Peter Lunn and the psychology of ski racing

“The longer one has skied the less one enjoys it.”

This may seem a surprising assertion from a man who began skiing at the age of two and kept at it until he was 96.  But the words stare defiantly from the page of Peter Lunn’s technical manual High-Speed Skiing (1935), written when Lunn was 20 and approaching his 5th season in ‘the British International Ski-Running Team,’ and his second as captain.  He was already captain designate of the team for the 1936 Winter Olympics. 

peter lunn bookPeter was known for his willingness to schuss anything, and his technical book is admirably direct in its approach.  Here is the first sentence of the first chapter.  “The first principle of high-speed skiing is to keep the weight well forward.”  

This chimes with Peter’s earliest memory, described to me 75 years after High-Speed Skiing was written: of skiing repeatedly down the nursery slope at Mürren, aged about 3, flying over the bump at the bottom, and landing in a heap.  “My mother picked me up and told me to lean forward – which was actually rather good advice.”  The book acknowledges Peter’s debt to his father Arnold Lunn, but fails to mention his mother.  

The book is spare in its use of illustration: just a few line drawings of Peter in shirt and tie demonstrating the positions to adopt for traversing (one knee tucked behind the other) and straight running (an upright stance with the shoulders pushed well forward); and one diagram of the best line to take in a slalom.

Peter Lunn

The British Ski Team 1936. From left, Fox, Riddell, Lunn, Palmer-Tomkinson, Rowton, Redhead

“It is a good plan to devote two mornings a week to doing big schusses,” he writes. He also advocates taking a day and a half off skiing each week in order to avoid staleness, which is easily recognised when you lose your nerve and all desire to ski; and three days off if you don’t succeed in avoiding it. He himself suffered “an appalling attack of staleness” in the 1934/5 season, bought a book on skating technique and spent three days on the ice rink working on eights and threes.  On the fourth day he resumed skiing and his staleness had vanished

“… racers get very little pleasure out of skiing

even when they are not racing … “

Lunn advises the racer to give up or at least cut down on alcohol and smoking – ” if your nerves can stand it” – not to go to bed too early before a race and to read a detective thriller for a good night’s sleep.  On the question of using brandy as a stimulant before the race, each racer must experiment until he knows how much to consume, and when: leaving enough time for the brandy to take effect, but not so much that the reaction sets in, five minutes later.

Clothing must be a personal choice: “For important races I wear more clothes than normal, because I always ski better when I am uncomfortably hot.”

peter lunn book 3For Lunn, ski racing was essentially a mental challenge.  “Speed comes not from abandon but control.  Pell-mel skiers please note!” is a promotional line used for the second edition of the book.  The torn jacket (pictured) repeats the message:  “… by using your head.”   This counters the traditional British tearaway approach exemplified by Lord Knebworth‘s words in a book written a few years earlier (1930): “the essence of good skiing is abandon”.*  

Lunn’s determination to run everything straight, and yet do so in a controlled manner, reconciles the schism between the hare and tortoise schools of ski racing described by Knebworth, and led by the top British racers of the 1920s, Mackintosh (hare) and Bracken, the master stylist.  Significantly, Lunn asserts that there is no essential difference between slalom and downhill racing.  The best slalom racers will be the best downhillers, if only they can get their head around the speed.   Modern ski racing bears this out.    

“Success in races depends on making your body do something which is highly distasteful to it,” Lunn writes.  “The body shrinks from the strain and dangers of skiing at racing speed and it is for the mind to overcome these physical reactions.”

This idea is developed in the last and most interesting chapter of the book, entitled The Psychology of Racing.  Lunn describes ski racing as an addictive drug.

“Racers get very little pleasure out of skiing even when they are not racing and it appears that the longer one has skied the less one enjoys it,” he writes. This is indeed a surprising admission, coming from a 20 year-old sporting hero at the top of his game.

The beginner experiences “the thrill of speed in its finest form” but, as with any drug, a tolerance builds and “the minimum speed at which he becomes interested and draws active pleasure becomes steadily higher.  Unfortunately the maximum speed at which he can ski without being frightened does not increase so rapidly.”

Lunn develops this idea into a quasi-mathematical formula.  It could be expressed as a graph (but isn’t).     

“As soon as the day comes that the minimum speed at which he begins to draw pleasure from skiing is faster than the maximum speed at which he can ski without being frightened, he will cease to enjoy skiing.”

So why do it?

Comparing ski racing to art, Lunn’s answer is that it is not for fame or praise – gratifying though these may be – but in order to establish the mind’s control over the body.  This he describes as “the essence of sport,” which he places in the doctrinal context of guilt and original sin.

