Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Flashback: Vasaloppet 2003

Let's continue our journey to the past with memories of my first Vasaloppet, 2003:

VASALOPPET 2003—The View From Way, Way Back in the Pack
The Story. In 1520, a Danish king took control of Sweden after a horrible massacre in Stockholm, where 84 Swedish noblemen were beheaded.  One of the survivors, Gustav Vasa, fled to Dalarna in the hopes of rallying the local countrypeople behind him to thwart the evil Danes and take back the country.  He skied from town to town, exhorting the people to form a revolt and throw off the Danish king, but he was met with skepticism and disinterest.  The Danish king then announced that every Swede who did not surrender his weapon and pledge his loyalty to Denmark would lose a hand and a foot.  This was enough to galvanize the Swedes into action, and they prevailed upon the two fastest skiers in the province to chase after Gustav Vasa and pledge their support.  They followed him from town to town and finally caught up with him near the Norwegian border.  He returned to Dalarna and led the Swedes in a triumphant uprising, ousting the Danes and liberating the country and becoming king in the bargain.  The historic Vasaloppet, advertised as the biggest and longest and oldest cross country ski marathon in the world, commemorates Gustav Vasa’s journey across the country in his search for freedom.
The Waves. 15,000 people sign up for the Vasaloppet every year, with registration filling up by early summer of the previous year.  The race is a mass start, but racers are assigned to waves of starting positions based on their previous Vasaloppet times.  As an American woman with no ski racing reputation to speak of, I was unceremoniously dumped into the last wave, with the wanna-be’s and the used-to-be’s and the I-bet-I-could-ski-90k’s.  People had warned me to do anything I could to get into an earlier wave, but the line to contest your wave placement was several blocks long and I was really cold and I thought, how bad could it be to be in the last wave?  Ha.  I was about to find out.
The Start. It’s an incredible, awe-inspiring sight.  The sun is barely up, and 15,000 skiers are lined up in a fenced area twenty lanes across and two football fields long, doing aerobics.  Spirited Swedish women in red track suits, perched on tall wooden platforms in the middle of each wave, are leading us in an arm-waving, leg-kicking, singing-out-loud warm-up that gets our blood moving and our cheeks glowing and our fingers tingling … or maybe that’s the cold.  It’s minus 15 degrees Celcius at the start; that’s about zero degrees Fahrenheit, which is damn cold by anyone’s standards.  Later in the day the temperature would range from minus eight to minus three, perfect skiing weather, but at the start I was wondering if I was wearing enough clothes.
The First Three Kilometres. So the gun goes off and the immense, mastodon-like pack of 15,000 skiers slowly overcomes its inertia and begins to move, for about one kilometre.  Then the race course takes a sharp right-hand turn and heads up a short, steep hill; no steeper and not much longer than Amabilis, but you rarely see 15,000 skiers trying to be the first up Amabilis.  I heard that skiers in the earlier waves had to slow down because of the bottleneck here, but those of us in the last wave came to a complete dead stop for many long minutes at a time.  Despite the impenetrable traffic jam, people were shoving and pushing to try to get ahead, snapping poles and knocking people down.  Imagine I-5 heading north out of Seattle on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day.  The cars are completely stopped, going nowhere, occasionally inching forward for a minute.  Now imagine that some cars just spontaneously throw themselves into reverse, flinging themselves backwards and crashing into several other cars in the process.  And some cars are trying to sneak their way up on the shoulder, falling off into the underbrush on the side of the freeway and taking several cars with them.  And yet some other cars suddenly, inexplicably find themselves at right angles to the flow of traffic, so that everyone has to just stop and wait while they laboriously work themselves back into position.  And all the while, throngs of people are lining the side of the freeway, shouting encouragement and cheering and laughing.  There were so many people pushing and shoving, and we had such a long way still to go, that I just let people get ahead of me instead of pushing, until I looked behind me and realized I was the absolutely dead last person to start heading up the hill!  It’s an unbelievable experience, an incredible way to start a race, and when I got to the 87-kilometres-to-go mark and checked my watch, I realized that it had taken me one hour and ten minutes to go exactly three kilometres.  I decided I’d better start skiing if I hoped to have any chance of finishing the race, but any plans I had to make a certain time goal went down the drain.  So I finally started skiing.
