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A Classic Trip to the Homelands

König Ludwig Lauf Worldloppet

Wed, Feb  15, 2006 - By Christian Byar

I’m writing this on my flight back from holiday to Europe which consisted of 9 days in Finland and 5 days in Germany. The trip combined a visit to my wife’s family about 1 hour northeast of Lahti and knocking-out another Worldloppet race in the Bavarian Alps. I realized during the flight to Germany that the trip coincidently involved visiting the homelands of both sides of my family – Suomi on my mother’s side and Deutschland on my fathers. Just a little trivia in case anyone is taking notes or wondering why I’m usually draped in Finnish kit while out skiing and racing.

The skiing in Finland was more amazing than usual. I say that for reasons that I only now fully comprehend and can put into words. First, the lack of snow and cold weather back home made the plentiful snow and cool, crisp air in Finland feel like a long-lost friend. Second, the immaculate, expert grooming on the 4 different ski trails I skied on in a city about the size of Petoskey, were always free and always groomed to perfection. Third, the sheer number of skiers out skiing is beyond belief. I saw kids skiing at recess, retiree-skiers (60’s through 80’s) out during the day, and just about every level and age out enjoying the sport at any given time. I’d say that I would see as many skiers out on one trail on a Monday morning as you would see on the best Saturday of the year on the Vasa trail. It’s just inspiring. Fourth, 90% of these skiers were classic skiing! If classic is a dying part of this sport someone forgot to tell the Scandinavians, because they haven’t gotten the memo.

For these reasons, I really got my batteries recharged and my faith in this sport re-ignited. For those of you who are passionate about skiing (you know who you are), but have never been to Scandinavia – you need to go and experience it first hand. It is so refreshing to feel the enormity and excitement that our sport enjoys over there. I don’t speak the language and I come from across an ocean, but I always feel as though I am a part of the culture, because I am a skier and somehow I belong. Skiing is everywhere: on TV, in the newspaper, in magazines, in the schools, in grocery stores, in department stores, in sports stores, in the city, out of the city, and most importantly in the air. It’s a great feeling and I hope you all get to experience it someday.

König Ludwig

My Worldloppet race was 34th König Ludwig Lauf  in Oberammergau, Germany, a small alpine village about an hour outside Munich, known for its performance of the Passion Play. The city itself is everything a Bavarian Alp community should be: snowy, small, full of character, and set against a spectacular backdrop of mountains that kept me in awe the entire time I was there. I did the trip with Jon Mommaerts (Noqay Race Director) and Wally Pearson (Marquette surgeon and top-50 Birkie skier). Jon and I are old college teammates and veteran Worldloppet-adventurers. We’ve been knocking these races out one-by-one since we did the Vasaloppet in 1997. That year we trained together by doing 4-5 hour double-pole rollerskis in the Marquette hinterlands and worked our way up to 15 repeats up Marquette Mountain… but that is another story for another time.

Wally raced the freestyle 50km on Saturday which doubled as the World Medical Championships and finished 2nd in his age-class (while having a bad day mind you). Just as a side-note, at the award ceremony for the Medical Champs we sat directly across from the infamous Johan Muelleg. It’s a good thing the seminar wasn’t on doping. On Saturday night we watched names like Aukland, Fauner, and Zanitel battle it out in the night sprints. It was truly an awesome display of lights, spectacle, speed, and power. There was a big crowd and plenty of enthusiasm to go around. Jon and I had the 50km classic race on Sunday which included all the big names, as it doubled as an FIS Marathon Cup race. Incidentally, the classic races drew about 3000 skiers and the skate race about 1000. Apparently someone forgot to send the ‘classic is dead’ memo to the Germans too.

Course profile

The race looked good for classic-specialists like Jon and I. It was about -15 Celsius at the start and a light dusting slowed down the tracks on a course that consisted of skiable climbs and long double-pole sections. I’d started in the front row of the 1st wave, but behind Jon in the elite wave of about 150 skiers. I got slightly boxed at the start, but worked my way through several packs to catch-up with Jon’s group at 15km. We crossed paths with the lead-group of 20 or so world-class skiers at the 25km mark with an 11 minute lead on us. Jon and I skied in a solid pack of Norwegians, Italians, and Germans through 32km where the pack blew apart on a good size climb that emptied out into a final 17km of double-pole. Jon made the best of this section and ended up in 98th, while I came in just behind a group of 6 skiers to finish 119th. It was little short of the top 50 we’d hoped for, but I needed a great race to accomplish that, while I only had a very good race. But as I learned from my college coach, Sten Fjeldhiem, ‘Greatness is when preparation meets opportunity’ and I’ll just have to prepare for my next opportunity.

The Course

I don’t get to dispel much wisdom and I guess this might not even be considered wisdom by some, but here are some things I’d like to share anyway:

1) Plan, save for, and do a ski trip to Scandinavia soon. Call it a pilgrimage and just do it. If you love skiing, it will be a memorable experience.
2) Do a European Worldloppet race. Yes the Birkie is a spectacle on snow, but these European races are an experience in themselves. The tradition, talent, depth, and quality of most of these races cannot be overstated.
3) Classic ski! Classic skiing has a rich tradition that is far from forgotten in the rest of the world. Its beauty and complexity should be experienced by all skiers at every level. It’s never too late to learn.
4) If you ever do a Worldloppet race overseas (and I hope you do), leave the waxing to the professionals. For a modest fee of usually around $20 (believe it or not) you can get your skis a high-end wax job by professional technicians that has never let me down. Leave the wax, iron, and bench at home.