MORA, Sweden – I just climbed into a car with three people I don’t know: Lars and Raffa, tall jovial Swedes, and Ingunn, a beautiful wispy-thin Norwegian. After a quick trip to the grocery store, we’re trying to navigate our way back through Mora. The problem is, it is two days before the Vasaloppet, the only thing that ever happens in Mora. Traffic is at a standstill.
Eventually, we make it to the other side of the town. My three companions are having a lively discussion in Swedish which I don’t understand. After a series of hesitant turns, I can see the thought “ah well, screw this” pass across Ingunn’s face and next thing I know, we’re driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Then the men jump out of the car and Ingunn and I come to rest in something that is not a parking space.
“The liquor store,” she says.
The three are supporting a friend at the Vasaloppet, and to get through tonight and tomorrow until they actually have something to do on race day, they are going to need some booze. I know their friend Mattias, who generously offered to let me join their group, a godsend since organizing yourself for a point-to-point race is pretty complicated. But Mattias is off testing wax, so here I am.
The men eventually return and Raffa tells me to sit in the front. Soon we’re back on the road. Lars and Raffa are packing snus and drinking beer (and doing who knows what else) in the back seat, and the beautiful Norwegian is driving with one hand on the wheel and a distinct attitude of ennui.
We are making our way toward Sälen, the start of the famous 90 k Vasaloppet and where we will stay this weekend. Along the way we pass the race trail quite a few times. It’s raining out. There are people skiing and it looks completely miserable.
Mattias has told me next to nothing about where I’ll be staying and who I’ll be with. Cryptic and strangely capitalized e-mails have told me that it will be very crowded in the house, but there will for sure be space for one more; that a woman has already cooked all the food so I should just plan to eat with them; and to bring sheets.
When we arrive in Sälen (after a few wrong turns and confusion along the way), I walk into a cheerful, large cabin that appears freshly decorated along a tasteful black-and-white theme. It’s warm and smells like dinner. The kitchen is already full, but not of people I know. In fact, of the 15 or so people who will be staying in the house this weekend, Mattias is the only connection I have. He’s not here.
“Welcome to Robin’s team!” a middle-aged woman named Lenita tells me and gives me a hug.
We sit down for dinner. They try to tell me what the food is, but decide it can’t be translated. Even after we’re done with the meal, I have no idea what I have just eaten. It’s delicious though – rice and some sort of meat in a sauce, and we sprinkle flaked coconut, peanuts, crushed pineapple, and banana slices on top.
“It’s one of Robin’s favorites,” Lenita explains. “Good luck food.”
As it turns out, I have joined Robin Bryntesson’s team for the weekend.
Yes, that Robin Bryntesson – the famous Swedish skier, a two-time U23 sprint champion who might be best-known to North Americans because he won the World Cup team sprint with Emil Jönsson in Vancouver back in 2009. It turns out that Mattias grew up with Robin in the tiny town of Rossön, and the two are something like best friends. The gang from Rossön is all here, family and friends alike, to support Robin in his quest to win the Vasaloppet. I’m along for the ride.
* * *
I’m not here to win the Vasaloppet. When I moved to Europe a year and a half ago, I thought I should try some of the big ski marathons. The Vasaloppet was the one I was least interested in – too much double-poling, I really need hills – but was living in Sweden, and if you’re a skier you can’t leave Sweden without doing the Vasaloppet. I signed up, buying an entry off the black market website startplatser.se from a guy named Micke who wished me luck.
“Please race hard for me,” he wrote in one of our last e-mail exchanges. “I will think of you.”
Come Vasaloppet time, I was even worse off than I had expected, fitness-wise, because I had just gotten back from the Olympics. The race trails in Sochi were not open to journalists like me, and there weren’t any other trails to ski on. Even the running was inadequate. Not that it mattered – I had brought my running shoes and envisioned long training runs in the Sochi sun, but I was working far too many hours to have any energy for training. I called it the “live high, train not-at-all” strategy.
So, three days after arriving home from Russia, I was still exhausted and at a huge sleep deficit. I hadn’t skied in a month. The weather was warm and I secretly wished that the race would be canceled. Instead, they brought snow in and used helicopters to dump it on the course. Anything for the Vasaloppet.
On Friday, I got on a train for Mora. Direct route, no connections. I wore a raincoat and could not have been less excited. I’m pretty sure that’s not how you’re supposed to feel right before you do the biggest ski race in the entire world.
But it’s hard to feel discouraged when you’re with Team Robin. First, there is Robin himself. Everyone had been friendly, but Robin was even more friendly and even more outgoing. Just watch the video on the front page of his website and you will get a sense of this. He has founded his own team and the uniforms tend to be hot pink with strange patterns and other bright colors.
All this, combined with the fact that it’s Team Robin, goes strongly against the Jantelagen, a de facto cultural law of Sweden about how you conduct yourself. Some examples of the Jante laws:
#1: You’re not to think you are anything special.
