Vasaloppet 30

Finally a few minutes of downtime. I write from the shadow of the French Alps, the mountains fading from view behind rain clouds at our elevation (and now snow as I finish writing). More on the Alps soon.

In the meantime, a post about the Vasaloppet, one of the largest cross country ski races in the world. Turns out its really a set of races... my dad, Stephen, and I competed in the Vasaloppet 30, a thirty kilometer version on 21 February.

Tomorrow is actually the day of the Vasaloppet itself from Sälen to Mora, Sweden-- a distance of 90 km. The race is limited to 15,800 people and will be broadcast live starting at 8 AM Sweden time if you want to watch it!

The Vasaloppet itself commemorates the ski by Gustav Eriksson Vasa in 1521. At the time, the area now known as Sweden was under Danish rule and at least in name, part of the Kalmar Union (between Denmark, Norway and Sweden). However, in practice, Sweden was operating largely independently. The Danish King Christian II fought to consolidate his power and eventually struck a deal with Swedish nobility to submit to his rule in 1520. After his coronation in November 1520, he held a multi-day party; at the end of which, he invited the nobility to his abode in Stockholm, then had 82 of them executed in what is called the Stockholm Bloodbath. Gustav Eriksson Vasa's father and brother were among those killed. Furious, Vasa traveled around the Swedish countryside seeking to raise an army to fight for Swedish independence. He headed to the Dalarna region and asked for help.

The Vasaloppet's history page describes what happened next:

After a month fleeing through Dalarna, Gustav stood outside the church in Mora and spoke to the crowd. Only weeks before, his father and his brother together with some 80 other magnates had been beheaded in ”Stockholm’s bloodbath”. Gustav asked how long they could accept such atrocities and urged them to take up arms. But the people wanted to confer with the neighbouring villages before deciding on war. The Danes were in close pursuit and, before he could get the answer he wanted, Gustav was forced to take to his skis and continue his flight west towards Norway.

A few days later news of King Christian’s brutal ravages throughout Sweden reached Mora, the people regretting then that they had not immediately supported Gustav. Mora’s two best skiers, Lars and Engelbrekt, sent in hot pursuit of the fugitive Gustav Vasa, caught up with him in Sälen. Gustav was persuaded to return with them to Mora to lead the fight against King Christian.

It took 2.5 years of fighting, but Gustav Vasa eventually beat the Danes and became Sweden's 1st king in 1523 after the Swedish War of Liberation. There is plenty more I could write about Gustav Vasa but will leave that thread for now.

Fast forward 400 years to 1922, the year of the 1st Vasaloppet race. Created to commemorate Gustav Vasa's famous ski, the original race had 136 racers and was run by the local sports club, IFK Mora.

As I noted above, the Vasaloppet is really a set of events now: the crowning event being the 90 km race, but also a series of races held over about a 10 day period: a 30 km race, a women's 30 km race, a 45 km race, a 45 km night race, a 90 km relay, a 90 km night race, and the final event. All together, over 58,000 people will race in the various events this year. More facts & trivia here.

About a year ago, my dad asked if we wanted to sign up for the race. At the time, we had submitted applications for the kids to be in two different international schools in Stockholm, but had figured out no other details about moving to Sweden: where we might be working, living, etc. Sure, we said, sounds like fun... so Dad signed me, Chris, Stephen and himself up.

Fast forward to this year. We managed our move to Stockholm and after talking with colleagues enough to realize that housing was limited, rented a house in September in Mora, Sweden for the February race. Along the way, Stephen and I started receiving regular email updates about training for the Vasaloppet; Chris received nothing. He tried a couple of times to figure out if he was registered, but no luck.

Fast forward further- my dad arranged for his plane tickets to come from Portland, Oregon, with a couple of days to recover from jetlag. Giving up on snow in Stockholm, Stephen and I started rollerskiing to train. Chris made peace with his apparent lack of registration, also realizing that leaving a 9 year old to fend for herself for a day in a random part of Sweden was less than ideal.

Dad arrived on Tuesday, 18 February. We ran him around a bit, including bringing him as a chaperone on Elizabeth's school field trip to the climbing gym, and taking him to our local skating rink. On Thursday, 20 February, we rented a car (a mercedes benz with a ski box!!), which Chris got to drive... my license having expired in January and no easy way to renew it absent returning to Pennsylvania.

