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Left speechless by the Vasaloppet, Sweden



Vasaloppet Öppet Spår Måndag: 26th Feburary 2024. 90km from Sälen to Mora.

 


Pre-race day:


The plan was to travel by plane from Helsinki to Arlanda Airport in Sweden and then onto Mora by train. On the train there seemed to be many announcements, but as it was in Swedish I took little notice. Then train staff came around checking tickets and I was told the train was stopping and I would have to get to a bus. This was a bit of a curve ball! Fortunately a man across the aisle asked in English if I was also heading to Mora for the Vasaloppet. His name was Arvid and he ended up becoming a very good friend and my hero of the day! 


I stuck to Arvid like glue, following him onto one of the buses. It only got more interesting from there! It seemed that the bus would not make it to the station in time to catch the connection to Mora. The bus driver was calling the train company asking them to wait but Arvid could tell on his phone that the train had already gone. I didn’t understand what was going on as everything was in Swedish. I could feel everyone on the bus was unsettled. Arvid stood up and made some kind of announcement to the other passengers with the information he had. From that moment, the people on the bus (not just me) looked to him for leadership. We were going to get off at Borlänge and assess our options. 


There was to be a 2 hour wait for the next train. I always find it very interesting and a bit funny when a group of complete strangers find themselves spending a lot of time together in unexpected and unfortunate circumstances. Lucky for me, this group seemed to be extra proactive. People started working together to explore other options. Because I didn’t speak Swedish I was probably the least helpful but I told myself I brought an international flavour to the group! Eventually it was determined that we would just need to wait for the next train, which we later found out had been changed to a bus. We made a friend in the group who suggested we walk to a nearby mall called “Kupolen”, which he said was the “must see” place in Borlänge. At this point I was up for anything and enjoyed going for the tour. He also mentioned Borlänge is famous for being the most boring place in Sweden. For me everything seemed to be happening in this place and it was quite the opposite of boring. We said goodbye to our new friend and had some lunch before heading back to catch our bus.





With Arvid it was one of those rare times when you meet someone and quickly become very close friends. I was grateful for his company and the conversations with him really set the scene for my first Vasaloppet experience. 


Arvid told me stories of his experiences of the Vasaloppet and what the race means to him. He told me how he remembers watching the Vasaloppet on TV when he was young and seeing his mother and grandmother do it. He told me about the history of the race. Over 500 years ago, when Sweden was under Danish rule, Gustav Eriksson Vasa skied from Mora towards Norway to flee from King Christian’s soldiers. Supporters caught up with him in Sälen and convinced him to return to Mora where he then led an uprising against the Danish King.  He was later elected King of what was a free Sweden. 100 years ago this year, Anders Pers organised the first Vasaloppet race as a commemoration of Gustav Vasa. In many ways the Vasaloppet represents the liberation and foundation of Sweden. Arvid said that for him and many others the Vasaloppet was far “more than just a race’. I was beginning to really understand how much the race means to Swedish people and how deeply rooted it is in Swedish history and culture. All of a sudden the race took on a new meaning for me and I felt an overwhelming gratitude to get to experience it tomorrow.


Race day:


By 4am I was on the bus heading for the start in Sälen. I really didn’t know how this day was going to go and felt very nervous! Unlike most previous events, I had an overwhelming feeling of doubt as to whether I could do it. 90km is an intimidating distance! A kind lady from Sweden sat beside me and I really appreciated her company and conversation.




 

The start area was on a scale I have never seen before, both in size and efficiency. Everything you could possibly need was there. I got my race pack and then started thinking about the tips I had received from Arvid the day before. Step one: place my skis on the track as soon as possible. Without this tip, I would have had no idea and gone to the start 20mins beforehand to find thousands of skis already laid out on the track.





The course started with a 3km climb. Skiers were close together but the line had a constant flow to it and was moving at a fast pace. During the climb I was mostly focused on poles: not standing on another person’s poles and keeping my poles close to my body. Nobody wants a broken pole. As we approached the top of the climb, the sun emerged from the horizon and the sky turned pink. It was then a gradual downhill onto the open flats. Everyone was well spread out by now and it was time to try and find my “forever pace”. There was frost on the short trees and I could see for kilometres into the distance and out over the frozen lakes.  The sky was transforming into a bright yellow glow and I was taken back by the beauty. It is so hard to describe but I am going to try.


It was so quiet, all you could hear was the sound of skis and poles planting into the snow. No one needed to say anything but I could feel we were all in a collective state of awe of what we were witnessing. I think it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life. It was not only beautiful because of the view and surroundings but also because I was sharing the moments with many other skiers, total strangers who also love to ski. Also we were all part of such a special and iconic event. It really was magical!





I was literally blown away by the scenes and the emotions and before I knew it, we had skied well into the course! I often thought about how we were skiing in the rough steps of the legendary King Gustav Vasa over 500 years ago (he made the journey in the winter of 1520-21). It felt surreal and very special!




There were many local people out in support along the course which was encouraging. The service stations were like a mega cross country ski shop and had anything and everything you could possibly need! This made me feel super at ease knowing if anything did go a little pear shaped, help was available. Also, it was always easy to find someone to help me open my muesli bars as my hands didn’t seem to manage it! At these service stations there was commentary coming out of speakers. I remembered this was being televised live in Sweden that made things feel even more real!


After 60 kilometres I started seeing more civilisation and the last 20 kilometres were mostly through a forest which every so often would break out into a small village. Skiing into the outskirts of Mora I couldn’t believe it would all be over soon! Houses with not many boundary fences made it feel like I was almost skiing through people’s backyards! I saw the Mora Church in the distance and knew the finish line was right beside it. Not long to go now!


I crossed the finish line with a feeling of total disbelief of what I had just experienced. The announcer knew I was from New Zealand and approached me with his microphone. He asked me what I thought of the race and I was almost speechless. The question caused me to reflect on the day and become a bit teary - on live television…oh boy! Good to pass the microphone to someone else at that point! He then surprised me by making a connection to Alice Robinson, a talented alpine ski racer from New Zealand. It sounds like she has some fans amongst the cross country ski scene in Sweden. 





A King Gustaf Vasa look alike was greeting people at the finish line in Mora holding his single pole. They say that Gustaf Eriksson Vasa made his journey with only one pole! I also did see some people doing the race with a single pole in his memory. 

 


After getting back to my accommodation I could hear people finishing well after dark. Over 13 hours of skiing is a huge accomplishment and the emotions all came back to me hearing these people cross the finish line! I thought that it was a heroic achievement and a true celebration of cross country skiing! 


On reflection, my Vasaloppet journey really did begin as soon as I met Arvid on the train the day before! The 90km race itself was a big and beautiful part of the journey but what I learned and experienced during the time before and after the race felt so important and connected to my experiences in the race.

 

It's impossible to have perfect race conditions but today was as close as you can get. The weather in particular was quite something! It is not often when everything comes together and just works, but when it does you just have to soak it all up! Even if the conditions weren’t so good, I think this event is something incredibly special and has more meaning than I will probably ever fully understand. I will be back to Vasaloppet Week to experience it all again, rain or shine!  

 

I can’t finish before mentioning the very admirable organisation and logistics of Vasaloppet Week. Around 60,000 skiers take part in the various events throughout Vasaloppet Week and it was running like absolute clockwork. It really was extremely impressive.



 

I feel very genuinely thankful to those people who made it possible for me to have the opportunity to take part in this special race! Thank you very very much!

 

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