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Private Journey through the Blue Snow

It is a painful marathon, this massive race into the forests of Sweden, but the miracles of blueberry soup and the spirit of man somehow can produce 7,000 victors

It is early Sunday morning. It is going to be a fine day for surrealists. The snowy flats along the Daläven River in central Sweden are eerie today, the glum color of cooled lead. There is a thick white mist about. It obscures the rolling black forest above the river. It obscures the narrow brown road leading to the village of Sälen. It obscures rectangles of pale light that glow from timber cottages strewn about the hills. Seeing this Swedish winter land through this mist is like looking at a stark, black and white woodcut through gauze: there is more to be imagined than there is to see.

One can wonder if the frozen black roots of the pines guard the graves of medieval Danes. One can wonder if the topmost branches of the forest, invisible above the fog, may be thronged with brooding flocks of albino eagles. One also might wonder if perhaps beyond the dark and the haze on the road to Sälen there are trolls hitchhiking.

But no, the gloom and the mist of this morning conceal stranger things. For in the bleak beauties of the Dalarna region of Sweden, this Sunday in March is known as Vasaloppet P√•s √ñndag—the Sunday of the Vasaloppet. And the Vasaloppet is one of the most bizarre, most foolish, most excruciating, most exalted human events of our time.

At its simplest denominator, the Vasaloppet is merely a painfully long cross-country ski race, run for 49 years now over a narrow trail that has been delicately peeled like a thin strip of apple skin from the black forest pines between the ancient village of S√§len on the Dal√§ven River and the ancient village of Mora on the shores of Lake Siljan. The Vasaloppet is a mighty race, named for Sweden's first King Gustav of the house of Vasa, and it runs a mighty distance—8.5 Swedish miles which equals 85.8 kilometers which equals 53.5 miles in American measurements. It also attracts a mighty crowd of competitors. More than 8,000 men enter the race.

This makes the Vasaloppet a larger participant event than the Olympic Games. Unlike the Olympics, however, by far the greatest number of men in the Vasaloppet are enormously ordinary mortals. They are butchers and salesmen and bellhops, and welders from the Volvo factory in Stockholm. Many are from the Dalarna region and they work in the knife factory, the bathroom accessories factory or the ladder and TV antenna factory in Mora.

Except for an elite hundred men of world-class caliber, the thousands who enter the Vasaloppet each March are the stuff of which commercial bowling leagues and office football pools and volunteer fire departments are made. On the blue Monday following this Vasaloppet P√•s √ñndag, they will pick up dear, dented lunch buckets and drive off in a car pool to put hubcaps on Volvos or spray chromium on water-faucet handles. Indeed, it is said that a great many—perhaps 2,000—of the men who will gather this dank Sunday on the flats of the Dal√§ven River are there only because they played the fool on New Year's Eve, drinking so much aquavit that they eventually blundered into making a wager that they would, that they certainly could and should, by God, run the Vasa race this year.

Sadder but wiser, and bundled now against the chill dawn, some come to make this agonizing trek to save a few Swedish kronor bet in the flush of drink. Some do the race simply to prove they are in good enough condition to do the race. Some come merely to halt for an instant the treadmill routine of the Swedish workingman in winter. Some come to make a stubborn pilgrimage, a private journey through cold and fatigue to show that a man is more than spraying chromium on water faucets.

As the sky lightens and the mist rises, it is obvious that this March day is a remarkably fine day for surrealists.

Out of the haze on the road to S√§len, come—not trolls, not gnomes—but two men wearing paper bags, large white paper bags that cover them from neck to ankles. Their arms are free to carry their skis. They look like two huge soda crackers in their paper bags, but they do not seem to care. They are conversing soberly in Swedish, their voices raised slightly to carry over the crackling of their paper bags. They stroll out onto the snowy river flats and stand there casually as if they were wearing fine woolen coats instead of white paper bags. They have taken their place in a small teardrop of men which now suddenly begins to flow like a large stain over the gray snow as more skiers arrive.

