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The 2019 Inferno Ski Races in Mürren: Tackling the Langlauf, the Giant Slalom & the world’s longest, hardest Downhill Ski Race

 

In January I kicked off my travels for 2019 with a fantastic week in the Swiss Alps, in the beautiful ski resort of Mürren. I loved it so much, that I’m worried I’ve already had my peak week of the whole of 2019! I travelled with my sister, aunt and around 200 other Kandahar Ski Club members for a whole 8 days of skiing, racing, tobogganing, fonduing, partying and generally gazing up in awe at the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains overlooking us.

I first visited Mürren two years ago in 2017, again having an absolutely brilliant week. That first time I had a goal of completing the Inferno, the longest downhill ski race in the world and one of the oldest, having been established in 1928. I’m happy to say I achieved that goal and I wrote three separate blogs posts about my week in Mürren in 2017:

I’m not generally a creature of habit and I usually resist doing things more than once. I never watch a film twice or read a book more than once; it’s very rare for me to travel back to somewhere I’ve been before; I thrive off variety and don’t adhere too much to ideas about tradition. So once I’d completed the Inferno in 2017, one of my travel goals before 30, I was torn over whether or not to return… While the race itself only takes some 10-20 minutes and had been firmly “ticked”, I hadn’t anticipated how much I’d love the build-up to the race, the community of racers, the special atmosphere in Mürren and the mountain scenery itself.

I’ve long loved skiing and the mountain air, but I hadn’t before tasted the Kandahar Club experience – which is utterly addictive! To prove it, this year’s annual race marked my aunt’s 24th Inferno! She participated in her first Inferno race before I was even born, and this year she was awarded the Kandahar’s first female Double Diamond Devil for her sheer persistence over quite so many years. If 24 return visits aren’t enough proof of why the Inferno week in Mürren is so phenomenal, then I don’t know what is!

Watch my Instagram story from Mürren here to get a better idea!

The Inferno week atmosphere drew me back in 2019 for the 76th edition of the race. But to go the extra mile I set myself a new goal: to complete the “Combination Inferno”, which comprises three separate races:

  • A 6km Nordic (or ‘Langlauf’) skiing race around the village
  • A Giant Slalom race
  • The famous 14.9km Downhill race

Only 376 of the total 1,850 Inferno racers opted to complete the full trio of races, and with good reason, as I was soon to discover!

Part I: The 6km Nordic Skiing Race

It’s worth mentioning here that I’d never stepped foot on a pair of cross-country skis before, nor had any slalom race training at any point in my life! I was brought up on off-piste skiing which is an entirely different discipline – it’s not at all about speed or ‘gates’, so the Combination was a whole new kettle of fish for me. I’d glanced vaguely at cross-country skiers while living in Sweden in 2017, and thought it looked simple enough – how hard could it be?! I first realised the full extent of my naivety during a roller-skiing class in Hyde Park. I’d been recommended it by my aunt, who swiftly preceded to tell me about the number of broken noses and injuries that various friends had incurred during falls in the Nordic race, and she reminded me that in all her 24 years of the Inferno, not once had she been tempted by the madness that is the Langlauf race… which didn’t bode well!

After one lesson in Hyde Park and one rather dramatic fall, I concluded that this sport was nowhere as easy as it looked, and I well and truly got “the fear”. In Mürren I had one lesson on the snow from a veteran Langlauf-er and I fell a total of 3 times, further cementing the fear deeper into my consciousness… Wednesday evening rolled around, with the sun setting and spectators gathering to watch and cheer on the 376 of us crazy Nordic skiers who were attempting to survive three laps of the village, complete with downhill slopes (Nordic skis don’t have edges for stopping or slowing on the downhill!); torturous uphills (where everyone stands to watch you struggle); and some manmade bumps just to trip you up (which is obviously where the photographer decides to hover, poised to capture your most graceless moments).

I am happy to say I survived it, but I hardly excelled! To be precise, I finished in 30 minutes 33 seconds and came 362nd out of 376, and last in my age category out of 29 women. For context, the fastest woman finished in 14 minutes 40 seconds. My excuse is that it was my first race; up against a pack of Swiss superheroes who probably learnt to Nordic ski before they could even walk, and one of my poles broke mid-race. I finished without a broken nose though, so I’m counting my blessings!

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Part II: The Giant Slalom Race

The debut of the catsuit happened on Thursday for the Giant Slalom race. Despite being a complete amateur at this racing game, I have to confess that donning a catsuit does make you feel invincible, like a superhero on skis! I enjoyed the Giant Slalom race infinitely more than the Langlauf, although I can hardly claim to have broken any records in that race either. Very embarrassingly, I was even overtaken at the very end by a man behind me – which really isn’t supposed to happen since they start us 30 seconds apart! I finished in 1 minute 36 seconds, finishing 331st out of 355 racers and (you guessed it) I once again came last in my age category of 28 women. For context, the fastest woman finished in 1 minute 3 seconds. Here though I was grateful just to have completed it in one piece, as another Kandahar girl fell, smashed through two slalom gates and even took out a gate judge!

