When the signal sounds end of March to start the 160 kilometre, traditional skiing race in Sisimiut’s eastern, mountainous terrain, competitors can expect three days, where they will be competing against the clock, against their bodies and against nature in a spectacular and harsh Arctic winter landscape.
Arctic Circle Race (ACR), called by organizers and former participants the toughest cross country ski race in the world, is the high point on Greenland’s sporting calendar for most of the participants who come first and foremost from Greenland.
This applies in particular to the over 5,000 inhabitants in the country’s next-largest town. For over a week, hundreds of them will stand on their heads to make sure the race logistics run smoothly and to create a party for the people in honour of everyone’s hard work, both on and off the ski runs.
Countless international cross country skiers have discovered this demanding race in classic, Scandinavian style. Over the years, cross-country skiers from such countries as Scandinavia, Germany, Great Britain, Canada, Spain, USA, Switzerland, France and Russia, to name just a few, have taken part in this race.
The race competition is running over three days, with two nights spent in a tent camp in the middle of what some people call »the great white nothing«. For the locals it brings back memories of snowmobiles in the backcountry and a popular, week-long hike to the entry port for traffic to Greenland, the international airport: Kangerlussuaq / Søndre Strømfjord.
Although the race has a broad appeal – and is therefore not categorized as a top international competition – ACR has enjoyed participation by former Olympic winners and legends, for example the eight-times gold medallist from Norway, Bjørn Dæhlie, and the German ski shooter Sven Fischer, who has won four Olympic medals during his career.
None of the top-athletes took a gold medal home from Greenland after they competed, but they did gain experiences that are as securely imprinted in their memories as the letters and symbols on the medals they received for previous performances.
Every year has its own race stories to be remembered and talked about. One year, many remember in particular how the female teenage talent Miillaaraq Lennert managed to fight for en impressive third place on one of the stages, despite having broken a stick on the way and having to struggle across hilly terrain for over an hour – like a Tour de France rider with punctured tires crossing Alpe d’Huez.
Overall Arctic Circle race are considered as one of the hardest and most demanding races as expressed by one of the winners of the men’s race, Øystein Slettemark.
- It is a gigantic challenge. Not least with regard to the temperature. Some nights it sank close to minus 30°C, he said.
One of the reasons for the icy-cold temperatures, was the fact that the organizers of the race are obliged to locate the tent camp and the race route at a higher altitude than earlier years, to make sure there would be enough snow of the right quality and depth.
In several years unusually strong winds and a warm front has swept over all of West Greenland, clearing enormous mountain areas of snow. It takes a lot before a traditional event in Greenland is cancelled, but wind and weather in the Arctic are factors that no sensible inhabitant takes on lightly, though always hoping for snow again over the Arctic Circle before the race.
It goes without saying that taking part in the race requires good, physical fitness together with a large portion of courage and will, and although you don’t have to have been born wearing a pair of cross-country skis, it’s a great help if you have some experience with cross-country skiing over longer distances. Nevertheless, there have been occasions where participants from more southern parts have completed the race with experience gained solely from asphalt and roller skis.
On all race days there is usually quite a time span between the best athletes and the amateurs, since the race is open for everyone. It is not unusual to see several generations from the same family taking part.
If the 10-25 hours of blood, sweat and tears it can take to ski the 160 km in three days is not your thing, you could instead take part in the shorter, more comfortable race called ACR100. As the name implies, it is a three-day race over a total of 100 km. Many of the kilometres of the route are shared with the skiers on the longer, classic route. The tent camp is also common to all skiers.
Common to every former as well as every future participant in the Arctic Circle Race is the concern for what the future will bring for this beautiful cross country ski race, which takes place in the wintry mountains of West Greenland. With the escalation of global warming, it is not only the inland ice that is dwindling. The amount of snow, when it falls and how long it stays are factors that have become more unstable and unpredictable with the increase in mean temperature.
In the case of Sisimiut, there have been average temperature increases of 10 and 5°C respectively. At least this is so, when February and March 2000 are compared with the same months in 2007 – according to data from DMI (Denmark’s Meteorological Institute) – a marked difference that, in the worst case, could put an end to many years of drama and intensity in the beautiful hinterland of the Arctic Circle Regions.
Several climate experts believe that climate changes will, in fact, mean more precipitation over Greenland in the winter and if this is the case, one of the most vital pre-requisites for carrying out the race will be secured. One thing is sure, both the organizers of the race and the many volunteers behind ACR are going to do everything in their power to continue with the successes and traditions of previous years.
Sisimiut is the next-largest town in Greenland. It is the most northerly ice-free port and the southernmost sled dog town on the West Coast. The town is visited by many tourists, both in the summer peak season and during the winter. The main industry is fishing.
Before the race, there is a common worship for all runners and volunteers. It is a big event, where everyone first walk in procession from the Arena of the Cultural House Taseralik, trough the city to the beautiful old church.
The region is known as the »Arctic Circle Region« due to its location about 75 km north of the Arctic Circle.
There are three versions of the ACR. The classic, 160 km distance, where there are competitions for men, women and different age groups. A shorter, 100 km version with the same age and gender groups and a local mini-race for children called Miki-ACR. Races are run against the clock and timekeeping is undertaken by officials who keep an eye on each competitor’s times.
All competitors must carry at least 5 kg of safety equipment – otherwise they are not permitted to start. In addition, they must have a small, foldable thermal blanket so they can deal with a sudden snow storm.
In the days up to the race, all sleeping bags are checked (they must be able to keep the occupant warm in temperatures down to -30°C), and if a sleeping bag does not live up to the standard, it is necessary to rent a better one.
The competitors are followed and escorted as far as possible by snowmobiles and dogsledders, particularly on the more demanding slopes where volunteers also stand by.
Regarding safety, police, nurses and doctors also make a huge effort during the Arctic Circle Race.
In general, more than 100 volunteers from Sisimiut must all have great praise. Without them, it would be impossible to complete such an extreme skiing for between 100 and 200 runners each year.
The organizers provide Arctic tents for all participants. They also erect several large, heated tents with lighting where meals are served and participants can relax, dry clothes, have a massage and, if necessary, get treatment for blisters, minor frostbites etc.
Many participants mention the atmosphere in the tent camp as something unique because you live with your competitors, exchanging experiences, and not just meeting up to a run and returning home afterwards.
The Arctic Circle Race hosts a large safety meeting for all participants, where detailed information is provided about the routes prepared by local entrepreneurs, and where to take special care. The roadmap for the race days is reviewed and all the necessary safety equipment, as well as the practicality of the stay in the camp. Here all luggage are brought on the first day of the race, while the skiers themselves ski out there.
A big party is held the day after the race. Here is a completely awesome atmosphere, good food and entertainment, and time to enjoy many new friendships across national borders.
The many volunteers are something special for the city of Sisimiut, which in many other areas has been good at completing projects by standing together.
Now that the Arctic Circle Race has been around for more than 20 years, there are also several instances where several generations in the families have participated as volunteers. Race number 20 was in 2016, with the participation of, among others, the Danish Crown Prince, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Frederik, who had a place named by him, on the route at the same occasion.
The fact that the Arctic Circle Race is something special for the runners, is also characterized by the fact that some of the participants have been prioritising their participation for almost all years.