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. Continue reading The Seven Year Itch – Getting a Permanent CSM Bib!
Hello my loyal and dear readers! I’m sure that by now, many of you have been wondering what has happened to the ‘real’ ActiveSteve. You know, that nut that seems to race every other weekend and posts all about his exploits on this site. Well, the reality is that I’ve pretty much had my head down and not doing too much training all weekend. As you may recall from my most recent race, I have been fighting a pretty bad foot problem, which is more or less just a bursitis and plantar fasciitis. Ultimately, the only thing that can make it better is totally resting and re-habbing the foot. This can take months, so I decided to not run at all this winter. I also made the decision to not sign up for ANY races. However, the Canadian Ski Marathon is not a race, right? So as you will guess, I made an exception! Read on for the story about this year’s epic attempt at this storied event.
Right off the bat, I should mention as well that the reason I decided to return to the CSM this year was principally because they were celebrating their 50th Anniversary! That’s right, this classic Canadian event was actually a Canadian Centennial project, with its first running in 1967. A lot has changed since then, but the difficulty of completing the entire event as a Gold Coureur des Bois has not. In spite of not running at all this winter, and the late start to the ski season, I DID put a LOT of distance under my skis. Apart from skiing, my only other outlet was spinning on my bike in the basement, which gets very old very fast I find. Once fully trained up, I also paid a visit to a sports medicine doctor (after Ultrasounds and MRIs confirmed the exact troubles with my foot), and was the recipient of an ultrasound-guided corticosteroid shot right into my heel to the main site of my bursitis, to relieve the inflammation and give me a fighting chance of getting back to training. Thank goodness, as I was going to need to dig deep for this year’s Gold Bar!
Day 1 – Buckingham to Montebello
Below you’ll see a map of the Day 1 route (which you can click on to see in fullscreen on my flickr page. This year, the route went from west to east, starting at Buckingham, QC, and ending at Lachute, QC. Our first day clocked in at about 78km of total distance to get to the Gold Camp. Although there are no ‘official’ stats on everyone, I can assure you that MANY people did not ski that entire distance. In fact, this is the only time I can remember where people who skied only 2 sections in one day, but skied the entire 2nd day were granted their awards and recognized as having ‘completed’ the CSM! From where I sat (having completed the ENTIRE distance) it was hard to feel that they ‘deserved’ that distinction, but as you’ll hear the reasons, I’ll let you make up your own respective minds about that!
Let us not forget just how challenging a year this was for snow in our region. We didn’t get proper snow to ski on until well into the Christmas holidays, with many not really getting in any real skiing until into the new year. That gave participants only 5-6 weeks to prepare for a grueling 160+km 2-day ski event. I’m sure many people opted to either not ski or to shorten their goals to become ‘tourers’, but for me, there is no such thing as half-measures or cutting back. This was my SOLE winter event, and I intended to push through the entire ordeal.
2 weeks out from the event, and there was barely enough snow to ski, so there was a lot of trepidation by the event crew leading up to event, reminding us all that this was an ‘adventure’ event. However, prayers were answered, and midway through the final week before the event, we got a monster dump of snow. I think it was like 55cm. All systems were go, and there was a lot of relief.
To help prepare for the event, I’d done a lot of training using my actual event pack, doing experiments on exactly how light I could get it while still having all the gear I’d need. I managed to cut things down to the bare minimum, with about 16 lbs. of gear for the big event. I had to cut out some luxuries, but I DID pack tasty snacks and a pint bottle of Southern Comfort for Gold Camp (where I had to sleep outside on a hay bale). I figured even if I was exhausted and miserable, the booze would warm me up and help me get a little sleep!
Yup there I am, fully decked out with my ski gear and slogging my way through what I believe was the 5 leg of day 1. Hard to tell from that picture, but I was SOAKED, as it had rained for much of the day. The night before we started off, the snow swooped in once again, and ironically, made a mess of things. The organizers tried their best by sending grooming machines our not too long before we set out, in attempt to trackset the course once again (all tracks were GONE thanks to more heavy snow). However, that would backfire, as you’ll learn.
So at 5:40am, in the pitch dark, with giant snowflakes falling down and covering everything, we took off. Temperatures were relatively mild, and the forecast called for what we like to call ‘challenging’ waxing conditions. The weather would warm up, and with it, bring LOTS of rain for the rest of the day. So, we were faced with heavy, wet snow, turning into slush as the snow turned to rain. On the plus side, it meant perhaps staying a bit warmer, but then again, if I got too wet, things would also deteriorate. My solution was to opt for hear to toe rain gear, and stick with that all day.
