Every year, while I’m in the middle of it, I swear I will never do it again. I’m of course speaking about the venerable Canadian Ski Marathon, now in its 49th year. The event is pretty much unique in its nature. At the core, it is 160km of cross-country skiing, split over two days. Each day is split into 5 sections, with varying degrees of challenge, from easy to hard, depending on whether there are big climbs, tricky descents, or wide open fields. Participants have the option to tackle the whole event as a coureur de bois, or just be a tourer and take on the number of sections you’d like. This year was my fourth time in a row tackling the event as a CdB participant, and 2nd time that I’d take it on as a ‘gold’ participant. What does that mean? Well, not only do I ski the whole thing, but I carry a backpack with my overnight gear and food, and sleep outside on a hay bale with my fellow CdB gold friends.
Every year, finishing the event it not guaranteed. There are so many things that can go wrong, and so much unpredictability with the weather and snow conditions. Oh, and did I mention that there are time cutoffs during the day as well? For example, if you don’t get onto the 5th section before 3:15pm, you are pulled off the event and bused back to the middle point. Lucky for me, I’ve been able to successfully complete all 3 of my previous attempts. So, would luck hold out, or would this year break me?
To begin, let’s set the stage by taking a look at the training I had under my belt. Last year, we had a nice early dump of snow, and were skiing full time in early December. We also stayed home over the holidays, and put in lots of mileage to prepare for CSM. This year? Well, for starters, we moved in late November, which meant leading up to the holidays we were focused on moving in and unpacking. Plus, there was no snow? The holidays? Well, we were overseas for two weeks in Belgium visiting family, so obviously no skiing there. We got back on January 7th, and skis didn’t really hit snow until January 10th. If you do the math, you’ll note that gave us less than a month to whip into CSM shape! Lucky for me, I have a decent endurance base and a really stubborn persistence on these things, so my plan was to simply tough it out regardless. I figured it might hurt, but I should be able to squeak by.
Leading up to the weekend, mother nature gave us a few more decent snowfalls, so it was obvious we’d have decent snow conditions. Now it was just a question of temperatures. This year was yet again a very cold winter to date (and continues to be), so I was nervous about the overnight. There is nothing worse than getting up at 4am from a frozen sleeping bag, exhausted, hungry, and facing an 80km ski slog! I did everything I could to shave weight this year, and make sure I didn’t carry more than I needed to. I think in the end, I got my pack down to about 22-23 lbs (including a bottle of Bailey’s I was bring to someone there as a favour, but that’s another story…). I decided to forego a full bivy bag, instead opting for the simple discomfort of a silver foil version, in which I stuffed my down sleeping bag and a thermal liner. I’d tested it at home at around -16, and while I didn’t overnight in it, I was hopeful it would work okay for 1 night at CSM!
So with only a couple hundred (if that) kilometers of skiing in my legs, I was driven to the Gold Dorm in Lachute on Friday night. Deanna was tackling bronze this year, so had to drive back to Papineauville from Lachute for her sleeping accommodations. Despite our best efforts, I wasn’t finally settled onto the hallway floor in my sleeping bag until probably 10:30pm. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but the fact is, we would be getting up around 4:00am to start getting ready for the event. At that time, we had to pack our bags, prep our skis, eat some food, and make our way to the start line in the dark. The alarm on my watch didn’t even have a chance to go off though. As usual, this event causes the nerves to go into overdrive, which means waking up every hour or so. The fact that you are surrounded by lots of other like-minded skiers makes it a generally noisy place. I was up and at ’em before I knew it.
During breakfast, I bumped into a few familiar faces that were also tackling the gold this year, but not as many as last year. I wasn’t sure who exactly I’d be sharing a campfire with later that night (provided I made it). I mad emy way to the start leisurely, and had time to spare, getting my clothes and pack well adjusted. We got underway right on time, a long snaking line of headlamps disappearing off into the groomed tracks and into the woods. We seemed to bottleneck almost immediately this year, as from the start, we were herded almost directly onto 2 of pars tracks, then a little further down the path, onto a single set of tracks. Luckily, we get to leave 20 minutes before the bigger crowds, and I just settled into an easy pace, knowing that the clogging was out of my control and that it would sort itself out over the next few kilometers.
Day 1 of this year’s CSM was the tougher day, featuring all of the major climbs and tricky descents. There were two different sections listed as ‘hard’, and there was also one leg which was over 20km in length. Again, not a big deal if it was isolated, but when you combine these things all together on the same day, and factor in wearing a heavy laden backpack, you can start to understand why this is one tough event. For the most part, the weather on this day was pretty much par for the course. It was cold, but not unbearably so. I was wearing lots of layers, and well covered up. In fact, I was wearing more than I would in a race, due to the slower pace, and the occasional stopping.
There is really only one ‘secret’ to completing this event successfully, and it isn’t all that secret. Consistency. You need to keep moving. Steady as she goes. All day. There’s no sense racing up ahead to pass people, but there is no room to just stop and enjoy a picnic either. While the aid stations are a great reprieve, and you may be tempted to just stop and relax for a bit, those who do so too often will be disappointed. The one advantage of a cold day is the fact that you really aren’t tempted to stop and wait at the aid stations too long. If you do, you’ll simply start getting cold, which is what happens to me at every single stop. My hands, although they felt warm while skiing in, inevitably turn to blocks of solid ice any time I stop for more than 5 minutes. It then takes me probably 15 minutes or more of hard skiing coming out of the checkpoints to warm them back up!
