Border-to-Border, they said, is a well-organized event, showcasing a part of the ski world – Finland’s Lapland region, just below the Arctic Circle - that few ever see.
In 2010, the year before I turned 50, former KSC member Scott Tucker called from the finish line at Kona, daring me to get back in triathlon shape and meet him in Hawaii at the Ironman World Championships in 2011. A not dissimilar challenge came my way this past fall, when two Carleton College buddies from the early ‘80s, former teammates on the Nordic ski team, contacted me and said they’d be doing something called the Border-to-Border ski – did I want to join them? Thanks to them, I’d entered college as a runner who’d never skied, but exited after four years as a serviceable skier who, during the warmer months, complemented ski fitness with the new sport of triathlon, something also introduced to me at college.
I took my college buddies up on their once-in-a-lifetime offer and immediately signed up for B2B, reserving spots on Icelandair, Finnair and Finland’s national rail line, VR, that would get me to the start and from the finish across the 9 time zones and back.
This was all months ago, long before winter started, and certainly well before any one of us had ever heard of COVID-19. Inexorably, the date of departure approached. And while we in Cascadia were having another reasonably good winter of skiing, much of Europe below 1000m was without snow, meaning that the vast majority of B2B entrants weren’t preparing as adequately for the 60km daily average the seven days of skiing would require. And, of course, as the week approached, the novel coronavirus overtook all news as its exponential growth spread its menacing tentacles into humanity. If B2B had been scheduled the following week, it would have been cancelled, just like so many sporting events have since. Fortunately, B2B is held in Finland, a country not easily given to hysteria, with policy based on informed science and experts, and with a proper health system for all; while the pandemic had come to its shores, the Finns seemed to be capably handling the situation. And so we arrived, allowed to ski on.
I landed in snowless Helsinki on March 7, assured by seemingly ubiquitous skiers at the airport that there was plenty of snow in the north of the country, where we’d be skiing. A short while later they were proven right as our Finnair plane touched down in Kuusamo, where it was snowing and adding to what appeared to be about a meter of winter’s white blanket. We all know how the body feels after long flights and interminable airport transits, and the Finns have the perfect antidote: a hot sauna followed by a quick plunge into a small, bubbled portion of an otherwise frozen lake. After having gone native with the sauna and plunge, I was fully relaxed for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, somewhat rested and well breakfasted, we began the first day of our 400km journey. B2B is a rolling event, with up to 100 skiers participating on each of four successive days. Ours was the “Day 4 Group,” meaning we were the last of the groups to ski through this year’s route, the caboose or broom wagon of this grand endeavor. Months of building excitement and anticipation among our 89 skiers meant that the first day’s pace was probably faster and more ambitious than many to follow, and so in short order, with a partially rested body still on Seattle’s nighttime clock, I found myself skiing along, doing my best to hypnotically keep up with the pair of skis going glide/kick, glide/kick, glide/kick just ahead.
Leave it to the Finns to dream up and pull off the herculean logistical feat of a B2B. First, the course chosen is a patchwork of public and private partnerships, which means that no two years are alike due to changing relationships or agreements, yet allowing a ribbon of single track to be more or less laid across the country, from its eastern flank near Russia to its western flank bordering Sweden - all just below the Arctic Circle, which is to say much farther north, and a whole heck of a lot farther, than many of us had ever skied in a week.
Each day we either skied from where we’d stayed the night before or were transported in one of two coach busses to a trailhead nearby, and from there we began the day’s reasonably westward-ho expedition. B2B is not a race per se, though it was pretty clear from the outset that at least a few were regularly skiing at a pace akin to racing. Food/fluid stops, or “Service”, often in the middle of nowhere, manned by hardy locals and featuring pickles, raisins, hot juice and chocolate, sporadically appeared along the course.
Most skiers stopped and took their time at these locations, occasionally lingering to chat with friends, pee, take pictures, etc.; but a few barely stopped at all, thereby stealthily moving up the day’s ranks. Similar was the process of passing.
This being a skiing event in northern Europe, not unsurprisingly Germans represented the largest contingent in our group, about a third of the total. From Potsdam in the north to Passau in the south, our group’s Germans were largely from the country’s eastern regions. Yet not matter, to a person they all described this difficult winter of having to drive farther, and ever higher, to find even passable snow for skiing in order to prepare for B2B. One group of four had been members of a local ski club before marriage and families and careers had outflanked their skiing brotherhood; this B2B was the first time in 25 years they’d skied together, something I learned where most Finns seem to learn most things about anything: in the sauna!