The road is streaming with men carrying skis as the day grows lighter. Most of them are really ragged. They look like refugees from one of Goya's paintings of desperate crowds fleeing from war. Here is a man wearing a torn, yellow rubber raincoat, buttonless, its sleeves too short by one-third the length of his arm, a plaid bathrobe belt about his waist. Here are three fellows swaggering along abreast, each wearing a full-length gray greatcoat with tarnished silver epaulets, wide military lapels and brown leather belts cinching warlike waists. Each coat seems more tattered and stained than the next; the belts are scratched and soft. The shortest of the three men wears the longest coat; it is dragging on the ground. The lining droops in ragged grace out of the tail of another. Scarecrow soldiers lining up for a forced march, they carry their skis and their ski poles as if they were spears, their eyes fixed like heroes' eyes on the river flats where the great race will start.

Thousands are moving on the road now. Their faces are noble, their clothing laughable. Here is a fellow in what appears to be a bloodstained, full-length butcher's coat. Here is one in a molting sheepskin worn inside out. Here is one in a horse blanket and one in a bedspread and one in what seems to be the seat covers taken from inside an old car. Here are two more rattling along in ankle-length paper bags. What has become of Sweden?

At last someone explains that this disreputable dress is a Vasaloppet tradition: old clothes are worn to keep warm in the chill morning darkness. Just before the starting time, all the tatters and bags are discarded and—lo!—the racers stand fresh and resplendent in light and colorful windjackets, bright breeches and gaudy knee socks. The entire field of the Vasaloppet is transformed from a swamp of beggars into a sea of princes before one's eyes. The point of wearing rags is that many of the clothes discarded at the start will never be returned to their owners. Much of the gear will be collected and sorted, then shipped to war refugees in Asia.

The puddle of men on the snows of the starting area is spreading far and wide. Among the masses there are posts marked with numbers indicating where each contestant should be. There have been 8,594 numbers issued for this Vasaloppet. Each racer wears a bib with his number on it. Each bib also is imprinted with large black letters spelling the bold message—EKSTROMS BL√ÖB√ÑR! This is not a fierce old Scandinavian war cry. It is an advertisement for a commercial powder manufactured by Ekstroms, a food-products firm; when the powder is mixed with hot water it makes bl√•b√§r (blueberry soup). In return for the blueberry soup-bibs-billboards, Ekstroms donated 40,000 Swedish kronor ($8,450), plus all the blueberry-soup mix the Vasaloppet could consume. Which is a lot of blueberry soup—about 500 gallons.

If many a Vasaloppet runner is born in aquavit on New Year's Eve, he is then baptized in blueberry soup on Vasaloppet Pås Öndag. The black forests between Sälen and Mora are not filled with albino eagles or gnomes' troves. Instead, the morning gloom conceals vast stores of blueberry soup cached in the trees at strategic points along the trail. Caldrons of sweet, blue stew are boiling throughout the forest this morning, and there is more on the way. At one point, the crowds of contestants on the road raise a threatening grumble as a huge, canvas-covered truck forces its way through them. The canvas is flapping, the driver is cursing and chains gripping the great square tanks on its trailer rattle angrily. But the irritated crowd is soothed as soon as it identifies the great truck. "It is carrying the blueberry soup!" cries one man.

"Of course it is," says another, and he throws a salute at the thick rear tires as they roll past him and splash water on his feet.

Blueberry soup is waiting ahead for the racers at half a dozen cold oases called kontrolls. These are bustling stations set up to dispense nourishment and encouragement to the weary skiers as they assault the Vasaloppet. Long wooden tables are lined up beneath the pines on each side of the trail and they are set with steaming pots of blueberry soup and lemon water and Havre vailing, a thin, gray gruel. Behind the tables, stamping their feet in the cold, are dozens of ruddy-faced residents of villages and cottages along the track; mostly they are the aged and the female, for most of the younger men are in the race. They are bundled and booted against the cold. They must stand in the snow for seven or eight hours, pouring dippers of blue soup or gray gruel into paper cups and handing them to desperate skiers charging out of the woods. They are the Good Samaritans of the Vasaloppet and as they wait for the race to start many kilometers away they chat happily and contentedly stir their pots of soup. They look cherubic, beatific—how can one better spend a Sabbath than serving the needs of fellow men?

