Nordic ski racing is alive and well in the United States. From top to bottom, more Americans are appearing on international podiums than ever before and one needs to look no further than events like the Boulder Mountain Tour, the West Yellowstone Ski Festival and many others to see that even at a domestic and/or grassroots level, U.S. ski racing continues to increase its scope, reach and success.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than ironically, a race outside the U.S., the 42-kilometer Engadin Ski Marathon (ESM). The ESM, held each year through St. Mortiz, Switzerland, is not only the world’s biggest skate ski race, it is also an event like no other. The race in itself it quite a spectacle, but the history, the culture, and the atmosphere make it a truly special event.
This year’s 48th edition was particularly unique as not only one of the top U.S. skiers competed, but some of the U.S. ski community’s biggest supporters, funders and leaders attended as well. This might not seem unusual, but these leaders were present not just as supporters, but also as racers. It would be impossible to find Bob Kraft behind center in a Patriots game, but in this year’s ESM, the CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) took the start, as did a trustee of the USSA Foundation, as well as two highly influential CEOs and major grassroots supports of many levels of U.S. nordic skiing.
Driving to the start on race day in our under-sized van, we had some of the most prominent and influential members of the U.S. ski community. This was a group with widely varying speeds and widely varying responsibilities inside and outside of skiing, but in that moment, we were all focused on one and only one thing for the next few hours: to have the best race possible. While the details of this goal may have varied from person to person and our starting positions ranged from the first row of the elite wave to the last row of the Volksläufer (citizens’ wave), on that particular Sunday, this very diverse group was united in singularity of purpose. Experiencing the race with this very special group made the 2016 Engadin Ski Marathon truly an exceptional experience.
“The Engadin Ski Marathon is an amazing event,” said Tiger Shaw, USSA president and CEO. “I had no idea what it was going to be like, so I was a little nervous, in particular as I was just about to take the start with 13,000 of my closest friends, but it was awesome. The whole scene is almost impossible to describe: you are nestled into perhaps one of the most scenic valleys you could find anywhere, there are skiers as far as you can see, helicopters flying around everywhere and the most spectators that I’ve ever seen at any ski race anywhere in the world.”
“The whole scene is almost impossible to describe: you are nestled into perhaps one of the most scenic valleys you could find anywhere, there are skiers as far as you can see, helicopters flying around everywhere and the most spectators that I’ve ever seen at any ski race anywhere in the world.” — USSA President and CEO Tiger Shaw on the Engadin
Grady Durham, founder and CEO of Monticello Associates, a prominent asset management firm based in Denver and founding sponsor and principal supporter of Ski Club Vail’s former Team HomeGrown (which previously provided support to skiers like Sylvan Ellefson, Tad Elliott and Noah Hoffman), seconded these observations, “It is a wonderful adventure, but it is very intense. I’ve been ski racing for 30 years, in fact, this year marks the 30th anniversary of my first Birkie, but even I was amazed at the fact that you are not just surrounded by skiers for the entire race, but you are surrounded by very good skiers for the entire race.
“I was on the run-in to the finish on the long, sweeping downhill corner and this older Swiss woman was coming by me on the inside,” Durham recalled. “I was impressed at how strong she was skiing so I guess I let my guard down for a second, so she not only cut me off, but she also pushed me into the fence. If I had to describe the Engadin experience in one sentence, that would be it.”
Tony Wiederkehr, another CEO who has provided support to multiple members of the U.S. ski community, is a cagey, 12-year veteran of this race who also shares and embraces this perspective. “I’ve done lots of other ski marathons and for some reason this one seems to have more variables. You have to be good at navigating through trouble. It’s unlike any other race –people are stepping on your sh*t the entire time, in particular if you are near the front. Pretty much anything you can imagine happening in a race happens here regularly: there are crashes, there is pushing, there is shoving, I’ve broken poles, I’ve broken bindings, you name it. This year I had a crash before I even crossed the start line. It’s one of those races where just staying upright is an accomplishment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not total and absolute chaos and overall the experience is great, but it can be very intense. That’s probably why I keep coming back.”
