Big chill arrives

Their smiles are growing wider as the outside temperatures fall.

Speed skater Brian McArthur takes to the Red Deer Oval Sunday afternoon to train for the Sylvan Lake Ice Marathon and North American Marathon Speed Skating Championship being held on Feb. 23

Their smiles are growing wider as the outside temperatures fall.

While some people dream of basking on sunny beaches, people taking part in the upcoming Sylvan Lake Ice Marathon have been dreaming of a significant bout of very cold weather so they can get their five-kilometre race course ready for competition.

For the first time this year, Sylvan Lake has been awarded with the North American Marathon Speed Skating Championships as part of its annual marathon, hosted by the Foothills Speed Skating Marathon and held on the last weekend in February.

So far, the ice has been too thin for the heavy graders that will be needed to smooth off the ice surface before the Zamboni comes in and puts on the final touches, association chair Mike Messing said on Friday.

Getting ready to practise at the Red Deer speed skating oval on Sunday, marathon skater Brian McArthur said the bone-chilling temperature of -20C that afternoon is a big relief after the balmy weather the region had been experiencing since Christmas.

McArthur, 40 started marathon racing about eight years ago, about the same time as Innisfail-area dairy farmer Rick Dijkstra, 38 become seriously involved.

Both practise at the Red Deer speed skating oval, located between 48 and 47 Avenues, immediately north of the Golden Circle.

As much as the cold weather is welcome in terms of preparing the ice surface, Dijkstra hopes this February will be considerably milder than last year, when it was so cold that some skaters didn’t even start while others couldn’t finish.

It was -25 on the first day of the race and while the second day wasn’t as cold, there was a strong wind that produced blizzard conditions, said Dijkstra.

He is registed for the 25-km Championship as well as the 50 and 100 km races while McArthur plans to complete in the Championship and the 100-km race.

Dijkstra, McArthur and Messing would all like to see more people get involved in speed skating, which Dijkstra said is relatively easy to get into for people who already know how to skate.

McArthur said he first tackled the Red Deer oval on his hockey skates, unsure about what to expect.

He has since graduated to using the hinged clap skates (klapschaats), developed and perfected in the Netherlands to increase the skater’s efficiency by extending the amount of time the blade surface keeps contact with the ice.

This year’s marathon will attract competitors from across the country, including international students who have been studying at the University of Calgary and practising on the indoor oval built there for the 1988 Winter Olympics, said Messing.

But it’s doubtful that the Sylvan Lake marathon will bring back the 200-km race that attracted a strong corps of professional speed skaters from the Netherlands a number of years ago, said both McArthur and Dijsktra.

Because it is so far to travel, Sylvan Lake has not been able to attract enough high-level competitors to make the extra work involved worthwhile, including construction of a 10-km track.

The Sylvan Lake Ice Marathon is part of Alberta International Speed Skating Week, which runs Feb. 18-25 and includes the Silver Skate Festival in Edmonton on Feb. 18 and 19.

Events at Sylvan Lake start at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Feb, 23, 1 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 24 and at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25.

There is no charge for spectators and there will be plenty of food and beverages available for purchase, including one vendor who specializes in Dutch treats.

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