Racing the Devil
Last weekend I took part in the 72nd edition of the International Inferno Race, held in Mürren, Switzerland. This was my second time racing in the world’s largest amateur ski race, but most importantly, it was race #2 against my brother, James. Held since 1928, the race has an extremely strong British heritage. It was set up by a group of “ski-crazy” Englishmen led by Sir Arnold Lunn, the founding father of modern ski racing. This years’ edition attracted over 200 British entrants from a total of 1657, with the Kandahar Club providing the majority of these racers. The course starts just below the Schilthorn at 2790m and in a good snow year finishes right down the valley in Lauterbrunnen at 800m. That’s nearly 2000m of vertical descent over 14.9km of piste, including 3 uphill sections.
The winner of the first race, Harold Mitchell, completed the route in 72 minutes – almost an hour slower than the current course record holder, Kuno Michel. He covered the full distance in an astonishing time of 13 minutes and 20 seconds back in January 2013. This year however, due to a lack of snowfall, the race ran from the Schilthorn into the heart of Mürren at 1650m – over a distance of only 7.6km. I say only, but that still makes it one of the longest ski races in the world and it was certainly plenty long enough for my quads! The night before the race, the “Verbrennen des Teufels”, or the “Burning of the Devil”, ceremony took place in the village. The whole town came out to process around the village carrying flaming torches, with brass bands and local farmers ringing cowbells leading the way. It’s a completely unique experience and burning of a 10 foot high devil for good luck caps it off.
For the race itself, the start number is all important as the course progressively cuts up and the ruts deepen. Last year I placed in the top 450 so this year I was given a much improved start number of 533 – compared with 1570 for my first race! So, having picked up my race bib, decked myself out in a racing catsuit and with a pair of freshly serviced 210cm Super-G skis, I headed up to the Schilthorn for the race start. A band of fog had been sitting on the village all morning and by the time I set off at 11.04am, it was hovering over the lower stretches of the course. Up high however, the sun was shining and the piste was in perfect condition thanks to hours of preparation by the Schilthornbahn pisteurs. After an ill-judged swig from the bottle of lurid green schnapps in the start hut, I set off. The first section is very fast and a mistake can prove costly as a long, flat traverse follows. After 2 ½ minutes of not budging from the tuck, my legs were already burning as I crossed the Obere Hubel time-check. The fastest section of the course then followed, with a new racing line cut down the Bietenhorn piste before the approach to the most technical part of the course, the Kanonenrohr.
Translated as the “barrel of the gun”, the Kanonenrohr starts off with a steep and icy right hander before a left on to the face of the Blattwang. I had to make a couple of check turns otherwise a visit to the safety netting at the bottom of the slope was almost guaranteed. Next was a series of icy hairpins before a fast schuss into the Höhenlücke turn, a very sharp and fast 90 degree left hander, flanked by a 100-strong crowd.
By now my legs were burning, and the killer uphill section underneath the Maulerhubel chairlift followed. Fortunately I was carrying decent speed so made it up a good chunk of the hill, but at least 30 skating steps were still needed to crest the hill. The final run into the village was bumpy already and thanks to the thick fog, visibility was poor. But I made it down in one piece, squeezing around the vicious final corner to finish 354th in 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Others were not quite so lucky and spectacularly fell victim to the ruts…
The even better news was that I finished ahead of James (he came 644th), but there’s definitely still room for more speed and improvement. I’ll 100% be returning next year to try and complete a hat-trick of victories over my brother, hopefully crack the top-300 and perhaps most importantly of all beat the 64 year old local, Peter Aeschimann, who finished 9 seconds ahead of me this year!
*Photo credits: Murren – Schilthorn 007 Facebook Page