The Ice­land Loppet

The Ice­land Loppet, known lo­cally as the Fos­sa­vatns­gan­gan, sounded both ex­otic and chal­leng­ing – we mean tough. Caitlin and Brian Gregg men­tioned us­ing “spring events to ex­tend our win­ter sea­son,” and the tim­ing of the Fos­sa­vatns­gan­gan is per­fect. What el

SkiTrax - - Contents - by Dan and Dalia Clausen

How many Ice­landic kró­nas does it cost to en­ter the Fos­sa­vatns­gan­gan, or to rent car, or to re­serve a ho­tel room? Din­ner costs ap­prox­i­mately 6,000 kró­nas. The con­ver­sion to U.S. dol­lars was not that bad, so Dalia and I de­cided to reg­is­ter for the event.

We flew into Reykavik, Ice­land and rented a car and drove the six hours to Isafjor­dur, near the race start. The trip was spec­tac­u­lar with beau­ti­ful scenery ev­ery inch of the way. We drove through tun­nels, saw wa­ter­falls, moun­tains and curved roads that opened up to spec­tac­u­lar fjords. There were ex­pan­sive fields with horses that ran along the side of the road. It took sev­eral hours be­fore we hit ski­able snow. Along Routes 61 and 60, we saw snow-capped moun­tains, glaciers and cloud for­ma­tions . . . then we found the sun and snow!

Birds, gulls and swans also en­ter­tained our eyes. This was the scenic Ice­land we’d heard about. You ab­so­lutely can­not cap­ture it in a photo, though we stopped sev­eral times to try. How­ever, it’s like noth­ing like what you ex­pe­ri­ence in per­son.

We drove to the race stag­ing area two days be­fore the 50km Clas­sic main event to in­spect the course and to watch the 25km skate warm-up races. Caitlin [Gregg] won the women’s com­pe­ti­tion and Brian [Gregg] was sec­ond in the men’s. We were stoked for them and David Knoop of Na­tional Nordic Foun­da­tion fame, who fin­ished 11th over­all. The top Canuck was Amish Mor­rell in 33rd.

Two days later when we saw that the sun was up and the winds were down for the 50km race, we were grate­ful and happy. The day be­fore, the weather had been a com­pletely dif­fer­ent story, with rain, high winds and al­most no vis­i­bil­ity. Even go­ing out­side for a short time took some con­sid­er­ing.

The ride up the moun­tain to the race start was made in a very com­fort­able coach bus, and the air buzzed as skiers from many na­tions chat­ted in their na­tive tongue.

It was very ca­sual at the race start, as you could seed your own place in the start gate given where you thought you might fin­ish. This year for safety pur­poses, there is a new rule re­quir­ing one to wear a back­pack con­tain­ing ad­di­tional cloth­ing, though this didn’t seem to be an is­sue for any­body.

Ev­ery­one was friendly and sup­port­ive, and the race course was fan­tas­tic. There were long grad­ual climbs fol­lowed by long down­hills for re­cov­ery. The groom­ing was ex­cel­lent and the scenery stun­ning, with moun­tains in ev­ery di­rec­tion. The Greggs stated that this was one of the most beau­ti­ful race cour­ses they had ever skied.

We saw many peo­ple stop­ping in the mid­dle of their race to ad­mire the scenery and take pho­to­graphs with their phones. We also no­ticed a high num­ber of skin skis of ev­ery brand on many of the rac­ers. The skins seemed to per­form quite well in the var­ied con­di­tions along the race course. At the fin­ish line, there were post-race cel­e­bra­tions, as ev­ery­one con­tin­ued to en­joy the warm sunny day.

Great ap­pre­ci­a­tion must be ac­corded to the peo­ple who laid out this race course and to those who groomed this route. While walk­ing to the start line, one could not help but no­tice the per­fectly cut ski tracks. For Clas­sic skiers, tracks such as these are like two feet of pow­der to an alpine skier or black ice to an ice skater. The groom­ing was con­sis­tent, a top-shelf prod­uct through­out the en­tire 50 kilo­me­tres. On the very long and fast down­hills, there was not a wig­gle in the tracks, nor were there any sharp turns, which helped to make it safe for ev­ery­one.

The open fjords in Ice­land also al­lowed skiers to view the course ahead and an­tic­i­pate and pre­pare for the com­ing up­hills or down­hills. The groomer was ob­vi­ously a long­time skier. He re­ceived the largest amount of ap­plause from all, in­clud­ing the top skiers at the seafood buf­fet later that even­ing.

