Marco Sullivan on the World Cup’s Hardest Run

Endurance and mental toughness are needed to attack this treacherous Swiss track, the Lauberhorn Downhill

By Dave Brennan and Marco Sullivan

At the base of the iconic 13,020-foot Eiger is a small Swiss village with a uniqueness that goes beyond its car-free environment or stature as the historical birthplace of alpine ski racing. This is the only World Cup venue where competitors and recreational skiers mingle freely while on the fabled train ride they share from Lauterbrunnen to their final destination, Wengen.

Elevated conversations flow in multiple languages as adrenaline courses through spectators and athletes alike. But when the train stops, the mood shifts abruptly as all on board feel the intimidation of what awaits outside its open doors: This is the Lauberhorn.

Tired tuba players relax after the races in Wengen. It's rumored they work as hard as the athletes. PHOTO: Doug Haney/U.S. Ski Team
Tired tuba players relax after the races in Wengen. It’s rumored they work as hard as the athletes. PHOTO: Doug Haney/U.S. Ski Team

As it has since 1930, Wengen, arguably the most challenging downhill course on tour, will again test significantly more than the technical skills of those who exit its start house. The track is 2.78 miles, the longest on tour. It adds another 30-plus seconds on the clock. And claims the highest speed ever recorded in a World Cup race: 100.61 mph by France’s Johan Clarey in 2013. All this makes the Lauberhorn as demanding on mental endurance as physical ability.

More than a dozen sections of this formidable course are named as a result of incidents from prior races—some heroic, some tragic. In 1954, nearly every Austrian on the start list ended their race at the infamous Austrian Hole. And in 1976, the “Crazy Canucks”—Dave Irwin and Ken Read—skillfully navigated the terrain of the treacherous Minsch-Kante, only to follow each other into the hay bails on the high-speed fall-away turn named for them—Canadian Corner.

Travis Ganong takes some time to soak in the Wengen finish after his first Lauberhorn downhill in 2016. The Squaw Valley skier will race here again this week. PHOTO: Doug Haney/U.S. Ski Team
Travis Ganong takes some time to soak in the Wengen finish after his first Lauberhorn downhill in 2016. The Squaw Valley skier will race here again this week. PHOTO: Doug Haney/U.S. Ski Team

American downhiller and recently retired 19-year veteran of the U.S. Ski Team, Marco “Sully” Sullivan, has logged more than 24 training runs and a dozen downhill starts at Wengen and is one of a handful of North Americans to climb the venerable Lauberhorn podium.

Sully shared his first-hand perspective with POWDER on what this two and a half minute ride is like.

The mood is set when you leave your car in Lauterbrunnen and load all of your gear onto a train, the only way to get up to Wengen. The baggage men and train operators, many of who were the same folks during my entire time racing the Lauberhorn, treat racers with reverence.

Training runs are really special as this quiet town slowly transforms itself leading up to the race. Tents and stages are constructed. The Swiss Air Force practices their famous air show. All this is going on as racers are trying to figure out the nuances of this unique track.

On race day, 40,000 Swiss fans overrun the train system. Dozens of helicopters jockey for position delivering VIP guests to the top. The buzz is palpable and does not quiet down…until you step into the start house—a typical wooden Tyrolean structure allowing sun to stream in, but the small windows make it dimly lit inside. There’s only one exit and that is to kick the wand and start your run down the Lauberhorn to the roar of thousands of race fans.

More than any other track, the Lauberhorn is a journey. The first forty seconds are pretty tame but without a soft touch you can enter the signature Hundschopf jump already seconds behind.

Landing after the Hundschopf—literally a cliff in summer—you enter what is the most fun and rowdy section of any course on the World Cup; the Minsch-Kante. U.S. Ski Team physio, Christa Riepe, dubbed this ‘the sexiest turn in ski racing’ as she watched racers leave the ground on an off camber turn, fly 30 meters, switching direction in the air, land on the opposite bank, and rocket into Canadian Corner.

But the most intimidating part of the course for me and most racers is the Kernen-S. Approaching in your tuck and traveling about 100 kilometers an hour, you negotiate a tight 90-degree chicane with fences that restrict your view on all sides. I crashed here one year and my helmet was ripped off my head.

Once through this section it becomes a test of will with numerous crucial turns and jumps, but it’s the battle with your body and how much you ‘want it’ that’s the real challenge—holding your low tuck becomes a fight with the burn in your legs.

Crossing the finish line is glorious. When I climbed the Wengen podium in 2009, it was one of the most rewarding times I have ever had on skis. What made it even sweeter was that podium finishers also get a congratulatory helicopter ride back to town!
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In the finish arena a sea of red and white flag-waving fans anxiously await their countrymen to make the final right-footer onto the last pitch—legs gone, lungs burning, mentally spent, thankful to post a time on the scoreboard—most hoping for a respectable result, few having the metal to expect a podium here, some never seeing the finish line, victims of Wengen’s sanction.

Though Swiss and Austrian names like Molitor, Sailer, Schranz, and Klammer dominate the record book North Americans have also faired well in Wengen. In 1980, Ken Read (CAN) was the first non-European to win the Lauberhorn. American Bill Johnson climbed the top step in 1984 and Kyle Rasmussen pulled off the victory in 1995. But what remains a shock to the Europeans is the long-standing USA’s three-peat between 2006 and 2008 when Daron Rahlve’s won in ’06 followed by Bode Miller’s back-to-back victories in ’07 and ’08.

2017 marks the 20-year anniversary of the Lauberhorn course record—2:24:23—set by Italian great, Kristian Ghedina. But few, if any racers, think about breaking his record. Regardless of bib number, the reality of the 10-second horn summons an intense focus on one objective: visualizing where to risk the line, and where not to.

US Athletes scheduled to race The Lauberhorn Downhill
Steven Nyman: Sundance and Park City, Utah
Travis Ganong: Squaw Valley, California
Andrew Weibrecht: Lake Placid and the New York Ski Education Foundation
Jared Goldberg: Snowbird Sports Education Foundation
Bryce Bennett: Squaw Valley, California

Sully’s Top Picks for the 2017 Lauberhorn Downhill
Beat Feuz (SUI): Won in 2012, 2nd in 2015, has 25 top-10 DH finishes
Aksel Lund Svindal (NOR): 2106 winner and has two-dozen WC DH podiums
Steven Nyman (USA): This is his year to podium in Wengen
Carlo Janka (SUI): 8th in 2016, won in 2010, 3rd in 2011, 2015
Kjetil Jansrud (NOR): a Wengen podium has eluded him, he’s determined

Broadcast times for all events: Check listings for schedule changes
Alpine Combined Downhill: 1/13/17
Streaming NBCSports.com 4:30 am ET
Universal HD 5:30 pm ET

Alpine Combined Slalom: 1/13/17
Streaming NBCSports.com 8:00 am ET
Universal HD 5:30 pm ET

Downhill: 1/14/17
Streaming NBCSports.com 6:30 am ET
Universal HD 6:30 am ET
NBC 3:00 pm ET

Slalom: 1/15/17
Run 1—Streaming NBCSports.com 4:30 am ET
Run 2—Streaming NBCSports.com 7:30 am ET

Marquee image: An aerial view of the Lauberhorn downhill start in Wengen, believed to be the most challenging course for downhill racing. PHOTO: Doug Haney/U.S. Ski Team