By Paul Miles
Kick-sledgers propel themselves along by scooting and sliding
The first indication that the pace of the kick-sledge World Championship would not be as punishing as I had feared was when one of the organisers, Tove Sletto, mentioned there would be free hot dogs half way through the race.
The circular course, along icy hiking and mountain-bike trails in the ski village of Geilo in Norway, is only 4km (2.5 miles) long.
The second pointer that these championships - held annually for the last 30 years - are not taken all that seriously was when I asked the receptionist in our hotel if she knew whether any other guests were competitors in the next day's races.
"Just go to the bar and look for the drunkest," she said.
A kick-sledge, or "spark" (from the Norwegian for kick), is a uniquely Scandinavian mode of transport.
An early night of sobriety before the race was not deemed essential
It looks similar to a husky sledge but without dogs. Rather than a team of eager canines, sparks are people-powered.
The sledge has a pair of 2m (6ft) long skates or skis with footplates and handlebars.
You move forward with a scooting action, kicking and sliding.
Some kick-sledges have a seat in front for a passenger - or a wicker basket.
In a final blow that put paid to any notion that we - my friend and I or, as we came to be known, Team GB - had signed up to a test of physical endurance, Tove broke the news that "sparks are usually used by old ladies to do their shopping".
It is true that a spark could also be described as a Zimmer frame on skis.
No wonder an early night of sobriety before the race was not deemed essential.
A kick-sledge has many uses
I soon found the drunkest guests, three men in their 40s.
Before long, one of them, Henning, was demonstrating the footwork needed in another Nordic winter sport, telemark ski-ing.
Beneath the mounted elk heads of the hotel bar, his performance could have passed for Cossack dancing.
Next, proclaiming himself a Viking, he lifted me off the floor.
His friend, Oyvind, plonked his pork-pie hat on my head while Morten - also eager to entertain - tugged down his trousers to reveal a tattoo.
"Born in Bergen," it said, on one of his buttocks.
"If anyone finds me, they know where to send me back," he shouted, taking another swig of vodka and tonic.
The next day at the starting line, Henning and chums were nowhere to be seen.
Team GB was the only non-Scandinavian team taking part in a field of 135 entrants in the "trim" or "exercise" class.
Some competitors were dressed up as strawberries
The categorisation was relative. It served to distinguish our "race" from a fancy dress parade.
Once a couple of old ladies on sparks doing their morning shop had shuffled out of the way, the race-starter (dressed, for some reason, in bug-eyes and dreadlocks) counted teams off at 30-second intervals.
This was time enough for Team GB to have a spectacular fall on the steep slope beyond the starting line, without entangling other competitors in our incompetence.
It may not have looked like it, but unlike some of the other entrants, Team GB was sober - partly because of Norway's prohibitive alcohol prices.
Perhaps that was where we had gone wrong?
After disentangling sledge from limbs, we escaped the laughing spectators and continued scooting and skating around a frozen lake, covered in thick snow.
We passed wooden houses that looked like something you might place on top of a Christmas cake and carried on down a thankfully gentle slope to a man dispensing the aforementioned free hot dogs.
Before mustard could be wiped from the corners of our mouths, other teams caught up, looking decidedly merrier than us bruised Brits.
Men in patterned jumpers, breeches and thick woollen socks took bottles out of rucksacks and offered nips.
"Have some Norwegian oil," one said and passed us a bottle of a black liquid that tasted of liquorice.
A blizzard was now blowing but the conviviality continued as we sledged onwards to the finish line and a man with a stopwatch.
Team GB's time was a dismal 53 minutes and 57 seconds. The fastest had clocked in at just 23 minutes.
Some entrants never made it to the finish.
"They probably stopped off in a bar," explained Tove later at the after-spark party, where we found ourselves in a crush of 50 women from the fancy-dress category, dressed as strawberries.
In the melee of dancing on tables, trophies were presented.
Adopting a practice familiar to many adult Scandinavians from their school days, the team that won the exercise race - that walked off proudly with the World Championship trophy - was deemed to be the one that came closest to the average time.
So, it was mostly luck that determined that Team GB won nothing.
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