Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Marathon Cup (part I)

The upcoming World Cup season is going to be unusual in that it will feature neither a World Championships nor an Olympic Games. Already, commentators and athletes alike are looking to the Tour de Ski as the high point of the season. The TdS will likely be exciting, but it comes too early to serve as the true peak of the winter's racing. Likewise, the season Finale - as usual, four races in in Stockholm and Falun - is too short and too late to be much more than a last hurrah for the racers.

Happily, though, this season is apparently going to see an uptick in the intensity of racing on the FIS Marathon Cup circuit, a series of races run all across Europe from December to March and ranging from 42km to 90km in length.

I love following the Marathon Cup, which overlaps both with the citizen-race Worldloppet series and the more-elite "Ski Classics" series (all of which are classic-technique events). One reason for this is that regular old citizen racers can participate in all of the races, unlike any of the World Cups, which are of course events for the elites only. It's cool to do the "same" Vasaloppet as the winner of that esteemed race - even if he would finish three hours ahead of me.

Another reason I enjoy following the Marathon Cup is that the races demand a different set of skills from athletes than the regular World Cup races. All of the races are mass starts, for one thing, which contributes to the formation of lead packs that are, early in the events, bigger than the entire fields of WC races. Not everyone is good at or comfortable in 100-person lead groups, which are more like cycling pelotons than the relatively small clusters of skiers in WC pursuits or marathons The lead women, in contrast, usually have to ski, mostly on their own, through heavy (male) traffic and worn-out tracks for 40 or 50 or 90 kilometers - again, markedly different from WC races.

And then there's the most notable characteristic of the MC races: the distances. All told, the eleven Marathon Cups comprises 647km of racing this winter - quite a bit longer than the entire World Cup. The shortest Marathon Cup events this season are two freestyle 42km races, the season-opening La Sgambeda in Italy in December and the Engadin in Switzerland in March. The other nine Marathon Cup races range from 50km to 90km, and average 63km in length. With regards to distance, prestige, and, probably, effort, the grandaddy of all the marathons is the Vasaloppet, which covers 90km of flat, flowing trails between Moran and Salen, Sweden, and requires something like four hours of effort for the male winner.

A third reason I like following the Marathon Cup races is that they increasingly attract world-class skiers, often now embedded in formal teams. This winter's races seem to be bringing this trend to new heights - which will be the subject of a follow-up post in a couple days.