Three things are needed to make an Estonian, according to the old saying. You need to build a house, plant a tree and finish the Tartu cross-country ski marathon.
Most probably, I will never build a house. I have planted a few trees. But for sure I can tick off the marathon box, having multiple times finished the classic 63-kilometre cross-country race, named after the southern Estonian city close to where it takes place.
The excitement starts building every year in late autumn when the days here are sombre, dark and wet. That’s when checking the 10-day weather forecast becomes a bit of an addiction. Is the temperature going to fall below zero? Is there any hint there will be some snow? A few degrees this way or that can make the difference between the ugliest and most depressing time of year and its opposite — a snowy, beautiful winter.
The weather is becoming more unstable. Cold and snowy temperatures change abruptly to a warm and rainy climate, destroying the ski track in a matter of days. This means it becomes more difficult to enjoy winter sports. I take every snowy winter, and every snowy weekend as the last there might be. A few weekends ago, I forced myself to do a 19-kilometre lap, even though I was suffering from a nasty cold. This was because the forecast correctly said that the next weekend there would be no more snow.
I’m a fan of a diminishing sport. The number of people registering themselves at the ski marathon is declining. You can’t be sure if the winter will actually allow you to prepare for the tough effort or if the marathon will even take place.
Cross-country skiing has been part of Estonia’s national identity for decades. It is something that has allowed us to feel “nordic”, which is something the nation also yearns for in terms of quality of life. But soon we’ll need to find a new characteristic to define what makes a “proper Estonian”.