“I ski alone in the wilderness somewhere in Northern Sweden. It’s a cold winter day even if it’s mid-April, and the snow crunches underneath my skies. There are still more than 100 km to go, and just a moment ago I passed the halfway point. The lead group is ahead of me and I don’t see anyone behind me. Sarcastically saying, this feels like real skiing pleasure, a lone wolf’s desperate journey into nowhere, but I keep going and going because I have no other choice. I am used to these ultra-long performances as the current official Guinness world record holder of 24 hour Nordic skiing, but this endeavor is something completely different and unique, an extremely hard undertaking. Who could be crazy enough to ski 220 km without changing skis, and not just ski but race with full speed? Well, I am and about 500 other crazy people alongside me!”
– Teemu Virtanen
Endurance sport is a way of life. You get addicted to it like a drunken sailor to his bottle or a backstreet junkie to his needle. The high you get from doing a long and challenging performance is very much like the one you get from any other addictive substance, the euphoria that cannot be explained with words. That’s what drives me to go out and do exercise in the pouring rain in a dark night or in a freezing cold winter day. The great thing about endurance sport is that it comes in many shapes and forms. And there is often the one particular form that becomes the dearest to the doer, be it running, cycling, skiing, triathlon or something else.
Nordic skiing is particularly splendid because you can use all forms of endurance sport when getting in shape. Many top elite skiers have either road or mountain biking, water sports, triathlon, running and Nordic walking in their training programs.
The aforementioned forms of endurance sport can take a long time to do. Pro cyclists are accustomed to spending countless hours riding their two-wheel horses. Runners have done distances much longer than the standard marathon for years, and many love killing time on water by rowing or kayaking to their hearts’ content. Sulkavan Soutu in Finland is a great example of a rowing event where the word sprint is not in anyone’s mind. And what about Ironman in triathlon? That’s the epitome of long distance and ultimate endurance.
In cross-country skiing, mass-starts with longer distances have been commonplace for decades, but the current races are merely sprints for those who crave for ultra-long challenges. The king of all ski races Vasaloppet is surely 90 km long, but the winners usually go under four hours, which is nothing compared to the length that true Ironmen and women face when participating in their respective races.
As an experienced 24-hour skier, I can state that those ultra-long performance are in a league of their own. There is always something magical happening when you push your body and mind to the limit. It may be a bit on the verge of lunacy, but something always makes you try again. That will be the case come mid-April when Yours Truly will again try to break the world record in an attempt to be held in conjunction with Ylläs-Levi.
The so-called ultra-skiing doesn’t really exist yet, but luckily we have the Swedes. They have a knack for creating events that are either the biggest or the longest in the world. Actually, to be more precise, the honor shall not be bestowed upon a Swede this time around, but to someone who hails from Austria and happens to live in Sweden. Wolfgang Mehl discovered a long forgotten chapter in history books, dusted off the pages and brought back to light something that many of us ultra-sport fans have been salivating for. Red Bull Nordenskiöldsloppet is now the longest ski race in the world and its genesis dates back to 1884, but in its modern form, this year’s race will be the third consecutive one.
And the distance! Yes, it is long. I would say extremely long, and that statement, coming from someone who specializes in 24 hour skiing, has to say something. This race, that takes place in Jokkmokk in Sweden, has the unprecedented number 220 as its distance. The course is very versatile since there are long flats on frozen lakes, lots of ups and downs and a couple of challenging climbs and downhill sections. It takes about 10-12 hours for the strongest warriors to finish the race, but the cut-off time is 30 hours for recreational skiers. Hence, most of the participants need to ski part of the race with their headlights on listening to the sounds of silence in the Northern wilderness.
Last year, the event took place a week after Ylläs-Levi making it the perfect ending for the long ski season. This year, however, Red Bull Nordenskiöldsloppet is a week before Easter on Saturday, March 24 (the start is at 6 am). The weather and conditions will most likely be very different from the usual ones in the late spring, and the date may not suite many Ylläs-Levi participants as there will be only three weeks to recover between the events. Regardless, I would strongly recommend this race to anyone who is brave enough to face the challenge and truly ready to discover himself or herself. If you are in great shape, you will recover in three weeks. Just remember to take it easy afterwards and do a lot of slow paced aerobic training in-between the races.
It will be interesting to see what happens to me as I need to be ready and completely tuned-up for my 24-hour fight. For that, three weeks may not be the ideal time for recovery or it could the final touch that I’ve been seeking. It remains to be seen, but luckily I am not the only doing the race before the 24 H Challenge as my dear opponent Hans Mäenpää will do the same. We will share the same feeling of tiredness or readiness when the moment of truth falls upon us.
To wrap this piece up, a couple of words of encouragement for those who fancy doing something out of ordinary. Red Bull Nordenskiöldsloppet is an experience that one cannot just describe with simple words. There is really no rhyme or reason to do the race other than sheer curiosity, but don’t worry as it will not kill the cat. It will make the cat much stronger and that is why you should do it. Anything can happen on your 220 km journey, but the best thing is that you may even discover yourself.
Just like in the 24-hour events, you simply drift into an unconsciousness that takes over your mind, body and soul. That is what I call the “zone” and once you are there, you realize that heaven and hell become as one; pain and pleasure walk hand-in-hand. And when you come back alive, you know you have been on the other side. And that, my dear friends, is the beauty of the sport, the true reason why I, and so many others, keep stepping into that zone – the glorious hunt for the true doze of euphoria!
And if Red Bull Nordenskiöldsloppet seems a bit too much to handle right now, you should go to Finnish Lapland and do Ylläs-Levi. We have two great distances available for you, 69 km & 55 km, and you will find the euphoria and state of mind that will linger on in your mind for years to come. The nature and the breathtaking views from the top of the fells will take you to a zone of your own. The passion for cross-country skiing shall never die, and we, long distance skiers, are the true testament of that.