While I was in China last year, I met a lovely couple from the Netherlands who I got chatting to by our hotel’s fireside while we were all trying to warm ourselves up with a cup of tea. Given our mountainous surroundings, the topic of conversation swiftly turned to great adventures and escapades – and I think their story trumped mine. In 1997, they had both taken part in the epic ice-skating race Elfstendentocht which takes place in Friesland (a Northern province of the Netherlands) and sees hundreds of skaters race/tour nearly 125 miles, over frozen canals, rivers and lakes, covering each of the province’s eleven historic cities. The couple told me that they stay at home throughout January and February each year, waiting with anticipation to see if the Elfstedentocht will at last be given the go ahead (the ice has to remain 15 cm thick at all points of the race) but just like the past disappointing 15 years, it was not to be and so they consoled themselves by making a trip to China instead. With average global temperatures predicted to climb over the coming years, they told me that many people are now worried they’ll never see another race like it again and it’s bringing their spirits down.
Intrigued, I asked them just what it is that makes Elfstedentocht so alluring? “Well”, they answered, “it’s a Dutch legend” and with such a tantalizingly long wait inbetween races, it’s begun to garner almost mythical status. Each winter, when the temperature drops below zero degrees, the media becomes frenzied with speculation over the likelihood that the ice will win out this year. Even the slightest rumour is enough to cause a rush of excitiment and local drinking spots soon fill up with people eager to hear the latest – this is commonly known as the ‘eleven cities fever’, or Elfstedenkoorts – and fever pitch is not reached without reason! The race itself is laced in Dutch tradition and to say it tests a person would be an understatement, a skater’s endurance is not only tested by the distance but also by icy winds and temperatures as low as -18 degrees C. It was no surprise therefore to hear that all skater entrants have to be dedicated and require a starting permit as well as membership of the Association of the Eleven Frisian Cities (which draws lots each year, dictating who is allowed to take part). There are three secret check points enroute through which all skaters must pass, and in addition they must also collect a stamp in each city – all this must be completed by midnight. The days preceding the race are apparently given over to fantastic street parties, culminating in the ‘Night of Leeuwarden’ which unites all of Friesland and attracts people from all over the Netherlands and beyond. One of the most jubilant years was said to have been in 1940, just months prior to the Netherlands entering world war II and with last year’s winter celebrations dampened by recession, everyone is hoping that 2013 will be the year of the 16th Elfstedentocht.
For more information see http://www.elfstedentocht.nl/nl/home