The Finland Ice Marathon has been running since the early ’80s and this year was the 37th competition. It’s something special, something different and it takes place on the frozen lake in Kuopio harbour every February.
What is it?
If you’re looking to challenge yourself to an endurance event with a difference then I strongly recommend the Finland Ice Marathon. In the purest sense of the word, it’s not a marathon as there is no running involved. Instead, your options are ice skating (with or without poles), ice biking or kicksledding. You are also not limited to 26.2 miles (42.2km). Feeling competitive? Then you can try 25km, 50km, 100km, or for the insane 200km. If you’re less serious or the kids want a go there are also shorter races.
However, it’s not just how you cover the distance or how far you go. It’s also a challenge against the elements. The average high is just -5.7°C in February, it might be snowing and it gets windy out on the exposed lake.
Who can take part?
You don’t have to be a world-class athlete to compete in the competition with entries open to all. Apparently, they say anyone with a reasonable level of fitness can compete. Most of the competitors are from Finland but others come from far and wide. 2020 saw entrants from Europe as well as the USA and Canada. In previous years they have even seen skaters from China and South America.
If you want to win you’ll need to be wearing nordic skates or speed skates but they’re not essential. I raced in my figure skates and hockey skates are fine too, just expect to watch other racers disappear into the distance!
Where is it?
Kuopio is a small city in Eastern Finland with a population of about 120,000. Nestled amongst pine and spruce forests it is almost completely surrounded by Lake Kallavesi. In winter, the lake freezes over and the city council creates and maintains an ice track from the passenger port. This usually operates from around January to March, subject to weather conditions. Sadly with winters getting warmer and shorter, this is changing, and not for the better. Weather permitting they try to produce a course up to 12.5km long.
If you’re not skating there are other winter sports activities available too. Kuopio has over 400km of cross-country ski tracks, some floodlit until 9 pm, so the short days aren’t a problem. It’s fun but gruelling. It doesn’t take long before you start sweating and to realise why cross-country skiers just wear lycra. I was lucky enough to borrow some skis but understand they can be hired from APCSki near Puijo stadium and the ski jumps.
Kuopio is also just an hour’s drive from Tahko, the fourth largest ski resort in Finland. It’s a great little resort with 24 slopes and a good snowpark. You can hire equipment there and whilst the runs are fairly short there is a good mixture of blues, reds and blacks.
Preparation for this year’s race was severely affected by the weather. Whilst the start of the winter was cold enough for a good thickness of ice to build up, the two weeks before the race couldn’t have been much worse. Temperatures frustratingly stayed above freezing almost the whole time making preparation incredibly difficult with standing water on the lake. Some large cracks also formed on the surface.
Thankfully the weather gods smiled favourably on the organisers with temperatures finally dipping below freezing just a few days before the competition allowing the course to be prepared and repaired. A 10km course was announced.
But ever-fickle, the forecast changed yet again with the temperature rising, rain forecast and a strong wind starting to blow. This meant days before the competition the schedule had to be rejigged with events moved and start times altered. Popular recreational, moonlit skating and a firework display were cancelled.
Come the first race day and the course had to be shortened to 6.5km. But nature still wasn’t finished. Partway through the 200km race, the ice buckled. The course was reduced to 3km mid-race for safety reasons and stayed this length for the Saturday races. Despite all this, the organisers did a fantastic job of preparing the course – the ice was amazing – and keeping competitors informed of all the changes. They were the real stars.
I’ve known about the competition for a decade or more and finally got my backside into gear and entered the 25km race last October, giving me just over 4 months to train. I’ve always enjoyed ice skating but the closest I’ve come to any sort of distance race is 5k on the treadmill in the gym. It was time to buckle down.
Skates in hand, I trundled down to my local ice rink in Milton Keynes once a week and worked on building up my stamina. Racing around the edge of the rink was the way to go and, in time, dodging around other skaters and flailing beginners became second nature. By my reckoning, if I completed 140 laps that would be approximately 25km. The training went well, but nothing could prepare me for battling a 30km/h headwind.
Four months later, and just in time, I felt I was as ready as I ever would be.
Race day arrived and the temperature was just above freezing. The sky was overcast with fine sleet whipping across the course. Puddles of water were forming on the ice. The wind was howling down the first kilometre of the track and with 8 laps to complete it was going to be gruelling.
Gathered on the start line, we watched the countdown clock tick down and then we were off. It wasn’t long before the nordic skaters disappeared into the distance, but it wasn’t the last I saw of them. They lapped me several times.
Despite the other races already completed the ice was still in good condition. Some large bumps and the occasional crack but far smoother than the ice rink. In better conditions, it would have been a dream to skate on.
By the third lap, the headwind was taking its toll. I knew I was skating, as I could see my feet moving, but I felt like I was standing still. Driving on it was a great relief to turn a corner and feel the wind shift behind to give a helping hand. Timewise the two may have balanced out but for energy burnt it was much harder than an indoor rink.
As time went on I managed to catch and pass a couple of racers, my endurance training finally paying off. Legs and back aching I headed into the final lap with a final push. I knew I wasn’t going to get the 1:20 I had hoped for but I was determined to finish with a flourish.
So how did I do? I finished in 1 hour 24 minutes and came in 21st place out of 27. 33 minutes off top spot. However I was the top placed non-Finn in my race and far more important to me, I got the medal!
Weather permitting, the Finland Ice Marathon will be back again next year. Personally, having thought it would be a one-off, I’ve now caught the bug and will also be back. The only question remaining is whether to aim for a better time in the 25km or step up to the 50km. If you’re interested, sign up now and, coronavirus aside, maybe I’ll see you in February 2021.