I set out at a good pace and was hanging out at the front of the entire Gold group, which I think was a good strategy. When I got to the 1st checkpoint, I was with people I had no business skiing with, including Pierre Lavoie. On the upshot, since there were no tourers or the CSM silver and bronze Coureur des Bois, progress was swift. I barely stopped to re-fuel, and decided to press on. With the rain now starting, I wanted to keep moving.
The next section was also quick, and I was starting to be REALLY surprised that I wasn’t getting passed by more skiers. Normally, by now, the speedy skiers from the silver and bronze group would have overtaken me, but they were nowhere to be seen. Another ‘litmus test’ was the fact that I still hadn’t seen Dave and Lise (my ski coaches), and in fact, they wouldn’t pass me until near the end of the 4th (of 5) sections. Very weird. As it turns out, behind us, things were getting bad. Due to the conditions, there had been some MAJOR bottlenecks in the trail, with only 1 or 2 sets of tracks availble for people to use. That lead to people waiting literally 45 minutes as they slowly shuffled along (kind of like a highway traffic jam, where when you pass it, there is seemingly no reason that you even were slowed down!).
About 5k into the section, I was about to careen down a crazy downhill, but I kept hearing what sounded like a car alarm, which I thought was very odd for the middle of the woods. Luckily, on the downhill, I wiped out before going around a blind corner. Why lucky? Well, as I turned the bend there was a MONSTROUS BROKEN-DOWN GROOMER!
So remember how I said the groomers had gone out not far ahead of skiers? Well, I’d caught up to him now, and he was going nowhere (in fact one of the entire machine treads was being removed). I removed skis and carefully walked around this beast squealing in pain, and soon realized that beyond him were NO TRACKS! Yup, I was now forced to slog through very deep, fresh snow with no real tracks. Luckily, 1 snowmobile had been able to backtrack to the groomer, so there was a slightly packed single track, but I was also now facing tourers on the trail. These are the people that choose to only do only a few sections each day, getting bussed around. Typically, they are families, and not very fast. Passing these ‘tourists’ was quite tricky with the deep snow, but was a necessity if I had any hope of making the time cutoffs.
In my mind, I was the lucky one, because at least I was on my way, and past the disaster. Little did I know that what they’d actually done was close down the section shortly after I’d started it. This lead to more bottlenecks, and people waiting over an hour in the pouring rain to get bused forward. That is why ultimately, the event organizers made the tough decision to declare you a ‘finisher’ even if you’d missed sections 3-4-5 on day 1. After waiting for over an hour in pouring rain, many skiers were de-motivated, and freezing cold, and not wanting to go on. Some real tough skiers did however only take the bus to the next checkpoint and continue. In my mind, THEY would deserve the finish, but I have a hard time sympathizing with those that skipped 60% of day 1. However, mother nature would pretty much take care of that on day 2 as well! But we’ll get to that in a moment.
After pushing hard through 10km of terrible non-track, I finally made it back onto something that was groomed. Luckily, they had more than 1 groomer, and the rest of the day was at least tracked. I stopped long enough at the next checkpoint to eat a bunch of food and re-assess waxing. By now, we’d stopped using wax, and I’d moved onto what is known as ‘quick klister’. Let’s just say it is the stuff of legends as far as making EVERYTHING you own sticky, but at least it worked in the wet, slushy snow today. The next 2 stages, while long and tiring, were pretty uneventful, and I was VERY happy to make it to gold camp.
Once there, it hit me just how much carnage was strewn out behind me. There were not a lot of people in camp yet, and it would be a long time before all the firepits would have campers. However, thankfully, I hooked up with a group of friends from NY who are adventure racers, and we had a ball. Also, the rain had let up while we hung out, there was live music, AND free beer at camp! Definitely a mood booster. As usual, once it was dark, and I’d eaten 2.5 meals, and re-hydrated, it was time to turn in. Yes, it was only about 8:30pm, but it was another long night and day ahead. No sooner did I crawl into my Mylar bivy sack and sleeping back did I hear the pitter-patter of rain. It rained pretty much all night! How do I know? Well, because I was basically awake the whole time, and trying to keep the water out (unsuccessfully). I slept in wet clothes in a wet sleeping back on wet hay. Hooray! Let’s just skip to the next day, shall we?
