[Editor: Please note that the views below are those of the author and do not represent those of the Australian Cross Country Ski Team. Apologies to those nations, towns, and people who may be offended.]
Update March 23, 2006
As readers of this column will doubtlessly be aware (I'm talking to both of you), form is not something I've had an excess of in season 2005/06. After my brief and spectacularly unsuccessful trip to the Dusseldorf World Cup in November, where I competently filled the role of the 'shadow' in shadow team, I conceded that my next ill-considered outing should be a little less ambitious (read: deluded). Unfortunately, Contiki were fully booked up, forcing me to again consider the prospect of tackling a prestigious international ski race in the kind of shape that would have made the late Marlon Brando blush. My first task was to pick a destination. Armenia was the first country removed from the list (for a lengthy rant about this dismal nation, please see A Warped Perspective 1-4), followed by Germany (too much cabbage), Sweden (parole-related issues) and Italy (too many Italians). In the end, Japan won out more through default than any particularly compelling reason.
Long since banished from the national team, the time had come to resurrect the one team that had never turned its back on me - Team Wombat. For those of you not familiar with Team Wombat, and that may well be most of you, TW is an elite yet reclusive ski team with entry requirements on a par with the revered US Marines. Without revealing too many details, the selection test is based around the ability of applicants to run 100m without falling over and sign one's own name. Needless to say, Mt. Beauty residents need not apply.
With fellow TW member Andrew Circosta signed up for Mission Japan (Circa passed the TW selection test on his third valiant attempt), contact was made with the wonderfully helpful organizers of the Sapporo Ski Marathon, who were subsequently deceived into granting us front-row starting positions for the Feb. 12 race. Not wanting to risk being too fatigued for the big race - a trap for many young racers - training was commenced 3 weeks out from the event. Unfortunately, Circa had a big house party to go to, so training was subsequently postponed for a further week. With 3 days of solid dry-land preparations behind us, we boarded a plane bound for Japan on the 3rd of February. Close to three days later we arrived at our destination - Sapporo. What happened during those three days is something that I still need to work through with my therapist, my few lucid memories involve 4 cancelled flights from Tokyo to Sapporo, long periods spent lying on the floor of Haneda Airport's departures area and a foggy recollection of throwing a chair at a diminutive booking clerk. Things did not immediately improve upon arrival in Sapporo - again, my memories are hazy - but I do vividly recall emerging disorientated from the subway and proceeding to lug 50kg of ski gear for an hour through the snow in precisely the opposite direction to our intended destination. Thankfully, upon our belated arrival at the Toyoto Inn, we were greeted with the one sight guaranteed to gladden the heart of any elite athlete - a beer vending machine.
Day 2 in Sapporo and all suicidal thoughts were quickly banished. In short, the place is rad (and don't try and tell me that 'rad' isn't a word…). I don't know how many cities there are in the world where you can catch the subway to go for a ski - but there should be more. Our training destination for the first two days was Takino Snow World, a place remarkable for its amazing trails, pristine snow and almost disturbing absence of fellow skiers - oh, and its beer vending machine. If this place was deserted one week out from the Sapporo marathon, I can't imagine how good the crowded ski areas must be. I had heard stories about Hokkaido's legendary snow (Hokkaido is the rugged north island of Japan, of which Sapporo is the largest city), and it turns out that unlike most of the stories I tell about Mt. Beauty, this one is true. However, if you're looking for sun, Sapporo in February is not the place for you. I got the feeling that if it was to go more than about 5hrs in Sapporo without some kind of frozen precipitation, locals would start to talk about calamitous climate change.
With a couple of days of solid training under our belts, TW could no longer resist the call of adventure - alternatively known as danger. What better way to endanger our well-being than to board a train bound for Hirafu - the winter base of former xc-racer turned bad; telemark tragic Matt O'Rourke. Let me assure you folks, Matt isn't dead, he's just been stuck in powder. The downhill resort of Hirafu has the distinction of having more Australians per square metre than Mt. Buller. A tragic state of affairs, especially when you consider the questionable character and skiing ability of some of these Australians. Personally, I don't feel safe at any resort that is willing to let a person like me ride the tows. After a couple of sweet powder runs, misadventure soon reared its ugly head. Evidently, poor eyesight, questionable skiing ability and 12 ft drops are about as compatible as dingoes and childcare centers. After seeing the drop (onto a cat-track) far too late, I cunningly ejected both skis and with some quick thinking launched myself from the top of the precipice upside-down, cushioning the fall with my thorasic spine. The less said about what came next the better, but let's just say that Matt, a man's who's opinion I rate very highly on the matter, adjudged it to be the best crash of the season. The doctor at the Sapporo x-ray clinic that I hauled my sorry carcass to the next day seemed similarly impressed - the good man even allowed me to prescribe my own medication; a nice touch but one that may not take off in sections of the Australian medical community.
While I spent the next couple of days immobile in bed gaining a new appreciation for the pain threshold of Japanese game show contestants (ritual humiliation appeared to be the overriding theme), Circa was left to roam Sapporo with impunity - a dangerous situation, and one that I promised his Australian parole officer would not be allowed to arise. We also took the opportunity to seriously deplete Japan's pork dumpling supply - not the kind of nutrition I would subsequently recommend to anyone with any family history of heart disease.
Marathon day soon crept up on the battered (and now considerably overweight) members of Team Wombat. A reconnaissance of the race-course on the day before confirmed our initial suspicions; a real bastard of a race course - 50km long and relentlessly hilly. True to form, we thoroughly $%&ed up the race wax - possibly the result of a sudden 10 degree drop in temperature and an attempt to wax in the hotel bath-tub. Thanks to our priority start we were out of the gate quickly before settling in to a nice rhythm. Rhythm…who am I kidding - we suffered like dogs from the gun and watched as a succession of vastly fitter (and I suspect, dumpling-dodging) local skiers motored past. In an effort to provide each other with some much needed moral support, Circa and myself formed an exclusive pack of two, before being joined midway through the race by a couple of young bucks more than willing to do the lion's share of the work while we stepped on the backs of their skis as added encouragement. At the 46km mark we learnt that the course wasn't just a bastard, it was a bastard that had suffered from a particularly troubled childhood. At this point we encountered a series of hills that made the paralyser look like a disabled ramp. In a matter of a few hundred meters I went from being a racer to a tourist, and finally, a spectator. I will never forget the final 3kms of that godforsaken race - my world went dark and I all but lost the will to live. Upon entering the finish straight, the marshals, observing my apparent inability to coordinate my arms and legs in any coherent manner, tried to direct me into the finish chute for the 25km event. Not to be deterred, I angrily dribbled on them before crawling the final meters to the finish line. Horribly hypoglycemic and near-blind, instinct alone guided me to the food station positioned at the finish line. Reaching out a feeble glove, I begged for sustenance whereupon a smiling organizer calmly handed me…a bowl of miso soup with chopsticks. They had successfully crushed my spirit.
For the record - Circa skied strongly to finish 17th overall and 1st international. I scraped home a couple of places later vowing to take up lawn bowls.
Yet again I seem to have taken far too many words to say far too little. For once, I'll get to the point. Japan is an amazing place. The people are friendly and unbelievably helpful. No one tries to steal your stuff. The food is great (and pretty cheap). Public transport is both easy and efficient. The skiing rivals the best of Europe. If you have a spare 3 weeks and want to ski - I can't think of a better place.
One more thing. Japanese girls wear very, very short skirts.
[Note - for more examples of how to insult people from around the world, look to the Mock reports from 2002, 2003, 2005, and earlier in 2006]
Now that's magic! Andrew Mock gives Japan the thubs up.