"... from a distance, heads bowed and hands behind their backs, the skaters look like a chorus line of priests doing a slow-motion conga."
There's a rosy glow to your cheeks and a shiny medal round your neck. What have you been up to?
I've just been taking part in the Finland Ice Marathon.
How terribly macho. Is that some sort of endurance test for Nordic superheroes?
It's a gruelling 200km ice-skating race that is held every winter in the heart of the Finnish Lakeland at Kuopio - pronounced coo-pee-oh in a melancholic eastern European sort of way.
I'd be fairly melancholic faced with 200km of ice skating.
Some people love the challenge of speed-skating the equivalent of five road marathons and, amazingly, the best of them can do the whole thing in less than six hours.
How did you get on?
Well, the great thing about the Finland Ice Marathon is that you can enter for whatever distance you feel comfortable with. The real tough guys (and handful of iron ladies) go for the mighty 200km, while mere mortals can choose the 100km, 50km or 25km, the kick-sledge event, or the relay race.
So what was your event?
The 12.5km mini marathon - the icy equivalent of a fun run.
They gave you a medal for that?
Listen, my ego needed some sort of reward after being overtaken by a stream of Sunday skaters. I thought I was pretty nifty on ice until a five-year-old boy wonder whizzed by, followed by his grandma on a Zimmer frame with blades and an old bloke puffing away on a cigarette who offered to give me a tow.
Why are the locals so good at it?
They have long winters and guaranteed ice in Kuopio - and they start skating at a very early age. I saw toddlers tumbling around on the rock-hard ice as though they were in a sandpit and skating couples pushing prams around the frozen tracks. The ice marathon encourages young talent with junior events on the Wednesday and Thursday before the big race. This year more than 8,000 schoolchildren raced, chased and did their Bambi impressions on the natural ice of Lake Kallavesi.
With that sort of background, the Finns must win all the races then?
No, the Dutch dominate the Finland Ice Marathon.
The Dutch have a great tradition of skating long distances on their frozen canals, in particular the great 200km De Friesche Elfstedentocht event that links 11 Friesian cities. The race is a cherished national occasion like the London Marathon, Grand National and Boat Race rolled into one. Requiring sustained freezing conditions, it has been held on only 15 occasions since 1909. Recently, global warming has affected the event (the last was in 1997), so Dutch ice devotees have been forced to find frozen stretches outside their national boundaries. For 21 years Kuopio has provided the holy grail of guaranteed natural ice for the desperate Dutch. During this time, the Kuopio Skating Club has nurtured some reasonable opposition and now attracts long-distance skaters from Canada, Sweden, Germany and Russia, and even one brave soul from Japan.
So how can I join this alternative Elfstedentocht?
It's all fairly casual and you can register when you arrive in Kuopio at the marathon office in the Scandic Hotel right next to the frozen lake. Your entrance fee (£6-£30, depending on your distance) includes insurance, snacks, the aforementioned medal and a post-race sauna to ease aching bones.
And the ice marathon cometh when?
Usually the last weekend in February, although the ice tracks on the lake are cleared a few weeks before the event and maintained for a week after.
What about skates?
The Scandic rents out touring skates, speed skates and, best for beginners, Easy Gliders that you just strap on to your own boots. They all have long guillotine-like blades that are much faster than the familiar figure skates. Siebrand Kuiper, a 57-going-on-27-year-old advert for the benefits of skating, is on hand to coach beginners.
Is it so different from the local ice rink?
Well, you won't get dizzy going round in tight circles and the big difference is the uneven condition of the ice. During my epic I managed to skate over frozen snow, bumpy ice cobbles and slosh through a few worrying puddles. Then there is the problem with the cracks…
Don't worry, they allow for a little movement on the lake and cars safely drive over the ice all day, so you're not going to fall in. But catching your blade in one of the cracks is the most common way of taking a high-speed tumble.
Ouch! What if I would rather just watch?
You'll still be in for a treat. The scene around the finishing posts is like an old engraving of the frozen River Thames, with fires, food stalls and a blade-sharpener's tent on the ice. There are plenty of activities, including the junior curling and limbo contests, and every so often the serious skaters slide by. They like to travel in packs and create a pleasing rhythm with their synchronised limbs. From a distance, heads bowed and hands behind their backs, they look like a chorus line of priests doing a slow-motion conga.
And is it all over when the marathon finishes?
Far from it. There are all the other races, including the underrated 12.5km dash. Then on Sunday there is a disabled event and recreational skating when it is safe just to walk around the course if you don't fancy donning blades. You shouldn't miss the prize-giving ceremony at the Sokos Hotel on Saturday night, when you can spot the long-distance winners by their John Wayne walks. It attracts a feeding frenzy of local women who come to dance the night away with the ice champions.
And who won?
The Dutch, of course. They claimed the first 20 places in the marathon. My favourites were some German journalists who had never skated long distance before and who did remarkably well in the 100km race.
What about the Brits?
Besides skating's answer to Eddie the Eagle - me - Britain wasn't represented. So, readers, there's a challenge waiting for you in Finland. We must be able to get a British team together for next year. You only have to be half-decent skaters, although for national dignity it would be nice if you were just a touch faster than Finnish five-year-olds and smoking oldies.