Marathon On Ice

Holland's celebrated tradition in melt down

Ahhh, marathon Sunday. Pull on the spandex, pack up the Gu, and…strap on your ice skates? This is marathon-ing, Dutch-style. Since 1909, the Dutch have taken wildly to the frozen streets to cheer on participants in the Elfstedentocht, the 11-city, 125-mile grueling skate race completed on ice through Holland’s extensive system of canals and across frozen lakes. That is, when the temperatures are low enough and the ice is thick enough.

The Elfstedentocht used to be held, on average, once every four years, not quite as dependable an event as Leap Year, but fairly close. This fall, however, researchers from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency reported that fans and competitors can expect favorable conditions for the race to occur only once every 18 years due to climate change. In further bad news scientists added that “continuing global warming will lead to further diminishing chances of holding an Elfstedentocht.”

Admittedly, this is not an exact science. The study’s conclusions range from reporting the race will take place once every 7 years to once every 64 years. The given number of 18 years was the best estimate. When forecasting race conditions for the year 2050, the outlook is far less favorable. The estimates ranged from once every 18 years on the low end to once every 180 years on the high end.

To put on the Elfstedentocht, the ice needs to be at least six inches thick, requiring an average temperature of about 5 degrees Fahrenheit. In 2006, the average yearly temperature was 52 degrees Fahrenheit, which would make the race more like a skate through slush, if not a chilly swimming competition.

The last Elfstedentocht took place in 1997 and there have been a total of 15 Elfstedentochts since it’s inception at the beginning on the 20th century. The most recent race hosted 306 of the fastest Dutchmen and women, plus 16, 372 other hearty skaters. The winner crossed the finish line in under seven hours. Marga Waanders, an economic official in the provincial government of Friesland, the northern province whose capital, Leeuwarden, is the start line for the race, describes locals as “down-to-earth.” But, she says, “when the race is on, they go mad. It’s the Mardi Gras of Friesland.”