Post No. 11 — The Passion of the Dutch

As December turns into January and February and the temperature dips across the Netherlands, it awakens a deep longing and hope among the Dutch.  It starts with the small narrow canals, then little ponds — the edges first — as the ice starts to creep ever further out across the water.   And then, if the weather holds, people across the north of the country, and indeed in every province of the Netherlands, begin to dream . . . “Maybe this year.”

I myself have always been an abysmal ice skater.  Put me on ice and I’m one of those who either clutch desperately to the outer wall or, upon venturing into the center of the ice, resembles a newborn foal with my legs splaying in all unplanned directions.

“It’ll be fun,” said Judith.  As a volunteer with Groningen Verwelkomt (GV), an organization we both help out with, Judith was organizing a weekly series of skating outings with refugees (“new Groningers” in GV’s gracious parlance) from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Trinidad and other nations.   Rather ironic, I thought.  I might finally learn to skate properly with people from the Middle East and the Caribbean.

The main indoor venue for such outings in Groningen is Sportcentrum Kardinge.  It’s an amazing complex.  Actually, I was enraptured by the whole experience.

Inside is a scene.  Ahead of the open skating that starts at 8:15 p.m., team skating squads came off the ice and stopped in the cafe for a Heineken, espresso or hot chocolate.  Think apres ski!  Many were outfitted head-to-toe in gear that made me feel as though I’d stumbled into some site for the next olympic trials.

The effort to start skating with refugees started slowly with just 5 of us skating that first night (and no “new” Groningers).   That was probably a good thing as it gave me a chance to get my skating legs and for all of us to prepare for the coming weeks. (Left to right above is me, Mirjam and Roby (two students from Leiden who were helping out), Jan (our skating instructor) and Judith.)

“Look, no hands!!!”

What you learn quickly at the Kardinge facility is that the ice rink is organized like the autobahn.  Fast skaters operate in that inner blue lane, medium speed skaters are in the middle lane, and then, well, I was relegated to the outer training lane.

What transfixed me was the absolute beauty of the skating.  People skated on their own, in pairs, or most strikingly, in these long caravans of skaters that moved in a common rhythm as they swept around the rink.

The still pictures, however, can’t fully capture the fluid beauty and energy of the skaters.  To get a better sense of that, watch this short video.  Keep an eye out for the person who was getting special training on how to improve their technique of going around curves.

The following Tuesday night we were back and had a full crowd!

Our numbers grew, from 18 to 24 to 28 to 34!   Special thanks to Ronald and Marrietta and all the folks from the Colorful Bedum foundation who added so much to our gatherings!

Many of us were novices, so we would have been lost without Jan’s help (above), who guided kids and adults alike.

The mission of Groningen Verwelkomt is to help the “New Groningers” feel more at home in the Netherlands.  Introducing them to the fun and Dutch love for skating was a great way to do that.  But some of the most important connections happened after we left the ice and gathered in the cafe for hot chocolate.

Judith bringing the first batch of hot chocolates over to our table.

It was in the course of sipping these hot chocolates that I learned about the pinnacle of the Dutch passion for skating:  the “Elfstedentocht” — the 11 city race.  This race began informally in the 1700s in the northern province of Friesland until it was officially organized in 1909 with 22 participants.   The race route follows a series of canals that run through 11 picturesque towns in Friesland.   The dotted box on the map below shows the region where the race takes place.

Below, you see the roughly circular course through the 11 towns.  The race begins and ends in Leeuwarden.  The total distance of this 1 day event:  199 kilometers (or, for American readers, 123 miles, which is the distance from New York City to Wilmington, Delaware on I-95).

This annual event can only take place when the weather cooperates and the ice reaches a thickness of 15 centimeters (6 inches).   Since 1909, the race has been held 15 times — in 1909, ’12, ’17, ’29, ’33, ’40, ’41, ’42, ’47, ’54, ’56, ’63, ’85, ’86 and ’97.   Prior to this year, the longest previous “drought” had been the 22 years between 1963 and ’85.

The race has two phases.  First there is a group of about 230 racers, the top qualifying competitors, who will strive to win that year’s race.  They begin the race in the complete darkness of early morning.  After the racing group goes, then the “recreational” skaters set out, in groups of 1,000, every 15 minutes.  For safety purposes, the organizers of the Elfstedentocht limit the possible number of participants to 30,000 people who have membership cards in the event.   In practice, about 16,000 recreational racers attempt the event.  It’s been estimated that some 1.5 to 2.0 million visitors flood the northern province of Friesland to line the canal race route while another 9.2 million people (out of the Dutch population of 17 million) watch the event on TV.  As for people who are able to actually participate in the race, it’s the thrill of a lifetime.  When the Elfstedentocht is on, it is possibly, for the Dutch, bigger than the World Cup or the Olympics.

 Above, from the 1997 Elfstedentocht.  Photo by Dimitri Georganas/Associated Press

Some Elfstedentochts are legendary.  The Elfstedentocht of 1963 was dubbed “The hell of ’63” because of the brutally cold temperatures of -18 °C and a merciless winds.  That year, only 69 out of a total of 10,000 entrants completed the race; and the winner, Reinier Paping, became an instant national hero.  Then in 1986, then Prince (now King) Willem of the Netherlands participated in the race in cognito — and finished!  When the public learned that he had participated in and completed the Elfstedentocht, his popularity soared!

