Attracting more than 17,000 to its mass start, the oldest, longest (90 k) and biggest cross-country ski race in the world is the Vassaloppet between the villages of Salen and Mora, Sweden. The race was first held in 1992 and inspired by a run by King Gustav Vassa in 1520. In the United States, the largest cross-country ski race is the Birkebeiner, a 54K course between Cable and Hayward, WI now in its 40th year attracting over 9,000 to its mass start.
While not attracting nearly as many as its more famous counterparts, the Lake Placid Loppet (50 and 25k) is considered one of the toughest marathon ski races in the North America. On Saturday, more than 360 classic and freestyle cross-country skiers came to Mt, Van Hoevenberg for the 31st running of the Loppet at the venue where 1980 Winter Olympic races were held. While most came from New York, Vermont, Quebec and Ontario, a few entered the race from as far away as South Carolina and Minnesota, and one from Victoria, Australia.
The sport of marathon ski racing has changed quite a bit since I raced as a teenager for Northwood School. First and foremost is the equipment as I raced on wooden Bonnas while today many use a fiberglass or carbon fiber ski. Second is that the sport is divided into two divisions, the classic ski racers and those who use the shorter skate skis. Another is the energy drinks and food provided, today notably Gatorade and energy gels, while when I raced is was Blabarsoppa, a warm sweetened blueberry Swedish soup that included a dash of lemon and cinnamon, and hit of sherry, a mixture that when gulped mid-course left a purple streak down one's chest at race end, a stain that vexed my mother to no end.
The start of the Loppet Race
The biggest backfire, from the standpoint of those on the opposing team who handed them out, was oatmeal and raisin cookies given to my fellow teammates and me when we attended a race at Putney School in the 60's. These cookies we later learned contained Ex-Lax by some mischievous competitor attempting to derail our potential, yet unwittingly inspiring us to race all the faster setting times by even our normally slowest skier that stunned our coaches not to mention our continuing through the finishing line nonstop on through school doors and down the hall to the bathrooms skis still attached to our feet. While we won, it is not an energy bar I would recommend to anyone.
The Lake Placid Loppet opened with temperatures hovering at about minus-8 and hard packed snow that had taken a huge beating as a result of the recent thaw. Temperatures were expected to rise a bit so waxing and proper clothing was going to be as critical as one's training and technique.
"I have done the Loppet at least 25 times," said Peter Minde of Dover, NJ. "I have lost count. There is no reason that this race is not as big as the American Birkebeiner. I like the fact that it is where the gods of X-C raced back in 1980. This course has so much tradition about it. It remains one of the hardest to do each year. I like that it is a tough course. There is something magical about going through these woods."
"I've skied here before, but never the Loppet," said Bill Prescott, a student at St. Lawrence University. "I've never done a ski marathon before and thought I would take advantage of the Mt. Van Hoevenberg course."
"It is one of the most exciting days of the year from my standpoint," said Rebecca Dayton, venue marketing manager. "It is exciting to see so many people who have been coming again and again for 30 years. We have about 75 volunteers and kids from North Country School and Troop 10 Boy Scouts staffing all the AID Stations. Obviously the weather has been a challenge. A couple weeks ago we had great snow, then it thawed, so our crew has been doing a lot of shoveling to get the course in the best shape it can possibly be."
"I have been volunteering for 20 years," said Donald Ream. "I love immersing myself in the culture of the race. The race can be as challenging or as relaxing as you want it to be it all depends on how you approach it."
"This will be my first time in the Loppet," said Caroline Dodd, 15, of Saranac Lake readying for the 25k classic. "I'm excited. I have been skiing since I was two. I like that you can enjoy the scenery around you as you ski. I am a member of the Saranac Lake Ski Team. It is great to have others racing with you and cheering you on."
"I put on ten layers of wax on top of a base layer," said a past winner Louis Helbig. "It has to last 50k. I need so many layers so I will not lose my grip."
"It is nice having a goal," said Dick Erenstone who has raced all but one Loppet. "It is the training that is important. The crew has done a fabulous job getting the course ready. There is not a lot of snow out there and it is in excellent shape."
Later at race end I caught up with the 25k classic winner James Coulton of Montreal who appeared ready to go another 25. "The course was good and well tracked," he said. "You could not ask for better conditions. It was very challenging. You could tell it was designed for Olympic caliber skiers. It was a little cold but you just have to dress for the conditions. This was my first race of the season. I loved the band playing at the start. They were quite something."
Anna Crawford, from Lake George but skiing for Carlton University in Ottawa with roommate Adele Lay, took first and second in the 25k women classic. "We skied the whole race together," said Anna. "I knew the course. I grew up skiing here. It was superb."
"I was pleased that I could make it around the same course as the Olympians," said Adele.
"A few times I stopped and looked around because it was so pretty," said Caroline Dodd after finishing. "Then I thought, 'What am I doing? I am in a race.' I liked the Aid Stations, everyone was so helpful."
"I am glad I am not going around the course another time," said Steve Short at the end of the 25k.
"It was a great day," said Karen Delaney. "What a treat to be fed and cheered along the way. The volunteers were great. They made all the difference."