To ski Red Bull Nordenskiöldsloppet is a fantastic experience! It is, however, a very long day. Regardless of your previous references for ”long”, this race will beat the most – except shopping at IKEA or multi-day adventures racing through some obscure jungle.
I’ve competed in plenty of races that lasted for six to twelve hours. Once I’ve even fulfilled a Swedish Classic in one sweep which including all transfers in between places has taken me about 25 hours. Then again, if you see away from some participations in Öppet Spår, all of my past experiences in terms of VERY LONG have been in summer conditions and mostly daylight. Nordenskiöldsloppet on the other hand happens in winter deluxe and unless you’re not a cross-country skier of class, you´ll happen to ski longer parts in the light of your headlamp. That applies especially to this year’s race, as it’s a couple of weeks earlier than the 2017 edition in which I’ve participated.
So what should you expect? What’s to look forward to? Fear? To prepare for? Here are my scattered thoughts and collected impressions from 17 hours of mastodon skiing!
Text: Jonas Colting, Red Bull Nordenskiöldsloppet Finisher 2017, World Champion triathlon, multiple times winner of ÖTILLÖ, swam around Gotland summer of 2017
The start is calm, relaxed and friendly. Forget about chaotic logistics or nightmare queues à la Vasaloppet. If you ride with one of the official busses from Jokkmokk you have more than enough time to easily do the last preparations on site and place your skis in the starting box on the lake that both serves as start and energy station on the way home. It’s actually something worth remembering that you won’t finish in the starting area but in central Jokkmokk which is another 20 km away. Keep that in your head to avoid a bad surprise after 200 km of skiing.
The track is quite flat and kind in the beginning and leads over a mix of lakes, along scooter track and gravel roads. As my companion and I had respect for the distance we started off with very moderate effort and so did those around us.
I had not eaten breakfast in the middle of the night. Just a coffee was enough as I still felt more than well stuffed from the day before. For the same reason and to prevent my blood sugar from unnecessarily rising too early, I only drank water at the first couple of energy stations. That was a good strategy as my energy level was high throughout the race. The energy stations come often and are well stocked, both with enthusiastic volunteers as well as food and drinks. Further on in the race I preferred sport drink, coffee, cheese sandwiches and even later Red Bull. In one day I probably ate more cheese sandwiches than during a decade. I did not bring along energy of my own or needed some, neither food or drink.
I experienced that track quality in the woods varied and generally was more on the challenging side compared to what I’m used to. They were quite narrow and bumpy but beautifully winding through the terrain. I believe this is what skiing looked like in the 40s and 50s!
After about 25 km the track got hillier. Everybody in our pack used kick wax so we all could go for diagonal striding in these sections. It was just great skiing in the middle of nature. The track shifted from winding forest tracks to more straight parts on gravel roads and back. After about 60 km I got a minor dip, more mental than physical. Conditions were slow due to the snow from the last day and after a quick look on my watch it became obvious that this would be a long day. The turning point was still rather far away at that time and one also became aware of the fact that all nice downhills would turn into uphills on the way back.
The dip didn’t last for long, luckily enough, as at about 75 km the toughest hills approached! Tracks had disappeared so we were forced to duck walk up and plow down to avoid downhill skiing mode. Of course I fell here and there but that’s part of the big adventure and needs to be accepted, alongside some quick swearing!
The 90 km sign is of course an important mark mentally as you’ve reached the length of Vasaloppet. That’s usually the longest distance participants have skied at once before. I had done 100 km during training some times so I did not get too excited for nothing. Then again, I checked on my watch to confirm that it was a slow Vasalopp and participated in the general amusement amongst the skiers around us. Nordenskiöldsloppet is actually very social and I’ve never before talked this much during a competition day. There was time for a short chat as soon as I passed by someone or got taken over myself. The last 15 km before the turning point go over lakes with long views over the horizon. Once you´ve passed the 90, you expect to soon SEE the turning point. But no. That took time; actually as much as it takes to ski for another 10 km. Don’t lose your head there, it can break you. We double-poled on and on and on and thought shame on giving up, soon it’s time for meat soup and portable toilet visit.
The turning point and the 100 km mark were fantastic! Three digits on the signs and the watch, warm food and maybe a change to fresh clothes that were waiting there. I don’t remember if I changed more than the underwear during my toilet visit but that already was acrobatics on a high level! We did not really rush from the energy station and came dangerously close to losing our momentum, warmth and homesickness. Don’t stay for too long even if it’s tempting to eat another bun. Eventually it gets one bun too many and you ride home with the bus of quitters.
As a consequence, the first couple of kilometers after the turning point were tough but shortly after, we were filled with trust and happiness over the fact that we were on our way home. Obviously it felt cool too to be part of an exclusive club that has skied far beyond triple digits. The frozen lakes felt shorter on the way back and we could mentally check off geographic references from the way up.
We advanced at a good pace, even over the highest of hills that now completely lacked tracks both on the way up and down. I missed my skating skis on the downhill sections, as they turn way better. 120 km. 130 km. 140 km. As awesome as it gets to pass 150 km. At the same time it’s difficult to find references for the 70 km that are left. More and more cheese sandwiches, coffee and buns as well as incredibly happy officials were the best medicine. That was about when we realized that it’s getting late afternoon as the sun was on its way down and it got colder. With a tired body it became even more important to only stop for a short time but steadily move forward.
On the way towards the last stretch and the 200 km sign it got dark but that was fine. The ice track was marked with torches that confused me a bit since I could see some light and my mind started playing pranks on me. 5 kilometers feels like 50 when you celebrate those in advance. Well back at the start area I was exhausted, hungry and quite cold. I had a quick bite, got the skis rewaxed and the lamp on my head because now there was a David Lynchsk’s atmosphere outside. Overdosed on both caffeine and ski miles, I took the last 20 kilometers. The first bit from the lake was simple and fast. I think. Because I could barely see anything. It felt like a dream. And how far away can a town like Jokkmokk really be? Again, with 200 kilometers behind, it’s easy to underestimate how far 20 kilometers ahead can be. Do not underestimate these distances!
I skied well under the night, confident that I had been swimming the same distance as I had in front of me. Although it was not in cold, dark winter with elks and rain deer’s in the woods alongside me. With 10 kilometres left I felt close to home. With 5 kilometres left, I was not sure I’d finish the race at all, as it became more technical than it had been all day, along with a dark course. I actually took off my skis and ran down a few slopes, and despite my earlier megalomania. However, it was not the last time i should fall; I did my final fumble with only a few kilometres left, when we were going through a tunnel and I more or less backfliped on my head through it.
Last bit kilometres, the last bit. Here you ski on the lake that in my mind is called Jokkenmokken. I want to believe it’s called that. It would have been so nice.
You see the finish line, You see the hotel. You see the rescue, warmth, Jokkmokks-Jocke and a few kilos of rain deer-meat. And honestly, you could have skied even further, even longer. I mean why not? 220 kilometres? 320 kilometres? It´s already ridiculously long. But now I´m done. Finished. Complete. And it´s a wonderful feeling!
World champion triathlon, multiple winner of ÖTILLÖ, swam around Gotland summer of 2017.