A Life Changing Experience
It has taken me a little while to pause and really digest the Vasaloppet challenge experience before collecting my thoughts in order to share this experience. What I came to realise, that on February 29, 2016, when I started my 90K cross country ski race from Salen to Mora in Sweden, that this date, and the 11 hours and 8 minutes it took me to complete it, was in all actually a PART of the whole experience, not just the experience itself. The race actually began the moment I committed to taking this challenge THAT was the moment it all began, and I also realised that crossing the finish-line was far from the end of the race, again, in all actuality the race will likely (and hopefully) never, ever end.
I will skip right to the race day itself. Those following along know the story and training required to get me to the start line in Sweden, for those new to this (hello!) the back blog posts, instagram and Facebook pages will pretty much fill in these blanks.
Departing Australia my good friend James Thomas (Founder of Feel the Magic, the charity I supported in the challenge) and I flew through Singapore and Helsinki to get to our destination in Gothenburg… 26 hours travel time going INTO one of the biggest challenges of your life was in itself a challenge, and James was a great barometer of reality along the way. Landing in Gothenburg, Sweden we were met by my friend Oscar, who is the one that told me about the race years ago and planted the seed back in 2012. He was both excited to see us, very warm in greeting us, and also concerned as I was still wearing my shorts and t-shirt from leaving Australia arriving in the middle of winter in Sweden. As he should have been, and as I also quickly became.
We spent a few days sight-seeing the amazing city then we started our journey up north for the race. First we crossed into Norway and were met by the Founder of Team Santander who sponsored my clothes, skis, poles, even my goggles and beanie! The skies, as it turns out were powder waxed and were “some of the fastest you can get”… which only served to scare me! We went from there up to the cabin to settle in before the big day, where Oscar, who was also doing the race for his third time taught me how to apply the “grip wax” to the middle of my skis. This man took on the persona of an old-time doctor with his bag of tricks as he had all various types of wax made to combine with one another to make the perfect mix for the conditions on the day. He even had his own table and iron to apply the wax with… really impressive! One day out from the race both Oscar and James suggested it would be a good idea to at least make sure my new boots that Out There Nordic sent me for the race fit into the skis etc… I wanted to keep my promise that I wouldn’t ski until the day of the race BUT thought it would be a good idea to make sure all the sponsored equipment worked together so we went outside the remotely located cabin into the snow to try it out. To ensure that I wouldn’t go of skiing I went outside wearing ONLY my ski boots, so it would’ve been too cold to go off for any distance. Yes, there is a photo of this, yes its on social media, and yes I apologise for the poor eyes that have seen it.
Then it came time to settle in for the night, we ate our body weight in pasta and generally laughed and joked around in the cabin – with Oscar and I incredibly pensive knowing what we were up against the following day. That said, we both slept surprisingly “ok” and were up and looking at one another with determined faces at 4:10am, ready to go.
We arrived at the start at about 6am, and joined thousands of other people in group stretching activities and all around excitement. It was -18 degrees but that didn’t hold people back from smiling, dancing and keeping their spirits up. There was even a band playing various songs including ABBA covers which seemed to keep peoples spirits high, and their minds off the fact they are about to cover 90K of land by way of physical strength, mental determination and all around crazy ambition. The toughest part came when we had to remove our coats leaving us stripped down to our long sleeve undershirts and race bibs… thinking back on that just makes me shiver! Once stripped down everyone got in their tracks and readied for the start, and all of a sudden, a loud noise sounded, the gates went up and we were off! Despite having trained for months to get to this point, this was the FIRST time I was pushing off to actually ski, and in my excitement and general misunderstanding of how the sport actually worked, I pushed quite hard and ran right into the guy in front of me! I apologized and explained that this was the first time I had ever skied, to which he replied “well then today will be the longest day of your life”… and he was right, ha!
The thousands of people started making their way out of the start area, around the first turn and right into the famous bottle neck that leads up the first mountain climb. As we started skiing up the mountain, by “fishbone” style walking to keep grip I realised I was alongside a guy that was in a “sit ski” as he had no function in his legs, and was doing the entire race using just his arms! Amazing! I was really relieved at this point that not only did training on roller skis set me up in a great way for the technique as actually skiing didn’t feel too incredibly foreign, and I was also relieved as I had never skied up a hill before which wasn’t easy, however also wasn’t as hard as I was thinking it would be. Again, a big testament to the time and dedication put in on the training in the previous months.