“It’s one of those races where just staying upright is an accomplishment. … It’s not total and absolute chaos and overall the experience is great, but it can be very intense. That’s probably why I keep coming back.” — Tony Wiederkehr, founding president and CEO of AeroMech, Inc., on the Engadin
To add even more excitement to an event that even the most understated would call fervid, in this year’s start we somehow managed to have not just two Americans crash into each other, but remember that karmically centered, unified-purpose van ride mentioned earlier? Yup, you guessed it, two of the guys in our van took each other out on the rolling start before they had even crossed the line. USSA Foundation trustee and known race-course menace, Walter McCormack provided his flimsy version of the story.
“Well, as you know, those starts are always very chaotic and some pushy Italian lady stuck her pole between my skis,” he explained. “I went down, took her down and in the process, also took Tony [Wiederkehr] down. Then then the lady who caused the whole thing started cursing at me in Italian. But I swear it wasn’t my fault.” Sure it wasn’t, Walter, sure it wasn’t.
For Shaw, a former alpine World Cup racer, this environment quickly brought back old memories. “The first time I had people stepping on my skis,” he recalled. “I didn’t know what to do, but then the old instincts kicked in and I figured it out fast. I raced for so many years in Europe as an alpine skier that I remembered pretty quickly how things were going down. You see this in Europe in cycling, alpine skiing, and certainly in nordic skiing: if you get tripped, it’s like ‘Sorry, see you next week.’ That’s just how it rolls over there. You need to know that and to hold your own. It’s clearly more intense — you can feel it. It’s not a bad thing, but it sure felt familiar. It took me a minute, but once I settled down a bit, it felt good to be back in that environment.”
Even U.S. Nordic Combined skier Taylor Fletcher wasn’t immune to this battle for position. “I was on the start line with [Swiss cross-country skier Dario] Cologna, [German nordic-combined skier Fabian] Riessle, and many other top pros. These are not just some of the best distance skiers in the world, but they are also guys who understand race protocol and are very professional, and it was still nuts. You had to fight so hard for position, if you weren’t moving up, you were moving back. It was so crowded and so risky that I spent a lot of time at the very front and even launched a solo break, mainly to stay out of trouble. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Fletcher went on to ski a very solid race, finishing 20th and top American in 20th, ahead of Cologna, a three-time cross-country overall World Cup champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist, who placed 25th.
Let’s be clear: yes, the ESM can be hard. Bad luck can scythe you down at any moment.The racing is certainly intense. But overall it is an amazing experience. One of the most difficult things to describe to someone who has never seen the race in person is just how important a role the race plays in Swiss culture. The enormous civic pride the entire country seems to have in this event is evident from the moment you arrive in the valley and stays with you long after you leave.
“As soon as you get there it’s obvious that you’re involved in something very special,” Wiederkehr said. “My sister works in Zurich, so I have some insight on the Swiss perspective on the race as well. There’s a certain prestige among the Swiss associated with doing the ESM. It’s a very big deal.”
Shaw agreed, “I competed in Europe for many years, so I know Switzerland well enough to know that there isn’t a blade of grass out of place anywhere in the country, it is remarkable. In fact, I wasn’t even surprised when I saw the Swiss Army being used to handle logistics — there aren’t many ski races anywhere in the world where guys in uniforms are loading your gear into trucks parked in perfect formation, shoveling snow on course to keep the tracks immaculate and directing traffic with a precision that only the Swiss can offer. Seeing the army involved at this level pretty much says it all.”
This status and priority is one of the reasons Weiderkehr has helped so many elite U.S. skiers to do the race. “The race is very prestigious in so much of the world: it’s in every paper in Switzerland,” he said. “It’s on TV, it’s everywhere. It’s the biggest skate race out there, so U.S. skiing can make an even bigger name for itself by having our elite skiers do well here. Nothing says that U.S. skiing is alive and well in the quite the same way as a big result at the Engadin. I have believed this for a long time.”
