7/3/13 – Engadine Marathon: three days to go

A nice flat bit of marathon course near Samedan

A nice flat bit of marathon course near Samedan

In three days’ time I’ll attempt to cover 42km on cross-country skis in the Engadine Marathon.

There’s no reason why I shouldn’t succeed; after all, 11,000 people do so each year, some of them less fit and less confident on flippy little langlauf skis than me.

What strikes me is that I’ll be exercising for four hours continually (Rivella and banana breaks excepted), which I have never done before. Cross-country skiing looks gentle but is surprisingly dynamic, and I the skating style definitely feels like proper exercise (I’m sure the classic style does too; I haven’t tried it).

PJ going smoothly up a hill during practice, 4km from the finish of the Engadine Marathon

PJ going smoothly up a hill during practice, 4km from the finish of the Engadine Marathon

My training regime (if you can call it that), the start of which I outlined in my last post, has continued as follows:

Feb 26 – 45min yoga in lunch break

Feb 27 – 1hr yoga

Feb 28 – 45min horse ride

March 1 – 25min run on treadill, covering 4.3km

March 2 – 1hr horse ride and 30min shovelling muck (good for arms and core)

March 3 – 2hr horse ride (including on foot up Leith Hill, to give the horse a rest and make me puff instead) and 30min bike ride up Pitch Hill

March 4 – ZERO! (Or is it called a rest day?)

March 5 – 25min Boris bike ride round Hyde Park in beautiful sunshine, plus a 3min sprint from the Tube to check-in at Heathrow airport while cutting it fine en route to Switzerland

This is the sorry sight I was after 15km - only just over a third of the distance we'll go on Sunday

This is the sorry sight I was after 15km – only just over a third of the distance we’ll go on Sunday

March 6 –  15km cross-country skiing (we are in the Engadine now) followed by near collapse. Maybe it’s the altitude

March 7 – 22km of cross-country skiing: barely more than half of the distance we’re in for on Sunday but it still took nearly 2hr30

Before our half-marathon this morning we had a lesson (PJ’s idea – thank goodness one of us has some sense), to knock some proper technique into us.

Nora, our young Swiss instructor, who has completed the marathon in 2hr19min, began with the basics after watching me skate up and down a few times outside the Langlauf Centre at Pontresina.

Mostly, it was about how to push. “Don’t lift your hands above the level of your shoulders, and keep your poles angled backwards – you must never see your ski pole basket,” she said.

“Bring your hands back to the front each time you have finished pushing, don’t take a break there – if you take a break, make it at the front.” She added that extra power could be gained by releasing the grip at the end of each push and therefore making the push longer.

Then, it was about when to push. To date I had been doing a haphazard combination of double-push (both poles at once) and single (one at a time), depending on gradient and speed.

But actually there are several official types of push/step, the “two-one” (push with both poles every other step), the “one-one” (push with both poles every step, saying to yourself ‘sticks, ski, sticks, ski’) and the “asymmetrical” (push with both poles every other step, but at an angle, for going up cambered hills).

So what was that one-pole-at-a-time push I was doing yesterday?

“That,” Nora said with disdain, “is the lady-step.”

She conceded, however, that the lady-step can be useful for hills. There is a correct way of doing it, single-poling at the same time as the opposite ski, with the pole parallel to the ski.

Despite all these excellent tips, and a marked improvement in technique, after today’s post-lesson, 22km-long practice I was ready to drop. And I don’t think it’s just down to the altitude…

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26/2/13 – Engadine marathon: 12 days to go

Only 42km to go... Racers set off in last year's Engadine cross-country marathon

Only 42km to go… Racers set off in last year’s Engadine cross-country marathon

I am 10 days into my fitness regime in preparation for the Engadine marathon, a 26-mile cross-country ski race I’m doing for the first time on Sunday, March 10.

I entered last year but tripped over while out running a month beforehand and hurt my shoulder, so I went as a spectator instead.

This time I’m all booked up to go and it doesn’t look as though I will get out of it.

