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Headed for the Finnish

The mammoth Ice Marathon in Finland lured an eager American skater: the author

Decked out in my blue-and-yellow windbreaker, black spandex pants with multicolored swirl down the right leg, and mirror ski goggles, I walked onto vast Lake Kallavesi one afternoon last February and made my way to the skating track, some 200 yards from shore.

This was the largest frozen surface I had ever seen—or at least seen part of. When not frozen, 350-square-mile Kallavesi, in eastern Finland's Lake District, forms part of Europe's largest coastal waterway system. When frozen—as it is every year from early December through the middle of April—its 16-inch-thick surface serves, among other things, as a four-lane road connecting the district's largest city, Kuopio, to a shore some six miles away.

The Finnish Tourist Board's events list for the coming year simply stated: "Finland Ice Marathon. International skating race on lake ice. 12.5, 25, 50, and 100 kilometers. Mass event." That one line of fine print was enough to convince me that the race would be worth a trip to Finland. The event would be the ultimate for a 34-year-old recreational skater who trains on the Rockefeller Center rink in New York City.

Uncertain of what skating such distances entailed, I nevertheless registered by mail for the 25-kilometer race. The route would take skaters twice around the eight-mile-long track that wound its way from Kuopio's harbor out toward the lake's center, around a large, sparsely inhabited island and back to the harbor. I figured the nearly 16-mile race equaled an entire season of skating around the Rock rink. I have a season pass, and each week in winter I squeeze in three sessions beneath the outstretched arms of the golden Prometheus that looms over the rink.

An occasional passing car on the lake-top road behind me and some small children skating nearby made the only sounds I heard during my first prerace practice run. The color scheme here—342 miles below the Arctic Circle—was solidly white. Except for its recently cleared skating tracks, the lake's surface for miles around was covered with snow. Seamlessly, the snow connected lake and shoreline, with only a beached boat or a patch of conifers marking the point where land and ice met.

A few days later, while sitting on the ice to change from sneakers to skates for a last practice before the next day's race, I met two speed skaters who were just finishing a workout. The two, wrapped from the neck down in spandex suits, stopped to take off their skates.

"You're here for the race?" asked one, in lightly accented English.

"The 25 kilometer. And you?"

"One hundred K. We're with the Dutch team," he told me, pointing out that this was not his first time in Kuopio. By the looks of their regalia—their suits were plastered with the names of conglomerates and airlines—they had toured the speed skating sites of the world.

"Are you going to race in those'?" the other asked, nodding toward my Bauer Supremes.

"Yep!" I said, emphasizing my answer with a hard tug at the laces of my trusty hockey skates.

His teammate offered me a closer look at the foot-long blades of his speed skates. "You go four times faster with speed skates than with those you have," my expert said.

"Where are you from?" he asked.

"New York."

"Oh, we heard someone from New York is here," sounding as though he wanted to say, Someone from New York actually knows about this race?

Marten Hoekstra and Bennie van der Weide, both in their 40's, have returned each year to Kuopio since the marathon's inception, in 1984.I was the first American they had encountered on Lake Kallavesi. Indeed I had the distinction—announced at a prerace press conference by the race's organizer, Leo Kyt‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ávaara—of being the first American skater ever to register for the Finland Ice Marathon.

Word of my arrival—that is, of an American skater's arrival—made its way to Team Holland, who thought I might be there to challenge their excellence in long-distance skating. But my appearance that afternoon in hockey skates quickly put to rest any fears of an international showdown. And I soon found out that I wouldn't even be competing against the best skaters. The stars were all entered in the 100-kilometer race. This was the premier event, one that drew marathon skaters from around the world, with none more committed to the event than my Dutch friends.

Beside van der Weide and Hoekstra, a onetime member of the Netherlands speed skating team Dutch team included 55-year-old Jan Roelof Kruithof, twice a winner in Kuopio, and 63-year-old Jeen van den Berg, who took third place in the 100K in 1991.

On race day the area around the starting lines was filled with trailers and large tents set up for the throngs of spectators, racers, race officials and press. Fresh from a recent clearing, the ice surface gleamed in the bright sunlight. Flags representing the countries of all the racers—including the Stars and Stripes and, also for the first time, the white, blue and red horizontal bars of the Russian Federation—fluttered in the wind. The smell of sausages grilled by concessionaires near the ice track sent numerous dogs scurrying for scraps.

The participants in the 100K event were already gathered when I got there. I looked for my Dutch acquaintances and wished them luck. Realizing the 25K race was about to start, I laced up and gingerly walked in the direction of the starting area. For the last time I adjusted my goggles, tightened my laces and on hearing the Finnish equivalent of "Go!" and the traditional pistol shot, forged ahead.

While the cleared ice at the starting area accommodated all entrants, it was another matter when the 180 skaters in the 25K race funneled onto the 12-foot-wide track for the rest of the race. Clusters developed quickly. A group of about 25 skaters broke from the mass and whisked ahead. Other, smaller groups of 10 or so formed at various distances behind the leaders. It was in the middle of one of these 10-packs that I was firmly ensconced, and my immediate concern was to avoid the occasional cracks and fissures that are plentiful on Kallavesi's ice. Falling would mean being trampled by the charging group of skaters close behind me. Equally, I was wary of skaters falling in front of mc, as at this speed there would be no chance to avoid tumbling over them. Forget winning; it was pure survival at this point. At first I deliberately slowed down, letting the dozen or so skaters breathing heavily behind me pass. Next I distanced myself from several skaters just ahead of me. Skating directly behind others made it hard to detect cracks directly in front of mc. Glancing at the shadows cast by skaters on the track's mirrorlike surface, I could see when it was clear to overtake and when I had to move aside.