An­other im­pres­sive fea­ture of Fos­sa­vatn-sgan­gan is its lit­ter con­trol. It was a big deal. A racer would be fined if seen drop­ping lit­ter on the ground – the or­ga­ni­za­tion takes this very se­ri­ously. There is much pride and re­spect for the land here.

The Fos­sa­vatn-sgan­gan is also known for a post-race cake buf­fet put on by the race or­ga­niz­ers, where you can en­joy lo­cal hand­made cakes and cof­fee while the awards are handed out. Later on in the even­ing is the big Fos­sa­vatns party, which in­cludes a grand seafood buf­fet, live mu­sic and danc­ing. This is a ma­jor event for the town, and ev­ery­one comes out to join in on the fun. We sit at long ta­bles with other skiers and par­tic­i­pants from all over the world and en­joy

de­li­cious food. Then the live mu­sic starts and, amaz­ingly, nearly ev­ery­one in the room is out on the dance floor . . . for hours.

Sev­eral days af­ter the race, we sat down and chat­ted with Krist­b­jörn “Bob­bie” Sig­ur­jóns­son, the cur­rent race man­ager, who is also a lo­cal ski-shop owner. He was Fos­sa­vatns­gan­gan’s race chair­man for ap­prox­i­mately 17 years, and though he stepped down a few years ago, he is still heav­ily en­gaged in the race’s pro­duc­tion. The Fos­sa­vatns­gan­gan has been around since 1935 and be­gan as a 20km race. It is now part of the World­lop­pet se­ries, some­thing that Sig­ur­jóns­son worked very hard to achieve.

Sig­ur­jóns­son is orig­i­nally from a town close to Isafjor­dur. He be­gan cross-coun­try ski­ing when he was in his mid-30s and has been im­mersed in the sport ever since.

He was most ex­cited to talk about the suc­cess of the 2017 Fos­sa­vatns­gan­gan. “We are thrilled, it was fan­tas­tic, and be­yond our ex­pec­ta­tions, es­pe­cially the in­crease in par­tic­i­pa­tion,” Sig­ur­jóns­son said, smil­ing. There were many more par­tic­i­pants this year, and the or­ga­niz­ers plan on in­creas­ing the num­ber of rac­ers in the 50km. Isajor­dur is a smaller town, so while there are lim­i­ta­tions within the in­fra­struc­ture when it comes to sup­port­ing a large race, Sig­ur­jóns­son seemed con­fi­dent that the Fos­sa­vatns­gan­gan could slowly in­crease its race-par­tic­i­pant num­bers over the next few years.

The town it­self is very in­volved in the race. Sig­ur­jóns­son de­scribed the com­mu­nity vol­un­teer ef­forts as “out­stand­ing,” and says ap­prox­i­mately 3,500 peo­ple en­thu­si­as­ti­cally help to pull off the event. In ad­di­tion to the ski rac­ers, it seemed as if the en­tire town was at the post-race seafood ban­quet. “This event is the finale of the crosscoun­try-ski sea­son in Ice­land, so it is a very im­por­tant to the com­mu­nity, and is al­ways a well-at­tended event,” ex­plained Sig­ur­jóns­son.

Sig­ur­jóns­son was also pleased to see the many Cana­di­ans and Amer­i­cans at­tend­ing this year, em­pha­siz­ing how “easy­go­ing” they were. He al­ways en­joys host­ing rac­ers from other coun­tries and stated that the high­est num­ber of in­ter­na­tional skiers this year were from Nor­way, whereas last year, they were from Fin­land. There were 28 coun­tries rep­re­sented at this year’s event.

In terms of snow con­di­tions, the weather can change from day to day, even hour to hour. We lucked out with a sunny warm day with lim­ited wind and good snow cov­er­age. It was a klis­ter-con­di­tion day, how­ever, just a few days prior, Sig­ur­jóns­son was pre­dict­ing a hard-wax con­di­tion. A rel­a­tively new course, just a few years old, its changes in con­di­tions and el­e­va­tion still take some get­ting used to.

The Fos­sa­vatns­gan­gan of­fers a 50km race in one loop, rather than re­peated cy­cles through­out a course. This was an im­por­tant fac­tor when de­vel­op­ing the route, as Sig­ur­jóns­son claimed that “ev­ery ski racer prefers that” rather than ski­ing sev­eral rounds of a shorter loop. There are views of im­pres­sive fjords, as well as moun­tains to ski. As there aren’t many trees in Ice­land, the views go on and on. There are long up­hill climbs, but also very re­ward­ing down­hill por­tions to re­cover on. There have been years when the con­di­tions were such that these por­tions were re­ally quite fast, and Sig­ur­jóns­son re­calls clock­ing 65kph on some of these down­hill sec­tions in the past.

