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Friesland gripped by ice-skating fever

By Adriana Stuijt     Dec 30, 2008 in Sports
Will the gruelling 124-mile Eleven Cities iceskating marathon take place in Friesland this year? This event with 16,000 skilled amateurs braving arctic conditions in a gruelling sports event is getting nearer -- if it keeps freezing.
Known as the Elfstedentocht in Dutch, the one-day tour is an obsession for every one of its 16,000 registered amateurs of all ages from local ice-skating clubs. The event celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. For a bird;s eye view of the route check this video here:
The Dutch are already out on the lakes and canals in full force countrywide. Here in Dokkum, the river Ee running through our city isn't frozen solid as yet. Everywhere, ice-experts reporting to the Eleven-Cities tour organisers can be seen testing the thickness of the ice ; the enthusiasm is growing slowly, together with the hope that it might just take place this year. Also see
The last time I saw this here, was in 1997. My town of Dokkum is at the half-way turnaround point of the marathon. When these skaters arrive here, they are already very exhausted and in dire need of a break. If you combined the endurance demands of the New York Marathon with the grueling climate conditions of the Alaskan Iditarod, you'd get a sllight sense of this non-commercial ice-skating race.
It's also a very nationalistic event, although nobody would admit to that, here: it bind all the towns in Friesland along the route together into one huge mass of people. women's clubs, church clubs, sports clubs, all just as busy as bees, keeping the participants warm with hot soup and chocolate and plenty of rolls and oliebollen, and cheering them on along the entire route, well into the night until the very last person has made it across the finish line. Friesland is a unique province in that it has its own language and uniquely Frisian cultural events. The Netherlands has two official languages: Dutch and Frisian.
And while there's always a winner of course - one year two men skated triumphantly across the finish line, hand in hand -- the main thing is not to win but to help each other complete this gruelling marathon.
It is only held in Friesland only when the ice freezes over the 124-mile track of lakes and canals that makes up the route are frozen solidly. The last tour took place January 4, 1997.
This fabled marathon, started officially exactly 100 years ago, but which had been undertaken unofficially for centuries before that, has taken place just 15 times in the past 100 years -- yet, it's become the biggest phenomenon in Dutch sports. During a cold snap that made the tour possible one year, the white caps of the North Sea froze over. In 1929, winner Karst Leemburg finished in conditions so severe a frostbitten toe had to be amputated.
Because the competition hinges on weather conditions, lead-time is always short and the preparations furious. Wind chill, skating surfaces and ice thickness determine if and how the tour is run. Experts sometimes perform ice transplants to close holes in the route...
Meanwhile everyone is waiting, hoping and hanging on to every word uttered by Friesland's top weatherman, Piet Paulusma: See video song here
Of course ice-skating has been a popular past-time in Europe for at least 1,000 years. Our forebears had just as much fun with it, too. They used to tie sharped long bones beneath their feet to glide on them.
These first skates were called 'glissers'. such ice-skaters, apparently very rowdy, were already described by Thomas Becket's biographer William Fitzstephen in London in 1174. By the 19th century, three types of ice-skates with metal sliders were in use in The Netherlands: the Holland curl-skate, the South Holland ice-rink skate, and the Frisian fast-rider. It's the fast-riders which are of course used in the Eleven Cities Marathon, with another Dutch invention: the Olympic Klap-skate. But that's another story.
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