Klack, klack. Klack, klack. Strange sounds are echoing through the
alleys of the Engadin village of La Punt Chamues-ch. Klack,
klack. High heels? But so many? Klack, klack. The village of 700 souls
seems deserted; all is still between the patrician houses and the
wooden barns, between the Piz Blaisun high above and the Piz Mezzaun.
Just this one sound breaks the morning silence. Klack, klack.
And then suddenly a surprise sight: a group of men in tight outfits,
carrying skis in their hands and dashing through the village as if
on the run. Klack, klack. Silence. And then the sound returns: another
group hurries through the village.
Altogether, 284 competitors race through this sleepy settlement at the southern foot of the Albula Pass on this Saturday morning in February. They started 35 kilometres up the Inn valley in Maloja. In fact they are doing the whole route on cross-country skis – except in La Punt Chamues-ch, where they have to unclip their skis because the itinerary leads right through the village along roads cleared of snow. On the far side, the course follows cross-country ski trails once again to the final destination: the village of Zernez and its Center da Sport.
The Maloja-Zernez cross-country ski race is the longest of its kind in the Engadin, at 58 kilometres. Its motto: The hour of truth. Guolf Denoth, race director and president of the Sarsura Zernez ski club since 2003, says: “Here, you are pitting yourself not so much against other competitors as perhaps the toughest opponent of all: yourself.”
The Maloja-Zernez cross-country ski race is more than just a competition.
It is a gathering of like-minded people, of Engadin enthusiasts,
of friends of cross-country skiing – and of many of the volunteers
who help out with the far bigger and much better-known Engadin
Skimarathon. They cannot take part in the famous event themselves,
but they still want to enjoy the challenge of a major race.
Today’s contest begins long before the starting gun is fired, early in the morning as the sun first lights up the valley’s highest peaks. Smoke rises from the chimneys of the Engadin houses, their walls adorned with traditional sgraffiti decorations. A few birds sing with gusto, as if trying cheekily to call up spring. Too soon. You can see your breath hanging in the ice-cold air; the thermometer reads –10° C. The streets are empty.
Nearly empty: three PostBuses do the rounds of the villages from Zernez to Maloja, picking up a total of about 150 cross-country skiers. Each racer is welcomed by a volunteer from the Sarsura Zernez ski club and given a race bib. The rows of seats fill steadily, the atmosphere is relaxed.
Reto Curti is one of the participants. The vet from central Switzerland travelled early to Zernez, where he boarded the bus for Maloja. He has already been up for several hours, you can tell: he is wide awake and raring to go. This is not his first time here, he explains, he has already entered the competition on five occasions. “For me, this is the finest cross-country ski race of all,” he says. “Here it’s not about prestige, but about sport and the breathtaking scenery and pure nature.” During one race, he even spotted a chamois between S-chanf and Zernez.
Reto For today’s contest, he prepared his skis carefully with the finest wax. “Every self-respecting cross-country skier waxes their own skis,” he says. Whether he has done it all correctly remains to be seen. His goal: “I’d like to finish in under 2 hours 50 minutes,” he says. Will he manage?
In Maloja, the multipurpose hall is filling steadily. All the participants
are gathering here. The race will start just a few hundred metres away,
on the shore of Lake Sils, in an hour. The atmosphere is still relaxed.
Racers are standing around in the hall in small groups. A few are getting
changed, checking their equipment one more time or sipping hot tea.
In the entrance area, Guolf Denoth is distributing the last bibs. They clearly do not all match. Denoth explains that the club had just 250 bibs, and that this year a record number of people registered: there will be 284 racers at the start, 34 more than the club had bibs for. The extra bibs that they had to order at short notice look rather different – but that does not bother anyone at this easy-going event.
As the sun rises over the Piz da la Margna, sentinel of the Upper Engadin, racers finish off their hot drinks, put on the last bibs and make for the start. It is certainly not going to be warm: this morning, a sharp north wind is blowing across the frozen lakes of the Upper Engadin. For racers, this means they will be battling a nasty, biting headwind. Meanwhile the race director has climbed on the platform of a snow-grooming machine. In his hand, Denoth – whose main job is game warden – is holding a gun.
