If turning circles around a skating rink leaves you feeling like a goldfish in a bowl, long-distance—or Nordic—skating is the sport for you. A pastime sprung from the icy lakes and rivers of northern Europe, long-distance skating is making its way to North America, thanks in part to Marathon Skating International, a Vermont-based skating group.
Jamie Hess, one of the group's founders (its name has been recently changed from the North American Marathon Skating Association) jumped into a Swedish race in 1999, and since then has been trying to introduce the sport to frozen waters across the pond
. "In Sweden, they love going long distances," he says. "The Dutch are totally into speed." The best-known marathon race, the Netherlands' Eleven Cities Tour (or Elfstedentocht), is a 125-mile skate where the winning times hover between six and seven hours. The race, which has been happening for nearly a century, is a spontaneous national holiday. Businesses close, riverside stands with treats like butter cookies and pea soup spring up, and everyone hits the ice.
Instead of the wool clothes and makeshift skates worn by the first participants, recreational competitors now don moisture-wicking duds and Swedish-made Nordic skates
, which snap into cross-country ski boots and boast wicked blades up to 21 inches long. The skates have curved tips to pop over bumps and even glide over small cracks in the ice, offering hours of uninterrupted motion. Nordic skaters can get the same distance training and high-speed buzz as cycling, but for around $300 for a pair of Nordic skates—a piddling amount when compared to your standard $1,000 road bikes. And skates can go where no two-wheeler can, even those with knobbies rigged for ice.
Forget cruising circles around the ice rink or your neighborhood pond, then, Nordic skating gets you into new territory. "When you're out on a body of frozen water, it's often a place you couldn't see any other way," Hess says. Skating groups hitting frozen spots like Lake Champlain
and the Connecticut River test the ice as they cruise along, armed with ice claws and ropes if someone falls through. But Hess and his group have never seen anyone break through the ice; in fact, his initial two-person club has now blossomed into a 400-member skating crew.
A few days after New Year's in 1997, Eleven Cities Tour chairman Henk Kroes uttered a skater's favorite phrase: "It giet oan
!" [Let the tour begin!]. Dutch skater Henk Angenent stuck close to the speedy lead pack of skaters, and six hours, 49 minutes, 18 seconds later (after a lung-busting final sprint) slid into victory in what's considered the sport's premier long-distance event. In 2004, he won the alternate Austrian 11-city tour (the event in the Netherlands hasn't been held since '97 due to poor ice conditions).
Angenent, 37, has been on the blades since the age of six, and while by now he's covered thousands of miles on the ice, he still lives in Woubrugge, the town where he was born.
Besides beating the pack on the ice outside, where he says he tries to think about his strategy for the final push, he's been busting records on the rink. In March 2004, he broke the world record for skating the longest distance in an hour, speeding across 41,669.79 meters (25.89 miles) in 60 minutes.
But skating is only a small part of his day-to-day labor. "I'm a farmer," he says, "milking and breeding cows." In between milkings, he trains for the ice on road and mountain bikes, inline skates, and by hitting indoor rinks. He's also an experienced rider, breeding horses and competing in dressage, an equestrian event.
All these sports are putting him in prime shape for the speed-skating world championships to be held in Germany in March 2005.
But one thing the rink can't bring: "The nature," he says. "You see places you've never seen before," he says.
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