100% Natural Ice
On Lake Mälaren
Race Day in Uppsala
Baltic Sea Islands
Tailwind to Sigtuna
Vikingarännet: Race Day
... Saturday, February 13.
Sleep didn't come easily the night before the race.
I tossed and turned, and was already awake when the alarm went off at 5 AM.
I dressed, ate breakfast, grabbed my skates and walked to Central Station to catch a bus to Lake Ekoln.
Climbing aboard the bus, I got my first and last look at the race favorites, a pair of Dutch skaters
dressed in flaming red racing suits advertising Unox Soup.
Vikingarännet was the right idea at the right time. Last fall, the Swedish Skating Federation and the outdoor recreation association Friluftsfrämjandet decided to organize an 80-kilometer natural ice marathon, the first ever held in Sweden. Almost overnight, five thousand skaters had signed up for Vikingarännet ("The Viking Run" in Swedish). The registration limit was reached in early December, more than two months before race day, and thousands more were turned away. Of the 5000 participants, the vast majority were Swedes skating in the motionsklass or touring class. In the much-smaller competition class were a hundred Dutch skaters, an equal number of Swedes, a handful from Finland and Norway, one Scotsman -- and me.
Enjoying my instant celebrity status as the lone American, I spent the bus ride in constant
conversation with my Swedish and Dutch rivals, instead of cramming in some extra calories
as I should have done. A mistake I would pay for later!
The bus unloaded and we walked to the lake to change into our skates. Early-morning mist was falling through the light southwest breeze, with the temperature hovering around the freezing mark. The race organizers had taken their job seriously, checking the ice thickness, sweeping snow off the track, stationing volunteers along every kilometer of the course. And setting up refreshment stands at 15-kilometer intervals, well-stocked with sandwiches, sports drinks and water.
I was already wearing my racing suit, so I pinned on my racing numbers and loaded my pockets with food, water and my camera. Oops, too much weight. Something has to go. "I'm the only American in this race," I thought, "and I have to uphold my country's honor!" Reluctantly, I pulled out my camera, stashed it in my gear bag in the changing tent, and proudly glided out to the starting line.
Seconds later, the gun went off, and the ice exploded as 200 skaters accelerated madly. Flying ice chips pelted my face as the Dutch skaters quickly took a commanding lead. I let several packs of turbo-skaters pass me as I searched for a slower group I could hold my own with. I soon found them: four men on Swedish skates, wearing identical blue hats with the red logo of the Stockholm skating club, SSSK. Sucked in by a magnetic field, two dozen of us coalesced into a giant pack chasing the SSSK skaters' wind shadow.
As a former bicycle racer, I had cycled in close formation before, but skating in a large pack was a new experience. We were hurtling at 20 MPH across natural lake ice, full of cracks, bumps and ridges of frozen slush. At less than an arm's length from our neighbors, both front-to-back and side-to-side. A mass of bodies in front of me blocked my view of the ice surface. Our skate blades clanked against each other, our boots bumped, and every so often I felt a hand leaning on my back, as a skater behind me tripped in a crack and struggled to catch his balance.
Suddenly three skaters tumbled in a heap in front of me, and our mass parted as we quickly swerved left or right to avoid the fallen mass. On one of the fallen skaters I saw an SSSK hat. As his three teammates came to his aid, I heard one of them say, "Thure fell!" I thought, that must be Thure Björck, chairman of the SSSK and one of Sweden's fastest marathoners.
But minutes later, the SSSK quartet were back in command of our pack, and there they stayed for 40 kilometers, upwind and down, rocketing past the refreshment stands without even slowing down. At this pace we would finish in 3 hours, 25 minutes. Incredible!
The mist let up and the fog began to lift. I looked behind me, and to my surprise nobody was there. Every skater behind me had vanished, unable to maintain the blistering SSSK pace. As we passed the third refreshment stand, our leaders slowed slightly to grab cups of warm Gatorade from the hands of volunteers. I grabbed a cup too, but as I was drinking it, the SSSK skaters suddenly accelerated, and I couldn't keep up. I watched them slowly disappear into the mist.
