Marathon man

Evert van Benthem is ridiculously famous in his native Netherlands.
In Spruce View, he’s just a dairy farmer.
Van Benthem is a two-time winner of the prestigious 11-Cities Tour, a 200-km skating race over the frozen canals in Friesland in northern Netherlands.
Considering the race has only been held 15 times in the last 100 years (the race goes whenever the canals freeze, which isn’t often), and van Benthem is the race’s only two-time winner, his fame in a country that ranks speed skating second only to soccer is immeasurable.
“Evert is a real legend in Holland,” said fellow Dutch-Canadian Dirk Appel. “He had a lack of privacy over there. He would sit out in his back garden and people would come around asking for signatures.”
The 40-something former professional speed skater won the 11-Cities Tour in 1985 and 1986 and lived in Holland until 1999.
The last race was held in 1997, but van Benthem is hoping to organize something similar in Sylvan Lake.
The Dutch legend is chair of the Sylvan Lake Ice Marathon, a 50-km event that will wind its way around Sylvan Lake on Saturday.
He hopes the event will grow to 200 km in 2014 and that it will attract professional skaters from Europe as well as the media, fans and recreational skaters who participate in the popular sport of marathon skating in Holland.
Van Benthem and fellow race organizer Appel, the director of the Foothills Speed Skating Marathon Association, want to keep the event modest in its first year.
“We want to see how everything works,” said van Benthem from his Spruce View farm. “When everything works and we have good support, we’ll go for a 200-km race and we’ll get lots of Dutch people coming over. All of the Dutch media will come over to cover the event, too.”
Eventually, van Benthem has plans for a Tour of Canada event, which would include races at the Olympic Oval in Calgary and on Sylvan Lake of varying distances over a period of a week. The cumulative time of all the events would decide the winner.
It would be a massive spectacle to the people of the Netherlands.
Millions watch the 11-Cities Tour on TV there and the event is limited to 16,000 participants, although many, many more would participate if they could.
Appel said the appeal of Sylvan Lake, is that, unlike the Dutch canals, it freezes over every year.
“We know there will be ice every February,” he said.
But he added that the Sylvan Lake event will never take the place of the 11-Cities Tour.
“We’re hoping for 200 competitive racers from Holland and recreational skaters, we just don’t know,” he said.
“But you can’t copy the 11-Cities Tour. The atmosphere, the excitement, you just can’t copy it.”
The Sylvan Lake event will play a major role in the sport, said Appel.
“Marathon skating is really famous in Holland, Belgium, Germany and Austria, but it’s not very big in North America,” he said. “The Dutch Speedskating Federation wants to get the sport into the Olympics by 2010 and we need to raise the profile of the sport in North America.”
Appel hopes the Dutch national team will come to Sylvan Lake to train for a week (and participate in the race) in 2014.
Appel calls marathon skating the “ice version of the Paris-Dakar Rally.”
That race is a grueling test of endurance of man and machine while marathon skaters must also battle the elements and themselves.
“People fall and it really depends on the weather,” he said. “Some of the best skaters say when the weather turns bad is when they get going the best.”
Marathon skaters compete in teams, just like cyclists. Teams help each other with aerodynamics by skating in single-file and taking turns at the front.
Appel said van Benthem’s name alone adds prestige to the event in Holland, but he has long forgotten about his friend’s fame.
“I don’t notice anymore that he is so famous,” said Appel with a laugh. “When other Dutch people see him they are scared to talk to him.”
• The race gets underway at 10 a.m. At 1 p.m. there will be a tour for non-competitors skating a minimum of one five-km lap to a maximum of 10 laps.