Day 2 – Montebello to Lachute
Okay. Day 2. Couldn’t be worse than what we’d gone through the last day and night, right? Well, don’t be too quick to say that…. I’ll start with the good news about day 2. It was NOT raining! And all forecasts showed that trend would stay true all day. So what were they calling for? Unseasonably warm temps! Uh-oh. Waxing might be a challenge, since it was cold starting out, and would warm up, BUT was also quite wet in the snow. I started trying to stay with my quick klister, in hopes the magic formula from the last day would work. As the map below shows you, today we had 86km before us. Ouch.
After doing my best to have a decent breakfast (ok, let’s face it, I poured boiling water into a pouch with granola, choked that down, and ate a granola bar….), it was time to line up and head out. Once again, Gold Camp broke early, and we were on the trail by 5:40am, well ahead of the other skiers (silver and bronze) who not only would start later than us, but were also starting a couple km away. This would give us the luxury of getting ahead an avoid any clogging.
However, clogging of skiers would NOT be our problem. What WOULD be an issue was a little thing called snow conditions. It was becoming evident that the klister was causing a fair bit of snow to build up under the skis. In theory, this was GREAT for climbing up the steep climbs, but on the top, where you’d like to swish away, you were stuck. Imagine walking through wet clay with your boots. Ever have that? You know, when it sticks to your boots and makes you feel like you have cement shoes? Yup! That’s how it felt. I felt I was dragging concrete blocks under my skies.
On top of the first two major climbs, lots of skiers were already scraping off their klister or other waxes and trying something else. I opted to just use a stick to scrape off the snow and press on, confident that the advantage on the uphills was worth the struggle. However, by the 4th or 5th big climb, I caved in and joined a line of about 20 skiers on the side of the trail all plying their craft and knowledge of wax to try their luck. For my part, I foolishly scraped ALL my klister off and applied hard wax (but warm-rated). I took off happy to be gliding effortlessly. However, as soon as the trail left level, I realized I’d made a horrible mistake. The skis behaved as though there was no wax at all. I just slipped uselessly, forced to attempt a hybrid classic / skate technique to make any progress. And it was SLOW progress.
I did remember to do one other thing that helped me keep going. I looked around. I took in the scenery. I appreciated the opportunity I was seizing. I was LIVING! A bad day in the woods on skis beats a great day in a cubicle yearning to be outdoors.
I gritted my teeth, and pressed on hard, as the temperatures continued to climb. I did remember to do one other thing that helped me keep going. I looked around. I took in the scenery. I appreciated the opportunity I was seizing. I was LIVING! A bad day in the woods on skis beats a great day in a cubicle yearning to be outdoors. My high school had a great motto in latin: Palma non sine Pulvere, translated loosely to No Success without Struggle (or Victory not without Struggle). I’ve always remembered it, and it is one of my base mantras.
As I finished Stage 4, and was preparing for the penultimate stage, I ran into Lise Meloche. Not only is Lise one my unofficial ‘coaches’, but is also an Olympian and the first Canadian to win a world cup gold medal in biathlon. She is also eternally cheerful and an amazing supporter of all around her. Usually, she’d be demolishing the course with Dave, but he’d had a run of bad luck, and ultimately abandoned in the previous stage. As such, Lise saw me, and basically said “you ready”, and that was it, we left together to ski the last section together.
Something very magical happened in that last section. Yes, I was exhausted. Yes, I was mildly frustrated with the ordeal of the last 2 days. I had kept going on almost no sleep in 2 days. I wanted to be done, but usually, that leads to a very marked slow in my pace. However, with Lise skiing with me, and providing welcome company at just the right time, something great happened. I felt lighter, faster, and happier. We joked and skied, me expecting her to peel away at any time, but she stayed with me. Turns out I was going quick enough to keep her happy. Looking at my average pace on the first 4 stages, I was skiing at 8.2, 7.3, 7.0, and 8.9 km/h. This stage? 11.1 km/h!
Yeah, nuts! Of course, it was the easiest stage of the day, but still, it was great to wrap up the last stage so quickly. As you can see by the above picture, I finished in full sunlight at the gold course in Lachute. The shadow beside me? Yup, that’s Lise. She dropped back just a couple meters just to let me have my moment at the finish. It was a remarkable finish to an incredibly tough weekend. I crossed the line, removed my skis, and headed inside to collect my hard-earned Gold Bar. In there, I learned about the ‘modified’ finishing rules, and the fact that even with those changes, there was still a LOT of people who didn’t complete their journeys this year. Yes, I was proud of my accomplishment, but also recognized that I could just as easily have given up and been part of the group of non-finishers. As always, it just serves to show you that if you want something, work for it, and don’t give up. You’ll get to that finish line.