The sights I soon had the good fortune to see were nothing less than breathtaking – skiing alongside thousands of other people watching the sun rise over the mountain valley in a place you can only see if you’re out there skiing was rewarding by itself. As the race progressed I became more confident in my ability to stay with it – never once did I doubt that I would complete the race and I never took a break outside of the designated check points. I did getsore in my upper and lower back from all the pushing, but following the advice from so many people – I didn’t let my mind take control of the situation, I simply realised my body was feeling a certain way, and just kept pushing. Outside of the blueberry soup and electrolyte supplements I was taking I had a huge helping surprise that I was not expecting. At the second checkpoint somewhere in the crowd cheering the racers on I heard “looking great Josh!”… which hearing a sentence in English was a surprise, but the fact it had my name in it was a shock! I looked over and here was my good friend Erik, whom I had not seen in NINE YEARS since he and I were flatmates in university! He had seen on social media that I was doing this challenge and he drove SEVEN HOURS from his hometown to come support me in the race! I screamed when I saw him and apologized as I wasn’t able to stop at that point to say a long-overdue hello, to which he replied that we would get that chance as he would going to be greeting me at each checkpoint along the way! LEGEND! This man actually made his way to each checkpoint to give me support and even held my skis on two separate occasions where I ran off to go to the bathroom! He was there for all 11 hours of the race.. Again – LEGEND!
The hardest, and by far SCARIEST part of the race was the downhill sections, and (again in professionally waxed super-fast skis) I was really surprised at just how fast you actually fly! In some parts people were taking their skis off to walk down, which I never did… instead I took the advice of my friend and trainer Barbra to bend down, put my elbows on my knees and just “tuck into it”.. .which I did and though it was scary it really felt amazing to be screaming (literally and figuratively) down these mountains! I often get asked if I crashed, and actually happy to say that I did a couple times… all part of the experience right?! I took the advice of a friend of mine in Sydney who is from Sweden who told me “if you think you are going to fall, you will”.. so I would do and think some of the strangest things to keep my mind blissfully numb to what I was actually doing… including singing Lionel Richie (this speaks to my delusional state as I actually don’t LISTEN to Lionel Richie?!) and Lenny Kravitz songs at the top of my lungs… that must have been a real treat for those around me haha
Each kilometer was marked in the race by a big sign showing you how many kilometers you have left… and after all the pushing, I finally made it to my last sign with a big beautiful number 1 on it! From here I skied into a scene that I have been looking at in pictures all year long – the town of Mora and the stadium set up around the final section, and of course the finish line! I used all remaining energy to push as hard as I could to finish strong, and am proud to say that’s exactly what I did. On finishing I was floating… just absolutely floating with excitement, pride, adrenalin, and shock… I had one last surprise for the day as my friends has organised with the presenter of the race at the end to come interview me at the finish! Ha! Here I just laid all my energy out on the ski field and now had to find a bit more to think straight as what I was saying was on the loudspeakers and on camera! I was interviewed about how I had just started skiing that morning, and how I was doing this for the Feel the Magic charity. It was great, as soon as I finished the interview I had a number of people come up after and ask if I was serious, “did I really just ski for the first time in the worlds longest ski race”… a question that I will look back on and smile for the rest of my life.
Oh the other best part of the day was the warm shower after, that was amazing…
Our remaining time in Sweden after the race was spent touring the truly amazing city of Stockholm and visiting with good friends in the country, and I am very glad we gave ourselves the downtime after to digest the experience.
My next blog post will be on the outcomes for the Feel the Magic charity, and my experience mentoring at Camp Magic, which is a 3 day camp for kids living with grief from losing a parent, sibling or legal guardian – and the vasaloppet challenge raised enough money to send 5 kids to this camp… which was another life changing experience in itself.
I have been fortunate to have been interviewed about the Vasaloppet challenge, being the fist of many to come on the Today Show, ABC, SBS Norwegian and SBS Swedish, the Manly Daily and Daily Telegraph... but sitting here, taking my time typing this and recalling the memories has allowed me to really re-live this, and I genuinely appreciate your time in reading it and hope that it inspires you to put a little bit of challenge in your life… you will absolutely amazed at what you can really achieve, especially when doing it for others!
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