Hannah Dreissigacker couldn’t have imagined what she was in for at the Engadin Ski Marathon two weekends ago. The 42-kilometer freestyle race from Majola to S-chanf, Switzerland, was the largest in the Alps with more than 11,000 participants.
Dreissigacker hadn’t planned to race it, but without World Cup obligations, the 26-year-old U.S. Biathlon B-teamer suddenly found herself in a position to do so. It was something she’d always wanted to do, and on March 10, she jumped into the Elite A wave, 10 meters behind the top elites. They all started at the same time.
“My wave was almost all men, and I couldn’t get to the front of the line, and so I was sort of in the back/middle of like a thousand men,” wrote Dreissigacker, also of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project. “I got tripped off the start and then run over by the wave that started behind us, and then I was just scrambling around in a huge group of men.
“My poles were getting kicked all over the place, and inevitably one of them got broken,” she explained. “Once I gave up my hope of being anywhere near the top women, I tried to just relax and enjoy it.”
Dreissigacker finished 24th out of 1,900 women, 11 minutes and 14.2 seconds back from Riita-Liisa Roponen of Finland (who won in 1:29.52.3) and about 8:42 off the podium.
“It’s a pretty awesome and crazy feeling to be in the middle of such a huge group of skiers, all just failing around and fighting for their spot, surrounded by beautiful mountains,” Dreissigacker wrote.
She skied with a “very short pole with no basket” for a while and a few kilometers later picked up a spare from race organizers. That one was too long and pretty heavy.
Dreissigacker continued to ski relaxed with the equipment she was given, passing racers when she could, which wasn’t often.
“The pace would slow to a crawl on the hills,” she explained. “But it was beautiful, and as awesome experience. And I got my own spare pole around halfway, which was great. It was a really cool event to be a part of, and I had lots of fun just taking in the scene and watching all the people in crazy costumes finish for the next few hours after I was done.”
In the men’s race, Pierre Guedon of France edged Italian Christian Zorzi by half a second in 1:28.19.6. The top 21 men finished within 9.5 seconds of one another. Midwest native Matt Liebsch was not far off the pace in 25th (15.7 seconds behind Guedon), repeating his result from last year’s Engadin (where he was just 14.6 seconds behind Swiss winner Roman Furger).
Oliver Burruss of XC Oregon took 48th (+1:23.2), Craftsbury’s Nils Koons was 54th (+1:31.20) and Peter Kling of Alaska Pacific University was 56th (+3:05.9).
Burruss, 26, wrote in an email that XC Oregon has a history of sending athletes to the Engadin.
“It seemed like a wicked fun race, definitely up my alley,” Burruss wrote. “I like skate marathons. And racing in Europe is pretty much every American skier’s dream, so I had to go for it.”
Expectations-wise, he didn’t overthink it. But after finishing a solid 24th at the American Birkebeiner on Feb. 23, Burruss figured he could meet his goal of a top 100.
“Once I was in Europe I felt a little funky, questioning my health and such, but in the back of my mind I had faith in my fitness, so it wound up working out,” he wrote. “Once we started, I felt solid and had fun. To end with a solid result was icing on the cake.”
The good company helped, he added. Liebsch and wax technician Clarke Sullivan had been there before, and they gave advice on what to expect.
“The rest of the crew, Nils Koons, Hannah Dreissigacker, and Peter Kling, were a blast to hang out and race with,” Burruss added. “Having the on the ground support of Tony Wiederkehr, who had done the race nine times and knew how to navigate all the logistics, was key as well.”
Burruss remembered being in awe of the start, thoroughly and widely groomed on Lake Sils, with the entire elite wave lined up single file.
“I was in the middle of my warm up … and I got so overwhelmed looking at the mass of people in the pens that I had to stop skiing and take a moment to settle my nerves,” he wrote. “Once the gun went off it was way less chaotic than I expected it to be.”
The first 10 kilometers were flat, and the pack to settled into what Burruss considered “good pace” and stuck together.
“I found quickly that if you weren’t moving forward in the pack, you were moving back,” Burruss added, estimating he floated between the top 20 and top 100 half a dozen times.
“At one point I was trying to move out of the wind and into a pace line when Toni Livers (Swiss National team guy, former World Cup winner) stiff armed me in the side to keep me out,” he wrote. “When I looked up at him he just smiled and shook his head.”
Burruss spent the rest of the race trying not to lose much ground on the leaders, “who drilled it from 15k to 25k and splintered the group,” he explained. “I skied a bit behind the eventual women’s winner, who was skiing so well she was in the lead pack for a while.
“Partway through we all came together again, probably a 50-man strong lead pack, before some dude in a red suit attacked off the front with 5k to go and forced the leaders to chase. I got popped and staggered in at the end of my chase group, pretty shelled from the accelerations.”
Exceeding his goal, Burruss was pretty happy about finishing 48th and less than 90 seconds out, especially since he won’t be training full time next season.
“I wish I’d had more fight in the last few k’s, but there’s always some regret,” he wrote. “It was a good race for me and more importantly it was a lot of fun throughout. … This is a nice one to go out on for sure.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.