Thousands of skiers are heading to the Jizera mountains in north Bohemia this Friday to take part in the Jizerská padesátka cross-country skiing race. The competition, which is now in its 52nd year, begins on Friday with a 30-kilometre event and culminates on Sunday with its main 50 kilometre race.
The Jizerská padesátka is unquestionably one of the most popular mass sporting events in the country, attracting both professional and amateur skiers from all around the world. Jaroslav Haupt, who turned eighty last year, has been taking part in the race for several decades:
“A friend of mine, who took me to the race for the first time some 40 or 50 years ago, has already gone the skiing haven. These skis are all that is left from him. I was given them by his son for a keepsake. Now I have tears in my eyes, because this is really emotional.”
Mr Haupt, who started taking part in the Jizerská padesátka in his early thirties to overcome a difficult experience in his life, says the race is more than a sporting event: “Of course it is a lifestyle. It is mostly about friends. There is a different story behind each race and each race has its peculiar atmosphere.”
What is today the biggest event of its kind in the Czech Republic actually started as a bet between friends, says one of the main organizers of the event, David Douša.
“Just like many great ideas in the Czech Republic, the idea for the Jizerská padesátka was born in a pub and is a result of a bet between mountaineers from the Jizerská Lokomotiva club.
“They were arguing about who can make it faster from Bedřichov to Jizerka and back. The first race took place in February 1968. There were 52 participants and the starting fee was five crowns. Those who made it to the finish got warm tea and biscuits.”
Despite its rather humorous beginnings, the Jizerská padesátka is linked to a tragic event. In 1970, fifteen of its co-founders took part in a mountain-climbing expedition to conquer the highest peak of the Peruvian Andes, Mount Huascarán. On the way to the top, they were all killed by a stone avalanche triggered by a severe earthquake.
From then on, the Jizerská padesátka has officially become the memorial to the expedition. The long-distance race enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. In recent years, interest in the race had grown again. Some 7,300 people attended the event in 2018 and this year, their number is expected to be even higher, says David Douša:
“Basically anyone can take part in the race, there are no limits, as long as you can stand on your skis.
“The Jizerská padesátka is no longer just one race. There are altogether seven events, including a race for children over the age of four. The oldest participant to ever take part was over 90.
“There are only about 120 to 130 professional skiers taking part in the races these days. The rest are enthusiastic amateurs.”
The race has always attracted people from other parts of the world. In recent years, foreigners make up around 25 percent of all the participants. Most of them come from Germany, Poland and Scandinavia, but there are also skiers who travel from further away:
“The longest distance someone travelled to take part in Jizerská padesátka was 15,000 kilometres from New Zealand. Last year, we had a participant from Cape Verde, but we also have Japanese, Canadians and Americans.”
One of the biggest challenges the organizers of the Jizerská padesátka have been facing over the years are unpredictable weather conditions. The race had to be cancelled altogether five times due to lack of snow.
This season, however, organizers are reporting excellent conditions and thousands of skiers have already started flocking to the small town of Bedřichov, the starting point of the famous race.
Among them will definitely be Jaroslav Haupt, last year’s winner of the over-80 category, who shared with Radio Prague his recipe for success.
“If you don’t wax your skis well, you need to be in good shape. But if you do wax them well, you will always reach the finish, even if you are out of shape.”