In just over a week, the “Vasaloppet” race will take place from Sälen to Mora. The race is a test of endurance being 90 km on cross country skis. Normally there are about 14 000 participants in the race with a further 15 000 or so taking part in open events on the Sunday and Monday prior to the main event. This year the race is reserved for elite athletes with others able to complete the course at their leisure (sic) at any time during February.
My current health issues mean that I am now in a permanent endurance event for which I will have to draw on all of my reserves of strength and energy. It reminds me in many ways of the first time I took part in the “Vasaloppet” open event:
It all began at a party in 2001. Some of my colleagues from Agrivir were discussing their plans and training schedules for the upcoming ski-event. Diplomatic as always, and not in any way affected by the drinks served at the dinner, I expressed a view that anyone could ski 90 km. When challenged, I said of course that “anyone” included even me. I was greeted on the following Monday morning by one of my colleagues with “You owe me 1200 kr”. I was enrolled for the race and there was no way of backing out of it. I owned a pair of skis and had attempted a few times to use them, but this generally ended with a bruised body and great deal of embarrassment. Now, however, this was serious. I had to learn to ski and to build up the stamina to keep going for as long as it would take. Research suggested that an average skier should take about 9 hours, so a beginner might take 10 or more.
When Winter arrived, I tested the local ski-track, which is about 2,5 km in length. One lap took 45 minutes which projected to a time of 27 hours for the full race. I was in need of some serious training. A friend advised me to buy a proper set of skis to replace the toy skis that I had, while another advised me to practice two things: changing from one track to the next (in the unlikely event that I should want to overtake somebody), and how to apply the brakes. New skis were purchased together with ski-poles and boots. Back at the local ski track, I got my lap-times down to under 20 minutes, which gave some hope, but in all, I only managed about 40 km of practice. When it came to the weekend for the race, I had given up on actually completing the race and suggested to friends and colleagues that I would come to the start, just for the experience, and that I would ski to the first checkpoint and then take the bus back to the finish line. I promised to drive the car back to Uppsala.
On the morning of the race, we were up at 3 am for breakfast then drove for two hours to the start. It was very cold, almost 20 degrees below zero. I got in line at the back of the field and waited for the start. It took about 10 minutes just to reach the starting line, but then we were on our way. I think that I managed fall over before even crossing the starting line! The race starts with a climb of 3 km at about 10 %. After that the course is fairly level with a few gentle downhill sections. The climbing was really tough, so getting to level ground was a relief. The downhill bits meant relax, rest and, in my case, fall over. I became quite good at falling over and quickly getting out of the way of the other skiers. However, one particular incident comes to mind: I had managed to stay upright on a longer downhill stretch, but in the end I lost control and crashed, much to the amusement of the spectators, who seem to gather at the sites where most crashes take place. I looked back to see which way I should move to get out of the way of oncoming skiers. At this stage there were not as many on the course, as those who could actually ski were way ahead of us. I could see that there was one person coming down the slope and that he was waving his arms for me to move, but I could not see which track he was in as there was a small mound in the way. As he got closer I could here him shout, (in English, how did he know?) “I cannot stop, I’m a beginner, please move”. As he came over the mound, I saw which track he was in and quickly got out of the way. He passed by at high speed shouting his thanks for saving him from broken legs or worse. I continued on my way and passed the poor guy who had crashed a little bit further along the way.
During the race, each checkpoint has to be passed by a certain time. At the designated time, the rope is raised across the tracks and all latecomers are channelled to busses for transport to Mora. Conversations along the way begin to centre around the rope as each checkpoint approaches. At the first checkpoint, where my plan was to pack up and take the bus, we were given the news that we had over an hour before the first bus was due to leave. I decided that I would rather keep warm by skiing than wait in the cold, so I continued. The situation was the same at the next checkpoint. At the halfway point of the race, which represents further than I had skied in total before the race, I was still 30 minutes before the rope. I decided to keep on going just to see how far I could ski before the dreaded rope catches up. The closest it got was about 20 minutes.
For the last 10 km or so the course was lit up with flaming torches, which created a fantastic atmosphere amongst the skiers left on the course and the spectators cheering them on. A crash at this stage could result in serious burns, but by this stage, I had learnt a bit more about how to stay upright. As I skied down the final straight, my friends were waiting, shouting “Heja Chris”. I have to admit that crossing the line, after 12 hours, 17 minutes and 15 seconds, was quite emotional, I had not planned to complete the race and was really surprised that I had the strength and resilience to do it.
I suppose that there are lessons to be learnt: you can achieve a lot if you put your mind to it, don’t underestimate your ability, and much more.
I have now completed the 90 km a total of 11 times, and hope to do so a few more times.
Failure is not an option!