This didn’t really register until just under a month before race day, at which point I vowed to ‘do something’ every day – especially when I saw that among the other British racers entered are certain Middleton siblings who made impressive times in the much longer Vassaloppet last year.

Anyway, here’s how my preparation has turned out so far…

February 13 – 1hr yoga at lunchtime (ought to start gently, I reasoned…).

February 14 – 2 x circuits of Hyde Park on a Boris bike at lunchtime, as fast as I could, starting at Victoria (about 45min in total). It was warm, sunny, busy and pretty hazardous: I had a near-head-on with a Boris-tourist who didn’t know we Brits are used to riding on the left.

February 15 – In Scotland for a long weekend after getting the overnight sleeper train to Inverness. About 2hr of downhill skiing at Aviemore (little effort, much fun) and 90min walking up Cairngorm on skins (much effort, just as much fun).

February 16 – 90min of cross-country skiing on the excellent trails of Clashindarroch Forest on borrowed skating skis and boots, and a 50min hike to the top of the Cairngorm funicular on foot.

February 17 – Another 90min of cross-country skiing in Clashindarroch Forest – quite strenuous due to slushy conditions, and excellent sunny weather, so base-tan benefited, too.

February 18 – 1hr horse ride (more work for the horse).

The Boris: not just a way from A to B

The Boris: not just a way from A to B

February 19 – 2 x circuits of Hyde Park, as before and probably a bit faster; no near-collisions.

February 20 – 1 x circuit of Hyde Park on a Boris bike (25min).

February 21 – 4.2km on treadmill at lunchtime (25min).

February 22 – 1hr horse ride and a 20min walk. Does lots of vacuuming count?

February 23 – Zero! But a bit of stretching.

February 24 – 1hr fast walk.

February 25 – 45min fast walk and 30min run outdoors.

I’m aiming for more of the same over the next days. And while it’s hardly transforming me into a Middletonesque langlauf machine, hopefully it’ll be enough to make the race a bearable (at worst) or brilliant (at best) four-ish hours. Wish me luck!

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14/2/12 – At last! I am in a movie!

A few months ago I went to see Flow State, a ski film, at a London cinema. Instead of trailers there were adverts or shorts supplied by the evening’s sponsors, which included Lake Tahoe, Skiset, Nissan and the Ski Club of Great Britain.

A film made by the Ski Club started rolling, and my companion, Kirstin, and I were smiling as we watched the turquoise-jacketed leaders, of which I am one, cruising around the mountain under blue skies with their… ahem… obedient, orderly, happy and very expert-looking band of British followers.

Our smiles froze when, suddenly, both of us appeared, looming in giant form over the darkened auditorium. I wish I could say we were wedeling, goddess-like, in feathery powder, but in fact we were in a distinctly un-Alpine setting.

Kirstin and Emma, the evening we caught the Ski Club cameraman's eye

Kirstin and Emma, the evening we caught the Ski Club cameraman’s eye

A couple of years before we had been videoed, together with a third friend, Emma, at the club’s summer party, knocking back the free early-evening glass of fizz.

The party was at the Hurlingham Club, a somewhat grander “white house” than Ski Club HQ in Wimbledon.

We were on screen for three seconds at the most, but it felt like a full minute as Kirstin and I sank into our seats, cringing.

Anyway, having got over the shock I wanted to have another look, so I made a quick search on Youtube. I couldn’t find it, but Kirstin made a more diligent search recently and tracked it down, under the catchline “Why join the Ski Club?”

It has had a mere 51 views as I write, which is similar to the average attracted by the far less consequential and decidedly unprofessional films I have put on Youtube (see here; my most popular by far, by the way, is of the Trofana Alm apres-ski bar at Ischgl).

As the people at the White House have gone to such trouble to put the film together, and were so nice as to think me and friends worth including, shall we try to up its view count?

You can see it here (we appear after about a minute).

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1/2/13 – Can anybody beat this loo-with-a-view?

Snowy Schladming in mid-January

Snowy Schladming in mid-January

On Monday the World Alpine Skiing Championships begin in Schladming, Austria.

