Maybe it was the smell of Voltaren in the morning that I missed. Maybe it was the freezing air on my nasal membranes. Maybe my last concussion did more damage than my doctor was aware of. All irrelevant. The bottom line is that I am now unemployed and sleeping rough in Switzerland.
My rehabilitation had been going so well. Nice flat in the suburbs, caring girlfriend, office job - to the outside observer, I was cured. But skiaholism doesn't work like that. Much like the herpes virus, skiaholism never leaves you, it just lies dormant. I don't exactly remember when I had my first relapse, indeed, it was only minor. It started with a short rollerski once a week, but I was fine, I could stop anytime I wanted. Before long, my friends and family started to get concerned - one night my girlfriend caught me practising my offset technique in the mirror. I told her that I was just practicing my dancing, but deep down we both knew the truth. Before long, the addiction had taken hold of my mind and body. Things got so bad that I started to impulsively call 'track' as I passed fellow commuters on my way to work. Once, in an important client meeting, I drifted off and started yelling "either chase back on or GET OUT OF MY WAY GRIMMER!" in front of my startled and concerned colleagues. Extensive mentoring at work failed to improve my condition and my performance continued to deteriorate. Within a matter of months it became apparent to myself and my bosses that I had become, for all intents and purposes, unemployable.
After much soul searching and numerous tearful conversations with my long-suffering girlfriend, I realised that, as a terminally unemployable invalid, there was only one career path left open to me - full-time XC skier. While this epiphany came to me much like opposable thumbs came to the residents of Jindabyne; slowly, it brought with it great peace of mind. In no time, my life as I knew it ceased to exist. I said goodbye to my work colleagues, burned my neck-ties and ceased showering. My descent into skiaholism was complete. The only thing left to do was reassemble Team Wombat (with most of the founding members still awaiting parole, Ronan Magaharan and Nick Grimmer were inducted on short-notice), procure some credible false passports and set sail for middle-Europe.
The following report is intended to provide a snapshot into the less-than-glamourous life of an unreformed and unrepentant XC skier. In much the same way that Jon Krakauer's best seller Into the Wild documented Christopher McCandless' compelling descent into insanity and starvation in the Alaskan wilderness, I hope that Into the Wombat will provide a similarly compelling account of what happens when three naïve XC skiers attempt to pilot un unroadworthy French-registered station-wagon on an ill-advised racing campaign around middle Europe.
Into The Wombat - Part 1
Ronan Magaharan and myself left Melbourne on Boxing Day night and arrived in Zurich sometime the following day. The 20-odd hours in between were predictably unpleasant, yet relatively uneventful. Unfortunately, my plans to tranquilise myself into oblivion with the aid of a handful of barbiturates was compromised by a pair of inconvenient transfers in Singapore and Dubai. Nick Grimmer met us at the airport on his way from the Fischen night sprint (see race report) and drove his drooling cargo 2hrs south-east to the Swiss resort town of Davos. For those of you not familiar with the township of Davos, it is a stunning mountain village near the Swiss/Italian border famous for its World Economic Forum and populated predominantly by rude Swiss retirees with a penchant for coats made from small endangered mammals. We checked into the local 'youthpalace' and promptly passed out. The next two days were spent waking up at 3am, locating the local patisseries and coming to terms with how dissimilar skiing and rollerskiing really are.
My coach often hog-ties me before forcing me to ski long distances
Back in early December, when Grimmer first suggested driving 5hrs across Switzerland to race the 200m Adelboden city sprint on just our third day in Europe, I thought he was deranged (most people have already established this fact). Despite this, Ronan and myself had inexplicably agreed to this ridiculous plan, albeit with the intention of abandoning should our jetlag prove too debilitating. Unsurprisingly, our jetlag was debilitating, so on the day before the event we came to the logical consensus that we would remain in Davos. Regrettably, we left Grimmer with the responsibility of informing the race organiser of our decision. Showing the kind of resolve that would make the French Military proud, Nick promptly capitulated in exchange for 100 swiss francs in appearance money and a free dinner. Tremendous.
