Quite Frankly, that’s impressive!

June 7, 2016

Leading Aircraftman Frank Kelly is a Reserve trainee Gunner with 2622 (Highland) Sqn RAuxAF Regt at Lossiemouth. He took part in a
cross-country ski marathon in Norway on 19 March along with 16,000 other competitors. Quite a training weekend! Here is his account of the race: 

The Birkebeinerrennet (or Birkebeiner) is the premier cross-country ski marathon in the world. At 54km it is actually fairly short for a ski marathon, with 50km being a standard racing distance in cross-country racing. The Birkebeiner, however, takes in three Norwegian mountains with a total ascent of 1147 metres over the course. Rather than just being a form of masochism there is in fact an interesting historical story behind the race! It dates to 1206 when Birkebeiner loyalists fled over the mountains on their skis carrying the infant King Hakon Hakonsson. Today skiers must finish the race with a 3.5kg pack, symbolising the infant, as they follow the course over the same mountains. You must also carry warm clothing, food and water meaning the pack usually starts heavier than this. Following these events, the term Birkebeiner became synonymous with someone who displays pride, strength and endurance – all fitting attributes for any member of the Armed Forces.

My journey with cross-country skiing began around 10 years ago when I was a regular and has seen me compete at several Inter-Services, British Championships and spend a year skiing full-time with the British squad. Although it had been a long-term ambition I had never gotten around to completing a ski marathon, and as I had signed up with the Squadron, the RAF Nordic Association offered me a spot on the Birkebeiner team for 2016. Despite having taken a year out of skiing to concentrate on running events I quickly dusted off my rollerskis and got out on the roads training.

Training had gone well up until the weekend I was due to travel when I started coming down with a recurring cold I had been carrying through the winter. The journey consisted of a flight followed by two trains and I took the opportunity to try and eat and drink as much as possible to shake it off. Once we had arrived and registered the scale of the event became clear. There would be 16,000 skiers setting off from a tiny Norwegian town divided into 19 waves of skiers with a five-minute interval between each wave – imagine it like starting the London Marathon in Lhanbryde. Each skier is registered and issued a bib and a bedspace and breakfast voucher. The Press were also out in force with pundits predicting record times due to the expected freezing conditions. Our accommodation turned out to be an old school where we were billeted in a classroom with around 20 other skiers all sleeping on mattresses on the floor with breakfast consisting of porridge and bread in the school canteen.

On the day of the race it became clear that the predicted freezing temperatures had not arrived and that my cold had not departed. As it was my first year attempting it I was seeded near the back in wave 17 – a real disadvantage in these conditions as the 12,000 or so skiers in front of me had washed away the pisted tracks in the warm temperatures. The first 8km is a steady climb towards the top of the first mountain and I used this to climb past many of the slower skiers, however, the congestion had slowed me down and the warm temperatures were combining with my cold to derail my race. From the top of this hill to around the 28km mark I struggled along on my limit picking off skiers in front of me as best I could and setting small goals to get me along the course. Thankfully there was several food stops handing out bananas and soft drinks and by the 34km point I had taken on enough sugar to find some sort of second wind. With 20km to go I decided to go for broke and treat it as a new race between there and the finish. Blasting along on my sugar rush I made excellent time and by the finish I had made up a good chunk of time to finish as the third RAF skier across the line with a time of just over five hours. It had left me feeling happy to have finished it after hitting my wall so early, but disappointed that I hadn’t skied anywhere near the level I am capable of.

My first ski marathon had taught me a lot about myself. Attempting to race with a bad cold would usually be a definite no, and I now know why that is the case. I managed to battle through the brick wall of exhaustion to complete the race when it looked like I might not. My motivation to ski has also returned and I have started working on a 12-hour a week training program for next year’s inter-services and started working as a coach with the British Development Squad. It has also given me a taste for real endurance racing and I am planning to go back next year where my result should move me up the seeding order to get me a better start wave and, with better preparation, a better finish time.

Cross-country skiing presents a challenge to even the fittest of people and I would encourage anyone who wants to find their limit to attempt it.

All Services – Each Service has its own Nordic Association who can get you involved with this sport.

RAF only – The RAF Nordic Association is always looking for new skiers and offers the same opportunities to Reservists as Regulars. For those looking for an entry level introduction to skiing, Ex Vixen Eagle is the RAF’s annual introductory exercise to cross country skiing and offers a route into skiing competitively with the RAF team.