By Heinz-Peter Bader
The Alternatieve Elfstedentocht (Alternative 11-City Race) has been a Dutch tradition since 1974. The original version in Friesland, an ice skating race over 200 km (124 miles) through 11 towns linked by canals, rivers and lakes, dates back many centuries. As the local waters don’t freeze over so easily anymore, the Dutch started looking for alternatives in other countries and organized an Alternatieve Elfstedentocht at lake Weissensee in Austria’s Carinthia Province in 1989 for the first time.
Nowadays the Alternatieve Elfstedentocht Weissensee is a two-week event with some 6,000 participants, mostly Dutch amateur speed skaters. A day before one of the 200 km races I went to shoot an event officially called the Frisian Shorttrack Championships, with athletes wearing traditional wooden skates and clothes, which turned out to be a fun race. Some 30 women, men and a boy competed in several knock-out races over 110 meters (yards) each, drinking traditional liquor between the heats, struggling more with their clothes than with the ice sometimes.
On the way to the competition I met Norbert Jank, the ice keeper of lake Weissensee, responsible for the preparation of the tracks and the one person to decide if the lake is frozen well enough for the event to take place. Well… it was. Mr. Jank took me out to the middle of the lake by car, grabbed his power saw and began carving deep into the ice. The piece he cut out was an impressive block some 40cm high (15 inches) – the thickness of the ice. It was not enough that Mr. Jank was proud of “his” ice, he wanted to demonstrate the lake’s drinking water quality, so he kneeled down and drank right out of the lake.
The race was scheduled to start at 7 the next morning. I had pictures in my mind of the 1,100 athletes crowding the start, but… 7 the next morning turned out to be dark night – the lake is located 930 meters (yards) above sea level in between the alps. Participants wore lights mounted on their foreheads and had their faces covered to protect themselves from the cold. It was -16 degrees Celsius (3 degrees Fahrenheit).
Two hours later the sun rose above the mountains, it remained a cold but sunny winter day, giving me some opportunities to make beautiful pictures of the event. Again, this day’s competition was not so much about winning a race but rather all of the amateur racers competing against themselves to eventually finish 200 kilometers of skating on lake Weissensee sometime in the afternoon.