So the cross country ski marathon week had arrived. This was an event that was completely out of my comfort zone and involved a skill that until a few weeks ago I didn’t have. What was I thinking!! As you know I went to Chamonix three weeks ago to learn to cross country ski and if I’m honest didn’t think it looked too hard – Oh boy how wrong I was.
My Chamonix week left me feeling that maybe I taken on one challenge too far. But what was I to do? I had already paid for my trip to Finland and the race entry. Looked like I was going and I would try and do my best.
A cold, hard bike sportive and a half marathon managed to take my mind off skiing for a while but the trip came round soon enough.
I landed in Helsinki and met my group. Apart from one guy called Alex, everyone knew each other and had done many trips and races together – this was an experienced bunch – Oh SHIT!!! What had I done. As you can imagine they seemed surprised that I had signed up for a ski marathon after 5 days of previous ski experience. Thank goodness Alex was a novice too, having only skied the week before in Italy. We fast became friends and support for each other.
The first day on skis it took me a little while to get back in the swing of things but I was helped by much better snow conditions than in Chamonix and although my technique was that of a beginner I could still get round the tracks and with great effort just about keep up – they were obviously all taking it easy in preparation for the race and could have left me at any time. The tracks were also very hilly, which actually helped me a little too as I’m bit better going up the hills than on the flat – where a lot of skill is required – and I could use my downhill ski skills on the down slopes.
On day two Alex and I were taken off on our own with Gareth, one of the guides and a very experienced cross country skier. He had done races all round the world and was a wealth of information. A day with Gareth helped us no end – we practised all the skills we would need for the race like jumping in and out of tracks for overtaking – ha ha ha ha – didn’t think I would be doing much of that. We worked on our glide and it was also very useful to understand how the skis actually worked – you need to push down on them to get them to glide. Anyhoo, after a day with Gareth we were able to go back with the group for the next two days and get a few kilometres in our legs. The whole group was very supportive and encouraging and by now, although I knew I still had a lot to learn I was pretty sure that I could make it round on race day, it just might take a while 🙂
On Friday the day before the race we went to the Lahti Ski Stadium where the expo was held. The ski stadium is fabulous with three huge ski jumps behind it – very impressive. At the expo we collected our race bibs and left our skis to be waxed. I also bought a jacket for race day, my gorgeous lululemon jacket, although trendy was apparently not quite right for a race, I needed to look the part – at least on the start line 🙂
I woke up very early and immediately checked the weather. It was -11C, that is cold and much colder than the temperatures we had been out in all week which had been nearer -1C. The group had had lots of discussions about how many layers we should wear. Hopefully my new jacket would keep me warm. I had a shower and some tea. I’d got all my kit ready the night before and my skis were at the stadium, I would pick them up just before the race started.
At 8.30am Alex and I walked the 30 minutes to the stadium. It was indeed cold and also snowing. The pavements were very icy and we took our time, didn’t want to fall before we had even started.
My lovely friends Minna and Olga who I know from my running forum were meeting me at the stadium. They had both driven for two hours to come and see me, I so appreciated it, and it was lovely to see familiar faces and have my own little cheer squad. A quick hug and chat and a few photos and it was time to get on the start line.
It was really something. Hundreds of skiers all in the tracks in the stadium ready to go. It was quite cold waiting for our wave to start but we only had to wait twenty minutes and my nervous energy helped keep me warm. I looked over to Minna and Olga and they were waving Union Jack Flags – perfect!
Three, two, one and we were off…straight up a steep hill. I was prepared for this as we had practised it, but it was very different trying to herringbone up hill with hundreds of skiers around you. My newly waxed skis were quite slippy too. At the top of this hill Minna and Olga were waiting and madly waving their flags and cheering. As I looked over at them a reporter ran over to me and said I’m going to take your photo….oh ok 🙂 He ran ahead of me and snapped away. Apparently Minna had given him a little interview about me and my 50 events …I made the morning paper. Hahahahah …some of you will know this is not the first time 🙂
The first 13km were mainly uphill, there was actually 1000m of climbing over the course, and to think I thought that cross country skiing was done on the flat lol! Actually the Finlandia is quite a technical course and one of the harder ones on the circuit. I didn’t know it at the time but this year was the best conditions they have had for about ten years – good snow and cold temperature.
A lot of this section was familiar as we had done it in training, including a very steep down hill which I successfully descended. Unfortunately at around 14km on another downhill I wasn’t so lucky and fell as I tried to negotiate a steepish bend. The snow had all piled up as a few thousand skiers had gone round it and my skill level wasn’t up to the job. I hurt my ankle in the fall and it was to hurt for the rest of the race. At no point did I feel it was bad enough to stop but towards the end when I was very tired it hurt to push and glide and I had to resort to double poling quite a bit – yay for strong arms.
The feed stations, there were five, were…interesting. They called your name as you came through which was fun. Paula Green from Great Britain…..Welcome! Lots of hot sweet drinks, bits of banana, bread and butter! and gherkins were on offer. I stuck to the drinks and the banana and I also had a chia bar broken up into pieces in my pocket. I was warned not bring chocolate as frozen chocolate is not too kind on the teeth.
After the second feed station it flattened out for a little while but it was still hard going as the snow had softened with the skiers going over it – probably better to be at the front I guess. I was also getting close to the furthest I had ever skied – 23km (and that was with a lunch break lol). But I knew that if I could get to 30km then mentally I would feel like I was almost there and just grit my teeth and get on with it. The last 10km were also over familiar ground which would help too.
Occasionally we would ski past houses in the woods and people were out with cowbells and cheering, a lovely boost. Although the tracks were much quieter by now (at the back of the pack) there were still plenty of skiers around to keep me company. The weather had also got much better, blue skies and sunshine, in fact the best weather of the week.
Despite my aching ankle I was happy throughout the race and so pleased I took the risk to attempt it. It was a “no pressure” race, taking part and doing my best was all that was required. The experience was enough.
At 39km the last feed station appeared and as well as the usual fare, beer was offered – hey, it was rude not too. Good Finnish beer I was told – I had a small cup and set off again and straight into my second fall of the day, maybe I shouldn’t have had the beer. The original distance of this race was 50km but it was shortened to 42km due to poor snow conditions in some areas. In the end my garmin said it was 44km but who knows? It was a long way and it took me 5.28.06. Two weeks ago I was worried about not finishing in eight hours so I was thrilled with this time.
Minna and Olga were waiting for me at the end – cheering and taking photos. It was a happy day and one that I will remember for a long time.
All my group finished and did some great times. There were only 18 Brits in the race and I think only four British women, so I was the fourth fastest British women ha ha! After the race I got my new World Loppet passport stamped – it has all the major ski marathon races in and now I have the passport I obviously want to get more stamps 🙂 So next year it may be Estonia or Iceland or Sweden or….. oh dear I think I’ve got the cross country skiing bug.