Visma Ski Classics – Aukland wants longer races in the VSC, but including both marathon and ultra-distances is the way to go

Mountain biker versus roadie. Fly fisherman versus Alaskan deep sea. Soccer and futsal. Trail runner versus road runner. 

Loppet ski racer versus long-distance ski racer? 

Which camp are you in?

In a niche sport like cross country skiing, the last thing we need is to pigeonhole our devoted followers even further through unnecessary divisions, but a recent Orsa2Levi podcast has me wondering if this is where Visma Ski Classics is headed.

The two camps in running consist of ‘real runners’ – those engaged in 13.1/26.2 distances, and ‘trail/ultra’ runners – those who shuffle over boulders and mountain-goat (a verb I just came up with) their camelbacks from dawn to the next dawn…and sometimes the next dawn. Structured intervals, elongated, elegant strides, and high speeds on smooth, unencumbered flat roads characterizes the former, and enduring a myriad of weather conditions at 13,000 feet, on trails, sometimes with – heaven forbid – poles – at – heaven forbid – whatever pace is suitable – characterizes the latter. To lump them together is to tell the “A River Runs Through it” fly-fisherman he is no different than the millennial down rigging for trout in Lake Superior. And if my father-in-law is on this page currently, I know at least one person reading this understands the preposterousness I’m alluding to.

Speaking of making it to my page – if that is you, the chances of you having listened to the recent interview between Teemu Virtanen and the ageless wonder, Anders Aukland, are at least decent. When asked about the inclusion of 100k races such as Arefjallsloppet to the Visma Ski Classics, the Norwegian Ponce de Leon, who must have dunked his water belt into the fountain of youth before effortlessly coasting through 700k of skiing – in one shot – this spring (at age 48), said:

“You have everything. You have the long distance, that people get tired, you can get the break away and you also get the skiing (over) great nature, over mountains, over lakes. It’s a fantastic type of long distance skiing. I think it’s important for long distance skiing and the Visma Ski Classics to separate from the ordinary World Cup, and that you do with spectacular courses and (races) longer than 50k.”

 

Let’s quickly remind ourselves what is great about the Visma Ski Classics right now: 

  1. Willingness to try things – they are pushing the boundaries in prize money, scheduling, marketing, TV presentation, etc. The creation of the Grand Classics is a perfect example – and it’s an awesome idea. It’s pro golf and tennis meets the Tour de France meets the Dirty Kanza. 
  2. Pros against Joesyou, a mere mortal, can line up with the big guns at the races. Yes, sir. 
  3. Excitement around long distance skiing – Visma Ski Classics has garnered the attention of former World Cup greats in Marit Bjorgen and Martin Johnsrud Sundby. The energy is real. I predict the avenue for worldwide attention in the sport will be through the VSC, not the World Cup or Olympics.

As a skier more likely to emerge victorious if I can rely on stamina over straightaway sprint speed, the idea of the VSC becoming the home for ultra-skiing, separating from the traditional World Cup or even, as Aukland states, the standard 50k distance of citizen marathon/loppet races, has a certain appeal. What fails to resonate in the chambers of my nordic soul, however, is the idea of cross country skiing becoming like the aforementioned endurance sports, thick with vitriolic strife between two strictly unassociated camps. 

Unlike running and biking, where distinction has bred division, I believe the Visma Ski Classics can embrace both models – 50k’s and ultra-long distances – in order to enhance their brand, engage their audience, participants, and athletes, and ultimately, further the sport in general. 

Here’s how:

Keep the 50k’s, but include only Grand Classics in the Pro Tour.

This will maintain prestige for the Marcialonga, Birkebeinerrennet, Vasaloppet and Jizerska while freeing up calendar space and athlete energy for some new, longer tours. It also retains perhaps the best feature of Visma Ski Classics: Pros versus Joes. I can still take down Tord Asle Gjerdalen in Sweden, as long as I find a plane ticket and a babysitter.

Hearken back to skiing’s roots as you incorporate new ultra events.

