Vasa That!

A trip to Vasaloppet in Sweden, Parham Momtahan, March 11 2007


Vasaloppet is the longest, oldest, biggest single day classic style cross-country ski race in the world: 90 kms, now in its 85th year, with over 13000 participants, 45000 for all the races during the Vasa week! My trip was a birthday present from my wife, who held fort at home, in Ottawa, Canada, while I spent over a week in the Mora, Lake Siljan area of Sweden.


This is an event steeped in Swedish history, culture, and lore. On my flight to Stockholm, I’m sitting next to a Swedish woman. When I mention that I’m going over for the long race, she beams a smile and tells me this: With her daughter in the last two weeks of pregnancy, her son-in-law convinces the whole family to travel from Stockholm and stay in Mora for his race. The son-in-law goes off to the race and is making rapid progress. That is, until an official tracks him down at a checkpoint. The message is conveyed: the baby has changed schedule; the water has broken; popping is imminent. Driven there in a police car with the usual flashing lights and sirens, the soon father-to-be arrives at the Mora hospital just in time, but not entirely able to hide his mixed emotions. Accordingly, her grandson’s nickname is now Mora-Nisse after the ski legend, Nils Emanuel Karlsson. Swedes take the Vasaloppet seriously, and have many a story about it.


My arrival in Sweden is not auspicious: I’m feeling very tired with a runny nose on the train journey from Arlanda airport to Mora. This I put down to jet lag. At 2 am Sunday morning I wake up with a fire hose running out my nose, though the fire is in my throat, 38.5C temp, and my heart beats higher than normal by 10. Not much I can do but to keep hydrated, and to sleep, or try to anyway. And I keep wondering whether I’ve come all this way to get sick and watch the long race on TV. Fortunately by Monday morning my fever has run its course.  I feel better with almost normal heart rate. I have a hacking cough but at least it feels ‘only’ upper respiratory. Well enough to go for a walk, to see Mora fully decked out for the Vasan week, and to pick up my bib for the HalvVasan on Tuesday (45km), as a warm up for the full monty on Sunday.  I need to make a call: rest or go. I decide to try a 10 km easy ski in the afternoon and then assess how I feel by Tuesday morning. In the morning I feel pretty good: will do the 45km, but not push it.


HalvVasan, starting from Oxberg and finishing in Mora, turns out to be the ideal work up. A civilized mass start even though there are no waves, just a long, long line of 2 lanes of skiers, and for which you put your skis in the line up when you arrive, by bus from Mora. It then opens up to about 6 lanes for a couple of kms after the gate where the racer’s chip registers start time, and then narrows again to 4 lanes for the rest. The temperature is -4C to 0C range, my waxing works very well all day. There is a hint of blown powder snow on the tracks and, given the double pole friendly terrain, it’s faster to ski behind someone who ‘warms’ the tracks.  I enjoy bike racing style ‘peloton skiing’, where you race in a pack of tactical allegiances with a tacit understanding that you’ll do your share of pulling. I’m more than happy with my finish time of 3:35:00 since I feel pretty good, even with a bad cough. I meet Ed from Calgary who is also doing this as the warm up for the long one. I meet a few people from the US (they put foreigners’ flags on their bibs): one guy from San Diego, another from South Carolina, and Trevor from Philadelphia, who kindly took the photo above— this must be the place for people from no-snow-vills to hang out J


I spend the next few days doing 10-15 km ski outs at easy to medium pace, having long naps, and fortunately feeling stronger each day. I also spend time being a tourist. On Wednesday night I go to see a hockey game: Mora playing MoDo (Peter Forsberg’s old team.) The hockey is fast with highly skillful puck handling, passing, and proper checking. The shooting is perhaps not quite NHL level. Mora beat MoDo 5-2.  Couple of observations: Anyone who thinks Swedes are not excitable could not have been to a hometown hockey game in Mora. These folks make Real Madrid fans look like a bunch of introverts. Secondly, in Canada we do a lot of moaning that hockey takes away from our XC talent pool. So, how come Sweden with a population less than a third of ours has both excellent hockey and XC talent? Perhaps it’s because they value both sports in equal measure as a national obsession.


