Hot off the heels of securing my permanent bib at the Canadian Ski Marathon, I found myself once again boarding a bus, skis in hand, ready to tackle another great adventure. Less than 6 days after finishing the 167km journey of CSM, I was set to race two days back-to-back at the 40th Annual Gatineau Loppet! Day 1 would be the 51km linear Classic race, followed by repeating the exact same 51km course the next day, but this time on skate skis. Beyond the challenge of just mentally preparing for such a feat less than a week after CSM, this time, I had to put myself in ‘race’ mode. As CSM was not a race, but an event, the mental game at the Gatineau Loppet was different. The reward however, is that by completing both weekends, I would once again be successful in getting my name on the wall of the ‘Triple Ski Challenge‘, a relatively small group of folks who tackle the full marathon, plus the two back-to-back long loppet challenges. Continue reading Doubling Down at the Gatineau Loppet
Howdy folks! While the sun may be shining, and thoughts are definitely fully turned to summer training and adventures, now is as good a time as any to put fingers to keyboard to muse a little about another weekend of Winter racing I partook in during the depths of our winter in February. I’m talking about the venerable Gatineau Loppet, part of the World Loppet Series of cross-country ski events that takes place right in my backyard. Pit your skills against crusty Norwegians who have been at it since you were knee-high to a grasshopper. Or something like that. The race does have an International flavour and attracts a broad swath of avid cross-country skiers. Much the same as a big event like the Ottawa Marathon does for the running community. I always love the vibe at this event, and like to participate every year. As I have done in the past, I opted to race 2 days back to back this year, starting with the linear 51km Classic Ski event on Saturday, and ending with the fast and furious 27km Skate Ski event on Sunday. So which was good and which was bad? Read on to find out!
Astute ActiveSteve followers will note that precisely one week prior to this event, I willed myself to ski 160km in questionable ski conditions, and slept overnight on a peasantly hay bale with only the clear skies overhead to shelter me. In other words, my body was likely somewhat cooked to begin with, right? I think I only got out for 1 ski during the entire week between the events, and definitely spent more time worrying about waxing and ski conditions for the weekend. I tell you, this stuff can really do a number on your head. It’s an art to get the skis just right, and makes a heck of a difference.
Leading into the weekend, the conditions on both days looked as if they’d be rather trying. Specifically, at the time we were to start the events, it would be relatively cool, with temperatures below zero. However, on both days, ma nature really wanted crank the heat fast, with temperatures rising FAST in the morning. I’m talking +8 degrees Celsius kind of heat. And intense sun. What does that lead to? How about nice ski tracks magically turning into mushy slush faster than you can say ‘klister’! The general online concensus was ‘ski fast’ in order to get the best conditions early in the day, and wrap the event up before things really went to shit. I picked up some new wax the day before the Classic event in hopes that it would do the trick.
I lovingly prepared my skis, with numerous coats of hot wax ironed, scraped and brushed out. These are my ‘race’ skis, so they were completely different from the skis I used in the CSM the week before. My theory was that I should be able to fly, since I had light, fast skis, and no giant, weighty pack on my back to contend with. Deanna and I were both doing the same events, so we both got a decent nights sleep before heading off to the buses for the start in the morning. Caught up with a bunch of other friends that were skiing before finding my way to my start wave, watching the elites take off at an astounding clip while I was doing laps on the warm-up track near the start.
Now it was time for me to go. For whatever reason, I’d been placed in the second to last wave. I knew that I was capable of skiing much faster than most of my fellow wave skiers, but didn’t really care that much. I made sure I was at the front of this wave, which would mean very little start line issues, and only had to navigate my way through thicker crowds as we closed the 2 minute gap on the wave before (it didn’t take long!). I felt decent at the start, but my skis just didn’t seem to have the kick that I wanted. I was having a devil of a time getting into the groove, and felt my skis slipping just the slightest bit with every stride. This did not bode well for my overall time.
Lucky for me, I was also filming this event, so I could take a bit of extra time to try and get footage while I was skiing, and use that as an ‘excuse’ for poorer performance than I would have liked. To be clear, it isn’t like I was the slowest skier ever, and my overall finish time was certainly respectable, at 4h11 minutes (I had been aiming for sub 4 hours), and about mid-pack. However, I KNOW I’m capable of better, and that was definitely playing head games with me while I was slogging through. It became exceptionally trying when the sun really started slushing up the tracks. Lucky for me, that didn’t happen until the final 1/4 of the event, where things were mostly downhill. It was very bizarre in certain areas. I’d be flying down a hill in the shade, in full tuck, but if I crossed into a sunny patch, the skis basically got stuck right there, and I had to PUSH downhill. I could only laugh about it, as everyone was in the boat as I was. Wax was no longer a factor.
