I just returned from Sweden where I competed in the 78th annual Vasaloppet. The race, which is Swedenís entry in the World Loppet series, starts just outside the village of Salen and meanders 90 kms through the rolling woods of central Sweden, finally finishing in the town of Mora. For those of you who arenít familiar with the race, 90 kms is not a typo. The race is almost 60 miles in length, which, by the way, is a hell of a long way.
Like the Norwegian Birkiebiener, the Vasaloppet is not just an athletic event. It celebrates a very important event in Swedish history. In 1520, Gustav Vasa skied approximately 90 kms to lead a successful revolt against the dreaded Danes who had conquered Sweden. (What did he expect from a country with so little snow?)
The mass start is the greatest spectacle in Nordic skiing. Over 15,000 skiers lined up in an area about twice the size of a football field. The race narrows quickly into a 2 km climb, making your wave seeding extremely important. Seeding is based on previous results and the waves are progressively larger the further back one goes. I was seeded in wave 7 and because of the bottleneck it took me about 45 minutes to go the first 5 or 6 kms. Once through this area, however, the course is very nice with 5-6 sets of tracks pretty much the entire way. The aide stations are located approximately every 10 Ė 11 kms and are well stocked and well attended.
The first half of the course is rolling with 3 or 4 fairly significant ups while the second half is flat to slightly down. Itís very difficult to monitor your performance km by km if youíve never done the race before. The main reason being that thereís nothing else out there quite like the Vasaloppet. The km markers during the first 80% of the race were virtually meaningless. After the first 30 kms, I looked at my watch and said, 1/3rd done. This was a fine piece of information until it hit me that I still had 60 kms to go and I had never skied 60 straight kms before let alone the 90 I was trying to do here. How should I feel? Who knows? Just keep skiing, eating and enjoy the event.
At around the 75 km mark, I did some quick math and realized if I continued skiing at my current pace I would break 7 hours, which would probably qualify me for wave 4 or 5. No sooner had I figured this out then the first signs of the dreaded Bonk appeared. I quickly reached into my fanny pack and devoured an entire roll of energy tablets and my last remaining GU. I fought to hold my race together over the next 2 or 3 kms until I arrived at the last aide station where I gulped down about 3 cups of energy drink. Back on the course I was now in serious trouble. I had passed thousands of people through the race and now it seemed everybody in the race was passing me! I hadnít come 6,000 miles to crawl across the finish line but it appeared as if thatís what was going to happen.
With about 8 kms to go, I began to feel a bit better and within minutes of this first sign of hope, it was as if all my energy had returned. I felt like I had 40 or 50 kms back. I had come back from the dead! I raced the last 6 or 7 kms, passing several hundred skiers and sprinted across the finish line in 7 hours and 12 minutes for 4720th place. This put me at about the 66th percentile of men. The winner came across in 3:58 and the last finisher (about 3000 didnít make the cutoff time) came in about 12 Ĺ hours.
The race was a truly incredible experience but the Vasaloppet is much more then this single race. Itís really 5 races over a ten-day period. Itís bands, parties, wax and ski exhibits. Itís art exhibits, gorgeous scenery, the Vasa House Museet, a permanent museum located at the finish line, and most of all itís the Swedish people.
Like most people staying in Mora, I stayed in a private home and was treated like part of the family. They cooked a Swedish dinner for me after the race including an omelet with morel mushrooms picked the previous spring. Everywhere I went people were incredibly friendly. They seemed to think it was so cool that I had come all this way to do something so important to their culture.
I highly recommend this trip and the race to anyone who loves Nordic Skiing and By the way, did I mention, 90 kms is a hell of a long way?