by Martin Linsley
What follows is written to entertain, report, advise and hopefully stimulate your interest in the Vasaloppet China – one of the 20 international loppet long-distance ski races (that include Australia’s own Kangaroo Hoppet race) organised around the world.
Dave Michael, my long-time skiing buddy, and I are both ex-Navy, and are ever grateful that we were introduced to cross-country skiing and racing by the Service. After retirement we pursued the goal of becoming World Loppet Masters, a goal that requires completing 12 loppet races in 12 different countries. After achieving this we haven’t stopped. The Vasaloppet China was our sixteenth loppet event.
A major motivation for our entering loppet races is the need to develop and/or maintain enough fitness, fitness that is also good for health and quality of life. On this occasion, being sufficiently fit was a challenge, for summer’s heat discouraged outdoor activity. Had we done enough for the Chinese loppet? Had we overindulged over Christmas and New Year?
After a day or two of nervous anticipation and adrenalin accumulation Dave and I met at Sydney airport on 2 January, and we flew for 14.5 hrs first to Guangzhou (near Hong Kong) and then Changchun (the capital of China’s north eastern Jilin province, due north of Korea, with a 7 million + population). Wearing only a shirt was OK for Sydney’s 20-30° C, but alighting from the plane at Changchun at near midnight the temperature was about -18° C. Thankfully, we didn’t have to spend long outside.
Dave and I had paid for a package that covered the race and some sightseeing. It was offered by Nordic Ways, a small and specialised Norwegian company that operates through the Vasaloppet China organisation. Benefits of the package soon became apparent. We were met at the airport by a ‘race volunteer’ who drove us in his Honda Odyssey to the five-star Sheraton hotel where most of the international skiers (about 150) were staying. At the hotel, the owner/manager of Nordic Ways met us and we were soon settling-in to our room.
Next morning we enjoyed a splendid buffet breakfast, with a large choice of mostly Chinese food spread over four buffets. By 1100 we were in our ski gear and boarding a coach that would take the Nordic Ways skiers to the nearby race location. The weather was normal for the area: clear, windless and cold (about -16C). There was practically no natural snow and, as anticipated, we found the race start/finish area and course (a 25 km loop) relied on man-made snow. Being consistently too cold to melt, the snow was good for skiing: dry, fast and firm. Tracks were being set, because the race was restricted to classical technique skiing.
The Chinese organisers work wonders to make their loppet event world class. A splendid feature is the massive ice sculptures adjacent to the start/finish area. This isn’t only for the race: the venue is a nature/recreation park centred on a lake, so in winter it’s a playground for the locals. Small motor vehicles can be hired for sliding on the frozen lake, short horse-sleigh or a dog sled rides are an option, as is hiring inflated truck tyre tubes for the frozen slopes.
Being concerned with saving energy, and somewhat uncertain about the grip wax on our skis, Dave and I spent just over an hour on our skis before returning to the hotel. This was enough, because the race course was being prepared and only a small section of it was accessible to skiers. We noted that at the start the course was wide enough for just four cut tracks. Three to four hundred metres along the course the snow-covered area narrowed to about three metres wide, allowing for two just classic tracks with just enough room for a third skier between them. (More on this later.) We learnt that the course meanders around the park following (sealed?) roadways and tracks. There’s a good mix of slightly undulating gradient (with no Aussie-standard steep grades) and flat areas, including a couple passing over frozen lakes.
Thursday afternoon Dave and I took our skis to a couple of young semi-professional Swedish guys who were waxing/preparing skis for the race in the hotel’s basement carpark. We needed them, as we don’t have the waxes for very cold temperatures and hadn’t brought waxing equipment. The Swedes were preparing 45 pairs of skis that afternoon and charged $80. We were later satisfied for the expensive aid, our skis gripped well for ‘the kick’ and glided well when needed.
By then we’d learned that four other Aussies were in Changchun for the race: a family of three from Sydney (Phil Cole, wife and daughter Alexandra) that presently reside in Hong Kong, and a younger guy from Melbourne.
Friday 4 Jan was race day. Nervous energy was at a high level. The ‘internationals’ from the Sheraton arrived at the course early, the hotel being just a 15-minute drive away. There were ‘rough and ready’ changing facilities in tents for ‘ordinary’ folk, but as we found ourselves closer to a small, heated building designated for elite international teams, we assumed an air of ‘belonging’ and walked past the security staff before establishing ourselves in a corner.
Further evidence of the efforts taken to make the China loppet world class was the pre-race entertainment – the best we’ve experienced anywhere. There would have been over 100 drummers, dancers and musicians performing for twenty minutes in front of the ice sculptures. It was a welcome distraction from the efforts ahead.
Conditions were good for skiing. Clear, windless and the air temperature for the 1000 start about -15C; relatively warm for Changchun.
From her experience with the race in 2017 Marg Hayes had warned us about the start, and arrangements for it hadn’t changed. About 90 elite skiers lined-up at the front of the field (50:50 Chinese and other nations). Behind them were the remaining skiers in the 50 km race (around 100), and behind us were the near 300 folk entered for the 25 km distance. With there being just four tracks cut for all racers, and with many skiers squeezed between those tracks, the mass of competitors extended over 100 metres. This would have been less of a problem if the start of each group had been separated by a few minutes, but no … the gun fired and everyone started together. Consequently, our group of skiers was overrun by the 25 km ‘speedsters’ and the impetuous youths (anyone under 50?) who weren’t interested in pacing themselves and who felt the need to sprint to the front. Unsurprisingly, there were several falls, people pile-ups and a couple of broken poles. Dave and I, skiing separately, ‘went slow with the flow’, trying to avoid trouble.
