As sporting events and races get canceled or postponed around the globe, Laramie resident Even Brande got lucky. He managed to join 15,800 skiers for the Vasaloppet Nordic ski race in Sweden. The event, held on March 1, was held just before the onset of travel bans and “personal distancing.”
The Vasaloppet is one of the most grueling marathon races, covering 90 kilometers or about 56 miles. It is the world’s oldest and biggest cross-country ski race, attracting skiers from around the globe.
While Brande’s event moved forward, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate. He said this year is a lousy season for snow in Europe. In fact, there were sections of the course that had no snow at all.
“There was so little snow they had to bring it in to create a course,” Brande said. “Ironically, it was snowing like crazy when we started the race.”
For anyone who has competed in large sporting events, logistics at the starting line are challenging. At least in a running event, people just stand in their place, typically in their designated wave that has a specified start time.
Imagine having to do that waiting with everyone wearing skis. To avoid stepping on others’ skis and having enough space to slide when the starting gun sounds requires some organization and planning.
Brande said they were dropped off at the starting area initially at 5:30 a.m. even though the start wasn’t until 8 a.m. Each skier found their start zone and laid out their skis before going to a huge tent to stay warm until about 20 minutes before start time.
“There are 10 start zones, each about 300 feet long,” Brande said. “The goal is to get as close to the start of your zone and stake your claim. You put your skis down, pick a landmark so you can find them again, and then go into the huge tent to stay warm until the start. It is all very well organized.”
At the start, the skiers are lined up, 50 across. Ideally each skier starts in nice classic tracks. Those are parallel grooves the skis follow as the skier “kicks and glides” along the course. In the world of Nordic skiing, there are two modes: classic and skate. The Vasaloppet allows only classic and typical route preparation includes multiple lines of two parallel ski-width tracks.
Brande said his trepidation in entering this race was the distance. In preparation, he trained extensively on the trails at Happy Jack Recreation Area.
“I probably spent more time preparing for this race than any other sporting event that I can remember in my life,” Brande said. “By comparison, I talked to one skier from Sweden who said the race was his first time out for the season due to the lack of snow.”
While the racers started 50 skiers across, that line funneled down very quickly. Within just one kilometer the course dwindled to just eight tracks as the skiers started up the steepest hill of the entire race.
“The hill was very congested and I was reduced to just walking and stopping due to the number of skiers,” Brande said. After the hill, Brande said he could ski a more normal pace but still frequently encountered slower skiers in front of him.
“Eventually I just had to accept the slower pace, pick my path, and keep with it,” he said. To top it off, the tracks themselves were nearly non-existent due to the number of skiers and the lousy snow.
“While the skiing wasn’t great, the atmosphere was most enjoyable,” Brande said. “I stopped at every rest stop, as a friend recommended.” Provisions provided included bolle, a Scandinavian pastry, and a warm blueberry soup that Brande said was quite tasty.
While skiing, Brande maintained various systems for counting down and keeping motivated. He told himself the first 30 km was merely a warm-up. When he passed the 60 km mark, he told himself “now the race begins.” He celebrated each time he entered the next decade of 10 kilometers. In the end, out of nearly 16,000 skiers Brande came out ahead of over 10,000 of them, placing a very respectable 5,723rd.
“Crossing the finish line shortly before 5 p.m. felt amazing,” Brande said. “I am just very happy in completing this goal. I was very nervous from all the stories I heard of how hard this race is, but I found it overall easier than I feared. Perhaps it was a combination of fearing the worst and extensive preparation that caused things to go so well.”