XC Ski news - 10/3/9
Challenge - Transjurassienne & Vasalopppet ski marathon report

Last year triathlete Brian Henderson decided to take part in the Transjurassienne and Vasaloppet ski marathons, and set about training on rollerskis. Here's his race report -

By Brian Henderson

Maybe living in Paris heightened my sense of adventure; maybe I just could not face another block of the same old winter training; or maybe the subliminal message in all those 'one life, live it' ads finally got through. One way or another, I took up cross-country skiing in a pretty big way this winter and here are the race reports.

First a warm-up race of 50k known as La Transjurassienne (in the Jura near Switzerland):

Things got off to a very satisfactory start on the slippery, snowy drive up the mountain to the start when I got overtaken by some twit with more horsepower than brainpower only to find him about 10k further on stuck in a snowdrift on a sharp bend - ha! The next challenge was to locate the start in Les Rousses. I found myself milling about with a load of Swedes and guys from eastern Europe all just as disoriented as me and incapable of communicating in any common language. Eventually I bumped into a guy from Paris who cheered me up by telling me he had a) done no training at all and b) had a mate who knew where the start was.

Collect the dossard and big plastic bag for transporting your kit to the finish 50k away, give the skis a final quick layer of wax and head out for a little warm-up. Panic, with the temperature at pretty much exactly freezing point the wax doesn't grip so it impossible to get any traction. I rush down to the free waxing station next to the start but there is a scrum of others with the same problem and two pretty grumpy and rather stressed Toko technicians doing their best. The commentator helpfully counts us down to the start: 15 minutes, 10 minutes and you should really be getting into your starting groups guys, 5 minutes and the Toko guy is muttering that he only has 2 hands, it's only a free service, he's doing his best, etc., 1 minute to go and I get my first ski back and quickly clipped on, 30 seconds the second ski is on and I race to the start gate where I take up position right at the very back just as the start gun goes off.

It snows all day and my glasses fog up pretty much immediately. The wax problem persists - no grip on the climbs so you have to come out of the tracks onto the softer snow which is apparently at a slightly different temperature and immediately sticks fast forming a layer about an inch thick on the base of the skis. So you get to the top with your shoulders aching and lungs bursting only to find that you can not move at all until you scrape the snow of ! Then the fun really starts. I am not good on the descents at the best of times but when you can't see the tracks because you are steamed up and your skis have a sudden urge to just stop dead in a slushy patch, there is only one outcome - multiple head-plants! To make it worse, people shout at you for getting in their way and waving your poles around like a maniac - can't they see I am just trying to stay alive!

On we go until the pack thins out and there is only one set of tracks you can use, the others having already filled with fresh snow. Then you realise that actually you are one of the youngsters as you come up behind 70 year olds tottering along on impossibly skinny legs. You make a huge effort to get past them on the slightest incline only to find them zooming past you again on the next downhill suggesting that you should push a bit harder instead of waving the poles around - aargh!

The high points are the 'ravitos' where they serve hot sugary tea and hot sports drinks, pain d'épices, choccy biscuits, dried fruit, etc. etc. I have to hand it to the French, they really know how to do feeding stations. Rewax at half-way and take the opportunity to munch a Clif bar and then it is mainly downhill or flat as the kilometre markers count you down to the finish where you recover your dry kit and enjoy a well deserved hot lunch in the school gym before getting on the bus back to the start (which also nearly ended up off the road).

I overtook some 260 people to finish 358th out of 620 in 4 hours which was my target time. Not bad for a first attempt in such awful conditions. Ribs still hurt from all the crashes though. And it is currently forecast to be -23 degrees and snowing for the big one in Sweden in two weeks time...

Oppet Spär, Sweden (non-competitive version of the Vasaloppet) -

Up at 04:00 to find that half of the other residents of the hotel (the young keen looking ones) had already finished breakfast and were heading out to catch the bus to the start. The bus system was unbelieveable: a relay of busses leaving every 2/3 minutes just as soon as they were full, must have been at least 50 of them to get the 6.000 odd participants to the start. Fine until we hit the 12k tail-back into the carpark - it took us 2 hours rather than the hour they had advertised so I ended up starting at just before 08:00 by which time thousands of others had already set off (the start opens at 07:00). Luckily the weather turned out 'warm' at just below zero, although it snowed constantly all day. But I was prepared this time with my peaked cap and a layer of washing up liquid carefully smeared all over my specs to stop them fogging up (and it worked, although I did have to stop and go back for the cap once when it flew off in a fast descent).

It is a rolling start in the sense that you set off when you are ready and your time is tracked by the inevitable chip strapped to your ankle. After a few hundred metres of gentle warm-up, you are straight into a pretty steep climb that carries on for about the first 5k - hundreds and hundreds of little multi-coloured penguins wiggling their way up the hill - quite a ridiculous sight really! At the top you come to a frozen lake and the view is breathtaking but after that it is just endless snow covered fir trees for 85k! The only excitement in terms of scenery is the occaisional inverted atomic mushroom cloud when a tree avalanches and the powdery snow explodes on hitting the ground - cool to watch!

A bit further on we get to the first ravito and taste the warm blueberry soup ('bläbär') - great stuff. People are obviously there for a day out as there is some serious picnicing going on already with folks parked up at the stands having cupfuls of the stuff and generally getting in everyone else's way - tricky to fight your way to the bar when you all have 2 metre planks on your feet! And so it goes on mile after mile. Eventually I work out the etiquette which is that the left lane is fast and right is slow. There are generally 4 lanes so I hang left, pass lots and lots of people and don't often have to jump out of somebody's way to let them by. The pace is very even and relaxed, no huffing and puffing and no breaking out in a sweat. Nobody in this late start peleton is going to break any records (except perhaps for the quantity of bläbär consumed).

By half way I am thinking we have been doing an awful lot of climbing and am a bit tired and fed up with it to be honest, but finally the easy downhill section arrives and I manage to stay on my feet and not get yelled at by anybody for getting in their way. In fact, I even passed a few more people, much to my astonishment. Things take a serious turn for the worse somewhere around 60k when the old shoulders were even more tired and the snow turned wet and heavy. In fact it was a replay of the nightmare in the Jura with an inch of snow sticking to the base of skis making progress virtually impossible. I am prepared for that too now of course (amazing how you become an old hand so quickly) but that does not improve my foul mood as I stop to scrape down and rewax. At least everyone else is suffering the same furstrations even if, as well behaved Swedes, they are much better than I am at concealing it! We suffer in more or less the sort of silence you experience on UK commuter trains for miles more until the last ravito which is just 9k from the finish. Here they have hot sweet coffee to pep you up for the sprint to the line. I get overtaken by a 20 something who had clearly had a couple too many coffees and is poling along like a man possessed. Everyone else continues plodding along as before, just happy to know that they actually are going to finish this monster sometime relatively soon. And the snow has stopped sticking so morale takes a major surge.

The finish is really cool. You end up on the main street of the village with people lining both sides, giant screen showing live video of the finishing straight, grandstand, commentator, the whole 9 yards. Very very tired but very happy I have my official finisher's photo taken just 8 hours and 16 minutes after I started. What an adventure. I would thoroughly recommend it if you are prepared to look like a weirdo out training on your roller skis!

Triathlon training will be light relief after that. Bring on the Ballbuster!


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