As usual, I have vowed to never again put myself through that again…. until next year! After all, I’m only 2 gold bars away from getting a coveted Permenant Bib! Hope you enjoyed my all-too-long post that I wrote while recovering from a 3.5 hour run. Yup, I’m on the mend, and have big plans for 2016! As always, check back here to hear all about them! Till then, Get out there! Have fun!
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!
Now, normally, people chase gold when they head into the hills. But if you’re me, and the event in question is the Canadian Ski Marathon, you chase silver! At least this year. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry, it will all become pretty clear, and it’s pretty simple really. This blog post will be all about my quest to complete the CSM for the second year in a row. CSM has a progression if you are trying to complete the whole event as what is known as a Coureur des Bois. The first time, you need to just finish, that gives you bronze. The 2nd time, you must ski the entire length AND carry a packing weighing a minimum of 5kg, giving you silver. The 3rd time, you must ski the entire length, carry a pack AND sleep outside overnight on a hay bale. Doing so gets you a gold pin. As this was my second year, I was trying for silver. Deanna was also with me, and going for bronze. I was there to ski, as well as document the trip for Get Out There and produce some videos, which I’ve embedded further below. You can also check out some pictures we took before reading the whole story.
The CSM is a quintessential Canadian winter event. It is known around the world, and is considered by many as one of the longest, toughest, cross-country ski challenges. And it’s right in our backyard. So of course it was natural that I’d eventually find my way to taking part. Last year was my first effort, and admittedly I only signed up a few weeks before the event and with relatively little training. The event is purely classic style skiing, and last year I had focused on skate skiing. This year, I vowed to be a bit better prepared (even though I was successful last year, it was pretty tough, and I cut it close to the wire!). My desire to be better prepared was bolstered by the fact that Deanna has also been bitten by the cross-country skiing bug, and was keen to take a crack at bronze this year.
As we were both committed to training and succeeding in this event, we took a few steps to help that. For Deanna, that first meant buying her first pair of good cross-country skis that would require waxing. Along with that for her came learning about choosing the right waxes and applying it, which she’s getting pretty good at. Our second step involved signing up for lessons with Dave and Lise of Natural Fitness Labs. There are worse things than being coached by ex-world cup and Olympic-caliber skiers! The purpose of this was to help both of us get better technique which in theory would help us finish the event with less effort than if we just spent the whole time flailing through the snow.
Leading up to the event, our training went pretty well, and we logged quite a few kilometers of excellent skiing in the beautiful Gatineau Parc. Understandably, Deanna was a bit nervous, but that is to be expected when tackling something tough like this for the first time. Things got a little tricky closer to the start date, as Deanna developed a problem with some leg muscles, and then to top it off, got really sick in the 2 weeks prior to CSM. And we’re not talking a little cold that some would use as an excuse for a day off work, we’re talking a quarantine-yourself-in-another-room kinda sick (after all, I had a few other races to do in that timeframe, and didn’t want to get what she had!). So unfortunately for her, the cards definitely seemed stacked against her.
However, I will say this about Deanna, she has great willpower, and perhaps a touch of stubbornness when it comes to these things. Although physically she had been in rough shape, mentally, she was very much looking forward to this adventure. And it truly is an adventure. Sure enough, in the final couple days, we sorted and packed gear, and chatted about our strategy on the trails. As a silver CdB, I was allowed to start each day 10 minutes before Deanna, but I had told her I really wanted to make the journey with her, so I would forego the head start. After all, 10 minutes really wouldn’t make a big difference in my chances of finishing. We did agree in advance that if the pacing looked like we might not make it, I would get her blessing to leave her behind so as not to lose my chance at getting the silver pin.
Selected Pictures from the Event
For those who are not familiar with CSM, here it is in a nutshell: 160km of classic style cross-country skiing over 10 sections that lasts 2 days, with 5 sections each day. You start the skiing at 6am and must make it to the last section (at around the 65km mark each day) before the time cutoff of 3:15pm in order to be allowed to continue. The trail crosses a lot of private land, and runs from Lachute, QC, to Buckingham, QC via Montebello, QC. Each year, roughly the same route is used, but it reverses direction. This year, we would ski from Lachute to Montebello on day 1, then from Montebello to Buckingham on day 2. Many people like this route, as the harder day is the 1st one, and it includes some pretty awesome downhills (including the famed ‘toboggan run’).
