Skating on thin ice



Each project is unique, but one project can be more unique than another. What to think of organizing a 200km long tour on the frozen canals in the Netherlands?

First of all it is unique as it could take place only fifteen times during the last century.

Secondly, it is unique because it is organized by a non-profit organization run totally by volunteers.

Thirdly, it is unique because it has risks involved that we rarely see during other projects, including:

  • √    Decisions on the ice floor over 200km. Although this can be measured, “Mother Nature” can cause changes that need last minute modification in the track that 16.000 participants have to take.
  • √    The number of participants is limited, but the number of spectators is not, so how to control and manage the enormous number of people trying to watch the event, standing on bridges, alongside the canals and on the ice floor itself?
  • √    How to secure the safety of the participants who might underestimate the effort, get injured, suffer hypothermia, overestimate their strength.
  • √    How to maintain a good balance between the commercial interest for this event and the volunteers who traditionally have not been paid one Dutch Florin?
  • √    Although a time-lined checklist for the event is available, due to the fact that this event has only been organized 15 times, the organizers are almost always new and cannot count on their personal experience from previous events.

Our paper will explain how the Friese Elfsteden Vereniging has been able to manage these risks and what lessons they learned that could be of general use for other projects, because, as we all know, project managers are often skating on thin ice! We will do this by introducing the event and the organization (Website Friese Elfsteden Vereniging and Interview with Mrs. M.G.A. Vroom, member of the Board,), developing a risk breakdown structure (David Hillson, 2002) and analyzing each of these risks and the corresponding actions that are planned. Finally conclusions are drawn based on the information provided.


If you combined the endurance demands of the New York Marathon with the grueling climate conditions of the Alaskan Iditarod, you would get a sense of the Dutch ice-skating race called the Eleven Cities Tour.

Known as the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour) in Dutch, the one-day tour is an obsession for its 16,000 participants and the millions more who follow it worldwide. The event is held in The Netherlands's Northern Province of Friesland but only in those years when the ice freezes over the 200km (124 mile) track of lakes and canals that makes up the route.

The fabled marathon was officially organized as a contest in 1909 by the Friesian Skating Association though its roots go back generations before that. The names of tens of successful skaters from previous centuries are still familiar in Holland, their stories being proudly passed on within their family circles from generation to generation. Lawyer M.E. Hepkema set up the ‘De Friesche Elf Steden’ Association on 15 January 1909, days after the first official organized race that was supposed to be a one-off event. He was the first chairman (from 1909 to 1947). So far, the race has taken place just 15 times; yet, it has become the biggest phenomenon in Dutch sports. The Eleven Cities Tour has both a competitive and a non-competitive event along the same route on the same day. The results of the 15 races held so far are displayed in Exhibit 1 below. The last tour took place January 4, 1997.

Results last 15 events

Exhibit 1 Results last 15 events

Because the competition hinges on weather conditions, lead-time is always short and the preparations furious. Wind chill, skating surfaces and ice thickness determine if and how the tour is run. Experts sometimes perform ice transplants to close holes in the route and often walking areas (klunen) need to be created where the ice conditions are too unsafe.

The 1997 race was organized with less than two days' notice thanks to a Russian cold front that left the country in a deep freeze. Despite nearly impossible time constraints, a virtual army of organizers and volunteers pulled the race off and, with it, one of the greatest tests of athleticism.

The tour always starts and ends in the Friesland capital of Leeuwarden and travels through the cities of Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker and Dokkum. The eleven cities and the route are displayed in Exhibit 2 below where the names of the cities are given in Friesian, the second official language in Holland beside Dutch.

The 200km Track of the Eleven Cities Tour on Ice (names are in Friesian)

Exhibit 2 The 200km Track of the Eleven Cities Tour on Ice (names are in Friesian)

On enrolment, every participant gets a card which has to be stamped in each town and at a number of checkpoints secretly located along the route. A participant only gets his or her Eleven Cities Tour souvenir medal if the card is fully stamped and if he or she arrives back in Leeuwarden within the allotted time.

A Souvenir Medal and Participant Control Card

Exhibit 3 A Souvenir Medal and Participant Control Card

When the next race will be held is anybody's guess. And it is exactly that unpredictability that makes the Eleven Cities Tour so highly anticipated. Racers must be members of the Elfstedentocht Union, and the number of participants to the event is capped at 16,000.


