Volume 23 Letter 12

Admit it … we all pray.  I’m not speaking in religious terms but over centuries people have prayed to different deities for many reasons….protection from aggressors, for rain to grow crops, sunshine to harvest them.  In my case it might have been for my hockey team to snatch success from the jaws of defeat or to pass an exam for which I hadn’t studied, somewhat optimistic that my prayers would bend the results in my favour.   What is not widely known is that some of the biggest prayer requests rise out of The Netherlands in the month of January.  They’re not praying for their national football (soccer) team or a Superbowl champion but what unites the Dutch in winter, more than any other nation, is their collective wish for cold weather and ice on the canals.

Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates was published in 1865 but it wouldn’t be until 1909 when the first official Elfstedentocht or the Eleven City speed skating race was first held in Holland.  For those unfamiliar, the Elfstedentocht is a grueling speed skating race along approximately 200 km of frozen canals that link up eleven cities in Holland.  It’s the ultimate Iron Man and since 1909 the race has only run fifteen times.  The last race was held in 1997 where the winner completed the distance in about half the 13+ hours it took the 1909 champion.   Everyone who has ever completed the Elfstedentocht is immortalized on a Dutch tile.   These tiles cover the bridge in Leeuwarden, Holland near the start/finish line.

It was the 1970’s; I was training hard as a speed skater and I recall reading about the last time the race had been held in 1963.  In that year Holland had frozen to a standstill (pun intended), the nation transfixed as they watched live and on TV as 9,292 racers took to the ice. They started before first light, and they’d skate well into the night.  Conditions were so harsh that only 69 of the 9000+ skaters would finish the race.  What draws people to want to do this?

I was racing in Scandinavia when it was announced that the Elfstedentocht was scheduled to run and I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity for the world.  The event would be organized in just 14 days, but sadly it was canceled at the last moment, yet again, due to warming temperatures and melting ice.  The next opportunity wouldn’t be until 1985 but by then I was onto a new life, never having experienced the ultimate speed skating race.

The Dutch haven’t abandoned their love of skating but they have adapted, much like any business in a changing environment.    For sure, they have their 400 meter artificial indoor speed skating ovals dotted around the country but, as awesome as these venues are, they just don’t capture the thrill of skating outdoors on a frozen canal.  Unfortunately, as challenging as the race is the bigger difficulty is global warming.  Regardless, every year the Dutch have the organization in place, ready to stage this 200 km logistical nightmare within a few weeks of the first signs of freezing weather.  So, in a Mohamed to the mountain strategy, if the ice won’t come to Holland – Holland will go to the ice.   Each January a myriad of Dutch skaters migrate to Weisensee Austria.  There, long before the sun comes up, 5000 to 6000 skaters take to the ice gliding their way over the icy surface of the frozen Weisensee lake, competing in events ranging from 25K to 200K.   What can we learn from the Dutch and their love affair with competitive skating….

  • Adapt to the market: Your business might not be weather dependent, but we all need to adapt to ever changing markets. As a business leader it’s your responsibility to “either find a way or make a way”. The Dutch have found a way by racing in Weisensee.
  • Be Prepared: Unlikely events in life and business can be either catastrophic or opportunistic. Business leaders prepare for both. It’s only happened 15 times since 1909 but when it does, and the weather turns to freezing the Dutch are prepared for their once in a life time Elfstedentocht.
  • Set worthy goals: The race is a grueling, taxing, cold, exhausting event, yet one Dutch Olympic gold medalist speed skater stated he would give up all his medals for a chance to race in the Elfstedentocht. Some things are just worth it. Sometimes work can be exhausting etc. Has your organization set goals that make the effort “worth it”?

This year I’ll join the 5000 – 6000 strong Dutch skaters on Jan 29th as I’ll be one of five Canadians entered in the 100 km skate.  What a crazy way to start 2024.   I wish you all a Happy New Year!

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