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50km - a mythical exercise

50km - a mythical exercise

The World Cup weekend in Holmenkollen Oslo is a festivity even 135 years after the first ever 50km.

Cross country skiing as a sport is deeply rooted in the Norwegian soul. One of the highlights of the year is undoubtedly the 50km race at Holmenkollen. Both here in Norway, but also internationally, the 50km in Holmenkollen has gained legendary status.

With a fantastic atmosphere from the audience along the trail, who have spent the night in the forest, with music and flags, life and dancing.

The profile of the course in cross country skiing's top discipline has changed quite a bit since it first started. The route has become shorter and the finish is now at the stadium.

The spectators can still experience that the best skiers up close. However, it would take many years before the 50km became a folk festival as we know it today.

The first ever 50 km race

The first ever 50 km ski event was held on February 7, 1888. From the start in Sørkedalsveien at Majorstuen, it went to Gaustad, Holmenkollen, Bogstad, Ullernåsen, Skøyen and back to Majorstuen.

Skis and bindings tended to be homemade. The warm-up consisted of pipe smoking to increase lung capacity and there was compulsory beer served at the finish.

Torjus Hemmestveit, who became the very first winner, went in at a respectable 4.5 hours, considering that they walked with only one pole at the time.

By comparison, the winning times of 50km today are well under two hours. The premium of NOK 400 was equivalent to eight months' wages for a forester.

The race was a one-off event and it would be several years before another 50 km was held. But from 1902 it was the start at Holmenkollen. The first editions were a lonely endurance test through Nordmarka in Oslo. Among snowy fir trees, it was the runner's battle against himself.

Admittedly, you stopped by a food bank — often on Kikut — and you might catch up with a runner or two, or were caught up yourself, but then you were left alone in the woods. Nevertheless, the event contributed greatly to shaping skiing as a form of competition, both nationally and internationally.

Audience success

In a World Cup context, 50km of skiing is a rare distance. It requires great effort, toughness, and most importantly endurance. The trick is not to "crack." In Kollen in particular — which is at the end of the season — it's often difficult to wax as well.

The demanding, hilly terrain also makes it extra difficult. Anyone who has skied in Nordmarka knows that you either have to work the uphills, or just as hard to stay on your feet on the descents. In the old days, therefore, it was not uncommon for runners to fall along the way, and on some hills almost all fell.

Every year, participants tumbled across the finish line with blood on their faces after ugly falls.

It provided room for good entertainment and led to people pulling out into the field to watch the runners pass. With 2x25 km stages, it was important to place yourself where you saw the most. It inspired standing in fixed places, and laid much of the foundation for the custom of sleeping outdoors the night before the 50km.

The modern what-to-wear-outfit in Holmenkollen


Now there is — sadly, many would say — an end to the days when the five-mile runner went into the woods and was gone. Poorer snow conditions and new TV requirements forced changes. The world's most beloved – and most feared – ski trail slowly but surely expired.

The old route was primarily too narrow and perhaps also too hilly. Two laps of 25 km, where the runners went out one by one, was also too slow for TV. Instead, they wanted a course where the runners passed the same camera many times.

Today it is the joint start that counts, in six rounds of 8.8 km. With fiberglass skis, sports drinks and high-tech (fluor free) ski wax. In ten to twelve meter wide trails. Where the participants used to struggle in the heart of Nordmarka, they are now barely moving beyond Holmenkollen.

There is still respect for the five-mile, and he who wins (because it's still only a men's stage) can really call himself a proper cross-country skier.

The traditional what-to-wear-outfit