The Eleven-Cities Tour Organization Chart

Exhibit 4 The Eleven-Cities Tour Organization Chart


The board of the ‘De Friesche Elf Steden’ Association comprises nine members and is responsible for the ins and outs of the Association on the one hand and the organization of the race and marathon on the other.

Regional heads

The route is divided into 21 regions. In each region the Association is represented by a regional head who is responsible for the progress of the route in that region.


The Association is emphatically non-commercial and has no sponsors. Thousands of volunteers help the Marathon of Marathons to go ahead – that is the core of the Association. There is also plenty to do in the years when there is no ice: like member administration, financial administration, support in the coordinating sense and solving problems in the route.

Ice and weather

The Eleven-city marathon is heavily dependent on the weather situation. The board is therefore permanently in contact with the KNMI ( and with the Friesian weather forecaster Piet Paulusma ( during periods of freezing.

For the Eleven Cities Tour to actually happen, the ice needs to be at least 15 centimeters (5.9 inches) thick for virtually the whole route. During prolonged freezing, the regional heads measure the thickness of the ice at least once a day. Sometimes ice is transplanted to places where the ice is thin. If the event is given the go-ahead, ‘skate-walking' facilities are incorporated on the vulnerable parts of the route. These are wooden boards placed over the vulnerable places in the ice or along the edge over which the skaters can walk. Use is also frequently made of carpet and rubber mats. They aim to keep the number of walking places and the length of them as limited as possible.

Ice Transplants

Exhibit 5 Ice Transplants


Analysing the Risks

In any well-planned project, much of the planning is driven by the need to control the level of uncertainty – i.e. to avoid the threats and capture the opportunities that may arise. This is even more true for the Eleven Cities Tour, where project execution itself is a fairly unlikely opportunity (the race can rarely be held), which, if it does occur, will take place in difficult or extreme weather conditions, with very little lead time, no rehearsal, no margin for error and in full view of the press and the public. A slippery situation to say the very least!

A risk is defined as an uncertain event that can have a positive or negative effect on the objectives of the project (PMI 2000, p207). The main objectives of this Eleven-Cities Tour Project are

Scope: to ensure that a skating event (comprising a race and a popular tour) through the historical Eleven-Cities Course is organized whenever the conditions allow it

Time: the event happens at the announced date and time and the various stakeholders have all the information they need in a timely fashion

Cost: the Eleven-Cities fund remains viable to cover current commitments as well as for organizing future events

Quality: stakeholder satisfaction is high and the reputation of the event is enhanced.

In order to structure the list of risks, a “risk breakdown structure” (RBS) as described in Hillson (2002) has been developed. Each of the following main categories is expanded below:

  • General
    • Long-term impact and perception
  • The Preparation Phase – before the event
    • Making sure everything is in place
  • The Event is on – we have Go!
    • Making the day a success
  • After the Event
    • Tidying up

while keeping a strong focus on

  • Safety of the Participants
  • Legal Considerations
  • Third Parties
The first three levels of the Risk Breakdown Structure for the Project

Exhibit 6 The first three levels of the Risk Breakdown Structure for the Project

As described in the risk management literature, it is highly recommended that each risk statement should be described in a formalized way (Hillson 1999, Piney 2003), we have therefore expanded each risk category from the RBS into a formal risk statement, followed by a list of proposed response or mitigation strategies which are then expanded in the rest of this document. You will notice that only the risks we considered most relevant have been described: this is general good practice in project management – i.e. to concentrate one's efforts where they are most effective.


Making the right decision: to be or not to be?

If the event is held when it should not be held (i.e. the conditions are unsuitable), the reputation of the event, and the safety of the public and the participants are compromised – and so is potential income for future events.

If the event is not held when it could have been held (i.e. delay in decision making), the public and the participants are very disappointed and the organizers lose credibility – and potential income for future events.

  • In 1996, the decision was put off for too long in the hope of still better conditions – the lessons from this have been taken on board, not least because the resulting loss of 30,000€ (preparation cost) is hard for any Dutch organization to accept!

One of the members asked for an extraordinary meeting to discuss the event that took place in 1996 when the race could have taken place but did not. Cost of this meeting was €25K, about 1500 members participated.

  • A clear set of “trigger conditions” is defined and the state of all of them monitored continuously in the hope of any chance of being able to hold the event. The major trigger condition is the condition of the ice. with needs to be reasonable to good on the whole 200km. The main reason for that is that if a part of the ice is bad, “traffic jams” could take place with people waiting to pass a difficult area (this also applies to the walking areas and was one of the criticisms from the skaters in 1997 - Harlingen).