On Thursday, I pick up my bib for the Vasaloppet and get my seeding. Based on my Keskinada result they seed me in wave 5. That is likely too generous by one wave, but I’m not one to refuse generosity. I also decide not to do the 30km SkejtVasan (freestyle) race that I had registered for, since I had mistakenly thought that it was on Thursday. But it’s a Friday race, too close to the long one. On Friday, Janne, who is the manager of my hotel, takes me for a tour and we visit his parents’ home on Lake Siljan. It’s a beautiful place with a skating ‘highway’ on the lake where people also take their sleds, some of which have the family dog as the puller. There are these XC skaters, using a hybrid of skis and skates: long with blades at either end, and with ski binding and poles being used. Janne’s family have a couple of guest log cabins here being renovated. They plan to promote the cabins to the Dutch in winter who love going ice skating, alas with frozen canals now an unlikely occurrence in the Netherlands. I mention to him about the skating on the canal in Ottawa and our Dutch connections.

On Saturday I decide that the glide wax (HF6) I put on my ‘best skis’ in Ottawa is likely too cold. While earlier in the week the weather forecast was for -8C to -1C that’s being hedged now to a possible +2C in Mora. Since I have a 120v waxing iron at home, I did not bring it and I take my skis to the Toko waxing service. I pay the price: 600 kroners (C$100) for a high fluro wax + Jetstream powder. When I take the skis for a try later they feel fast enough. And at least at -2C, the Toko red gives good grip.  In retrospect, I should have bought a Euro iron and done my own waxing, since my hotel has a good waxing room. It would have cost about the same, and I could have used the iron for future European trips.


It’s Sunday morning, March 4th, the big day.  Up at 3:30 am and eaten breakfast at the hotel by 4:00. Janne has kindly arranged for me to catch a private minibus at 4:15. It’s carrying a group of Austrian skiers and an American from San Francisco, Jay, to the start. The driver is an Austrian, and by the way he drives he may be related to Niki Lauda. This allows us to get to Sälen by 5:40 and get a good start position in our waves at around 6 am, then to leave our skis at the start position as our claim stakes, and have a warm place to stay before the start. I get out of the minibus at 7:30 am and test my skis, best as I can, in the wave 5 coral.  My grip is marginal. I put on some Vauhti Red: better, but not much. I’m thinking klister, but then it’s snowing!

Wave 5 also happens to be the Vasaloppet Veteran’s wave: those who have completed it at least 30 times with an orange bib to signify, and are guaranteed at least a wave 5 start. I am privileged to be in such company. At 5 minutes to 8:00, everyone is on skis.  Anticipation is in the air, but this being Sweden everyone is calm. Even the Italians around me aren’t gesticulating. Before I know it, our herd of over 13000 skiers is on the move. I’m 6 lanes over from the right hand side, which I’m told is the better side. Pretty soon we approach the first installment of ‘The Hill’. Nothing I’ve read about it prepares me for the experience: you have this huge mass of humanity, packed like sardines, walking like ducks. There’s not much quacking going on though: banter is rare on Vasaloppet. The skis, however, are making the collective clatter of the cavalry.  I have almost no grip, and there is not enough room to really herringbone either. And I’m being very protective of my poles. This is literally skiing on the edges, but I have a grin on my face: Here I am, taking part in one of the oldest skiing traditions, climbing of ‘The Hill’ at Vasaloppet, and I’m feeling great! ‘The Hill’ carries on for 5 or so kilometers.

When we reach the plateau I realize I have zero grip. I decide to just double pole it out to the first checkpoint in Smågan. There is a huge line up at the wax station but the waxing is getting done fast and efficiently. The recommendation is Toko yellow. I try some without much difference. Fortunately there are a lot of flats and downhills in the next section, so grip is not a huge factor. A lot of people pass me on the downhills. So, despite the $100 fluro wax job my glide is less than average. Only 80 km to go: marginal grip, less than average glide. Hmmm. As soon as we hit the flats it also becomes obvious that something is very wrong. The tracks are an unfunny joke.  There is only a centimeter or so of depth and they are all chewed up. After the race, on the Vasaloppet web site there is an official response to all the complaints, mentioning the challenges of a warming trend. True, but I have seen effective grooming under similar conditions elsewhere-- in fairness, perhaps not with thousands of skiers over them.


