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Three-thirty a.m. came way too early on race day. I lay in bed, running through my gear list in my mind while waiting for the alarm to sound. Unable to postpone the inevitable any longer, I sat up, hit the light switch and greeted the two women I shared a room with -- the same two women I would be literally roped to for the next seven hours as we tackled the 26-mile Trofeo Mezzalama ski mountaineering course in Cervinia, Italy. We dressed silently, contemplating the 9,800 feet of elevation gain we'd face across glaciers and up 13,000-foot mountain peaks. Two hours until race time. Time to get my boots on.
Ski mountaineer racing, a fusion of mountaineering and ski touring, features teams or individuals (on specially designed lightweight ski gear) racing through a set course with numerous climbs and descents across technical mountain terrain. Racers are timed and their orienteering is judged for accuracy. Ski mountaineering is a recent newcomer to North American sports, though European races date to the 1920s, when French, Swiss and Italian mountain border patrols organized internal events to boost morale and encourage fitness among soldiers.
Known as the Great White Marathon, the Trofeo Mezzalama was started in 1933 in honor of one of the fathers of ski mountaineering, Italy's Ottorino Mezzalama. The event is steeped in mountain history and has been traditionally dominated by male teams. The first female participant was Paula Weisinger, who donned a cap and glasses in 1935 and jumped in with a male team until she was discovered at a checkpoint. Paula definitely started something: A record-setting 17 female teams crossed the finish line this year, with the winning women placing 18th overall.
On April 30, Nina Silitch (U.S. ski mountaineering team member, ultra runner), Valentine Fabre (French national team, trail runner) and I (an American skier, triathlete and general endurance junkie) completed the Trofeo Mezzalama representing Chamonix, France. Athletes of all backgrounds took part: ultra runners, former professional cyclists, mountain guides and Nordic skiers, all with the legs and lungs of steel needed to tackle the final, highest and hardest race of the season.
The start was chaotic as 405 teams of three -- 26 of them female -- were divided into three lines to spread out the 1,200 competitors. This year boasted the most female teams to date, a welcome addition to a male-dominated scene. Our team, nicknamed Bon Bon Rose because of our pink suits, exchanged a few words before the start. "Keep a steady pace, don't start too fast," we told one another. "It's a long day, remember to eat and drink, check in with each other." The race is as much a mental challenge as an athletic one, and teamwork is essential. The leader sets the pace and the second and third teammates have to watch the rope and monitor the slack to avoid stepping or skiing over the rope. Everyone has to work on maintaining the same pace and distance on the rope. Being roped together means you are responsible for one another -- you literally have to think as one.
Half a meter of snow fell the Friday before the Mezzalama, causing the organizers to postpone the event for one day. The excess of snow on the course, the frigid wind and a change in route because of ice added almost an hour to the race. Of the 405 teams that started, 256 finished. Bon Bon Rose overcame the demanding conditions and crossed the line in 7 hours, 31 minutes, good for sixth place among women and 100th overall. "Bravissima! Viva la Mezzlama!" cried the announcers as we crossed the line and shared an emotional embrace, thrilled with our finish.
Completion of the Mezzalama marked the end of my fifth year of ski mountaineer racing. An expert skier and multisport athlete, I was drawn to Chamonix five winters ago. I was determined to try the sport but needed a teammate, as many races are done in pairs. By chance I met up with Silitch, and we discovered which each had a strong athletic endurance background, mountaineering skills and downhill skiing ability: Ski mountaineering, here we come.
With a heavy dose of trial and error, I have gone from beginner to U.S. ski mountaineering team member competing in the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF) World Championships and on the World Cup circuit, finishing more than 75 races all over the Alps and North America. My goal is to raise awareness by being a U.S. presence in Europe and foster grassroots interest at home, especially among women. Ski mountaineering is growing and is tentatively slated to be included in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, so we Americans better get our game on now!
Interested in getting involved? Check out the United States Ski Mountaineering Association's website at ussma.org for the inside scoop on the American racing scene.