Fortunately, two Swedish skaters fell off the pack too, so the three of us skated together, rotating the lead every kilometer. My turn at the front, and I was bombarded with brief bits of advice. "Slow down a little." "OK, that's good." "Take a break now, I'll pull." We'd been skating exactly two hours when we passed the 51-kilometer mark, and as we rounded a bend in the track and turned straight into the wind, I suddenly felt intensely hungry. My stomach and left leg started to cramp up. I let the two Swedes go ahead, I pulled some food out of my pockets and started eating. My speed dropped to a pitiful 10 MPH. There wasn't a skater in sight on my track, either ahead or behind. Only the endless streams of motionsåkare -- recreational skaters -- headed in the opposite direction on the outbound track.
At 65 kilometers there was another refreshment stand, and for the first time I stopped. I chugged two cups of Gatorade, ate one sandwich and was halfway through another, when I saw two skaters approaching. Accelerating slowly, I munched the last of my sandwich, and jumped in line behind them with a burst of speed. They were two Dutchmen on clapskates. Fighting the wind, we again rotated the lead at each kilometer mark, but one of the Dutchmen was having a tough time with the bumpy ice. He hit a crack, lost his balance, and as he recovered, the rear end of his blade shot back into my left leg. I was unhurt, but I let them skate ahead.
Finally at the 72-kilometer mark we turned away from the wind, and the sun melted through the clouds. Two more cups of Gatorade at the sixth and final refreshment stand, and I was once again hurtling along at 20 MPH with the wind at my back, barely moving a muscle. Spectators lined the track -- some on foot, some on skates, and some pushing sparkstöttingar or "kick-sleds", a Scandinavian invention consisting of a wooden chair mounted on sled runners, with handles on the back for pushing from behind.
At last the finish line came into view, and I rocketed under the giant white banner bearing the word MÅL in huge letters. I was incredulous. I had finished in 62nd place with a time of 3 hours, 43 minutes. My benefactors, the SSSK team, finished in 3:24, taking 41st through 44th places.
To no one's surprise, the Dutch skaters swept the top six positions in the men's field, and the top four in the women's. Dutch skater Hotze Zandstra from Team Haijma won top honors with a time of 2:35:42. His teammate, Andrei Krivosheev, stayed with Zandstra the entire way and finished two seconds behind at 2:35:44. Laura Kamminga from the Dutch KNSB team won the women's event in 3:03:58, edging teammates Wendy Vergeer and Marion Van Zullen by one second apiece.
As Zandstra and Krivosheev were approaching the finish, the fun had barely begun for many of the motionsåkare, who started in groups of 200 between 8 and 10 AM, carrying backpacks and ski poles in classic Swedish skate-touring style. By mid-morning, the wind was freshening, and the ice was softening up from the passage of thousands of skate blades. Those motionsåkare who started last definitely had their work cut out for them. But it was a perfect day for all ages -- teenagers to seventy-year-olds -- for a cruise along the scenic, undeveloped lakeshore. The last of the 3529 finishers crossed the line in just under nine hours.
Vikingarännet generated intense media coverage in Sweden. There were front-page photos in Sweden's two largest newspapers the next day, and Swedish National Television aired a special half-hour report on the race. Next winter's Vikingarännet promises to be an even bigger event, with more participants. And if the ice cooperates, the course will be a straight shot from Lake Ekoln right into downtown Stockholm.
Christer Andersson, a reporter from Radio Uppsala, was waiting at the finish line to interview me. After the interview I found my new Swedish friends, we took the bus into downtown Uppsala for a beer, then boarded a train to Stockholm. I followed Johan Porsby back to his apartment, for my introduction to the next day's adventure: Touring the Baltic Sea islands on authentic Swedish skates. With borrowed skates in hand, I caught the subway back to my apartment on Kammakargatan, showered, ate a bowl of cold cereal for supper, and crashed!
Originally published in two Vermont daily newspapers, the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus.
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