not have to concentrate so hard when there are lots of other skiers about. The snow was drier and slower than Saturday and as classic is slower it gave me more time to look around as well. At the last drink station 8 kms to the finish Hannes Larson, a friend from France/Finland passed me. Even though I was tired I decided to try and keep up. Hannes is a legend in worldloppet circles, he is the absolute master, having skied over 200 worldloppet races, more than anyone else, and being a 20 time gold worldloppet master(completed 10 worldloppet races in 10 different countries). He was awarded a special framed certificate at the Marcialonga in Italy by the Worldloppet Association. He is a true inspiration for all of us as he just had his 80th birthday and is still skiing strongly (mind you he’s probably been skiing since he was 2). Anyway it was hard to keep up as Hannes is a strong skier and his skis were certainly running faster than mine but with a bit of determination I hung in there and crossed the finish line beside Hannes in 3 hrs 30 mins. Bruce and Malcolm came in just over 4 hrs, so Bruce was faster the second time classicing the same course an amazing feat.

We are now headed for Japan so aren’t sure about internet access or when you’ll actually receive this report. Hope you are enjoying some warm weather.

Regards,

Marg and Bruce

6th February 2011

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Italy – Marcialonga 70km classic 30 Jan 2011

Hi everybody, we have just spent a week in Italy!!

Italy, what a brilliant country to visit!   The Dolomite mountains in Northern Italy (& Southern Austria) are absolutely spectacular-rocky spires reaching thousands of metres up into the sky.  Many are red/orange  in colour and very steep, a rock climbers paradise.  They make for dramatic alpine scenery to ski through as the red rock is contrasted against the pure white snow, and beautiful blue skies.

Our first stop, Dobbiaco/Toblach, just inside the Italian border and an hour’s train ride from Lienz, Austria.   Many places in this part of Italy have 2 names -a German name and an Italian name, as many people in this part of Italy actually speak German rather than Italian.   We spent the afternoon wandering around town to give our bodies a rest from the last 2 days of ski races – Bruce has also picked up a lung/chest infection, so the rest was good, also a  visit to an Italian doctor who didn’t speak English so this was a real education for Bruce and the doctor!  In the end Bruce left with appropriate prescriptions for medication.

The next day we decided to re-trace the route of our ski epic of two years ago when we were caught in avalanches across the ski track and road which had made it impossible to make it back to our accommodation at Dobbiaco and we had had to retrace our steps & stay overnight in a hotel on the other side of the mountain, with only the wet ski clothes we were standing in.  The following day with no transport options we had skied back 40km on the closed road past abandoned vehicles and avalanche slopes.

This year before we set off, we diligently checked the weather predictions to make sure snow wasn’t  expected, it wasn’t,  so we caught the bus 40km to Cortina through a pass, to the other side of the Dolomites to begin our adventure.  Since Bruce was not feeling 100% he skied slowly determined not to miss such a spectacular and memorable ski journey.   The ski trail was impeccably groomed (even in the tunnels) which made for easy skiing (2 years ago we were making our own tracks in knee deep fresh snow!).   From the very beginning the views were dramatic with the Dolomites towering overhead, it didn’t matter which direction you looked the views were awesome, a place where photos don’t give justice.   The groomed ski trail is an old railway line with a very gentle climb for the first half, up to a high mountain pass and then the second half of the route is the gradual descent down the other side to the Dobbiaco valley.   The track goes through 2 tunnels, one was about 500 metres with lights overhanging as you couldn’t see the light at the other end, the other tunnel was only about 100 metres.  Two years ago an avalanche had taken out the whole ski trail on the steep slope between the two tunnels.  This year the trip was uneventful just amazing views and lots of other skiers whereas 2 years ago we didn’t see a soul.  Half way to the pass we met 4 other Aussies (the Defritas family) who we had met at the Dolomitenlauf race, in Austria and Jizerska race, in Czech Republic.  It was a glorious ski down from the pass, letting the skis runs fast down the perfect tracks.   We had lunch overlooking a frozen lake which steep red cliffs behind.   It was a great day and we were very pleased to safely reach Dobbiaco after some 6 hours of awesome skiing.

