38 teams, 500 dogs from 9 different countries, with the spectacular Pyrenees as the back drop, what more could you want? This is ‘La Pirena.’ Born in the mind of Pep Parès, this truly epic test of musher and dogs is in its nineteenth year. The mountains had seen the best snowfall for a decade, so when the teams gathered in the Argonese capital Zaragoza in mid January, there was excitement and anticipation in the crisp winter’s air.The history of the event stretches back to 1990. Previously competitive mushing in Europe had been confined to short competitions in the Alps and Scandinavian countries or the ‘dry’ events of Belgium, Holland and Germany. Pirena was a different type of race: 14 stages that traverse the magnificent mountain range that separates France and Spain. Gone are the long flat straights, replaced by steep gradients and sweeping curves. Goodbye to the comfort of a few days of daytime racing in one place, hello to campervans, trailers and a testing mix of both day and night stages. Forget the relative simplicity of just one team of dogs. Each musher has to put together a ‘squad’ of dogs fit for the challenge of two weeks of racing in vastly different terrains, Alaskan style. The game had changed! We managed to catch up with ex-theatre and TV director Pep Parès to talk about the origins of Pirena. In between phone conversations with various TV companies, he explained he had fallen in love with the idea of a sled race in his native Spain after completing the Iditarod route and experiencing the atmosphere and friendship that surrounds this legendary event. He laughed, “Over there, they put up a sign that says, finish 2000 kilometers that way and off you go!” The problem with crossing the Pyrenees in the same continuous fashion as in Alaska meant that some sections fell below 900m and the problem of no snow. So a stage competition was the solution. Pep recalls, “I wanted more than just a weekend race, I loved the idea of traversing the Pyrenees, but it had to be epic, an adventure, more than just another race.” Pirena is just that. He says with a certain amount of pride, “we never set out to create a strictly timed event, it had to have other values that are important to me, respect for the dogs, understanding of the environment we are in and promotion of the regions and countries we pass through.” With Pirena’s twentieth anniversary in 2010, the pre-race ‘adopt a dog day’ in Barcelona, stages in Spain, Andorra and France plus daily national TV and newspaper coverage, it is safe to say he has created a great deal more than ‘just another sled race.’ Each competitor has to plan their assault on the title, reacting daily to changes in weather, distance, altitude and snow conditions, all the time remembering that there is a fortnight of racing to complete. Pirena is sometimes referred to as the mushing equivalent of the ‘Tour de France,’ or by locals as, the ‘Paris-Dakar’ of the mountains. Believe me, the two comparisons are well earned.My photographer, Nick Guise-Smith and I joined up with Pirena 2009 in the mountain principality of Andorra, to follow the competition to its climax. The race gets its name from the Goddess Pirena, who appears in the poem ‘L’Atintida’ by Jacint Verdaguer, Catalonia’s equivalent of Chaucer. Firmly established on both the International and European tour calendars, past winners have included American Tim White (1999), Canadian Grant Beck (2000) and Josep Domingo who claimed the host country’s only victory to date in 2006.Pirena has three race categories: Open, Nordic and Skijoring. The Open section is the most contested, with twenty one teams taking part using so-called ‘European huskies.’ These dogs are a cross-breed of husky and pointer. They are quicker than the purebreds and can handle, at pace, the famous climbs and drops that litter the stages. The Nordic category, which has four teams including the flamboyant musher Lazaro Martinez, is where the purebred Siberian huskies are to be found. Skijoring completes the line-up, with seven entrants, including the 17 time world champion Lena Boyston Hillestad from Norway.The race had three clear leaders by stage 12 in Gran Riog, Andorra. The Spaniard Iker Ozcoidi had an overwhelming lead in the Open class over 2008 winner German, Tom Andres. Lazaro Martinez led the Nordic teams and Lena Hillestad was on another level, leading the Skijoring competition having won all of her stages so far. Climatic conditions had made this year’s race the hardest in its history. Iker had won the first stage in his home region of Aragon to the delight of fellow local boy and legendary cyclist Miguel Indurain. The second stage in Formigal had to be abandoned due to freezing fog, the conditions making it impossible for mushers to see all their dogs. But after Spaniards dominated the early leader board, the international contingent found their rhythm on stage three in Candanchù, with Tom Andres winning from Czech Pavel Pfeifer. Crossing into Catalonia for the first time Iker had a two minute lead over Pavel and four over Tom. If Pep Pares wanted Pirena to reflect the toughness of the Iditarod, the stage in Baquiera did the job. Perfect snow and temperatures reaching —10. Iker joked, “This stage passes my kennel, I was afraid the dogs would stop and go in!” But fortunately they didn’t and he claimed a second stage win, increasing his overall lead. Staying in