This week I was asked about the Elfstedentocht, so I thought at once this question was worthy of a blog entry, our standards being what they are.  The Elfstedentocht is one of those events of mythical proportions known only within its country of origin, but far eclipsing other non-international events like the Kite Festival of Bali, the Slovenian National Handball Championship, the Stanley Cup held in the USA but watched only in Canada, and the “World” Series of Baseball so-called because the American championship and the World championship are apparently the same thing, to Americans.
The Elfstedentocht is a one day foot race for skaters, almost 5 times the length of a marathon, held on the canals of Friesland, in northern Holland when ice conditions permit.  In fact, ice conditions do not often permit the event. The race was only held 15 times in the last century, and not yet in this one.  The competition is only announced a day or two before it is held.  At the moment that the ice is thick enough to support thousands of skaters, the Dutch get right on it; overnight 15,000 skaters are ready to go, and the country shuts down to watch.  This is what happened in 1985, when the race had not been held since 1963, and it was widely thought, at least by my Dad, who was my main point source on all things Dutch, that the event would never be held again. Elfstedentocht news, videos and souvenir books became a central point of interest in our Dutch Canadian parents’ home that year.
I’ve selected a few minutes of video from the numerous available on youtube. The first is newsreel footage of the 1963 Elfstedentocht.  Note the cheerful and upbeat tone of the announcer, the footage and the music.  Before viewing this footage, keep the actual race conditions in mind, from wikipedia.  “Only 69 of the 10,000 contestants were able to finish the race, due to the extremely low temperatures, -18°C, and a harsh eastern wind. Conditions were so horrendous that the 1963 winner, Reinier Paping, became a national hero, and the tour itself legendary.”  Signalling the importance of the event, future Queen, then Princess, Beatrix arrives by helicopter at around 3:30, and a finer princess bestowed with grace and loveliness you’ll never see.  The Queen, Juliana, is there too, I suppose that should be mentioned.  You’re going to see Dutch towns, farms, bridges and canals, a passing shot of an elegant wooden barge and windmills.  Well worth 5 minutes.

I also found the documentary on the 1985 race which is about half an hour in length and in two parts.  If you’re not up for the full version, may I suggest the first two minutes of the second half, and then also watch from 5:30 where you’ll see the race from the average competitor’s perspective. Footage of the winners, which seems all important at the time, becomes repetitive and less interesting as time goes on.  And Beatrix, Queen by 1985, appears again at 3:30.  Her hairdo, on this day as so many others, is truly impressive.

Part 1 of the 1985 Elfstedentocht documentary.  As suggested above skip to part 2 when you get bored, unless you are Dutch, then watch the whole thing for the twentieth time.

Part 2 of the 1985 Elfstedentocht documentary

So, what do Frisians do in the summer you might ask?  Why, fierljeppen, of course, which is best explained by the event itself.  Or maybe not. Don’t miss the fail at 1:45.