I crossed the line feeling as good as I could hope, and tried not to think too much about the fact that I had to race once again the next day, in a discipline that I felt was my worse of the two. In potentially even more trying conditions. Ugh… what could I do? Rather than dwell on it, I milled about in the lovely sunshine (for spectating anyway) awaiting the lovely Deanna to finish her race, so that we could then both enjoy the post-race meal. She also wasn’t too happy with her time, and had been slower than hoped. We both agreed it was the weather and snow, not us! Food consumed, it was time to head home and prep skis for the next morning.
Our goal was to get to bed early, resting as much as possible. However, between more eating, and methodical hot waxing, it still felt hurried. As a last ditch effort, I contacted a certain ski guru friend of mine to lend their mad skills to our efforts. You see, I wanted to put ‘rills’ into our skis. These are essentially like the sipes you see on tires that help channel water away from the tire. I didn’t have the tool, but I knew people who did. And they were kind enough to let me intrude on THEIR race prep to help out. Even more than that, they took it upon themselves to actually help out by putting on some finishing layers for VERY high-end race wax onto our skis. I swear this stuff came out of a giant custom-built wooden chest that contained only a tiny nubbin of this rare earth material bestowed only to Ski Gods from Nordic spirits. Either way, I was very thankful for the help and the special wax job. I went home and went to sleep dreaming of how special my skis would be the next morning.
And you know what? They WERE!! Even on a short warm up, they felt extra ‘slippery’ which is very good indeed for skate skiing. I just hoped I’d be able to control them. Again, the temperature swings would ultimately determine how people finished the day, but knowing I had the right rills and a high-fluoro topcoat certainly gave me every advantage I could hope for. In an effort to somehow prove my worth to my guardian ski angel, I vowed to ski my heart out on this event. Once again, for reasons not completely clear, I was relegated to a wave much further back than I felt I deserved. But again, I stuck myself at the very front, and when the start signal went off, well, you can see by the picture that I veritably launched myself into this race. My body completely ignored the 2 weekends of punishment I’d put it through, and responded to my every command to muster strength.
In no time flat I was flying UP the first hill, and at the same time weaving my way through the entire wave that had started 2 minutes ahead of me (or so it seemed). Having really no clue where I was sitting in overall standings, I just focused on my race, and skiing smoothly, channeling all the pointers I’ve gotten over the years. Most importantly though, I was having FUN. A blast really. The pain was there, but numbed by the sheer joy of skiing in such a great place in such great conditions. On the longest climb of the race, I settled in at a reasonable pace, as there was virtually no way to pass many people on the uphill, due to the narrow track. This let me save up a little extra energy for the next push. Back on wide tracks, I had the thrill of seeing the leaders (and yes, my guardian ski angel was at the pointy end of the stick in this event, finishing 2nd overall!
For my part, when I finally crossed the finish line, arms held high, I still didn’t know how I fared. My time was a very happy 1h38mins, better than my target time. It wasn’t until later at the ski expo that I learned that I actually got 3rd in my age group! I was 38th overall, in what I would consider a VERY competitive field. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little proud of my result. I *think* it may be my best ever ski result! The real takeaway was to never give up or assume you are starting a race in a certain condition. Trust your training and trust your abilities. The body is a remarkable machine capable of great feats. By all rights, on paper, I might have just thrown in the towel and opted to just cruise on the day, but I opted to push myself and see what might happen, even after a hard 3 days of racing in the past week.
Of course, it DID help that I had fast skis, no doubt about that! Deanna also had a great race on Sunday, and it both left us feeling a lot more upbeat than the Saturday slog. Considering we were heading to a potluck supper that night with fellow athletes, it was nice to finish on a high. After all, we’d be surrounded by literally the best racers of the weekend, including the fellow who won both the 50k classic AND 50k skate events!! It’s always so inspiring to hang out with these casual, yet top-performing athletes. I don’t claim to be anywhere at their level, but I can still relate to what it takes to get there, and the enormous pressure people put on themselves internally, even if they don’t seem to.
All in all, this was a great weekend racing doing the things we love. I was happy to once again lug a camera with me both days in order to pull together a review video of the events. If you haven’t done so yet, why not check the video out now, and see how things looked from ‘the inside’. Till next time, stay active, get out there, and have FUN!