In 1987 the event could almost be held in January. The southern part of the track was excellent, but in the north there were areas where the ice was not yet 15cm. The frost continued and the decision was taken to wait so the ice condition could improve. This delay led to part of the southern track to becoming bad, with major cracks in the length of the waterway. The first 50/60 kilometers were excellent, so skaters would have a good speed coming at the difficult area and then need to reduce speed. This would have caused “traffic” jams, considerable physical risk and participants getting cold while waiting.

The future

If the event can not be held for very many years (e.g. for reasons of climate change), the experience and skills of the organizers, could be increasingly eroded.

  • The organizing committee members ensure active recruitment and training of “new blood” and handover of knowledge and skills from older to newer members

In order to understand better how ice is formed and the relation to the strength of the ice, a visit to the USA and Canada took place in 1982 and in 1991. The learnings from these trips were used to analyze data on ice conditions from years that the event could almost take place (1976, 1979 and 1982). This gave new insights and allowed the event to take place sooner in 1985.

  • It has been found that the Eleven Cities Tour has very little in common with other events and that there is little new to learn from them.

Each year there is a skating tour of 200km on the Weissensee in Austria, organized by the Dutch Marathon organization. The skaters make eight laps of 25 km at an altitude of 1000meters; these circumstances are very different from what takes place in the North of Holland.

Before the event: the Preparation Phase

There is one core opportunity that the preparation phase is designed to guarantee: if the decision is taken that the event will take place, it must be possible to have everything in place for the first contestants to set out within 36 hours of the decision. The 36 hour limit is, in fact, a mitigation constraint on the threat that conditions will change drastically between the moment of the decision and the start of the event.

What are the challenges to be overcome in order to exploit this core opportunity?

People and communications

If any stakeholder is not sure of their role, in terms of activity and timing, it could happen that they do not complete the required action correctly when required – with the effect that they will be disappointed, and all of the people and activities that depend on them will be delayed, damaged or rendered impossible.

  • The organizers must have a detailed list of every activity to be carried out, including details of who, when, how long, at which point in the plan, etc.
  • The volunteers must be available, trained, briefed and motivated

The Regional heads are called together for a meeting when it appears that the event can take place soon. Their availability needs to be 100%, but in 1985 the regional head of Dokkum could not be found and the decision to have the event was taken without him. This allowed the tour to take place although the ice toward Dokkum was in fairly poor condition – in retrospect this turns out to have been an advantage!

  • The participants must know in advance where they will need to be, at what time and what they need to take with them
  • Checkpoints must be set up around the course to allow the participants to register their times and complete their participation cards
  • The public must be made aware of “rules of behaviour” as well as where and when they can get the best view of what is going on

The public is not allowed to walk on the ice or come close to the skaters. In 1963, when the winner arrived in Leeuwarden, many spectators went on the ice to congratulate the winner Reinier Papping. This almost resulted in the collapsing of the ice floor, which would have caused a national disaster as two members of the Royal Family, Queen Juliana and her daughter Beatrix (the current queen), were also on the ice.

  • The briefing packs for the media must be ready for distribution
  • The medical, transport and communications organizations must be briefed and ready
Safety and Security

If any areas do not comply with safety regulations (e.g. the start area), the event could be forbidden; if any parts of the course are impassable or present too great a security risk, the participants will be delayed or have to abandon; in the extreme, the entire event will have to be terminated prematurely – with the effect of disappointing all of the stakeholders and damaging the reputation of the event for many years into the future.

  • The measurable “quality criteria” for the ice must be established and understood

The major decision criterion is based on advice from the 21 Regional heads.. If in one region states that the problems with the ice are too important to be solved, the race will not take place.

  • All of the skating area of the event must be proved to comply with these safety criteria
  • A safe means for the participants to avoid each of the areas that do not comply must be in place and have been checked
  • All participants must be able to find their way (you can get lost on a canal … where it crosses a lake for example!)
Financial & Legal Considerations

If the budget available is not sufficient to cover the costs of preparation, execution and follow-on activities, the event will have to be aborted at that point – which will mean that most or all of the expected income will be forfeited and the reputation of the race will be damaged for many years.

  • A “treasure chest” must be built up in advance, during the years when the race is not held
  • Steps must be taken to ensure people do not participate without registering

The organization has had many fare-dodgers in the past and has improved the checking mechanism. The latest improvement is to hand out special ribbons shortly before the start.