All in all, day 1 went as I expected. It was tough, but I stayed ahead of my targets slightly, and emerged from all the tricky sections relatively unscathed. The biggest accomplishment was the fact that unlike last year, I finished the day on the same skis as I started with. What a relief! My falls were kept to a bare minimum. In fact, I think I only fell once while trying to avoid a skier that went down in front of me on a hill. Thankfully, there was lots of fluffy snow to break the fall. As a side note, anyone that tells you they didn’t fall at ALL at CSM is most likely lying 🙂
Upon arriving at Gold Camp, I was greeted by my buddy James, who had a terrific day out there and had already been in for almost 2 hours!! Amazing. I don’t know how he does it. Personally, I’d rather take a little longer on the trails, as once you are at Gold Camp, there really isn’t much to do but eat, get cold, and go to sleep. Last year, when I got in, the campfire we chose was already encircled with a big group of my friends, but for now at least, it was only James, Dan and myself. So, I had managed to get there quicker than a fair number of people. Principal reason being that the cold weather made the snow very slow, and a lot of skiers, myself included, simply hadn’t put in the volume of training they would have liked.
I enjoyed a few boil in a bag meals and some questionable make-in-a-bag s’mores before finally deciding that it was time to bunk down (as best as possible in -15 weather. The ritual of wriggling into your sleeping bag at Gold Camp is a thing of magic. First, you want to get all your clothes in there ahead of you, to keep warm and dry, then you have to make yourself in as carefully as possible and TRY to get comfortable. As an added twist, we checked the forecast, and sure enough, it was set to start snowing overnight, so we had to make sure all our gear was well covered and protected from the wet. Worst thing in the morning would be the need to step into snow-filled and frozen ski boots, a sure recipe for frostbite.
Once again, we roused ourselves at the ungodly hour of 4am to prepare to reverse the previous nights’ spectacle of sleeping bag insertion. Only now, we had to deal with wet and frozen bivy bags and gear, fumbling around in the dark, cold, and snowy camp. Luckily, the camp scouts had kept our fires burning all night, so at least we had the fire to help warm us up while we wolfed down our boil in a bag breakfasts. You really don’t have to push anyone to get out in the morning, because once you’re awake, pretty much the only thing you want to do is get underway. The quicker you start, the sooner you’ll be done the day. It’s amazing how much the actual event seems to be miserable and undesirable, yet you push on and persevere, propelled mainly by the knowledge that “we’re all in this together” with your fellow skiers.
Day 2, in spite of it being shorter than Day 1 this year in distance, and with less ‘hard’ sections, does not feel like it. When you compound two days of poor sleeping, the hard effort from the first day, and the desire to just get things done, there are moments out there that you truly question why you are doing it. Some people actually break down and give up by the first aid station of the day, their spirits broken, and desire for a warm beverage and relaxing in a chair too strong. Then there are people like me, who choose to ignore the voices, and press on. We’re eager to test ourselves. Eager to see how far we can push ourselves in SPITE of ourselves. There is no amazing prize awaiting us, just the quiet satisfaction of having pushed ourselves to persevere and succeed.
Weather wise, in case you haven’t guessed yet, was quite a bit more challenging for us on day 2. The snow was falling, in fact driving in our faces. The winds were being whipped up in every open field, and the temperatures cold. Normally, when it is this cold, there is no snow. However, mother nature decided to make it interesting for us. Each time we’d ski into an aid station, I’d get flooded with relief at the fact that I could eat and drink. However, within minutes, I immediately regret even momentarily stopping, as I’d get really cold. To make matters worse, some aid stations were completely out of warm drinks and most food, forcing me to drink ice water (literally with ice floating in it) and gnawing on frozen bagel pieces. Yup, it was that tough!
As always, the final 10km of the day or so seem to be simultaneously the longest and shortest stretch of the day. You know that your almost done, so you are having small internal celebrations at that fact, but I seems to keep going forever and ever. This year was no different I was exhausted from the effort, and just wanted to slide under that banner, onto a warm bus, then back to my dry clothes. Upon finally crossing the line, I raised my arms up halfheartedly, and made my way to the awards tent. Given that this was my second year at gold camp, I was entitled to what is called a ‘gold bar’. Normally, it’s just a little pin. However, for this year, the organizers had re-conceived all levels of the event recognition. This meant there were not specific medals for gold, silver and bronze CdB finishers, as well as a very hefty gold brick for anyone who had completed more than one year at the gold level. I will admit, it was pretty awesome getting that chunk of hardware!
I was so knackered, that I have basically no photographs of me at the event at all. I usually make a point of snapping a few, but this year, I was simply too focused on getting it done in one piece! Nonetheless, the feeling of accomplishment is the same. Once back at the school gym, I sought out and found Deanna. Sadly, she had missed the day 1 cutoff at CP4 by only about 7 minutes, so her dream of getting bronze had been dashed. On the plus side, it meant the car was there and waiting. So, without too much fanfare, I collected my things, chatted with a few people for a little bit, then we headed home, making sure to stop at McDonald’s for some junk food before eating supper #2, a big St. Hubert tourtiere. Once again, at the finish, I swore I wouldn’t do this event again. I’ve said or thought it at the finish of all 4 of my CSM finishes. However, inevitably, within 24 hours or so, I’m already imagining tackling the event just ‘one more time’. This year was no different. Even more importantly, next year will mark the 50th anniversary of CSM, so you KNOW I’ll want to be a part of the experience, or, as the tagline actually says “Become Part of the Legend”. Till then, keep reading the blog for more exciting race stories!