After the Vikingarannet in Sweden...
I visited Finland a couple of years ago on a tour organised through the Finland Tourist Board - Visit Finland. However whilst there, I found out that in Kuopio they organise an ice skating marathon on the frozen lake.
Since finding out such a competition existed, I have completed the Vikingarannet from Uppsala to Stockholm, skated 135 km at the world's longest ice rink outside Amsterdam - FlevOnIce. However, the one missing to complete the hat-trick is the Finland Ice Marathon in Kuopio.
A solo adventure to Central Finland...
This was a solo adventure and probably for the best as getting there involved a couple of night coach journeys, complicated ticketing and hostel accommodation.
Can I borrow a Kicksled please..?
I took my own cross-country ski boots and had planned to hire some ice tour skating blades there. This was not a problem as I used one of the rental companies recommended on the website - Leo's Skate Service. As well as the skates, I had planned to do 50 km on a Finnish Kicksled, so I contacted the manufacturer and asked if I could borrow one for the event. If I could complete the distance on a 'Kickspark' as they are known locally, then I would be the first British person to 'kick' the event on a sled!
What happened on the ice (or lack of it)..?
The Finland Ice Marathon takes place in Kuopio approximately 500km from Helsinki in Central Finland and 250km east of Tampere. The Ice Marathon takes place on the frozen lake in February each year. This year was unseasonably warm and the event was nearly cancelled due to poor ice conditions. Sometimes the event can be held in sub zero temperatures, however in 2015 it was +5 degrees and the snow that landed in the area did not freeze, but melted to form pools of water on the lake.
The condition of the ice was poor overall and I was pleased that my plan to do the first 50km on the Kicksled and then the recreational skate in the afternoon of 50km did not happen as I decided to do the Kicksledding category only.
I borrowed a 'Kickspark' from the owner of the Kickbike brand and creator of the device (pictured) from Hannu Vierkko. He is one of my sporting heroes and recently 'kicked' the entire route of the Tour de France. I gathered from the event organisers that he is known as 'Mr Kickbike' in Finland and I was pleased to have met him.
50km may not seem that far, however several things really slowed me down. One of the blades on the Kickspark was out of alignment so when I used my strongest kicking leg, I drifted to the right. This meant that I had to use my weaker leg all the way around. Secondly, the combination of ice cold puddles and cracked ice made keeping the sled stable a tricky thing to do.
As I reached the third lap of six, I started to get the technique and become comfortable in resting my leg on the thin blade and using my weak leg to propel myself. I started to speed up and did two quicker laps. I had only kicked 2km the night before so I had no time to practice the technique or become familiar with the motion. It was a case of learning on the job!
I was slightly disappointed with my form on the day, but this was quickly forgotten about as my aim was to complete the story of the Kickbike 'Outdoor Fitness' article and become the first British person to have completed the Finland Ice Marathon on a sled! I am happy to report that I completed both.
After the event, I was desperate to remove my wet shoes and socks as they were becoming painful and blue. In Finland, there is only one place that you head to when cold and that is the sauna which I duely did!
Was going to Finland as expensive as expected..?
Finland is known as being an expensive place, however I did not think it was. True, if you eat restaurant meals and buy train tickets, then it is. However, there are ways around the country that soon generate savings.
There is an excellent and growing network of inter-city buses called Onnibus. My 7 hour night bus journey on the coach was only €5. There are also good value advance train tickets through Finnish Railways. Hostels are good quality and there are some budget hotels. The event cost 40 euros to enter and up to 65 euros for the 200km full distance skate.
In total, I estimate the Thursday to Sunday tour cost approx. £250 including flights and everything. It is also important to note that in Finland there is a real emphasis on protein in food, so it was quite easy to stay full for longer drinking milk and eating high protein yoghurts. The locally produced Karelian pastries at 23 cents are also a bargain and there are many supermarkets in the cities.
Would I recommend the Finland Ice Marathon..?
This is my third winter event on ice after completing several around Europe. Each time I have only found out that the event is taking place 24 hours before. If you are coming from abroad then it is slightly unnerving as much of the cost is booked on a non-refundable basis. Also, you are likely to be the only or one of the few British participants taking part.
This is great for the novelty factor and you will receive more cheers and encouragement from supporters, however the Dutch and Scandinavian skaters are very good, so be prepared to move out of the way of a fast moving paceline or the lead-car!
You can read about the Finland Ice Marathon online. Alternatively, there are several other ice tours around Europe including the Vikingarannet in Sweden, FlevOnIce near Amsterdam and the Alternatieve Elfstendentocht at Weissensee in Austria.