Bruce decided he had better rest so he took a couple of days off skiing to give his lungs a chance to recover.   Therefore I explored the tracks around Dobbiaco, taking lots of photos so Bruce could experience what it was like even though he didn’t quite make it there in person this time.  Dobbiaco area is certainly a superb place to XC ski with so many kilometres of trails with lots of variety.

On Thursday after I skied the morning, we caught the train (3 trains) and bus to Cavalese, our base for the next ski race, the 70km Marcialonga.   Malcolm farewelled Mirella in Milano, as she had to return to Australia to work and then Malcolm met us in Cavalese.   On Friday Malcolm and I caught a bus for 30 minutes to Passo Lavaze, a mountain pass high in the Dolomites to ski the pristine trails with superb views.   It was gorgeous weather and 360 degree mountain views back to Austria and across to Switzerland.  The skiing was brilliant even sharing the trails with some 2,000 Norwegians who had also come to Italy for the Marcialonga.  It was great to see so many talented skiers.

6,500 people skied the Marcialonga, which is a 70km classic traditional style race with stringent cut-off times.   The race winds its way through tiny villages where excited Italians line the course yelling out Bravo! Bravo! Hop! Hop!  to encourage you to ski faster.   It was an amazing race with lots of atmosphere.   As well as 2,500 Norwegians, there were 600 Swedes, 1600 Italians, many other Europeans, a few Americans, Canadians, Japanese and of course 3 Aussies (us).   There was insufficient natural snow for the whole 70km course and so artificial snow had been made in the forest and trucked into the areas where there was insufficient natural snow.   This included all of the numerous road crossings and the narrow alleyway routes through the towns and villages.  It was an amazing logistical exercise supremely completed each year by the region’s municipality and race organisers.   In the days leading up to the race we saw truckload after truckload of snow being carted into Cavalese to transform the town square from a busy road intersection to the race finish.  In some sections of the race course we skied on a narrow 2 metre track with green grass on both sides, or in the case in the small towns, the hard edges of house buildings.

Race morning was clear and cold with the temperature at -15degrees as we walked to the bus stop at 6.30am.   Nothing like hundreds of jostling, anxious ski races with their bags and skis in hand try to get into the next bus.  But all went smoothly as everybody assisted each other in trying fit and balance skis, ski poles and clothing bags into each bus.  On arriving at Moena, the race start, the temperature rose sharply to a brisk -10 degrees, as we tried to stay warm shivering in the paddock as we waited for over 30 minutes in the toilet queue of 23 portable toilets, with 6 447 other people. The race started in very well organised open paddock waves (with the elite at 8.15am and we finally got away at 9:10am hoping to finally get into some sunshine and some warmth.   However it was a few more hours before we reached the sun on the other side of the Val di Femme valley.   

For the first 20km the race course goes up the valley to Canazei with magnificent mountain views, everytime you got tired you just reminded yourself to look up at the view as it was always changing and always superb.  Finally on reaching the Canazei  you cross the river and begin the gentle and nice downhill ski down the valley with more dramatic views as you wind in and out of the forest and through many tiny villages.  The further down the valley you get every village had a drink and food station set up which were welcome diversions.   Skiing with so many other skiers on a narrow track was quite an experience as you always had to be careful to make sure you didn’t get your skis and poles caught up with other skiers as you whizzed along.   The many small downhills were quite treacherous, as with so many skiers the top layer of snow was brushed off leaving an icy hard service. After 67 kilometres of skiing we reached the last obstacle a steep uphill which takes you 3 kilometres from the valley floor up to the hillside town of Cavalese to finish in the town square. For the last kilometre the course was lined with hundreds of spectators which was quite incredible considering the winners had finished some 4 hours before but still the crowd cheered us mere citizien skiers into the finish which was a real honour. This race really acknowledges the efforts of not only the elite but the slowest skiers too. Much of the town cheers the final skier in and when they have crossed the finish line a massive fireworks show erupts. We were all extremely pleased to finish the race and slowly walked back to our apartment to celebrate – For Bruce just to ski 70km slowly (7 hours 51 mins) when he had had a chest infection showed he has solid technique, Malcolm who usually skates, classiced the furthest he has ever skied in 7 hours 46mins and Marg was ecstatic to set a personal best of 6hrs 20 mins. A superb achievement for us all !

Next challenge is the German, Konig Ludwig Lauf just one week away!

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