Calmly but firmly, he makes his voice heard above the conversations at the starting line: “Two minutes to go!” The racers are now all lined up. The sky is cloudless and the mood among the competitors Cross-country ski 93 is light-hearted. People are laughing and chatting; no outsider would imagine that the cheerful men and women were about to embark on a major sporting challenge.
“One more minute!” The conversations fall silent. The mood among
participants becomes quiet but tense. Denoth points his gun skywards
and: “Bang!” A shot shatters the stillness. The show begins. The racers
in the front row speed off like Arab thoroughbreds bursting out of
the starting gate at a horse race. Behind them come those tackling the
race rather more gently. And right at the back skis Stefan Triebs.
He was the last to reach the finish line a year ago, just like the year before – and this year will be no different. Triebs is tail-end Charlie, trailing the field and sweeping up stragglers. He is responsible for ensuring that everyone reaches the finish line within the set time; you can recognise him by the broom sticking out of his rucksack. “Actually, no one wants to see me,” he says, laughing. “Last year a young racer spotted me coming up, and she immediately burst into tears.” Anyone who sees him realises that they are last. “The woman told me she had never been last in life before.” She was at her wits’ end. Stefan Triebs did what he is there to do and encouraged her to keep going – and put a smile back on her face.
If ever a skier decides to give up the race altogether, “I take their bib and show them the best way to get to Zernez,” he says. Sometimes he virtually has to talk exhausted racers into giving up. Once, Triebs used to compete in the race himself; now he acts as a volunteer for the club.
As far as S-chanf, the course follows the route of the Engadin Skimarathon.
But Guolf Denoth does not want to make any comparison
with today’s contest. “Maloja-Zernez is a simple race to organise,”
he says, a total contrast to the big event, “and we don’t get many
celebrity competitors turning up.” He has had several phone conversations
with pro racers, but when they find out the prize money –
a voucher of 150 francs for a dinner – any talk of taking part usually
dries up. From S-chanf, the finish point for the Engadin Skimarathon,
to Zernez, skiers face the most challenging section of all, with a few
tough climbs in store.
A search for the origins of this cross-country ski race leads to the
regulars’ table in the restaurant of the Hotel Crusch Alba in Zernez and
to Reto Rauch and Riet Schorta, two of the race’s founders. For the
first few years, the two of them, along with other members of the Sarsura
Zernez ski club, completed the route in sections. The emphasis was
on fun and pleasure; along the way they stopped for lunch, and even
treated themselves to a beer now and again. “The winner was the
first to order a drink at the Hotel Crusch Alba in Zernez.” The time on
the receipt counted as the official finish time.
Today there is a timing machine at the finish line, operated by Luzi Pinggera. He is sitting in a small container, where he hears the starting signal via his mobile phone. Together with Felix Riet, he records the times of the athletes as they arrive. The first to reach the finish line is 22-year-old Livio Matossi from St. Moritz: 2 hours and 15 minutes after the starting signal in Maloja. He is overjoyed, talks about the superb conditions and says: “Now I’m going to try to be in the first 50 in the Engadin Skimarathon.” He then gets his reward for the day’s exertions: a bowl of barley soup and a piece of bread. The fastest woman is Anja Eichholzer from Zernez, with a time of 2 hours 38 minutes. Yet neither of the two is classed as winner of the race.
“Here, the winner is whoever comes closest to the average time of all the participants,” says Denoth. He adds, with a laugh, that the winner is usually pretty surprised to learn of their victory. This year, it will be Matteo Rocco Pastore; the average time will prove to be 3 hours 8 minutes. The organisers do not publish rankings, however, as “we don’t want the race to be all about performance.” As Denoth speaks, Reto Curti, the vet from central Switzerland, reaches the finish line. He achieves the goal he set himself – 2 hours 50 minutes – with Swiss precision: the display shows a time of 2 hours 49 minutes and 33 seconds. He beams and promises: “I’ll be here again next year.”