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Sloping off for charity

The Times
Raising money for cancer research made one woman fitter — and happier, says Helena Pozniak

http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/body_and_soul/article596194.ece

Whenever you push yourself beyond your physical comfort zone, there may be moments of exhilaration and wellbeing. For Teoni Longford, 24, her time came two years ago on a chairlift on the second day of a dawn-till-dusk Alpine ski challenge. One of a small group of British skiers attempting to ski the Milky Way — a ski area that spans France and Italy — she had elected to try to cover 120km (80 miles) of piste within 48 hours to raise money for a UK charity.

“It was one of those perfect moments. The sun was low, the mountains and trees looked beautiful, and we had completed the challenge. I took a picture, which I now have on my desk, and it sums up the ethos of the trip,” she says.

Participating in a ski challenge with a group of strangers hadn’t always been on her wish-list, but when, at the age of 21, she was told she had a pre-cancerous condition — from which she is now fully recovered — and doctors said that she needed to get fit and lose weight, she turned to the internet for inspiration. During her search she came across CancerBACUP, the charity that organises the annual Milky Way ski challenge. The event is normally held in the last weekend of January, with the French resort of Montgenèvre as the main base, and the skiers are guided in groups of no more than ten. The route takes in four ski resorts, including Sestriere in Italy, which will host the 2006 Winter Olympics. The aim is to ski as hard as possible and to complete the course within the time limit.

Longford had skied since the age of 6 but her family holidays were all about “pootling” on skis. “I’m a keen skier, not an athlete,” she says. “I’m not naturally sporty and when I elected to take on the challenge I was two stone overweight and pretty unfit.”

With just eight weeks to prepare and to raise £1,400 in sponsorship money, she was accepted for the event. Getting fit became a priority and Longford began going to the gym in earnest. During weekdays she exercised daily, alternating swimming hard for half an hour with 90 minutes’ of cardiovascular exercise; this varied from working out on the step or rowing machine in the gym to cycling. She also starting using weights to increase her upper-body strength, “very useful when using your ski poles”. Weekends were time off, unless she missed a weekday session. “Once I left the gym after only three minutes; it’s all about frame of mind. There’s no point being there if you hate it.”

Slimmer, fitter and relishing the prospect, Longford joined her team members in January 2004 in Montgenèvre. Organisers split them into groups, with Longford being placed with the intermediate skiers. She was surprised to find herself the youngest in the group, which consisted mainly of people in their thirties and forties, and a few in their sixties. The next morning they set off, and the pace was fast. “Hell on earth,” says Longford, who found herself bringing up the rear. “It brought out my competitive side, I didn’t want to be outdone because I was so much younger than everybody else. I just had to try to keep up. If anyone wanted a toilet stop, the rest of the party would stand there shouting ‘run, run’.” There were no long boozy lunches, only snatched baguettes, drinks and the odd glucose tablet on ski lifts.”

With no time to stop, the route’s spectacular scenery largely passed unnoticed. “On a few occasions when we went off-piste on a seemingly vertical drop through the trees, I’d get to the bottom, look up and think ‘Did I do that?’ My only thought while doing it was, ‘Please don’t fall’ because there wouldn’t be time to catch up. On another occasion a huge wind blew up and it was like a white-out; it was just a leap of faith to put my head down and follow.”

Day one over, Longford practically fell down the stairs when she joined everyone in the bar that night. “I’ve never felt pain like it in my legs. And yet I was incredibly exhilarated.” CancerBACUP advises participants to avoid alcohol during the challenge but, like all good advice, this is liable to get ignored. She succumbed to a few gin and tonics and slept like a baby.

Day two was harder and the guide was eager to push the group. The effect was a camaraderie that corporate team-builders dream of.

“Nobody wanted to be the one to let the others down. We were all there to conquer the mountains and to raise money; if we didn’t do the miles, we didn’t get our sponsorship. The bond between us was incredible,” Longford says. Such was their zest that the group accomplished the distance and found themselves with half a day to spare.

With the help of a few painkillers for a dehydration headache, Longford reached the end relatively unscathed. None of the group had suffered bad falls or accidents, but none of them expected the event to drain them so physically.

“I don’t think you can prepare enough for something like this,” says Longford. “None of us expected it to be so difficult. But it has lifted my skiing; I am more advanced and confident. It was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Fancy it?

Entry The next Milky Way challenge, which covers 120km (74 miles) of pistes in France and Italy, takes place on March 23-26. There are still places available, so apply now. Contact Pete Coppola at CancerBACUP (Petec@cancerbacup.org; 020-7920 7212) or visit www.cancerbacup.org.uk. Participants must pay a deposit of £150 and raise a minimum of £1,250 sponsorship. The fee includes flights, transfers, full board and accommodation, lift passes and equipment hire. Guides are fully qualified English speakers. Medical back-up and support staff are on hand. The highest fundraiser wins one year’s membership to the Ski Club of Great Britain.

Ability Skiers/snowboarders must be confident on red runs and be able to do smooth linked parallel turns (see website for details). Participants are split into guided groups according to ability.

Fitness Begin training now. Work on stamina, aerobic fitness and lower-body strength. Seek advice from an instructor if you are a member of a gym. For detailed training advice for this event, contact the Ski Club of Great Britain on 020-8410 2000 or visit www.skiclub.co.uk Other events Ski challenges next year include the White Peaks Challenge, organised by the cerebral palsy charity Scope on March 11-14 and 16-19. Call 0800 0191200 or visit www.scope.org.uk/adventures

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