It’s a marathon and a sprint: Participants make hasty adjustments due to airline strike, poor snow for 27th Svalbard Skimaraton

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Jenny and Johan Rosendahl had to quickly and at great cost rebook their airline tickets from Stockholm to Longyearbyen to make it Saturday’s Svalbard Skimaraton due to the Scandinavian Airlines strike that began the day before. But minutes before they both set off from the starting line of a course that also went through hasty last-minute changes, they said the hassle and expense was worth it.

“Of course,” Johan Rosendahl said. “Now we’re here, and it will be an adventure and a memory for life.”

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A rescue helicopter used by The Governor of Svalbard that traditionally flies over the first group of racers to start the Svalbard Skimaraton arrived a few minutes late this year, passing above a lone skier that wasn’t ready to depart when the others were. It was among the many things that didn’t quite go as normal leading up to and during Saturday’s race. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

They set off under dreary cloudy skies and rather dreary skiing conditions, with the temperature at zero degrees Celsius and snow on the mushy side. It all added up to Svalbard’s biggest single-day event of the year not being as grand as the best of recent years, with this year’s total estimated participation of 707 people down from peak years of about 1,000. About 850 people registered for this year’s race, but the strike prevented many from being able to fly up. Furthermore, many participants – including three prominent professional racers highlighting the “names” at the event – departed immediately after the race after rebooking seats on a Norwegian Air flight, so they missed the post-race banquet and celebration.

But Jenny Rosendahl, a veteran of several marathon and other long-distance ski races making her first trip to Svalbard and planning to stay until Wednesday (“if we can get home then”), said she was lured by the same non-competitive aspects of the event and non-race activities as a visitor that has caused the once-informal race to blossom in a famed occasion during its 27 years.

“It’s an amazing landscape,” she said. “Once in a lifetime.”

The couple and other participants took part in full- and half-length marathons over first-ever terrain, beginning at the dog kennels at the edge of town instead of several kilometers further into Adventdalen at the base of Mine 6. The move was due to avalanche-prone conditions in the mountains along the traditional path, but the choice of an alternative course went through yet another last-minute switch when snow conditions along the relatively straight-line planned route into a glacier valley had to be altered due to poor snow conditions.

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A map shows the first-ever shoreside and mountain course for this year’s Svalbard Skimaraton, which was necessitated at the last moment due to avalanche risks and poor snow along other planned routes. Map courtesy of Svalbard Turn.

Instead, skiers followed the shoreline across from Longyearbyen several kilometers to the historic mining community of Advent City, with those doing the full marathon then turning inland to the mountains in Hanaskogdalen.

Work crews were working around the clock during the days before the race to distribute snow and make ski tracks along the new path, said Nina Lines, general manager of Svalbard Turn, which organizes the race. She said she was generally pleased with the conditions at race time.

“It’s OK,” she said. “Of course the weather is warmer than we would like it to be.”

Even setting aside the participants missing due to the airline strike, this year’s pre-registration numbers were down compared to recent years, which Lines said was expected since the race occurred a week after an unusually late Easter. Some years have seen the final number boosted by people registering a day or two before the race, but she said there was no such rush this year.

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Participants in this year’s ski marathon near the starting line across the dog kennels at the edge of Longyearbyen while carrying their gear for the event. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“I think the locals have been good about registering early,” she said. “It’s been a quite race office.”

The absence of many people at the banquet is also unfortunate, Lines said, but she said she’s hoping next year’s numbers will again be close to their peak without the various one-time setbacks. Also, while the race has started from Mine 6 every previous year except one, she said using the alternate route following the glacier valley near town is now the top choice if organizers get their way.

Setting up the race’s operations at the edge of town made it an easy walk of a couple of kilometers for participants and spectators opting not to take shuttle busses, although seeing numerous people carrying their skis and gear over groomed snow instead of adding a bit of distance to their long planned treks made for a bit of an odd sight – although, as one participant said, “I’m using different groups of muscles than I will once I reach the starting line.”

A total of 698 skiers finished the race, 367 of them in the timed marathon class (142 were in the untimed full-marathon and 189 in the half-marathon classes, respectively). Norway’s Didrik Tønseth prevailed in the men’s full marathon by about two minutes over fellow countryman Niklas Dyrhaug, while Johanne Harviken of Norway finished more than 11 minutes ahead of Sweden’s Anna Persson to win the women’s division.

 

 

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