Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The RR story, as it might have been told by Hans Christian Anderson

At the end of the RR, each nationality group contributes a sketch, song, story etc to a cabaret/revue after the final dinner. This was the Danish/British contribution on RR1.


Many, many years ago, there were some special people. They looked the same as ordinary people, but had a special ability - they could put planks on their feet to go rapidly across snow. Over time, these people were scattered far and wide - to England, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Russia, Japan, the USA and many countries across the world - even some without snow.

People were worried that this special power would be lost, so in 1984 they decreed that once per year these special people must come to Finland and ski all the way from Russia in the east to Sweden in the west.

Father Winter and Mother Earth put many obstacles in their way. Father Winter freezes their fingers and toes. Mother Earth sends warmth to make skiing more difficult, melting the rivers and lakes and snow.

But the devil helps the skiers - he makes a magic substance called klister, which the skiers put on the bottom of their skis so they can ski on the melting snow, and an army of helpers shovel snow onto the tracks and even make bridges so they skiers can continue.

Some skiers fall by the wayside , but eventually most will reach Tornio. They have a special ceremony where they sing songs and tell stories about their trip. Only then can the spring in the north begin.

The skiers than go back to their homes and pass the legend on. Many will come back again, so that the world can be kept in balance, and continue to live in peace and harmony.

Naturally the story could have been much longer, but a short bad story is always better than a long bad story! But the bit about klister raised a laugh - it really is stuff from the devil - for those who don't know it, it is a sort of glue you put on your skis instead of wax for warm (above 0C) temperatures, but it not only sticks to the snow, but you, your clothes, everything, and it takes several washes to get it out of your clothes.

Although I do this for fun, I also do it to raise money for charity - Sports Relief - which raises a large amount of money, much of which is spent on sustainable projects in Africa. So if you have enjoyed my story, please donate at http://my.sportrelief.com/sponsor/tonygore - no matter how small, a large number of small donations add up to a lot, and a big difference especially to the children of Africa, for whom I wrote story above.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

RR Day 7 - the last day

None of the normal route for today is skiable, Instead, it has been arranged that we will ski from Kalle - our normal lunch stop at the ski centre out to a café inland and back - 23.5km each way. This track is part of the ski centre network and is groomed throughout the winter with one of the big trail machines, which means that there is a good hard packed base.

I notice when we get there, there is a banner up for a race along that trail in 10 days time. Without a drop in temperature and some fresh snow, this may be hopeful.

The trail is gently uphill and nice and fast when we start out; there are some patches of ice where the bogs have thawed and frozen again. I use the trail to build on the fact that I can sustain double poling to get to grips with the double pole/single kick - a technique I have known for years, but never been strong enough to sustain. The difference now that I can keep these techniques going is significant.  I am able to get and sustain a 20% increase in speed, although until I have finished studying the heart rate data, I won't know how much more effort it is taking, and thus whether it is actually more efficient overall in terms of economy.

The track was a bit thin in places, and at one point volunteers were shovelling snow onto the track. On the return trip, the temperature had made it harder to glide, and some of the bog ice simply could not support the weight of skiers by the time we got to the end, and many of us failed in our attempts to cross it without wet boots. These included picking our way gingerly around or across to, I believe, and attempt to jump it, which didn't work either. Still it provides a good test of the properties of ski socks, and within about twenty minutes, mine no longer felt cold and soggy in my boots.

And so we come to the end. We have skied across Finland from border to border, at least where conditions and safety permitted. We have coped with (as Jonathan describes) "interesting" conditions (where "interesting" has different nuances in English).

I have been tracking the merits of the "zero" skis - skis designed to operate without wax only in conditions around 0C. Some people love them, some hate them; at +5C even the proponents resorted to waxed skis and klister. On the injury count, it is a draw - one all ( 1 - 1) - one injury due to a zero ski suddenly gripping when the skier didn't expect it and the same happening to a traditional ski with klister. Both happened at low speed, on the level - this sort of thing happens to me all the time - sufficiently so that maybe I am so used to being caught out and falling in these circumstances that I have perfected the art of falling. Many people have told me that indeed these is an art to falling, so perhaps I have found something I am good at!

I took a quick trip to the sports shop to see if there were any end of season bargains (cross country equipment is nearly impossible to buy in the UK) but the zero skis were not on offer. I suppose it avoids the comment when I get home of "why do you need yet another pair of skis" from someone who has nearly as many horse saddles as I have skis.

There is the RR tradition of each nationality providing some form of entertainment after dinner on the final evening - a sort of revue/cabaret. Those of us who are alone as a nationality can join another group. This year, having grown up in what was a Danish village twelve centuries ago, and having shared rooms with the Danes, I join them. Our theme was "The RR story as it might have been written by Hans Christian Anderson".  As it has been requested, I provide the story at the end.