After work on Friday, we loaded up the car (in a snowstorm!), grabbed Subway for supper, then headed out to Papineauville, which is where we’d be spending the next 2 nights. The school there serves as the ‘dormitories’ for those who wish to spend the whole weekend immersed in the event. While there, they feed you, and you get bussed to the start line each morning. Of course, it means sleeping on a hard gym floor, but it’s a better deal than paying for a hotel. We got as organized as we could Friday night, and tried to get to sleep by 10pm.
Day 1 – Lachute to Montebello
3am is early. REALLY early. Unfortunately, that’s basically the time you have to start thinking about getting up on the first day of CSM. You have to be dressed, packed, have eaten breakfast, and ready to hop on a bus by 4:30am with all your gear! If that sounds crappy, well, it kinda is. But you suck it up and do it, because that’s what everyone else around you is doing in the dorm. Luckily, the temperature wasn’t too bad on Saturday, and with a touch of nerves, we soon found ourselves in the start corral in Lachute, watching the other waves head off in a flash of headlamps before it was our turn.
In the bronze wave, there seemed to be a lot of people. There is also a wide range of skill levels and speeds to contend with. As such, putting ourselves pretty much at the back wasn’t the best plan. We were held back quite a bit for probably the first 40 minutes or so, including several early climbs. However, we found a rhythm, and tried to stick with it. The first hour passed, and although our pace had been a little slow, it was forgivable due to the darkness, the crowds, and the climbs. By the time we finished the first section, we were about 15 minutes behind our pace goal, but by skipping through the checkpoint quickly and not stopping too long for food and drink we left only a few minutes behind my next goal, and we still had high hopes now that the sun was up.
At the end of each section, you are scanned in, and have the option to eat and drink, as well as re-wax your skis (you inevitably need to do this as the day wears on due to changing conditions and wearing off your wax). You are then scanned again before starting the next section before you head off. Sadly, it wasn’t too long into the 2nd section when I started clock watching a little closer, and started worrying about our ability to finish. I tried to not worry too much, and kept encouraging Deanna as we went so that we could hold our pace. However, somewhere around the 20km mark, on another of the seemingly endless climbs, we stopped at the top to confer. Deanna admitted that this was turning out to be even harder than she thought, and as a result of her cold and muscle issues, she encouraged me to go ahead. She wasn’t stopping, but didn’t want me to miss my chance to get silver.
I had mixed feelings about it, but I knew that it was true that if we stuck together, we would miss the cutoff at the end of section 4. The longer I put off moving on, the harder it would become for me to make up anylost time. I had timed things out so that we would arrive at the last section exactly at the cutoff, so any time lagging at this point was putting that at risk. With a kiss goodbye and final encouragements, we set off again each at our own pace now. I gradually pulled away and after a few more climbs, we were out of sight of each other.
Once on my own, I fell into my own pace and rhythm, making solid progress and picking my way through skiers ahead of me. It’s funny that although you might ski with someone for a little bit, most people have their own pace, and inevitably one person pulls away from the other, which means you really only ever see very small groupings of people, not big crowds. There no such thing as a big group in my experience. It is really more of an individual journey. The other place things change are the hills. People have different strengths and weaknesses not only when it comes to climbing, but also on coming down the hills. I’ve gotten quite a bit more confident, to the point that I’m comfortable descending every gnarly hill in the event, sometimes sneaking my way around other skiers on the inside corners, and whizzing past those who choose to walk down some of the steeper descents. This only got me in trouble twice on the first day, and mainly due to me choosing to fall rather than plow into someone who was losing their own control. It’s nothing to feel bad about, as most skiers fall at least a couple times in the 160km trip!
When the snow finally settled at the end of section 4, I realized I was 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff, so I could definitely let up the pressure a bit and enjoy the last section to its fullest. Easier said than done though, because regardless of how you think you’ll feel, after 65km of skiing, it starts to be a slog! It also didn’t help that the estimates of distance were off a little on the last section, because when I finally skied into Montebello, I had a reading of 85km total for day 1!! I was cooked. Deanna wasn’t at the finish, so I could only assume she was either back at the dorms, or still stuck out there somewhere. Turns out she was at the end of section 4, with others who had missed the cutoff, waiting for a bus. It would be some time before I saw her.