Now it is 7:30 a.m. and the 49th Vasaloppet is to start in precisely 15 minutes. The flats are carpeted with humanity, a broad mosaic ocean on a field of white. There is a strange, muffled hum in the air like a 100-acre swarm of bees trapped in a 40-acre blanket: it is the sound of 8,000 men nervously asking each other exactly what time it is. There is a thin line of skiers in front of the mass; among this elite group are Sweden's finest plus world-class racers from other countries, including four members of the Russian Olympic team. Behind the elite there is a second echelon of perhaps 1,000 very good skiers, Swedish provincial and association champions and such. Then comes another wave of about 1,500 men who have finished well in Vasaloppets past. Then there are those who bring up the rear.

As crushed together as a rush-hour crowd on a subway platform, they mill about anxiously, praying that their ski tips will not be snapped off in the first unruly charge of the mob, gazing worriedly at the wall of men's backs ahead in hope of seeing some open avenue to start, muttering idle threats at men who look to be either too aggressive or too slow—these are the 5,000-odd ne'er-do-wells at the rear. They are the essence of the Vasaloppet.

They are called the Blueberries. They are called this with affection and warmth, because the word bl√•b√§r has come to mean novice or tenderfoot as well as blueberry soup. The Blueberries have no hope of winning the race. Because of the cramped, sardine-can condition of their start, they will not even reach the first turn—about one mile away—until perhaps three-quarters of an hour after the forward echelon of elite has rushed around it and fled deep into the woods. But for the Blueberries, winning the Vasaloppet is beside the point. To ski it is the thing, and merely to finish the race is the victory.

The reasons for this are neither complex nor particularly profound. The Blueberries ski the Vasaloppet because there are more than eight million Swedes and three million of them work in factories—with machines and for machines. The Blueberries ski the Vasaloppet because Swedes have more TV sets, more flush toilets, more electrified homes per capita than any nation in Europe. They ski it because Sweden has more cars per capita than any major country in Europe. The Blueberries ski the Vasaloppet because Swedes are more mechanized, socialized, industrialized, organized than most anyone else on earth.

Every time a Blueberry drives himself over the full, agonizing 53.3 miles of the course and lurches across the finish line in Mora it is a new declaration of independence from the machinery of Sweden. No mere Volvo factory can possess a man who has done the Vasaloppet, and that is the reason the Blueberries are there.

Now it is within six or seven minutes of the starting time. The Blueberries are growing restive. So are the elite. For some time the air above the assembled thousands has been filled with flying bundles and arching packages. The racers are discarding their old clothes, stuffing them in plastic bags and tossing them forward over the heads of men in the front, who pick them up and throw them further to the front. At last the tattered garb arrives at the first rank and the bundles are piled neatly, there to await post-race retrieval and perhaps eventual transportation to Asia.

A crowd of several thousand spectators has gathered on the ground above the fiats. They are gazing at their watches. "Three minutes," someone shouts. There is a pause. "Two minutes," someone shouts. There is a pause again—then without warning a grand, hair-raising sound wells up from within the mass of racers below. It is a chilling, exciting, yet oddly gentle sound. It is like a stiff west wind rustling the leaves of birch trees and the rush of free running water in an unstemmed creek and the flapping of 10,000 seagulls' wings. It is an unforgettable, immense sound. It is made by the wooden skis of 8,000 men gliding smoothly, relentlessly, over the field of snow.

The 49th Vasaloppet begins simply of its own pent-up momentum, a fine, fluid force that has lapped and lapped and lapped at its boundaries until it overlaps and flows out of control. There is no signal—no cracking cannon shot, no shout. And the mass is suddenly sweeping along like a graceful, blueberry Rio Grande.

Here and there a man yodels. But, except for the mighty whisper-roar of the skis, few other sounds reach the spectators.

