Hello friends! Seems like my blog posts are becoming fewer and farther between, but I assure you it is not for a lack of my being active. On the contrary, I’m still up to my tricks, training and racing whenever the urge strikes. However, I find these days with other platforms around, I often just scratch out a short FB post instead to summarize some of my exploits. However, sometimes, it’s still worth me archiving results in a more permanent way with a full story. This post it such a time, as it will talk about my recent [successful] completion of my 7th Canadian Ski Marathon completion in a row as a Coureur des Bois. Having 5 gold camp finishes under my belt scored me a permanent bib this year! Read on for the whole story.
I’m sure I have said it before, but it bears repeating: CSM is a TOUGH event. I still think in some ways it is the toughest event I do on an annual basis. Why? Well, for starters, it is equivalent to skiing two 50 miler trail events back to back. To add to the challenge, it is the dead of winter, you sleep outside overnight (or try to), and need to carry all that you need in order to be self-sufficient. The end result is throwing a 17-18 pound pack on my back, and skiing two long days with very little sleep (since Friday night is usually shot for me too).
So why do I keep coming back? I think in many ways, to me it is elemental. There is no hiding out there. If you aren’t physically and mentally prepared, you will have a rough go. Does that mean you won’t complete the challenge? Not at all, but you’ll have to dig deep and muster strength and courage to do so. In that respect, it is the perfect testing grounds for your mental fortitude and determination. Too often in our daily lives, everything is about convenience. Being sedate is easy. If that is all you ever experience, you will be ill equipped when life throws a challenge or a curveball. By training and doing these kind of events, I’m trying to make myself a more rounded person, capable of remaining optimistic and seeing my way through all manner of challenges, personally and professionally.
Alrighty, before getting too philosophical, let’s dive into this year’s CSM event. In the weeks leading up to the event, training had been a bit hit or miss. While we’ve had decent dumps of show, they were often followed days later by warm weather and rain, so snow base had been tricky. Not only that, but many of my favourite trails for CSM training remained unopened, forcing me to ski mainly on the groomed parkway system in Gatineau park, which if you know CSM, is NOTHING like the actual even conditions. Regardless, I plugged away and logged 3 pretty long classic skis with the pack, along with a good number of shorter jaunts. Of course, I was also doing a lot of skate ski training for the upcoming Gatineau Loppet as well, so I was at least out there quite a bit.
In addition to the less than stellar training conditions, I’ve been travelling a fair bit for work, often gone 3 days a week to other provinces, unable to bring skis (the one exception being Quebec City, where I took the train and brought skis to train on the Plains of Abraham). Nonetheless, I managed to go running everywhere I went, further building on my base. So all told, I’d say I was going into the event in good shape and ready for the challenge. Yay!
Luckily, having now done the event 6 years prior, I have experienced pretty much every type of weather scenario, running from very mild to very cold, to snow and rain. As such, my Gold Camp pack is pretty much dialed in. I know exactly what to pack, and how to cope with conditions. Further assisting in that this year, I’d converted my classic skis to ‘skin skis’ through a local shop. So, I was using the same skis as I have on almost every single CSM, but this time, wouldn’t need to worry about grip waxing, since I was relying on the mechanical grip provided by the mohair base. This was about the only ‘new’ thing I’d be trying out, but I had put it through its paces a number of times, and had adjusted them a bit for the challenge.
As the date approached, the weather was looking like it might be one of the best CSMs in recent memory. We received a snowfall ‘gift’ earlier in the week, ensuring the full new course would be open to us. This year, for the first time, we’d be skiing from the Mont Tremblant area towards Montebello on Day 1, then from there to Lachute on Day 2. So on Friday night, I cozied up on the floor of a gymnasium near Mont Tremblant with my other die-hard Gold CdB friends. Happily, this was one of the quietest gold dorms I remember, although that didn’t help me sleep much better. I’m such a light sleeper, the slightest movements keep me awake….
4am rolled around far too early, and we stumbled about packing up our gear and getting set for the 2 day challenge. I headed to breakfast and must admit I was a bit disappointed with this year’s offering. Normally, it is a decent breakfast served up fresh with lots to choose from. This year was self-serve style with small selection, and the eggs in particular were unrecognizable. It was more of a jiggly egg ‘loaf’ then eggs. I carved off a few ‘slices’, but was NOT impressed with them, particularly since there lacked even salt and pepper to season it. Oh well. I choked down some toast and some lackluster meat, bowl of dry cereal, and headed off to the buses.