Kids finished school, we drove north the 4 hours to Mora... no snow, just rain. Found our rental house out in the middle of a small enclave of houses- could have been anywhere, Sweden. We'd paid extra to rent sheets & towels- worked on setting up beds, Stephen's Ikea bunk bed collapsed under him (Dad noted that they were missing the screws- having just put together the same bunk bed in Oregon a few weeks before). Unscathed though surprised, Stephen got to sleep on a mattress on the floor.

Race day dawned clear and bright- weather predicted to be a high of 40 degree F.


Leaving Elizabeth to sleep a bit longer, Chris drove us into Mora, where we navigated across mud to a bus, which then took us roughly 30 minutes to the start.
Our start time was 10 AM, Friday, 21 February. We arrived at the start around 8:45 and navigated across an incredibly icy parking lot (the bus slid as it turned to park).
We worked our way carefully across the ice to the registration booth and gathered our bibs: #4047, 4057, 4059. It took a bit to make sense of the sheet of stickers, each marked with our bib numbers: the bib itself, safety information to stick to the back of the bib, stickers for our skis, stickers for our bags of extra stuff. A timing device attached via a strap to one's ankle.


There was an amazing sea of people. Young and old, decked out in racing skis and touring gear and everything in between. My favorite may have been the singing group from Uppsala- all dressed up in white tie & tails, singing as entertainment before (and during) the race).

Gathering at the start (this is us watching to figure out what is going on).

The singing Swedes from Uppsala.

The gathering place... then people walked, ran or skied to the actual start (icy!)

And the start itself (again, not our actual start).

I'm not sure what time the first wave of skiers went out, but they sent off about 500 skiers every 15 minutes. One could enter your set of skiers about ~20-30 minutes before your start time, thus jockeying a bit for position. At about 9:30, Stephen could not longer stand not being near the start line, so we navigated into our starting area. At about 9:50, we moved from our holding area to the start. And at 10 AM, we were off with a whole lot of our closest friends.

The day before, we agreed that the three of us would ski our own race and see each other at the finish line- too much could happen to try to stay together. As the line moved across the start- 20 lanes wide, I remembered that things get wild in a mass start. 20 lanes narrowed to 15 lanes narrowed to 10 lanes to 5 lanes -- over about 1/2 kilometer. 

This is a photo from the 90 km race- just to give you a sense of the chaos this entails: 

I was right behind Stephen, focused on staying with him, excited to be skiing. At about 1 kilometer, maybe just past, I happened to look down- my pole basket was missing. I looked back briefly- saw it in the crowd behind me. Looked up to see if I could tell Stephen what had happened, but he was already too far away. I turned quickly to grab the basket, hoping that it had simply come off; this was quite exciting as literally hundreds of people were surging towards me) Managed to grab it but realized that not only had my pole basket come off, the end of my pole had indeed broken off. What to do? I had just started a 30 kilometer race, and two sharp pole tips = a much easier ski. Ah well. The snow was shallow enough I decided to just try it. Surprisingly, my broken pole stuck fairly well in the snow- so off I went. Never did see Stephen again until the finish line.

The race track had narrowed to 3-4 lanes set for classic skiing. The snow itself was quite hard- mostly frozen in place, but as the race went on, softer and softer, with snow along the race course vanishing until there was only the race course itself. Slower skiers were in the right lanes, faster skiers could pass in the left lanes. I settled into skiing- it's been a while since I raced and I decided to just ski as best I could given my pole situation. The first 5 km went pretty fast- trying to keep moving, dodging people by switching tracks, tucking down hills. The downhills were exciting- not because they were scary by themselves but because people kept taking off their skis and walking.

After a bit, I realized I was passing people, and plenty of people were passing me. You could tell by people's bib numbers if they had started before or after you. It became a game to pass people (and again, to stay out of the way of those hauling by at a faster clip).

Twice, I fell switching lanes- landing sprawling on the snow. no broken skis, just raw knuckles. I laughed, got up, leaving blood on the track and a heck of a bruise on one hip. Photo is from after the race. Can't say I've ever drawn blood in a ski race before...

Starting at about 6 km, there were periodic refreshment breaks: warm Gatorade (it sounds disgusting until you are racing), followed by breaks with blueberry soup and cardamom buns. I slowed at every food break to get some calories- figuring I needed all the help I could get. Fun to have people handing out food, blasting music, having a good time. 

