After Mattias, Ida, and I completed Vasaloppet!

One of the 18th Birthday celebrations!

Swedish and Danish exchange students in Kiruna!

The Northern Lights in Kiruna one night!


April 5, 2024

Vasaloppet: 90 km cross country ski race

At the end of February, I did Vasaloppet. Vasaloppet is a 90 km cross country ski race. Some of you may remember that I learned to cross country ski back in december. Ida and I trained together often so that we would be ready for this insanely long race. Ida and I did the open track race so that we would not have to stand in line for 2 hours on the “real” Vasaloppet day. There were 5 different start groups and start times all shortly after one another. We got the best weather on the day we did it! It was sunny, negative degrees, and almost no wind at all. The race took under 8 hours for us, which was incredible! We were going for under 10. The first part of the race was fairly simple and relaxed because I wasn’t tired and this was the kind of distance I was used to doing. I hadn’t done anything longer than 35 km before. It got challenging at the 30-40 mark because I realized how much more we had left as we were not even halfway yet. That feeling eventually went away until about the last 20. I looked at the time and thought that maybe if we picked up the pace, Ida and I could make it under 8 hours. Ida said that we wouldn’t be able to do it. Then after we picked up the pace, she said that we could do it in the last 10 km of the race! But at that point I was absolutely dead and thought that there was no way I would be able to do it or make it but she kept pushing me. The last 4km were horrible but crossing that finish line with Ida gave me this incredible sense of accomplishment. I would never have gotten to feel so proud of myself if I hadn't said yes to this crazy idea my Swedish mom had.

This race started in Salen which is about a 7 hour drive. Ida has a swimrun friend who we do a lot of training with for trail running and skiing, Mattias. He did Vasaloppet as well and did incredible. His dad drove all of us up to Salen in his mobile home(not sure if this is the right word but google translate said it was). I had a good time before, during, and after the race. Ida made it such a good experience, and not stressful at all. Come to think of it, I wasn’t nervous at all until we stepped onto the track about 20 minutes before the race.

We've continued our trail running endeavors, navigating through icy and slippery terrain, particularly during the winter season. Surprisingly, these conditions added an element of excitement to our runs. On some days, the trails were covered in snow, making it challenging to maintain our pace. However, these snowy days proved to be the most enjoyable, as the serene atmosphere surrounded us, with the white snow glistening under the illumination of our headlamp lights. There's truly nothing quite like the sensation of breathing in the crisp, cold air while running through the woods.

I have gone to quite a few more 18th birthday parties here. They are so different from the birthday parties I have gone to in the US, at least in my opinion. It feels a lot more sophisticated in what we do and eat. While some of them lacked sophistication, the majority were more elegant. I get to meet new people as well, they always have lots of questions about the US once I tell them I am an exchange student. They always say how impressed they are with my Swedish! Which feels really good especially when it sometimes feels as though it isn’t that good. One thing I am still not completely used to yet is that when you meet someone at these parties, you hug. It's a custom to hug even though you've never met before. I kind of like it though, it makes you feel more connected and closer to each other from the beginning.

My school had a day where we got to go ice skating. Before we went ice skating, my friends and I went and got sushi from a sushi and Asian food buffet that was really good. We went to the ice arena. It was actually really fun. The ice hall was huge! It was the size of the Olympic ones and it had a small hockey arena inside of the large speed skate ring. We all brought some food for Fika for when we decided we wanted a break. I think it is really cool that the schools here do things like this. Plus, it is simple to do because everyone can get there due to the public transportation.

With the sun coming out on some days, my friends and I take that to our full advantage by getting some ice cream or candy and hanging out together in the warmth before we all go home.

