If the saying, "Never slow down, never grow old," has any merit, Kjell Risung is living proof.
At age 47, Risung, a Soldotna physical therapist, recently competed in the longest cross-country ski race in the world. On March 7, he skied in the Vasaloppet, a 90-kilometer race starting in Salen, Sweden, and finishing in Mora. Two weeks later, Risung, a native of Norway, returned home to ski in the 54-kilometer Birkebeiner, which begins in Rena and ends in Lillehammer, the site of the 1994 Winter Olympics.
"This year, I kind of wanted to do something different on a different continent," Risung said. "For me to go over there and do the races was kind of natural."
The Vasaloppet, or Vasa as it's known, is Sweden's equivalent to America's Daytona 500 or the Rose Bowl, Risung said. The entire race, which is nearly 56 miles long, is televised, he said.
"It's just really fun to see how involved everyone is in the town," Risung said.
In the Vasa, Risung finished 506th out of 16,500 racers. It took him 5 hours, 1 minute, to complete the course. In the Birkebeiner, Risung finished 820th out of 16,400 skiers. He took 102nd out of 1,650 skiers in the 45 to 50 age group.
"That's a very competitive age group," Risung said.
Risung finished the Birkebeiner in 3 hours, 12 minutes, a better time than he expected, especially for a rookie. Risung had never competed in either race prior to this year.
"There's a lot of hype around those races," Risung said, because skiing is much more competitive in Europe than in the U.S.
The Vasa is grueling, to put it mildly.
"It's such a long ski," Risung said. "You're putting your body out there for five hours. There's a lot of double-poling. When I got in after that race, I was so sore. I had muscle cramps as big as my fist."
The Vasaloppet was named after former Swedish King Gustav Eriksson Vasa. In 1520, Christian II ruled over Sweden, Denmark and Norway, which were united at that time. Vasa's opposition of Christian resulted in his imprisonment.
He escaped and Vasa urged villagers to revolt against King Christian. After speaking to a crowd in Mora, Vasa did not have the support he needed and was forced to continue his westward journey as Christian's soldiers were in pursuit of the escapee.
Regretting their decision, Mora sent its two best skiers to find Vasa and bring him back to lead the fight against King Christian. They reached Vasa in Salen. After two and a half years of warfare, Vasa was crowned king of a free Sweden on June 6, 1523.
The Vasaloppet had several different starting gates, but was a mass-start race. Top-seeded skiers are in the front of the pack, Risung said.
"It's just an unbelievable experience," he said. "It's really hard to get forward because you have so many skiers ahead of you."
Both competitions are classic races. In the Vasa, 20 tracks narrow down to four quickly, Risung said. With so many skiers converging in a short amount of time, a bottleneck of crossed skis and broken poles forms, he said.
"Everybody wants to move forward, even though they have 90 kilometers to go," Risung said.
Like the Vasa, the Birkebeiner has top skiers in front, but it's not a mass start. Skiers are released in five-minute intervals, Risung said.
During the Birkebeiner, each skier must carry a backpack weighing 3.5 kilograms, or 7.7 pounds, in honor of the race's history. For about 100 years, civil wars were fought throughout Norway. King Haakon Sverresson died in 1204. He had an infant son, named Haakon. Though he would eventually become King Haakon IV, two of the strongest skiers fled with the baby to protect him. They endured mountainous terrain and harsh weather. Once Haakon IV assumed the throne, he ended the civil wars.
Though Risung had never skied in either event, growing up in Norway, he was quite familiar with each. Norway has a strong cross-country skiing tradition.
"I'm born with skis," Risung said. "Pretty much all Norwegians are born with skis on."
Risung, who participated in the two races with his brother, said the events were like no other he had skied in before.
"It's a really cool experience," he said. "It's about reaching some goals. It keeps you going and keeps you working hard."
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