I spent a long weekend at the Austrian resort a few weeks ago, and you can read how impressed I was with the place in the Daily Telegraph travel section next weekend (or online, here).

This comfort stop is clearly signed

This comfort stop is clearly signed

As well as great, tree-lined ski runs, an attractive town square, half a dozen dirndl shops, the largest apres-ski bar in Europe (they claim – and Hohenhaus Tenne is indeed huge – pictures in a future blog) and unbelievably cheap and tasty food in giant portions, Schladming has fantastic places to “go”.

A very public loo

A very public lavatory

To the loo.

On the mountain.

At the junction of two chair-lift top stations on Planai (read the Telegraph piece to see which ones), the mountain where the racing takes place, is a white, green and yellow cabin marked “Sky Toilet”.

Here are the instructions that come with the loo

Here are the instructions that come with the loo

In the ladies’ , I found one cubicle with a wall of glass, one-way viewing, of course, overlooking the  ascending chairs at close quarters and the piste.

Plastered to the other walls and ceiling is local mountain scenery, completing the picture. The second cubicle is  totally wallpapered.

This is the view from where I was sitting

This is the view from where I was sitting

Of course it was all beautifully heated, with plenty of room to put your gloves and a hook to hang your rucksack or coat.

There were similar good loos elsewhere in Schladming – easily up to the standard of Aspen, where the mountain loos are very practical.

Spot the door in the Planet Planai ladies'

Spot the door in the Planet Planai ladies’

In Planet Planai, the new base station, there’s more good wallpaper, plus a powder scene across all the doors in the ladies’.

In Hohenhaus Tenne, on the way out, there’s a sort of chalet willage of lavatories, comoplete with a rustic water fountain in the middle.

Step inside the chalet to 'go'

Step inside the chalet to ‘go’

Please advise if you know of other mountain loo stops that are as beautiful and useful as these, and I will make an effort to make use of them one day…

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12/1/13 – Obergurgl apres-ski: David’s Hut

The Oetztaler Alpentornados at David's Hut

The Oetztaler Alpentornados at David’s Hut

Jolly, traditional, Tyrolean music in Obergurgl, I was glad to discover in December, is alive and well, even though the band at the excellent Nederhut is more inclined to high-volume “ruck’n’roll” than it was when I worked there 15 years ago (see my Telegraph article on Obergurgl – out in print in the Telegraph Saturday travel section today – for more on “then and now”).

On a Thursday evening before Christmas, our family group of three generations – aged nine to 72 – booked in to a fondue/Schweinshaxe (pork)/meat-on-stone evening at David’s Hut (Davids Huette), a few hundred yards downhill from the Nederhut and a place I knew mainly for its outstanding spaghetti Bolognese.

We walked up from the village (25 minutes from the centre, on a lane that starts steeply and flattens out); other groups arrived by taxi. It was beginning to snow.

The van of the promisingly named band, the Oetztaler Alpentornados, was parked outside; tables were filling up, mostly with German guests; a few teenage locals were drinking Weizenbier at the bar; a 20-strong British group, celebrating a birthday, were colonising one corner.

We’d booked meat fondue, mostly the chunky bourgignonne variety, but three of us had Chinoise, which came in jucier, thicker slices than usual. The sauces included sweet chilli as well as cocktail, curry, sour cream and chives, tartare and an unpindownable pink one. Salad arrived first, then rounds of chips to go with the meat.

The meal was spot on, as was the service – the friendliest I’ve encountered anywhere in the world, let alone the Alps. I first met the four longstanding chief waiting staff when working in the village in the mid-1990s, and the fact they’re all still happily there says a lot about the place (David himself is in the kitchen, or behind the bar).

But how was the music?

The band started sedately, circulating around the hut to give each set of tables a kind of private performance before plugging themselves in.

About five songs later, one of the Weizenbier-drinkers jumped up and danced energetically, all on his own. Here he is (in action on Youtube).

A few waltzes later Inge and… ah, I’ve forgotten this great David’s Hut longtimer’s name, I’m sorry to say… took a break from fetching, carrying and pouring to show how Austrian dancing is done.