By it’s very nature, there is no set date for the annual race — it depends upon the weather and the deterimination by a committee if the necessary conditions are met.   When the temperatures take a dive — and stay there — then the country is swept with “Elfstedenkoorts” — eleven cities fever!   Once the committee makes the determination and public announcement that the Elfstedentocht IS ON, then the race takes place in 48 hours!  As you can imagine, the suddenness of the race announcement can be challenging for those who want to participate or be on hand to watch.  A massive number of sick day requests are filed with schools and employers!  And then there’s the case of the would-be Elfstedentocht entrants who find themselves in Rio or Hawaii on a winter vacation when the committee announces that the race is on.  In response to this serious dilemma, the major Dutch insurance company based in Friesland, FBTO, unveiled a new vacation cancellation insurance product just this past January.  Check it out:

Hans van Aalderen, a Communications Manager for FTBO, was kind enough to walk me through the new product.  Now, if you’re a certified member of the Elfstedentocht, you can go off on your winter vacation anywhere in the world with the peace of mind that IF THE RACE IS ON, you can make it!

But what is it like to be IN the race?

To get a window into this event, I spoke with Harry Schut (above) who graciously agreed to be interviewed for this blog post.

These days, Harry (above in lime green) is at the Sportcentrum Kardinge almost every night to train skaters for competition.

But in 1985, Harry was a college student in Groningen.  While he first started skating at 3 years old, he didn’t get serious until his college years.  “By then, it was too late.  If you want to compete at the highest level, you need to start training by the age of 12 or 13 to learn the proper technique.”

Nonetheless, he had the dream of skating in the Elfstedentocht.  He wasn’t a member of the race, but because it had been 22 years since it ran in 1963, membership slots were available.  So when the weather went into a deep freeze that February of ’85, and the committee announced that the RACE WAS ON, a further announcement was made that people could line up to get the available membership passes at different points in the country.  Harry stood in line for 6 1/2 hours in Groningen to get his membership — and then he left immediately for the starting point, Leeuwarden.

Harry told me that his group of 1,000 skaters started at 8:45 a.m.  He began in total darkness and he finished the race in total darkness 14 1/2 hours later at 11:15 p.m.  Was it physically hard, I asked?  “YES!  But it was mentally harder.  That’s because it was windy, I skated most of the race in the dark (due to short winter days in the Netherlands), and at one point, the water was up to my knees!”  (That’s what happens after thousands of people have skated over a stretch of ice, and 1985, while cold, had the highest race day temperature (0.3 celsius) since the race of 1912.)

“And then don’t forget,” Harry added, “no cell phones.”

Did you ever think of quitting, I asked?  “And what?  Take public transportation back to Leeuwarden?!!  I would never quit.  I would rather die on the ice.”

Why did you do it?  “I saw it as my challenge.  It was one of the best performances of my life.  Now I could do the Elfstedentocht in half the time because my technique is better.  But for where I was at that point in my life, it was one of the best performances of my life.”

Of course for many Dutch, the lack of an Elfstedentocht for the past 22 years has been a keen disappointment.  The committee was close to announcing the Elfstedentocht in 2012, but after much debate, opted not to do so due to safety concerns about some segments of the course.   That leaves many Dutch, such as our Tuesday night skate instructor Jan Achterberg (above), waiting.  How do you deal with that, I asked?  Jan put it to me this way.  “I’m a Christian.  So I think of the Elfstedentocht kind of like the second coming of Christ.  You never know when it’s going to happen, but you always have to be ready!!”

Jan told me, however, about an alternative that has been developed to the epic Dutch race.  With warmer temperatures and climate change leading many to wonder when the next Elfstedentocht will occur, some Dutch organized a race at Weisensee, Austria, one of the highest lakes in Europe which is (for now) assured of freezing over each year.  Since 1989, about 6,000 Dutch skaters make the annual pilgrimmage to Weissensee and it’s small town of the same name.  Jan himself has done the Weissensee race twice.   A recent New York Times article by Andrew Keh quoted the mayor of Weissensee, Gerhard Koch, as saying “for two weeks, Weissensee becomes Dutch!”

Another of the skating coaches for our Tuesday night outings, Han Westig, just competed in the Weissensee race this February.  Han was kind to share some pictures from the event:

Ready to go in the morning before first light!

Han’s group sets off.

Skating in the beauty of the Austrian Alps!

Han finished the 199 Km race at Weissensee in 8 hours and 29 minutes.

While the Austrian race is a welcome option for the Elfstedentocht-starved Dutch, it’s still not quite the same as the epic 11 city race.  Erben Wennemars, a professional speed skater, also participated at Weissensee this February.  Interviewed for the forementioned New York Times article, Wennemars said, “I’m an eight-time world champion, I won two Olympic medals, but I’d throw it all away for the Elfstedentocht.  There are a lot of people who have gold medals.  But it you win the Elfstedentocht, you’ll be known for the rest of your life.”

As for this year, any Elfstedentocht fever has subsided as temperatures are hovering well above freezing.  Forecasters had already predicted that the next hope for the race would be in 2020.   And perhaps that’s just as well.  After all, that will give me more time to (a) apply for my race membership, (b) begin training in earnest with Harry and (c) call Hans to pick up my FBTO travel insurance!  (I also anticipate I’ll have a conversation with my wife about all this after she reads this post . . . )

To close out this post, I leave you with a special report from Dutch televsion about the last running of the Elfstedentocht in 1997.  This six minute clip (in Dutch, which makes it better, even for English speakers!), helps capture the frenzy, the passion, the exhaustion, the heartbreak, the joy, the insanity and the thrill which is Dutch skating and the Elfstedentocht!

















































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