Trail-Only Video From Day 1
Regardless of how tired I was, upon arrival at the dorms, I had to get to work getting organized for day 2, just so I could try and get to sleep early. I had to change, shower, eat, charge all my various devices (headlamp, GPSs, cameras, etc), and completely re-do my skis with fresh grip and glide wax. When Deanna finally got back, I was in the wax room hard at work, and offered to prep her skis as well, so that she could grab a shower. She was keen to ski at least a few sections the next day, even though she wouldn’t get bronze. I was proud of her attitude, and really happy to see she was still happy, and had been very realistic about the way things unfolded. Once all was done, and we’d eaten, it was still well after 9pm before crawling into a sleeping bag, and waiting for my 3:30am wakeup call. Lucky for me, Deanna, would skip the 1st couple sections, which meant she could take our car and all the gear to the finish line, then get bussed to the event the next morning. This would make things easier at the end of the event.
Day 2 – Montebello to Buckingham
Morning 2 broke far too early, and far too cold. Although mild temperatures had been forecast, they were a lie. It was around -25 as we headed off, and the snow was very slow as well. There were a lot of silently miserable skiers making the best of it. Day 2 is always tough to start, as your body really resents being forced to do the same thing to it you did on day 1! Due to the cold, my cameras didn’t feel like co-operating, and neither did my hands or feet! It was supposed to get much warmer later, but even with the sun rising about an hour later, it still felt really cold. I think it was a full 2 hours before I finally felt like I was hitting my stride and getting comfortable out there.
I had taken advantage of the earlier start for silver on day 2, more to get going than anything else, and was glad I had. There were far less people to deal with at the start, and we were all of a similar skill level to boot, which made it nice to chat with people around me, and to share war stories of CSM from other years, and how we’d done on day 1. I also had the chance to chat with Dave and Lise, who were skiing the course that day. Of course they were zipping by pretty quick, but at least took a few minutes to chat with me before heading off in a blur of red and white.
There were much fewer tough descents on the second day, but there still seemed to be a fair bit of climbing to do. Lucky for me I don’t actually mind the climbs too much. As far as the trail was concerned, we were once again treated to some excellent grooming. No complaints there. And with the sun out, it was admittedly incredibly gorgeous. The aid stations were also consistently well set up with hot soup, warm water, warm honey water, warm gatorade, and various snacks to enjoy. At one aid station, I also had to do a mandatory bag weigh-in. I was relieved, as I would have been annoyed if I’d been lugging 13lbs over 160kms and not even been checked! I passed the test, and headed out once again.
I once again reached the final checkpoint with about 40 minutes to spare from the cutoff, so there was much jubilation amongst all the skiers in the final rest area, because they all knew they’d either be getting their gold, silver, or bronze pins, barring any major catastrophe. Also, the last section on this day was thankfully short, and really just a formality. 13km to go! With big grins and digging deep for the energy, I made it to the finish line to find Deanna waiting for me with kisses. What a nice way to finish. In the end, due to a couple snafus with shuttle buses (and navigation issues on here own part ), Deanna only got to ski the final 2 sections of the day, and was feeling pretty good. I was still happy to know that she’d at least gotten out to enjoy some of this day’s course.
Trail-Only Video From Day 2
From the finish, it was now time to head to the banquet location, shower, change, and enjoy the closing ceremonies. It’s always a little sad to see how few of the coureur des bois stay for the whole banquet, but there are a couple good reasons. First, most are too exhausted. Second, they actually charge an extra $35 for the meal and banquet, which to some is probably unnecessary. It’s too bad though, as I find all the speeches and meeting some of the veterans to be a very inspiring part of CSM. Witness the 12 year old boy who got his CdB bronze, and the nearly 80-year old ex-Olympian who almost got all 10 sections as a tourer (meaning he only started at 8:30 each day AND had to meet a 2:30pm cutoff instead of 3:15!). Deanna and I stayed for the whole thing in spite of my near-exhaustion and inability to walk much with swollen Achilles tendons, but were happy to finally hit the road to get home.
There is NOTHING like flopping into your own bed after a weekend of skiing 160km, sleeping on a hard gym floor in a sleeping bag, freezing your butt off for hours on end AND getting up around 3am for two mornings! However, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. If you’d ask me on Sunday night if I’d go for CdB gold next year, I would have been questioning the sanity of doing so myself. However, after recovering from it, and reviewing the footage and my memories, I think it’s safe to say that I’ll likely be hefting a big backpack and sleeping on the hay bales next year!! It was another great experience, but now I had only 1 week to recover until the next race, the 55k Gatineau Loppet! Stay tuned for that race report next.
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