Never again… until next year. If any of you have ever done the Canadian Ski Marathon, you know that this is the unofficial slogan of the event. With 160km of challenging cross-country skiing over 2 days, this is one tough event. This is made even tougher for those of us brave (foolish?) enough to tackle the event as a Gold Coureur des Bois, which means we have to do the entire event wearing a heavy pack containing all we need for the weekend, since we would be sleeping overnight outdoors on a hay bale! For me, this was actually my 4th Gold Camp, and 6th year in a row that I’ve done the CSM. My run started in 2012, when I decided I wanted to try the ‘bronze’ category just one time. Well, surprise surprise, it is now 2017, and I’ve taken part in (and fully completed) every event since then! Read on for a bit more colour around this years’ event.
Last year, the CSM was my only race / event of the entire winter. I had been suffering from pretty bad plantar fasciitis through the fall, and decided to minimize the stresses to my foot over winter by only having one big event. As such, I managed to put in some very solid dedicated training, and showed up fully prepped for this classic-only ski event. This year, I’ve decided to put more events on my calendar, and cover a range of sports, meaning I was training not only for Classic Skiing, but also skate skiing, snowshoe running, and other general strength training. This meant I had pretty high general fitness, but hadn’t overloaded on Classic training. Turns out, that worked just as well. Moral of that story? I’d say unless you are at the very pointy end of the competitive field, adding variety into your training program will give you a better overall fitness, and keep things interested. I plan to employ that going forward into this year. Even though all my races are focused on trail running, I’m planning to do a bit more cycling for variety.
Ok, back to the event. As you can appreciate, you never really know what you’ll get in February in this region. Will it be raining? Will it be snowing? Will it be windy? Super cold? That’s really the challenge of this event. The weather. The reality of the situation is that most times, the weather will change several times over the course of the event. This year was no different. Mornings started out quite cold, meaning we had to layer up appropriately. However, as the day wore on, temperatures rose enough to make it ‘comfortable’. These temperature changes can lead to some waxing challenges as well. I’ve gotten decent at waxing, which meant I had ‘ok’ wax the whole weekend, which I think is better than having ‘great’ wax part of the day, then crappy wax later. The other thing that adds a layer of complexity is when it snows. You can have really old snow base, but piling on a few centimeters of fresh powder can make a big difference.
As with past years, the event started at Gold Dorm for me on Friday nights. As usual, pretty much a mad scramble to get my butt home from work, pack up the car, and get to the venue. Things were made a little more complicated by the fact that it was snowing quite heavily most of the way there. Things were ok for me, but Deanna had to drive all the way home after dropping me off. I probably got there around 8pm or so, giving me just enough time to sort through my gear, catch up with a few friends, and try to grab some sleep. The good news is that we’d all be able to walk to the start line. The bad news was that the start time was before 6am, which meant a 4am wake-up call!
After stuffing my face with breakfast, I bundled up and headed out. The snow accumulation was pretty decent, and the big flakes were still falling from the sky. I stomped over to the start area with my pack and skis, lining up with the rest of my CdB Gold friends, awaiting the starting signal. We got underway right on time, and as usual, everyone was jockeying for good positions from the start, knowing that inevitably, there would be a choke point on the trail. I made the mistake of starting a little too far back, which meant I was a victim of this choke point, and had to fight my way through a sizeable number of skiers before I finally found my stride and had some trail to myself. I’d say that for most of the first leg, I was in this kind of position. My wax was working well enough, but the tracks were pretty snow-filled. I suppose that was one fringe benefit of being further back. I didn’t have to break trail!
Skiing the first leg is always somewhat unique, in that we are all skiing in the darkness and are all at peak readiness level. I’d like to say that the event gets easier, but that is not the case. What I can say is that it definitely becomes a better understood challenge. I’m starting to really know the trails, where the tough parts are, and what level of effort to put in at any point in time to ensure successful completion. I generally end up with a 1-2 hour cushion of time prior to the cutoff on each day. This is calculated on my part. I don’t really have any need to ‘race’ this event. All you do is get too tired, and end up sitting around Gold Camp with very little to do other than choke on campfire smoke and fight off the chill J.
