This is the famous Elfstedentocht – the ‘Eleven Cities Tour’ – a test of physical and mental endurance like no other.     

      There was no other way but to get moving – otherwise you were freezing. And lots of people were freezing – frozen eyes, frozen toes, whatever. Your weak parts, frozen!”

      It’s 18 January 1963 and Leffert Oldenkamp is skating through the dark, freezing, foggy morning. He has had next to no sleep, the temperature is a bone-chilling -18C, and the icy wind cuts through his clothes. He is taking part in one of the toughest sporting tests there is – skating nearly 125 miles on uneven natural ice through the bleak, winter landscape of the Dutch province of Friesland.

      The 1963 edition proved so brutal that just a handful of people made it to the finish out of the thousands who started. The winner, Reinier Paping, became a national hero. Oldenkamp was one  of the few to follow him home.

      Sixty years later, there have been only three subsequent editions of this astonishing event – the most recent way back in 1997. Yet despite its rarity, it remains a national obsession in the Netherlands. When a cold snap comes, conversations turn swiftly to the ice: might it finally happen this year? Those conversations are now tinged with the fear that the answer could be ‘never again’.

      Wiebe Wieling is a man with a highly unusual task. Each year, he leads the organisation of an event which almost certainly won’t happen. Wieling is chairman of the Koninklijke Vereniging de Friesche Elf Steden – the Royal Society of the Frisian Eleven Cities. It is the body responsible for putting on the Eleven Cities Tour, a marathon cross-country skating race over the   to prepare for what would undoubtedly be one of the biggest moments in the Netherlands so far this century.

      “Everything, in detail,” he says, when asked what level of planning takes place. “We organise an edition every year. We have a plan consisting of 500 pages or something like that in which every detail has been arranged already on 1 December. Because we cannot organise a thing like this in just a few days: we [will] have two million visitors, 25,000 participants, 3,000 journalists, the whole country gets crazy. We want to be ready each year in December, so if there is a chance, we can use that chance.” Security, safety, catering, accommodation, traffic management, healthcare – detailed preparations are made, just in case they can go ahead.

      But, to state the obvious, it needs to be cold – and the one thing organisers can’t prepare is the weather.The race needs two weeks of temperatures of around -10C or lower, day and night, ideally without any snow. That should give a minimum of 15cm of ice around most of the course, enough to bear the weight of 25,000 people in a brief 24-hour window.

      The first official race in 1909 was one of only 15 times those requirements have been fulfilled in 124 years.

      A film was made about the race a few years ago – it was called ‘The Hell of ’63’. Of the roughly 500 racers and 10,000 tour skaters, only around 120 completed the course that day.

      Twenty-seven years and counting since the last edition, it’s impossible to predict exactly what impact the next race will have – if it comes at all. But Wieling is certain the winners will continue to occupy a special place in the Netherlands’ sporting pantheon. “You will be the hero of the country for many years, until you die,” he says. No-one will ever forget you – and you will be confronted with that every day.”

      Every year, when there is a cold snap, they head for the ice. Sports skaters gliding at high speed through frozen landscapes, families teaching youngsters the magic, young and old gathering wherever there is enough ice to skate. Freezing weather, hot drinks, sweet snacks – and every year the same excited conversations. Could it happen? Will there finally be an Elfstedentocht this year?

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