Four o’clock in the morning and outside it’s still dark. Peace and quiet all around. Near Jokkmokk, the first town beyond the Arctic Circle, almost 340 eager professional and amateur cross-country skiers are waking up and preparing to test their limits and face their demons head on. They have accepted the challenge known as Nordenskiöldsloppet.

The starting line-up of this extreme 220-km classic-style cross-country skiing race included Jan Hejna, a project manager from Prague. With the temperature at -12 °C, he’s so cold in his cross-country skiing gear that he starts forgetting how apprehensive he’s becoming. On a snow-covered lake, a half-hour’s drive from Jokkmokk in a heated 4WD ŠKODA KAROQ, he is about to make his craziest dream yet come true – to complete the world’s longest cross-country skiing race.

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Jan Hejna

project manager

lista Training is of the essencelista

Sensibly, he began his preparations and purposeful training more than a year ago. Although those closest to him initially discouraged him from embarking on such an arduous venture, he did eventually enjoy his family’s full support. But that was hardly the end of the story. He had to restructure his spare time completely so that everything revolved around his training, which, considering how demanding a job he was holding down at an international corporation, was not easy – who has enough energy to do anything after a busy day at work?

J.Hejna_priprava

He has been joined on his trip to Sweden by three friends who have also caught the cross-country skiing bug. Unlike them, however, Jan has the company of his girlfriend, Tereza, who – besides providing invaluable moral support – is keen to help him prepare for the race. She will be accompanying him the whole time, as far as possible, in a ŠKODA KAROQ. A former competitive skier herself, she has years of preparations and tactical thinking under her belt. Her main advice to Jan is to reach the finishing line in one piece, but she confesses, “I’m a bit worried about him because it’s such a major undertaking. I hope he masters the challenge with courage. He has my admiration.”

J.Hejna_u_chatky

lista Skiing ecstasy or endless suffering?lista

Finally, the race is started with the traditional rifle shot. Although the whole of Lapland has been bathed in sunlight in the days running up to the race, showing off its charms in the most concentrated form, everything looks completely different today. It is well below zero and is snowing heavily. That is not good news. Instead of gliding along fast tracks, it is already clear that even the best will take at least an hour longer than expected to complete the race. Jan, however, has a clear plan: “If we go slowly, we’ll never get to the finish!”

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J.Hejna_na_trati

Tereza takes a last look at the receding field of racers before setting off along the icy road to Randijaur, the 41-km mark where she will get her first chance to see Jan in action. She drives through the snow, the Nordic wilds, and the silence, avoiding the odd reindeer crossing the road. These animals are two a penny in Lapland, so they are the only audience the racers have in those stretches that cannot be reached by car or snowmobile.

Karoq_na_moste

lista Sugar, heat and blueberry souplista

Every ten kilometres along the route, there are checkpoints and refreshment stations serving tea, cheese sandwiches, cinnamon rolls, a local speciality – hot (and incredibly sweet) blueberry soup – and (needless to say) Red Bull. Having consulted Stanislav Řezáč, the cross-country legend also participating in Nordenskiöldsloppet, Jan doesn’t hesitate to seize every available opportunity he can to replenish his energy and fluids. He copes with the constant pace of the first 70 kilometres to perfection. To his amazement, he soon discovers that he is just 10 kilometres behind the leading pack, including stars such as Andreas Nyygard, Øyvind Moen Fjeld and Stanislav Řezáč. Are they slow or is Jan fast?

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J.Hejna_odjizdi

Shortly before the turn at the 100-kilometre mark, where he is to meet up with Tereza again, check his skis and enjoy a hot broth, the sun comes out from behind the clouds. Finally! “Just another 120 kilometres,” says Jan, a little wryly, to motivate himself. By this stage, he has been skiing for over seven hours. If he wants to finish before midnight, he must pace himself properly. Even at the cost of going alone. He switches between double-poling and the alternating technique, and focuses on his breathing, dwindling energy and the dramatic nature of the bushes, broken and re-frozen, on the lakes he is passing over.

lista Sudden crisislista

The next stage is marked by a crisis creeping in between the 130th and 140th kilometres. He reaches the refreshment station – where a headlamp, jacket and gloves have been brought for him on a snowmobile – exhausted by the cold, the constant movement, and hunger. Perhaps he really did hare along too fast in the first part of the race. His sense of self-preservation prevails: skis off, jacket on, swap gloves for warmer ones, and swiftly into the tent. Into the warmth, away from the track, and ideally a snowmobile ride to the nearest possible point where he can bundle into Tereza’s car. Except, when one of the organisers gives Jan a thumbs-up and says “you’re looking strong”, Jan has this feeling of unexpected encouragement, the perfect tonic for the moment. He dons his skis and, fighting through the pain, sets off again. Heading to the finish line, to Tereza, to surpass himself.

J.Hejna_osamocen

J.Hejna_prestavka
When he reaches the 180th kilometre, it starts getting dark. Slowly, but surely. Skiing alone through the polar night would be an unenviable experience, so Jan draws on all his strength to keep up, at least for a while, with a group of fellow racers. A few fast downhill runs and they are back on the lake where the whole race had started 15 hours before. Another refreshment station, and enquiries from the organisers to make sure they are okay. “You bet! The finish line is so close!” they answer. The final climb begins just before the magical two-hundred point. His skis have long lost their sheen. Time to add a last layer of grip wax. He is physically drained and, without proper support from his skis, the next part of the route through the wild nocturnal landscape would be extremely difficult. A final 15 familiar kilometres of darkness and suddenly the signs are marked not with multiples of ten kilometres, but in single kilometres.

Karoq_se_soby

10, 9, 8, ... , 4, 3, Jokkmokk. Jan is back in the town. He just needs to circle a small lake and overcome the straight to the finish. A last attempt at a double-pole and he does it. He finishes after 17 hours and 14 minutes on the track, exactly four hours after the winner. Tereza, euphoria, his legs rubbery, his teeth chattering, his eyes tearful. Total exhaustion. Unbelievable joy and satisfaction. His dream has become a reality. Tereza hugs Jan and puts his skis into the car. They just have to clamber into the ŠKODA KAROQ, go and wind down after such extreme exercise, and then sleep. During his well-deserved rest, another dream is already shaping in Jan’s tired mind, another challenge to overcome as he pushes the envelope ever further. You “just” have to have the desire, and sacrifice everything you can in pursuit of the dream.

J.Hejna_v_cili

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