They called her a wild card — the International Ski Federation (FIS), that is. And according to Holly Brooks, she wasn’t sure what she was capable of, either.
“The marathon world is a new can of worms for me, and I’m essentially going to a race which I know nothing about,” Brooks, a two-time Olympic cross-country skier and former U.S. Ski Team member, explained in an email earlier this week.
“I don’t have a team, or a regular wax tech for that matter,” she added. “But, I’ve met some great people through the process already, and I have a certain amount of faith that it will all work out.”
Without an early season race to test the waters, Brooks, 32, dove right into La Sgambeda on Friday: a 42-kilometer freestyle mass start in Livigno, Italy.
“I was nervous!” she reflected after the race. “It was the first race of the season for me and I usually don’t wait this long to start racing.”
She flew into Zurich last Saturday and spent her first few days training in Davos, acclimating to the time difference from Anchorage, Alaska.
“It almost felt like ‘coming home’ because of all places in Europe, I’ve spent a lot of time in Davos,” she wrote in an email. “It was also really nice to see all my World Cup friends and of course the U.S. team. It provided a nice transition before heading out into the ‘unknown.’ ”
For Brooks, that mysterious-and-nerve-racking first race was all about chasing Finland’s Riitta-Liisa Roponen, the defending FIS Marathon Cup champion who had one the two previous La Sgambedas.
“Unfortunately I was never in contact with Riita Lisa,” Brooks explained. “She had a faster start than me and she got lost in the crowd of men. There were tons of people between the two of us and I couldn’t weave through to catch her.
“Many of these marathons don’t have women’s waves so a big part of the race is eluding the other women,” she added. “I would prefer our own wave but in the meantime I will have to work on my mixed-gender racing tactics. Once gaps open up in the big groups, it’s impossible to ‘ski up’ without a good draft.”
Brooks managed to ski up to second-best for second place overall. While she was 3 minutes, 12.1 seconds behind Roponen (who won in 1:40.42.8), Brooks outlasted Ekaterina Rudakova of Belarus by 8 seconds for silver and a 15-pound cheese wheel.
Three-and-a-half seconds later, Olga Mikhailova of the Russian marathon team finished fourth (+3:23.6) and France’s Aurelie Dabyduk took fifth (+3:39.4).
“Whenever you land on the podium it’s a good day,” Brooks wrote. “After a couple years of racing World Cup you forget what it feels like and honestly, it’s really fun.”
“After a couple years of racing World Cup you forget what it feels like and honestly, it’s really fun.” — Holly Brooks, after placing 2nd in first marathon of season at La Sgambeda on Friday
Benoit Chauvet claimed the La Sgambeda men’s crown in 1:32.11.4, just four-hundredths of a second ahead of fellow Frenchman Robin Duvillard and the Czech Republic’s Petr Novak, who tied for second.
Switzerland’s Toni Livers was another 0.6 seconds back in fourth, Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus was fifth (+1.9), and the top-11 men all finished within 8.8 seconds of one another.
“The conditions were AMAZING,” Brooks explained. “Livigno is picturesque – perfect! Pure sun, gorgeous mountains, really perfect. My skis were awesome too… but it was a stressful situation leading up to having great skis.”
The night before the race at the captain’s meeting, she still wasn’t sure who would wax her skis. Fortunately, she found some “local Italians” who were up for the job — a man named Enzo, who spent 16 years on Italy’s national-ski team, was one of them, she explained. She repaid him with an iPhone.
Brooks, who switched from the World Cup circuit to the Worldloppet and FIS Marathon Cup this season, is one of the racers receiving a lot of international attention on the eve of the Marathon Cup opening.
“It will be interesting to see how Holly Brooks, who is fully concentrating on the long-distance scene this season, will do,” a FIS and Worldloppet press release stated before the first race of the season.
There are three races this weekend, including the 15 k ProTeam Tempo classic “prologue” on Saturday and 35 k classic on Sunday, both of which are part of the Swix Ski Classics.
Brooks is competing in all three, after recently signing with a Pro Swix Ski Classics team. “But more on that later,” she wrote. Before she knew she’d race the prologue, she was aware two marathons in one weekend was ambitious.
