The Story

In August 2013 the biggest mountain bike race in the world, The Birken, drew two Englishmen to Norway. The race was completed and they both were left in awe of the organisation and scale of the Birken event.

The Birken bike race is the summer cousin to the original winter ski event. Not long after returning to the UK a plan to return was hatched but this time not on 2 wheels but on skis. Apart from the obvious challenge of the 54km of cut cross country ski tracks which make up the Birken race there was another more pressing issue... neither of the mountain bikers had ever cross country skied.

Can two absolute novice skiers learn to master the technique of cross country skiing in time to complete the Birken Ski Marathon by March 2014 ? well there is only one way to find out ... the Zero to Hero challenge was born.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Tough Times and Law 3.8 (a)

So race weekend came around and knowing no more training could be done we headed off to Oslo on a morning flight from Manchester. On arrival and having met up with a couple other journalists we headed up to Rena with Jean-Francois at the wheel.

As the race starts near Rena it made sense to stay there, so having picked up race numbers at the event HQ, we headed up the valley to a large farmhouse  hotel - Søndre Løsset    A stunning and expansive farmhouse from where 9000 hectares of forest are managed. We enjoyed a remarkable meal, the very best Norwegian cuisine really is world class.

                                         One of out buildings at Søndre Løsset

Friday brought the opportunity to stretch the legs and get used to XC skies as opposed to roller skis, so we headed out and covered a steady 10km on the course which was being used for the leisure and relay events. These Friday events are an opportunity for those wishing to complete the course in a more relaxed, and less competitive atmosphere or do it as a relay with a team of four. This latter option is often used for Norwegian business’s for team building and interdepartmental competition.

                                         Paul stretching his legs above Rena

                                          Racers in the relay event.

After another fine dinner at Søndre Løsset we were given the opportunity by owner Per to take a look at two power stations he has on his land. One built in 2000 as his ‘millennium project’ and one built by one of his relatives over a hundred years ago. The latter is one of the few remaining hydro electric generators of that period - and really is a feat of engineering.

                                         A fully functioning 100+ year old hydroelectric generator !

One final job before bed was the ski prep. - and as ever Jean Francois did us proud, with fresh glide wax and some base prep / grip wax applied with the plan to leave the coating until the morning when we knew exactly what conditions would be. Cross country waxing really is a dark art.

                                                           Jean-Francois box of Swix tricks.

                                          The race ready Madshus

As snow fell it was then time our save our power for Saturdays race.

It was still dark when the alarms went and on opening the curtains we were greeted with an inch of fresh snow a largely clear sky - although some clouds could be seen moving rapidly in the pre dawn light. After a fine breakfast of porridge, bacon and egg and coffee we began to load the van. After skiing to Lillehammer we would be in a different bed.

Just before leaving Per commented on it looking like it could be windy out on the course.

At the start above Rena there was a hive of activity. With the best part of 17000 racers starting to roll up, get ready, and ski to Lillehammer. Anticipation was in the air. The sky was blue. The snow was fresh.

But the wind was blowing, and blowing strongly - especially on the most exposed parts of the course.

So much so that with a windchill in the region of -30 C the decision was taken to cancel the race.
Now as any Englishmen will tell you, especially in the summer, it’s not uncommon for rain to stop play or cause the cancellation of a cricket match.....

The Laws of Cricket -

Law 3.8 (a) states 'It is solely for the umpires together to decide whether either:
‘conditions of ground, weather or light or: exceptional circumstances mean that it would be
dangerous or unreasonable for play to take place'.

But it came as a shock to everyone that for the first time in its 77 year history the Birkebeinerrennet would be cancelled before a skier had had a chance to kick’n glide away from the start. ( In 2007 the race was abandoned after the first three waves of skiers had started.)

Everyone was left feeling pretty hollow, but being or becoming a ‘Birkebeiner’ is a tough challenge.

                                                     Birkebeinerrennet is for the tough and gnarly

And there is nothing tougher than having to make the call to cancel the race, and with 17000 people ranging from 16 years old to 70+ taking part there was a risk of things turning ugly and that one or more people could find themselves in life threatening circumstances.

The game was over.

                                         Finish line at Lillehammer Stadium

To salvage the day we skied the tracks around the Olympic stadium and crossed what would have been the finish line. Some more experienced skiers had headed over the course from Rena and the general feedback was that it was pretty grim conditions and that is had been a sensible decision to call the race off. Lets face it Norwegians know a thing or two about bad winter weather.

To round the weekend off we headed out for a Sunday ski with new friends Torbjørn and Dise, and instead of heading up to our usual training grounds at Sjusjøen opted for the tracks around Nordseter followed by hot chocolate and waffles.

So while it was a big disappointment not to race in 2014 it’s been a great experience, becoming familiar with cross country skiing, cementing friendships and making new friends. Which is what sport is all about - having great experiences and making friends.

So a huge thanks to everyone who has helped us and roll on Birkebeinerrennet 2015.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Happy Mondays - a perfect start to any week.