I got to go to Kiruna, which is the northernmost city in Sweden, for a Rotary trip. The high school in Kiruna showed us around. They have a tourist program so a couple of the 3rd year students lead us around. I started off my journey by traveling to Nyköping, where one of my exchange student friends lives, Gracie. We stayed a couple nights there, Cairo(another exchange student friend) joined us as well. Then we all went to Stockholm and met up with some more of the RYE students. We took the 16 hour train up to Kiruna. I thought the train ride was going to be worse than it actually was. Cairo, Gracie, and I got a sleeping wagon which was perfect because it was just the three of us. We slept most of the time but we also watched some Swedish shows and ate snacks. We arrived very early in the morning to the winter wonderland in Kiruna. The first day was mostly just getting settled in and all the other exchange students arriving. Danish students got to come as well and it was really cool meeting them all. The first night, we went to the darkest spot and got to see the northern lights. They are absolutely beautiful and more incredible than any picture I have ever seen or could take. The second day we took a short snowmobile tour to the Sami museum. The Sami are the native people. The region of the Sami is northern Sweden, Norway, Russia, and Finland. It was really cool to listen to their way of living and their religion. They believe that nature, fire, aurora borealis, and other elements are gods. Reindeer are very sacred and can only be killed by the Sami or if a Sami person approves. They have a fire always going, it is a bad sign if the fire goes out. We all got to feed reindeer and then eat reindeer on special bread with homemade lingonberry jam. Some people were not too happy that we ate the reindeer after meeting them but I think it tasted good. Then we went to the Kiruna Ice Hotel 34. Every year they recreate the Ice Hotel from scratch and make completely new and unique rooms, that is why it has the ‘34’ after it. Anyone can submit their ideas for the ice hotel rooms. Each room was so cool and had many details. I think my favorite was the beaver dam room. It felt like you were a beaver living in the dam. The creativity and details in every single one of the rooms is incredible. After the ice hotel and dinner, dinner was cooked by the culinary students at the school, we went dog sledding. We got to go as the sun was setting and it was pretty fun. These dogs are so strong and fast, very impressive. At the end, it was dark and we saw the northern nights again during the dog sledding. The 3rd day we went to Luossavaara mountain and went toboggan sled racing. It is very difficult to stop! We then had a tour of the iron ore mine. The whole reason Kiruna exists is because of the iron it sits on. Their whole economy is based on it. Kiruna has the largest iron mine in the world. We went 540m underground and learned about how they collect the iron, the machines they use, and how they are trying to be environmentally friendly. I found the process and the machines to be super interesting. The mine is going to have to expand very soon because they have gone too deep for it to be safe for people to work, so they are in the process of tearing down the city and moving a whole church so they can start digging. We saw the northern lights again! They were the strongest of all the nights. I cannot believe how lucky we were. The last day, we went winter bathing in 1 degree water. There is a hole in the thick ice so that we can get in. It takes a little while to adjust to the water and stop freaking out, but then once you are relaxed, your brain goes completely silent and it is an incredible feeling. After this, we all started our journey back home. We took the train and made a pit stop in Stockholm before heading home to Cairo in Norrköping. We stayed there a night and then we went to a girls night sleepover hosted by Jasmine, an exchange student from Taiwan. We all had a really good time. After that night, I was finally home! It felt really good to be in my bed again.

Next up, Easter! Everyone (almost) celebrates Easter. It isn’t really a religious holiday here. We went up to Kungsamn. Ida invited a friends’ family over to celebrate with us. We had good food, candy, and walked around Smögen. Easter Eve is celebrated. One of the things that is very unique to Kungshamn is that they have a competition of who can build the biggest fire of leftover scraps. The kids build them and have to guard them so that nobody takes their good fire burning things. Smögen builds one and so do a couple other places in Kungshamn. The piles are huge! On Easter, they light them up and everyone comes to watch them burn down. They light fireworks too. It was a really cool and unique way to spend Easter. Nearly no one stays to watch the whole thing burn down but Ture and I did.

One thing that surprised me recently is that I have started enjoying using the Sauna. It is a very common thing in Sweden for people to go to saunas. When I came here I thought that there was no way I would do it, let alone enjoy it. After you go bathing in the cold water, it feels really nice to go into the sauna.

My Swedish has been improving, I think. I find it a lot easier now to switch between languages. I don't have to translate in my head anymore for the most part. I can fairly easily watch Swedish shows and read books in Swedish.

It is finally spring now! However, it does not feel like it because we just got some more snow and cold weather in April. Just when it was starting to warm up. The sun has been staying out so much later and we don’t even need headlamps for trail running at 6pm anymore!