Deep in that flowing stream, however, men are muttering every Swedish curse ever said. They are elbowing each other and tripping over discarded overcoats and stalling in fury against those heaps of plastic clothing bags. Great knots develop in the crowd as a man falls and other men stumble and stop. One man falls, becomes dazed, and rises facing the wrong direction. He cannot get room enough in the swarm of men rushing at him to turn his long skis around and he shouts angrily. He shakes a fist. But no one gives him the few extra feet he needs to swing his skis around on the snow. He is forced to hurriedly crouch and take them off while thousands charge by. Holding his skis erect, he slowly turns around, bends down and puts the skis on again. Now facing the right direction, he begins to race again.

At last the great tide has moved out of the starting acreage. In its wake there is flotsam of the race—orange peels and trampled coats and a broken ski pole and the tips of several skis snapped off and, yes, half a dozen men—Blueberries, of course. A couple are kneeling and fiddling frantically with errant bindings. Two others are simply standing still, stunned perhaps, gazing thoughtfully after the departing stampede they have so narrowly survived. Another fellow is lurching past the crowd with a decidedly gimpy gait. One ski is gliding nicely, but the other is just a splintered stump where the tip was snapped off. The limping man gazes up at the crowd with a look of infinite sadness; there seem to be tears in his eyes.

And the mass of racers continues on without him, spilling on and on in their bright knitted caps. They flow on past the wide, white fields of the start, across the road to Sälen and up a slope to where the trail narrows. They must squeeze together just before they disappear into the forest.

The Vasaloppet was not always such a massive spectacular. It purports to commemorate a lonely and heroic trek on skis once made by Gustav Vasa, who held the official title of King of Sweden, the Goths and the Wends from 1523 to 1560. As the story goes, in the year 1521 Sweden was invaded by the Danes, and Gustav Vasa, a staunch patriot who had only two years previously escaped their bloody grasp, fled to the Dalarna region of Sweden, there hoping to hide, organize the peasants and launch a revolt against the invaders from the south. The peasants were reluctant to become involved, and Gustav, angered, plunged into the snows outside the village of Mora, determined to ski off to Norway to go into exile. However, Gustav had scarcely left town when the peasants had a change of heart. They chased him through the woods, caught him, knelt down and pledged there in the snowy forest to fight against the Danes with him. They led him triumphantly back to Mora and began a successful rebellion.

Now how does that fit in with an 85-kilometer loppet (the race) from Sälen to Mora? Well, it really does not. It is doubtful that Vasa ever got as far as 85 kilometers out of town. Besides, he was traveling from Mora toward Sälen, not vice versa as the Vasaloppet goes. Beyond that, there have long been reports that Gustav Vasa actually grew up in Denmark where there was less snow, and that while he may have been on snowshoes now and then, he probably never wore a ski in his life. There also are stories (though perhaps slightly less authentic than the story of his ski trek) that Vasa was never able to get more than a few kilometers out of Mora because he kept meeting an impressive assortment of farmers' wives and dairymaids, and that when the peasants finally found him he was not skiing through the woods at all but was deep in a haystack with a pretty girl. There also is a possibility that Vasa never visited the Dalarna region during the winter.

However, this raveled sleeve of history has not deterred Vasaloppet fathers from carrying on for 49 years. Rune Andersson, a former grocery store owner, is general secretary of the Vasaloppet, its only full-time employee. When Mr. Andersson was asked about discrepancies in the ancient version of the Vasa race, he smiled crookedly and said cryptically, "We believe what we must believe, must we not?"

The modern Vasaloppet began in 1922 as a 400th-anniversary memorial to whatever it was you wish to believe that Gustav did in Dalarna. A field of 119 skiers turned up and 117 finished the race. Everyone was from the neighborhood, and it was years before the entry list included many people from other parts of Sweden.

Not until 1959 did the Vasaloppet attract as many as 1,000 contestants, but it has multiplied its entries ever since, reaching a peak of 9,000 in 1970. It is no longer an exclusive Swedish race or even Scandinavian; this year 16 countries were represented and, gradually, the face of the Vasaloppet is changing—it is even growing a bit of a Roman nose.

