2003 Marathon Skating Championships

by Jamie Hess

In the winter of 1985, 700 Dutchmen crossed the Atlantic to take part in an unprecedented adventure: Skating 200 kilometers in one day along the frozen shoreline of Lake Memphremagog on the Vermont-Quebec border. Not a single American joined them. The Dutch skaters went home, and their visit was quickly forgotten. They were a generation ahead of their time.

Now it's 2003, and times have changed. Marathon skating on ice is a sport whose time has come!

One snowless December after another has led Vermonters to discover the joys of long-distance ice skating - also known as Nordic Skating or cross-country skating - and its competitive offshoot, marathon skating. Last winter's poor snow conditions encouraged hundreds of cross-country skiers to try ice. Now Vermonters are taking the lead in making marathon skating one of the fastest growing winter sports in the region.

Marathon skating isn't Apolo Ohno careening around a hockey rink, or Eric Heiden accelerating to supersonic sprints on a manicured 400-meter oval. It's a laid-back outdoor version of Olympic speedskating. You take to the lakes, racing in the fresh air and sunshine on 100% natural ice. It's an aerobic sport where race times are measured in whole seconds, not hundredths, and most skaters aim to finish, not to win.

"I love to skate outdoors in the winter," says marathon skater Jessica Hill. "It's sunny, it's crisp, it's beautiful." Adds skater Andrew Love, "Sometimes I forget that I have skates on my feet. I feel like I'm flying!"

It was barely three years ago that the Norwich-based Montshire Speedskating Club won its bid to host the National Marathon Skating Championships. On New Year's Day 2001, volunteers from the club, armed with ropes, measuring tapes and snow shovels, laid out a 1000-meter oval track on the foot-thick black ice of Lake Morey in Fairlee. Two weeks later, the skaters came, and the races were an instant success.

As Rutland native Bob Tysen put it, "The setting makes you feel like you're in Europe. The organizers are extremely friendly and helpful. I'm amazed at how such a good natural ice track can be put together with so few equipment resources. Leave it to the Vermonters!"

The Nationals returned to Lake Morey in January 2002, with 25- and 50-kilometer championship races, a 100K ultramarathon billed as "The Ironman of Speedskating", local television coverage, and more praise for the ice quality and the friendly ambiance at the Hulbert Outdoor Center where many skaters spent the entire weekend.

This winter's events at Lake Morey begin with a multi-sport Winterfest January 12, followed by Skate & Snowshoe Weekend January 17-19. Then, from January 24 to 27, the Lake Morey Resort will play host to the first-ever North American Marathon Championships, with three days of racing over distances ranging from 1000-meter sprints to the 100K "Ironman". Weekend highlights include a Friday afternoon clinic taught by Olympic silver medalist Eric Flaim; a Saturday evening banquet; free Nordic Skate rentals every afternoon; and free video showings in the evenings.
What makes marathon skating so exciting? It's the speed, the technique and the strategy. At 25 MPH cruising speed, it's almost as fast as bicycle racing. Skaters form packs where the leader creates a wind shadow or "draft". But with no wheels to get in the way, the skaters get close enough to touch each other. It's acceptable practice to rest your hand on a fellow skater's back if you find yourself momentarily off balance.

It's on the corners of the oval track are where technique pays off. "Crossing over" on long blades requires a bit of practice, but once you master it, you can accelerate rapidly out of the corners and leave the competition behind in the ice-dust. On the straights, if the ice is smooth, weight transfer and full leg extensions are key to the powerful pushes and long glides that give marathon skaters their exceptional endurance.

But most important is strategy. Never skate alone. Find a pack of skaters traveling at your speed. Then stick to them like glue. You'll skate up to 30 percent faster in a pack than on your own. Don't "break away" from the pack unless you feel 30 percent stronger than your competition! The top skaters often stay together until the last lap, then the lead pack breaks up into a chaotic sprint of flailing arms and a photo finish.
The Montshire club has beefed up its arsenal of "low-tech" ice grooming equipment to the point that it can virtually guarantee skateable ice on Lake Morey, except in a howling blizzard or 70-degree heatwave. "Good quality ice is our #1 job," says Montshire president Dan Snipes of Plainfield, "and we take our job seriously!"

Lake Morey is now a premier ice skating destination, attracting visitors from all over the US, from Canada, even from Europe. The Lake Morey skating track is open to the public for most of January and February. Last winter it was still skateable in early April when National Geographic Television showed up with a film crew for a three-hour shoot on the ice.

And the marathon skating concept is spreading. In Brattleboro, speedskater Edwin de Bruijn has created a 700-meter track on the Retreat Meadows, alongside Route 30 at the north end of town. Edwin's track circles an island in a shallow, marshy backwater of the West River, one of the first patches of ice to freeze each December. In fact, the Retreat Meadows track is already open for the season, and it will host an informal race series Sunday morning, January 5, beginning at 10:30.

In Quechee, plans are underway to open up a skating track on Deweys Mills Pond in preparation for a skate and ski race February 15 organized by the Wilderness Trails cross-country ski center.

And nearby in Hanover, New Hampshire, a 3/4-mile-long track opened up December 6 on the ice of Storrs Pond. In January, the action will shift to Hanover's Occom Pond as the Silver Fox Ski Touring Center gears up for a winter duathlon featuring ice skating and skate-skiing.

Long distance skating events are also planned on Squam Lake in New Hampshire, and in many locations in Canada, including Québec City, the Montréal region, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Prince George.

It's a good winter to put yourself on ice!

For a calendar of long-distance ice skating events, visit the North American Skating Association website at www.webskater.org or call (802) 649-3696.
Nordic Skates and speedskates are available from The Nordic Skater in Norwich, Vermont:
www.nordicskater.com or toll free (866) 244-2570.