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Dutch speedskating marathon winner Van Benthem launches Alberta marathon

Fifty kilometres event to be expanded to 200 next winter

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

SYLVAN LAKE, Alberta - The 1980s winner of two Frisian Eleven Cities’ skating marathons, Evert Van Benthem who immigrated to Canada several years ago, is discovering that holding open air skating marathons in Canada can be every bit as problematic as when organized in the Netherlands. In both countries the weather easily can put plans on the skids although the circumstances in Alberta are quite different from those in the Netherlands. Van Benthem and his fellow organizers found themselves weighing the question to proceed or not, much like the ‘ijsmeesters’ (ice inspectors) of the Eleven Cities’ marathon. The Alberta question however focussed more on extreme low temperatures and related health hazards.

The organizers (the Foothills Speed Skating Marathon Association, FSSMA) treated the 2003 Sylvan Lake Ice Marathon of 50 kilometres as a dry run for a much grander event next year when they could turn it into a 200-kilometres Alternative Eleven Cities’ Marathon. So far such marathons have been held in different European countries with a much colder climate than the Nether-lands.

Apart from temperatures of minus 20 Celcius, the organizers also has some concerns about cracks in the ice. They - Van Benthem along with Dirk Appel and Piet Yff - had started to clear a track on the lake’s ice two weeks before the event, an effort which each day took long hours.

On Saturday, February 22, because of low temperatures starting time was delayed until 11:00 am. The women’s race was reduced to 25 kilometres. The event saw 36 men participate in the junior and senior categories, and 8 women in both categories. A surprising 150 people entered the tour. In particular many Dutch Canadians and Dutch Americans completed the 50-kilometres distance. The Eleven Cities Race also has both categories, one for the marathon skaters and the other, the more leisurely and popular tour.

In the context of ijspret (the translation ‘fun on the ice’ perhaps does not fully cover the experience) and ‘ice fever’ during the sporadic Eleven Cities Marathon (the last one was held in 1997) which is as much a cultural as a sporting event, the FSSMA also made strides to ensure that the traditional hot pea soup, buns with cheese and hot chocolate were available in comfortable tents. These temporary structures were outfitted with heating units so participants had no excuse to be chilled to the bones. About 1,000 people visited the event.

Other links with the Dutch ice experience were such gestures as a wheel of Gouda cheese for the marathon winners, and a miniature bridge of Bartlehiem, a milestone of the Frisian Eleven Cities’ event, and bunches of tulips. The prizes - first prizes include $300 - were presented by 15-year old Aukje Appel. The women’s first prize was claimed by Albertan Sellina Elm, a member of the Canadian national marathon skating team. Ontario’s Jamie Ivey took the first prize in the men’s event.

The board of the FSSMA consists of Evert van Benthem, President, Dirk and Elizabeth Appel, Arno Hoogveld , Sjoerd Post and Jannette van Benthem. Many local businesses supported the event as did community groups and provincial speed skating organizations. While various speedskating clubs have attracted Dutch immigrants and their offspring, the FSSMA is thought to be the first to have their effort modelled after a specific Dutch example.