This year didn’t seem to present us with any ‘really’ difficult challenges, but rather a series of smaller challenges that when put together apparently lead to a pretty high number of DNFs. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what that is, but couldn’t put my finger on it. I think it boils down to the notion that people who have done this event enough times, and/or are just very stubborn about endurance events, will always find a way to get through. After all, it is usually the mental aspects, not physical, that cause DNFs. The event really lets you learn about yourself. I can guarantee that every year I hit 1 or 2 patches where I swear I’m never going to do it again, and fail to understand why I’m there. But by the very same token, there are a number of places where you just pull your head up, look around at the beauty and the sheer awesomeness of undertaking something like this, and you smile to yourself. You hold on to those thoughts, and let the other ones go. That’s the key.
While the first day was relatively cold, I kept moving, stuck to short breaks in the aid stations, and pushed on until things warmed up in the afternoon. I’d say the only real annoying part of the trail this year was based on mother nature. Given that the CSM is only really a groomed trail for a few days, there are major challenges to preparing the track. This year, we had a few sessions of heavy freezing rain earlier in the season. When the CSM people tried to prepare the track, the groomer was unable to fully chop up the ice to give a smooth track. Instead, it pulled up a lot of coarse ice. In some sections, it literally looked like I was skiing on an endless trail of ice cubes embedded in the snow. Bye bye grip wax! Within 5k of any aid station, much of the wax would be scraped off. To add to the challenge posed, some of the hills were VERY treacherous, especially if you were unlucky enough to ski down them AFTER a large number of the ‘Tourers’ had gone through (these folks pick and choose sections to ski).
In the end, I made it to gold camp safe and sound with at least a couple hours of light left. This gave me ample time to change into warm clothes (yay for new ‘puffy pants’), start trying to dry gear, get food into me, and set up my little mouse bed of hay. Once again, I linked up with my AR buddies from NY, several of whom had beat me to the camp. As usual, stories were swapped, jokes were cracked, and food and booze was passed around. And once again, like last year, we were actually provided with beer at gold camp! Bonus!
Unfortunately, there was a bit of an ominous cloud hanging over the entire camp. News had been spreading of a fellow that collapsed and passed away on the trail. I had missed this, as he was a bit further behind me. However, one of my camp mates was actually the first on the scene, and essentially stayed with this fellow for over an hour (with 5 other), provide CPR the entire time until the paramedics finally made it to them. When he arrived to our camp, we could clearly tell there was some trauma there. I can’t even imagine going through it. He’d even left most of his dry clothes there, as he’d covered the person in an attempt to keep them warm. It was a very sobering couple hours as we all coped with this news and the ramifications. The next morning, there was a minute of silence to commemorate the skier before we took off, but the event continued, as it should, in my opinion.
Overnight, we were fortunate enough NOT to be snowed on. There is nothing worse than needing to dig your way out of your sleeping bag in the morning! Temperatures were low, but not super cold either. As with other years, getting up on day 2 proved to be one of the biggest challenges. The mere act of stripping down, re-dressing, and needing to prepare food and pack everything back into our backpacks is a drain. On the plus side, you really don’t have much of an option, and the day can only get better, right? I can’t even imagine how challenging it must be for people like Ray Zahab to pull off a self-supported Arctic Expedition in the dead of winter!
Back on the trails at 5:30am the next morning, sliding away into the darkness as they prepared to ‘burn down the camp’. I once again let myself start at about ¾ of the way back in the pack. Definitely wasn’t in a rush (yet). I wanted to see how the skis felt and what kind of energy I had. Happily, I seem to have most aspects of this event dialed in now, down to the amount of food I bring for both the trail and camp, so I didn’t feel too drained. I suppose one other point worth mentioning is that I was once again filming the event, which always adds a little extra complexity for me. Filming in winter is a challenge in the best of conditions, but trying to keep gear dry, warm, and functional while taking part in something like this is a whole other challenge. Batteries need to be considered, clothing choices like gloves to operate gear. Mounts, where to stash the camera, etc. Bottom line is that while I can pull it off, there’s a lot more to those 2 minutes of footage you might see than you might imagine!
For the most part, I simply went with the snow, and enjoyed my day skiing a long way with several hundred other like-minded folks. Early in the day, the trails were pretty good, with just low temperatures to contend with. As the day wore on and the legs got heavier, the snow once again decided to attack us. The snow got progressively heavier as the day wore on, which made things VERY beautiful to see, but did get tiring as your face was constantly bombarded by little cold bits of precipitation. Oh yeah, and the wind also decided to pick up! By the time I found myself on the last leg of the day (which is always a great relief), I was ready to be done. This year, the changed the route slightly again, allowing us to basically ski right to the finish line behind the Lachute School. Unfortunately, this meant quite a bit of skiing on essentially city roads. We were lucky to have snow falling, as I suspect without that, the skis would have been completely destroyed (as opposed to only mostly destroyed, which is what you get at CSM!).