  • All pure risks must be insured against wherever this is viable
  • All forms of income, that are compatible with the culture of the organisation, must be investigated
  • Safeguards must be developed for all forms of legal liability that could impact the organisation – in its broadest sense.
We have “Go”!

The overall threat here is: if any of the planning assumptions turns out to be incorrect and there are deviations from the agreed plan, it is likely that the objectives of the project as defined above will not be met.

Each of the actions defined above in the Preparation Phase must be monitored and tracked.

  • Follow the forecasts to see if the weather will be as expected

On morning of the 30th of December 1961, when the participants were ready to start, the race needed to be cancelled due to changed weather conditions.

  • Check all of the actions against the itemized plan, but leave the responsibility with the volunteers
  • Ensure that all of the communications and security services are available and operational
  • Coordinate regular, distributed status updates between the distributed areas and a control centre

After the Event

Overall, at this stage, there is one major threat and one major opportunity.


If commitments are not met and damage to the environment caused by the race is not made good in a very short time, it will put the reputation of the race at risk and possibly lead to legal and financial demands.

  • The results must be made available with no errors for the promised due-date
  • All bills must be paid
  • All rubbish must be cleared up

After every event, there are “tons” of shoes left behind at the starting place. See photo on page 8 below

  • All “walking areas” must be put back to their initial state

If the lessons and spin-offs from the event are followed up for short-term and long-term gain, the ongoing financial situation can be improved and the effectiveness of future events enhanced.

  • Survey the stakeholders (participants, sponsors, media, transport and communications companies, etc.) for comments and suggestions

After the 1997 event a sample survey took place, the organization was rewarded with 8.4 out of 10.

  • Review the plan against the reality and highlight strengths and weaknesses
  • Thank all of the volunteers
  • Create sellable or advertising products (e.g. this paper!)


The PMBOK® Guide states that each project is unique – and this really does hold for the Eleven Cities Tour! It is built around the risks inherent in the event and can be considered as an extreme case of an opportunity contingency plan that is rarely activated. Because of this, it also has an interesting control and management structure:

  • Centralized management prior to the event. This is in the hands of a small number of people, for action planning (checklist control), responsibility assignment, and decision-making (go/nogo)
  • Delegated accountability (diffuse management) during the event.
    • For the ice-related activities, all of the work is done by volunteers. These form a set of distributed, self-managed teams, which encourages the application of individual initiative and common sense in applying the checklists and developing workarounds as required
    • The authorities (police, medical, local authorities), offer their services in line with the plan they have helped to develop
  • Coordinated action after the event. This ensures that all of the loose ends are tied up and all of the lessons are captured.
After the Event: Clearing up discarded shoes

Exhibit 7 After the Event: Clearing up discarded shoes

In brief, the event itself is “organized chaos” which balances the advantages of organization – control of uncertainty plus high efficiency – with the benefits of chaos – excitement, goodwill and the synergy of thousands of people working towards a common goal. Like the chairman once said during a general assembly: “Every 11Citites Tour is a rehearsal for the next one!”


We would like to extend our thanks to the board of the Friese Elfsteden Vereniging in general for their help in producing this paper and, in particular, Mrs. M.G.A. Vroom who agreed to answer a large number of detailed questions for us. We should point out, however, that any errors of fact, as well as the opinions and conclusions in this paper are those of the authors alone and are not the fault or responsibility of the board of the Eleven-Cities Tour.


Boekerij, F. P. (1997) - Elfstedentocht 1997

Boekerij, F. P (1986)- Elf Steden Tocht 1986

Bosch & Keuning (1997) Het Enige Echte Elfsstedentoch Logboek 1997

De Tille & Friesch Dagblad (1985) Elfstedentocht Logboek 1985

Hillson, D.. (1999). Developing Effective Risk Responses. Proceedings of the 30th Annual Project Management Institute 1999 Seminars & Symposium.

Hillson, D.. (2002). The Risk Breakdown Structure. Proceedings of the European Project Management Institute European Conference, Cannes, France 2002.

Koolhaas, M. & van de Vooren, J, De mannen van 63 – Uitgevery Van Wijnen

Piney, C. and Vonk, C. (2003). Risk Identification: Combining the Tools to Deliver the Goods. Proceedings of the European Project Management Institute European Conference, The Hague, Netherlands, 2003.

Project Management Institute, (2000). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. Newtown Square: PMI.

© 2004, Cornelis (Kees) Vonk, PMP & Crispin (Kik) Piney, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – (Prague)



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