3:45am (-4:15) Alarm goes off. I am already awake. The whole hostel is stirring. Bara, Martin and I are sharing it with a busload of skiers from Vårgårda, and everyone is too nervous to sleep. I eat breakfast (a huge bowl of oatmeal and a few sandwiches) and get everything ready. Clothes: wind briefs, tights (with a quick duct-tape repair job), two pairs of socks, polypro, USA o-top, Linné jacket, Kat's red hat, my brand-new LillSport gloves, tape on toes and thumbs. Supplies: refreshment belt, water bottle filled with hot (for now) sports drink, 7 GUs, 1 kex, 1 Corny bar, 1 Enervit bar, 1 Geisha (!!), 3 Enervit tablets, 1 Swix VR 60 wax, 1 cork, thin roll of Leukotape.
5:00am (-3:00) Skis and boots are packed, as is the change of clothes that I'll send to the finish. We get in the car and drive to Sälen. In the car, I realize I am nervous. I also realize that I've missed the feeling of being nervous before a race - that I've missed having races I care about.
5:45am (-2:15) Bara drops us off, and we each head towards the queue to get into our start waves, wave 6 for me, wave 2 for Martin. The scene is ridiculous. Everything is still dark, and thousands of people are forming long, winding lines outside the gates for their start waves. Everyone is standing there holding their skis and poles like weapons, preparing for a massive bloody battle, silently awaiting their fate and praying to their private gods that they protect them from cramping and their poles from being stepped on in the start melee.
6:00am (-2:00) Put my skis down in wave 6, eight rows back of the front of the wave, in the 13th track from the right (of 60 or so total.) Try very hard to remember where I put down the skis so I can find them again. Then: bathroom, event center to get warm and repack everything I need.
7:00am (-1:00) I go back out into the cold. The sun is up now, and everything is starting to look like there will actually be a ski race here soon. I drop off my bag at one of the massive color-coded trucks preparing to take thousands of bags to Mora. Eat one last banana and a few bites of chocolate and then get into the start field.
7:45am (-0:15) Some brave ladies from Friskis & Svettis up on podiums throughout the field are leading a warm-up session. I am just standing around and soaking in the atmosphere. People and skis everywhere, in every direction. Simply incredible! Just then, the sun comes up over the top of the hill to my right and everything just lights up.
8:00am (0:00) The announcer was talking up to the very last moment, presumably to lulls us into a false sense of complacency and prevent chaos from breaking out at the start. This, of course, failed. At 8:00am, the announcer suddenly said "Vasaloppet 2011 has now started." I am sure that at the front of the pack, this meant immediate sprinting and scrambling for position. Back in wave 6, this meant that we simply kept standing like we had been before the start. After 1 minute, we moved. The pace was glacial. After every two or three double-poles, I had to brake hard to avoid ramming into the person in front of me. Clearly, some people did not manage this, as throughout the start field I had to avoid massive pile-ups of people, with tangled limbs, skis, and poles everywhere. Crossing the road and coming up to the bottom of the hill, I remembered TyrTom's advice about being patient here and watching out for my poles. At the bottom of the hill, progress ground to a halt. I looked around and memorized a couple of bib numbers, to see how I would move up the hill compared to their owners. Mostly, we moved up at a shuffle. Whenever a bit of snow opened up in front of me, I moved up and then stopped immediately, trying to keep my poles as close to me as possible, while holding on hard to avoid sliding back down the hill. Usually, I could not see any snow in front of me, just skis. Very gradually, this mass of people made its way up, occasionally passing fragments of poles lying in the snow and avoiding people who tripped over someone's skis and were now helplessly flailing in an attempt to get back up.
8:34am (+0:34) As we walked past the 3km mark (also the highest point in the course), I looked at my watch. 34 minutes had gone by. I should note that sometime between getting into the car in the morning and actually starting, my mental approach to Vasaloppet changed from one of surviving an adventure to one of racing as well as I can. This was partly brought on by the comments made the night before by one of my clubmates, who suggested that the goals I set for myself were an overestimation of my ability. Nothing works better to motivate me than others' low expectations! And so, when we crested the hill, and a little bit of space opened up in the tracks, I was in racing mode.
