Text by Hannes Larsson
At Finlandia hiihto 2018 I finished my 34th Worldloppet (WL) passport and decided to finish my WL « career » with that achievement, 27 Gold Masters and 7 Silver Masters. Already several years ago I was thinking at reducing my involvement in WL races and discovering some other interesting events, but many friends convinced me to continue, saying that I was an inspiration for them, by showing that it is possible to participate in challenging XC events beyond the age of 80 years.
The early years
My first WL race was the 1977 Dolomitenlauf. In fact, it did not count as a WL performance because WL was founded in 1978. I was curious to see whether I was able to ski a 60 km race after many years of absence from the XC skiing tracks. In spite of skis broader than the tracks it went perfectly and reaching the finish in Lienz I was overwhelmed by happiness. The following week-end I skied Marcialonga with the same skis and reached Cavalese 617th out of 3200 finishers. In 1978 I bought good skis and trained better. The results improved : 157th/2500 in Marcialonga ; I added Koenig-Ludwig-Lauf and Finlandia hiihto to my circuit, the following year also Vasaloppet and the Engadin Skimarathon, and later La Transjurassienne. From 1976 to 1988 I lived in Northern Italy at a 2h drive from the ski tracks. In the 1980ies I usually skied the Val Pusteria 60km CT race the WE before Dolomitenlauf. My personal best in Marcialonga was in 1982 at the age of 51 : 4.29.13 (15.6 km/h) ; in Vasaloppet 1983 I made 5.46.13 (15.4 km/h).
In those early years I got the virus of popular long distance ski races, but I was not interested in overseas races until 1995 (Australia), 1997 (Japan) and 1998 (Canada and Birkie).
My first WL Master No. 1055 was otained in 1996. Then I got the virus of WL races and my idol was Jan Jasiewicz, who was a multiple WL Master, several Masters ahead of me. I started a stimulating hunt and finally caught up with him about ten years later when we both had 16 Masters. What happened was that there were several places where two events were organized, on Saturday and Sunday. Jan skied only one of them whereas I skied on both days and was able to obtain two Masters the same year, repeatedly. Unfortunately, Jan had problems with a knee and later a fall from a climbing wall ended his WL career at 17 Masters.
Assiduous WL skier
Skiing WL races became a purpose in my life. All those who have embarked on a pursuit of multiple WL Masters have exprienced the thrill. These races are high level events technically and organizationally. There are now 20 venues in the series. Returning to the same races year after year was never monotonous (my programme was never the same every year) because the conditions of weather and snow were different every time, often even the course was changed. The big attraction of WL is that you meet people from all around the world and get many friends of different countries and nationalities. Assiduous WL skiers inevitably experience sooner or later difficult weather conditions, that they bravely affront, whereas they would not go out for a training session in their homeland in such conditions. In my book « Cross-Country Skiing Around the World » I described some examples of extreme conditions, some adventures in travelling, and some outstanding persons I have met.
Especially after my retirement in 1991 I was a really assiduous WL skier, with a programme including all possible WL events, leaving just a day or two home once every month for clothwashing between the consecutive travels. This gave a good fitness level. In 2004 I spent more than a week in Mora and skied a series of races from Kortvasan and Halvvasan to Vasaloppet. The WE before Vasaloppet I skied both Öppet Spår events. On Sunday I took it carefully in 7.43, on Monday easily in 6.58. Tuesday morning I was bouncing on my legs and would have appreciated a third Öppet Spår. But there was only the 45 km Halvvasan that I made in 3.56.
I never aimed the accumulation of WL Masters for the glory of being the most titled WL skier. It was a little disturbing for me to experience that people began asking to be pictured with me, and I tried to smile bravely. In my view, getting multiple Masters is not a big sport achievement, anybody can do it. The time limits in WL are very easy to pass, barely faster than leisurely walking. But travelling requires a lot of money. A Russian friend said fittingly that the list of Multiple Masters is like the Forbes list of the richest people in the world. This means that many younger persons, much better skiers than me, but lacking money, are excluded. My 34 Masters are by no means an unbeatable limit. My prediction is that in the coming years there will be one or more skiers who will achieve 40 Masters or more. I know a few of them, my best friends, and encourage them to continue their WL career, already in good progress. My result will be forgotten, but no worries, I am happy to be a pioneer who showed the example.
During those 40 years I had the opportunity to meet many race organizers thanks to my initiative, the founding of IAWLS (International Association of WL Skiers). Some of the improvements in the races were based on a proposal from IAWLS. I was the president for ten years and wish here to thank the race organizers for their collaboration and the volunteers who worked as members of the IAWLS committee for their help.
Reasons for the stop
My decision to stop WL racing has two reasons. One is that I am tired of long travels, not of skiing. In the beginning of my WL adventure I adored travelling but getting older I have developed a disgust for sitting hours in crammed aircraft, waiting at airports for delayed flights and carrying heavy luggage in long corridors and sometimes up and down stairs with no lift or moving staircase. I am now 87, and having reached 34 Masters I hope I have the right to retire. Not from skiing : there are many other than WL races that I wish to visit, at a leisurely pace. In the past I have already skied several races in France and in Italy, three events in Finland : Pirkan Hiihto (a 90km race, more challenging than Vasaloppet), Tervahiihto (the oldest race in the world, over 120 years ; Vasaloppet needs to update their claim that they are the longest and oldest race) and the Lapponia week (60, 50 and 80 km on three non-consecutive days), and the northernmost race, the Svalbard Ski Marathon in an Arctic Ocean island where there are more polar bears than inhabitants.
My first new experience after my last WL race, Finlandia Hiihto’s 32 km CT race in February 2018, was the Rajalta Rajalle (Border to Border) trek in Finland from the Russian border to the Swedish border near the Arctic Circle, 420 km in seven days, 8-14 March 2018. It was an unforgettable experience with lots of snow and mostly ideal weather conditions. There are similarities between RR and WL : multiple RR skiers in the former (one skier got a medal for his 10th participation) and multiple Masters in the latter. The feeling of togetherness is obviously much stronger in RR than in WL events because of common transports, hotels and meals for seven consecutive days plus the arrival and departure dates.
The second reason for my decision to stop WL skiing, the most important, is that I am disappointed because of the loss of prestige of the WL Master achievement. It was considered as a valuable goal by thousands of skiers ; in fact the Master system is the cornerstone of WL, a decisive feature for its big success. But then came the cheating scandal : three skiers had during several years participated in an organized cheating system. Two members of the trio were supposed to ski together, as shown by identical intermediate and final times. But, as shown by photo and video evidence, only one was skiing, the other did not even need to make the travel. His companion picked up the two bibs, carried the two chips and obtained the stamps in the passports. This system was discovered by perspicacious IAWLS members who reported it to WL in 2016. It was described on the IAWLS website.
But the second scandal, as big as the cheating itself, is that the cheats have not been punished. The WL management has not stood up for principles. The only way to reestablish the prestige of the Master performance is to apply a severe punishment on the cheats. Their Master titles obtained by cheating have been removed (not all of them yet), but that is no punishment for an unbelievable wrongdoing. WL Masters, and certainly all WL skiers agree that such cheats must be excluded from WL.
I possess two more passports, numbers 35 and 36. They coud easily have been completed in 2019 but it would have required one overseas travel. Two more valueless Masters just for the vainglory would not have been purposeful. In my list of performed WL races not used for Master titles there remain some fifteen races. The pleasure I experienced when skiing them was my reward.
In my memory will remain only all positive aspects of my 40-year WL experience.
I wish all the best for you, my WL friends.