Following the Trail of “Jackrabbit” Johannsen

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Still Smiling after 160km

A warm welcome back to you all. I’m back from another epic odyssey over the past weekend. Although the Canadian Ski Marathon is not a race, strictly speaking, I’m still putting under my ‘race’ cartegory. This is mainly due to the fact that there are strict time cut-offs, which mean many skiers don’t actually complete the entire 160km distance. Ergo, it is a race against the clock in my mind :-). I also wish I got paid to race, because I would have gotten overtime. Over 20 hours outside in the bitter cold, and up at 3am and 4am! Seems like more ‘work’ than my job! At any rate, it was an amazing event, and I hope you’ll all read on for my personal take of the entire event. I covered it for Get Out There Magazine as well (videos appended at end), and took a bunch of pictures. Should give any skiers out there a great idea and reason to try the CSM next year!

Pictures from Race

So just what exactly is the Canadian Ski Marathon? Well, for starters, it is a quintessential Canadian winter activity. The event was envisioned as, and strives to continue to be, one of the toughest point-to-point cross-country ski events of the world for those who want it to be that. Hunh? What does that mean? Well, the event takes place over 2 days, and consists of 10 individual sections adding up to a total of 160km of amazing skiing. However, you can enter in a variety of different categories. Tourers are those who choose to take part in the event but only ski a few sections. You can choose as many sections as you like, and are recognized for the number of the sections you actually complete. For the masochists of the world, you can sign up to tackle the whole event in the Coureur des Bois (CdB) category.

However, in the CdB category, there is more stratification. If it is your first attempt, you automatically go in the ‘Bronze’ category, where your only goal is to complete the entire distance within the time limits. If successful, the second year you are entitled to sign up as a ‘Silver’ participant, with that you must not only complete within the time limits, but must also carry a pack weighing a minimum of 6kg for the whole thing. Now, if you are successful as silver, you can now try to attain ‘Gold’ status on the 3rd year. Once again, you must finish within timelines, and must carry a minimum of 6kg on your back. However, this time you also get the ‘privilege’ of sleeping outdoors on a bale of hay for the Saturday night. In other words, your pack MUST contain all you need to survive from Saturday 4am till about 5pm Sunday including food, sleeping gear, and ski supplies! Me? Well, as I AM a masochist, I was enrolled in the CdB Bronze category. So let’s now go through my weekend fun.

Day 1 Stats

Not to belabour this point, but the entire weekend was forecast to be COLD. By that, I mean temps which likely averaged around -15 most of the weekend with the early mornings obviously being colder than that. Why does that matter? Well, the week before, I spent nearly $80 on waxes suited for warmer snow. Ha ha. Oh well. They’ll be used some other time.

On Friday night, Deanna was kind enough to drive me to my luxurious digs… a gym floor in Papineauville. Yup, that would be my home for the next 2 nights. We checked out the opening party at the Chateau Montebello (and saw how the other half lived), then I returned to the school. Still had to do some waxing and gear preparation before trying to get some sleep before the 3am wake-up call, which came all too soon. Breakfast was devoured by 4am. From there, final ski prep, and piling on buses to the start line at Buckingham.

At that point, I tried shoving hot packs into my ski boots, eat some food, and get my camera gear ready for the start while watching the first 2 waves (Gold at 5:40, Silver at 5:50) get underway. It was obviously still pitch black out, so we started the event with headlamps. I think that was my favourite part of the whole event; skiing in a long row of headlamps in the still of the pre-dawn morning. Very peaceful. We also had some light snow falling, so it was absolutely beautiful. Things were so nice and peaceful that falling into a nice pace was very easy, and before I knew it, we passed by the ‘2km till next CP’ sign of the first section. Everything was working extremely well, and I was absolutely in love with the experience so far.