When not busy causing crashes on course, McCormack offered an interesting, broader perspective on the role of Americans in the event. “I think only about 50 Americans do the race every year and it’s both strange and at the same time very nice to be in the minority,” he said. “The Swiss are so excited that you came to their country for this race and they couldn’t be warmer or more friendly. Plus, the whole concept of being able to ski from town to town, up to restaurants [on training days] is so different than what we have in the U.S., it makes the whole experience very unique and very special. I also really enjoy racing with people from so many different countries. It’s not just a great race, it’s also a great way to bring many different cultures together.”
“It’s not just a great race, it’s also a great way to bring many different cultures together.” — Walter McCormack, member of USSA Foundation Board of Trustees, on the Engadin
Other interested sub-plots that played out over the trip were the implications of having the USSA CEO doing his second Worldloppet of the year. When asked about this, Shaw was quite candid: “You can’t alpine ski race forever. This you can do. It’s safe and easy on your joints. I can’t run anymore, but I can ski. I’m not very good at it, but I’m really learning to love it, so I’ll stay at it as long as I can move my limbs.”
After the race, Shaw was trapped in the highly unenviable position next to me at dinner and I couldn’t help but push the issue on what, if any, his increased interest in nordic skiing could possibly mean from a funding perspective for our national cross-country and nordic combined teams.
“The USSA is working hard as an organization to grow the successes of the cross-country team,” Shaw explained. “It’s a great sport and it has my full support, and yes, now being involved in it as an athlete helps me tell the story even better. So do I think my doing these races will have a positive impact? Yes, I hope so. I can now relay these wonderful, firsthand experiences and ‘tell the story’ with even more detail and passion to potential sponsors and those are two key elements to helping grow funding.”
“You can’t alpine ski race forever. This you can do. … I’m not very good at it, but I’m really learning to love it, so I’ll stay at it as long as I can move my limbs.” — Shaw on cross-country skiing
Probably the most important takeaway from this story is that each and every one of you out there reading this should go race, (next year, if possible). “Don’t let money get in the way,” Weiderkehr emphatically stated. “Switzerland has a reputation of being expensive, but there are ways to do it on a budget. For example, you can rent an apartment instead of getting a hotel. Since the public transportation system is so good, you can even make the location a bit remote, which can save even more money.”
Entry fees run around 140 Euro ($158 dollars) apiece.
“Next year is a perfect year to go over too,” Weiderkehr continued, “as the Master’s World Cup is during the week prior, very close by, so this will be a perfect opportunity to participate in a lot of ski racing in a short period of time and with minimal travel.
“My last piece of advice,“ he added, “is to not make the trip too short. Stay for as long as you possibly can. Every time I’ve come over just for the race, I’ve regretted it. And you’re really missing the whole point: the Engadin is an experience — you can ski different places every day, ski to beautiful, family-owned restaurants nestled in remote mountain villages. Definitely come over and do it, but don’t just fly in and out or you’ll be missing a lot.”
Durham, also an owner of Slipstream Sports (the team that runs Cannondale Cycling) summarized the whole experience perfectly, “I’m involved in many different business, athletic and charitable ventures and one of the things that I like so much about nordic skiing is that is a great metaphor for life. Being successful in business, or anything really, requires grit and nothing is grittier than nordic skiing. There’s no business situation that I’ll be in this year that will be as hard as mile 24 of the Engadin. Quite simply, if you are a nordic skier, you have to do it.”
Shaw concluded, “If you can pull it off, by all means do it. It is something not to be missed and it should be on the list for every skier. It’s up there with a hut trip, the Haute route and things of that nature. Definitely train and prepare, as the race is no joke, but it’s worth it. I’ll be back for sure.”
Jon "Fast Big Dog" Schafer
Fast Big Dog is a paradoxically gregarious yet reclusive, self-absorbed mystic and world traveler. In addition to his calling to right the wrongs in the ski fashion and gear world, he also brings his style, wit and devilish charm to the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club as the Nordic High Performance Director and Worldwide Director of Morale and Awesomeness. Savor these articles while you can, as his Great Dane puppy may burn down his house at any moment, possibly making this his last transmission.