By Teemu Virtanen
The longest and toughest ski race in the world, Red Bull Nordenskiöldsloppet, took place this weekend in extremely challenging conditions as a stormy headwind greeted the skiers on their way to the turning point, and gusty winds blew powder snow on icy tracks making the race very slow. The race has been organized five times; once in 1884 and four times since 2016. This year, almost 450 skiers registered for the 220 km long event.
The race was won by Andreas Nygaard, Team Ragde Eiendom, who managed to get his third consecutive victory, and his teammate Øyvind Moen Fjeld was again on the podium right after the winner – he has three second places and one third place. The first-timer Vegard Vinje, Lyn Ski Moseteråsen, was third about 11 minutes behind the Ragde Eiendom skiers. Petter Eliassen, who also participated for the first time, admitted that the race was extremely tough, and he was fourth about 19 minutes behind the winner.
Nygaard said that this year’s race differed from the other two he has done because the decisive attack happened quite early and hence the speed was much higher than before. Fjeld and Hans Mäenpää, Team Mäenpää, broke away from the lead group after about 55 km of skiing, and at that time many favorites, including Eliassen and Bruno Debertolis, were quite far behind in the huge pack of skiers. After the attack, the pace remained fast to the end, and Nygaard’s winning time was 11:49:09.
“This year was very nice, although it would have been nicer if the snow had stayed away the night before the competition,” Fjeld acknowledged after the race. “Of the four Nordenskiöldsloppets I have done the conditions were similar to 2017, a lot better than in 2018 and a bit slower than in 2016. I am impressed that the organizers were able to make adjustments to the race due to the warm weather in the days prior to the event and still keep (approximately) the same distance and tracks that were very good despite the icy lakes and some parts with very little snow.”
The race was a pleasant but quite taxing experience for Vinje who said that the first 50 km were really easy and nice skiing, but after that it became a mental challenge.
“After the turning point, Andreas and Øyvind broke away from me, leaving me alone for the last 100 km. At that point it became a mental battle to keep going for about five hours knowing that Petter Eliassen was chasing from behind. I have added quite a few sessions up to 7-8 hours in my training program, but the four extra hours were really though! I was hoping the pace to be low for a bit longer than 50 km, but I guess the fact that I’ve had these long sessions made me able to keep it going all the way to the finish with a decent pace. “
Eliassen, who certainly is used to going with all guns blazing from the start in almost every race he does, said that this event was something completely unique and out of his comfort zone.
“It was cool to get something new. Right after the race I was really tired and didn’t know if I had it in me to try this again. But the day after I had a great feeling of doing this long race and it made me really motivated for new challenges.”
All four skiers praised the organizers for creating a special feeling for the race. For Nygaard, the race always comes with an “epic atmosphere” and for Fjeld, it has become one of his favorite races.
“The early start, racing through a whole day from dusk to dawn are the key factors in making this race so special,” Fjeld pondered. “And most importantly, it is a challenge just to finish the race due to the extreme length. In races like Birken, Marcialonga and Vasaloppet getting a good position or time becomes much more important for 95 % of the starters as in this one it’s more about survival.”
“You could feel that this was something else,” Eliassen commented about the race. “Just being part of it and just to finish makes you a part of something bigger, maybe it’s the ultimate passion for long distance skiing that we share. And all the cheering from not just the crowd at the feeding stations but also when we turned halfway going back and met the skiers behind and passed them and all of them were just cheering for each other. That’s something I’ve never experienced before.”
Naturally, these skiers are now weighing up their odds regarding sufficient recovery from this extreme challenge. Reistadløpet comes next Saturday followed by Ylläs-Levi a week later, which means that there may not be enough time to be fully recoverd. Vinje will skip Reistadløpet, but he will have another 120 km race in Norway next weekend, but he feels confident that his shape will remain strong and he is ready for the final race in Finland.
“I think Reistadløpet can be a little tricky,” Nygaard admitted when asked about his chances next Saturday. “My body might be really good, but then again it can also be quite bad. But Levi will be no problem.”
“I am not sure how my body will recover,” Fjeld continued his teammate’s train of thought. “But I hope and believe it is possible to do a good race already next weekend. The most important thing is to avoid injuries and sickness. Then it is up to the body to recover. For sure, there won’t be many hard training sessions before Saturday.”
Eliassen seemed on the same page as Fjeld by saying he hopes he will be able to recover, but he is not quite sure about it.
“But I will take it easy this week with only easy workouts and hope for the best!”
It remains to be seen if these warriors can recover in time to perform well on the hardest course of the Visma Ski Classics tour and end the season on a high note in the Finnish Lapland. But regardless of their outcome in these two races, they have shown the world of long distance skiing that the passion rules the game and that passion is why all of us are willing push the envelope