The first CP was the real introduction to the organization that went into this event. The army of volunteers (which yes, included the army!) took great care to ensure every detail was addressed. At each CP, we got scanned in electronically and physically marked off on the bibs. All CPs had food (usually dry fruit, soup, bananas and cookies) and drinks (warm water, honey water, Gatorade). Some CPs also had waxing stations, where you could drop off skis to be re-waxed for you while you ate / drank, etc. Of course, the key was to get back out as quickly as possible. This served two purposes. The first was to stay on schedule to make the cutoffs, but more importantly this weekend, it was to stay warm! As I type this, I still haven’t gotten full feeling back in two of my fingers!

Back to the trail! With the day now in full swing, it was time to make some serious tracks. I popped in my earbuds and asked Gordon Sumner (aka Sting) to sing me to the finish. Of course, that was still about 65km away, so it would take a while. My pace felt good, and without doing too much math, I was pretty sure I’d have no troubles with the cut-offs. I passed my time really taking in the world around me. Even though there were 1500 participants in CSM, and you are never really alone, you still have a lot of time to reflect. It was so invigorating to just let my mind wander, appreciating everything life has to offer, including the ability to do something like the CSM. The ski trails were amazingly good considering these are not official ski trails.

In fact, each year, CSM starts anew, with local farmers and landowners granting permission to have the snow groomers, and eventually the skiers, pass through their fields and hills. We are fortunate to have their co-operation. Even more so considering this has been happening for 46 years! The longest section of Day 1 was over 21km, and it was a tiring one. This was rated ‘intermediate’, and at the end of it, I was still well on schedule. I had to reach the 4th CP by 3:15pm, and found myself there around 2pm. Awesome. I lingered a bit longer there, allowing the pros from Swix to do a nice, 3-layer wax job with a sticky klister base under a glorious sun.

I skied the final 13 km with a smile on my face, knowing I had all but clinched day 1. There were some pretty awesome hills to climb through the day, but also a lot of fun, fast, and yes, sketchy, descents to make. It made the whole day interesting. Also, it was always impressive skiing with the CdB gold folks, navigating all the challenges with sometimes ridiculously large-looking backpacks! They definitely are the champs of the weekend! The finish line was at Chateau Montebello for the day, and about 15 minutes after finishing, the exhaustion hit me, and I just wanted to get back to the dorm and sleep.

Day 2 Stats

Unfortunately, sleep couldn’t come too quickly. There were a number of things to get done on Saturday before bedding down. First there was the matter of a quick, and sometimes scalding shower, followed by tucking into a big pasta meal at the cafeteria. Clothes had to be spread out to dry, new clothes picked out for the next day. Food stores in my pack replenished, batteries for all devices charged up (I had 2 cameras on the trail and my GPS and iPod, all of which needed charging). Turns out -20 is not a forgiving temperature for batteries and electronic devices! After all that, I HAD to turn my attention to my skis, which basically had to be completely re-stripped of all waxes and built back up, but the glide waxing and the grip waxing. This took about an hour of effort, in a room packed full of others doing the same. The stench of chemicals and waxes dancing in everyone’s nostrils as they worked feverishly to get the ‘perfect’ wax job, which would eventually get destroyed in the opening 20km or so of the next day! However, once done, I thankfully got to crawl into my sleeping bag after swapping a few stories with fellow participants.

Thankfully, the bus for day 2 was a mercifully short ride, so we got to ‘sleep in’ until 4am. Ha ha ha. Getting up was made even more difficult as several of my ‘neighbours’ had opted to not get up, thereby forfeiting their CdB bronze attempts. Seeing them sleeping soundly made it hard to pour myself out of my bag and pull on ski clothes again. However I had a mission, and would not fail. Not completing this adventure was NOT an option in my mind (are you surprised?!). Breakfast was a nice french toast with ham affair for me, and before I knew it, I had packed up all my stuff (which was being transported to the finish) and was sitting on the bus again.

