Skating and the Dutch culture are interwoven and no event better symbolises this than the Elfstedentocht. Begun officially in 1909, although it had been held for hundreds of years before that, the race is 200km long, starts and finishes in Leeuwarden and passes through 11 Frisian towns: Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker and Dokkum.
The record time for completing the race is six hours and 47 minutes, set in 1985 (record-setter Evert van Benthem won again in 1986, making him a living legend).
While it is a marathon, what makes the race a truly special event is that it can only be held in years when it’s cold enough for all the canals to freeze totally; this has only happened 15 times since 1909. The last time was in 1997.
In the interim the huge Elfstedentocht committee waits for the mercury to plummet. When it looks as though the canals will be properly frozen, 48 hours’ notice is given. All work effectively ends throughout the province as armies of volunteers make preparations for the race, and the thousands of competitors get ready.
On the third day, the race begins at 5.30am. The next few hours are a holiday for the rest of the Netherlands as well, as the population gathers around TVs to watch the live coverage.