There are also more strangely macabre museum objects. “We have the remains of skater Tinus Udding’s toe, which had to be removed due to frostbite,” Koldewijn-Bootsma proudly reveals, along with an antique rescue rope used to retrieve skaters who had dived through ice. Perhaps the real highlight of the gallery is the showcases dedicated to the winners of Elfstedentocht. The roll call of their names – Henk Angenent, Evert van Benthem, Reinier Paping, Jeen van der Horn, Sietze de Groot, Sjouke Westra – reads like guttural Frisian poetry.
To get a feel for the ice, visitors can hire their own skates from the Elfstedenhal shop in Leeuwarden – the provincial capital and starting point of the Eleven Cities Race – and take on sections of the course just like the locals do. . “Virtually every village in Friesland has a dedicated ice-skating pitch,” says Signe-Sanne Oortgijsen, content creator for Visit Friesland.
When those canals turn to water and the frozen fields close for the season, the Elfstedenhal, an epic indoor ice rink, is the place to go for lessons, according to Oortgijsen. The indoor stadium includes tracks for figure skating, short track sprints and long track sprints, and houses the Blue Hall, for curling and ice hockey.
If you prefer to sit and watch how the professionals do it, the best place, according to Oortgijsen, is the Thialf in Heereveen, which has become the most important skating stadium in the Netherlands. “This is where medal-winning skaters train,” says Oortgijsen. The 12,500 capacity rink is best known for long track speed skating and has been the site of several world records. It also hosts two annual speed skating World Cup events (the most recent was held earlier this month).
Of course, there’s another way to simulate running all year round: on a bike. Portions of Friesland’s busy network of cycle paths follow the same course as the Elfstedentocht, passing through flat pastures capped by lowland skies, a swirling drama of puffy clouds and golden light reminiscent of those the we see on the canvases of the Dutch masters. If warmer winters have too often deprived Friesland of its eleventh city tour, the locals have undoubtedly been resourceful.
For the Dutch, these alternatives offer some compensation, but ultimately they do not replace. The Frisian desire for the Eflstdentocht is so visceral that it has a name: elfstedenkoorts, or eleven-city fever. And with each passing year, the racing fever that seems more and more out of reach only grows. There’s always next year.