Sunday was even colder than Saturday, but I felt even better prepared for it (and added an extra layer on my head). I didn’t have to fuss with anything at the start, and instead crowded around one of the 6 propane heaters to await the start of our wave. No snow this morning, just a still, cold air around all of our anticipation. On the menu today was another 80km of skiing. However, whereas on day 1 they were all ranked ‘easy’ and ‘intermediate’, today’s sections were all ‘intermediate’ and ‘hard’, including the infamous ‘Rouge Valley’ section with all of it’s many, many hills. This would be tackled on the 3rd section, so it was literally the ‘hump’ of the day, and the only real challenge to getting that little bronze pin I was coveting.

On the audio menu today? Well, I opted to listen to my catalogue of Depeche Mode tracks, including lots of hard-thumping remixes. This was definitely more appropriate to the physical challenges that lay ahead of me. The start felt a little slower than the first day, but that was to be expected, especially since we were heading uphill right away. First stop of the day was actually ‘Gold Camp’, where the CdB folks had spent the night. They had left about 25 minutes earlier, and all that was left were massive fires of the loose hay burning. It was a very cool sight. With the inspiration of that vision, I picked my pace back up and started picking my way through many of the skiers, eventually catching up to many of the Silver CdB, and Gold CdB skiers.

Throughout the day, I knew I was moving slower than I had the previous day, but that was not unexpected. I dug into my reserves and my endurance racing base to just steel myself and keep the pace moving. In the hills of dreaded section 3, I met a friend of mine and slowed to chat with him a while, before making the decision to keep my own pace and press on during the climbs. I’d been told that it is very hard to actually ski with anyone, as everyone has their own ups and downs. It can be the difference between finishing or being cut off to not go your own pace. Smile planted firmly on my face, I kept on skiing, knocking off the checkpoints. At the 3rd CP, it was only 1:05pm, giving me 2hrs 10mins till cutoff to cover about 14km. Awesome! Seemed like it would be easy.

I hadn’t accounted for the fact that my pace had slowed way down. Now, to be clear, I was in no great danger of failing, but I was still surprised when I got to CP4 at 2:45pm, a mere 30 minutes before the cutoff. As a result, I bypassed the volunteer waxers and just did my own waxing. I headed back out at about 3:05pm, now safe in the knowledge I had basically done it! Only 13k to go. Yeeee-haaaaawwww!

The final 7-8km seemed to take forever. Even though the track was good, and weather was good (and had even warmed up a bit), it was a real slog to keep pushing. I’m pretty sure my body did NOT want to ski much more. I was definitely on autopilot now. Finally arriving at the finish area, I pulled out my little camera to film the arrival at the finish. A smallish crowd of 20 or so felt like hundreds to me. Having anyone there cheering was a huge boost to get across the line. I kept the skis on for a few minutes longer to pose for a few finish line shots, but for all intents and purposes, it was DONE! I had done it! 160km, and a nice little bronze pin to show for it!

The closing banquet was a collection of skiers in various states of exhaustion, a hearty meal of lasagna, chicken, and other goodies, while the emcee tried to utter a lot of words while the masses generally ignored him. However, he recognized that the night was more for the skiers and sharing of their stories with each other, and was gracious about the fact that he was being ignored! I did a fair bit of story swapping myself, learning more about things like the rogue horse who was running loose on the trail, and about broken skies repaired at CPs, etc. A nice finish to the whole event. At 8pm, I got on one last bus which took me back to Gatineau and the end of the entire event.

Looking back now, I had a bit of a revelation about this event. Usually, in a long event, you have periods where you really ask yourself why you are doing it. More specifically, in almost every adventure race (particularly 24hr+ events) you hit a point where you hate it, and don’t know why you’re there. However, I can honestly say I never hit that point once during CSM. More often than not, I’d actually be smiling, and just marveling at what I was doing, and how great it felt. NO, it wasn’t easy. Not by a long shot. But I WANTED to do this. And I succeeded. And boy, did that feel great! I would highly encourage you to try the CSM, or parts of it, next year, if you are at all into skiing. It was a well-run, and very beautiful event! But, no time to rest for me, I’m 2 days away from my first Loppet using Skate Skis! Off to rest (oh, and celebrate Deanna’s birthday!!!)

Day 1 Video Review

Day 2 Video Review

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