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Blueberry Report #2 - Race Day in Sweden
By:  Karl Saidla   (2012/03/13)


To introduce "Blueberrry Report #2", I will provide several more fitting quotes from Willam Johnston"s article in Sports Illustrated from 1972. This article, by the way, is very much to my liking.


"Except for an elite hundred men of world-class caliber, the thousands who enter the Vasaloppet each March are the stuff of which commercial bowling leagues and office football pools and volunteer fire departments are made. On the blue Monday following this Vasaloppet Sunday, they will pick up dear, dented lunch buckets and drive off in a car pool to put hubcaps on Volvos or spray chromium on water-faucet handles. Indeed, it is said that a great many—perhaps 2,000—of the men who will gather this dank Sunday on the flats of the Dalaven River are there only because they played the fool on New Year's Eve, drinking so much aquavit that they eventually blundered into making a wager that they would, that they certainly could and should, by God, run the Vasa race this year."

"Sadder but wiser, and bundled now against the chill dawn, some come to make this agonizing trek to save a few Swedish kronor bet in the flush of drink. Some do the race simply to prove they are in good enough condition to do the race. Some come merely to halt for an instant the treadmill routine of the Swedish workingman in winter. Some come to make a stubborn pilgrimage, a private journey through cold and fatigue to show that a man is more than spraying chromium on water faucets."

"Deep in that flowing stream, however, men are muttering every Swedish curse ever said. They are elbowing each other and tripping over discarded overcoats and stalling in fury against those heaps of plastic clothing bags. Great knots develop in the crowd as a man falls and other men stumble and stop. One man falls, becomes dazed, and rises facing the wrong direction. He cannot get room enough in the swarm of men rushing at him to turn his long skis around and he shouts angrily. He shakes a fist. But no one gives him the few extra feet he needs to swing his skis around on the snow. He is forced to hurriedly crouch and take them off while thousands charge by. Holding his skis erect, he slowly turns around, bends down and puts the skis on again. Now facing the right direction, he begins to race again."

"Already they seem a race of men outside civilization, somehow closer to a primitive animal form than they were when they began the Vasaloppet. It is impossible to think of them as barbers and lawyers and used-car salesmen because they have already changed so much on the first leg of the Vasaloppet. Already they seem obsessed with the hope of mere survival."

"Their eyes will seem blank or stricken or blind or haunted. Yet as each man takes the last stride to cross the line, he looks into the crowd gathered beneath the banners and he seeks an eye in the crowd. Even a stranger's eye. And when he meets another's gaze, his stiffened, exhausted face breaks into an enormous smile. The smile of a victor, not a survivor."

I know it’s a big surprise to hear it from me, but cross country skiing has alot going for it! One of the things I like is that it can be both a competitive sport, and something you do just for fun, often simultaneously.

At the Vasaloppet, us "blueberries" as they refer to all those unlikely to win, had two experiences at the same time:

The "fun" experience

The Vasaloppet is almost impossible to properly describe in words. It is SO big, SO attached to Swedish history and culture, and the subject of SO much enthusiasm. Over the course of the week, something like 60 000 skiers participated in the various events. One of the events was a women’s only race, and this by itself had 10 000 skiers (single men...take note...you might want to consider spectating). The Vasaloppet itself had about 16 000 skiers. Wave starts are not traditional I guess...so everyone goes at once. The starting area is 50 tracks wide and is about 1km in length. Regardless of how fast you are skiing, the event is compelling. The course, while certainly flat, covers spectacular scenery and was exceptionally well-groomed. Each feed station felt like a small town (some of them actually are small towns). I will stop here and merely say that if you are curious, you should definitely go. The full duration video (the event is covered live on Swedish tv with no commercials) can be found at the following link if you want a taste of what this is like.


Apart from the going to Salen/Mora we also visited Stockholm (recommend it…) and legendary Falun (also recommend it). It was also a lot of fun (and sometimes a challenge) doing this whole trip without a car. The trains, generally, are a great way to travel. Carrying all your ski equipment on your back for 2kms at 11 o’clock at night in a city where you have no map is maybe a less great way to travel, but it adds considerably to the value of your experience as a whole.

The "racing" experience.

We knew that there were considerable logistical challenges involved with trying to race well at the Vasaloppet. We also knew that we might fail to solve them all, and that there was considerable likelihood that things might not go as planned. We decided that we were more than prepared to take that risk, judging that, as described above, regardless of how the "racing" part of our day went, we wouldn’t be disappointed over all. Here’s a summary of each category of logistical challenge, along with, roughly, what happened to us.

To begin, we should point out that our preparation for this race (relative to what you really need to do if you hope to be competitive) wasn’t really adequate. I felt a bit like a cross country skier doing a kayak race. 90kms of double poling is almost a different sport. We did try to do some workouts that would help us out in this department, but the truth is that the people finishing at the front consider double poling one of the main disciplines of ski training (as in "I train about 40% classic, 40% double pole, and 20% skate"). For a variety of reasons (we had a lot of other races to do), we didn’t train that way.

We were not able to get seeded in the elite wave. I started in what amounts to the 2nd wave, with Megan in the third wave. As you can imagine, this could be problematic if things went off without a hitch. In fact, I found myself in a pile up three hundred metres in, and was promptly passed by about 500 people. That left both us with about 1000-1500 skiers ahead of us as we entered the woods and the famous bottleneck at the end of the first kilometre. While we weren’t reduced to a stop, we basically did a "march" up the 2km long climb. At this point, real "racing" ambitions were obviously shelved.

Despite finding some professional help with waxing, both us discovered when we came to the flat sections that our skis were quite slow. That’s not really a nice thing to find out with 86kms of double poling coming your way!

Our final problem had to do with getting enough drinks/gels during the race. As we were there without a team, we were left to carry what we could and get as much as possible at the feed stations provided. While I guess we managed reasonably well all things considered, this situation was certainly less than ideal in terms of keeping energy levels high.

Overall? You should do it!

While I provided the above description of the racing experience for those who are curious about that aspect of it, the "race" in a situation like this is actually only one part of what you are trying to accomplish. Mainly, you are trying to experience something new, to see a part of the skiing world that you haven’t seen. Heaven forbid, maybe you are trying to see some things that aren’t really related to skiing at all! Sweden is interesting! The Vasaloppet is fun and insane at the same time. We highly recommend you check both of them out sometime!

Pictures of the whole trip are here

Interesting Reading. . .
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