Zero to Hero ( Part 2 ) from Henry Iddon on Vimeo.

Short video of our second and final training camp on snow. After two days poor weather we had perfect conditions - Norway at it's best? Probably !

Friday, 21 February 2014

Peak of the Week (end)

After a challenging first day back on Norwegian snow we were hoping for an easier second day ... unfortunately like the Norwegian National XC Ski Team our tough times were not over on day one.

 Norwegian media had  a field day questioning why there was a lack of medals in XC skiing at Sochi.
Sunday morning greeted us with more of the same weather that had proved so challenging the previous day.  With limited time on our hands we affixed the British stiff upper lip and got back out in the snow.

                                           Lillehammer XC Stadium in heavy snow.

The days plan was to head back to the Olympic stadium just above Lillehammer for an hour or so in the morning then to head to Sjusjøen in the afternoon, where we hope a greater altitude would give us colder temperatures and better performing ski conditions.

As the day before no combination of wax gave us the grip / glide performance we had seen in perfect snow back in November.  The skis would glide with no grip or grip with no glide ... better to suffer these conditions now than on race day we hoped.
After an hour at the stadium and a lunch watching another Norwegian ski relay defeat we headed to Sjusjøen.  Conditions were poor with very limited visibility and the same issues with the skis.

                                         A near white out at Sjusjøen.

To make matters worse after stopping for a chat I pushed off but instead of gliding forward I simply pushed myself over forward to the sickening sound of an expensive SWIX pole snapping :(

                                         Well over 2m of snow at Sjusjøen - covering huts !

We continued to rack up a daily total of 24km ...

An evening of good food and wine with Torbjøen and partner Dise was reward for our toil in poor conditions.

All along all hopes had been pinned on Monday being a fantastic day ... in cross country ski terms that is blue skies and -5 to -10 temperatures ... Monday did not disappoint !

                                         Blue sky and freshly groomed tracks

Monday was a real test for myself and Henry as it would be the first time we were out on the tracks unsupervised, not only this but the days plan was to tackle the final descent form Sjusjøen to Lillehammer, the steepest part of the course !

The day was fantastic ... we had grip, glide and phenomenal views across the snow covered slopes with there heavily snow capped trees.  We headed back up the Birken course for 5km before we turned to make our way to Lillehammer.

Straight away as we left Sjusjøen the track got steep and luckily today my snowplough had returned so when Henry switched in to speed ski mode I maintained a more controlled approach and ploughed my way down the steeper part of the slopes.

As the skiing was pretty relaxed we subconsciously took a decision for more climbing and took a wrong turn as we neared the stadium at Lillehammer.  What should of been a gently rolling descent turned in to a roller coaster as we herringboned up some pretty steep slopes to be faced with, at one point, what looked like a ski jump we had to descend.

Arriving at the stadium, with another 25+km's under our belt, I think we were both now much more comfortable with completing the full course though come race day I am sure nerves will prevail.

                                         Recovery treat time at the stadium.

Bring on the Birken !!

                                          Heading home.

Huge thanks again to Jean Francois who though injured still orchestrated our whole training weekend and put us in touch with the excellent Torbjøen and Dise.  Thanks also to Jon from the Birken organisation for driving us on the Monday so we didn't have to face a large climb back to Sjusjøen.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Tough Day for Norway

So we're back in Norway for some on snow training - after flying in and picking up the Benz we headed up to Lillehammer.

The weekend was set to be a big one for Norwegian XC skiing - with the relay events taking place in Sochi and National pride at stake !  It was also an important one for us as we needed some time on snow.

As if the challenge of limited time on snow wasn't enough our mentor Jean Francois had sustained a skiing injury the week prior to our arrival.  Jean Francois was able to draft in a substitute ... Torbjøen ... a multi time Birken finisher and wax guru.

The forecast was for high wind, fresh snow and temperatures around or just above freezing - the most challenging conditions for XC ski waxing. We headed up to the Lillehammer XC stadium, home for events at the 1994 Olympics,  to get some sheltered skiing.

After prepping the skis headed out on the trail. As the wind buffeted us and big flakes of 'wet' snow fell obliterating the freshly cut tracks it soon became apparent that we'd got the waxing wrong. And so had virtually everyone else we spoke to.  Instead of trying fix things on location it was decided that we head back to Torbøen's house (His house was part of the athletes village for Lillehammer 1994 winter games) for some early lunch, watch the women's Olympic relay and get the ski prep dialed.

A great race was won by Sweden with Norway having a tech disaster, getting their ski prep wrong - finishing 5th. The TV pundits were having a field day blaming wax and skis.

With our skis getting the relevant treatment on the bench we headed out for a challenging 18km circuit - fresh snow around or just above freezing, still strong winds and so much snow the tracks were getting covered. By all accounts is was as tough as conditions can get.

Next up a shower and more tmrw

Monday, 20 January 2014

North Sea training camp

One of the key aims of this whole project was to look at how individuals without access to perfectly groomed slopes and tracks can train to complete an event like the Birken ... at the moment though my current situation is testing the limits of adaption.

