The newly appointed director of the tournament, Geert Jan-Muskens, announced on the 17th of July that the initial stage will be held at the Sportcentrum Kardinge on October 21st, 2023, with the competition ending at the Elfstedenhal in Leeuwarden on the 3rd of March, 2024.
This comes as a shock to fans of the competition, as it often begins at the Jaap Edenbaan, the oldest artificial ice rink in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam.
Groningen was chosen as the starting point due to ongoing renovations at the Amsterdam rink, which may not be completed in time for the 21 October starting gun.
Leeuwarden was originally deemed the ideal destination to begin the skating competition, but the Frisian capital preferred to keep the final race in their books. Hoorn, a city in the province of North Holland, was also considered, but event organisers chose to stick with their previously scheduled November date because of Marathon Cup-related activities they had planned around that date.
Groningen has gotten its wish of hosting two races: in addition to kicking off the Marathon Cup on the 21st of October, skaters will return to Sportcentrum Kardinge on the 23rd of December as well. The tournament will also go through Heerenveen twice, first on the 4th of November and then again on the 13th of January, 2024.
What is the Marathon Cup?
The tournament consists of a total of 15 stages held across the country. Each stage has a winner – the person who crosses the finishing line first – but the winner of the overall tournament is not whoever wins the most stages. The champion is the competitor who completes all 15 races in the least amount of aggregated time.
This is called ‘general classification’ and judges the fastest skater throughout the competition as a whole, making endurance, grit, and speed the most essential skills to win the famed Marathon Cup.
Nowadays, the five-month event is an annual staple of Dutch sports every year during winter (bar during the COVID-19 pandemic). Initially only allowing men to compete, the competition has expanded to include a women’s division, an under-23 men’s division and, since 2019, an under-23 women’s division.
Although champions in this category tend to not have the same success at the Olympic level in the same way the Dutch do in speed skating, the north of the Netherlands can claim to have the best marathon skaters in the country at the moment.
Defending champion Harm Visser, 22, was born in De Westereen, Friesland. He was joined on the podium by Jeroen Janissen from Hereenveen, with Luc Ter Haar, also from Heerenveen, coming in fourth.
Groningen is not without its own names to boast about. Robert Post won the final stage last season to come out in fifth overall, while up-and-coming talent Dan Gelling also calls Groningen his home.
The women’s division are just as dominated by athletes hailing from the North of the country. Defending champion Maaike Verweij is from Roden, Drenthe. The 21 year old will be hoping to make it two titles on the bounce but she won’t have it easy. Third-placed Merel Bosma is from Heerenveen and will look to push the younger skater to the limit this season.
Friesland and ice skating: a relationship frozen in time
Despite the Marathon Cup becoming the premiere endurance skating competition in the Netherlands, it would not be where it is without the Elfstedentocht. A historic race that runs through the 11 cities of Friesland (hence why its translation is The Eleven Cities), the Elfstedentocht was first held in 1909.
The Netherlands and ice skating have a long history together. Depictions of Dutch people socializing on ice have long been a tradition in the country, with famous Dutch Golden Age painter Hendrick Avercamp depicting the closeness between the people and the ice.
As climate change has removed the possibility of natural ice rinks, artificial ones have surfaced all across the country. In fact, there are 22 fully operational ice rinks across the country.
With more artificial ice rinks opening up, it was only a matter of time before competitions would begin there, too. The first Marathon Cup was held in 1973 and won by Bernie van der Weilde.
Although the Marathon Cup has now taken center stage when it comes to long-distance skating, the Elfstedentocht is still considered one of the most historic races in all of skating around the world.
Set up by journalist Pim Mulier, the race runs for a total of 200 kilometers and is completed in one day, following a circular route of frozen canals that begins and ends in Leeuwarden, by De Bullenmollen, a landmark windmill in the city.
The 200 km endurance race has become iconic in Dutch folklore. The 1963 race is especially remembered, now known as “the Hell of 63’”, due to the extremely low temperatures. A minus 18-degree day mixed with powdered snow and harsh winds led to only 69 of the 10 thousand contestants finishing the race. Champion Reinier Paping could not see the finish line due to being snow-blind by the end of it but he, and the race, became legendary in Dutch history.
Although it is held in such high regard, the race has only been held 15 times, mostly due to the fact that it requires essentially all of Friesland to freeze over. The ice needs to be at least 15 centimeters thick in order for the event to take place and this has unfortunately not happened since 1997 and only thrice in the last 50 years.
This drought is the longest ever in the history of the competition, and with climate change continuing to affect weather all around the world, the Elfstedentocht is in grave danger of extinction. The only time the race was close to being held was in 2012, but it was unfortunately called off for safety reasons.
For more information on the Elfstedentocht and the history between Friesland and skating, click here for our coverage of the historic race.
Keep your eyes on the Northern Times for more coverage of the 2023-24 Marathon Cup.