the beautiful Val d’Aran, stages five and six epitomize the Pirena, a 17km night run followed almost immediately by a 44km leg early in the morning. Iker took both stages to consolidate his position and raise the possibility of a second home winner of Pirena.The popularity of the event here in Spain, 10,000 people watched the presentation event in Zaragoza, and the interest of the national media, both print and TV, made me wonder why I hadn’t seen sled races in the Winter Olympics. I asked Pep Parès about it. “It would be fantastic and I think it would be something the public would like to see, but there are problems,” he continues. “We are a minority sport, we have to accept this, but with 42 countries registered that is more than sufficient for the winter games. However, there is the fact we are a sport using animals. This raises the same problems as the equestrian events, but I think these can be overcome. The major issue is that as a small independent federation we don’t have power. As president of the Spanish Federation for four years I have had the opportunity to meet several times with Juan Antonio Samaranch, who has a great deal of influence within the Olympic movement and we have discussed this matter. In Spain we have a saying that ‘it is better to be the tail of a lion, than the head of a mouse’ and for me this is the ultimate solution. We must become part of the Federation Internationale de Ski and from there we can move towards mushing being an Olympic Event. We have done this in Spain, we are now part of the Winter Sports Federation, but you have to be prepared to accept that you are then a small part of a much bigger family. For me I had no problem with this because ultimately it was for the benefit of the sport.”I wanted to get the opinion of the mushers about this issue and who better to ask than 17 time world champion Lena Hillestad. She told me, “Of course it would be fabulous to be in the games, but to achieve this we need more events like Pirena. One thing is for sure: every musher would like races to be flat, short and straight, so don’t ask us! We need the press and TV to make more people interested and raise the profile. You won’t do this without exciting races that are accessible to the spectators. Today is a great example, the stage is horrible to race, but the public can get close to the action and they have had a really great time.”Lena makes it clear to me that the people who control the sport need to move into the media age and modernize. Many sports have done this and she fears that the mushing federations are reluctant to follow suit. “Sure it may mean that we have to adapt and maybe compete in a style that is not for the purists, but if it brings in the people and therefore revenue from TV and sponsors, then we (the mushers) must just shut up and get on with it.”I mention to her about Pep’s idea to become part of F.I.S. “It is an excellent idea, but I am not sure that the people at the top would accept losing the independence they currently have. However, everyone has to be prepared to change for the good of our sport.”It is an interesting debate and there is no doubt that change is needed if the opportunity to collect that ultimate sporting prize, an Olympic gold, is to become a reality.Port Ainé hosted the seventh stage and saw the turning point of this year’s race. Tom Andres had problems just after the start when his sled turned over and he broke a ski support. Iker arrived and stopped his team to see if he could help out his nearest rival, costing him the stage win in the process. Finally, Norwegian Kjetil Hillestad, Lena’s husband, took the win, but with Tom finishing eight minutes behind Iker, his disastrous stage seven realistically ended the defense of his title. Tom; however, is not one to give up without a fight and bounced straight back on the next stage, winning from Jesus Raigobo and taking back over two minutes from the leader.As Pirena moved into France for stages nine and ten, Lazaro Martinez and Lena Hillestad had comfortable leads in their respective classes. Another classic night stage was won by Iker and the following day section saw Kjetil collect his second stage victory. So entering Andorra for the next two stages, Iker was, barring a major incident, heading for top spot on the final podium in La Molina. He collected his sixth stage win in Soldeu El Tarter with Tom and the Swiss Patrick Wirz claiming victory in Grau Roig and La Rabassa respectively.The final stage is held in La Molina, Spain’s oldest ski resort. With major media interest and over 5,000 spectators, the final stage of the Pirena, which doesn’t count towards the overall classification, is more of a celebration than a race. Some mushers send out their handlers with the team. Brit, Graeme Scott completed the 3km course with his 11 year old son and handler Cameron on board. Lena sported the most spectacular pair of golden ski pants the Pyrenees have ever seen. After the stage, in the chaos of the ‘pits,’ we caught up with Graeme Scott adorned in a Union Jack. Graeme was third overall in 2008 and had arrived this year with high hopes of improving on that. Unfortunately lacking a main sponsor, he had missed a crucial six week training slot in Norway over Christmas and so hadn’t managed to break into the top three this time round. But still in high spirits he was pleased with his race and was happy to chat