When one is skiing well there come moments when he knows that the mind has won and he has complete control.   He experiences a happiness which has nothing to do with pleasure or enjoyment.  At such moments when the racer’s mind and body are working in complete harmony he catches a fleeting glimpse of that paradise which was our ancestors’ in the Garden of Eden, because he has succeeded in capturing if only for a moment that complete control over the body which was man’s before the Fall.”

And if the racer feels the urge to burst into tears after the race in which he has experienced such moments of ecstasy, this is “partly explained by a deep longing for all that man has lost.”

It is this ‘fleeting glimpse of the paradise of Eden’ that makes him endure the hardships of training and racing.  He goes through hell, for an intimation of heaven.  Many athletes and sportsmen who speak loosely of being ‘in the zone’ might recognise the occasional moments of ecstasy and transcendence, even if few would put the same religious gloss on them.

The fleeting glimpses keep the ski racer going, Lunn continues, and are in fact addictive. 

“The spiritual happiness that comes from a dominion over the body increases and gains such a hold over his body that he finds it impossible to give up racing,” even when he is long past his best.

This serious moral and spiritual analysis of sport at the highest level reminds us of Peter’s father Arnold Lunn’s lifelong interest in questions of Faith; and of Peter’s methodist missionary grandfather Henry Lunn, who founded the Lunn travel business after organising a religious conference in Switzerland.

The closing words of the book seem to issue a defiant challenge from son to father. Or is he thinking ahead to Herr Hitler’s Olympics at Garmisch?

“Many attempts are made to justify sport by arguing that international events promote friendship between nations.   But the sportsmen know that their work is a justification in itself … because it enables them to break through the barriers of this material world to taste the happiness which lies beyond.”

Evil In High Places (1947)

Twelve years later Peter Lunn returned to the moral theme in his own detective thriller, Evil In High Places, an Agatha Christie-like murder mystery set in the Swiss Alps. Religion does not play a large part, but Lunn manages to weave a Catholic thread in to the plot’s intricate web.  The action starts with a ski race.

John Seymour is 35 or 36 (much the same age as his creator). He can’t give up racing and is nervous and tetchy before the race, unlike the carefree young Swiss hotelier’s son Hans.  Together they climb to the start, pausing for a smoke beside the steepest part of the course.  Seymour tells his incredulous rival that he plans to take it straight.  Alone among all the racers, he does so – “like a great bird swooping earthwards” – and holds it.   The beautiful young marmalade heiress Diana Dale, who is watching in the company of her aspiring fiancé, swoons.   “Perhaps in all sport there is no finer sight than really high-speed skiing,” someone says.  

But just before the finish, when Seymour knows that he can afford to ski carefully and still win, self-confidence gets the better of him, and he crashes, falling into the arms of his aspiring fiancée Suzette.  24 hours later he lies on the floor of a mountain hut, with a ski stick through his eye.  “Any man could have done it,” says the detective Herr Mayer; “… or woman.”    

As Christie likes to do, Lunn casts his characters as a small and close-knit group whose members know that one among them is guilty.  The detective sets traps for them, and observes their reactions and interaction for what it reveals about their innocence or guilt.  John Le Carré’s mole-hunt may also come to mind: by 1947 Peter Lunn was fully engaged in his career as an Intelligence officer.  

If you don’t want me to ruin the story, stop reading now.

Among the small group of suspects is a mountaineer.  “Mountaineering teaches a man determination, courage and steadfastness but it also develops a self-satisfied puritanism,” someone says. “Ski racers have a certain gallant light-heartedness, but they do tend to be selfish and irresponsible.”

It emerges that Seymour was once engaged to the mountaineer’s sister, two-timed her and pushed her to suicide.  He does some more two-timing before his sticky end, and dabbles in a little blackmail on the side. The mountaineer did it. 

Which is the more evil: the selfish and irresponsible ski racer, who feels guilty about his behaviour but does nothing to change it; or the puritan mountaineer, who feels no guilt at all in exacting his revenge (and despatching another two blameless victims in short order)?   In his book Spies Beneath Berlin, David Stafford interprets the story as a reference to Hitler looking down on the world from Eagle’s Nest.  The remark about ‘self-satisfied puritanism’ made me wonder if Lunn had his own father in mind. Mountaineering was Arnold Lunn’s first love, but Peter never took to it.    

The last line of the book sees the moral order restored.  ‘Snow spread a clean mantle over the earth’.


* Click for a link to a post on Lord Knebworth



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