The finish line, which was meant to be a festive atmosphere, looked more like the frozen planet of Hoth, and I felt like Luke Skywalker just trying to find my way back to base. The snow was blowing hard, and there were no cheering crowds. Just a few hearty individuals, and the announcers huddled in an enclosed tent calling out names of finishers and playing tunes. As soon as I crossed the line, I took off the skis and headed inside to find heat, and a warm(ish) shower. Too bad my feet had gotten destroyed out there. They were quite raw from being wet and rubbing in my boots. When the water hit my body, I was jolted into full awakeness once again, as they pain went through my body. But the pain just served to remind me that I had done it once again, and collected my gold bar. Another year in the books.
As per usual, I had little time to celebrate or reflect, as the next weekend, I was slated to do 2 back to back ski races again. I hung around the school for a bit while I waited for Deanna to make her way to me again. Not an easy feat, as the snowstorm was wreaking havoc in the area. The entire highway had been shut down, so she had to take less-maintained side roads to reach me. Getting home was quite an ordeal, and I managed to stay awake long enough to first hit McDonalds, then get home and crash. After all, I had to work the next morning early!
I’d say that about wraps things up for this year’s story. I’m surprised my post ran this long, given that for the most part, it just feels like Groundhog’s Day to me. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next race stories, which will chronicle my next week’s races. If you have a few minutes, why not check out my resulting video, posted below. At least you’ll get some of the visuals from the weekend! Till next time, stay active!
Would somebody PLEASE turn up the heat on this year’s winter? Please?? I’m starting to really get tired of taking an hour or more to thaw out from training and racing activities. In fact, I’ve gotten more mild frostbite and windburn this year than I ever have, this in spite of the fact that winter actually came a little late this year! But I digress, you don’t want to hear me moan about our frosty temperatures, do you? Nope, you’re all here to read yet another race story, aren’t you? Well, in fact, you’re in for a double story this time, seeing as I raced in not one, but two races on Loppet weekend. More specifically, I was actually signed up to take on both of the long events, that’s a 51km classic ski race on Saturday, and a 51km skate ski race on Sunday! I’ve never tried that out, and never even skate skied that far in one sitting, so this could be interesting!
So just what got into my head to do both this year? Well, chalk it up to a bit of a desire to prove to myself that 40 is just a number. Yes, friends, dear ActiveSteve will be celebrating his 40th birthday later this year, and to celebrate, I’ve decided to audaciously tackle a slew of endurance challenges this year. I already mentioned the Rudy Award in a previous post. Well, this time, I’m talking about a little-known, completely innocuous thing called the ‘Triple Ski Challenge‘. The only reward? Your name goes on a simple website listing the year of the accomplishment. To get your name on it, one only needs to complete the CSM at any of the CdB levels, then follow that up a week later by finishing both the long events at the Loppet. And so I found myself covered in lycra and polyester at the start line of the 51k classic event with lots of fresh snow and freezing cold temperatures.
The beauty of the Loppet this year is that once again, for the long classic event, the race was point-to-point. We started out at the Wakefield Parking lot, making our way to Lac Phillipe, then O’Brien Beach, up towards Huron Cabin, then making our way to the finish at the Mont Bleu School in Gatineau. This is truly a beautiful course, and I’m really glad they are able to make it work logistically. Given that I’d skied 160km the weekend before, I stayed pretty low key during the week. I did get out for maintenance skis on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but just at low tempo, and testing my waxes out. For the classic, I was actually using brand new skis, so I had to ensure the wax pocket was set correctly. These skis are super light, and I was looking forward to trying them on a long ski. However, I could have done without the -20 temperatures! To compound the problems, there had been about 10cm of fresh powder dumped the night before, and the trails were not groomed! Of course, this was more of a problem for the leaders, but it affected everyone.
I was set to start in Wave C, which got underway at 9:04. Luckily, the buses that took us to the start stayed on site, allowing us to stay warm on the buses until it was time to line up. The start area was funny, as the trail basically snaked around the fields near us, so you could see all the people ahead for quite a while. It made things look very busy, but all told, the start managed to go off without a hitch and I never felt like there was much of a bottleneck. They really do have this even dialed in.