8:58am (+0:58) The first few kilometers flew by. The going was easy, and I was pretty much always out of the tracks, double poling past people and annoying them by hitting their poles with mine in the process. It seemed like everyone around me was going too slowly, and I was desperate to get ahead, to a point where I had some space to ski in. I decided that I would aim for 45 minutes per 10km, and was dismayed when the first 10km mark was reached in 58 minutes. Soon after, I passed the first food stop, Smågan, but did not stop to eat or drink anything.
9:44am (+1:44) The second section of the course was much like the first, quite flat and rolling along through wide open marshes and bits of forest. All along the tracks there were clumps of people cheering, some snowmobiles going along with the racers and filling our nostrils with the smell of gasoline, and skiers, skiers, skiers. Between Smågan and Mångsbodarna I passed 500 people and was happy to see that my second 10km took just under 36 minutes.
10:21am (+2:21) The section between Mångsbodarna and Risberg featured some downhills, and I realized that my skis were great. I was gliding past people with ease and feeling really good. Over and over in my mind, I thanked Martin for helping me wax! Looking at my watch at the 30km, I realized that the last 10km took just under 30 minutes, and I was well caught up to my 4.5 min/km plan. Soon after that came the first real climb of the course, a long, but not very steep, slog up to Risberg. My kick was fine, but it was impossible to get a good rhythm, as the tracks were full of people skiing slower than me. I kept going in and out of the tracks, running up the hill, taking a few strides in the tracks, then jumping outside again, and passing, passing, passing. To Risberg I picked up another 400 places. Getting to the aid station here, I realized that I'd been skiing for over two hours without having eaten anything, so I had one of my bars here, along with a Gu and some water.
11:12am (+3:12) Risberg to Evertsberg felt tough. A lot of ups and downs, still lots of people around, still mostly going slower than I wanted to. The difference was that now it started taking me longer to pass them. For one thing, they were moving faster than those I had passed earlier. For another, I was starting to get tired, so it was always easier to ski behind them for a bit rather than make the effort to get around them. I gained 270 places here, but it felt very hard mentally. I started counting down kilometers to important events: round numbers so I could look at my watch (it took a bit over 40 minutes to ski my fourth 10km) and the next aid station. At Evertsberg, which is located at the 48km mark of the course, I stopped for another Gu and some sports drink, and realized that I had skied more than I had ever done in a single session. And I had a full marathon left to go.
12:05pm (+4:05) The most merciful thing about the Vasaloppet course is the downhill that comes right after Evertsberg. Just when you are distraught over having an entire marathon left after three hours of skiing, here comes the nice long rolling downhill that goes for 7km. Here I had my fastest km of the whole race: 2:18!, and the stretch 50-60 went by in a healthy 35 minutes. I also noticed that after tucking for several minutes in a row, my quads began cramping. Oops. I tried shaking them out with my hands a bit, which led to me stabbing one of the people I was passing with my pole. Luckily, I was by him too quickly before he could get revenge. Oxberg came soon, and I broke out the Geisha chocolates here, the prized snack I'd been saving to cheer myself up. I managed to climb another 200 places to Oxberg, but the rate of gaining was clearly slowing.
12:46pm (+4:46) Before the race, I told myself that if I made it to Oxberg, then I would definitely be able to will myself the final 28km to the finish. Well, it seems like this is where the race really began. The part to Hökberg is mostly rolling, with a couple of longish, steep hills along the way. These hills were obviously draining me and everyone else around me. I still had pretty good kick, but was also very tired. As long as I had an empty track in front of me, I could keep up a good pace striding up, but as soon as I had to get out of the tracks to pass someone, I lost momentum and had to force myself to keep going again. With some relief, I saw a number of people stopping on the side of the tracks to rewax, and I was glad I didn't have to do that myself. I was also glad not to have to follow the unfortunate few who walked off the tracks into the deep snow for a pee break. During the part to Hökberg, I began noticing more and more the aid stations prepared by different clubs, towns, or regions of Sweden for their clubmates and friends who were racing. There would usually be a flat area of roughly 5x5 meters dug out in the snow, with pine branches thrown inside for better traction. Inside, on folding chairs, would typically sit a few older, larger gentlemen holding beers and grilling hot dogs, while a few older ladies would stir the giant cauldrons of blueberry soup and coffee and heat up homemade kanelbullar. Whenever one of their racers would come by, they would be greeted with great cheers, jokes, pats on the back and, of course, nourishment! The sheer number of these private aid stations made the race a lot more fun and a lot less lonely, and more than once I had the temptation to stop and ask for some of their kanelbullar. I got through km 60-70 in 41 minutes, and only gained 90 more places to Hökberg.
