PONTRESINA, SWITZERLAND — Be careful what you wish for, the saying goes. All I want is to take my beginning cross-country ski skills up a notch with a lesson in this sleepy Swiss village of 2,100 inhabitants in one of the largest Nordic ski regions in Europe. Over 1,800 metres above sea level Pontresina is home to one of the most renowned cross-country ski schools in Switzerland.
This is where I’m invited to join over 14,000 participants in the 50th Engadin Skimarathon, the sport’s second largest race in the world.
Don’t I need to qualify?
In fact, since it began in 1969, the 42-km international freestyle marathon is open to skiers 16 years and older, from beginners to professionals. It starts in the village of Maloja and finishes in S-chanf village. In between, racers course over a wide valley, two frozen lakes, an airport runway and a forest of magically fragrant Swiss stone pine.
I’ll think about it.
Above: Even the most seasoned competitors can take a tumble during this demanding event.
It’s late winter when my train from Zurich pulls into St. Moritz train station — the end of the line in the eastern Alps near the Italian border.
I stay a few days in St. Moritz, Pontresina’s glitzy neighbour five kilometres away, to warm up my leg muscles on the treeless downhill slopes of Corviglia Mountain, which overlooks the posh village.
The gloriously sunny day and clear skies remind me why the upper Engadin Valley, at the foot of the Piz Bernina — one of the highest mountain ranges in the Alps — became Europe’s famous winter playground in the mid-19th century.
But come lesson day, rain dampens my cross-country aspirations — but not my spirit.
I watch dedicated “langlaufers” (German for cross-country skiers) gliding effortlessly along the trails across from the Langlaufzentrum, the cross-country ski school where I’m getting fitted for skis.
A downhill skier for years, the rush of cruising down the slopes is exhilarating, thanks to gravity’s assist. But on level terrain, cross country demands all the muscle groups to move forward. Trails look flat – until you’re on skis.
Only the toes of my boots attach to the bindings of my short and narrow skis, leaving my heels free to lift the tail of my skis for the all-important kick-and-glide motion.
“Bend your knees and lean forward,” veteran instructor Daniel Gini encourages.
“And always keep your poles to the back — never, never in the front. Learn to trust your legs!”
I’m learning the classic style of cross country, considered easier for beginners than skate skiing, the other sub-category of cross country. Classic mimics walking while skating is a lot like inline skating. I also learn that cross country is considered the toughest outdoor sport in the world.
Left: Writer Lucero gets some advice from instructor Daniel Gini. Right: Grand Hotel Kronenhof is where many skiers stay.
So why am I doing this?
It’s a fantastic overall aerobic activity that’s easy on the joints, doesn’t stress the muscles and can be enjoyed for hours. But not before mastering the basics — balance, stopping on a decline and trekking up an incline. Indeed, I almost wipe out when I, oops, put my ski poles in front of me (a downhill ski habit).
Before race day, I meet with Marc Eichenberger, soon to be five-time participant in Skimarathon and director at legendary Grand Hotel Kronenhof, a registered landmark dating back to 1848.
“I was a beginner the first time I entered,” says the mild-mannered Eichenberger as he carbs up on pasta while I tackle rösti, a deliciously crispy Swiss potato fritter topped with smoked salmon.
“I’m a passionate alpine skier,” says Eichenberger, “ … but it requires at least half a day on the slopes. With the cross-country course right outside the hotel, I can exercise for an hour, take a shower and be back at work.”
Eichenberger doesn’t consider himself an athlete – at least compared to the most elite participants. He races for fun and the commitment forces him to stay fit by training.
If that’s not enough inspiration, I also learn that local Francoise Stahel, 82-years young, has raced the Engadin Skimarathon since its inception and will race again tomorrow.
Above: Vintage photo sows how far back this event goes in Swiss history.
On a picture-perfect race day, I’m not signed up, but instead join enthusiastic spectators lining the course to cheer on racers from 35 countries. For faithful langlaufers, the Skimarathon here is a must do “at least once in your lifetime.”
Pontresina is the mid-point of the race and the finish line for the half marathon. It’s also the most spectacular point in the course where falls and crashes occur on the 400-metre descent through the forest.
Other events — the Night Race and the 17-kilometre Women’s Race — take place during the week leading up to the marathon on Sunday.
That evening while dining in the Kronenhof’s elegant Grand Restaurant, I spot shiny medals hanging from the necks of two dapper guests standing at the buffet. In awe of their superhuman feat, I congratulate Bruno Trepp of Switzerland and Patrick Redolfi of Austria.
On the train back to Zurich, I share space with a small group of women, their luggage and skis. Elated after finishing the race, they’re eager to continue their holidays around Switzerland and Europe.
I’m completely enchanted by the cross-country paradise of Pontresina, the otherwise quiet mountain resort (by design) that each winter transforms into a hub of world-class competition. Even the flawless logistics of organizing thousands for the event is considered a masterpiece.
• VISIT PONTRESINA: http://www.pontresina.ch
• SKI SCHOOL: Langlaufzentrum: www.pontresina-sports.ch
• MY ACCOMMODATION: The Grand Hotel Kronenhof Pontresina www.kronenhof.com; The Kulm Hotel