The Course. Anyone who tells you the course is perfectly flat is showing off.  It’s certainly not technical or difficult, and it does have a lot of pancake-flat sections, but it also has some lovely rolling bits where you can use different muscles up a hill or get into a little tuck on a short downhill, to stretch out your back.  Because I started at the very end of the pack, I spent the first 50k or so wending my way through the people in the last wave.  The last-wavers are generally not very good skiers.  They fall easily, tumbling to the ground for no reason that I could see (at first I thought there might be snipers in the trees) and usually entangling two or three others when they fell.  At the slightest uphill, they switched to a wide, safe herringbone, obliterating the tracks, and at the slightest downhill, they snowplowed, likewise destroying the tracks and any chance for a nice little free ride down.  In the first 50k I spent a lot of time weaving around these timid souls, for which the skiing at Cabin Creek all winter was very good practice.  In the second half of the race I finally caught up with people going my pace; then, finally, I could stretch out and really ski, bounding up the uphills, tucking down the downhills, and double-poling like crazy on the long, long flats.
Being an American. Those of us from foreign countries had flag stickers on our bibs identifying our native country.  In these unsettled times, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be identified as an American, but it turned out to be lots and lots of fun.  People everywhere called out to me: “Go, America!” and “Welcome to Sweden, America!” and even “Have a nice day, America!”  In one of the towns we skied through, the announcer broke into English when he saw me and gave the nicest little speech, telling everyone my name and that I was from America and that this was my first Vasaloppet and that he hoped I come back for many more.  Welcome to Sweden, indeed!  As I left that little town, an old man sitting on a stool at the side of the trail leaped to his feet, waving a copy of the program listing racers and their numbers, and called out “18154!  Deborah Kolp!  Welcome to Sweden!”  What a nice little man; maybe he knew my grandmother, once upon a time.
The Aid Stations. The course traveled through seven towns (Gustav Vasa’s route, you recall) and the aid stations generally were located in the towns.  So you skied through miles and miles of empty, peaceful birch forest, then came to a little town crammed full of spectators and skiers and music and festivity, like mini-oases in the desert.  In every town we had hot blueberry or mixed-berry soup, and in ten and a half hours of skiing, I never got tired of it; I love blueberry soup, and I have enough antioxidants in me now that I might never grow old!  At my favorite aid station, the volunteers all seemed to be members of a women’s chorus and they sang as we skied through, a lovely, lilting melody that sounded like maybe an old folk song.  Their voices were so beautiful, I almost felt like crying, just because I was so happy to be there in that place and at that time, and because I’m a sentimental fool.
The Finish. All good things must come to an end, and even though I had been skiing literally all day, I eventually did come to the finish.  Because I had unintentionally dawdled so much in the first 50k, I had tons of energy left at the end of the day.  I picked up the pace smartly in the last 30k, but still it was getting pretty dark by the time I got to the last aid station, about 9k from the end.  I was afraid we would get pulled for darkness, so I rocketed through that aid station and headed back out on the trail.  The volunteers had lined the trail with oil lamps, and I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to ski through the forest, in the gathering dusk, with flickering oil lamps lighting the way—it was magical!  With 5k left to go, I hit the lit trail outside of Mora and then I really poured on the speed.  The last 2k are right through downtown Mora, with happy crowds and blaring music and bright lights, quite a contrast from the peaceful dark forest with the cheery little lamps.  I sprinted to the finish with an enormous smile plastered across my face and thought, I can’t wait to do that again!

Serendipitous Moment. I knew our ex-pats Sandy and Ted would be at the race, but in a crowd of 15,000, I knew I’d never find them.  After the finish I was looking for the corral where you leave your skis while you shower and eat and, oh my gosh, there was Sandy!  We shrieked simultaneously and grabbed each other in a big hug, joined two seconds later by Ted.  It was so great to see them—they looked fantastic!  Their ski club was getting ready to go dining and dancing, and they invited me to join them.  It sounded so wonderful, but I had a good three-hour wait for a shower and I didn’t have dancing togs with me, or any money, so I had to pass.  Maybe they’ll invite me again next time!  Because of course there will be a next time; this race is too much fun to just do once.

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