Next in numbers were the French, all of whom were from the Jura region just NW of Geneva. As luck would have it, one of the catalysts of my American group, a guy I’d skied with in college, had lived in this Franco-Swiss region because of work a decade before and had then invited another skier in the group and me to visit during the summer, to bike in and around the Jura. So, with lingering fond memories of that beautiful region and a bit of rusty college French to match, I was soon joking regularly with this very social French group, yelling “Allez Bleu, tout de suite maintenant!” each time I saw them on skis and, a few times, belting out a forgettable version of La Marseillaise just to put a smile on their faces and the fear in any local reindeer or moose that might be listening in.
Within the American contingent were four sub-groups. There was a collective of six who had met in med school and were now mostly ER doctors sprinkled around the country, and were rallying together for the second time, once again to honor the memory of a newly-married wife who came down with cancer and was dead within the first year of marriage; B2B abbreviates as RR in Finnish, and for this group RR meant “Reminder of Rachel” each day as they skied.
Apart from the Germans, French and Americans, we also had a squad of mothers from Slovenia (fun fact: Did you know that the first person to ski off of the Everest summit was Slovenian Davo Karnicar in October of 2000?), a guy from Belgium, another guy from Oslo, Norway (where there is purportedly no snow for the first time in 120 years), a retired statistics professor from Ontario, Canada, and a father and two daughters from Denmark. It was this particular mix of nationalities and personalities that allowed our Day 4 group to learn from and grow closer to one another with each passing day.
And each day was different. The first four days were largely just above freezing, which meant lots of sweating and humidity and all manner of gear to somewhat successfully dry each night. And then, Day 5, the wind began coming from the north and, well, this being Lapland we were soon having our Dr. Zhivago-goes-to-Finland moments as we skied across occasional wide open fields, the strong winds driving snow sideways in an attempt to make all things vertical horizontal, including we skiers. Fortunately, each time the snow menaced like a Notre Dame linebacker ready to take you down, protective woods beckoned only a few unsteady strides away.
Some days we skied as few as 45 km; other days we skied more. On the third day we skied 58 km in varied and often tricky conditions, an all-time record day for me on classic skis. Of course the next day was the sine qua non of ultra-distance lovers, an 88 km monster of a day - and just like that my longest day ever on classic skis had ballooned by 30 km!
Occasionally we skied on beautifully wide and groomed trails, likely intersecting with an established ski area as we meandered our way westward. More commonly, B2B made its own path, which meant we were on trails tracked by an early morning snowmobile dragging a tracking sled. Sometimes these trails were in fairly good condition and allowed for confident skiing. Other times the tracking was minimal or non-existent, in which case we all reverted to various versions of survival skiing, none of it aesthetically pleasing, but you do what you gotta do to get through to that next aid station which, for me, was the driving force since usually there was mouth-watering Finnish chocolates awaiting and occasionally local delicacies like salmon potato soup served up in refillable bowls by wonderfully sympathetic Finns!
Averaging 60 km a day, quite understandably much of the talk was about food. Fortunately, B2B was never unprepared for we, the traveling food-obsessed ruffians. In addition to huge breakfasts and the strategically placed aid stations, we also had essentially open smorgasbords available to us beginning at 3pm at each of the day’s stopping accommodations, which meant we all had an incentive to ski quickly in order to get to the food! Early on, it was pretty clear that most of us were having essentially two dinners, one at 15:00 or 16:00 after just getting off skis, and another at 19:00 or so, before the evening’s debrief and description of the next day’s terrain and conditions. Still, even with copious and healthy food, I often woke up at 3 am hungry, and was soon making an extra sandwich to take to my bed each night, to quiet a growling stomach and appease a metabolism my body vaguely remembered from Ironman days.
B2B is also designed with every skier in mind, from those with little background who may be woefully unprepared to ski for about six hours a day, to those born with skis practically attached as babies, with the ability to ski hard day after day. Given this heterogeneity, B2B designs each day with opt in and opt out locations along each route, giving any skier the ability to ski some, most or all of any given day’s journey. Because seven consecutive days of skiing averaging 60km/day is a tall order for many, by the Swedish border more than half of the original 89 had used the bus to leap ahead and shorten the distance for at least some portion of the week’s 400km. And then there were the intrepid, or perhaps foolhardy few, such as your tired author, who were bound and determined to ski the entire week and make it to that most Finnish of finishes.
By the last day, Saturday, March 14, a sunny, well-groomed 58 km outing ending on the Swedish border, the jet lag was but a distant memory, the sore shoulders and back had given way to nascent strength and vitality due to multiple days of intense training. In the final kilometers, with the finish approaching, I suddenly didn’t want this ski reverie to end. Finnish organizational acumen and unflinching Nordic hospitality had conspired to seduce me and now, though truly having earned a rest day or two, I didn’t want to stop skiing. The double-poling was automatic, the striding was effortless, the scenery was breathtaking, and there seemed no reason to stop.
