Slipping and Sliding 50km to the Finish

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Welcome back to another race report. This was a tough one, and one which required me to try a new skill the night before the event! I’m talking of course about the Gatineau Loppet, a 50km cross-country ski race that I just completed over the weekend in the classic category (as opposed to skate skiing). The real challenge in this year’s race was the crazy weather that we had in the days leading up to the event. In spite of the crazy conditions, I had what I would call a successful race, and was very happy to cross the finish line. The best part of the event was that once I completed it, I was able to say I was now 40% of the way to my 2011 Rudy Award. Yup, event number two is in the bag, and the next 3 events will be in MUCH warmer conditions! Obviously, I wasn’t about to tote a camera around with me on the course, but there are a few pictures from before I started, as well as some thumbnails I grabbed from the ZoomPhoto page. To see all the pictures, check out the folder on flickr. After that, click on back and read the rest of the story.

Ahh, the Gatineau Loppet. One of the biggest winter events in Canada, and at a minimum, the largest cross-country ski race in the country. As part of the World Loppet series of ski races, this event draws people from all around the globe to take part in it. Over the course of the weekend, over 3,000 racers will don their skis and take a crack at the skiing in Gatineau Park. There are a full range of events, with distances of 5km, 16km, 29km, and the big one, 50+kms of skiing. On Saturday, all the events are classic style, and on Sunday, all the events are skate skiing style. Naturally, I was signed up to do the 50km classic style race. Earlier, I mentioned 50+km. The reason is that depending on conditions, the course is quite often modified from year to year, and this year was no exception.

For starters, this season sort of had a slow start when it came to snowfall. Although I’d bought an actual ski pass for the park, the conditions a lot of the time just hadn’t been all that great. However, in early February, it finally looked like things might be turning around for us. We got a substantial dump in one storm, and I had hoped we’d see more. Regardless, with that snow, the groomers got to work, and the trails were pretty good. As such, I hit the trickier sections of the Loppet course several times to train, concentrating on the steep, narrow, twisty trails, which are the most fun, and where I could make up ground. But that would only happen if they were part of the race. After all, last year things had been shortened somewhat, and the tricky bits removed.

Well, Deja Vu set in for 2011. The week leading up to the Loppet was an absolute nightmare when it came to snow. We had a string of 3 days of unbelievably warm weather, peaking at 11 degrees Celsius on Friday! Yes, THE DAY BEFORE THE RACE!! Snow was melting at an alarming rate, and no new snow would be there. Grooming would be difficult, and conditions uncertain. Well, wouldn’t you know it though. The forecast over night had the temps going from 11 degrees down to MINUS 12! Can you say flash freeze on the course? It was likely to become very icy when we lined up for the start. Accordingly, the wax recommendations all called for blue klister.

Blue klister?!? I didn’t even know such a thing existed. I thought klister was really only for warm days, with the snow was too wet for hard wax. Well, it turns out klister is also really good for ice. However, the forecast also called for a light dusting of snow, like 1-2 cm overnight. In a nutshell, the absolute worst possible conditions. Hard icy base covered in a little powder. That meant the klister would need to be covered with hard wax. Again, I didn’t even know that was possible, as klister has the approximate consistency of honey! How does one ‘crayon’ hard wax over top honey?

Internet to the rescue. I followed all the advice, and did the following. 2 days in advance, I started by ironing in 2 layers of green base binder to my kick zone. At the same time, I started my glide waxing by hot waxing my glide zones. The night before the race, I applied my blue klister, using a hair dryer and spreader. Weird stuff. I then set the skis outside to sit overnight and hopefully freeze up. In the morning, I pulled them in, and sure enough, the ‘honey’ was set nice, but tacky. Over that I was able to put two light layers of blue hard wax and cork it in lightly. You really don’t want the klister and hard wax to mix. When I was done, I was pretty impressed with my wax job. I didn’t test them, but put full faith in my job, and Deanna and I headed to the start line.

Conditions were crazy. There was a bitter, howling wind blowing in our faces, and the thin layer of lycra covered in nylon made me a little cranky. I just wanted to get going, but they pushed back the start by 30 minutes so we were stuck hanging around waiting. Luckily, we were in a heated building (with the skis outside, as you REALLY don’t want to warm up the klister!). By the time we were finally lining up for the starting gun, I just wanted to get skiing to warm up. Luckily, and happily, I had a new set of bluetooth headphones to try out, and my iPod was streaming heavy tunes into my skull as I twitched in anticipation.

At 9:30am, the elites in Wave A took off. It wasn’t until 9:36 that my group, wave D, departed on the trails. It was a pretty painful start. Slow going, lots of wind, and lots of ice. In the first 10km, I took two mild spills, but already started making up ground and passing people. The engine was running smoothly, and the skis were working flawlessly. I had a stupid grin on my face everytime we hit any type of incline. In spite of the ice, I was able to run up almost effortlessly, barely once slipping in the tracks. I couldn’t ask for better. The only downside was that once again, all the tricky trails had been cut out, and we were left racing almost exclusively on the [boring] parkway trails.

Another consideration of a long race like this is nutrition. To address this, I had decided to carry my camelbak, and had 1.5L of nuun with me, as well as 3 gels, and 2 packs of honey stinger chews. The bad news? My hose froze right at the start, so I basically carried the extra weight the whole time for nothing. Also, I never ate my own food, as I was too focused on racing. Instead, I would grab a drink and snack at each aid station when possible. This is where the clip-on clip-off poles were a god send. I’d grab the food and drink, then keep moving, using only one pole while I fueled up. This worked quite well.

I am pleased to say that I felt good for the entire race. One of my early falls was on my wrist, which made my double-poling pretty difficult, but luckily, my grip was good, and I was able to ski for virtually the entire race without losing traction, even at the end. Throughout the day, the weather changed several times. Sometimes, we’d have gorgeous blue skies and sun beating on us. Then for the next 15 minutes, clouds would roll in, wind would pick up, and we’d even have a bit of snow. Very odd stuff. I’m also happy to say that I was not really passed at all the entire time. I think I counted only 2 or 3 people that ever passed me. On the contrary, I seemed to make up spots the whole time, which gave me a great feeling all day. Rather than fading out, I seemed to stay strong the whole time. There must be something to this more relaxed approach to training eh? Or perhaps my 8 years or base endurance training are finally paying off?

When I finally crossed the finish line, I felt great. I attempted a mini jump at the finish line and even pulled it off! People were laughing and cheering for me, and I had a big grin on my face. Moments later, I was re-united with Deanna, who came back for the finish, and we hung out at the finish for a while, as I chatted up a few other friends that I knew in the race. We all agreed it was a tough day, but for the most part, it seemed everyone stayed pretty warm and enjoyed themselves. That’s always nice to hear. So how did I stack up year over year? Well, my pace was up 0.2km/hr. Last year I was 183rd, this year, 156th. Category-wise, I was 13 of 14 last year, but this year, a respectable 9 of 22. Not bad at all! I’ll definitely take it.

With that race out of the way, I have only one final winter race left, the 4th Mad Trapper snowshoe race. My next Rudy Award events aren’t until the warmer weather sets in, with my next likely event the Ottawa Marathon in May. Guess it’s time to start thinking about summer training. But before that, there’s still time to enjoy winter, which is precisely what I’ll be writing about in my next post. Till that time, stay cool friends 🙂

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