Sarah Van Dyke grew up in Stowe where she learned to ski with the Stowe Nordic Outing Club and Craftsbury BKL programs. In high school she was on the St. Paul’s School Nordic ski team and in college a member of the Dartmouth Development ski team. She is now spending a year in China as a science teacher at an international school enjoying many unusual adventures.
In an attempt to get over my post-Christmas-I’m-alone-in-China blues, to celebrate the New Year I hopped on a plane to travel 1300 miles to the city of Changchun in Northeast China to compete in the only nordic ski race open to the public in China, the 2010 China Vasaloppet 50k. What better remedy for my New England homesickness than to escape damp, smoggy Chengdu to see some snow and get on nordic skis!
When the plane landed in Changchun, I woke to the stewardess saying, “The current temperature is -29 degrees Celsius and -17 degrees Fahrenheit. May I suggest you put on your coat before exiting the aircraft.”
When I said I needed some winter weather, I wasn’t sure if I meant polar temperatures. Races get cancelled at temperatures far warmer than that. I sure hoped this trip was going to be worthwhile…
I could not have been happier the moment I stepped out of the airport and was greeted by ice-cold wind and big snowdrifts. The next two days only got better when I got on skis (waxless rental skis of course), began my two-day “training” plan and made friends with various Swedes and Norwegians also there for the race. With blond hair and blue eyes, I inevitably encountered the awkward situation of people speaking to me in Swedish or Norwegian at least 50 times in the four days I was there. There was always a moment of surprise when I stared back at them and said. “Sorry, I speak English.” They were of course, confused how an American appeared out of nowhere at this Swedish race in China. “But how did you find out about this race?” “I am living in China” usually seemed to be enough of an explanation, even though the city I live in is diagonally at the opposite end of the country.
At the New Years Eve banquet, out of all 45 tables I could have been assigned to, I was fortunate enough to be seated next to the race chief from Sweden. After a couple glasses of wine, endless plates of Chinese food, and a deafening yet impressive performance by Chinese artists, the topic came up that I would be doing this race on waxless skis, apparently an atrocity to a man who raced at the 2006 Olympics in Torino. Within the next 24 hours he promised me he would get a pair of skis that matched my boots from one of the elite women racers. I could not have been more lucky, as it turns out the girl I borrowed them from ended up winning the entire China Tour de Ski series of competitions. The team’s wax technician also waxed the skis perfectly for me out of the goodness of his heart for the lonely American girl.
Saturday, January 2nd was a mere -30˚C in the morning, eventually warming up above the required temperature to somewhere around -22˚C. There was talk of the race being shortened to 16.7 kilometers, one lap, but since the temperature was in the legal range, the race was on. At the start line, surrounded by fantastic snow sculptures, 2 trucks of birds were released into the clear blue sky that swooped around the arena before taking off, and a couple thousand balloons were let go, so the sky was full of birds and colorful balloons. Adding to the impressive sight was dramatic music, and a woman’s voice booming on a microphone about how this race represents the international connections between China and the world in the area of winter tourism and how Changchun will be the new winter destination in China. I think someone needs to teach them what a mountain is before the city becomes an international destination for winter ski tourism, but that’s just my opinion.
The gun went off and I stayed with one Swedish man and one German man the whole first lap around, taking turns leading in the track. I knew I could not keep that pace up the whole race, but I figured keeping the morale high as long as possible was going to be important in this case. After lap one, I slowed down the pace a bit and lost my two ski partners. The second lap I concentrated on ingesting as much food as possible so that I was guaranteed to finish the 3rd lap. I knew that after 30k, this race was going to be a matter of survival. During the final lap, the sun went behind clouds and the temperature dropped to -28˚C. I skied about 40 minutes slower than my first lap because I had to stop every 10 minutes to crouch over to hug my legs and, well, scream. I kept this up for about 10k then seriously thought about dropping out. In my state of ice cold delirium, I convinced myself that no person who travels over a thousand miles for the only nordic ski race in China and the only chance on snow in winter 2010 would drop out of a race 6 kilometers from the end.
If this had been the Craftsbury Marathon, I admit, I would have been out at 30k (I haven’t ever actually finished the Craftsbury 50k…) but this was the China Vasaloppet and what was I going to say to all my new Nordic friends if I came all this way and didn’t finish the race? Especially the people who got me skis, the wax tech who waxed them perfectly so I never lost kick? My colleagues back in Chengdu? My mom? Okay, sorry, that’s a little out of control but it was these thoughts in my mind that kept me going to the end. I even managed to scrape by with 16 points in the China Tour de Ski standings because so many of the elite skiers dropped out, and if they don’t finish the Vasaloppet they lose all their points from previous races.
No times are listed on the standings, so nobody would ever even know that I finished about 45 minutes after the last elite skier, so I just feel proud that is says at number 15: VAN DYKE, Sarah USA
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January 14, 2010 at 10:05 am
What a great adventure, and delightfully told. Thank you for sharing. A terrific example of Nordic serendipity and perseverance.
January 14, 2010 at 12:46 pm
Sarah – That is fantastic! Way to stick with it and finish. Good luck in the rest of your time in China.
January 14, 2010 at 1:33 pm
Great story, and great mental race!
With that name of yours, you are a Dutch girl by my book, so I am allowed to be proud of you making that finish line and those points 🙂
January 14, 2010 at 5:39 pm
Your story cracked me up. Thanks for telling it! Good job getting through it, and use those bragging rights for all they’re worth.
January 15, 2010 at 2:23 pm
Great story Sarah! Hope you’re having fun over there!
January 17, 2010 at 2:26 pm
Imressive and very funny. 🙂