The Dutch speed skating race that's worth more than Olympic gold
Like any other quadrennial event, the Winter Games have a special significance simply due to the amount of time between each edition. Shaun White has been a household name since his halfpipe debut in Torino 12 years ago, but his triumph in PyeongChang marked just the fourth time he has graced the Olympic stage, which made every gold medal all the more special.
Now imagine an event that is as revered as the Olympics—but hasn’t happened in 21 years (and counting).
It’s too damn warm in Leeuwarden, the capital of the northwestern Dutch province of Friesland. The highs in the month of February this year have been in the mid-40s with the lows rarely dropping below freezing. The picturesque canals, rivers and lakes around the region are flowing.
Most people living in temperate areas across the globe would probably welcome such a relatively balmy winter, but for the speed-skating-obsessed citizens of the Netherlands, it marks another season of disappointment. The water isn’t frozen, let alone thick enough to skate on, and there is no cold snap in sight. That means one more year will pass without the national spectacle of the Elfstedentocht—or Eleven Cities Tour—which grinds the entire country to a halt for a single, magical day once a decade (if they’re lucky).
“Everyone loves it and would come out to watch and support teams or skate it themselves,” said American speed skater Carlijn Schoutens, who was born in Trenton, NJ but grew up in the town of Heemstede in the northern Netherlands. “It's such a typical Dutch thing, to speed skate and be outside.”
The Elfstedentocht (pronounced “elf-STAY-duhn-toke-t”) is a skating tour that stretches more than 120 miles across natural bodies of water in Friesland. Like its name suggests, the marathon passes through 11 cities: It starts in Leeuwarden and loops through Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker and Dokkum before finishing back in Leeuwarden. More than 15,000 skaters take part, split into competitive and leisure divisions (demand is so high that entrants must be members of the Association of the Eleven Frisian Towns, which organizes the race, and purchase a starting permit and bib for around 100 euros). Racers collect a stamp in each city and pass through three secret checkpoints in order to be a qualified finisher.
The tour begins around five in the morning, and skaters must finished before midnight for their time to count. At the last three Elfstedentochts, the winner finished in under seven hours. At the first, the winner took nearly 14 hours to make it to through all 11 cities.
The Netherlands collectively gets so excited for the event that there’s even a term—Elfstedenkoorts—for “Eleven Cities fever.” The fever picks up during every bout of cold weather, and it reaches a frenzy on the rare occasion the marathon gets the go-ahead. Spectators flock to the starting point and hold a city-wide street party the night before the tour starts in an impromptu festival called the “Night of Leeuwarden.” Numerous schools and workplaces around the country close. Historically, members of the Dutch military have even gotten two days off to enjoy the Elfstedentocht.
Each winter brings hope that the Association will announce another edition. Every time Elfstedenkoorts hits, the nation “is not governed from The Hague but by 22 district heads in Friesland,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in 2012. “And our country is in good hands.”
But here’s the catch: The ice must be at least six inches thick across the entire course in order for the tour to be held. That has only happened 15 times, including the first race in 1909. The ice hasn’t been stable enough since 1997.
The silver lining, however, is that the long layoff will make the next Eleven Cities Tour even more unforgettable.
And the marathon has already seen some truly incredible stories—the stuff of legends. In addition to being famously rare, the Elfstedentocht is also notoriously grueling (as you would expect for a 120-mile skate in brutal cold). In 1963, only 58 skaters out of 10,227 finished; two died of hypothermia, and a third barely survived. Karst Leemburg, the winner in 1929, lost his big toe to frostbite. His descendants kept the amputated appendage in a jar for half a century. There have been reports of people going blind from frozen corneas. A man with a dislocated shoulder once apparently begged for a string so that he could tie his arm behind his back and cross the finish line.
Impressed? Horrified? Or are you just asking, why? It’s simple. There’s a reason people of the Netherlands consider the 10,000m, the longest Olympic distance, the premier speed-skating event at the Winter Games. Distance racing reflects a national admiration of endurance—the guts and skill to maintain technical perfection while being pushed to one’s absolute physical limit—and the Eleven Cities Tour is the epitome of that.
“You were a hero if you finished the Eleven Cities,” said Jorrit Bergsma, who won the gold medal in the men’s 10,000m at the 2014 Olympics and earned silver in PyeongChang. “It's such a hard tour. People have such great stories of it. You really have to have character to finish.”
There is a Dutch saying about the marathon: “You have to die three times to win.”
Many in the current generation of speed skaters almost see the Elfstedentocht as a childhood fairy tale. Among the Olympians in PyeongChang, the race is an experience that some have been alive for but no one has truly lived through.
“The last was in ’97 and I was born in ’94,” Schoutens said. “I just knew it was a huge deal.”
Bergsma was a little older, but at age 11, he was too young to soak any of it in.
“I can’t really remember watching it,” he said. “I remember my dad watching it all day.”
Irene Schouten, the 2015 world champion in the mass start, doesn’t recall anything, either. But like Schoutens and Bergsma, she still holds the tour in near-mythical reverence. It’s literally more valuable than gold.
“In Holland, there are a few Olympic gold medalists, [but] there are fewer Eleven Cities winners,” Schouten said. If she had to choose which was more prestigious, “I’d go with [the Elfstedentocht] because you're a real hero.”
Who knows when we’ll see the 16th edition of the Elfstedentocht? With the growing pollution in the water and atmosphere over the years, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Friesland to freeze over (not to mention the warmer winters). The last wave of Elfstedenkoorts hit in 2012—but the cold weather let up after everything was set to go, and the tour was called off three days before it was scheduled to take place.
When the moment comes for real, you can bet Olympians and common citizens alike will show up in unprecedented droves.
“It's such a big deal,” Schoutens said. “The distance skaters in the Netherlands—if you asked them if they'd go home from the Olympics if it happened, they'd say yes. That's how important it is to them.”
Schoutens is a sprinter, but she said she would still consider competing; at the very least, she will be there watching. As a long-distance specialist, Bergsma would be on the first plane to Leeuwarden.
If the tour overlaps with the Winter Games? It’s not even a question.
“Eleven Cities,” Bergsma said.
NBC Olympics researcher Rachel Thompson contributed to this report.
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