Part way through, one could ski through what turned out to be a set of cameras (sponsored by Volvo), they made mini movies for each racer. If you want to see what each of us looked like, here you go:

Stephen: (with a misspelled last name)


Me (not sure why I couldn't retrieve the youtube link):

The markers indicated the kilometers passing. 6 km. 10 km (1/3 of the way there). 15 km (1/2 way). 20 km (2/3- I can do this). The snow gave way to ice. People simply double poled- but I kept trying to kick and glide, my pole being a bit less than effective. Pass people, be passed. Tuck down the hill. Run up the hills, rest as you could. 25 km. 27 km. My arms burning, legs fatigued... so close.

Pictures from along the race, taken by my dad (including a photo of the singing Swedes). 



28 km and there started to be more people around. 1 km and a short steep hill over a tunnel, into the finish area. Photos taken by me later (not of us racing, but give a sense of the course)


People crowded the sides, cheering everyone on to the finish. Name announced at the finish- Lara Fowler from the United States. Finish time = 2 hours, 28 minutes. (turned out there were people racing from more than 50 countries, with the most of course from Sweden).

A bit dazed, I looked around to find Chris, Elizabeth and Stephen outside the fence having cheered me on. I worked my way past the snacks (more warm Gatorade- a notable truck of snacks in the background), picked up a finish medal and staggered around to wait with them. My legs ached, my shoulder throbbed, my fingers raw, I was quite happy to have accomplished this race. 



Stephen said that the racing was fun- a bit repetitive in doing the same motion several thousand times. Lots of passing. He looked pleased but tired as well. Finish time of 2 hours, 18 minutes- 10 minutes in front of me. Chris was tracking all of us using our bib numbers, so we knew that Dad was coming along but a bit behind. We found a waffle and hot chocolate, along with a patch of sunshine.

Dad came along, looking tired but triumphant himself... a race well skied. In debriefing afterwards, he took the laid back approach: taking pictures, stopping as needed.


All re-gathered, we had to regather our extra clothes, so Stephen and I took a bus to the bags, then back to rejoin everyone else- home for showers and food.
Accommodations for many in the soggy campground, and a sign of how little snow there was around the grounds:
Chris and Dad went exploring and found a set of rail tracks near the house, along with a bicycle built for the railroad. Serious entertainment and joy on going back and forth on the tracks, along with good tales told by Dad about his days with my mom on a railroad bicycle in Michigan in the 1970s. 





A bit more exploration on Saturday but we left fairly early so we could be in the light, driving back to Stockholm (skipping skiing in Falun due to the driving rain and limited snow- sensing a theme here?). A chance to celebrate my dad's birthday with a cake, and a quieter day on Sunday to sleep in, skate one last time, and repack.

Monday, 24 February. 4:30 AM- we took a taxi to the airport. Dad headed back to Oregon, and we headed to France for sportlov- sports week (our kids are out of school this week). More on the French Alps in a different post.

Final thoughts on the Vasaloppet? Just a few- it was fun and I would do it again (though maybe not next year- registration opens on March 10th and I just don't think I can commit to being in Sweden again next winter).

It's quite a scene- fun to see the range of skiers from about 9 to maybe 90 years old. The 90 km race is quite competitive, with finish times a little more than 4 hours.

A friend noted that Swedish men suffering from a mid-life crisis tend to sign up for the 90 km race- buy new skis and train hard. Given the tie to Swedish pride and the country's foundation story, perhaps this is a good way to have a midlife crisis. Personally, I can't imagine skiing 90 km... it took me about 3 days to be able to walk somewhat normally again.

As a family, it was fun to do the race with three generations, ages 71, 45, and 12. Dad rocked it and his method of be mellow served him well.

Chris learned he'd rather be racing than watching- he learned the day of the race that he was somehow registered- his name showed up in the system as he was trying to track us. Ah well. Too late at that point for him to race, and the rest of us appreciated the support and good cheer.

A note on something that might seem mundane: waste management. Get caught littering, 15 minutes is added to your time. Despite the massive number of people, things were clean and tidy...

Sweden finally has snow this week-- hopefully enough to help ensure tomorrow's 90 km race goes on as planned. Want to know more? Tune in and watch it live!