Call it The First Great Race – along with the longest, darkest and quite possibly coldest.
A half-dozen dogsled teams and a handful of straggling spectators gathered at the dog kennels at the edge of Longyearbyen under an inky polar night twilight in minus 22 Celsius cold for a decidedly unceremonious start of the first-ever Mørketidsløpet Svalbard race at about 10 a.m. Saturday. Participants are seeking to complete a 150-kilometer single-time course (as compared to “multi-stage” races featuring untimed rests) from Adventdalen to checkpoints at Freyahytta and Vindodden before returning to town.
The race is occurring much earlier in the year than the now-notable Trappers Trail race that became Svalbard’s first modern dogsled race when it debuted in 2009 and now takes place in mid-April (the Hilmar Nøis “qualifier” for Trappers Trail in late February, as well as two other races, have also taken place during the past several years).
But Mørketidsløpet Svalbard wasn’t conceived as a test of winter worthiness – rather, it’s to help longtime local musher Linda Vassdal prove her worthiness for this year’s Finnmarksløpet race in Marcg, her first attempt at Europe’s longest sled dog race.
“It’s easier to to qualify for a race where I live,” she said moments before departing from the starting line. “The cold is no problem (and) I’ve raced in the dark many times.”
In the casual spirit of the debut race, Vassdal was supposed to depart as the fourth racer at 10:06 a.m., but actually ended up starting at 10:19 a.m. because she had to go back home to fetch the mandatory weapon she forgot – one of two racers to do so. But Irene Kastner, the race’s official timekeeper and a Finnmarksløpet judge many years ago, said the time it takes Vassdal to complete the course isn’t a qualifying factor – rather, it’s making sure she’s adhered to the checkpoint and other rules.
“She just has to do this long course,” Kastner said. “We do the old-fashioned racing, which means we do not count days. The reason for the qualifying thing is everybody thought they could be racing, and they were scratching all the time because they were out overnight and not used to all the cold.”
Among the other racers is Ingvild Sæbu Vatn, racing her large dog team with partner Stefan Claes, who has participated in previous local races that are either shorter or involve an overnight stop.
“I’ve never raced this long in one day before because there was no need to,” she said.
But Vatn said she wasn’t worried about the cold or dark – indeed, all things considered, the conditions were quite bright for a race she expected to complete around midnight Sunday.
“There’s a bit of light in the sky and there’s nearly a full moon,” she said. “There will probably be some Northern Lights. I think it’s going to be magical.”
Participants will have to pick up an item left at the unmanned Freyahytta checkpoint to prove they were there and rest at least four hours at the Vindodden checkpoint before returning to town.
Although this year’s race is for a special purpose, Kastner said she hopes it will continue in future years since there are now more mushers with racing experience in Svalbard.
“I hope we do it again because we’ve been talking in our community about doing a longer race than Trappers Trail,” she said. “As we get more and more people here we have more people who have experience with long races on the mainland.”
“It’s like the original back to the roots races.”