This year it was the turn of the Kuusamo municipality to provide the souvenir (the six municipalities the RR passes through take it in turns). It is a lovely handmade ceramic votive from the pottery in Kuusamo (run, according to my source on the first RR, by a Brit).

Many friendships develop over the course of the RR. It also throws up coincidences - two of those from the US are actually fellow Brits and it turns out that for two years, the three of us were at the same university, but in different departments all of fifty metres apart.

During the RR, we have normally been in bed and asleep not long after 9pm, but the last night is when we catch up on fun. There is a 24 hour bar across the street from the hotel, which is how I find myself playing bingo in Finnish - with some help on the numbers as I only know about half a dozen of them. It is mostly the same people each year - those who like to work hard and play hard. Most of this hard core group of us will be back next year. We were comparing notes on what we do for a living, and concluded that a high proportion of us work either in healthcare or IT, and many of our reasons for doing the RR are similar - physical exercise and away from the stress of modern work, the RR provides many of us with a week of "active meditation"; some of us (i.e. me) are so tuned out that we take wrong turns. In the evening entertainment, someone described it like "kindergarten for adults" - we are told when to get up, eat, which bus to catch, when to go to sleep. For those of us who have (or are expected) to be in control all the time, this release and letting someone else organise and take charge is what we need once in a while.

Finally the weather has one last trick up its sleeve - as I come out of the bar sometime after 1am, I look up to catch a few minutes of the Northern Lights. This is the first time in many trips to Finland I have seen them, and it makes a magical note on which to finish.


And in the words of a famous Austrian,  I know that  "I'll be back"!

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

RR Day 6

Today I have to pay tribute to the people who make the tracks for us. At one point today, they had to chop down trees, build a bridge and pile snow on top of it to allow us to cross a fast running stream. The lack of snow shows - at times we are skiing through the tops of small trees and bushes that would normally be buried.

The first stretch in the morning is fast, and double poling most of the way I cover 20km in a couple of hours - a great improvement for me, as I have never sustained above 10km/hr for any length of time.

This day is mostly flat in the sense that it doesn't have many hills. However, we are often on ground that undulates - a bit like a ploughed field where the furrows are about a metre deep. This type of skiing keeps me on my toes, but having mastered double poling, I find that this means my skis only need to be steered, and not providing propulsion at the same time.

Double poling is the answer (for me) to icy roads and tracks - previously one of the difficulties I had.


RR Day 5 - the shortest day

Well this year's RR is turning out to be quite a different experience.

This morning there is not enough snow for us to ski safely (or unsafely). Instead, a visit has been arranged to Ranua Zoo. Normally we ski past this a couple of kilometres after we set off, and I have always wanted to visit it. Why? Well it specialises in Artic animals, and so you are seeing them in a similar habitat to their natural one.

We know it is warm because the bear was already out of hibernation - on my first RR the bear woke up the night we stayed in Ranua. I know from previous visits and talking to  a guide that there are a few in the wild east of Kuusamo - this was why I did not want to be the slowest skier this year!
 
Today is normally our shortest day. Those who wanted to keep up their distances skied both ways between the two places our accommodation is split across; some did it there, back and there again. For myself, I took the opportunity of the shorter distance to allow my leg injuries to recover.

 Today we also saw at least one more person depart through injury. So far, the ones I know about are all their skis catching and gripping suddenly - the sort of thing that normally happens to me ten times a day, usually in front of the largest number of people. Today was the first day I didn't fall; unlike day 2 where I fell getting off the bus before I had even got my skis on.

It seems like this blog is read by my people than I thought before coming on the RR - it seems I am not the only non-expert skier after all.

I discovered last night that a fellow skier has been doing for years what I have tried on this trip - wearing compression running socks under ski socks. I can report that in my case, my right leg normally swells up a bit on every previous RR. This year, using compression socks because of injury, I have not had this, and had no problems with my shins so far. The twinges in my knees are simply due to age, and there isn't anything I can do about that.

Each year I discover new things that make it easier as I get older - so far, the improvements I discover each year outweigh the what I lose on age. It effectively sets me a challenge - how long can I keep improving? Another decade? I have a particular target of another six years - when you have completed 10 RRs, you receive a master skier award. This is not an award for style, skill or competence - just the ability to ski from Russia to Sweden ten times.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

RR Day 4 - the longest day

Today is the longest day. It won't be as long as normal due to the frozen marshland for one stretch being a lake. It is still the longest day even with this section taken out. Skiing in above zero temperatures is a challenge - trying to get grip on the skis. By the time it gets to about +1C, you can't use waxes as they become ineffective - you use klister - a sort of soft glue. As well as snow, this sticks to everything.