Skiing into Mångsbodarna I have some blueberry soup and bread and move on. As I start to climb the hill to Riseberg, I realize I really need to pay attention to my wax. I try the Toko X-Warm spray, it works well for a couple of kilometers and then I struggle on to the Riseberg checkpoint. I decide to tough it out with the wax that I have since it’s mainly flat, until I hit the hill before Evertsberg. There, since it has stopped snowing long ago, with the temperature decidedly warmer than 0C, I decide to try my secret weapon: Toko orange klister spray. It actually works a bit. So I eat, drink and move on through the checkpoint.

About half way to Oxberg, I’m climbing a hill when I loose concentration, step right suddenly and someone puts their ski on my pole: Snap!  Having survived ‘The Hill’ my pole now succumbs to my carelessness. I struggle and single pole my way to Oxberg, where I manage to get a pole, eat bread, drink lots of the salty boullion and am on my way for the last third.


The last third would be fairly enjoyable skiing if there were any tracks, but I try to ignore that. Pretty soon I’m at Hökeberg where I get the wax service guys to put my skis over their ‘klister machine’, and enter the home stretch having taken fuel in Eldris. There have been a lot of people cheering us on throughout. One thing I notice is that many ski clubs and people’s friends set up their own support stations on the side of the trail. Now there are a lot more people cheering the skiers, some ladies even serenading as we’re getting closer. “Haja Haja Ho!” When I see a troupe of male cheerleaders with beards and pink wigs, I have all the motivation I need to pick up my pace.

At the start of the final kilometer I stop and put on a ridiculous three-dimensional red Maple Leaf hat, given to me by my dear wife, with capital letters ‘CANADA’ on it.  For gross overstatement, I have improvised one of those little flashing red LED lights, right above the letters.

They say that for the weary Vasaloppet skier, of whatever religious persuasion, there is a spiritual moment as the spire of the beautiful church in Mora emerges in the field of vision. I climb the final hill and round the last corner on to the Mora high street. I see the church spire. Double poling with all that is left in me, the crowd are humouring me along with ‘Haja Haja Canada!’ Just before the finish, I look up and see the famous motto "I Fäders Spår för Framtids Segrar": “In the footsteps of our forefathers for the victories of tomorrow”. I have the hugest grin on my face as I cross the line. And, I hear the sound of jolly belly laughs drifting in from somewhere: my forefathers’, I suspect.

The battle at the front is won by Oscar Svärd in 4:43:40, winning for the 3rd time and beating his training mate, and fellow Swede, Jerry Ahrlin by 2 seconds, with Jörgen Aukland of Norway 3rd. The top woman is Elin Ek of Sweden in 4:48:29. Phil Shaw, our own Keski Classic winner, is the top Canadian man coming in at 4:49: 41, 126th. And Maria Hawkins is the top Canadian woman racer at 5:38:41, 20th.


Back at the hotel I rejoin my Swiss fellow skiers: Bill, Bruno, Freddie, and Hans who have all faced the challenges of the day and are at the dinner table with smiles. My fellow Ottawan, Avrim, whom I’ve just met at our hotel the evening before, tells me that he’s had to double pole pretty much the whole way because of poor wax. “At least my legs aren’t tired since I’ve just used my arms today”, he tells me. Very impressive is our German fellow skier Jorg, who starting in the very last wave has managed a strong finish under 10 hours. There are a couple of guys who unfortunately were stopped at the cut offs and were not allowed to complete. Out of 13085 starters 10177 finished with the last skier taking 11:53:20 to complete. My own result is an 8:11:50, ranked 5829th. I was hoping for an under 7:40:00. But at least I can still lift a wine glass.

The scale and efficiency of the organization of Vasaloppet is something to behold. The volunteers and supporters are incredible. All this and the level of participation and national interest in Vasaloppet is a testament to the strengths of Sweden and the Swedish love of snö!


Links to other ski stories by the author: - The Canadian Triple Ski Challenge: the ultimate ski trip to Canada’s National Capital Region - 2006, 40th Canadian Ski Marathon -2008 Canadian Ski Marathon - 2007 Keskinada Classic 53, My qualifying race for Vasaloppet in Sweden - A Backyard Winter Endurance Adventure in Ottawa, Canada



Vasaloppet related Links: -- Vasa  video -- Official Vasaloppet web site -- World Loppet web site


Parham Momtahan, Ottawa, Canada. 11 March, 2007 (All rights reserved.)