#7: You’re not to think you are good at anything.
#9: You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
So to have a garishly rainbow uniform and advertise your own name is distinctly un-Swedish. But people love Robin. It’s his personality, but perhaps also what he stands for. Robin has diabetes, and spends a lot of time and energy working with kids who also have diabetes, and generally raising awareness about how it’s possible to still be anything even if you are diabetic.
Robin’s title sponsor for the Vasaloppet was Changing Diabetes, a campaign by the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk. Saturday morning I helped shoot a little video of Team Robin, in which he explained how his suit had been specially doctored to hold his insulin monitor and transmitter, and how the whole team (gleefully messing around in the background) would be supporting him with lots of feeds to keep his blood sugar stable.
It’s not just a public persona. When I arrived that first night, Robin walked right up, introduced himself, and asked if I’d had trouble picking up my bib. More than most of the others, he made sure to translate bits of conversation into English so I’d sort of know what was going on. I couldn’t believe that anyone was doing this for me, a fat out-of-shape American girl seeded in start group six who would take many more hours than him to ski the 90 k.
* * *
Saturday unfolds in a haze of jokes, laughing, skiing, and race prep. Besides Robin, his friend the biathlete Magnus Jonsson was also racing, and another friend Anders Strid, who is now a coach in Östersund and tells me he is both helping and racing. We all go skiing on Saturday. It’s the first time I have skied in a month and I feel surprisingly good.
We relax all afternoon at home, but I still begin to get a sense of what it takes to try to win the Vasaloppet, especially if you have diabetes. First there are the predictable things, like skis. Mattias is out all day testing wax and structure. He’s in the garage waxing skis until late at night. He’s out again at 3 a.m. the next morning, and he and Robin’s brother Pierre shuttle back and forth to test and rewax race skis.
But the logistics are even more complicated. There are no less than seven cars in the driveway. On race day, three of them will get “Vasaloppet Elitservis” signs to put in the window so that they can drive the road from Sälen to Mora and take turns onto smaller roads that serve as access points for the more remote parts of the trail. Each night we talk for over an hour about how to coordinate all the feeds and the timing of who can drive to which spot.
Or, they talk – it’s in Swedish and I have no idea what they are saying. I pretend to not be bored. Mattias sits beside me drinking a beer and occasionally translates something.
To keep morale high for this huge group of people who are helping Robin, we pool our money to bet on a race horse. Lars, one of the guys who had originally picked me up in Mora, drives trotting horses. He organizes the betting. I pay my 100 crowns. Maybe we’ll all get rich.
I sleep on a blow-up mattress in the living room, next to Robin’s aunts, who snore loudly. One of them tells me that if it’s too much, I should stick a sock in her mouth, but only if it’s a clean sock. Then she bursts out laughing. Everyone laughs here.
Then, it’s race day. I wake up at 5 a.m. to find much of the crew has been awake for quite a while already. I try to eat as much porridge as I can (I try milk and jam this time) and organize my things. Jonas, one of the helpers, has agreed to drive me to the start.
Here’s how the Vasaloppet starts: it is divided into an elite group, plus ten more seeding groups based on your times in other races. Everyone lines up in a giant pen in their start group, but at 8 a.m. the lines are all raised at once and 16,000 people take off together. There are horrible bottlenecks as the trail quickly narrows down. On top of that, less than a kilometer into the race there is a huge hill which is quite steep at first but becomes more gradual, lasting at least a kilometer or two in total.
Robin, Magnus, and Anders don’t have to go early – there are something like 250 people in the elite wave, and so they can show up and grab their choice of starting positions. I, however, am in start group six. There are 1,500 people in start group 6 alone, and over 5,600 in front of us. I don’t want to be in the back of my start group. Some people have showed up as early as 4 a.m. to line up at the front when the gates open at 5:30. I don’t need to be on the front line either, but I want to get there early.
I pack everything into Jonas’s car and say my goodbyes. Everyone wishes me luck.
“Have you eaten enough?” Mattias asks.
I tell Mattias I love him for making me amazing skis, and he tells me to wait to say that until after the race.
We leave the house at 5:45. Normally it would take seven minutes to drive to the start, but the traffic is horrible. Eventually Jonas has to just drop me off on the side of the road because he has to return to the house and then head out again to go do his job with feeds. I jog the rest of the way to the start.
It’s just like so many other huge marathons. There are people milling about everywhere, huge DHL trailers to drop off your bag (tagged with your bib number) for transit to the finish, separate number-tagged trash bags for your warm-up clothes which you should keep on until just before the race starts. In the middle of each start group is a giant raised platform where there are women dancing along to music and urging skiers to dance too, to help stay warm. I have an hour and a half to spend here. I manage to snag a place in the fourth or fifth row of group six and make friends with two Finnish guys next to me. After a fun but disconcerting weekend, I feel at home: some things about ski racing are the same no matter where you go.
