A race for everyone - strong legs and nerves required.
At a time when most ski resorts in the Alps have already closed down for the season, St. Anton in Tyrol is preparing for its final highlight of the winter: Every year in late April at Der Weisse Rausch (The White Thrill), hundreds of skiers, boarders, and Telemarkers plunge themselves from the highest peak in the Arlberg ski resort for a break-neck nine-kilometer race to the center of St. Anton.
Just take a look at a video of the 2012 race:
"Eight minutes of full concentration, eight minutes full throttle, eight minutes of adrenaline, eight minutes of brutal stress", nine-time winner Paul Schwarzacher once said in an interview with the German magazine Focus. "My lungs always needed six or seven days to recover from this barbarian endeavor." Schwarzacher, an Irish-Austrian who raced professionally, has won seven times on skis and twice on snowboard.
Before the start, hundreds of racers huddle along the semicircle of Valluga crest at 2,650 meters - some of them tense, others relaxed, some of them anxious, others focused, and definitely all of them full of adrenaline. For many of them the race is already over only seconds later when they find themselves in a ball of fallen skiers, tumbling down the slope.
More difficult than the Streif in Kitzbuehel.
But making it through the mass start is only the first challenge. "We did our best to provide the worst possible conditions," says Martin Ebster, director of St. Anton Tourism and organizer of The White Thrill. "It's the next-to-last day of each season, it's 5 p.m., the tourists have already left: The snow is a slushy mess."
The ungroomed run spreads over 1,300 thigh-crushing meters of altitude difference, with an 150-meter uphill segment in between to spice things up. And last but not least, before crossing the finish line, everyone has to unstrap their skis and climb a giant heap of snow. "Even professional skiers who mastered the Streif in Kitzbuehel told me that they never needed the same amount of strength in any other race," Martin Ebster says.
Good skiers will master the challenge in 11 to 18 minutes. The all-time record of 7 minutes, 40.6 seconds was set in 2012 by the German Florian Holzinger, after Paul Schwarzacher had ended his White Thrill 'career'.
Idea sparked by a 1930s ski movie.
The history of the White Thrill goes back to the celluloid age. Der Weisse Rausch - neue Wunder des Schneeschuhs" ("The White Thrill - New Marvels of the Ski") was a box-office hit in movie theaters of the German-speaking countries in the early 1930s. In it, the legendary St. Anton skiing and racing pioneer Hannes Schneider teamed up with then-popular German actress Leni Riefenstahl (who later rose to dubious fame as Nazi Germany's most important propaganda film director) for a comedic take on the early days of ski tourism.
"The White Thrill" was "the first real ski movie", as race organizer Martin Ebster puts it. Apart from dozens of people chasing each other down the slopes of St. Anton, nothing much happens in this black-and-white feature film (which can be watched at full length at the Internet Archive).
"Sixteen years ago we wanted to establish something really special to close the season, and an ordinary half-marathon is nothing to write home about anymore," Ebster recounts. Some of the St. Anton officials recalled the old movie. "Two people being chased by a huge crowd of skiers - that's a scene we wanted to revive."
A race for everyone - strong legs and nerves required.
They established a mass race that everyone can participate in. "You need a lot of strength and stamina, but you don't need to be a good skier," Ebster contends. And even though the organizers call it a break-neck race, no neck has been broken yet in the history of the White Thrill (some legs and collarbones have been, though).
Only the first starting group of 250 consists of professionals and high-level skiers such as local ski instructors or former world-cup racers. The next 250 are mid-level skiers and the fastest among the women (there are 80 to 90 female participants each year). The last 50 to 60 are weaker skiers, but also some snowboarders and telemarkers.
Martin Ebster's advice for all White Thrill beginners: If making it through the race is more important to you than winning it you can give most of the racers a head start and pass by your fallen opponents at Valluga crest to make it to the valley in 20 or 30 minutes - the glory of having mastered the White Thrill will still be yours.
On April 20th 2013 the race enters its 16th season. By then, however, the chance to register will be long gone: "We start handing out the starter numbers when the season begins in early December each year", organizer Martin Ebster says. "And each year they are all gone within a couple of hours." Most of the participants are Austrian, followed by Germans, Swiss, and Dutch, many of them regular guests at St. Anton. "There are also a lot of Britons among the starters, and some Americans," Ebster recounts. But the best telemarker last year was Japanese.
If you are not lucky enough to obtain a bib number you can still join the thousands of spectators at the finish line, watch live helicopter images from the run, and celebrate with all the contestants right into the wee hours. If you can't make it to St. Anton at all you can still follow the online live stream that starts one hour before the race.
Only the first third of a three-part event series
One may consider the White Thrill as the winter season's final highlight. However, it's also the first of a three-part annual sports event series: Der Adler vom Arlberg (The Arlberg Eagle) is a unique kind of triathlon that also includes the Jakobilauf half-marathon, which takes place some time around St James Day (July 27th in 2013), and a mountain-bike marathon one month later (August 24th in 2013). You can register until July 25th and August 17th, respectively.
In 2012, White Thrill record holder Florian Holzer won all three races, and organizer Martin Ebster is confident that he might accomplish this feat again in 2013.