Skijoring at the World Champs 2019
March 2018 and I made a little video of my dogs and me skiing around my street in the snow. The video went viral and lots of people said how I should race on snow and become the first British person to skijor. Well buoyed by those messages I set myself a goal – to compete at the World Snow Championships in France in January 2019.
Now I am a downhill skier and a pretty good one. I’ve raced for my country internationally and in all disciplines Downhill, Super G, Giant Slalom & Slalom. I ran a ski race club for 20 years and coached at the Junior Olympics, so I have a fair amount of experience of planks on snow. I had also tried skijoring in Sweden many moons ago, so whilst an amateur, I wasn’t a complete novice. Alpine skis have fixed bindings, stiff boots and are much wider than their Cross Country relatives. Nordic/ Cross Country skis are skinny and only fixed to the ski by the toepiece of the soft boots. This means your heal is free, to help propel you forwards.
This concept was quite a challenge and I got some used rollerskis and boots off ebay to take my inaugural steps. In April I had a lesson with Manchester Cross Country Ski Club and after 2 hours around the track at Lancashire University I was feeling knackered, but like it was all possible. There are lots of rollerskiing clubs around the country and details can be found here:- https://www.britishnordic.org/local-clubs
Rollerskiing became part of my regular training programme and I did some other stuff for core and arms, which I’m glad I did as there was a lot of pushing with the poles. The speed the dogs pull meant skating was quite hard, so pushing with the poles became the best way for me to help out.
The next plan was the dogs’ fitness. Skijoring can be up to 18km for 2 dogs, or 14km for 1, so I needed a training programme to gradually ease the dogs up to around 10 miles without injuring them. I have dogs that can run all year, as long as it’s not stupidly warm and they were 3 miles fit by October. I devised a training plan, with gradual increments which spanned over 2 and a half months and by early Jan the boys were comfortably running 8 miles. Running longer distances at speed takes great care and I made sure there was plenty of rest, swimming and down time in between. I ran mainly forest trails and firetracks, but only towards the end of the plan was the distance more than once a week, I always kept the midweek run short at 2.5 miles.
I was worried about their joints and feet, so settled on an average moving speed of 16.5mph. I came up with this magic number after calculating the average moving speed of the competitors at last years European Snow Champs, who were averaging around 17.5mph. I knew I wouldn’t be as fast as them, so figured a 1 mile an hour drop would work well and it did really suit the boys. The first time I ran them as a pair on snow, they nailed this average perfectly. I use a Garmin forerunner to stat my runs and pace and I used boots for Marshall on his back feet, as the snow grazed by his toes, but really was more a precaution and didn’t seem to affect his running whether he wore them or not.
Plans were also in motion for snow training and I would have 1 and a half weeks to train on the white stuff before I raced. We opted for a small resort called La Pesse, which has a variety of trails, more details about La Pesse can be found reading Dan’s blog on his trip to the snow. I had to apply to BSSF to race, of which I’m a member and put some info about my experience on skis. Many thanks to the BSSF for allowing me to compete. I also bought skate skis from Salomon UK who as an old sponsor of mine were really helpful and gave me a proper good deal.
What had seemed months away suddenly was here and we were off to the snow. My son Brodie and his girlfriend Tay joined me and we met Dan on route to La Pesse. The first day I skated up and down the carpark and then hooked up Magnus and went for it. The trail was hilly and the downhills fast, I fell early on and the hills were really tough going. Luckily a local skijorer overtook me and then Magnus happily followed. We did the 8km trail and whilst my legs were aching and lungs burning, Maggie looked like he could easily do it all again. It was me that had to repeat it however, this time with Marshall. I fell again, always on the same side. The hills were even worse than before and I just couldn’t help enough. Marshall stopped and looked at me as if to say ‘what the hell are you doing?’ I came in deflated, this was way harder than I thought.
Day 2 and much the same, the trail was cut up by teams and pretty icy. Another fall and the turns were getting harder in the rutted snow. I told Brodie and Tay I couldn’t do the race and it was all a mistake. They gave me a stern talking to and we went to tourist info and asked for the trail to be groomed. That morning I awoke to the beeping and rumbling of a piste machine and knew things might be different out there. With no other teams about, I enjoyed a perfect trail and finally started to believe I could do it.
We switched resorts on Wednesday giving the dogs a much deserved day off and travelled the couple of hours to Bessan, the race venue. Bessan is a cross country mecca with a dedicated Nordic centre. Parking was a giant car park with no hook up, toilets or showers. The first 2 nights were the coldest and reached around -21, it was that cold that the toilet in my motorhome froze!! The dogs sleep in the motorhome, in a converted area that was a bunkbed. They all sleep together and I worried about how they might fair being house dogs used to central heating, I insulated their quarters with carpet off cuts, vet beds and lots of blankets. They also had equafleece PJ’s and seemed pretty happy even on the coldest nights.
Bessan is much flatter and wider than La Pesse and the trails were in mint condition. It sits in a valley and as the morning sun slowly creeps down the mountains, the shadey valley is basking in sunlight by midday. Confidence growing I attempted 2 dog skijor and loved it. I trained another 3 days straight, ending with a 9 miler and the boys were killing it. The weather was still cold, but the sun was out and all was going well. The parking lot was filling up with competitors from far and wide and each morning we were awoken by a cacophony of dog howls, barks and generators firing up.