13:29 (+5:29) Eldris is the last aid station before Mora, and from there it is just 9km left to the finish. On the way from Hökberg to Eldris, however, the kilometers seemed to be getting longer and longer. Here, every tiny uphill seemed like a wall, and many of the hills had very soft, chewed up snow which reduced me and the others to energy-sapping herringboning. Psychologically, this was also tough, as part of the course here goes along a straight powerline, where you can see all the ups and downs for 2-3km in front of you. Besides the pain in my left shin, which had been present since step one and had gradually been getting worse until reaching a certain plateau, I was now getting very sharp pain in my elbows. This is something I'd experienced when skiing before, and knew that it could rapidly become too painful very quickly. Luckily, it only became too painful when I had to run up the steepest bits, and that was usually over in a few seconds so I could cope. My back was also unsurprisingly becoming sore, but never actually cramping up, so I could just keep on double-poling. The 10km from 70 to 80 was my slowest (44 minutes), and I picked up just 56 more places.
14:07 (+6:07) The last few kilometers before entering Mora were excruciatingly long. At this point, you see people in all sorts of states of exhaustion, from those who suddenly decide to start sprinting with 7km to go and whom you pass again a km later, to those who are shuffling along on the rightmost side of the tracks, just trying to get themselves across the finish line. Around every bend for the first few km I kept hoping for the next kilometer marker, and they seemed to never come. At some point there was a mini-aid station, where a saintly volunteer shoved a sugar tablet into my mouth. Very small things crushed my spirits, such as tiny, but seemingly unsurmountable, hills, and very small things lifted them, too, such as the sugar tablet, or some random spectator yelling "Go Linne" as I passed by. Instead of looking at the clock every 10km, I was now checking the time after every 2km, just to give myself something to look forward to. With a few km left, I realized that I had a shot at my "diamond goal" - the 6:07:14 that Dan Hörnell bragged about a year ago. Past the "4km to go" sign, I started trying to push myself, double poling as hard as I could, finally seeing the Mora church steeple and hearing the crowds from the finish line. The final 10km went by in 41 minutes, and I picked up 34 more places before "sprinting" across the finish line in 6:07:15, exactly 1 second slower than my Diamond Goal.
Here is me crossing the finish line, all the way on the ride side of the tracks in the red hat and jacket, at 07:17 into the clip: http://svtplay.se/v/2348432/vasaloppet/14_00-15_00
After the race, everything went with flawless Swedish organization. We get a drink, then get escorted to the ski drop-off, where you get a ticket sort of like at a coat check. Then onto the bus to the local school (two Russians got on the bus right behind me and started cursing up a storm - at least every second word must have been a curse word), where a race worker comes over bringing my bag and warm clothes. Then, a quick hot shower (after a long struggle to undress - my back was pretty stiff at this point!), a plate of beef stew, and a long, sleepy ride home with Tomas and Johan.
My results: http://www.resultat.vasaloppet.se/vasa/result?oid=...
Vasaloppet was an amazing experience for me, both as an awesome event that I loved being a part of, and as a race where I had to push myself really hard mentally and physically. It was also made much more fun by having Bara and Martin there to help with virtually everything before the race, and to have Tomas and the other Linne guys to trade war stories with afterwards.
Sign up for Vasaloppet 2012 opened this week. I think I will go buy a start place.
Oh, and here is the start video, worth watching for sure (actual starts at about 30:00 into the clip): http://svtplay.se/v/2348453/vasaloppet/vasaloppet_...