On 30th December 2013 five Perisher XC skiers, Bruce Wharrie, Jim Finnie, Arnold D’bras, Stephen Poole and Marg Hayes flew out of Australia on an amazing adventure to ski 14 European Worldloppet cross country ski races (Arnold 10 races) in 10 different countries (Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Germany, France, Estonia, Finland, Poland, Switzerland, Russia/Norway).
Our adventure turned into a virtual ‘snow hunt’ as 2014 turned out to be an extremely poor snow season for many European countries. Our journey started in the Czech Republic. After 2 weeks acclimatising & walking to find snow the Jiserska 50 was unfortunately cancelled. However an unofficial event on race day saw some 1,000 would be racers gather at the race start ready to walk, jog, cycle, and ski parts of the race course. A few brave souls including myself completed the whole 50km race course. We joined in the frivolity and had a memorable time skiing and being welcomed by local Czech people who showed us a good time (ice hockey match with tour of stadium, Czech music night, and ascending Liberec’s landmark, the Jested Tower with 5 star lunch) all mainly due to the poor snow situation.
In Lienz, Austria we rejoiced to finally see snow on the ground and groomed trails, though not quite enough in the valley. Both the Dolomitenlauf events: classic (Saturday) and freestyle (Sunday) were 42km and held high in the mountains at Obertilliach on loads of packed powdery snow. It was tough completing double events this early in our trip but Jim, Arnold, Stephen and Marg did it. Bruce skied Saturday but his MS affected legs wouldn’t work on the icy conditions on Sunday with no classic tracks.
Italy’s 70km Marcialonga was incredible; skiing through small villages on a ribbon of man-made snow with the crowd cheering was fantastic. We all celebrated making the cut-offs and completing the Marcialonga well before the fireworks which mark the last skier arriving.
Apparently a week before and a week after Germany’s König Ludwig Lauf, the race course had cows grazing on green grass but the snow gods looked after us and there was just enough snow for 2x23km loops for both Saturday’s classic and Sunday’s freestyle 46km events. Another double race weekend but we all successfully skied two races in great conditions.
Leaving Oberammergua at 5am, changing trains 8 times, we travelled right across Switzerland to arrive at Les Rousses, France 11 hours later. France’s Jura had just enough snow for the lower elevations of the La Transjurriesenne course though a hillier last 10 kilometre route was used because of poor snow on the usual course. Arnold, Stephen and Marg completed the ultimate Ultratrans (50km classic on Saturday and 76km freestyle on Sunday, though Saturday’s race was actually 53km and Sunday’s 73km) with Jim and Bruce both skiing Saturday’s 50km and Jim classic-ing the 50km freetyle on Sunday.
An early morning flight to Tallin, Estonia but unfortunately we landed to discover the Tartu Maraton was cancelled, so quickly made alternative plans and discovered there was just enough snow to ski at Alutaguse in eastern Estonia. An enjoyable week was had by all in the modern on-site accommodation & cafe, with lots of skiing, eating and watching the Olympics on flat screen TV’s.
A short ferry ride to Helsinki, Finland then train to Lahti for some marginal skiing on creamy yellow snow. Both classic and freestyle races were reduced from 50km to 32km but we all completed both events managing to ski around the rocks, through mud, dirt and puddles. We had a great celebration on Saturday night as Bruce and I had both completed another Gold Worldloppet Master (Bruce 4th, Marg 5th).
We left Arnold in Helsinki as he returned to Australia after having successfully completed eight Worldloppet marathons. A superb achievement to be proud of! Flying from Helsinki to Prague for the Poland race we were dubious as we knew snow conditions were very marginal. However, the Polish organisers worked a miracle and Saturday’s 50km classic race was shortened to 10km and Sunday’s 20km silver classic race was 8km with the freestyle race cancelled. We only skied the Saturday race as Switzerland was calling with accommodation only available for 7 night bookings.
Catching an overnight train from Prague to Zurich, Switzerland, then local trains to Pontresina we marvelled at oodles of snow and groomed tracks out the train windows, impatient to be out skiing after so many weeks of poor snow conditions. As part of your race entry you get a free return train trip which we used from Landquart to Pontresina before the race and then onto Tirano Italy after the race. The 42km Engadin was magical: great weather, great snow, great grooming, great classic tracks, great scenery. A brilliant race, thoroughly enjoyed by all!
Next destination for Jim, Bruce and I was Russia for the Demino Marathon, however the night before our flight we discovered it was cancelled, despite organisers best efforts they were foiled with warm weather and rain. We had invested too much time and money in Russian visas, invitations, flight, accommodation, so we decided to go anyway and be tourists in St Petersburg and Moscow which was very interesting and worthwhile.
Stephen flew to Norway for the Birkebeiner Rennet however it too was cancelled due to strong winds on the morning of the race as the race course winds its way up, up, up and over the fjells (higher treeless topography) which are very exposed with little shelter.
Despite having 3 races cancelled and having to wait for another overseas trip to complete our Worldloppet Masters we are all extremely pleased with our achievements. Arnold has 6 stamps in his 1st Gold Worldloppet passport, Jim and Stephen have 8 stamps. Bruce has 9 stamps in his 5th passport and I have 8 stamps in my 6th passport. Even though we missed out on participating in some races we made the most of each situation and discovered different inspiring, interesting and grateful aspects of each country.
As budget travellers, we travelled via public transport: train and bus mostly with the occasional flight on the long hauls and walked to accommodations where possible. We successfully negotiated the subway and train systems carrying our backpacks and skis. To keep costs down we stayed in hostels or rented apartments where we could cook our own meals except in Poland where we stayed in a small friendly guesthouse and enjoyed dinner out each night.
Our group of 5 Aussie citizen skiers have shown that skiing Worldloppet races is an achievable goal for any average skier who is prepared to commit to getting moderately fit. The biggest hurdle to overcome is to be believe that you can do it and to just keep on skiing even when you feel tired. Jim explained that he initially felt fortunate to finish the first marathon race in Austria, but now extremely pleased to have successfully complete all ten races attempted. He went on to say of some disappointment of the cancellation was made up by the most generous hospitality of our hosts in Czech Republic and the discovery of the hidden Alutaguse XC facility in north-eastern Estonia (the Tartu Marathon was also cancelled). And with the sudden cancellation of the Russian Demino marathon providing an instant opportunity to visit the culturally rich Saint Petersburg (ie the Hermitage – a world renowned art gallery) for a few days provided an unplanned alternative replacement adventure.
We all felt extremely grateful for the herculean efforts of race organisers and their army of tireless volunteers trying in vain to save some of the races, sometimes unfortunately to no avail. We, on behalf of all Worldloppet race participants, would like to convey a very big thank you for doing so much with so little snow for so many, including the substantial investment into snow making and new grooming machines by race organisations. So looking forward, the excitement is building with an additional four race locations possibly being included in the Worldloppet family with a decision being made in the coming June on races in China, Argentina, Iceland and New Zealand.
By Marg Hayes & Bruce Wharrie