Miles & More isn’t only the name of the SWISS frequent flyer program. The same words describe perfectly the Vasaloppet ski race. Miles, miles and even more miles…
I’m lined up at the starting area for the Sweden’s Vasaloppet ski race. It’s me and some 15,000 – yes you read right, fifteen thousand – other skiers. Hopes are high, and I decided before the race that I would stay about 1 kilometre behind Jörgen Brink, the winner of the past two races. My tactic turns out to be perfect, at least up until 8 a.m. when the starter fires a single shot in the air and the race is on. Since the starting area is about 1 kilometre long this was the closest I was going to get to the world’s elite in long cross-country ski races. Three hours and 38 minutes later they were crossing the finish line in Mora, 90 kilometres away, while I had not even finished a third of the race.
Since this was my first start in the Vasaloppet I was unseeded and belonged in the last starting group together with all of the other first-timers, some fairly seasoned skiers and others that had hardly ever seen a pair of cross-country skis before. I was well prepared, had been doing quite a lot of roller skiing lately and I was relying on my earlier experience from cross-country skiing for my technique. I was ready for the challenge.
Everybody around me was all smiles and the excellent weather conditions, with –12 degrees C at the start and a blue sky with beautiful sunshine helped quite a lot. As the starter performed his duties it felt like you were part of a buffalo stampede, but in slow motion. Slowly, the hoard of skiers moved forward and after almost eight minutes I managed to cross the starting line. By that time the elite skiers were already long gone.
The first tricky part of the race came after just one kilometre of skiing – first serious uphill segment. Cramming all the skiers together into a pretty steep and narrow upward slope made for a lot of close contact and suddenly everything came to a complete halt. And then slowly, you started to move forward, skis pointed outwards like an open pair of scissors, climbing the steep hill. Keeping track of your poles and skis was of utmost importance unless you wanted to pay a visit to the repair station at the top of the hill. During the climb there were quite a few broken poles lying on the ground. From time to time I also saw a skier lying on the ground, tangled with someone else and trying to solve the Gordian knot created by poles, skis and humans. Not an easy task. And then suddenly there was the top of the hill and the 3-kilometer mark. I took a look at my watch and quickly realized that my personal target of less than 8 hours for the race would be impossible to meet. The first 3 km took 1 hour and 14 minutes to complete and the tracks in front of me were all full of skiers, making it impossible to pass. So I decided to take it easy and enjoy the scenery instead, which turned out to be an excellent choice as well.
The first check point, Smågan, is a very small village consisting of only a couple of old houses, placed in the middle of nowhere as it seemed. In the summer time it’s quiet and sleepy, but on this day it was filled with energy, power and sport drinks. It was time to fill up the fluid levels in the body and at the same time pay a visit to the waxing station adding some grip to my skis. The day before the race I had left my skis for professional waxing and the forecast was for really icy tracks all day long. But they were soon filled with snow, making the grip wax on my skis more or less unusable. It felt like trying to go uphill on an icy road with only slippers on your feet. Adding some new grip made all the difference and the waxing stations became a regular stop on my way towards Mora.