Here they are – move over, everyone from Strictly (and of course we were rather amateur by comparison, too, when we had a go).

The Tornados played for well over an hour without a break, using a tableful of tuneful little metal bells for several songs – watch and listen here – and getting diners to come up and play them.

They finished their first set with a ‘Polonaise’ or conga around the benches and tables and out of the window onto the now-snowy terrace.

I was glad to see our neighbours join in: usually Brits find it too embarrassing to jig round in a queue holding onto a stranger’s shoulders from behind and being similarly grasped themselves. Usually, they pretend not to understand when beckoned to the line by a German, or they find some excuse such as finishing a drink or ordering another. But these ones were well fuelled by rounds of birthday schnapps.

As the Tornados rested at the bar in readiness for their second set, we paid up (about 45 euros each) and headed back to the village, the fresh snow beneath our feet and in our heads the swinging sounds of mountain music mingling with excitement about the next day’s powder…

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2/1/13 – Apres-ski at the Nederhut in Obergurgl

“GOODAFTERNOONLADIESANCHENTLEMEN!!! We are weryheppytoseeyoufortheapres-skiPARTY!!! Heute willwemake ruck’n’rolllll-boarischen-valzer andifyou nokenskidown because you loseyourski-drinktoomanyschnaps-forgetyourguggles don’tworrywetakeyoudown tothewillech withaSKIDOO! Jetzt heng ein byyourneighbour andwemakethe SCHNEEWALZER!”

The stage awaits several members of the Gamper family at the Nederhut in Obergurgl

The stage awaits several members of the Gamper family at the Nederhut in Obergurgl

The enthusiastic welcome by Rudi Gamper, hotelier, restaurateur and rocker, to his famed après-ski sessions at the Nederhut has barely changed since I was working in the Austrian resort of Obergurgl more than 15 years ago.

Then, when ski hosting for a couple of winters for Inghams, I took a group nearly every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to watch Rudi (on guitar) and two of his charismatic, musical mates – Gebi (mostly on accordion) and Toni (mostly on tambourine) – sing and play for a few hours from 4pm.

Benni (left) and Rudi

Benni (left) and Rudi Gamper

Afterwards, we’d ski the floodlit blue run, which leads to the doors of most of the village’s hotels and guesthouses. (Read more in this post.)

Every time I’ve been back, the operation has become fancier – more (and more massive) speakers, ranks of guitars and several big screens.

Just before Christmas, I was back again, and my sister and her family managed to bag us one of my favourite tables (arrival often necessary by 2.15pm to guarantee a  spot), to the left of the band at the front (best if you’re a group; the taller tables on the right, where the bar once was, are possibly better if you want to mingle).

Rudi Gamper (right) with his friends Toni (middle) and Gebi in the late 1990s

Rudi Gamper (right) with his friends Toni (middle) and Gebi in the late 1990s

Toni and Gebi are long gone – there’s a revolving cast now, the permanent fixtures being Rudi (as full of stamina as ever), Benni, his son (who has taken over running the place – I found it better than ever as a mountain restaurant), on the accordion or guitar, and his wife, Sissi, who learnt the drums so she could join in.

The order of play has evolved, though the playlist is similar. Rudi and Benni begin by standing on a table strumming like crazy, belting out AC/DC. After another couple of energetic, quite loud rock numbers it’s time for Rudi’s longstanding welcome (above) in Oetztal-German and then in funny English.

After the Schneewalzer (watch it on Youtube here!) there are two or three excellent traditional Austrian songs – one of which aims to get couples walzing with the promise of a free schnapps (on my visit the song was Gruene Tannen; the schnapps was Willi mit Birne; my partner was my fantastic dad).

Here’s one of the traditional songs on Youtube.

There follows solid rock and Europop, plus the odd country-style piece (including Vest Wirginia) until about 6.15pm, when there’s more traditional stuff after a break.