As I approached the course's first big turn, a right leading out from the town's harbor, I remembered the advice the Dutchmen had given me: With a tailwind, stay upright in order to use the body as a sail; against a head wind, bend at the waist to decrease wind resistance. To fight the natural tendency to bend forward, I prodded myself by chanting, "Stay up, stay up," throughout the race.

I fell into a rhythm as I reached what I figured was the halfway point of the first lap. Except for having to lift my goggles occasionally to clear the fog from my eyeglasses underneath them, there were no distractions in the middle of the lake. Here and there a small group of spectators watched from alongside the track, or more often, a pair of curious cross-country skiers stopped to watch the skaters glide by. As Kuopio's shoreline came into view, I knew I was nearing the backstretch of Lap 1, almost halfway through the race. A portion of this stretch felt like a wind tunnel, with strong gusts blowing at me from shore. Here no chanting helped, and I had to bend at the waist, seemingly skating in place. Entering the harbor area and the final turn of the first lap, I was leading a pack of skaters and wondering how far ahead the race leaders were by now.

As my pack started Lap 2, we were greeted by vocal spectators. Some offered cups of hot cider to skaters flying by. I grabbed a cup, shouting, "Thank you!" as I passed the hospitable stranger. I savored the warm, sweet drink for several seconds before tossing the paper cup aside. Although it must have been about an hour since the race had started, and thus just after noon, the low sun made it seem as though dusk were approaching. Leaving the crowds and the general tumult of the finishing area and heading back toward the silence of the lake's interior, I felt as if I were skating uphill.

A pack of four or five skaters was behind me. It was the same group, I thought, that had been with me since the halfway point of Lap 1. I needed the skaters' company now, and they were spurring me forward as much as I was setting a pace for them. Several times I heard the sound of someone wiping out—first came the ominous crunch of ice collapsing beneath a skate blade, then the accompanying shriek of a sprawling skater—and wished that I could do more than shake my head in sympathy.

With a strong tailwind, I arched my back and felt the wind push me forward. I broke from the pack, chanting, "Stay up, stay up" to myself. Of the 10 or more skaters I passed, I took special joy in overtaking those in speed skates. At first I was content just to settle in behind these long-bladed racers, figuring that if my legs emulated theirs, I, too, could glide along without apparent effort. Now I was catching up to them and churning past. And still there was no sign of the skaters who had broken ahead at the start of the race.

Passing the course's midpoint—looping for the last time around the pine-covered island—I was thirsty and sagging at the waist. As the course headed into a strong wind, my strategy was to get through this stretch as quickly as possible, spending my strength here rather than saving it for the last part of the race, in which I hoped to have a strong tailwind to carry me to the finish. I adjusted my goggles and tried skating upright at full stride into the wind. No way. I was forced to bend, and slowly chug it out.

I did catch up to three hockey skaters, talking among themselves in Finnish. We were still moving into the wind, and I was determined to keep pace with them for the rest of the race. While keeping an eye on the ice for cracks, I slipped in behind one skater and used his large frame as a shield against the wind. He sensed my plan and sped up. I darted behind him again, maneuvering like a halfback following his blocker. That wasn't in his game plan either, and he again left me to fend with the wind by myself.

We were heading into the last turn. The harbor and town were in view. The trio of burly Finns tried to lose me, but every time they sped up, I followed, intent on keeping pace with them. I made my own move to pass them, more to have an unobstructed view of the ice than to finish ahead of them. Both sides of the track were now filled two or three deep with cheering spectators, I could see the finish line in the distance, and I broke into a sprint, swinging my arms from side to side. The cheering grew louder—no doubt for my bold move, I thought—and oblivious of any imperfections on the surface below my feet, I darted for the finish line. Just then I heard the sound that I had hoped not to hear: the foreboding crunch of a skate blade finding a crevice. Flailing my limbs like an actor in a slapstick comedy, I somehow remained upright the last 20 feet and thrust myself over the finish line. As I passed through the electronic timing beam, a race official jotted down the number—595—that was pinned to my chest, confirming my finish.

Although I was curious to know my time, my first thought was to drink a jug or two of the warm cider. Race officials generously obliged, offering cup after cup to racers cooling off and removing their skates. Failing to get my official time, I lined up with other skaters for the traditional postrace meal of thick pea soup served with a slice of brown bread.

It was not until the next evening that I would find out the time and position of my finish. I picked up the sheets listing the men's results in the 25K race. I wasn't on the first page: a quartet of Russian skaters finished one, two, four and six. The winner, Maxim Korotkov, came in at 48 minutes, 55.4 seconds—a nice clip of 20 mph. I turned to the next page. Nothing. Smack in the middle of page three, at number 72, was entry No. 595. I finished the race in 1:25:53.9, just under 37 minutes behind the winner. I figured Korotkov was sipping his cider at the finish line just as I was enjoying my refresher at the race's halfway point. Right below me on the page, numbers 73 to 75, were the Finnish trio. I was even more comforted by the two additional pages of results.

Not bad, I thought, for someone from that little-known breeding ground of marathon skaters just off Fifth Avenue. Moreover, I not only finished the race without a trace of ice or snow above my ankles, but I also set myself up for a title defense as the fastest American skater at the Finland Ice Marathon.

Avi Kempinski is a free-lance writer and year-round skater who lives in New York City.