Saturday, January 28, 2012

Marathon Cup (part II) - the Marcialonga!

This weekend's gap in the World Cup schedule is just big enough to admit the Marcialonga, the 70km marathon in northern Italy. Second only to the Vasaloppet in prestige, the Marcialonga has - like that even longer race - this year attracted quite a crowd of racers, headed by none other than Petter Northug himself.

That Northug is taking the weekend "off" to ski 70,000 meters of track in Italy is a big, slightly weird deal. As I suggested in my first Marathon Cup post, a number of high-profile World Cup racers have recently shifted over to the ski marathons - Mathias Fredriksson a few years ago, Frode Estil briefly, even Thomas Alsgaard. Mostly past their prime, these racers never really vied with the marathon specialists - on the men's side, racers like Stanislav Rezac (CZE), Jerry Ahrlin (SWE), Oskar Svärd (SWE), and the Aukland brothers Jorgen and Anders.

The latter Aukland, after a decent World Cup career, has had quite a bit of success on the marathon circuit, winning the Marcialonga in 2008, the Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet in 2006 and 2010, and the Vasaloppet in 2004. Two other World Cup racers who have made good in the marathons are Hilde Pedersen, who won the Marcialonga in 2007 and the Birkebeinerrennet in 2006 and 2008, and more recently Jörgen Brink, who has won back-to-back Vasaloppet titles in 2010 and 2011 - both times with Northug-like sprints to the line.

I have to think that Brink's success in the biggest and most prestigious marathon has encouraged others to try the long races - as has a doubling of the prize money this year and the organization of marathon racers into fairly formal, professionally-sponsored teams. Think pro cycling, not World Cup skiing.  Last year, Martin Koukal joined one of the professional racing teams and has registered for the Marcialonga. Even Petra Majdic is supposed to be skiing the Marcialonga this year - though, she claims, not vying for the win.

But of course Northug's name is the biggest and most important. He is definitely going to try to win the race, skiing with the Swedish Exspirit team. The team support is important, given the distance and the somewhat different tactics of the marathons, which are contested more like bicycling races than mass-start World Cup ski races. I'd like to pick Northug for the win, but I don't think the course suits him: the last 5,000 meters of the race include the steep "Cascata" climb into the finish in the town of Cavalese:
The Marcialonga Course

The climb is important enough to the race that, this year, racers can win a special prize for the fastest time over that section. I can't see Northug winning that prize, or the race, though I guess I won't be surprised if he defies my prediction and takes the win. I'll be happy enough if there's a good, small group of racers together when they reach the Cascata. With 68,000 meters in their arms and legs by then, funny stuff could happen before the finish line.