Although the going was tough, and my legs were tired, the sun was shining brightly, and it was hard not to smile when I raised my head just a bit to take it all in. It was a quintessentially beautiful winter day in Gatineau Parc. Skiing on fresh snow, blazing sun, and snow covered trees everywhere you looked. Now if only there wasn’t this pressure to go FAST for 51km! For my part, knowing I had the next day’s race ahead as well, I focused again on a steady pace at about zone 3 rather than pushing my max level. This did allow me to enjoy the day a lot more and make sure I didn’t burn out. Aid stations were well spaced, and although I had brought some of my own food, I stuck purely to race food, which included chocolate covered raisins, and my favourite, Fruit2, washed down with warm Gatorade.
I actually felt great the whole day. Probably due to the fact that I wasn’t pushing too hard. When I saw people on the trails that I knew, I was quick to have a chat with them, and pull away all smiles. I felt like I had energy on all the hills, and was never lacking grip either. What more could a fellow ask for? Well, the finish line I suppose.
I ended up crossing the line after about 4:48. Definitely not breaking any land speed records, but pleased with the way the day had unrolled. Heading inside at the school, I was happy to bump into friends and talk for a while, and also enjoy the post-race meal. There was much laughter and happiness. Even better was learning that Deanna had snagged 2nd place in her category for the 27km classic ski. I was stoked for her as she picked up her medal. Although we could have lingered longer, we hastened a retreat home, on account of me needing to prep skis for the final challenge. I was racing the 51k, and Deanna was again challenging the 27k.
A funny thing happened later that day. As I was prepping all our skis, I was checking the weather. It was now calling for temps of -24C with windchills hitting -40C, and steady winds of about 30km/h during the entire event for the next day. This was bad news. It gets VERY difficult to race in those kinds of conditions, and in fact, I had never had the prospect of quite as bad a race. Shortly after seeing that forecast, word started filtering through that the races were being modified in light of the extreme cold. My 51km race was shortened to 42km, and Deana’s was being shortened from 27k to 21k. These don’t seem like big changes, but it was still a nice thing to read, given how much I was now dreading getting up early for these races.
At the end of the, all we could really do was laugh. Oh, and dress even warmer, including taping and using vaseline on our faces. Frostbite wasn’t just a risk, it was a likliehood. In a race, the plan is to wear as little as you can get away with, to promote moisture management while not getting cold. However, this was going to be pretty tricky to race for. In the end, I did wear a light jacket as an outer layer, but stuck to just thermal and tights on my legs. I had also picked up nice lined boot covers for my feet, which should keep my feet warm. We were dressed and out the door shortly after 8am, anticipating our 9am start. Once there, we bumped into lots of people we knew, every one of them worried about the conditions. Some were talking about not starting, others about bailing at the 8k mark (there is a first loop of 8k that takes you back to the start). However, for most of us, it was just a matter of wanting to get things started, and see how it went.
We stayed indoors until the last possible moment, as the winds in the field at the start were quite miserable. There were only a handful of spectators actually standing outside to cheer us all on. It was really tough to keep any warmth on my body before getting underway. The gun went off, and I double poled for the first couple hundred meters, as much to warm up as to avoid tripping over other racers. The skate races are always tricky at the start with flailing limbs and skis. People always snap poles at the start, and trip over skis. I focused on staying upright and avoiding danger. But there was no avoiding the crazy headwinds we were skiing into. I couldn’t wait for the first set of hills, which would take us into the trees and provide some relief from the wind.
I knew there was no way in hell I’d have a stellar race day. It truly was a race of attrition. Only the strongest would get through a day like this. Between the past weekend and the day before, I was starting at less than peak physical shape, but my mental toughness was probably at an all-time high. As such, my thoughts of abandoning at any point were only a low-level nagging voice, not a screaming lunatic. The same can not be said for many others. When I was finished and reunited with others in the cafeteria, I heard lots of stories of people, including good friends, deciding to throw in the towel at 8k. After all, with any exposed skin, you’d have basically no feeling there, and be risking frostbite, with the hardest sections yet to come.
Back onto the trails after that 8k point, I redoubled my efforts to stay smooth and ignore the pain. I also made it a conscious point to fully stop at each aid station and have at least a couple cups of warm drinks, and eat a few things. I can’t imagine the calories I was burning up out there. With the 42k course we were now on, the hardest work was front loaded. Meaning the first 24km or so had a lot of climbing in the woods to get to the highest points in the parc. Normally, that would mean you could be excited about the second part, which featured lots of downhills, most of them on wide open parkways for easy descents. However, if you combine the windchill factors along with very high speed descents on skis with very little clothes, and you’ll understand why even the downhills were painful on this day.