A strong wind has blown bits of birch bark and pine needles onto the track; klister sticks to these and they form a barrier between the skis and the snow, reducing the grip.

The dangers of the warm temperatures become apparent later on; I am now the last person on track, as others have given up. I am also one of the heaviest, and following in the tracks of others, this soon becomes apparent crossing what I think is a frozen bog as the water starts to reach the top of my boots. A bit of probing with the ski poles shows that it is worse ahead, so I back up and find a firmer route round. At the start of the day, this was solid enough to support a snowmobile and the weighted trail setting sledge.

At the end of the day, I fail to note that the trail has been changed from last year and end up struggling several kilometres along the snowmobile tracks until the safety snowmobile pulls up and explains to me that I missed the turn for the changed track and gives me a lift to the end. One of the pitfalls of last minute route changes is that the red/pink tape on the original route still remains.

RR Day 3

The day started with a dispiriting trek through several inches of slush and water in the car park, This only lasted 5 minutes before we were on snow. The rain may have dampened spirits a bit, but after lunch in the warm inside, and blue skies appearing, we forgot the damp and skied on to Syote. This is in the middle of a national park and is very beautiful.

But we all took up a new sport of water skiing - there was a couple of inches of water on top of the ice on the river.

The rapidly disappearing snow made conditions "challenging". First I need to explain my experience (rather lack of). I only thought about this when comparing notes  I realised some people ski more in a season than I have in my life. Over the last 40 years, I have about 6 weeks downhill skiing and prior  to my first RR 9 weeks cross country skiing, nearly all in the last ten years or so; with three RRs previously, that experience is now up to 15 weeks.

By challenging, I mean that the tracks can be quite narrow and sometimes that snow can be soft. For someone with a natural balance on skis who can correct quickly this causes no problems. My skiing is more like that of a supertanker - it takes a long time to change direction.

I have been puzzled why, despite my lack of fitness and training, there are some things I am doing better. For example, in the past I could only sustain double poling (pushing yourself along only with your poles and not "kicking" with the skis) for a very short time; this trip, I can sustain it for tens of minutes. Finally, I think I have the reason - there are two reasons - the first is the fitness classes Kevin runs for our running club on Thursdays, and the second is that I have spent a lot of time working on my wife's new equestrian facilities. Moving 40 tonnes of wood chip (two deliveries a couple of weeks apart) is definitely a good upper body workout, as is putting in fence posts.

Friday, 7 March 2014

RR day 2

We have challenging conditions today - at time skiing in the clouds, so there is a light drizzle (of rain) which means it is above zero. For me, this means that I cannot see very well because I need to wear glasses all the time. At times I was basically skiing more or less blind - if my skis made a continuous "shhh" noise, then I am in the track, and a crackling noise means in the track!

Fortunately I solved this problem - I had some anti-mist stuff in my rucksack so I was able to get it at the lunch stop. Day 2 lunch stop is one of my favourite - a hearty soup with great chunks of salmon; this is served round a fire in a Samu (Lapp) tent. A coffee and a sweet bun and I was ready to continue.

I always wondered if I could manage to keep up when skiing conditions are not so good. Now I now the answer - I may have dropped back when I couldn't see where I was going, but later found myself catching up. I discovered a new skiing technique near the end - the "parallel half plough"! To slow myself, I stepped one ski out of the track intending to angle it and slow myself down, but found to my surprise that the drag from the ski on the soft snow was more than enough to slow me without the plough.

Some of the downhills were more challenging than usual through a lack of snow remaining. Grip was not easy for many people - what works on snow doesn't work on ice or water. I decided that the professional had probably done the best compromise on my waxing. So when it didn't grip on ice, I stepped out onto the snow where I had a good grip. Various people tried "zero" no-wax skis - these are ones designed to work only around 0C and are different to my waxless skis. My skis were gliding a treat today, so I decided that gained much more from this than what I was losing in grip on occasions

I finished the day a better skier than I started the day. The legs are holding up well, as is my endurance, although I am pacing myself carefully. I ended the day with a big smile - I rose to the challenge of difficult conditions and could easily have skied further.

I am also reliably told that if I double pole for 6 hours a day for a month, I will have a flat stomach.
 I burned just under 4,000 calories in 8 hours - cross country skiing at my average pace burns 500 calories per hour at an average heart rate (today) of 107 - not bad, considering the hills we had. At my age, 4000 calories is more than I should eat in two days. The energy gels seem to be working out - I used three today in 8 hours - one in the morning and two in the afternoon at rest stops. These provide a fairly instant boost of energy just at the times I need it and it may be a contributing factor to feeling less exhausted after each day.

So far, so good. The real test will be can I do day 4 (87km) and finish before it is dark? This would be a first for me - not completing the day, but finishing before total darkness.