These days, skiing flat-out is increasingly frowned upon. In the US, some resorts have patrols to reprimand speeders; in Europe the threat of post-crash litigation is enough to introduce restraint. But just imagine if there was one day of the year on which you could legitimately schuss your brains out.
Step forward the Austrian resort of Lech, home to the Weisse Ring. This 22km circumnavigation of the ski area is open to tourists every day of the winter bar one. On that January day, the pistes are closed to the public and 1,200 amateur racers, divided into groups of 20, charge around the course as they attempt to beat the record of 44 minutes, set by Austrian Olympic champion Patrick Ortlieb. Carnage usually ensues, and has been doing so since the inaugural race in 2006.
It’s January 19, and my chance to experience this unique event. The tourist office bills it as the “world’s longest ski race”, though the downhill sprints are punctuated by periods of respite as competitors ride the six lifts that are part of the course.
I am no downhill ski-racing expert, so entrust myself to the care of Gertrud Schneider, managing director of the hotel I’m staying at, and someone who knows a thing or two about racing. Her father Othmar won the slalom event at the 1952 Oslo Winter Olympics and was silver medallist in the downhill event. Soon after he built the Hotel Kristiania (a nod to Oslo’s name pre-1925) in Lech.
Today, the resort enjoys a reputation for luxury (it is twinned with Beaver Creek in Colorado, a resort whose official slogan is “not exactly roughing it”) as well as hardcore skiing. It’s one of the few resorts in Austria to offer heli-skiing, and is packed with seasonaires from nearby St Anton seeking hidden powder stashes. Suffice to say, there are excellent skiers here, and once a year they like to dust off their 2-metre-plus downhill skis, get the Lycra out of the cupboard, and go race-crazy.
“You’ll be fine,” says Schneider, imparting the only downhill advice I’ve ever had and presumably will ever need. “Just keep within the gates and go as fast as you can.”
Unlike more serious sporting challenges, there are parties not just after the event, but on the eve, too. The Kristiana is part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH) group, and happens to be hosting another SLH hotel owner who has just arrived from Thailand. She has brought her chef, and so decides to treat the hotel’s guests to supper. An SLH wine supplier is also in town, and before I know what’s going on I’m in the middle of a five-course meal accompanied by 15 (15!) German fine wines. “We like to be eclectic,” explains Schneider, waving her hand at the scene as we tuck into crab dumplings with a Red Bull and pomelo sauce, accompanied by a 1966 Dr Loosen Erdener Prälat Reisling. It is perhaps the most ill-advised prep for a downhill race, and I go to bed drunk but happy to have discovered what Michelin-starred chefs and their patrons do on their holidays: smash national dishes together in exchange for ski time.
And so to the race itself. Nerves are compounded by early delays (one of the competitors has crashed and been helicoptered off) but these are forgotten in the testosterone-fuelled rush over the start line and a frantic burst of pushing and skating to cover the initial 50m-long uphill section. That done, I settle into a steady straight line down the middle of the piste. It’s a bit like motorway driving: as long as I keep up with everyone else, our positions remain relatively static. It also means I can follow others as they approach the blind corners and false horizons with some confidence. It’s scary, but unbelievably exhilarating.
My fellow skiers range from serious competitors in full race kit to enthusiastic amateurs (like me) in baggy salopettes. The six lifts are cleared of turnstiles, and as we rush forward and clamber on, we’re cheered by lift operators and bystanders. I can see why the race is oversubscribed. “My friends apply every year,” Thomas from Stuttgart tells me on one lift. “But the event is getting so popular I was the only one who got a spot.”
I reach the finish line in 75 minutes, to be instantly presented with a shot of schnapps by a happy onlooker. I’m beyond tired, but even before I’ve got my breath back, I know I want to do it again. Only next year, I’ll bring some Lycra.