In his third season racing skimo, Anton Krupicka travels to the Dolomites for a taste of euro racing...
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This has been my third season participating in skimo races, though the first year—2016—I only did one race, the 26mi/11k’ Power of Four in Aspen, CO. In 2017 I fully committed, racing as many COSMIC events as possible (six), and attending the weekly Wednesday evening Nighthawks races at Eldora throughout February.
Most of the season, I felt like a disaster. It turns out, skimo is a highly technical sport with a lot of lightweight, fiddly equipment and very specific technique for uphilling, downhilling, and transitions alike. I absolutely love it. Because, of course, on top of all that there is the fundamental fact that it’s also highly fitness-intensive.
But last year, nearly every race felt more like an exercise in hypoxic survival than actual competitions. Iced-up skins, falling over on uphill kick-turns, botched transitions (SO MANY botched transitions), survival-skiing any non-groomer descent (pretty much still the case, but slowly improving), breaking poles, breaking boots, breaking bindings…there’s so much that can go wrong in these races.
Skinning up to Forcella de Neve in the Cadini di Misurina.
At COSMIC's Santa Fe race, I was still unfit, went out too hard, and bumbled my way through every bootpack transition. Ok, every transition, uphill or downhill.
The next day at Taos I burned through all three pairs of my skins, plus both of my partner’s back-up pairs on a long, steep, icy, kick-turn-infested ascent (who knew walking on skis could be so technical?!) that reduced me to bootpacking the whole last climb. In between, I gumbied my way down the toughest in-bounds skiing I’ve ever encountered, just psyched to not be down-booting anything, and then led my partner and I off course, adding an extra 1500’ of vert to our day and more time than I’d like to think about. We weren’t DFL, but close.
Things had improved a bit by Power of Four in Aspen, but my partner was forced to drop after the first descent with a bum knee. Fortunately, they allowed me to continue alone.
Five Peaks in Breckenridge was a haze of bonking, rockhard windboard skittering at 13,000’, and a brutal final few miles skating on Nordic trails.
By the end of the 2017 season, though, I felt like I finally had the basics down. Or, rather, I knew just enough to start having an inkling of just how much I didn’t know and how pathetic my technique was in nearly every context.
The 2018 season in the Central and Southern Rockies had a slow start, with most early season races getting canceled due to a lack of snow. Additionally, my Achilles tendon was quite touchy and at first I wasn’t sure I’d be able to skin steep grades or race at all. Eventually it snowed, though, and my Achilles became more compliant, and I was able to race a full season. My transitions finally quickened, I didn’t really lose skins anymore, and my comfort on non-groomed downhills improved. My strength was definitely still on the corduroy, however---both up and down---which is what made the Sellaronda Skimarathon in the mythical Dolomites of northern Italy a good fit as my first European skimo race.
With over a thousand competitors lining up at the start in the village center of Canazei, Sellaronda is one of the highest participation skimo races in all of Europe (and, therefore, the world). The size of the field is only possible because the course is conducted entirely on-piste, i.e. blue and green groomers in American parlance. Sounds good!
The route takes advantage of the expansive Dolomiti Superski constellation of resorts (1200km of groomers!) to make a logical and compelling clockwise circumnavigation of the Gruppo Sella, a stunningly beautiful massif smack in the middle of the overwhelmingly beautiful greater Dolomiti range. Given its resort setting, holding the race after-hours is the only way to comply with the lift-riding crowds, so Sellaronda is a night race with a 6pm start time.
As is tradition with longer skimo races (more than a couple hours in length), Sellaronda is a team race—each competitor has a partner that he or she is required to stay within a few seconds of throughout the race. With Sellaronda being entirely on-piste, conforming to this ethic is more a matter of tradition than sensible backcountry snow safety, but it builds in a third category of team—mixed male and female—in which my partner, Martina Valmassoi, and I would be entered.
Evening tour up to Rifugio Nuvolau with the sun setting on the Monte Civetta.
I met Martina when she made a trip to the U.S. in the first half of winter, where she spent much of that time living with mutual friends in Boulder. We skied together a few times on the Front Range, so when I mentioned that I was looking for a partner for Sellaronda, Martina happily offered her skills.
Martina is fast. This year was Martina’s fourth Sellaronda, with her placing 3rd, 2nd, and 1st in her previous efforts. She grew up (and continues to live) in the Dolomites and has been skiing her entire life, starting in Nordic racing and switching to skimo in 2006. With multiple podium finishes at the legendary Pierra Menta stage race (the de facto world championship every March) and the ISMF World Championships (the actual sanctioned global contest every other March), Martina is solidly one of the top-10 female competitors in the sport.
Other than a handful of token outings, riding lifts in college back in the early ‘00s, I’ve only been skiing the past four years. I generally still gumbie down the hill with an embarrassing (lack of) style—low-slung gorilla arm position, splayed legs, backseat desperation and fear. I just became semi-competent (a very fluid term) at skating in skimo gear late last season.
