Contributing Editor for The Master Skier
Dale Bohm is an AXCS member and masters racer from Seattle.
To many people, Finland means skiing. The Finns like to say that they were born on skis, and many people believe them.
Cross country skiing has been around in Finland for thousands of years and some of the oldest skiing artifacts have been found in the bogland dating back over 4,000 years.
Cross country skiers and ski jumpers become national heroes if they are successful in the Winter Olympics, the World Championships or the World Cup.
Last February, my wife Susie, who is a manager at Nordic Saga Tours, had the opportunity to go to Finland for a workshop. I tagged along and tested out the skiing.
As it turned out, the Finlandia-Hiihto, the largest cross country race in Finland, was taking place while we were there and since we are avid racers, this was a drea-m come true.
As an added bonus, Lahti would be hosting the 2001 Nordic World Championships later in the week and we could preview the venue and course prior to the event.
Welcome to Finland
While waiting for the airport taxi, I spoke to a man holding a sign saying Lahti 2001- Nordic World Championships. He spoke very broken English and tried to tell us what was going on in Lahti.
We saw many ski teams wandering around the airport and I started to get excited about the coming week.
As we rode towards Helsinki, I was constantly looking for anything that would help me understand the Finnish culture and get in tune with the people. The buildings were a mix of old and new, with a hint of Russian architecture everywhere.
Are we there yet?
Upon arrival at our hotel, we decided to stay awake to counteract jet lag and set out to find some traditional Finnish food.
The receptionist at our hotel (Hotel Anna) made reservations at a great restaurant within walking distance of our hotel.
The food was excellent, serving traditional Finnish cuisine consisting of potatoes, meat, vegetables and bread prepared like a five star restaurant. I was pleasantly surprised at the cost.
The pilgrimage to Lahti
Day two of our trip started with a full Scandinavian breakfast at our hotel and an hour and a half train ride north to Lahti.
Our train was state-of-the art and traveled close to 80 mph. As we left Helsinki, the scenery turned to solid forest, with rolling hills and pine trees everywhere.
Upon arrival in Lahti, the first thing you noticed were three huge ski jumps towering above the city. Lahti calls itself the ski capital of Finland and hosts many world-class competitions each year.
The Finlandia experience
After checking into our hotel (The Cumulus) we headed off to pick up our race packets for the Finlandia. The race headquarters was near the base of the three ski jumps along with a huge stadium and ski museum.
We cruised through the packet pick-up and then visited the many booths. The Finns are very serious about skiing and were constantly conversing in Finnish with each other, probably discussing which wax combination to use for the race.
History of the Finlandia race
The model for the Finlandia was taken from the traditional Vasaloppet in Sweden and Marcialonga in Italy.
The race was held for the first time in 1974. Participants have varied from 6000 skiers to a record 14,000.
The course is now permanently set at 52k, Lahti-Hollola-Lahti, along with a 25k course.
Day three was race day. The 9:00AM start was inside the stadium and each wave left in 10-minute intervals. We opted for the 25k race, our wave went after all the 52k skiers had started.
The course became very tight in some sections and passing became extremely difficult, which called for some hair raising passes. After 10k, the course split and the 25k racers headed in a different direction, making the course less congested.
After climbing one hill after another, I could finally see the ski jumps overhead and the stadium in full view. It was a welcome site!
Each racer was greeted with a hug from a Finnish girl and given a medal.
Post Race activities
After finishing the race, we walked over to a building to pick up our warm up clothes and take part in a free lunch.
We spoke to several people at our table that knew English and they were very friendly and asked questions about skiing in America.
After relaxing for a few hours at our hotel, we wandered through town and saw the many ice carvings on display, along with a complete ice building used for post race activities during the Nordic World Championships.
The town was starting to buzz with the anticipation of the coming World Champion-ships.
Hint of the Stars
Day four began with another great breakfast and a short walk to the ski trails.
As we started out on the freshly groomed trail, we noticed skiers in team uniforms training for the coming World Championships.
I was amazed at the steep uphills and downhills and how effortless the elite racers skied them. It was a treat to see these great athletes in action.
On the road again
After a short cab ride to the train station, we were both back on the train to Helsinki.
Susie was flying out of Helsinki to northern Finland the next morning (as part of her workshop) and I would be back on the train to Lahti for a few more days of skiing.
Our hotel in Helsinki (Sokos) was right downtown and we were able to take in a few more sights.
- Parting our ways
Day five began with a hearty breakfast then Susie was off to the airport and I on my way to the train station.
The train was full of skiers headed for Lahti and I started to plan out my strategy for the next few days.
Upon arriving in Lahti, I grabbed a cab and headed to my hotel in Mukkula, home of Janne Ahonen, a famous ski jumper on the World Cup circuit. Mukkula is a suburb of Lahti and only a 10-minute ride from downtown.
After checking into my hotel (Mukkutan Karten), I jumped on the bus and headed out to the Ski Center. The weather was very cold and I only skied an hour before calling it a day.
Lahti by night
After a warm shower and a hot meal, I was ready to check out the town. I jumped on a bus and was back in downtown Lahti in no time.
The streets were lit up with different overhead signs about the Nordic World Championships and people with team jackets were walking around. This was big time stuff in Finland, comparable to the Super Bowl in America.
Skiing with the Stars
Day six, two days before the World Championships. I was excited to get back out to the Ski Center and mingle with the elite racers.
The trails were full of world-class skiers, and I was surprised that they still allowed 'regular' people to ski on the course.
The workers were all busy along the course stringing up wires and setting up the camera equipment. Every so often, I would see a group of skiers being interviewed by the media and recognized some of the world-class athletes.
I was like a kid in a candy store, seeing the best cross country skiers in the world up close and personal.
After skiing the World Championship course, I headed back to the Ski Center for a trip through the museum.
Ski History 101
The ski museum was one of the highlights of the trip. The history of skiing was displayed in a beautiful collection of artifacts, photos and mannequins.
The museum also had a ski jump simulator that contained a large movie screen and a platform on which to stand.
The trick was to jump off the platform just as you were taking off the jump if you jumped too early or too late you would crash.
They also had a biathlon shooting range where you could try skill. It was a blast!
The best part of the museum was that it made you realize how deep the sport of skiing is embedded in the Finnish culture.
The Final day in Finland
Day seven was a magical day. I decided to ski along the frozen lakeshore and surrounding the lake were thousands of pine trees in the rolling hills and not a person in sight.
I skied over to the shore and found a great ski trail with 50k of ski tracks meandering around the hillside what luck!
After skiing for several hours, I walked back to my hotel, showered, checked out of the hotel, grabbed a bus to the train station, jumped on the train and met Susie in Helsinki.
We then boarded the Silja Line, a gigantic overnight cruise ship and headed to Stockholm that evening. Then home to Seattle.
Is that all there is?
We had left Seattle seven days ago, soon we would be back to business as usual. However, for a few days we experienced life in Finland and felt the excitement of being at a World Champion-ship.
We also learned how great the sport of skiing is, and how fortunate we are to be living in America.
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