Monday, January 17, 2011

The Hell of 1963 - An Elfstedentocht To Remember

Photo: (c) Amanda van Mulligen
The Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour) of '63 took place exactly 48 years ago today. The Elfstedentocht is a 200km skating marathon that takes place on frozen over canals, rivers and lakes in Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands - the country's biggest natural ice marathon and the world's longest.

1963 saw a particularly harsh competition, hence the label of "De Hel van '63". Temperatures dropped to -18 degrees centigrade. Only 126 of the 9,000 skaters who started the race crossed the finish line. Thousands of skaters suffered from frost bite, frozen eyes, broken bones and other similar horrible injuries

Dutch director, Steven de Jong, directed a historical drama based on the twelfth Elfstedentocht - 'De Hel van '63' was released in 2009 and it had very mixed reviews. However, I really enjoyed it and it's a great way to spend 108 minutes to get a good idea about the Dutch culture around skating, the importance of the Elfstedentocht, how the Elfstedentocht works in practice and how severe the 1963 drama actually was.

In a nutshell, the skaters pass through eleven Frisian cities, starting and ending in the Frisian capital of Leeuwarden. In each city participants collect a stamp (as well as in two secret locations along the route to stop cheating) but they must pass though all checkpoints by midnight to qualify as a finisher. The winner of 1963 was Reinier Paping - in conditions so severe he became somewhat of a national hero.

The last Elfstedentocht took place in 1997, but every winter the rumblings and hopes of the event taking place 'this year' surface. In fact, at the end of last year, there was a flare of (unfounded) optimism when weatherman, Harry Otten ( Wereldomroep) said if everyone went out to clear the snow from the ice there could be an Elfstedentocht 'next week'. In reality, the ice was not thick enough (it needs to be 15 cm thick across the entire course).

I am looking forward to the year it can be held - what an event that will be!

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