We were there with children, and didn’t want to stay too long, so I can’t tell you whether they did any yodelling later on (the Oetztaler Bergsteigerlied used to be my favourite).

Many people will prefer the new to the old Nederhut – it’s slicker and more professional (and it’s now on Thursday, too, at 4pm, as well as Monday, Wednesday and Friday).

However, as I’m only really mad about the traditional stuff, it’s probably less my thing than it once was.

I’ll still always go at least once for apres-ski (and definitely for lunch, as well) every time I’m in Obergurgl, and I’m happy to report that there are other options, too, now, concentrating on Tyrolean stuff. Read/watch more about these in another post, coming soon.

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30/12/12 – A cheap, handy hotel in Geneva

Last week I travelled from Geneva to London after a few days’ Christmas skiing. I needed to be at my desk in Victoria by 10am on 27/12. When I booked my flight on 4 December, the cheapest fares to Gatwick, both around £100, were last thing on 26/12 or at 7am on 27/12, both with Easyjet.

After totting up train and taxi fares to get me home in the Surrey countryside in the middle of the night, and other logistics, I opted for the 7am, plus a hotel in Geneva on 26/12.

My £100 room in central Geneva

My £100 room in central Geneva

Tripadvisor users pointed me towards the Manotel Kipling, near the station, and I paid £100 for a double (split between two of us), through one of the booking sites (booking.com or hotels.com, I think). As the trains from town to airport take less than 10 minutes and start well before dawn, there was no need to pay a premium for an airport hotel.

On 26/12 I caught a train to Geneva from Sion (SF46/£32 single) at 6.06pm, arriving about 8pm. I exited the city/boats side, and used the maps on boards near the trams outside the station (which is under refurbishment) to find Rue de la Navigation, as I’d forgotten to print a map.

...and from another angle

…and from another angle

It took me about three minutes to walk to the Manotel Kipling, turning left out of the station and following the main road for about 250m, before turning right into Navigation.

I’d had a picnic, but I could see there were cheap-and-cheerful places to eat, many Asian and Middle Eastern, on the way. A couple of the side-streets in this part of town are seedy but you don’t need to walk down those to reach the hotel.

The male receptionist was friendly and professional. I checked out at the same time as checking in, paying my SF3.30 taxe de sejour (tourist tax), in return for which I was given a travel card, which covered my morning fare to the airport.

The bathroom was nice; there were even weighing scales. Not sure a great idea to test them out after Christmas

The bathroom was nice; there were even weighing scales. Not sure a great idea to test them out after Christmas

For £50 each, room 209 was a winner. The temperature was spot on, the bed large and comfy, the carpet and furnishings fresh, new, attractive and restful and the lighting well designed.

The suitcase stand was solid and large, there was at least one full-length mirror, I was able to let in extra air by opening the window and there was a Christmas sweet on each pillow.

The smartly striped, wooden-floored bathroom was bright and clean, with good soap, a decent-sized bath and shower, plus weighing scales.

Tea and coffee - they must get a few English guests

Tea and coffee – they must get a few English guests

Wi-Fi was free, strong and simple to access. The street outside was quiet.

All this makes it, I reckon, a good bet if you’re on the way to or from the Alps on an early or late and need a convenient, good value hotel.

The negatives: the fridge wasn’t turned on (to store my following day’s picnic rather than raid the mini-bar), and a requested 5.30am wake-up call never sounded.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy own alarm did, and I was on the 5.59am train to the airport (arrival 6.06am), only to find a giant queue for security (“less than 15 minutes”, promised a screen: it was more like 25), which had me worried about missing the flight.

I didn’t, and here I am back in grey, rainy England, with the surprise of an on-time Gatwick Express for the same price as the Southern Trains (my usual carrier) trip.

Apparently, until 1 January a single fare on the GatExp has been reduced to £13.50 from £18.90 because engineering works are making it S-L-O-W-E-R than its usual half hour.

A polite, orderly Swiss queueA polite, orderly Swiss queue

A polite, orderly Swiss queue

Which, I confirm, after spending nearly 50 minutes chugging into London, it certainly is…

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