“Nor­we­gian star Pet­ter Northug, who won the 50km race, was very happy with the event and the race course,” added Sig­ur­jóns­son. Northug dou­ble-poled the en­tire race. This year, the course con­di­tions were con­ducive to dou­ble-pol­ing, but there’s a dif­fi­cult hill to­ward the end of the race, which Sig­ur­jóns­son said can be quite a chal­lenge. Northug stated that he was very tired when he ar­rived at the last up­hill, though he still made it.

“This race is a great event for Elite skiers to be­gin their sea­son train­ing for the fol­low­ing win­ter,” said Sig­ur­jóns­son, and he said hoped that Northug en­joyed his time in Isafjor­dur and would re­turn to the Fos­sa­vatns­gan­gan in the fu­ture.

Sig­ur­jóns­son said he’d trav­elled to the U.S.A., where he com­pleted the Amer­i­can Birke­beiner, which he found to be “en­joy­ably chal­leng-

ing.” The Ice­land Loppet had a booth at the Amer­i­can Birke­beiner expo to re­cruit rac­ers here to this event, and he said he en­joyed the en­ergy in the U.S.

We no­ticed that this was also a great time to visit Ice­land, it be­ing a slower time of year for tourists. It’s ad­van­ta­geous to stay a few ex­tra days to en­joy the coun­try. Without much traf­fic or line-ups, which can be the case dur­ing peak tourist time, we eas­ily got around to see the sights. The days now were long, with many hours of day­light, so we were able to see and do a lot. We hiked trails, vis­ited small quaint towns and saw gor­geous wa­ter­falls. There are tours where one can ex­pe­ri­ence glaciers, ther­mal pools, back­coun­try ski­ing, horses and birds. As Knoop stated, “The en­tire coun­try is like one gi­ant Na­tional Park!”

An­other great thing about Ice­land is its peo­ple, who are fan­tas­tic. Ev­ery­one was friendly, help­ful and wel­com­ing. It is a com­fort­able place to be, as you don’t feel like a tourist be­cause the lo­cals make you feel right at home. English is com­monly spo­ken, which makes it eas­ier for North Amer­i­cans. You can eas­ily get around most of the towns by foot, so park the car and walk to ex­plore. We found this es­pe­cially con­ve­nient dur­ing race week in Isafjor­dur. It was ex­cit­ing to walk around the town and see peo­ple from many coun­tries in their var­ied ski-race gear. It was quite the in­ter­na­tional scene!

The food is amaz­ing, and if you love fresh seafood, add Ice­land to your bucket list and en­joy it there as of­ten as you like. Pro­duce is grown in green­houses, so fresh veg­gies with your meal is a given. Ice­land has fan­tas­tic cheeses and yo­gurts as well, freshly made all over the coun­try, so you are never without a va­ri­ety of fresh de­li­cious dairy food to eat.

We were al­ways ex­cited to see what the lo­cal catch was each time we en­tered a restau­rant, and al­ways en­joyed the salad op­tions. There are cer­tain lo­cal Ice­landic foods that the coun­try is fa­mous for and are well worth a try: var­i­ous breads, yo­gurts, as well as its many meat op­tions. We sug­gest stick­ing with the fresh catch of day, as that is al­ways a won­der­ful choice!

By the way, if you’re won­der­ing how to say “ice” in Ice­landic, we asked a few lo­cals. It’s klaki.

Geother­mal huts above Reyk­javik har­vest­ing steam for a huge hy­dro­elec­tric power plant in the val­ley be­low.

Pet­ter Northug in­ter­view . . . fans and or­ga­niz­ers were stoked to have him on­board.

Amer­i­can Caitlin Gregg (c) took home the win at the women's 25km FR women's race.

Pet­ter Northug cel­e­brates his first Fos­sa­vatns­gan­gan 50km CL vic­tory.

Pet­ter Northug ( (l) l) and Brian Gregg at the start of the Ice­land Loppet's 50km Clas­sic.

Our trip to Ice­land was spec­tac­u­lar with beau­ti­ful scenery ev­ery inch of the way.

If you love fresh seafood like Dan Clausen, add Ice­land to your bucket list . . . and en­joy.

Clausen . . . and amaz­ing ad­ven­ture with mem­o­ries of life­time.

All smiles at the fin­ish (l-r) Brian Gregg, David Knoop, Caitlin Gregg

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