The Norwegian concept of idraet, as noted in E. John B. Allen’s From Skisport to Skiing, can be summarized as, “outdoor exercise that could develop the physical and moral strength of nations.” The general public might assume Scandinavia is the birthplace of skiing, but Russia’s historic claims to its origins arguably carry more factual weight. In addition to archaeological records from the Altai region, planks found in the Vis excavations in the bogs north of Syktyvkar, dating back to approximately 6,000 B.C., are perhaps the oldest in the world. Even Fridtjof Nansen, the expeditionary hero credited with introducing skiing to the modern world, believed skiing spread from somewhere deep within Russian territory (William D. Frank, Everyone to Skis, pg. 7).

In both nations, the “conflation of peasant roots joined with a mythical past to connotations of nationhood” (Frank, Everyone to Skis) form the bedrock for the sport being woven into the cultural fabric. Russia in particular, however, needs to be given its rightful place in the modern day marathon scene.  Marathon skiing is the “quintessential example of socialist realist sport” (Frank, Everyone to Skis) – by Soviet historian’s own admonitions –  given the interwoven existence of stoic endurance, capacity to persevere in extreme conditions, and harshness inherently present in skiing and poignantly symbolic in the proletariat class. More significantly, the earliest ultra races were in Russia!

In January of 1925, the High Soviet of Physical Culture (VSFK) organized a 705-kilometer, multi-day relay event for military units, collectives, and sport organizations, traversing from Leningrad to Moscow in 45-80k sections. The VSFK also put on an 86-day, 10,000-kilometer relay from Khabarovsk to Moscow in 1929-1930, an event which attracted 3,000 participants. This type of mass participation was not abnormal, as evidenced by the 1936 tour from Nizhny Novgorod to Moscow, a 437-kilometer even which saw 60,000 participants strap on the skinny skis – er, wood planks.

That’s a lot of history, but no real clarity in application to the Visma Ski Classics. Here’s one way:

have the ultra ski races come in two forms – mini-grand tours and epic single day excursions.

A mini-grand tour would bring the flavor of the Tour de France or Giro d’italia to VSC, and could be integrated in a trans-Siberian week long stage race or a Pisten Bulley-enhanced re-enactment of Nansen’s historic 1888 crossing of Greenland. History meets racing, with some help from technology.

What about a single day 100k or 100 miler? ….My last suggestion:

Use the Ultras as an excuse to come to North America.

Let’s face it, prestige in loppet racing exists in Europe and Russia. Period. I don’t blame VSC teams for avoiding the exorbitant costs of flights to Wisconsin for a single 50k possessing half (and I’m being generous) as prestigious as any number of local weekly loppets which occur, sometimes literally, in their backyard. If North America wants to get their foot in the door, they might need some cowboy boots to do it. The wild west of skiing might just be the creation of ultra-distance races and multi-day stage tours. The Leadville 100, Western States, Dirty Kanza, and similar events have become staple international events for runners and cyclists, and they can form the playbook for how to do it with wax, bindings, poles, and lycra.

Make a ski version. Build it and they will come.  Leadville 100 Ski Race, brought to you by Seder-skier.com, Zoom Snacks, and the Mineral Belt Recreation Committee.

the impact

Skiers could and probably would choose to focus on either the Grand Classics or the Grand Ultras, just like cyclists select either the spring classics or the summer stage races. Of course, a few prized stallions who think they can chew a piece of pizza from both pies might attempt to win it all, a chase intriguing for fans to follow. Aren’t you familiar with the saying, “Diversity in distance equals dedicated devotees?” It will only be a matter of time before our Eddy Merckx arrives.

I understand this suggestion is pretty far-fetched, but I fling it out there because, while I agree with Auckland that VSC should separate from the traditional World Cup (something which, as the W.C. increases the number of fan-friendly sprints on the schedule, is becoming rather easy), I also think it would be a mistake to depart from 50k-60k distances. The World Cup rarely contests these anyway, and, if VSC wants to retain the citizen racer demographic, they can’t hop right up to a heavy schedule of straight 100k’s. If they do that, the only people prepared will be athletes at the top. Those of us wanting to keep up will have to resort to the double pole version of the “hobby-jogger shuffle” – a necessity to complete the distance. The consequence will be a polarization, which currently exists in running, between ‘ultra’ athletes and ‘regular/true’ skiers.

We don’t need two camps. Just make the one a little bigger.

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