In Olympic speedskating, individual short-track races can go 3,000 meters. Long track races top out at 10,000 meters. On a recent Sunday morning at Milwaukee’s Pettit National Ice Center, a starting field of nearly two dozen racers lined up to take on the 50,000 meter leg of a two-day event called the US Speedskating National Marathon & North American Championships. It’s uncharted territory for even some experienced skaters. Susan St. Pierre came to Milwaukee from Newburgh, N.Y., to skate in the 50+ master’s division – she’s skated since she was three years old.

“I’ve raced a 25K before, but I’ve never raced a 50,” said St. Pierre, who said she didn’t have a time goal for the race.

“I’ve never done one, so I have no goal,” she said with a laugh. “To finish.”

It was a chaotic scene at the Pettit, where an indoor running marathon and a girls’ hockey tournament were also going on.  There was no electronic timing for the skating marathon, and so the race organizer, Olu Sijuwade, called over the team of lap counters to offer some last-minute guidance:

“OK, does every skater have a counter?” Sijuwade asked. “Do you know who your counter is? Counters – do you know who your skaters are?”

The counters were an important part of the day – the race totaled 129 circuits of the 400-meter oval, and within a few minutes, nearly every racer was on a different lap. Sijuwade finished his pre-race instructions, then was abruptly called away with his soprano saxophone to play “O Canada” before the international field took off.

An Indoor Affair

The Milwaukee race represented the first time the event had been held indoors. Marathon Skating International, the organizer of the yearly series, made the change after several championships in past years had to be called off because lakes had thawed. And the war stories of 50K veterans – like Jim Daniska of Detroit – offers some insight into indoor skating’s appeal.

The temperature was 10 degrees. We had a 25 mph wind coming down the main straightaway, in a snowstorm. So that was one of the few races where I questioned my sanity being out there.
– Jim Daniska

“Outdoors can be very interesting,” Daniska said. “In 2000, the 50K was in Lake Placid, N.Y. The temperature was 10 degrees. We had a 25 mph wind coming down the main straightaway, in a snowstorm. So that was one of the few races where I questioned my sanity being out there.”

Like speedskating in general, marathon skating is more popular in Europe – in countries like the Netherlands, where frozen canals allow for long, uninterrupted stretches of ice. Organizer Olu Sijuwade said in this country, it attracts racers at the top end of the sport and endurance-oriented weekend warriors.

“Most marathon skaters tend not to be metric – which means they tend not to be so technical,” Sijuwade said. “A lot of them like to skate on a lake, where they don’t have to worry about the corners and doing crossovers, and the curves.  Whereas metric speedskaters and pack-style speedskaters, they use the corners to their advantage for acceleration and they relax in the straightaways.  Whereas marathon skaters push the whole time because they’re not used to using corners and they kind of feel uncomfortable and unstable.”

Olympic Dreams

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that this indoor, curve-intensive race was led from the opening gun by three skaters with Olympic aspirations. Bridie Farrell was a world-class racer a decade ago who is trying to revive her career as a long-track skater:

“I’ve never skated a marathon before, so I had no idea of what to expect,” Farrell said. “But also, I was a short-tracker, and I took six years off and started skating about six or seven weeks ago, so it’s all just a training opportunity for me at this stage.”

Farrell skated with the lead pack for the first half of the race before deciding her body had had enough and dropped out.

“Yeah, I was going for quality over quantity,” Farrell said. “This is a great training opportunity, but it wasn’t my goal to win this.”

But that didn’t stop her from winning her group in Saturday’s 25K, in a time faster than the men’s champion a year ago  But Farrell is the exception in marathon skating.

The norm is represented by Jeff Brand, a 50+ master’s skater from Wisconsin, who calls the Pettit his home track. He finished 25 minutes off the winning pace. Looking at the marathon runners nearby, Brand said he expected to hit a wall in his race, but never did.

“When I had 90 laps to go, I knew I was going to do it,” Brand said. “I felt really, really strong. And then my next strategy was about halfway, I was going to take a break. Refuel. But I didn’t, and I was worried about bonking – just losing energy – and then 30 laps left, I knew I wasn’t going to take a break, so I just went right through it and skated very well today.”

In the end, it was Patrick Meek – training for a spot on the US national long track team that crushed the rest of the field, finishing the 50K in an hour and 24 minutes.  Fellow Olympic team contender Bridie Farrell said maybe the best part of marathon skating is how comparatively short a 3,000-meter race will feel.

“I know – I never would have thought that to be the case – but I guess it’s all relative, you know,” Farrell said.