about his sled. “It’s a Danler sled made in Austria,” explained Graeme, which is the sled of choice for the Pirena mushers. “The beauty of the Danler is the carving runners, a bit like an alpine ski. There is a left and a right and so by leaning the sled over and putting weight on one edge I can carve turns and save time, which is really important in a race like this one.” Graeme continues enthusiastically, ”We have a bag on the front to keep an injured dog in, which is a race requirement. The sled itself has two forms of brakes: a scooter mat, which has little rivets on the base that catch the snow, some mushers wrap chains around them for extra stopping power, and for emergencies the claw brake.” “It weighs about 12 kilos and is known as a semi toboggan ‘cos (sic) of the solid base that prevents problems in deep snow.” I ask about the benefit of the Danler over other similar makes. “Interchangeable runners,” replies Graeme, “you can change them really quickly, so I can have five or six different ones prepared for different trail conditions.” And price? “All in you are looking at about $1,100.” Being a skier myself I pressed Graeme about runner preparation. “The base is p-tex and is a bit like a tea bag in that there are lots of little holes. I use wax from a company called Swix, and I fill the holes with the wax. If not, you get ice crystals forming inside and this causes friction which slows the sled. Basically the colder the conditions, the harder the wax. Every morning I stick a thermometer in the snow and then choose what to run. Most folks use a broad spectrum wax, but you can be more specific.”As we finish chatting, the call goes out to make our way around to the stage area for the final presentations. A local rock band is in full concert mode, entertaining the large crowd and the TV audience. As Nick fights his way to grab a good slot to photograph the celebrations, I take the chance to ask last year’s winner, German Tom Andres, about his Pirena and his reasons for coming each year.“Firstly,” he grins,” I think it’s the only race in Europe that you can win money.” “And the conditions here are so different than where we train. I love to be able to see what the dogs can really do. Every dog can run when the conditions are perfect, but if you have dogs that can run in Pirena, you have superdogs. Pirena is a hard race, a tough race, fourteen days racing with only one day off. You really find out about your team. The dogs learn a lot here,” he concludes. “I love the friendship here too. When you arrive on the first day everyone is saying ‘hi’ and catching up, whereas at a sprint race everyone is keeping to themselves and rarely chat.” As he headed off to collect second prize I asked if he will be back next year.“I hope so!”As the band finished, the stage was literally set for the final presentations and as reflects the diversity of the event, there were quite a few. The Best Handler Prize, Respect For the Environment, Best Rookie, The Vet Prize plus others from all the major sponsors. Nobody who takes part in Pirena goes home empty handed. It was great to see that just finishing the event is recognized as an achievement.Of course the biggest cheers were reserved for the three class winners: Lena Hillestad, still sporting her gold pants, claimed top sport in Skijoring. Lazaro Martinez collected the Nordic trophy and then proceeded, with a naughty grin on his face, to drench the watching press and media with a large magnum of Cava.Finally to the Open class. With Pavel Pfeifer and Tom Andres already on their respective 3rd and 2nd place podiums, out comes Iker. He hasn’t put a paw or runner wrong all fortnight. With an overall time of 10 hours and 21 minutes, he finished a substantial 25 minutes ahead of Tom. A Czech, a German and a Spaniard on the final podium— a truly international end to a truly international event.The P.A. system starts blaring Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ and all the competitors join the winners on the stage. Behind them on a huge screen a video montage is playing clips from this year’s race, freeze framing the faces of all who took part. Graeme hoists his son Cameron onto his shoulders, everyone is laughing and waving at the crowd. Off to one side, a man stands watching the culmination of another year’s hard work. “What do you think Pep?” I ask, hardly audible above the pumping music and applause he pats me on the shoulder as he turns away and says,“The best ever my friend.” It has been an amazing few days we have spent with the Pirena family. True, most of them are bonkers, but you couldn’t hope to meet a nicer bunch of people. Who knows? Maybe the Ed will let us come back and be your eyes and ears next year (Pretty please?). But before I close I need to say some thank yous: To all the mushers especially Graeme, Tom, Lazaro, Iker, Pavel and Lena, also to Pep Parès and his amazing team, the guys at kmatourism for ensuring that Nick and I got where we needed to and had a roof over our heads at night and finally to Jordi and the gang at the SkiBar in Masella for their post Pirena hospitality!As the crowds drift away and the huge team that keeps Pirena on the road starts the packing up one last time, Nick and I have a chance to reflect on what we’ve experienced…and you know what? That William Blake chap has a point. ●


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