Day 1 started on time and under dark but ideal conditions. I was pleased that the start didn’t result in a massive choke-point early in the day. There was a slight slowdown at the beginning, but before long, I didn’t feel like I was being impeded in any way. So I settled into my groove and focused on getting the job done. On the first 2 sections, the terrain was for the most part relatively flat and non-technical. This was a good way to get into the swing of things and make some progress. My skis were working well, the scenery was spectacular, and the occasional company on the trail friendly. I was making good time, and feeling relatively strong. I made sure I was eating and drinking whenever possible to stay on top of any fatigue.
The trail gradually became more challenging, and the sections stared feeling a bit longer (although in reality Section 2 was actually the longest). There was no risk of missing any time cutoffs, and I certainly didn’t put too much pressure on myself. Eventually, I linked up with one of my friends from my training group, Simon Hamel, and we ended skiing most of the day together, which is quite odd for me. I spend most of my races and events on my own. However, I was enjoying the company and getting to know him better. I was also apparently helping him get through some low patches in the day by motivating him, so we were good for each other in getting it done. This was his second gold camp, and he was also using skin skis.
Later in the day, the weather eventually started changing, with some heavy wet snow starting to fall. It only really started during our final section of the day, and didn’t impact our skiing at all. We rolled into gold camp somewhere around 3:30pm, after just over 9 hours skiing. There was still quite a bit of space open in the area, with many skiers still to arrive. We ended up choosing a campsite near the ski-in entrance, sharing the campsite with the CSM President! We set to work getting changed and settled in for the long night that awaited.
At this point, it became evident that the heavy snow was likely to cause some annoyances. This snow was WET, and with the already high humidity levels, meant we would be unlikely to be able to dry off or stay dry as we sat around. I lamented my lack of rain gear, as all I had were my nice warm down jacket and pants, neither of which was particularly water-resistant. Luckily my bivy bag is gore-tex, so I knew I could keep my sleeping bag dry for now. I’d also brought a garbage bag to cover my backpack and gear, so that helped. Finally, there was a HUGE fire pit that they had set up earlier in the day throwing out a lot of heat and helping to dry our sweaty baselayers before packing them up for the night.
The longer I sat outside, eating and drinking (including free beer once again!!), the wetter my coat and pants got. I tried drying them near our sad little campfire, but this was pretty futile, and really only resulted in my getting a thorough exposure to far too much campfire smoke. Eventually, sometime around 9pm or so, I gave up, deciding to crawl into my water-proof sleep system. Of course, this meant stripping down, and then hauling the wet gear with me INTO the bivy to try and dry it with body heat overnight. Once in my sleeping bag, I struggled a good 30 minutes or so just to pull on some compression socks without going into muscle-spasming leg cramps! At least I was entertaining myself!
As the hours ticked by, I did my best to sleep, but inevitably, it only came in 15 or so minute increments every 90 or so minutes. Luckily I was quite toasty in my down sleeping bag. I’d left the wet stuff inside the bivy, but outside the sleeping bag. With me in the bag were my dry clothes. Eventually, some time overnight, the snow stopped, so when I finally decided to get up around 4am, I was able to knock all the snow off the outside of the bivy and emerge without getting snowed on. However, at this point now, all my exhaled breath had condensed on the inside of the bivy, making it a frozen, frosty mess, and resulting in my sleeping bag being soaked from the outside. Lol. Anyone who thinks this is glamorous in any way is a sadist. At least I didn’t have to emerge at all to pee overnight. My nearest neighbour said he’d gotten up 4 times!!!
The morning is always a slog to try and re-pack and get ready to ski another full day out there. I forced myself to eat some oatmeal, as well as some sort of dehydrated s’mores that I’d brought. Not tasty, not filling, but I assumed it would give me the calories and energy I desperately need to get going. I did my best to stuff everything, dry and wet, back into their respective bags and get them into my backpack. I succeeded, and the overall bag weighed probably the same as the day before, in spite of having eaten all the food, thanks to the additional water weight.
Boy, I really sound like I’m complaining, don’t I? Well, luckily, there were good things awaiting. Although the first leg was skied primarily in the dark, it was quite evident that we’d be treated to some gorgeous sights as things lightened up. All the fluffy snow that had fallen made the trail a true winter wonderland. The trees were heavy with snow, and it was absolutely stunning! The trails on day 2 were definitely tougher than the first day, with quite a bit more technical challenges, including some of the great climbs and descents that CSM is known for. Luckily, I was quite familiar with them from past years. Also, all that fresh snow meant that even if you fell (which happens at least once or twice to most people), you would likely be spared any great injury.