For the past few years an excited contingent of well over 100 Italians has journeyed to Mora for the Vasaloppet; they are a rollicking, romantic crew and each year they have held a ritual at the feet of a large, green statue of Gustav Vasa that stands near the finish line of the race. This year the Italian crowd staged its traditional preritual parade in front of the Mora Hotell, trooping off with trumpets blaring for a march through town on the way to the statue. A small crowd of curious Swedes assembled to wait for the parade to sweep down the flag-draped avenue that led to the finish-line banners and the statue. Unfortunately, the Italian parade lost its way in the village streets and, rather than striding dramatically to the flag-draped finish, the marchers had to straggle through an opening in the fence behind Vasa's statue. Unfazed, they scrambled up the snowbank below Vasa, unfurled flags and stood at attention for a rather long ceremony during which several flowery-sounding speeches were made in Italian, two songs were rendered in Italian and a wreath was settled at Gustav's green feet (which, incidentally, wear no skis). The small, attentive group of Swedes applauded whenever there was an appropriate lull in the ceremony, but even those who claimed to understand some snippets of Italian admitted afterward that they had no idea what the ceremony had been about.

The light hearts of the Italians are not typical of the Vasaloppet environment. This is a remarkably sober, serious, unsmiling event. There are no large parties before or after it, and certainly the most interesting drink in evidence is blueberry soup.

The night before the Vasaloppet is perhaps one of the more dreadful ordeals suffered by sportsmen. The thousands of entrants are put up in whatever spare space can be found in the sparsely settled hills of Dalarna. They spend the night sprawled together like vast litters of puppies on the floors of private homes, abandoned cottages and classrooms of schools. Dozens of men sleep shoulder to shoulder in a single room, and the roar of snoring and coughing and moaning and cursing in dreams is a terrible thing to endure. All through the night many of these poor fellows are up, hollow-eyed and frowning, prowling about in their long underwear like ghosts of Danes long dead. Some cannot sleep because they see the 53.3 miles of the Vasaloppet stretch ahead of them like a gantlet of fire. Some cannot sleep because they are afraid the weather will change in the night; they rise constantly to gaze out a window and watch for rain. Some cannot sleep because they dare not close their eyes for fear that their best friend will sneak out and secretly change the wax on their skis so they will stand glued to the snow at the start.

All through the night, by flashlight and candlelight and by the light of portable acetylene torch and wooden kitchen match, the learned discussion goes on and on and on—which wax? which wax? which wax? Some will not admit to their own brothers which wax they will use tomorrow, while others willingly hold long and garrulous seminars with any assembly of sleepless souls who will listen. As the midnight mists rise into the trees, they talk on about the theories of waxing: perhaps blue, followed by just a thin, thin coating of klister, and perhaps a touch of the red. And always they worry all night long about the weather.

By morning, it is surprising that the Vasaloppet has enough survivors to begin. But, of course, there are thousands. And the weather? What of the weather? Alas, it is quite warm and the snow is tungt före: it is very heavy going on this Vasaloppet Pås Öndag.

After the turn into the woods above the start the great clump of contestants begins to unravel through the pines. The race settles down to an earnest, foolish repetition of the same driving stride, a stride that does not go as far as one might like on this dank snow. The woods are filled with sweating men, led by a spearhead of the elite. Vasaloppets past have been celebrated for the jokes, the friendships, the bull sessions carried on along the track by men skiing at the same speed. Not today. It is too wet, too slow, too demanding a track for camaraderie.

The first kontroll is at the village of Mångsbodarna, 14 miles along the way, and the racers come pouring out of the forest as if being chased by lunatics and wolves. Already, just a quarter of the way along, their faces have taken on strange casts, strange colors. Streaks of white flesh, the dead hue of frostbite, appear within patches of ruddy skin, and their eyes seem sunken. There is rime on their eyelids, rime on their eyebrows. Those with shaggy beards or lush sideburns are carrying dangling icicles that hang like earrings; soon the icicles will grow as big as cut-crystal pieces from a chandelier. Already they seem a race of men outside civilization, somehow closer to a primitive animal form than they were when they began the Vasaloppet. It is impossible to think of them as barbers and lawyers and used-car salesmen because they have already changed so much on the first leg of the Vasaloppet. Already they seem obsessed with the hope of mere survival.

