Contributing Editor for The Master Skier
Dan Karig is a master skier who restarted racing 13 years ago at age 50. He has won several golds at the Masters National Championships and placed 25th in his class at the Norwegian Birkebeiner. He is a recently retired Cornell prof but remains active with the nordic ski team, coaching and helping with sports physiology.
I don’t know why I did it, but I’m glad I did.
Billed as the world’s toughest ski race, the Arctic Circle Race (ACR) involved three days and 160 km of skiing over spectacular but daunting terrain in western Greenland.
The race has featured the likes of Thomas Alsgaard and Vegard Ulvang, and would seem to be more than a mouthful for an aging citizen racer, but that is not really the case.
The ACR is certainly a very demanding experience, but with caution, skiers with moderate ability, good conditioning and a sense of adventure can handle it..
- I did it because I was challenged to do so by Erik Grimm and Carl Johnston, two New York State racers half my age and twice my ability. We three comprised the entire American contingent this year.
On the flight to Greenland from Ottawa, we joined two Canadians, including Olympian Don Farley.
By far the bulk of the field was from Europe, especially Germany and from Greenland.
We overnighted at Kangerlussuaq in the former barracks of the US Air Base, where the early morning temp was –33°C, but bright and clear. A puddle jumper flew us to Sisimiut, which was our base and host town for the race.
Sisimiut is the second largest town in Greenland and the northernmost ice-free port, with just over 5000 people and even more sled dogs.
In this area the ice cap has retreated more than 100km from the coast, leaving huge fjords and a landscape that has been both smoothed and deeply gouged by the ice cover.
Several unusual preliminaries included a sleeping bag check, a church service and a safety lecture.
If sleeping bags weren’t good to –30°C a local model had to be rented.
Continuing the stress on racer security we were told how to cope with sudden storms, which would not be uncommon even at the end of March, and given a packet with orange body bag and foil blanket.
This was in addition to the minimum of 5kg of survival equipment we had to carry in our packs during the race.
We had exquisite arctic weather the entire time (bright blue skies and only moderate wind) but the organizers take no chances.
There were as many officials as racers, including nurses and doctors at camp as well as at the control points, every 8-9 km along the course.
In addition, small fleet of snowmobiles and dog sleds monitored the race, especially along the hairier downhills.
A church service sounded a bit corny to an old cynic like me, but the local choir, singing in Inuit with what sounded like Appalachian harmonies, and the view out the window over the brightly painted houses of town toward the Matterhorn-shaped peak, admittedly made a deep impression.
I didn’t understand a word of the service, but I presumed that the organizers were using yet another method to insure our safety.
The race started in the middle of town, with an amazing percentage of the population cheering us off.
With 57 km to ski the first day and plenty more thereafter, a blistering pace seemed unwise. Moreover, the first 17 km were largely uphill, to an elevation over 1400 ft.
At that point we reached the famed and fabled 'bone-breaker', a wild drop to sea-level and a frozen fjord.
With absolutely no exaggeration I claim that the final 1000 ft of this elevation drop was as steep as an advanced alpine run. Thank God it was almost as wide as well, so one could make plenty of turns if fall-line snowplows didn’t appeal.
The steepest sections had aid people who were treated to quite a show.
The final drop to the ice was really tricky because the tidal fluctuation breaks the ice margin into hummocks, through which the trail had to snake.
From that point we rested our rubbery legs and double poled to the head of the fjord.
We passed camp at 27 km, looped up one side valley and down the next, back to camp.
The divide between these valleys entailed another semi-vertical climb that we realized we would have to descend on the last day, which repeated day 1 in reverse.
Camp looked ever so good when it again came into sight.
Tents for the racers and officials were laid out in the shape of a modified circle, the logo of the Royal Arctic Line (the major sponsor).
Nearby were two large heated tents, one for cooking and ski waxing, the other for clothes drying, massage and hospital.
Yes, massage! I don’t know what percentage of racers availed themselves of this treat but I did on both days and thought it was great -– physically and psychologically.
The camp was really a small Inuit village and a great cultural experience.
A questionnaire at the end of the race asked what the best experience of our stay was and to me it was watching the locals carry on; playing, singing, working - just doing their thing.
The second day was a relative breather; 46 km gently up another side valley and back again.
The short day allowed time for camp events such as dog sled whip demonstrations, music and a smorgasbord of local food – various dried fish, seal blubber and God knows what else went down the hatch.
Dried halibut was great but spare me the seal blubber.
Racers consumed incredible amounts of food, not just due to the exertion but also to combat hypothermia.
We were lucky, with nighttime temperatures of only -23°C or so and daytime temperatures up to -10° and even warmer near the coast.
Brisk winds off the ice cap were definitely chilling, but there were only a few cases of frostbite. Full head caps and tape or ointment on nose and cheeks seemed adequate.
Correct clothing makes racing in arctic conditions more comfortable than imagined, but it is still an art that takes a bit of practice.
We all dreaded the last day. Not only would we have to climb 'bone-breaker' but we also had the steep descent at the divide. This was very narrow and twisting, making anything at Lake Placid look totally tame.
Anticipation was worse than reality. With absolutely glorious weather, the day went well, with times about half an hour faster than on the way out.
Many, like me, opted to walk 'bone-breaker'. Not only was this as fast as (or faster than) herringboning but it also used some different muscles.
The dry snow made the twisting downhill quite manageable and almost fun.
Town could be seen many km before the finish and it was mostly downhill, providing a really great finish.
What couldn’t be seen until the final few hundred meters was the wildly cheering crowd, even for us sludges who arrived far behind
Martin Møller, the young Greenlander who cleaned the field. Don Farley, who had been leading, had to drop out with an injured Achilles tendon on day 3, but North American honor was saved by our own Erik Grimm, who grabbed second place.
The awards banquet didn’t take place until Monday evening. We thus had Monday to explore town, with its bone, tooth and skin workshops, its harbor and seafood processing plant, and just to ogle the scenery.
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