My Swiss train from Zurich is late, my dad’s German car from Trento is on time. We meet in Zuoz on Friday evening: fourteen hours away from La Diagonela. We check into our stylish B&B in Zernez, we take a lavish dinner, and we wax our skis. ‘It is going to be an easy race, cold, long, but easy‘ my father tells me ‘An excellent training for next week’s Marcialonga: a couple of climbs in the first half, but then it goes down nice and steady‘.
The next morning we meet two other guests from our B&B for breakfast. They are young guys hailing from Basel, probably my age, athletic bodies, cool fellas. One of them has already completed many races before. He says this is the hardest one he has ever done, by far. ‘I have done even the Vasaloppet in Sweden (note: so has my father and so will Niels, later this year). That one is longer but it is easier because it is flat. This one is a killer. It goes up and down, up and down, it is never over. I cannot believe this is your first one. Good luck!’.
We leave the B&B at 8:15. It is a sunny day in Lower Engadine, with the temperature down at about minus 20°. We arrive in Zuoz at 8:45. My dad greets some other die-harders. Carlo from Tirano looks a bit like Maurizio Corona and wishes me luck. ‘In the end what matters is to get to the finish line but it won’t be easy: you are young and do not have much experience!‘. We stretch before the start. ‘OK, game plan‘ my dad goes ‘We start slow, you do not worry. We will catch up over time. It is a long race‘.
Five-hundred people have signed up for the event. Based on my estimations, some three-hundred are professional athletes and one-hundred-and-fifty are pensioners who go skiing on a daily basis. The remaining fifty are reckless individuals who have no idea what they are getting into.
Meanwhile, at the very bottom of the group, I look confused: what the hell am I doing here?
9:30, km 0, boom, start. We are at the very bottom of the group. My dad asks ‘Are we the last of the bunch?‘. I turn. Behind us only two figures: an old man who seems to be limping on the skis and a dwarf. (An actual dwarf, a strong man who is giving it all, but still: he is about one meter high). ‘Not yet, keep going‘. The old man catches up with us and moves on. Then the dwarf catches up too and keeps our pace. Together, we are last.
Three km down and I look exhausted already. Far on the back you can see the dwarf chasing us.
9:50, km 3, twenty minutes into the race. I hear a noise behind us. It is the sag wagon: the support motor vehicle following long races to pick up athletes who are unable to complete the event. The guy on the wagon, which is actually a sled but let us call it wagon for the sake of the story, stays right behind us for five minutes; then he gets on my side and tells me we are too slow, ‘You have to retire, I am sorry!‘. I translate for my father and ask him what our next move can be. ‘Tell him to go fuck himself‘. I translate diplomatically: we go on with the sag wagon behind us. The dwarf retires.
10:00, km 4, half an hour into the race. The sag wagon passes us and then stops, as to halt our journey. The driver gets down: I stop to parlay with him while my father carries on. The organisers want us to get out, we are already five minutes overtime. I give him my electronic chip and tell him that we if we continue being too slow we will retire at the first feeding point situated at km 7. He lets me continue.
10:10, km 5, forty minutes into the race. We reach the first feeding point. The driver of the sag wagon and some other staffers want us to stop: we are seven minutes overtime. My father explodes ‘I had a stroke one year ago, if I have another one now vi denuncio!‘, he slashes through and makes his on way. He reminds me of Bernard Hinault, 1984. We carry on.
10:30, km 9, one hour into the race, our first overtaking. It is Beaud: you can see her in the picture of the start. She did not look very good then and looks even worse now. I imagine she is about to spend one long day in hell. We then take a second and a third participant. Farewell to the last positions. The bystanders cheer for us: Eià, eià! We are now getting into a good pace.
10:45, km 11, one hour and fifteen-minutes into the race. We reach the second feeding station and, surprise surprise, we are now back in the official time of the race.
11:30, km 18, two hours into the race, first climb. We are riding with a couple from Sweden and with Franco from Bologna. ‘Dai che glie la facciamo vedere a questi svizzeri‘.
12:30, km 25, three hours into the race. We reach St. Moritz ten minutes ahead of the sag wagon. The driver catches up with us and hands me my electronic chip back. ‘Well done guys‘. We keep passing participants who are slowly but surely going adrift. I pity them.
14:30, km 42, five hours into the race. We are in Samedan: it is the beginning of a long, lonely flat. It feels like we are crossing the desert. I pity ourselves.
16:00, km 54, six hours and a half into the race. We are back in Zuoz with some 10 km to go. Last feeding point. The sun is about to set. ‘Are you the last?‘ one bystander asks me. I would think so: the sag wagon is behind us again. All those whom we have overtaken in the last few hours have been excluded from the race. Here we go again: fighting against overtime. We catch up two skiers who are very happy to see us. I assume that is because they are happy not to be the last (‘Ah, ma guarda, c’erano ancora altri due stronzi dietro…‘). It is only the next day my father tells me they were the cool fellas from breakfast.
Right before sunset. We are heading towards the end. Behind us, our friends from breakfast, also the last two men standing in the race.
16:30, km 59, seven hours into the race. We have passed S-chanf and we are finally heading back to Zuoz. The two skiers are 50 meters behind and we have caught up another guy. We are giving our best to get to the finish line before they close it down. Sunset.
17:20, km 65, seven hours and fifty minutes into the race. The final climb in Zuoz is done. We reach the finish line 432nd and 433rd. The sag wagon stops and the guy jumps down to congratulate us. I meet Carlo from Tirano. ‘I cannot believe you were slower than I was! You are young, you should have been faster!‘
The next day we bid farewell to our hosts, who have treated us handsomely, and we stop in Zuoz in a big shop. We are having a look around when the owner comes to us and congratulates for the race. ‘Good job, I did not think you were going to be able to finish on time! Well, I hope you are not going to call a lawyer now‘. He is the driver of the sag wagon. We take a picture with him, our mental coach, and we head to Samedan. Grisons are a magical place. If we survive another week, next Sunday we will be at the starting line of the Marcialonga.