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LP speed skating season wraps up at oval

Skaters gather at the end of the weekend after competing in marathon races at the oval in Lake Placid. Christie Sausa photo

LAKE PLACID — When thinking of speed skating, one often pictures pairs of skaters in aerodynamic skin suits flying around a 400-meter long track, racing against the clock, or careening around a hockey rink jockeying for position as in short track. But there is another lesser-known discipline of speed skating that lives on in Lake Placid annually — marathon speed skating.

The last meet of the season celebrated this type of skating with the Lake Placid Ice Marathon Finale March 7-8.

Although it’s not as well-known in the United States, marathon speed skating remains extremely popular in Europe. The Elfstedentocht or “11 cities tour”, is such a beloved tradition in Holland that when the canals did not freeze, Austria began hosting an “alternative” version of the event annually.

In North America, the sport is smaller, but the groups of skaters that participate are extremely close-knit and devoted to “marathoning,” often attending a series of races in the United States and Canada. In Milwaukee, the US Speedskating National Marathon and World Open Marathon are hosted annually, allowing athletes to race in the 25k and 50k distances.

For those that prefer to skate outdoors on natural ice, Skate the Lake in Portland, Ontario, Canada is known for its sometimes rugged and challenging conditions. But Lake Placid holds its own as a marathon skating destination, with two marathons bookending several metric meets throughout the season if weather permits.

The weekend started with the 10k (25 laps) and 21k (56 laps) occurring simultaneously on Saturday, March 7, while the 42k (108 laps) took place on Sunday, March 8; skaters could race the 10k, 21k, or 42k races, or all three.

Marathons are unique in speed skating, as the skaters work together, skating in “packs” as in cycling, lining up one after the other to “draft” off of each other and preserve efficiency. While some do want to “win,” it is friendly competitiveness, and the emphasis often appears to be on camaraderie and love of sport rather than beating one’s opponents. Marathon veteran Guylaine Larouche of Canada, who was the overall ladies winner competing in all three distances, enjoys the marathon here for that reason.

“Whenever I go to Lake Placid to skate the marathons, I find the camaraderie and the sportsmanship of the participants. You can feel the atmosphere of this small and friendly Olympic village,” she said. “The competition takes place without pressure and everyone is delighted with the successes of the others.”

Marathon skating includes all ages and abilities as well, although most competitors are over 40. Several competitors in their 70s participated, and the youngest skater was 14-year-old Ben Reyner, a long track skater who trains part time in Lake Placid and entered the 42k. Mary Lou DiNicola, who has been skating in Lake Placid since age 11, was the lone woman in the 70-79 age category in the 21k. Also in their 70s, brothers Fernand and Marc Caron of Canada competed in all three distances.

As is the case for most of the meets, the majority of the participants are from elsewhere, either in the tri-state area or from Canada, and must commute to skate in Lake Placid. For Canadian skater Jake Maarse, a marathon skating legend originally from the Netherlands, that is part of the experience.

“From driving through the St Lawrence Valley to the bridge at Ogdensburg over the mighty river, through the farm country near Canton, meeting a horse and buggy at 5:30 in the morning, driving the curvy roads towards the entrance of Adirondack park, seeing the incredible forest covered in snow, the increase of hills to higher mountains, looking at the frozen lakes in the valleys, (the trip) to the Lake Placid speed skating oval is a great experience again and again.”

Maarse is well known in the marathon skating community, coming back to the sport in 2001 after approximately 25 years of absence after coming from The Netherlands. In 2001-03, he was the only skater competing in all three distances at the Lake Placid marathons. To celebrate this, the “Jake Maarse award” was created, to be presented to a skater who personified the marathon spirit and also skated all distances.

For more information on Lake Placid Speed Skating, including results from the meets, visit www.lakeplacidspeed.com.