Monday, March 7, 2011

How to survive Vasaloppet


Yesterday I participated in the oldest cross country ski race in the world, Vasaloppet. Not only is the oldest, it is also one of the longest too! In case you have never heard of it, go here and read the wikipedia entry.
If you are reading this entry, it is probably because you have already heard of this race and are wondering how to make sure you get to the finish line in one piece and by your own means (not because the doctors took you there!). In order to explain to you how to survive it, I have to walk you through the race so that is what I'll do in the next paragraphs.
Vasaloppet is a 90 kilometers long race, so the first thing to take into consideration is the fact that you will be passing through different landscapes, different temperatures and different types of snow.
It is also worth noting that despite all the myths about Vasaloppet being just a "flat" race, there are considerable height differences in the course, and believe me after 50 or more kilometers, even the slightest uphill becomes a challenge.
I'll split the race according to the drink stations, because it is very nice to know what comes next when you are stopping for a drink and a small snack.
The first stretch is from the start in Sälen to Smågang. It is about 11 kilometers long and it is known because right after the start (about two kilometers from the start line) you will find "the hill". It is not particularly steep but it is not very wide and there are huge waiting lines to get to the top. After reaching the highest point, one goes a little bit down and after that it is mostly flat until Smågang.
The next stretch is about 13 kilometers long and goes from Smågang to Mångsbodarna. This one is mostly flat with a slight uphill that stretches for a long while. It is possible to double pole most of the time, however be aware that you should not be using too much energy here. This is the stretch (together with the first one) where you can see who is a novice and who has done this before. Let people pass you, this is a 90 kilometers long race, there is no point in trying to go fast now just to run out of juice in 30 kilometers.
Once you have reached Mångsbodarna, the next stop is Risberg, again about 11 kilometers. This stretch is tricky. There is a lot of uphill, even if it is not very steep. Again, it is possible to double pole or at least to kick and glide most of the time, however it is wise to do some diagonal strides from time to time. There is plenty of race still ahead!
From Risberg to Evertsberg is about 13 kilometers. This one is also tricky. It is mostly flat, with a slight uphill that stretches a long while. It is possible to double pole it, although saving energy here it is a good idea.
Now you are in Evertsberg. It is time to congratulate yourself! You have passed the middle point and from this point on is mostly down hill. From this station to Oxberg is about 15 kilometers. Mostly down hill or flat, however be advised that about 2-3 kilometers before Oxberg there is an uphill. This one is not super steep but it is demanding. Be mentally prepared because here is where you can pass all those who passed you in the first two stretches and now are running out of juice! Right before Oxberg there is a 180 degrees turn, be aware that many are really tired and do not handle that turn really well so be prepared to avoid "falling corpses".
Oxberg to Hökberg is a nice stretch, about 9 kilometers. There is a lot of down hill (not very steep) and this stretch is really nice to double pole. There are a few ups but nothing very demanding, although remember that at this point you have gone about 50 kilometers so anything that goes up becomes really demanding. It is a good practice to go fish bone in some uphills, specially the short ones since you will save energy and probably the tracks are already destroyed by this time.
Hökberg to Eldris begins really nice with a nice down hill. This stretch is also about 9 kilometers long. Here you will go through the forest and some slight uphills. Again, nothing to be scared of.
Finally the last stretch, Eldris to Mora. 9 kilometers of mostly flat terrain. There are some minimal downhills and uphills but this stretch is basically flat. If you still have energy, this is perfect for double poling. Be aware that the final kilometer is divided in two parts, right before reaching the church in Mora there will be a small uphill that crosses a road and right after you go down. You need to go up again and there you are, ready for the final 500 meters of Vasaloppet. Somehow magically, everybody is able to double pole that stretch. Be aware that you will not see the famous sign until you are about 200 meters away from the goal.
Some advices:
- Remember that Vasaloppet is a 90 kilometers long race. There is no point in sprinting to Smågang if you are going to run out of juice.
- For ski preparation you need to concentrate in having a good glide for the most of the race. Since the slope stretches 90 kilometers, expect that you will have some parts with very good glide and some with not so good glide.
- Despite all the myths about people not using gripping wax in Vasaloppet, unless you are extremely fit, you are going to need it. Again, use a wax that will work well most of the time. If possible use a racing wax, like the VR series of Swix because they have an extended temperature range and they will not let you down that easily.
- Be aware that the tracks become dirty with tree leaves, sport drink bottles, sport gels and all sorts of stuff. If possible, try to lift your skis when the tracks are too dirty or when there is something plastic on it (like a used sports gel), because it might damage your skis or it might make you loose grip.
- If you are not sure about your downhill abilities, then Vasaloppet is not for you. Races as long as Vasaloppet are not meant for people that need to be snow plugging when going down hill. You need to save the energy for better things, and besides, using that speed to go as far as you can just by gliding in your skis makes a world of difference!
- There are few things that are more annoying than a slow person in the fast lanes. Try to avoid using the left lane. For the most part, there are 6 to 8 tracks, so use them! The left lane is just for passing people.
- Even if you are a super athlete you still need to drink and eat during Vasaloppet. I personally spend about 2 to 3 minutes in each station. I drink two glasses of sports drink (blueberry soup if it is too cold) and one bread. That gives me enough energy to go from one station to the next one.
- Be nice to people on the slopes. The majority of us do this because it is fun, not to break the record. If you see somebody in need of help, do help him or her. If you want to pass somebody, just go on the left side and do it. If somebody wants to pass you, just move to the track to your right. There is no need to start yelling at people!
- Since there are so many participants, the level varies a lot. There are a lot of experienced skiers and a lot of unexperienced ones in Vasaloppet. Be prepared to jump to the track next to you if somebody falls right in front of you. This year out of the blue a ski came right in front of me and I was lucky that I reacted without thinking, otherwise I might have been seriously injured. When I say a ski, I really mean it. Somebody lost his/her ski and it went from the right side of the slope to the left side without an owner!
- Take care of your poles! Going Vasaloppet is like going in a pole graveryard. You will see lots of broken poles along the way. The most common cause of broken poles is people stepping into your poles, so instead of trying to cover a large area with your poles, keep them close to you, specially in the uphills!

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