It was with a sense of wistful nostalgia, gratefulness and fascination that I read Andrew Keh’s excellent story about the “Alternative Elfstedentocht” in Sunday’s New York Times.
The Elfstedentocht, which means 11 Cities Tour, is 124-mile speedskating marathon linking 11 Frisian cities via the canals of the northern Netherlands. It is a Dutch cultural and sporting touchstone.
But it is one that sadly may have permanently been relegated to warm memories by the lack of cold that has prevented the event from taking place in the Netherlands for 22 years.
So, as Keh wrote, there is an “alternative” version of the race, which takes place on a frozen lake in the Austrian mountains, preserving the sporting challenge but not the historical and traditional essence of the event. No matter how stunning the surrounding vistas, 10-mile loops of a lake cannot match the city-to-city course in Friesland.
Truth be told, few winters since the first recognized Elfstedentocht in 1909 have been cold enough for the canals to have the ice thickness necessary for the marathon. It has been held just 15 times in 110 years –and just once since 1986. As measured in days, the drought since 1997 is the longest ever between races.
I had the good fortune to be there as a journalist in 1986, and it led to a story that always will be one of my favorites, as it gave me a chance to blend sport, culture and anecdota in a way that was hopefully enlightening and entertaining.Read More