Speed skating returns to Lake Memphremagog

NEWPORT — After a 30-year hiatus, about 20 hearty competitors from the United States and Canada braved temperatures well below zero for marathon skating’s return to Lake Memphremagog.

The races were held Jan. 31-Feb.1 on a 700-meter loop named for Newport physician and endurance athlete Hutch Jenness. Jenness began speed skating in 1983 after the Dutch national team visited Newport to train. In 1985, Jenness was training for the Elfstedentocht, a 200-kilometer race through 11 cities in the Netherlands, when he fell through the ice and drowned near Georgeville, essentially ending distance skating in the area.

This year, after receiving certification from international skating’s organizing body, Marathon Skating International, White consulted with Jenness’s family and received their permission to name the loop in his honor.

“I know he’d be thrilled at speed skating’s return to the lake,” White said.

On Saturday, Joseph Franz of Essex Junction won the 1K race on the speed skating oval but lost the 5K to his son Parker who edged him at the finish line by 0.134 seconds. Craig Stevens of Peekskill, N.Y., crossed less than half-a-second behind Parker Franz for third.

By the time the 25K race got underway that afternoon, temperatures on the speed skating oval had crept up to around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. For the 17 skaters going the distance, frostbite was a serious concern and most of the racers had done their best to cover every square inch of skin.

Jake Maarse of North Gower, Ontario, beat out Tom Keane of Somerville, Mass., on Saturday by about a second with a time of 1:00:08. Charles Beaudoin finished third with a time of 1:04:30.9.

Three men over the age of 70 completed the 25K race, including Willem Langenberg of Edmonton, Alberta, who finished fifth, less than eight minutes behind the top-finishers.

On Sunday’s 50K race, Maarse and Keane skated together well ahead of the pack, but Keane turned it on in lap 66, setting a course record with a lap of nearly 30 kilometers per hour and dropping Maarse by about 100 yards at the finish. Keane finished with a time of 2:01:04, followed by Maarse with a time of 2:01:13. Catherine Kwiecien finished third with a time of 2:14:41.1 and Langenberg took fourth, three minutes behind Kwiecien, who took first in the women’s division.

Organizers had also planned a 25-mile “border buster” skate north across the Canadian border. However, freezing rain and six inches of snow covered the route they intended to take.

“It was smooth enough to skate, but it was granular like oatmeal,” White said, describing the conditions.

After working through the night plowing and spreading water to smooth the loop, White decided the cross border skate would have to wait until next year.

While last year’s skate drew a similar sized crowd with only 10 days’ notice, White said he had expected the skate to draw a larger crowd but said the Newport area still has a ways to go to match skating’s popularity in the American Midwest or northern Europe.

White said he is considering establishing a distance skating club in Newport that would attract more athletes and hold more regular events.

“The sport of distance skating is still growing on this side of the ocean,” he says. “The community of outdoor skaters is still much smaller than the indoor skaters. The real difficulty is getting them to come skate outside.”

Skater Jake Maarse says people need to be more adventurous.

“[Ice skating] is not the same as sitting by the fire in the living room,” he says. “But once you set your mind to it you can withstand quite a bit of cold. I think in this way Vermont has a great attitude towards winter.”

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson is the staff writer for Vermont Sports Magazine. The native Vermonter enjoys steep and deep skiing and wandering all over the state by Subaru. Find him on Twitter at @evanisathome.