More recently, the race is for teams of 5 competitors, (women can only compete in 25 or 50km), but all competitors still have to arrive at the finish line together. This can present some real challenges, especially for the strongest and weakest skier. I was told many stories about personal "crises" that can occur, especially the mental breakdowns that happen in the first 18km of steep uphill climbing. This is when "the rope" happens. The dreaded rope - a skiers worst nightmare - is a personal shame. It is an elastic rope that the strongest skier will attach to himself, like a harness, and then attach to the weakest skier to pull him along so the team doesn't suffer too much time loss. Apparently it adds an extra 25% to the strongest skiers' effort. When I was asking competitors about the race, all they could tell me was that they hoped they wouldn't be the one that ends up on the rope.
The other horror story is of the last 15km of downhill towards the finish line. Imagine: you are wet from sweating and suddenly you are not exerting much energy, you are moving at a fast speed, the icy wind rushing past you, and all of a sudden you freeze. The pain is intense, and is usually in the extremities, like your fingers and toes, but men tell of another type of freeze...apparently crying is all you can do until you warm up again. Not pleasant.
The 2010 race started at Svaty Petr, a ski area on the outskirts of the town (it has 3 slopes that end dramatically in a narrow valley). We arrived at 8am, the sun still obscured by the giant mountains surrounding us. Temperatures were freezing: about -10 degrees C. All around me skiers were making final preperations: Checking the vital layering of clothes, checking the thermos for hot tea/electrolytes, checking energy/chocolate bars, checking the rope, checking skis and the wax on the skis:
Even in the early hours, tourists were getting ready for a day of leisurely downhill skiing on the surrounding slopes while the race competitors faced the prospects of being at the mercy of the mountains!
The starting time drew closer and teams lined up together:
400m from the start the 18km uphill climb started:
The race had a 5hr time limit, so at 12pm I found myself standing at the base of the downhill ski slopes, enjoying the occasional warmth from the sun. Everyone was waiting nervously for the first skier to appear, all eyes to the mountains.
Under the finish banner teams could be seen hugging, immense relief to have survived together.
All that was left to do was to put on dry clothes, pack skis away, eat the complimentary goulash, and to head to the pub for a well deserved pivo.