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Racing through the night

Cross-country skiing in the Engadin

Racing through the night
The dark doesn’t bother me. I actually like night-time because I love looking at all the beautiful stars.

Darkness. It can be unsettling. It can be inspiring. And it can even set the scene for peak performance – as on one night at the start of March.

In the dark of the night, our thoughts can run wild. There’s no limit to the emotions we can feel under the cover of darkness – from fear to elation. We’re spending this particular evening with 16-yearold Ilaria Gruber, who is dressed in her Engadin Nordic team gear ready to start the fifth Engadin Night Race. But she pushes away any negative associations with the night with the enviable ease of youth: “The dark doesn’t bother me. I actually like night-time because I love looking at all the beautiful stars.”

Ilaria Gruber
Racing through the night
Racing through the night

And anyway: “It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s light or dark, because the world around me fades away when I’m racing.” She heads over to the starting line fifteen minutes before the race is due to begin. There aren’t many other people around yet. But it looks like pretty much all of the participants have left their skis here to hold their starting position. It’s hard not to be reminded of holiday-makers heading down to the pool first thing to claim their lounger for the day with a towel. Ilaria has left her skis in the second row. “I’m starting to feel a bit nervous now,” she says. She takes the opportu - nity to visualise the race in her mind’s eye one more time. As the minutes tick by, more and more racers arrive to assume their positions. There’s a definite shift in the mood as everyone starts to focus on the race ahead of them. Nobody seems quite so relaxed now, and the conversations trail off. There’s supposed to be a full moon tonight, but it’s nowhere to be seen. Hundreds of headlamps are being relied on to light up the starting line instead. And there are also candles guiding the skiers across the first hundred metres. Now that the last of the light has faded in Maloja, a quick look at the time tells us that Curdin Perl will be giving the starting signal any moment now. “My nerves will fade away once we get going and I can just start enjoying the race,” says Ilaria. The starting pistol fires, and the racers speed off into the darkness. Marianna Gruber is watching her daughter from the sidelines. She tells us: “I love that Ilaria’s main reason for entering cross-country skiing events is that she enjoys the sport. And she really likes the social aspect of skiing with other people, too.”

A daughter in her father's footsteps

Daddy’s girl Ilaria is a local through and through, having grown up in Silvaplana. She strapped on her first pair of cross-country skis at the tender age of three. But who was her inspiration back then? Like lots of little girls, her father was her first hero. “I wanted to explore the winter wonder - land by his side,” says Ilaria. And it’s her father who takes her to races most weekends and waxes up her skis. “His commitment is incredible,” says Marianna Gruber. Ilaria’s commitment has been increasing over time, too. “Last summer, I went to ten training camps,” she tells us. To make this possible, she attends Academia Engiadina in Samedan. Here, the high-school student and other ambitious young athletes follow a tailored timetable that fits around their sporting schedules.

Super speed

The skiers are racing over the course in groups. They’ll have covered 17 kilometres by the time they reach the finishing line in Pontresina. Spurring each other on to give it their all, they are reaching seriously impressive speeds. The fastest skiers are getting close to 30 km/h on the course. When you’re performing at this level, the challenges at night are different to the ones you face in the light of day. “You have to rely on your instinct a lot,” explains Ilaria. It’s much harder to see the ground you’re covering when it’s dark. If a skier is backseating as they hit an uneven patch, they can easily fall. There’s a lot of chatter about this around the finishing line. Some of the skiers are reporting back on their falls and showing off their minor injuries. But there’s a general air of happiness among the pros and hobby skiers alike. Ilaria can’t hide her smile, either, and it’s no wonder: she’s earned herself a place on the podium with her time of 42:44. In fact, she’s swapping her starting number 2 for a winning number 1. Her modest replies to the host during the presentation ceremony confirm what her mother told us before: for Ilaria, racing through the night is nothing but fun. She might not be one for grand speeches, but one thing she said before the race sticks with us: “The dark doesn’t bother me. I actually like night-time because I love looking at all the beautiful stars.”