Have you ever noticed at most big distance events, whether it’s the Birkie or the Boston Marathon, the giant crowd trailing behind the elites in Wave 1? For most people, entering is not about winning, it’s about being part of the experience. That sharing the experience was the motivation for my trip to the Vasaloppet last month. As I approached my 50th birthday, I was casting about for something grand and foolish as a celebration. As an avid nordic skier, and of Swedish heritage, the choice kind of leapt out at me. So off I went to Sweden to join in the party at the grand daddy of them all.
Everything about the Vasa is big and crowded. Imagine a town of only 20,000 supporting not one but two very large ski shops. Every wax company had reps handing out reports and tips. If even half of the skiers were as “like a kid in a candy store” as I was, the cash registers must have been worn out by the end of the week! I spent the two weeks before the race obsessively checking the weather forecast. It was changing daily, giving hope with 25F and then despair with predictions of 35-40. After reading the reports from last year “like skiing through porridge”, I was not looking forward to a warm weather race. By Saturday afternoon, things had firmed up in the forecast, and everyone was handing out their tips. Waxing turned out to be pretty straight forward: layer VR40 and 45.
I’m not the best at early rising, so it was tough getting up at 3 in the morning, to catch the 4:30 bus to the start area at Salen. The Vasa website suggests arriving 2 hours before the start. With the traffic, we arrive at 6:30. Not exactly conducive to being well rested was it? I have to say that the organization was impeccable. Everything is coded by bag colour and start number. Take your rucksack to the appropriate truck, leave your warm ups in the color coded bag at the edge of the start area and then stand around and wait! There are several platforms with young ladies leading us in various warm up routines but after 30 minutes, I just want to GO!
My watch says 8, where’s the start signal? Well, when you’re in Wave 10 (the very last wave) you don’t hear the gun, just a distant roar from the crowd and then everyone starts shuffling forward. And shuffling. It takes 10-15 minutes just to get to the start line. We’ve already gone 1km but it doesn’t count as race distance! And now the real fun begins. Soon after the start, the tracks narrow drastically and there’s a big, long hill. Oohh, can you say “Traffic jam”? I stand at the base of the hill, feeling sorry for the owners of all the broken poles lying about and for the lady who walks by with a broken ski and I stand some more. And the clock is ticking! Finally, we reach the top of the hill, and with the good snow, the pack starts to open up. Oh look, it’s taken 70 minutes to go 2km! The time cutoff for the 11km checkpoint used to be 10:30 but this year was extended to 10:50. As a recreational skier, I don’t have the speed or endurance to really blast off but I do my best to hustle along. Even at my pace (9-10km/hr) I’m easily keeping well ahead of the clock. For the first 40km there are 6 tracks, but with good snow everyone is using them all, despite the fast-left, slow-right signs so there’s a lot of dodging from track to track to pass people. Am I the only one back here with a sense of urgency? Or am I setting myself up for a big time bonk later on?
My first big concern was the stretch from Mangsbodarna to Risberg at 35km. The last 5km is described as tough and demanding climbing. And now the extended early time checks show their teeth. If you’re on the bubble, you only have 1 hour for this 11km stretch. My strategy was to push for the first 25km to Mangsbodarna to put some time in the bank. In the end it was moot because with the first 7km being mostly downhill, I post my second fastest interval speed – 9.1km/hr – even with the climb. I’ve now got over an hour in the bank so I can relax a bit more and enjoy the skiing. I find out later, my wife is not relaxing back in Mora. There’s been a glitch in the timing computer and they’re telling her I’m not going to make it past the next checkpoint in time and I’ll be removed from the race.
To be honest, it’s not the most difficult trail. A lot of long flat sections over frozen marshes, with some low hills up and down. But it’s pretty with all the snow covered trees and snowy lakes stretching off in the distance. Funny thing, I post my second slowest average speed on this stretch but pass nearly 300 skiers. In Vasa lore, drinking blueberry soup is a must. Just to make sure I don’t run out of steam, I make a point of stopping at every feed station for 5 minutes to drink several cups of blueberry soup and chew a few of my ClifBloks. At Evertsberg (50km), there’s even a giant TV screen so you can watch the SVT coverage. Of course, with my time being nearly 6 hours, I miss the finish! I wonder how I can find out who won? Later on, there’s a man standing by the trail with a hand made sign: Winner: Daniel Tynell. That makes it 3 for the big Swedish bear! With a vertical drop of 650ft over the next 7km, I’m at Oxberg in no time. I’ve made it to 60km. This is now officially WAY beyond anything in training or racing I’ve done before. I’m pleased that I feel quite good, still maintaining 9km/h. And I start thinking about putting on a push after Hokberg for the last 20km. And reality hits. My skis start slowing down. Oh-Oh. What’s going on? I trudge into Hokberg with some pretty draggy skis. I examine the wax carefully and see the grip is starting to ice up. It’s starting to snow, it’s now 4:30 in the afternoon. I spent nearly 15min rubbing and breathing on the skis to melt the ice and then cork in a couple of layers of fresh VR40. While I’m doing this, a nice man comes by and points out there’s waxing service at every checkpoint so I don’t need to do this myself. After carting a pile of wax over 70km just in case it’s needed, I have no intention of not using it now! But he does confirm the snow temp is 25F and dropping. Back on the trail, there’s a long downhill right out of the feeding station. The wind whipping past my ears is a welcome sign of restored skis! All systems are go! Almost. My inexperience starts to show. It didn’t occur to me that blueberry soup doesn’t have much beyond sugar in it. Sports drinks, which were available, also replenish salts. My thighs and hips start to lock up. I’m afraid to tuck for too long in case I can’t straighten up!
My goal had been to finish in daylight. Sunset was around 5. I reach Eldris with 9km to go at quarter to 6. A Norwegian couple at our hotel suggested I start hitting the coffee with an hour or two to go. I drink several cups of sport drink first and then two coffees. Swedish coffee is really good. And now I’m skiing in the dark. And there’s a hill. As the trail swings to the side a bit, I see there’s lights all along so it’s darker but visibility is still OK. I’ve never done night skiing before so another new experience. Einstein said everything is relative. When I reach Eldris, the mileage signs are now in single digits. I feel like the finish is just around the corner. I realize at 9km/h I actually have another hour to Mora. Now it’s hard work, and the distance signs seem to be further apart than normal. Am I ever going to get home? The last 2km feel like forever. I figure I had about 70km “in the tank” and getting to 80 was OK. Unfortunately, the Vasaloppet is 90km.
The only important thing was to finish. Which I did. And to soak up the experience of it all. Which I did in spades. You don’t realize how big the Vasa is until you see snowmobilers, camped out at the side of the trail, with a fire going, just watching and cheering on the skiers. I made a point of waving back, that always brought a smile and a laugh. There were many people handing out drinks and food in between the feedstations, just to be helpful and a part of the big show. I can see hanging out to see the elite go by, but staying for 4 more hours to hand food to the tail enders? That’s a whole new level of involvement. My wife asked me if I would do it again. If I won the lottery I would go back next year. This was supposed to be a one off “thing” for my 50th. But, it was just too much fun to not try it again! My new plan? In 5 years I’ll be 55. Time for more training and to get in some fast times to get seeded further up the field. 55years old. Now that sounds like something worth celebrating. I should do something special. Like maybe going to Sweden for the Vasaloppet!