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The Bieg Piastrow, Ski Racing in the Land of my Grandparents

Thu, Mar  19, 2009 - By Mark Madorski

Mark is a member of Team NordicSkiRacer and skis a Worldloppet event each year.

This year the Worldloppet Ski Federation added a 15th country to its prestigious list of cross country ski marathons. Poland, and more specifically the 50 km Bieg Piastrow, became the new inductee.  In so much as my heritage is over 80% Polish, the race became a no-brainer as a choice for my 10th Worldloppet event.

Although brand new to the Worldloppet series, the Bieg Piastrow has a long tradition (33 yrs) as one of Eastern Europe’s most successful races.  It takes place annually on the first Saturday of March in the village of Jakuszyce, near the Czech border.  This area, located in the Jizera mountains (Sudeten Mountains in German) produces some of Europe’s most reliable snow.  This year despite a week long thaw leading up to the race, there was a good 36”-40” base through pretty much the entire course.  The Jizera Mountains or Sudeten should also be familiar to students of WWII history.  They lend their name to an area at times known as the Sudetenland which became one of Adolf Hitler’s first conquests.

I flew into Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, rented a car and drove the 3 hours north to Poland. Once out of Prague the drive is fairly easy, with freeway making up about 90% of the journey.  Only the last 30 or so kms entail driving on mountainous roads and they’re pretty tame ones at that. (Flying into Krakow, Poland is another possibility although the drive to the race area is almost twice as far.) 

The village of Jakuszyce is tiny to say the least (maybe a dozen buildings) so most people doing the race stay in Szklarska Poreba, a small but bustling ski town about 10 kms away.  Aside from over 100 kms of Nordic ski trails, the area also boasts some world-class downhill. The Hotel Bosman, where I stayed, looked across the valley at some pretty incredible downhill runs, as nice as anything I’ve seen in Vermont or New Hampshire.

Mansion in Szklarska Poreba

Mansion in Szklarska Poreba

My first day in town the temperature was over 50 degrees F and the next two were probably in the upper 40’s and never once did it freeze, even at night.  Despite this, the skiing was quite good.  The deep base radiated enough cold that the snow temperature stayed at or just above freezing.  It was near perfect Klister skiing. 

Szklarska Poreba

Szklarska Poreba

Race day morning, however, things began to change.  Wind, freezing drizzle, fog / low lying clouds and falling temps replaced the mild weather of the three previous days.  I put Swix universal klister on my skis the night before and was relieved to find my skies still worked well. 

The race is very well organized with a large warming and changing tent near the start.  Feed stations are adequate, although you might want to carry some sports drink.  The only drink handed out at the stations was warm sweetened tea.  The course is well marked and the start area is wide enough and long enough to avoid any noticeable clogs or stoppages. About 30 minutes prior to race time, I skied down to my corral in wave 3 and got ready to race.  Part of the fairly elaborate pre-race ceremony involved a prayer (the first time I’ve seen this at a ski race). The Poles are one of Europe’s most religious people.

Piastrow Ski Trail

Piastrow Ski Trail

Wave one went off at 10:00 sharp followed every 2 minutes by the next wave (10 in all). The first 20 or so kms involve some extensive climbing although most of it is skiable (very little hearing bone).  My skies worked very well: great grip/ good glide. The tracks remained amazingly hard (considering all the warm weather) and I began catching skiers almost immediately.  I felt like I might be on target for my best Worldloppet finish ever.

At about the halfway mark, things began to change. The wind became stronger, it started to snow and the temperature dropped below freezing for the first time since I arrived.  My skis started to ice up creating some serious drag.  To make matters worse, kms 30-40 are all slightly downhill making for perfect double polling terrain.  The added drag to my skis made this a difficult proposition.  People I’d passed kms previous and who were probably under-waxed for the first half of the race began catching me.  I had to work twice as hard and I was still falling back.  The last 6 or 7 kms are all slightly up and my skis worked better here but, unfortunately, by this time, my body was toast. I finished in 4:08, 572nd out of about 1,700 finishers.

After the race, I changed clothes, threw my gear in the car, and headed down to Prague to meet my wife, Kim, for dinner.  She’d flown to Prague the day before and we spent 4 days together in one of Europe’s most romantic cities.

Kim in Prague

Kim in Prague

The trip to Poland was a great experience and probably even more special because of my heritage.  Szklarska Poreba is a nice town and a good place to get some hearty Polish fare.  Golabki, pierogi, kielbasa and kapusta along with potato pancakes can be had with two or three large Polish beers (Tyskie & Piast were my two favorites) for under $10.  The town’s one drawback, however, is that most of its buildings are heated with coal. Quite often, the town is socked in with low lying clouds and the smoke from the coal hangs in the air and can get a bit annoying.

Combining the Bieg Piastrow with several days in Prague, Krakow or some of the surrounding Polish towns can add up to a first class travel adventure.  I’ve also heard rumor that the race date may be changed to the end of February next year and if this comes to pass would allow ski racers to combine the Bieg Piastrow with the Engadine ski marathon, Switzerland’s legendary race.

Do Widzenia and Happy Ski Travels