The greatest issue became evident about 1.4 km into the race where, at the top of a long gentle rise, the course’s steepest descent on the narrow track occurred. Many of the ‘speedsters’ and ‘youths’ hadn’t learned how to control cross country skis downhill, and these individuals fell, totally blocking the narrow track. Seeing the human debris, the skiers behind stopped at the top of the hill where an official tried to martial an orderly queue and progression by shouting and blowing a whistle. Dave and I ignored him, squeezed through the waiting, hesitant folk and easily negotiated the slope to continue the race.
As normal for a loppet, refreshment stations were located every 7-8 km, providing a choice of liquids and something to eat (bananas, bread, or a Cocopop-type bar). Being concerned about running-out of energy, I refuelled at all of them.
I progressed satisfactorily until completing 20.5 km. It was then that the leading bunch of 5-6 elite skiers caught me (they had completed 45.5 km). Being so close to their finish these athletes were close to sprinting at more than double my speed. The restricted course wasn’t conducive to a bunch of skiers overtaking an ‘old fella’ who was pottering along in one of the two tracks. A ski appeared between me and my planted pole, causing the elite skier to trip, fall, and bring down two others. I then fell over the three of them.
This crash probably affected the race podium positions, as less than 15 seconds separated the first ten race finishers. It certainly affected my result as, when I was able to return to a vertical position, one of my poles was broken in half. I therefore continued, greatly handicapped by the use of only one pole, but with some compensation in the form of a jazzy pair of sunglasses that one of my fellow fallers had abandoned in the snow. Four and a half kilometres further I completed my first lap at the start/finish area and was able to borrow a pole (albeit 5 cm shorter than my remaining one).
Completing half the 50 km had taken me not far short of three hours to complete. This was concerning, as the course was to be closed after six hours. I was careful not to overextend though, my energy reserves were clearly limited. Steady sustained effort was necessary. Steadily the course-side distance markers counted down and my confidence in finishing increased. So too did my natural competitiveness, probably too much so, because I overtook several skiers in that second lap (including Phil Cole) and invested more energy than was wise. By the time I crossed the line in 5 hrs 33 minutes, placed 161, I was near ‘totally bushed’. Dave provided a great welcome and support for me there. (He had joined a few other folk in withdrawing from the race at the 25 km mark when they agreed that they wouldn’t meet the time limit). The race commentator also announced my achievement over the public address system, noting that I was the second Australian to finish, my year of birth, and that I was one of the oldest people skiing that day.
As Dave and I gathered our gear dusk was settling-in and the race infrastructure being dismantled. We caught the last coach back to the hotel, where I had my Worldloppet Passport stamped: a goal achieved.
For reference: a Chinese skier won the race in 2 hrs 23 mins and 27 secs, followed by another native lad and then skiers from France, Norway, Norway, Czech, and the USA. The leading female, from Sweden, finished in 2 hrs 32 min and 50 secs.
That evening Dave and I attended the China Vasaloppet prize-giving and banquet that was held at our hotel. It was a magnificent highlight of the event, incomparably better than experienced at other loppet events. The massive hall held tables that seated 440 folk including a few for VIPs such as the city’s deputy mayor. At the front was a stage with decorations that served as a background for a sequence of light and video shows that would have done Hollywood proud. Professional comperes mc’d the evening and introduced speakers, musicians, dancers (adult and children), acrobats and a short video of the day’s race. Meanwhile the guests indulged in a 15-dish meal with unlimited wine or beer. At our table Dave and I enjoyed the company of a Russian, a couple of Americans, and a small group of Estonians.
We slept well that night.
The Nordic Ways Travel Package offers three inclusive packages for the event, one with only travel to/from Beijing and entry to the race, and the others with short or long sight-seeing extensions. Dave and I opted for the short package that included a fast train ride to Beijing and two days of tours. We then followed our own plan with a train to Shanghai and two days sightseeing before our return to Australia on 12 January.
What overseas skiing adventures next for Dave and me? None are planned, but there are only four loppet races that we have yet to attend.
Advice for Australians attending the Vasaloppet China
Unless you’re a recognized elite skier who’ll be at the front of the field for the start of the race, don’t be too competitive. Whilst event organization is of the highest standard, race management has had flaws (notably the mass start and limited width race course). Using the event as an excuse to visit and see something of China (and gain a stamp in your Worldloppet passport, of course).
Choose between paying for the Travel Package offered by the Vasaloppet Organisation or saving money by managing independently. For us the package worked well, making it easy for travel within China, accommodation, sightseeing and visa requirements. It also enabled us to socialise with fellow international skiers. Other Australians have managed the language and bureaucratic challenges associated with making their own arrangements. They saved money, but probably experienced greater stress and marginally less shared experience.
Prepare for the cold. Over Christmas the average temperature range in Changchun was -24 C to -18 C. This does mean that snow (mostly man-made) is near 100% guaranteed, and the weather is usually clear and calm. Either have appropriate waxes and equipment or use the professional service available pre-race.
Ideally skiers organise some on-snow practise before arriving at Changchun. The options for this aren’t good are likely to involve spending New Year and possibly Christmas in Japan (the best option?). Regardless, the same endurance fitness is required as for any other loppet race, so be prepared.
The trains and subways of the major cities are easy to use (well signposted) and efficient.
Engage with locals, who are as friendly and helpful as elsewhere. Many are keen to practise their English. Others like to use the Mandarin-English voice recognition and translation aps on their mobile phones to answer your questions.
Take your own energy/snack food from Australia. Finding equivalents in China can be difficult.
Pharmacies aren’t clearly and commonly available in China. Pack whatever could possibly be needed for the trip.
If you have any questions about Vasaloppet China that Dave and I might answer, contact me using email: email@example.com.