We had a pretty comprehensive vet check, which was good to see and the boys were given a clean bill of health. Trails were open for inspection and I skied the 14km track dog less. This took me ages and was truly soul destroying. Why people cross country ski as a pleasurable pastime is beyond me, it’s slow, hard and knackering. By now we’d had some fresh snow, so the trail was soft and I could easily see the dogs feet would punch through. It needed a damn good groom to compact the snow down and get the air out. I didn’t sleep that well that night, I had this nagging feeling that one dog skijor was too big an ask for both me and my dog.
After much thought I decided to pull from the one dog and leave the dogs fresh for 2 dog skijor, whilst one dog is easier to master and less chance of falling, it is incredibly demanding and the trail conditions would make it even harder. I wasn’t fit enough for that challenge. So we helped with the other teams and the dogs rested. On Thursday evening it started snowing and didn’t stop for over 24hrs, by Friday morning, there was over a foot of fresh snowfall and it was still dumping it down. All sprint races were postponed as the powder was too much of a risk.
I sat nervously waiting for the storm to pass and at times thought my chance to race was gone, but Saturday morning the mountains were back in sight, free from their cloud curtain and game on. With so much fresh snow the trail was still very soft and we went out last after the sleds, so it was far from the fast, perfectly pisted trails I’d enjoyed previously. Uncompacted snow is 90% trapped air so I knew it was going to be a slog, but I’d waxed warmer so knew my skis would run and so would the dogs.
It’s fair to say I was pretty nervous, there was quite a crowd and I really didn’t want to fall on the start line, or get in the way of the faster skiers. I didn’t want to be that skier from the UK that was an embarrassment. The boys however were not overwhelmed at all by the tannoy, cheering crowds or anything, they were just raring to go. I stood in the start, Magnus and Marshall screaming to go and prayed I would stay upright. Brodie held the boys and then we were off, flying down the start shute. The crowds cheered and I let out an excited ‘whoop’ and did a sort of silly fist pump in the air, but couldn’t help myself I was so excited. I did laugh as later watched Kale Casey’s live feed and he describes me as waving to the crowds, enjoying the moment and he wasn’t wrong I sure did.
We went at 30 second intervals and was 3rd off, so figured there would be a fair few people passing me. I didn’t want to get in the way so kept to the side, meaning the faster teams could get a clean pass. The boys were on fire and my skis were running fast, I fell on the second corner going too quick, but was quickly up again and to my surprise was catching the person in front. The first couple of miles had some downhills and getting competitive I decided to throw caution to the wind and let the skis run. If I don’t brake I draw level with the dogs and have to lift the line to avoid running over it, I was still keeping to the side just encase of overtakes, which was my mistake. The boys instinctively move over as I draw level with them and this meant they went in the deep powder, both fell and I sailed past them until I too fell.
The boys were ok, but tangled and we spent a while untangling the lines, we were passed during this debacle and then just as we were setting off again, the quick release strap IFSS say you need for safety decided to release and off went the boys leaving me stood in the trail. I could have cried at this point and panic set in as feared the boys would take themselves down the trail to God knows where. I called out to them something along the lines of ‘please stop boys’ and they bloody well did. I fumbled around trying to reattach the line, so hard with gloves and poles strapped to my hands, anyway I couldn’t have done it properly as no sooner had we started and the line released again and once more the boys were free.
They stopped again (love these boys) and I took some deep breaths, held them as we were passed again several times and then dispensed with that stupid quick release and tied them to my belt. Finally we were on course once more and we weren’t even half way. I could see another racer behind me and from her bib knew she was the last out, I’d lost so much time. We pushed on and gradually I calmed down, the panic from earlier disappeared and we settled into a rhythm. The second half of the course is a climb of around 3 miles, this is where I needed to give more. I tried as best I could, fell again catching the tip of my ski in the powder trying to skate and by now I was caught by the final skier.
She overtook me, but didn’t really pull away and then we overtook some male teams, the boys were really starting to wind up the pace and we ran head to head for some time. Magnus my nervous dog, looked over at her dogs almost in a ‘were faster than you’ way and really seemed to enjoy the company, he was driving into his harness. The trail follows a river and it was really busy with leisure skiers out for a pootle. One poor lady was stranded in the middle of the trail like a rabbit caught in the headlights as my fellow competitor went one side of her and I went the other. She pulled away on a climb, then the trail swung back downhill and the boys opened up and I didn’t see her again until she finished. The Nordic centre loomed in the distance and I knew the end was close, so poled and skated as best I could. Crowds lined the finish and were cheering all the way, it felt awesome. We came in strong, crossing the line in 8th place and I wasn’t even last, despite the issues.
The boys looked good and I thanked the girl from the Netherlands who we’d run half the trail with, she said ‘good race’ back to me, I felt chuffed. When I checked my Garmin later we had lost around 5 minutes and looking at the moving speed we were around a steady 15.5mph. If these dogs had a better skier who could help more, they would be right up there.
I was asked would I do it again…..? You bet I would, but armed with this experience I will return faster and fitter, but for now its time to turn my boys back to 3 mile sprinters and relearn that they don’t need to pace themselves anymore.
I would encourage people to have a go and get to the snow. My motorhome is not winterised and I couldn’t run the heater all night or else it drains the battery. I didn’t fill the water tank fearing the pipes might freeze and even my gas did on the coldest nights. I slept in thermals and used a good quality sleeping bag and quilt. I don’t have a generator, but ran the van everyday to help defrost it and let the battery charge. I used snow socks once and have winter tyres.
We will be off to the snow again next year, so it you’re interested then drop me a message. Massive thanks to Brodie, Tay, Dan and the British Team. It really was a trip of a lifetime and just goes to show you’re never too old to chase a dream.