“Sunday’s race course is somewhat of a double-pole derby, and honestly, I’m looking at it as more of a training race for me,” she explained. “Many of those girls train specifically for double-pole, which I do not do.”
While Brooks is viewed as a serious contender for the long-distance events, she’ll have plenty of experienced competition in her quest for an overall podium at the end of the season.
Italy’s Antonella Confortola, who has competed on the FIS Marathon Cup for years, is no doubt hungry for the overall title and reported to be in killer shape again.
Veteran favorite Seraina Boner of Switzerland will definitely be a very strong contestant for the overall title, but how she does could depend on how many races she enters. The same goes for Roponen, last year’s overall FIS Marathon Cup winner, according to FIS.
On the men’s side, last year’s overall winner Tom Reichelt of Germany is not racing after his team dissolved in September. Chauvet, who won Friday’s La Sgambeda and was second overall last year, is eager to make it to the top of the overall podium this season. So is Novak, who was second at last year’s La Sgembeda and second again on Friday.
Aliaksei Ivanou of Belarus, who was third last year, Italy’s Sergio Bonaldi and Simone Paredi, as well as France’s Christophe Perrillat Colomb and Adrien Mougel also raced Friday and all of them finished in the top 15 (with the exception of Paredi in 25th).
Including the World Cup racers
Scheduling La Sgambeda for the day before the World Cup in Davos, Switzerland, on Saturday and Sunday allows World Cup racers to race La Sgambeda, as Davos is fewer than 70 kilometers from Livigno.
Accordingly, several World Cup skiers entered the race this year. France’s Jean Marc Gaillard followed teammate Duvillard (who was second) in sixth. The two teamed up for bronze from last year’s sprint relay at the Sochi Olympics. Livers is another World Cup regular, along with Dolidovitch, Spain’s Imanol Rojo, Denmark’s Martin Moeller, and Estonia’s Madis Vaikmaa.
Norway’s Peter Northug won the race last year but did not compete on Friday — no Norwegians did.
Tough but scenic course
The 42 k marathon consisted of two laps on a 21 k course that runs along the Spöl river and winds through all the villages along it: Florin, Pont Lonc, Limina, Tresenda, and runs as far as Campaciol. From the Hotel Forcola at 12.5 k, the course turns back toward the cross-country stadium, which marks the start, finish and halfway point.
Livigno, normally known as having snow from early November on, had to work hard last year to put the 21 k course together as snow was hard to come by. However, this year, conditions were notably better.
“Livingo is amazing. More North Americans should come here!” Brooks summed up.
Next FIS Marathon Cup: The Dolomitenlauf 42 k freestyle on Jan. 18 in Austria
In total more than 220,000 Euros ($274,000 dollars) will be distributed as prize money this season. Each race offers a minimum of 21,000 Euros ($26,150 dollars) worth of prize money per race. Additional prize money of over 31,000 Euros ($38,600 dollars) will be handed out to the top six men and women in the overall FIS Marathon Cup at the end of the season.
Like every year, the FIS Marathon Cup kicked off with La Sgambeda in the Italian valley of Livigno.
This season, the FIS Marathon Cup consists of nine races total, with a new final in Russia: the Ugra Ski Marathon 50 k skate in Khanty-Mansiysk, Siberia, caps the season in mid-April. Khanty-Mansiysk is best known for its biathlon World Cups and World Championships.
FIS Marathon Cup 2014/2015 calendar
1. La Sgambeda (Italy)
Friday, Dec. 12
42 k freestyle
2. Dolomitenlauf (Austria)
Jan. 18, 2015
60 k freestyle
3. Marcialonga (Cavalese/Val di Fiemme, Italy)
70 k classic
4. La Transjurassienne (France)
56 k classic
5. Tartu Marathon (Estonia)
63 k classic
6. American Birkebeiner (Cable/Hayward, USA)
50 k freestyle
7. Bieg Piastow (Poland)
50 k classic
8. Engadin Ski-marathon (Switzerland)
42 k freestyle
9. Ugra Ski Marathon (Russia)
50 k freestyle
Inge is FasterSkier's international reporter, born and bred in Norway. A cross-country ski racer and mountain runner, she also dabbles on two wheels in the offseason. If it's steep and long, she loves it. Follow her on Twitter: @IngeScheve.