Partnering with Martina would give me a huge opportunity for learning from a skimo vet, but I could perhaps at least contribute my fitness to the team by towing her on the steeper uphills. Given that I’m close to a foot taller and outweigh her by probably 50lbs, I was optimistic in this regard.
Martina skiing in the Cadini di Misurina.
I arrived in Italy on the Monday before Friday’s evening race. After an obligatory tour of Venezia’s canals and piazzas, Martina treated me to a sampling of her Dolomiti backyard in the days leading up to the race.
I’ve been to the Dolomites many times in the summer, but this was my first trip seeing them blanketed in winter snow. They are a stunning mountain range with towering faces of imposing vertical relief encrusted in forbidding-looking snow and ice. Martina and I didn’t do anything too ambitious since we wanted to be rested for the main event Friday night, but we still got out for a small tour each day, logging many a kick-turn up steep powder-filled couloirs.
In the summer, the European scene has a reputation for generally eschewing switchbacks and having an abundance of steep, nose-to-the-ground trails to get you up the hill. My experience in the week before the race (and this could obviously just be unique to Martina) is that the trend is flipped in the winter---when in doubt, keep the skintrack grade nearly flat and instead employ a series of kick-turns, one stacked atop the next in quick succession. Indeed, in one narrow couloir, Martina’s trailbreaking involved literally one stride, kick-turn right, one stride, kick-turn left, repeat ad nauseam. This is fine---and forced me to refine my previously mediocre technique---but I think in the U.S. we would just boot straight up.
Martina putting in the kickturns on Monte Tiarfin.
Our technical preparation for the race was, shall we say, exhaustive. On Wednesday, we teamed up with our friends Ginna, Niko, and Jenn for a mechanized reconnaissance of the Sellaronda course. The extensive Dolomiti Superski lift system can be accessed by a jaw-droppingly cheap 59Euro day pass, allowing one to circumnavigate the Gruppo Sella without ever having to put mohair to ski base.
As we rode the lifts, Martina filled me in on very specific beta for each of the four climbs that the race’s 9000+ feet of vertical gain comprises.
•Ascent 1: from Canazei to Passo Sella: “Not too steep, but steeper than the final two. You probably won’t tow me, let’s see how I feel, first. Normal width Pomoca race skins.”
•Ascent 2: from Selva Gardena to Passo Gardena: “The steepest climb, you should tow me here, I’m not as fast on the steeps. We have to be careful to not go out too fast, though.”
•Ascent 3: from Corvara to Passo Campolongo: “This one is very flat and long, with two short downhills. I’ll give you 55mm skins [normal race skins are 62mm, sometimes 59mm] that we’ll place on the outside edges of our skis so that we can glide on the inside edges.”
•Ascent 4: from Arabba to Passo Pordoi: “Also flat and long, but with no downhills. I’ll be strong here, I’m good on the flatter stuff and at the end of races. We’ll use the 55mm skins again, but this time put them in the middle of the ski instead of the outside.”
Martina at Passo Sella on our reconnaissance of the race course, with the Sella Towers behind.
Up until this season I’d only strategized my skins to be as secure as possible, mostly by doing nothing more than crossing my fingers, because I’d lost so many during races. This means full coverage edge-to-edge (62mm), and generally full length for maximum uphill grip. I only time I bothered to wax them was occasionally in the spring, with Black Diamond Glop Stopper, to prevent warm snow from sticking to them and clumping up.
With no technical skinning and generally low-angle climbing, the name of the game at Sellaronda was glide. Short, narrow, waxed skins. Skins were waxed both with and against the lay of the hair, and smoothed with a hot iron. Skin alignment strategy?! Gimme a break! That’s some next level attention to detail.
Martina's father waxing our skis the night before the race.
As a final touch, the night before the race, Martina’s father expertly waxed the bases of our skis. He first applied a foundational “cold wax”, and after that had set, finished them up with a softer hot wax.
On race day, our 2hr drive from Martina’s home to the start in Canazei involved ogling such iconic features as the Pale di San Lucano, Monte Civetta, and the Marmolada. As we passed beneath the magnificent and monstrous south face of the Marmolada below Passo Fedaia (a famous climb of the Giro d’Italia), Martina commented, “In America, you have the Grand Teton, but I mean, come on…” Her trailing pause in the context of the inhuman alpine face in front of us spoke volumes. And she’s right; the mountains are a bit different over in Europe.
All that was left to do was to don the one-piece race suits and go charging into the night with more than 1,000 other lycra-clad enthusiasts.
Preparing to drop in at Forcella Pordoi, a quick off-piste descent during our pre-race lift-assisted reconnaissance of the Sellaronda race course.
Photos: © Martina Valmassoi and Anton Krupicka
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ANTON KRUPICKA is a member of the La Sportiva Mountain Running® Team.
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