My Vasaloppet Cross Country Ski Challenge

Well, we’re all back from the Vasaloppet Cross Country Ski week in Sweden.  What an experience!  Over 50,000 people entered and finished their various races over the course of the week.  Importantly the four of us who went all finished, which was the icing on the cake!

It seems like a long time ago that we made a commitment to do this race, although in reality it was only 6 months ago.  It would have never have crossed my mind to take this up as a sport, but I’m so glad I have.  Can’t wait for the snow to come back next season!  A big big thank you to all the teachers at the (Iain, Ekaterina, Yevgeniy, Alan and Mary) for all their patience, without the rollerskiing and the trip to Austria there was no way I’d have stood a chance.

We went for the final race, held on Sunday.  It’s a 90 kilometre Classic style race between two towns Salen and Mora.  It was an excellent course through undulating and pretty countryside.  It’s amazing how much your mind blanks out the pain, my memory says it was just a quick jaunt over a few hills to the finish, however the reality was that for me it was an 11.5hr gruelling endurance test, much harder than anything I’ve ever done.

We stayed in a little ski resort near Mora called Gesunda which meant we had to be up by 3am in the morning to be at Mora and the bus to Salem by 4:30am.  This was the only part of race organisation they made a bit of a mess of.  Getting to Salem from Mora is not a problem in itself, however there were so many entrants this year that the traffic jam about 6k from Mora meant that quite a few buses missed the start at 8am.

There were around 16000 people in the race so you can imagine it was a bit of a hustle at the start, but to be honest even though I fell over about 200m into the race it was nowhere near as bad a jostle as I thought it was going to be.  Perfect weather, not to hot, not too cold and a bit of sun every now and then.

The Start of the Race

We started in the back pen (pen 10) which means we were very much with the masses, so it was a bit of a shuffle as we all got going.  It starts off on the flat for about 500m and then you have a right turn up a very long and steep hill.  This was basically a traffic jam and we all waddled like ducks up the hill trying desperately not to fall over.  If I was to do it again (which I want to do) I’d try and get a better seeding because I reckon if you could get into Pen 8 or 7 it would make a huge difference to your time, and the tracks would be in better condition.

Once at the top of “the hill” the race opened up a bit as we pulled into the first station (Smågan).  From there on in it’s net net down hill although I have to confess I found the flat sections tough work.  Top tip for next time – don’t do 42k of double polling at Dorney Lake a few days before the race, which is was what I did so I was a bit drained from that and ended up doing far more diagonal striding than I should have (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!)

There are seven strategically placed stop off stations along the way which seem to come along at the perfect time i.e. just before you decide to quit.  A few cups of blueberry soup, some bread and a bit of water and you’re off again.  Most people break the race down into a series of 8 sections and just focus on one at a time, if you just see it as 90k it becomes overwhelming.  A tip from a Swedish chap who’d done it 10 times told me to ignore the first 50k and not look at the signs telling you how far you’ve got to go (which are placed ever 1k).  Once you’ve got beyond 50k you can start looking at the signs …. anyway, it worked for me !

The long and short of it from my perspective is that this is a mind over matter experience, your body screams for you to pull over, find a bar and relax in front of a warm fire and a cold beer.  You have to dig deep to convince yourself to carry on and get to the end.  I have to admit that I got to the third station (Risberg) and felt like jacking it in.  The only thing keeping me going was the thought of having to tell all the people at home that after all the talk I’d failed.These feelings soon passed and I started chipping away at each section.

There were some exciting bits on the way, made even more so because we were at the back and the track was well worn, for example there is a very steep downhill bit that requires you to snow plough down … the only problem is that over 12000 people had already been there and it looked more like a downhill mogul field …. lots of crashes and near misses (I survived!).

Once I got to Eldris (9k from the end) I had to keep on telling myself “it’s just a quick training session in Hyde Park with the Rollerski club, don’t stop”.  It got so dark at one point that they lit the track with candles … which was nice, although I don’t think I derived much benefit from it.

If you want the full details of my race then here’s the link.

To put my humble 11.5hr time into perspective the winner did it in 4:02 …. which to me is unimaginable as it means he was travelling at an average speed of nearly 22 kmh!  … how can anybody be that fit!

The Winner!

From a cross country skiing perspective I’ve learnt a lot and feel I can step up to the next level and enter some shorter races to build myself up to next year’s main race. Now we know what’s required I know I need to do more endurance training than I did.  I have to say though if you’re looking for a sport to get into you could do a lot worse, it’s low impact, uses every part of your body, highly aerobic and you just dont seem to get the injuries you get with running.

The event is well organised and you dont have to think much for yourself, bags are taken and returned, showers and food are taken care of, transport is easy and more importantly there is food, drink, waxing, medics all the way along the route so you really dont need to take much at all.  I made it with a bottle of water (which I had filled at stations) and I only had 1 energy gel.  I saw people with ruck sacks and all sorts of caper which can only have slowed them down.

Overall the exhilaration at the end and the overwhelming sense of achievement is worth every ache and pain!

So, will I don it again? … Absolutely, and this time I will be looking for sponsorship for James Whale Fund for Kidney Cancer. I was very reluctant to ask for any money this year because of the high probability of failure, however now I know it’s more than possible I’ll be looking for a better time and some cash!!

Those of you who are feeling flush and want to donate this year then please feel free to click on one of the links below for my next challenge which is the Arch to Arc cycle ride from London to Paris in June.

Please sponsor me by clicking on either of these links VirginGiving or JustGiving

Posted under Andy Thomas, General


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