Dutch Hopes Grow For Natural Ice Skating Marathon

Published February 6, 2012 12:09PM (EST)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The deep freeze gripping much of Europe means the Netherlands' almost mythical "Eleven Cities Tour" ice skating marathon could be staged later this month for the first time in 15 years, organizers said Monday.

The race, held along a 125-mile (200-kilometer) network of canals connecting 11 towns and cities in Friesland province, would cause a national frenzy, drawing thousands of participants and more than a million spectators. It was last held in 1997.

Frisian Eleven Cities Association chairman Wiebe Wieling told a nationally televised press conference organizers hope to hold the race, known by its Dutch name "Elfstedentocht," but added: "The weather will determine what happens next."

He said ice is still too thin along southern parts of the route over which some 16,000 participants will skate if the race goes ahead.

But the national weather service forecasts freezing temperatures at least through Friday, fueling hopes.

"We want nothing more than to organize the 'Elfstedentocht,'" Wieling told reporters. "We have been waiting 15 years and we're doing all we can."

The grueling race is one of the most deeply cherished Dutch traditions. Though people here have been skating the route along frozen Friesian canals for centuries in cold winters, the race was first officially organized in 1909 and has only been staged 15 times since.

It is open only to members of the Frisian Eleven Cities Association, which holds a draw each year to establish who is allowed to take part. The invitation-only nature of the event and its rarity only adds to the allure.

Winners of the elite race become overnight celebrities in this country where speedskating is one of the most popular winter sports.

The thousands of others who manage to complete the event forever cherish the small enameled cross they are awarded. Participants are given a card at the start that they have to get stamped at stations along the route to prove they covered the entire course.

The last man to win the race, farmer Henk Angenent, completed the 1997 event in six hours, 49 minutes. The winner of what is considered the toughest of all the races, in 1963, took just under 11 hours.

On Sunday night, regional managers from the association met to take stock of the route — the first such meeting since 1997. They are scheduled to meet again Wednesday evening to discuss the conditions.

The news in the north was good: "I have rarely seen such beautiful ice," said the association's "ice master" Jan Oostenbrug.

But in the southwest, where snow that fell Friday formed a blanket that slowed ice growth, the ice is still too weak.

One official responsible for checking ice sank through the frozen surface of a lake that forms part of the route on Sunday, Oostenbrug said.

The ice there, "is almost like frosting — when you step on it you sink through the top. You can't skate on it," said Wieling.

By Salon Staff

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