The trip to Adelboden, via Luzern and Interlaken, was less traumatic than expected - all the more remarkable considering that our 2WD Renault appeared to be one of only three vehicles in all of Switzerland without snow tires. Adelboden itself is one of those picturesque Swiss mountain villages that would look right at home in a Jaegermeister commercial (except with worse fashion). Upon our arrival in town at around 5pm, the racecourse appeared suspiciously like a busy shopping strip covered in pedestrians. Within the hour, however, the dump trucks moved in and the main street was converted into a 100m long ski track with a starting tent at one end and a couple of barrels at the other. The race itself was a short and simple affair - sprint 100m to the end of the track, round the barrel and back to the finish. Racing was to be held in a head-to-head format, with the track split into two side-by-side lanes. After our free dinner and a quick warm-up lap, Nick, Ronan and I found ourselves pacing around the starting tent awaiting our respective heats. Obviously keen to see at least one Australian advance to the second round, Andre Jungen, the race organiser, had scheduled a first round grudge match between Grimmer and myself. 25 seconds later, Grimmer was nursing a large grin and I was plotting devastating revenge. Regrettably for the large assembled crowd, Nick, myself and Ronan all managed to sneak into the second round based on our first round times (in that order). While Grimmer made it through one more round with some opportunistic skiing, Ronan and myself were forced to save our specially prepared victory salutes for another day (hopefully when there are less children watching). The remaining skiers put a particularly impressive show, with the Swiss team members of Eigemann, Von Almen and Gruber battling it out, with Eigemann eventually walking away with the 2,000 CHF first prize. Another Swiss national team member, Bucher, won the women's event in convincing fashion.
Nick Grimmer (#23) excites the ladies of Adelboden with his new spray-on race suit
With the event concluded, we packed the skis away and sheepishly lined up to collect our appearance money. Personally, I think the fact that the race organisers were willing to pay us valid currency in return for such dismal performances is concrete proof that the general standard of living in Switzerland has reached alarming levels. With adrenaline now subsided and the Red Bull long gone from our systems, Team Wombat turned their attention to locating a bed for the night. The race organiser broke the bad news to us - the town was full. Luckily, there were three beds left...in the gondola station. Half an hour later, with the operator successfully retrieved from the pub, we were loaded into a darkened cable car and delivered to our somewhat out-of-the-way hotel. Now I'm all for boutique hotels, but I do get concerned when walking to the toilet in the dark represents an avalanche risk...
Our hotel in Adelboden was tucked a little out of the way
I'll spare you the details of our escape from the gondola station the next morning, but I will say that you should never underestimate what can be achieved with a chrome hubcap and some baby oil.
Clear sunny weather heralded our return to Davos. Clear, sunny and -21C. Great if you're a mummified corpse - not so great if you are trying avoid becoming one. Now I'd like to regale you with crazy stories about our wacky antics during the subsequent week's training in Davos, but unfortunately the life of a cross country skier is essentially dull. We skied, we slept, we ate - I'll spare the mind-numbing details and move on.
Next stop was Oberstdorf, Germany (scene of the 2005 World Champs), where we met up with the Australian Junior Team. The town was hosting a pair of OPA Cup races (the level below World Cup) on the 5th & 6th of January. The first race was a 10km Free / 10km Classic pursuit ('skiathlon') which we collectively decided to skip. In our defence, while we're perfectly happy to take our medicine when required, we were seriously concerned that the tough course combined with our limited time on snow would lead to a damn good thrashing at the hands of the Germans. Aimee Watson flew the sole Australian flag at the event, posting a solid result (see Finn's race report). The second race of the weekend was a freestyle sprint held on the 2005 World Champs course. Now this course is a mean enough little bastard to start with, but add in driving rain come race day and it sure did expose the weak skiers in the field. Unfortunately that included myself and Ronan. The less said about our races the better, needless to say we are confident of improvement. Luckily, Grimmer thoroughly redeemed our little crew, burning around the course a mere eight seconds slower than the 1st place qualifier, and only missing qualifying for the finals by less than a second. A number of the junior team also qualified for quarter finals, further compounding my feelings of guilt, failure and rejection. Thankfully, food has always been a great comfort for me, and after consuming my fifth chocolate wafer in the car on the way back to Davos, I was feeling better already.
I write this having just returned to Davos. Another couple of days training lay ahead before the start of a torrid two week race campaign taking in Olten & Klosters (Switzerland), Campo Carlo Magno (Italy) then Rothenthurm, Les Diablerets and Sedrun (Switzerland again). I hope to post another report at some point during this ridiculous program. Apologies if I fail to do so, but I most likely will have died from exhaustion.
Into The Wombat - Part 2
Into The Wombat - Part 3
Into The Wombat - Part 4
[Note - here you can find the earlier Mock reports from 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, Sapporo 2006, and Sapporo 2007]