The other big challenge on Day 2 is the fact that it is a longer course. In fact, at the end of the day, I had logged just over 85km in total. However, the time cutoffs are the same as day 1. For whatever reason, I was having a seriously hard time getting my butt to move in any sort of efficient manner this time. I kept an eye on my watch, knowing that I had to maintain 7.5 kph on average in order to make the cutoffs. This of course includes any stops you make. The number does not look very fast when compared to my ‘normal’ pace, but context is everything.
Once again, Simon and I skied much of the time together, and were both definitely feeling the sluggishness of the previous days effort catching up. Typically, whenever we’d hit a bit of a downhill / technical section, I’d get a little ahead of Simon, but then he’d catch me up later. Somewhere during leg 3, we ended up getting split up, and although I waited a few times, he wasn’t catching back up. Feeling rightly paranoid at my overall pace, I pressed on. I know from past experience that you can’t risk waiting too long, since anything can happen. It is pretty well accepted that you go when you can, and we’re each on our own journey. I’m always shocked each year at learning some of the people that don’t complete the 2nd day, so you can never assume someone will be able to keep the pace required.
With that in my mind, I arrived at the end of the 3rd section, knowing that I still had to complete leg 4 before making the cutoff to ‘guarantee’ my finish. Looking at my watch, my pace had now dropped below the magic ‘7.5kph’ average. And I was spent. This meant I’d have to actually up my pace quite a bit in order to bring it back up to that number and make it in time for the cutoff. Leg 3 had been a devastator with lots of technical challenges, including a long length. The next section was supposed to be a bit shorter and not as tough, but to this point, it seemed all the legs were slightly longer than expected, so I couldn’t bank on it being exactly the stated distance.
With fire in my belly (and a bit of food), I set off at a relatively blazing pace. I knew I’d have to just push hard the entire way, and not let up until I got to the next checkpoint. I immediately started making up a few places, and skiing a bit more aggressively. Rather than waiting at the top of hills for people to take their time going down, I’d actually go right after them and ski around where possible. It’s amazing how much time you can lose on hills waiting for non-technical skiers to snowplow down the hills, or worse, walk down them. I swore I wouldn’t let anyone but ME be the cause for my potential failure. Luckily, my push paid off, and I finally skied into the checkpoint with about 20 minutes to spare on the cutoff.
I decided to ‘celebrate’, which in this case meant helping myself to not only Jos Louis, where were on offer as a unique treat for the final checkpoint, but also to some delicious boiled hot dogs. Just plain boiled wieners in dry buns. I swear, nothing has ever tasted as good! As I stuffed my face, I was elated to see Simon arriving with still 10 minutes to spare! We regrouped, he ate, and we decided to take our sweet time over the final 16-17km final section to the end (and to victory of sorts). Apparently he’d gotten caught out in Leg 3 on the big hills stuck behind far too many tourers and slower skiers, and was forced to wait a bunch of times where he lost time. Luckily, he totally understood my dilemma and even apologized for the delay. How Canadian, right?
At any rate, we set back off again, knowing the finish was more a formality at this point, since we’d passed all the timed checkpoints and could slog our way to the finish. We made our way, enjoying the scenery, stopping to refuel with food and drink whenever the mood struck us. It’s worth noting that after leg 3, the weather had also decided to make some changes. We went from nice conditions to freezing rain. Light at first , but gathering in strength, particularly during the final leg of the day. At first, it was a bit of a blessing, as it seemed to assist our skin skis in finding grip. However, as the kilometers ticked by, it started exerting a new toll on us.
By the time we covered the final few kilometers, our packs, and some of our clothes were covered by a nice layer of solid ice. As in, break a piece off and eat it if you are so inclined (or dehydrated). We were slowly getting soaked to our core. As we came down from the final mega descent into an open area, the wind picked up as well, sending a chill to my core. CSM never makes it easy to finish , and this year would be no exception. However, we mostly laughed it off as we covered the last kilometer and crossed the finish line side by side. The worst part was then waiting outside for a bus to take us to our awaiting luggage and pick up our gold bars. I was worried I’d start shivering.
In the end, everything worked out well. I managed to change into dry clothes, collect my things, then Simon and I grabbed a bus back to Papineauville where he then drove us both home, wrapping up our weekend still together and talking about everything and nothing. Now that I have my permanent bib, I swear that I’m going to take a year off, but I’m worried the old axiom will yet again kick in….. Never again…. until next year!! But maybe next year I’d just ski bronze or silver…. After all, I wouldn’t get my ACTUAL permanent bib until signing up yet again!
So ends yet another CSM story, and I now had to rest up, since the following weekend I was set to line up for another 2 days of solid effort. 51 km classic ski race Saturday, and 51km skate ski race at the 40th Annual Gatineau Loppet! Stay tuned for that story in my next chapter 🙂 !