As a geotechnical engineer I work in predominantly offshore renewables so every now and then I have to supervise site works... and as the job description suggests those sites are in the sea.

Since the start of January whilst Henry has been terrorising the pensioners on Blackpool Prom I have been working nocturnal shifts on a drill vessel in the North Sea.

Home sweet home ...

My ability to train has improved somewhat with the delivery to the vessel a week or so back of some new gym equipment so when time and tiredness allows at least now I can spin my legs for a while.  The laptop is a useful distraction from the shelves of oven cleaner, washing up liquid and large freezers :)

Looking forward to getting home in a week or so and tackling the roller skis before out next Norwegian training session .. I feel at the moment I have a lot of work ahead of me.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Seasonal RollerCoaster

Two weeks after training on snow in Norway there was a real need to keep the ball rolling, or kicking and gliding as the case may be.

Now as a cyclist it’s handy to be an hour from Manchester Velodrome, and I have great road riding on my doorstep in North Lancashire. If I want to get out in the hills hiking it’s only an hour to the Lake District, and several hours to the Highlands of Scotland. However the problem I now face is I live nowhere near regular snow. Specifically cut tracks for cross country skiing! Snow in the United Kingdom is a fickle thing, especially at low altitudes and on terrain suitable for cross-country skiing.

One fortunate thing is I live only a mile from the coast and a traffic free promenade that stretches for over 10 miles - perfect for roller skiing. So in mid December Jean-Francois flew in, like Santa, from Norway bringing with him Pro Ski roller skis , Madshus boots and Swix poles (as well as some rather nice looking Madshus Nanosonic Skis should the opportunity arise to get on snow before our next visit to Norway).

With the reindeer taking a rest before Christmas I picked JF up at Manchester Airport, where under a leaden sky and steady rain we loaded the car and headed up to the Fylde Coast, and Blackpool  - one of if not the most famous seaside holiday location in the UK complete with it’s Tower and 3 piers.

After the inevitable ‘chippy’ lunch washed down with a mug of tea we headed off to recce out a suitable area of promenade for me to be introduced to classic style roller skiing . Driving down past Cleveleys and Anchorsholme we settled on the area just north of Blackpool’s famous North Pier.

I must say I was pretty nervous at the thought of standing on little wheels, having not been on roller skates since I was a kid, or not having taken up inline skating when that was all the rage. I’ve never looked good in neon.

Thankfully the ‘skis’ proved pretty stable, with the ratchet in the rear wheel meaning you can only travel one way standing up right proved manageable. The proscribed wisdom is that although ‘classic’ roller skis allow you to lift your heel and mimic the action of an on snow kick ‘n’ glide, what actually happens is that you rely on the ratchet on the back wheel to provide ‘grip’ which can result in poor technique and pushing back with your toes. On snow the ‘grip’ comes from downward pressure by the whole foot.
So with precious little time on snow to learn good technique the last thing I want to do is pick up bad habits.

Where roller ski training comes into it’s own is that it provides  a great opportunity to improve double poling technique and importantly fitness. Come the Birkebeinerrennet and it’s 54km’s of hills there was going to be a need for a get out of jail card - double poling could be it! The technique can be seen here on the American Birkie YouTube site.

With rain still falling we headed south past North Pier and under Blackpool Tower towards Central Pier before returning over the ‘Comedy Carpet’.

As we’d rolled south I’d spotted a friend and client at work in The Beach House  - Blackpool’s newest and most unique bistro, bar and restaurant, on the promenade.

As it was quiet and it was unlikely that two damp and hot roller skiers would cause the place to empty we swung by for a fresh coffee and mid ski break before returning back to the car.

All that was needed now was more practice to develop technique and build some relevant fitness.
JF was on a whistle stop visit so the following morning we headed to a stretch of the upper promenade between ‘The Gynn’ and Little Bispham - this area is well surfaced with tarmac but more rolling that the previous afternoons location meaning that there were short uphill sections to build some strength as well as steady but thankfully short downhills to help with balance and confidence. Out and back it gave a good hours training.

After a quick shower it was off to the railway station - JF heading back to Norway and me to London to shoot a last minute campaign for BBC Worldwide. There’s never a dull moment.

With it looking likely that it could be up to six weeks before getting on snow again and with such limited time before The Birken in March the pressure was, and is, on to get as much work done on the rollers as possible, building as much core and XC specific fitness as possible.

While most regular XC skiers use roller skis as a summer fitness regime we’re having to use it as the majority of our training. So I even took the opportunity to get out on Christmas Day for an hour - partly as it was a novelty to get out roller skiing at Christmas and also because it was one of the few days recently when it hasn’t been either pouring with rain or blowing 40mph winds with gusts up to 70mph.

Just my luck to take up roller skiing on an exposed promenade the same month as some of the worst gales in living memory have pounded the coast of Britain !

So as the sun sets on 2013.

It's best foot forward into 2014.

Henry Iddon