One thing I will say is kudos to the race organizers for being very cautious and taking good care of us. At every aid station, as well as at the bottom of pretty much every descent of consequence, they had first aiders stationed. These volunteers would make sure each and every skier showed them their face and confirmed how they were feeling. They pulled any skiers with obvious frostbite off the course at least for a short bit to try and warm up their faces before letting them head back out. For my part, I did a good job maintaining circulation. On all the downhills, I’d just tuck in, bringing my big mittens up and covering my exposed face. This, combined with breathing warm air on my face in those moments ensured that I could at least briefly get blood flow back into those areas and prevent any serious damage. That being said, 4 days later and I’m still showing a bit of windburn and brown spots on my face which are telltale signs of exposure. But, I’m no worse for wear!
My strategy of slow and easy also seemed to finally be paying off. I had been using what’s called one-skate technique for much of the course, which kept me balanced and skiing smoothly. The upshot was that the further we went the more people I would slowly overtake on the way to the finish. However, that really wasn’t my motivation anymore. I just wanted to get this damn race over with, and make my way back to warmth and my awaiting friends and wife. At a time of around 3hours and 48 minutes, I pulled under the finish line banner. I promptly went to retrieve my down jacket and head for the cafeteria. There, I bumped once again into my friends, and learned who had stuck it out, and who had pulled the plug. Unfortunately, Deanna was one of those who pulled the plug. She had serious concerns for her face, as she couldn’t feel anything, and was unsure about frostbite, so rather than risking it, she joined a group of 6-8 people we know that also decided to stop at 8k. I was sad for her, but completely understood. Not everyone is as foolish as I am 🙂
After warming up a little bit, and trading stories with other warriors from the day, it was time to finally head back home. But not until I stopped at the medal table to retrieve my certificate showing I had tackled both the long races, and receiving the commemorative pin that goes along with it. No medals or podiums for me that weekend, but another great testament to perseverance. However, needless to say, I was happy it was over. After all, we had sort of given up Valentine’s Day weekend, and I was also about to fly out to Edmonton on Deanna’s birthday, so to say it was without some form of sacrifice would be a lie. Luckily, I have a very loving and understanding wife, who supports my desire to challenge myself the way I do, and gets that it is part of who I am. Thanks Deanna! You are the best!
To celebrate the end of the challenge, we had gotten a great invitation to join some ski friends for a post-Loppet and CSM pot luck party. When we arrived, the house was full of race-weary ski friends, all engaged in swapping stories of this year’s races, sprinkled in with tales of many other races in years past. Although I had been reluctant to go out on account of being beat, it was totally worth it. It is always invigorating to hang out with others who know what you’ve been through, and truly appreciate what it takes to get through it all. For that, I would definitely say we have an amazing group of friends.
As with the CSM from the weekend past, there aren’t may pictures that tell the tale of the struggle, so my words will just have to do this time around. Just one last race to go this winter season before I start turning my mind to trail running, mountain biking and kayaking! Stay tuned for the final chapter in Winter 2015! Till then, as always, I hope you are all staying warm, but don’t forget to still get out there and enjoy what we have around us!
As you have all seen from the flurry of recent race reports that I’ve finally got around to posting, the winter racing season has been in full swing on my end! Luckily, things are starting to wind down, and I’ll soon be turning my mind to spring and summer active pursuits. However, I’ve still got a couple events to knock out here and write about. For this post, I’ll give you a little colour around the 35th Annual Gatineau Loppet that I took part in on February 16th. As the title implies, this event draws an International crowd. With over 2000 racers from 17 different countries taking part in this years offerings, it was a very cool event. The Loppet is a whole weekend of races, ranging from 5 to 55km, and in both classic and freestyle categories. For my part, I was taking on the 55km classic race, which was on Saturday. I also lugged cameras and did filming for Get Out There Magazine, so stay tuned for the video below, and don’t forget to also Check out the pictures that Deanna and I snapped.
The Gatineau Loppet is yet another of those gems that we have at our fingertips here in the National Capital Region to race in. It is part of the World Loppet series of ski races, and as such, draws participants from around the world. And the start/finish line? It’s a mere 10 minutes from my driveway by car! As it is set in Gatineau Parc, this is also terrain that I’m intimately familiar with and spend a lot of time in over the full year. However, I never grow tired of exploring its beauty, and in winter, things are completely different visually from summer and fall! Gatineau Parc is basically the entire reason I moved to this side of the river from Ottawa, so I try to spend as much time as possible there.
