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2 racers, 4 days, 100 tough miles

1926 race from Portland to Berlin, N.H., made history

By T.D. Thornton
Globe Correspondent / February 3, 2011

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This week’s two-fisted blizzard coincides with ferocious back-to-back snowstorms that rocked New England 85 years ago, paralyzing the region from New Haven to the Canadian border.

Archived newspaper headlines reveal a time capsule of carnage: Mammoth waves swept three crew members to their deaths from the deck of a Gloucester fishing vessel. The Boston Fire Department scrambled to round up 75 horses, fearing motorized engines would never negotiate snowbound streets. A plow clearing 10-foot drifts smashed the windows of a passenger train in Portsmouth, N.H., injuring 50 people. In Maine, a schooner and a barge barely avoided a horrific collision, prompting the closure of Portland Harbor.

“The gale outside the harbor reached hurricane force,’’ the Associated Press reported on Feb. 11, 1926, from Portland. “Activities along the coast were at a standstill.’’

But activities didn’t cease completely in Portland. A handful of onlookers braved the elements outside the Lafayette Hotel to witness the start of what was then the longest Nordic ski race ever attempted in America, heading straight into the teeth of twin Nor’easters.

It began as an attention-getter, earning front page coverage across New England. By the time the grueling contest ended four days later in Berlin, N.H., the race’s only two competitors had given it a nickname not printable in newspapers of the day — 100 Miles of Hell.

“It was invented to create excitement about the 1926 Berlin Winter Carnival,’’ said Jeff Leich, executive director of the New England Ski Museum. “The goal was to make it an annual race. But the difficulties were so overwhelming, they never held it again.’’

Berlin natives Helmer Oakerlund, 38, and Bob Reid, 25, were good friends and rivals. Oakerlund had won every major Nordic race in northern New England, and was the 1922 champion in Canada. Reid, often second to Oakerlund but rising fast, won the 1924 US cross-country nationals. They weren’t racing each other so much as chasing history together when they left the starting mark Feb. 10, 1926.

No ordinary circus To appreciate the publicity stunt Alf Halvorson cooked up, realize that during America’s formative years of skiing, the Nansen Ski Club president was internationally regarded as the P.T. Barnum of snow sports.

You also have to turn back the clock and picture Berlin the way it was 85 years ago, when paper mills fueled a robust economy, turning a scrappy logging outpost into the state’s fourth-largest community.

The city prided itself as the birthplace of New England’s first ski club. The exact date is in dispute — either 1872 or 1882 — but the Berlin Mills Ski Club eventually changed names to honor Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian adventurer who crossed Greenland on skis in 1888. To this day, the club bills itself as the country’s oldest continually operating ski organization.

“Winter sports in the Scandinavian tradition pretty much encompassed everybody in Berlin back then,’’ said Leich.

Nansen was known for producing gifted skiers and jumpers by 1917, when Halvorson was elected club president. Although only 18, he had a vision for promoting the sport’s future. For the 1926 carnival, Halvorson wanted to fuse the Nordic tradition of long-distance skiing with a modern day press junket. Banking on a windfall of publicity, the promoter nearly got more than he bargained for.

Oakerlund and Reid were both Nansen members, and it is not known if they scared away other competitors or if they had to be talked into being the only two racers in the Portland-to-Berlin 100-miler. Halvorson rigged up what he called a “skimobile’’ (a car with detachable skis and chained wheels), and loaded it with newspapermen. This account of the race is based on reports in the Boston Daily Globe and the Lewiston (Maine) Daily Sun.

Equipment was cutting edge for 1926, but primitive by today’s standards: Hickory skis, leather shoes, and wool overcoats. Moments after the start, the skimobile broke down. The racers had to follow a taxi to the edge of town because they couldn’t see the road.

Faces “stung to the raw’’ by hail and snow, Oakerlund and Reid stuck together, opting for the shelter of the woods. But they repeatedly lost their way, stumbling back to telegraph poles to regain their bearings. It took three hours to make 20 miles to Gray, where they were taken in by a farmer who fed them doughnuts and coffee by a roaring fire.

At 10 p.m., the two set out for Poland Spring. They were expected at the Mansion House, and didn’t want to trigger a search party. Inching along, it took two hours to cover the remaining 9 miles of the first leg, and Reid had to guide a snow-blinded Oakerlund by voice for the final 5. At the hotel, they drank warm milk and were treated for frostbite.

A media frenzy A Globe headline on Day 2 declared “Worst Now Over,’’ but you wouldn’t guess that by reading the story. “The men were in good physical shape,’’ John J. Donovan reported, “except for the fact that Oakerlund’s eyelids were frozen solid and he was almost blind.’’

The pair pushed northwest, stopping at a house in Welchville, where a kind woman treated Oakerlund’s eyes. It was 22 miles to Beal’s Tavern in Norway, and “the wind was sweeping the snow higher with every blast, hindering every step.’’

The snow stopped on Day 3, but the racers were still against the wind, covering 25 uphill miles in six hours to the Bethel Inn.

After a bath and rubdown, both athletes took the time to educate guests about skiing technique and safety.

“[Reid] made all kinds of stops and turns, and also used the toboggan chute for a slide,’’ the Globe reported. “Despite the grind in the afternoon, he laughed and romped like a kid, while the hotel guests attempted to repeat his tricks.’’

The real racing started on Day 4, the 30-mile trek from Maine into New Hampshire (the race was billed as 100 miles, but its total distance was at least 107 miles, and likely more considering off-course wanderings). The up-and-comer sprinted away from the veteran toward the end of the stage, and after 21 hours of skiing over four days, Reid soared across the finish line first at Berlin City Hall, eight minutes ahead of Oakerlund.

The result didn’t shock the skiers, but the reception might have. Halvorson had arranged for factory whistles and church bells to greet the hometown heroes, and a throng of 1,000 jammed Berlin’s small downtown.

Oakerlund, face swollen with patches of discolored skin, told the Sun the race was “tough work, and no man should try it unless he is in good condition.’’

Reid was already looking ahead to the race he really wanted to win: The Winter Carnival’s 22-mile Boston Post championship from Mt. Washington to Berlin, which drew world-class competition and was coming up in exactly one week.

From sizzle to fizzle Long-distance cross-country racing never caught on in America. Scott Andrews, research director for the Ski Museum of Maine, likened the craze to dance marathons that were a fad during that same era. A 1936 race covering 180 miles between Bangor and Caribou is the only comparable New England race he is aware of.

Oakerlund’s name began to fade from race results shortly after the Portland-to-Berlin run. Reid was third in the 1926 Boston Post race (shortened by another treacherous storm), and went on to be named to the 1932 Olympic ski team. Nansen was the only club in the country to contribute three members to that squad — likely because Halvorson was the team’s assistant coach.

Reminiscing about his most memorable moment, Oakerlund said it was on Day 3 of the trek near Bryant Pond. There he received his first kiss of the long journey, and that had inspired him to keep going.

Reid didn’t miss a beat, joking to reporters that it’s too bad his skiing buddy hadn’t experienced the smooch earlier, when his eyes weren’t frozen shut.

That way, Reid said, he would have been able to see that the kiss came from “an affectionate German Shepherd dog that had jumped up,’’ and not from some beautiful young lass Oakerlund imagined had come out to greet them on the desolate, windswept 100 Miles of Hell.