But stop I had to, greeted at the Finnish Finish Line by a bevy of exuberant high school students, each dressed in an animal onesie, and all jumping up and down and yelling encouragement and congratulations to each happy skier as the line approached. The teacher in me stopped to talk with the high schoolers, inquiring about their math classes, their local school, and why they were wearing some of the more unusual outfits I’d seen at any finish line anywhere. Before long, but not before I’d been appraised of the snacks and drinks in the nearby community center, they were pointing to the flag-lined exit chute and quizzing “The American Teacher” about which flag went with which participant’s country from the last four days of hundreds of skiers. As much as I’d like to say I scored a perfect 100%, Belarus tripped me up in the end. Oh well…
Soon the early bus was taking about two dozen of us to the night’s hotel, where hot showers and hotter saunas awaited. For the first time, a restaurant/bar was strategically situated adjacent the sauna area, and soon a growing group of grizzled B2Bers were relaxing and recounting the week’s highlights in between mouthfuls of fantastic Finnish food and gulps of replenishing liquids… at least some of which had, quite understandably I’d argue, alcohol content.
And then the real world - a world incredibly and unpredictably changed in our seven days together - began insinuating itself into conversations as the reality of canceled flights and closed borders began dominating. We had already lost a few souls to early departures due to professional imperatives and the advent of instantly changing and unpredictable itineraries and now, even before the evening’s farewell ceremonies and the anticipated funny skits put on by each national group, we lost a few more to taxis and busses en route to stations and airports, each hurrying to get home to a world increasingly defined by a virus few understood well but which scared all of us headed for travel in closed trains, busses and planes.
Fortunately for us, and despite the apparent gossip of the groups ahead of us, our fourth and final group was allowed by the Finnish authorities to complete the entire 400km distance. After a bittersweet last sauna and final packing and organizing, a scrumptious pre-awards dinner was served to the predictably hungry masses. And then the skits began. None of us were veteran Broadway performers, obviously, but each of us was in a jovial mood, and as the countries got up and shared it was pretty clear we had some natural entertainers among us. As for the disparate American contingent, the past few days had had many ideas bandied about, but with no real and lasting conclusion as to screenplay. Finally, desperate to not make fools of ourselves and needing to come up with something, anything, someone said, “heh, why don’t we pretend we’re checking for our flights at an airport, and why don’t we have one of us be the ticket agent bearing increasingly bad news?” Well, your humble author, the teacher, was “encouraged” to be the ticketing agent, and so I divided our dozen up into four groups, each headed to a major US destination, with each subsequent group receiving a more outlandish itinerary home. By the end, we had a group of three sharing a seat with an un-related toddler requiring three diaper changes en route. And this was just to Moscow. I then had the group take the Trans-Siberian railroad to the Pacific, and then travel on to Tokyo. From there, I think we had them take a container ship across the Pacific. The Germans laughed the hardest, of course. What can I say, a more sympathetic audience would be hard to find.
Even before the ceremony’s conclusion I had to run up to my room and grab my three bags and head out to the foyer. The New York family of three and I had the same night train to Helsinki, leaving from Kemi 20 km away, and we’d reserved a taxi van to take us there. Only there was no taxi van to be seen, and the woman at the hotel desk, formerly helpful and friendly, had become more distant and unhelpful. Incredibly, the town’s taxi dispatch lot was across the street from the hotel, but taxis we’d seen throughout the afternoon were suddenly inconspicuous and the 30-minute buffer we’d given ourselves to catch the train was fast disappearing. Thankfully, just as we were about to strap on the skis and head south (JK!), a taxi pulled into the lot and I went over and chatted him up. Unfortunately, he drove a sedan, which just wasn’t going to work with four ski bags, six large suitcases, and four tired skiers. But just as he was assessing things for the second time and coming to the same conclusion I’d come to as he pulled in, a buddy of his in a taxi van pulled up, and soon, gratefully, we were on our way to Kemi.
I had not taken an overnight sleeper train in a very long time, but here I was being shown by the conductor to my own private room sporting its very own en suite bathroom complete with revolving door that, when rotated, changed the room into a wonderful shower. As the countryside click-clacked gradually by, the snow piles lessened and lessened, and we adhered exactly to our 22:31-departure, 9:14-arrival journey along the SW flank of Finland, I tucked into my warm bed, thoughts of the magnificent ski week, this chance of a lifetime with friends old and new, playing repeat in my head. Ahead was still a sunny Sunday’s beautiful exploration walk around Helsinki, a quick bus ride out to the airport, and a rerouted flight on what apparently was Finnair’s last US-bound airplane for the foreseeable future. But in that moment, in my little room-on-wheels in Finland with its engineering marvel of a bathroom, all I could think about was that white ribbon of parallel track through Lapland and the Finnish B2B organizers who had again created a week’s worth of ski magic for a few lucky free-heelers.