* * *
What is there to say about the race? It takes me 35 minutes to go the first three kilometers, through the bottlenecked start and up the first part of the big hill. I manage to not fall down, not get tangled, not break anything. I heed the advice to keep my poles close to my body, and try to do what Mattias had said and look far up ahead of me to see which lines were moving the fastest.
It is kind of exhilarating. I am still searching for gaps 10 k into the race, when I realize that I should probably calm down. There are 80 k to go. Settle back and enjoy the ride, don’t use up your energy now.
Every marathon has its high points and low points, and I don’t just mean in terms of topography. You’re guaranteed to feel terrible at least once or twice. I feel pretty bad, about 30 k in, for a while. But I stop to eat a couple of times and make good use of the feed stations. I don’t like blueberries, but I guzzle blåbärssoppa (blueberry soup) like it’s my job. I start feeling better. In fact, I feel pretty great. I can’t really believe it.
Then, with about 30 k to go, I feel decidedly not great. I bonk: run out of energy completely, glycogen stores depleted. It’s hard to come back from a bonk, to un-bonk yourself. You can eat, but you have crossed a line that is something quite definitive. I stop on the side of the trail, eat a bar, and feel a little better. Just a kilometer later, though, I’m be back to walking. There is no long-term solution for a bonk.
I try to console myself: I had already skied 60 k, which is farther than I had ever raced in my life. If it were a normal marathon, I would have been tired at the end but things would have gone pretty well. I would be finished already. Making it 60 k before having major problems should maybe be considered a victory, especially considering that probably nobody had prepared for this race worse than I had.
But it is hard not to get depressed. 30 k to go is a long, long way. You ski, or walk on your skis, painfully and slowly, only to learn that these minutes that have felt like a lifetime have only brought you to the point where you have 28 k to go. Like 30 k, 28 k is a long, long way.
On top of that, the trail is a mess. There was natural snow for the first 30 k or so, but then it was trucked-in snow. It is warm and everything fell apart completely. The slush is deep and in many places there are no tracks at all. People are falling down all around me, getting their skis caught in piles of slush or divots in the trail. It’s a minefield. I am proud of this one thing, that I did not fall down.
I want to quit, but I couldn’t: Mattias and all of Team Robin got me to the start. I have to finish, for them, even if I do horribly. Doing horribly is still better than dropping out.
Hundreds of people flow past me. Maybe even thousands. Everybody and their brother is passing me, and their father is passing me, and maybe even their grandfather. A snail or a turtle could both ski faster than I am skiing.
You have not bonked until you bonk with 30 k left in the Vasaloppet. Only then do you understand the true meaning of “bonk.”
The last feed station is with nine kilometers to the finish, and they surprise us with coffee. I am elated. The caffeine gives me a burst of energy and for the next few kilometers, I hook on to a group of two other women and we are double-poling well, passing people. My original time goal had been six hours, but now I glance at my watch and guess that maybe, if I stay with this group, I could make it in seven hours. But five kilometers later I have been dropped and I’m dying again. Really dying.
The last two kilometers are maybe the worst of the entire race. Even though I am so close, I don’t know how I can possibly keep moving.
You ski over a small bridge before descending to the finish, and as it happens, my club teammate Simon is standing there with his camera. I can only imagine how many hours ago he had finished. He waves and I practically stop skiing as I beseech him, no pictures! Please! Allow me some dignity!
Then I am done. Seven hours and six minutes. I couldn’t even make it under seven hours, but who cares, I’m finished.
* * *
I eventually find Jonas, who has agreed to also pick me up at the finish.
“Congratulations!” he says. “You did great!”
I don’t feel like I did great. I feel like an unprepared idiot.
I hand my skis over to a storage area where they are tagged with a number, then get on a bus to the area where we can collect our bags. I haven’t planned well, and although I have clothes to change into, I have no other socks. I put my bare, wet feet in my running shoes and walk back to find Jonas. We had talked about eating in the cafeteria, but I just want to go home.
I ask how Robin’s race went. Not perfectly, it turns out. He was with the lead group until deep into the race, but a few feeds didn’t go as planned. Whether because of that or the complexities of racing or his disease, Robin’s blood sugar crashed. Jonas said they first noticed because for the last 20 k, Robin was supposed to be taking feeds on the right side of the trail. But he didn’t remember, and stayed on the left side.
Later, he was woozy, and “cross-eyed.”
Miraculously, though, he hung on to finish 52nd, less than two minutes behind Norway’s John Kristian Dahl, who won. He was in a good mood afterwards.
“What a stud,” I say. “We say that in America.”
“We say, he has a big forehead,” Jonas said wistfully. “Doesn’t translate.”
In the car we talk to the family, most of whom are on their way back to Rossön. They all congratulate me. Mattias texts me that “the conditions was tuff” and that I did a great job.
A lot of people dropped out. I didn’t. And I can cross the Vasaloppet off my life’s to-do list.