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The Tartu Maraton, Estonia

Travel and pre race day:

I left Innsbruck early bound for Tartu, Estonia. This time I was travelling mainly by plane and bus. I rocked up to the airport wearing shorts and received lots of very curious looks and some comments in German. The bright pink shorts were turning out to be quite the statement piece. I just smiled and said I wasn’t cold! Little did they know, the shorts were carefully planned for optimum comfort and range of movement when flying and moving around airports. I had a short transfer at Frankfurt airport and from experience that place is crazy! Basically, the shorts meant I was ready to run!!

I was really glad to be in Estonia. It is probably somewhere I would not have travelled to if it wasn’t for the race. I think that made it more special and I felt super happy to be exploring a place I didn’t know much about. It felt very different to Austria and the other places I have been in Europe thus far. Very different landscapes, people and buildings, some with teepee tops or round domes. Estonia is relatively flat with lots of rolling hills and trees. I was surprised how beautiful it was and for me it has been a long time since I have seen such a vast sky! Also there is snow (and a lot of ice) on the ground everywhere and it feels like I have returned to a full on winter (with my shorts haha).

Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia and located to the south east. After arriving, I quickly found out Tartu is the European Capital of Culture for 2024 with signs all around the city and activities on the go. The university is really at the core of the city, meaning there are many young people around, a lot of culture and the place feels very alive. You could relate it to Dunedin, New Zealand in that sense. It didn’t feel touristy at all and I love that feeling of going kind of off the beaten path. Tartu lies on the Emajõgi river which connects the two largest lakes in Estonia one of which is on the border to Russia. In Tartu there are various bridges which cross the river, all with distinct and beautiful designs.

Erki and his family very kindly offered to host me while I was in Tartu and this was a very special and unique experience. The day before the race we tested some skis at the Tähtuere Spordipark (a small training area in the city) and had a quick look at the National Museum and Tartu University. The day ended with a sauna. I couldn’t believe they have a sauna in their home and I thought it was totally awesome! They even had some sauna accessories such as a birch tree branch for massaging the body which I tried with excitement and curiosity. I really feel as though I have entered a land where they love saunas and I couldn’t agree more:)

Race day: 63km classic from Otepää to Elva

The day began with a beautiful sunrise as the bus headed toward Otepää. It had been raining in recent days and ever since I had arrived in Estonia I had seen a lot of ice! From the bus, wherever I looked the land was covered in a thick shiny cake of ice. Erki put it into perspective, saying it was “snow with an icy glaze”. Also the grooming team did a magnificent job and even though it was mostly ice on the sides of the tracks, the tracks themselves had grip and worked surprisingly well! Nonetheless the ice was definitely a defining feature of the race this year. For example one man slid on ice 2km from the start and went right into an icy cold pond, leaving him dripping wet to waist height. He was interviewed afterwards and said his pants froze but he kept skiing 61km to the finish line!! It’s incredible!

The race elevation map looks flat but the first 45km or so is over rolling hills and I enjoyed the variety and being able to frequently change between gradual uphill and downhill. It was beautiful as the bare hills and short trees meant it was easy to see the vast sky above and a long way into the distance. The start was super smooth and everyone seemed to find their groove quickly with no bottleneck effect whatsoever. For me it was the easiest race-start so far. The tracks were always wide and at some points I counted up to 15 classic tracks so there were plenty of options and variety! I really enjoyed striding and double polling around so many others in such a wide and specifically groomed course for classic. It was interesting to see how long I would stay in one track before changing tracks to pass someone, avoid a mini ice rink or just to a better looking track.

Every 10 or so kilometres the food/ service stations were at a road crossing or bus stop. The names of these areas were displayed on a big banner such as “Palu” and “Peebu”. I really enjoy the sound of the Estonian language and often think the words sound very cute. Also, each of these service stations had a blazing fire going and I thought that was a very nice touch indeed! Apart from the service stations near a road, most of the time I felt we were in the wilderness and real countryside of Estonia. It was very peaceful!

My favourite part was the climb to the observation tower, the highest point of the course at about the 15km mark. It was a gradual climb and I felt the power of the diagonal stride. It was beautiful getting to the top and looking out far across the countryside! There was a man behind me I could hear going with me stride for stride. I enjoyed hearing our poles hitting the hard snow in unison and I later learned he also enjoyed following my pace. I love this feeling when you find a classic skier who has a matching speed and tempo!

