Beep,- beep,- beep – No it’s not the obscenities coming from my mouth, or my heart beating like it’s going to explode, it was the beeps that signal it’s 5 seconds to go time at the start gate of Hakuba Happo-one’s famous Reisen Slalom race.
When Happo-one ski school, one of the most respected in Japan, gave me a call and asked me if I would like to try my hand at one of Japans most famous and oldest races I thought that turning around a few poles can’t be that hard and I responded with a loud “hai”, Japanese for yes. I was to learn that it was harder than I thought.
Before the big race I go for a ski and run a few gates with Shayne Coomber of Allure Alpine Academy (AAA racing) who coaches athletes from all over Australia and New Zealand through the “down under” off season. After skiing down a few times Shayne advised me that a straight line between the gates is not the fastest way to the bottom! The idea is make the tightest carve turn around the gate that you can without skidding so that you can spend as much time gliding as possible. If I ski too straight at the gates I need to turn sharper than my skis are able and by ‘skidding’ I am ‘braking’.
So the prescription to cure my racing ill’s is practicing carving as tight as possible (which means laying it over and having a lot of fun) out on the hill and working on learning what my skis can do in the gates. Easy hah???
I turn up on race with my “best” non-powder skis and receive my race bib – 723. Surely, I thought, there can’t be 722 ski racers flying down the course before me, as I am not the greatest mogul skier in world! It seems I am in category 6, over 40 with a slot number of 123. Now that’s more like it.
First we “slip” the course. This serves two purposes. Firstly it is so we know where the course goes and apparently, Shayne says I am supposed to remember the whole course and visualize where I need to go between the bottom and getting back to the top… the second is to take all the soft fresh snow off the top, which is sounds not good, as hard snow hurts when you fall, just ask any Australian skier! I get a bearing where the gates are positioned. One red and the next one blue and so on. It is now I am thinking that my idea of a slalom course which is basicaly short turns is in fact more of a World Cup downhill race course. I cast my mind back to the 1998 Nagano Olympics held at Happo-one, where downhill race legend, Herman Maier had his spectacular wipeout, I hope I don’t follow the same fate! Though it has to be said that Maier won 2 gold medals later that same week.The race starts at the top of the Reiesen course at Usgaidaira Gondola station and doesn’t finish until you get to the bottom of Nakiyama base area home to Happo-one ski school.
The race now in its 66th year Riesenslalom is actually the German word for Giant Slalom, which is really funny, because the as I mentioned the Hakuba Riesenslalom is actually more Like a downhill course! The event is held over two days and features many ex- Japanese Olympians.First to go are the over 60’s,wow these guys attack the course like they are 40 years younger. At the final gate I see the exhaustion etched in their faces. Many are unable to stand because of wobbly legs and literally fall over after passing the finish line.
I watch my good friend Tetsu Fukushima, owner of the Meteor group of lodges. He is dressed head to toe in lycra ski racing suit, commonly known as a cat suit in the racing industry. His time is very competitive and now I know what time to beat for bragging rights! Tetsu explains to me that this is his 15th race. He mentions that during the ski bubble of the late 80’s early 90’s the course inspection would commence as soon as the first light of dawn showed over the mountains and that racing would begin at 6:00am and not finish until the lifts closed. Nowadays a more sensible time of 09:00 starts the race.As I make my way to the start gate, a little voice in my head cries to me not to be afraid – it’s only a 600 meter vertical drop on nearly sheet ice, the snow is long gone!I am counted down with the final beeps and with a little push I’m off! A little push as I want to get my bearings before I reach these breathtaking speeds of over 60km per hour. I reach the first red gate in a matter of seconds, though it feels more like milliseconds. I try to think back to what Shayne drilled into me, not to go straight at the gate and to take my time and carve, no panicked throwing the ski sideways easier said than done when you are edging as hard as you can on sheet ice.I find myself in a good rhythm and getting into the tuck or crouch position between turns. I hurl myself down “The Wall” the steepest slope on Happo-one at 38 degrees, my legs are starting to tire but I can see the finish line ahead. It looks like about 200 people have turned up to watch the final turns. I can’t fall now. I won’t fall now.I pass the finish line in a blur of speed and do my best stop in front of the polite clapping crowd but in my mind they are cheering loudly. My legs are wobbly but I don’t fall over and more importantly I have a grin as big as Happo mountain!My time displays on the board 1.53.06; not bad for a first timer and finish 50th in a total of 130 racers.
Will I be back next year? You bet I will, but this time I will be decked out in a full racing suit and racing skis – now where did I leave my credit card.