Slogging out of the forest, they pass under a banner which says, V√ÑLKOMMEN TILL M√ÖNGSBODARNA. The cheery old ladies and the placid old men behind the wooden tables hold out cups of blueberry soup in both hands and the grateful racers ski to the Good Samaritans and take the steaming stuff. They gulp at it, panting, making desperate wet noises. The soup spills—great splotches of blue—on their racing bibs and their jackets and their beards and across their boots and skis. Soon the snow turns a pale blueberry blue beneath the serving tables. For hours the racers will be coming through the M√§ngsbodarna kontroll and the fires beneath the caldrons of blue soup will burn until dusk.

So it will go on through the day, throngs of gasping skiers rushing through the woods as if it were a busy city street. Through the village of Risberg and across Lake Mellansjön and past kontroll Evertsberg and along the shore of Lake Oxbergssjön and through the strange gray ghost village of Gopshus, abandoned three decades ago by a forgotten sect of Swedes who one day simply packed up and disappeared forever because they said God had called them to live in Israel.

The day dwindles on, always gray, sometimes sprinkled with wet snow flurries. Spectators park their cars along the road, then ski into the forest themselves to crouch by the trail, waiting perhaps with a thermos of fresh bouillon or a sack of oranges for a friend or a father to come churning by.

They yell, "Heja! Heja! Papa, Papa, Heja!" to urge him on his painful route. When he has passed, the spectators ski out of the woods, return to the car and drive ahead to another place in the snow along the track where they cry out again, "Heja, Papa, Heja!"

It is after 2 p.m. now, and there is excitement at the finish line. The leader is but one kilometer away, and he will be the winner. The leader is Lars-Arne Bölling, a boy from hometown Mora and a member of the Swedish Olympic team. And, yes, he drives across the line five hours, 35 minutes, 19 seconds after the start. It is a slow time because of the conditions of the trail. In second place comes Vjaceslav Vedenin, the hard-driving, tireless Russian who won a gold medal at Sapporo. He is almost five minutes slower than Bölling.

From now until almost 10 o'clock at night there will be a steady, ghastly stream of men skiing down the finishing corridor and beneath the banner which says, IN THE TRAIL OF OUR FOREFATHERS FOR FUTURE VICTORIES. More and more they will look like survivors instead of victors. Some will have bleeding feet and others will collapse. Many will be unable to bend over to undo their bindings and some will weep. Their faces and their beards and their chests will be stained blue from soup and there will be clusters of icicles rattling in their hair. Their eyes will seem blank or stricken or blind or haunted. Yet as each man takes the last stride to cross the line, he looks into the crowd gathered beneath the banners and he seeks an eye in the crowd. Even a stranger's eye. And when he meets another's gaze, his stiffened, exhausted face breaks into an enormous smile. The smile of a victor, not a survivor.

Some do not need to look for a stranger's welcome. Here a man staggers to the finish area. His face is the color of chalk and his eyes droop shut, his shoulders slump and his head lolls backward—until a shrill voice cries, "Papa! Papa!" Then he opens his eyes and straightens up and grins, and a small boy stands and stares up in adoration at a man who has just finished the Vasaloppet. Then he kneels to undo his father's bindings.

On this first Sunday in March a total of 7,990 men started the race after dropouts and illness cut the field. Amazingly, 7,421 finished, the last man after 13 hours and 28 minutes on the trail. A man died of a heart attack a few kilometers from the start. He fell in the crowd and a doctor stopped to help, but it was too late. He was the first—ever—since the Vasaloppet began, a miraculous record which could not continue.

As night falls, the men who have finished the Vasaloppet do not tarry. They pick up their skis and hurry to their cars to begin the dark drive home. Tomorrow, as usual, they must report for work at the Volvo factory. Or, perhaps, not quite as usual.