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Part III: The 14.9km Downhill Race

The main event of the Inferno is the high-speed downhill race from near the top of the Schilthorn mountain at 2970m altitude, down to the valley-floor village of Lauterbrunnen at 800m altitude. You descend a whopping 2,170m altitude over 14.9km, reaching speeds of up to 80mph! It’s an intense race and has rightly earned its devilish reputation – your thighs scorch from the lactic acid, your lungs feel fit to burst after the uphill climbs, and there are more helicopter rescues from spectacular crashes than I’d like to contemplate. It’s considered so dangerous that normal skiing insurance won’t cover it!

2019 was a very lucky year as there was enough snow to race the entire course from top-to-bottom, which hadn’t happened for the previous 5 years. For comparison, the course I’d raced in 2017 was half as long at 7.6km and it took me 12 minutes 59 seconds to finish. Read my full 2017 report here.

We’d been practicing the course all week: following detailed inspections by experienced Kandahar Inferno racers Nick and Jack; training our lungs and thighs up the dreaded and infamous uphill section called “the Woodcutters”; and trying out our extra long Super-G race skis. The whole village was abuzz with anticipation, with everyone swapping tips for the race, analysing sections of the course, giving their skis a last-minute wax, and carb-loading the night before.

I barely slept due to nerves the night beforehand. On the day of the race, I left our chalet in darkness with my catsuit and freshly waxed skis, to catch the first cablecar up to the Schilthorn at 7:10am. There’s something magically eery about summiting a mountain range as the sun rises, as if you shouldn’t be disturbing the mighty mountains while they’re still sleeping. I discovered at breakfast in the Piz Gloria rotating restaurant atop the Schilthorn Mountain that my nerves didn’t stand in the way of my ravenous appetite, and I somehow tucked into a three-course feast. Comfort eating is most definitely a thing!

I was lucky to have a glorious start time of 8:59am, before the course becomes rutted and icy from the 1,850 racers that will all descend along the same line throughout the day. The clouds cleared minutes before my start time, giving me perfect visibility of the perfect, full-length course, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more! Aided by my catsuit and extra-long skis, I hit a top speed of 75mph and managed to keep my balance, forcing myself up the Woodcutters, and maintaining my speed for the long schusses through the forest.

I even overtook a handful of other racers, arriving at the finish line with my thighs and back on fire after 18 minutes 51 seconds of non-stop racing. I’d expected a time nearer 25 minutes, so I was absolutely over the moon! It’s hard to express in words just how intensely physical the race is, but 18 minutes of high-speed racing is hard work. It’s not the steady endurance pace of a marathon, it’s more like an 18-minute-long sprint. It took me several minutes to recover my breath before the joy of finishing in one piece truly sunk in. My time meant I finished 982nd out of 1665 total finishers, and 57th in my age category of 127 women. I won a silver for coming within 130% of the fastest woman in my category, who, for context, finished in 14 minute 46 seconds. Compared to my result in 2017, I’m thrilled to have jumped ahead in leaps and bounds!

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I spent the rest of the day in the sun with a cider in hand, cheering other Kandahar members, including my sister Olivia and aunt Caroline Stuart-Taylor, up the torturous “Woodcutters” climb. The post-Inferno celebrations are as notorious as the race, with a 40-strong brass band playing to a heaving room of adrenaline-fuelled skiers partying on table-tops. One aspect that makes the Inferno so unique is that, unlike a marathon, so many people come back year after year to compete, that there’s a true community of Inferno racers. It being my second year of the Inferno, I knew or recognised close to 100 people in Mürren that week. The Kandahar Club also does a fantastic job of socialising its members, with toboggan races, friendly club races and fondue early on in the week, drinks parties and dinners throughout the week. While the race itself is exhilarating and immensely exciting, it’s the community surrounding the race that pulls people back year after year and makes it so over-subscribed. Each year the organisers have to turn away hundreds of applicants as the demand is so high.

If you’re interested in taking part in the Inferno, read my blog post from 2017 that explains how to get involved via the Kandahar Ski Club. You can also find out more information about visiting the ski resort Mürren (including accommodation options) on the website of the Tourist Office.

One observation that I made back in 2017 and again this year, which I think worth mentioning, is that the gender split of Inferno racers is overwhelmingly male, with 87% of 2019 racers being men. I asked the President of the Inferno races, Christoph Egger, why this is, and whether anything could be done to encourage more women to compete. I learned from him that female skiers apparently tend to compete more frequently in short- and mid-distance races, and far less in long-distance races like the Inferno. As I’ve zero background in racing, I have no comments or ideas on how to improve this, beyond pure speculation. Of course it’s well-known that skiing as a sport generally attracts more men than women, and ski racing seems to be an exaggerated example of this, which is a terrible shame!

Skiing is one of the most exhilarating and liberating feelings in the world and is in no way restricted to the male physique, so why don’t we see as many female skiers? I’m lucky to have grown up in a skiing family in which all my female relatives skied, so I’ve been surrounded by strong female skiing role models for as long as I can remember. My parents met through skiing; my aunt spent her entire career in the ski industry; and during my very first skiing holiday aged 6 I even had the luck of skiing with my 70+ year-old granny. Over time I would love to see more girls competing in ski races like the Inferno, and would happily welcome any thoughts on how we can encourage more equal participation.

For now though, a big congratulations to all competitors in the 2019 edition of the Inferno races: which we all agreed was a fantastic year thanks to the full 14.9km course and spectacular snow and weather conditions! It was once again an unforgettable week and I have special respect for the other crazy fools who, like me, tackled the 3-race Combination Inferno – it was foolish but an achievement to feel proud of!

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