Hannah Pierce-Carlson

Hannah Pierce-Carlson: Mikael does the Vasaloppet, the world’s longest ski race!


“You can start covering the event,” Mikael said unbuckling his seatbelt and stepping out of his uber-Swedish black Volvo in the extremely muddy and puddle-y parking lot of the Vasaloppet Ski Race main center the day before the race. “You should give it the full Hannah,” he said.


Rewind to many months ago Mikael had asked me for a favor, to stay with his daughters (and my kids, too) for a month as he crossed the Greenland ice cap. But with those plans postponed, he chose to knock out the longest ski race in the world as a way to challenge his arctic training. “I want to come!” I exclaimed at hearing his entry and in a matter of a couple weeks, I arrived after three full days of travel to his winter home in Dalarna, Sweden.

Back in the registration queue, athletes handed over skis to professional waxers and tried on their complimentary swag bag and race bib. I was cracking jokes while Mikael and his daughters played it cool. In many ways, I’m always in my little world, amused by the cultural differences and always surprised to keep finding myself here in Sweden, my fifth time in a year.

Race Day!

Mikael and I got up just after 4 am to get us all there by 6:30 am, ahead of his concern about traffic and human chaos. Good cold morning vibes, hot chocolate, and small fire pits warmed the unchaotic masses of skiers and onlookers. Worries at bay, he ambled up first in line with more than enough time to spare. Hundreds of skiers eventually filed in the track lines, as most of us stretched and bopped to keep warm to the inane pop anthems of ABBA and Roxette. The scene here at the Vasallopet was the expected smorgasbord of Swedish tropes for my American eyes: enormously tall people in skinny outfits, pop and folkmusik, endless black Volvos with ski boxes, and a funky “olden days” traditional font emblazoned on the kontroll station banners, and a mysterious avatar in curved up skis, a single ski pole, and a floppy hat.


Once the race was off, the girls, Dana and Eva, and I drove up the hills to the open forest of the 90 km roadway stretching to the finish line in Mora. We listened to LIX FM, rolling along stunning snow-covered lakes. Here and there the raceway would snake not far from the road and we enjoyed spotting the skiers appearing and disappearing the endless forests of uniform evergreens as thin as trees could be. The sun, which had been MIA for weeks, was in a maximum late winter blast and threatened to send us all into nap-mode in the overly-heated Volvo.


At every possible waypoint, Dana clutched her phone tracking her father with the Vasaloppet app, which synced up with his ankle GPS locator bracelet. We arrived at the kontroll stations in perfect time, with a few minutes to spare before Mikael glided by in cheerful spirits, clutching a dry bun in his mouth, with dried blåbärssoppa (blueberry soup) trapped in his beard. Quick calories, a few seconds of hello, and he was onward. He’d minimize into the horizon and we would shuffle our way back to the car for another brief drive up the road. From 6 am to eight hours later as the man skied the difficult paradise in between, we cruised along the forest roads listening to Swedish pop. The girls were in near constant murmuring and giggles, holding phones, whispering lord knows what, and slouched over their bags of chips and godis (candy).


At the race midway point, we took a country walk before lunch. The red and yellow houses held at least 3 feet of snow which was slowly sluffing off in chunks. The drains dripped with meltwater and the spring birds were back tweeting. Dana and Eva made some rest spots of the piles of hardened plowed snow as we watched skiers cross the country lane. Then I ate a plate of schnitzel and potatoes in a cheerful old cafeteria and I fought back the sleepies with two cups of black coffee. It was still four more hours of country driving and intermittent cheerleading, which for me, was my own alternate race to stay awake.

Once to the end at Mora, a river town, we lined up to watch the mix of emotions at the finish line. The girls and I had been joking and chilling for 9 hours and this final stretch waiting for their dad was the most fun hour yet. So many gleeful, exhausted skiers to watch and expressions to interpret. 1 in 20 would collapse on the ground, DRAMA!, but most would modestly pump their ski poles in the air, a very Swedish self-congratulation. Some conservatively shook cowbells, but most just cheered quickly in the audible range of their skier. It’s not a loud country.


As for Mikael, we gave him a relatively loud American-style “woohoo, yaaaaaaa!” while he skied under the finish line banner with his twinkly, red-faced smile. He spent over eight hours gliding and heaving over snow-lined earth with hundreds of polite countrymen making sure not to poke, step, and run into each other at the bottom of the hills. If you’ve ever cross-country skied you’ll understand that it’s not just a feat of endurance, this race, but of incredible cooperation to not accidentally take each other out.


The low light of the afternoon sun was a perfect accomplice to his genuine shine as he beamed with joy at having finished this long-awaited cultural milestone. “But it is so much better with you all here,” he said as the very first words upon his finish…and kept saying the rest of the night to us, his cheerleaders.


We drove home pleased and exhausted as the pink sunset overtook the cold blue, arriving back home to the winter constellations setting over his humble little house in Lima, Dalarna, Sweden, Mikael’s home state, and birthplace of the famed Dala horse, summer blueberries and winter blåbärssoppa, and of course, the Vasaloppet ski race.

Next year. My turn!


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