After the observation tower we hit a long downhill! It was gradual but with the slick icy tracks it was extremely fast. I took a small rest on the ground when a broken pole greeted me in the tracks. I looked behind to see what’s coming, move and minimise the risk of a mass pile up! The man who had been following behind me somehow managed to change tracks and keep skiing past me, with no scream or anything. So controlled and calm! When it’s me in that situation I can’t help letting out some uncontrollable noises! I caught up with him and he kindly asked with some concern if I was okay. He was from Germany and we had a nice conversation. Neither of us knew what was coming next. I was going so fast down these icy tracks and at one point I got scared, tried to brake, and did a swimming dive, licking the ice and then sliding forward in the ski jumping position. Again, my first instinct is to look behind for trouble. The same man from Germany was right there and again somehow got out of the tracks within seconds and stayed on his feet in the same quiet and calm manner. Normally this is a relatively straightforward task but in these icy conditions I couldn’t believe he did it!! Me falling is not the ideal situation but I was grateful for his kindness, his ability to not fall into me and keep so cool and calm while doing it. Compared to the first time, this crash was a whole different level and even by my crashing standard, “a biggy.” He must have been a bit horrified! But I never saw him again and he probably (wisely) decided it was better to stay in front of me.

After this fall I decided it was in my best interest to stay in the tracks if they were available. I found myself repeating out loud “trust the tracks” down many hills on the way to the finish line.

After going through the Palu service station the last section was more flat with a slight downhill gradient through a forest. For most people this was 15km of double-pole. The elevation was better suited to double pole but also this was the iciest part of the course so it was hard to get grip for diagonal stride. For me the next 10km was difficult as double-pole is not my specialty. Anytime I tried double poling my body couldn’t seem to handle it so I thought I would embrace the diagonal stride (it is much more my jam anyway). But I was sliding everywhere, getting tired and so many people were suddenly whizzing past me with double-pole. I felt I was barely moving and I was only doing a technique which vaguely resembled classic skiing. I started to look out for the kilometre signs which seemed to be an increasing further distance apart.

Then the ice and fatigue caused one of the most interesting crashes of my life. There was a downhill section with sheet ice and no tracks whatsoever at the bottom. I tried to keep my skis parallel but that didn’t work and I did a full 360 degree turn on my skis, like a pirouette, before splattering like a starfish onto the ice. Wow! I don’t know what move that was but it was a new one for me!

With 5km to go I decided to look at my watch for the first time and this unexpectedly was a game changer for the last part of my race. I saw the time and realised if I picked up the pace I might finish within the next hour. It really had no meaning whatsoever but it gave me this burst of motivation, something to focus on and got me out of my “plodding” style diagonal stride and general low feeling. Because of this I really enjoyed those last 5 kilometres and even found the strength to whip out some double-pole. Coming into the finish line I was glad to feel I was skiing with momentum physically and mentally!

A few different things at the finish line were the sauna and hot pool, another great burning fire and a “Subaru only” car park. It really fascinated me that the large parking space closest to the finish line was reserved for Subaru vehicles only. I found out Subaru is a major sponsor but I still thought this special parking status was super funky!!

Race Summary:

I think everyone who took part today would have some memory related to the icy conditions. I saw someone ski across the finish line wearing a bike helmet which I thought was wise and very resourceful. Also on the news later in the evening, a lady was interviewed who wore a whistle so she could warn people she was coming up behind them or she was out of control. It was just really good to see people being proactive and doing whatever it took for them to feel comfortable taking part and skiing the course.

Post race day:

In the morning after the race, I joined Erki’s daughter on her walk to school and after saying goodbye I was kindly invited to join one of the English classes. The teacher asked me to speak to the class for a minimum of 30 minutes about New Zealand which I thought was a long time. Fortunately with questions it flew by and what an awesome opportunity!!!  After the class, the teacher then gave me a tour of the very modern school and it was interesting to hear about a different educational system. I also briefly joined in the physical education class where I did a few swings of the badminton racket with a young girl. 

The afternoon was spent skiing at the Vooremäe about 15km southeast of Tartu. It is a fantastic area for skiing with lots of loops in a forest across a large slope!

The highlight was simply meeting this kind family and spending time together. Seemingly small things like driving around in the car together, drinking tea, watching Estonian TV, walking to school and skiing together were all really special to me!I am extremely grateful to Erki and his family for giving me the opportunity to be a part of their lives for three days and to the Tartu Maraton team for organising such a fantastic event! I loved my time in Tartu and look forward to coming back one day:)



Moving on:

I spent my last morning in Estonia looking around Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I only had roughly 2 hours and had no idea what to do so I searched for “a free walking tour” on google. Using google maps this tour guided me around the streets, linking various notable buildings and historic sites. The route took me down little alleyways and staircases I would not have found otherwise and I was able to see much of the “old town” and adapt the route to suit my needs. I had never done this before but I was so impressed and it turned out to be the most enjoyable experience. Tallinn was such a fascinating place and I had never seen a city anything like it before! I was so surprised by the beauty, culture and unique, quiet feeling as I walked around the streets. I had so much fun and it was the perfect way to spend my few hours in Tallinn.


I loved my time in Tartu and Estonia and I look forward to coming back one day:) I am now on this huge and mind blowing “shopping mall ship” from Tallinn to Helsinki for the next stop on the journey!


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