Pictures from the Event
At any rate, enough babbling about how great it is to run / ski / bike / hike, and snowshoe in Gatineau Parc. You came here to read about the Loppet! This year was the 4th time I took part in the event. I have done the 55km classic race in 2010 and 2011, then did the 27km skate race in 2012. For this year, the 35th anniversary, I was going back to classic, as I put a lot more time and effort into classic technique then skate, owing to the CSM preparation. Oh yeah, CSM. That little 160km skiing effort I completed only 5 days earlier! It’s quite possible that might have an impact on my performance in this race. Whereas CSM was a touring event, this was a bona fide ‘race’ entailing proper nutrition, hydration, and high-level sustained effort with minimal comfort. Aaargh! What have I done by signing up for this?!? Luckily, apart from some achilles tendonitis in both my heels, I felt like I would be good to go. Of course, tendonitis may be just enough to slow me down, mightn’t it?
One of the interesting aspects of this year’s classic race was that we were going to have a remote start. From the finish line at the relais plein air, all participants were to be bussed out to P19 at Lac Philippe. This posed a few logistical challenges, which organizers did their damndest to address before the big day. The P19 parking lot is quite small, so only 3 buses at a time could drop racers off, but there were probably close to 20 in total that had to get there in time to let racers start their waves. This was to be mitigated by the fact that different waves started 5 minutes apart, but as it turned out, it took longer than 5 minutes for buses to turn and unload, which meant that by the time the E wave was getting ready to go, I heard there were a few bottlenecks. Lucky for me, I was in Wave C, and arrived with just enough time to hit the porta-pottie, finish getting dressed appropriately, and even doing some quick footage for my video. HOwever, I still found myself scrambling, and throwing my gear bag to the side of the trail and trying to get my pole strap on just as the starting gun was sounding.
The weather was absolutely stunning. Although it started out a little chilly, the sun was shining bright, and I knew I’d be working hard, so I had forgone the extra layers in the anticipation of pushing hard and staying warm that way. I’m not sure if it was just the C wave, but my start actually seemed pretty tame. We all pulled away in a pretty good grouping, with 6 lanes to pick from. In about a kilometer or so, that narrowed to 4 tracks, and in another kilometer or so, it finally narrowed to a 2 track trail. However, because of the distances, there was never any real bottleneck, which was nice. I found a pretty decent pace early on, and found myself surrounded by a group of others heading approximately the same pace. Sure, there were sprints and lags depending whether terrain was flat, uphill, or downhill, but the same outfits always seemed to be within eyesight. Although there is no doubt that this is a race, things still felt generally convivial on the snow out there. This made me pretty happy, as it made me feel as though I was still in the thick of a race, and my performance hadn’t been too negatively impacted by my 160km slog the weekend before.
As usual, I rely a fair bit on my gps to give me feedback about how I’m doing in the race. That was all well and find for the first 13-14km… until I apparently lost my satellite lock. It would be about 25 or so km before I started getting any data again on my pacing, etc. Luckily, the time was still ticking, so I knew by time at the various marked distances, but no instant data on my pace. In other words, it took me to about kilometer 38 when I realized that my goal of a 4 hour 55km race was definitely not in the cards. By then, I had skied my way along many of the nicest parts of the course. Namely, along the 50, then onto my fave, the 36, before heading up the all-to-familiar parkway to join back up with the number 1 near Keogan shelter.
Once at the Keogan turnoff, we veered right to tack on an out and back section along the number 1 trail in order to get the full 55km distance. This of course also resulted in us popping out at Champlain lookout. I realize many of you have been up there on bikes, but for those who aren’t into skiing, it’s a different world up there in the winter on the skinny skis. I paused a little on top to admire the view, then smiled to myself knowing that the really hard work was over, and that the remaining 18km or so would be predominantly downhill. Doing some quick math, I thought maybe I’d wrap it up in 4:15 or so, which would still be respectable. I pushed off down the hill and onto the final sections of the race.
I should mention the aid stations at this point as well. They’re awesome. Staffed by a small army at each checkpoint, they spread themselves out from a bit before to a bit after the checkpoint. Each person yelling out what they have, and doing their absolute best to get you fed and hydrated with minimal effort from you. My favourite snacks were the chocolate chip cookies, the cut up cereal bars, and washing it down with warm gatorade. At every aid station, I’d generally take 2 cups of drink, then 3 ‘cups’ of snacks, which equated to maybe 2 bars and 2 cookies. There was no science behind my nutrition, but this appeared to be just right to keep the engine running. Also, thanks to my easy clip in and clip out poles, I would always have 1 had free to eat / drink while the other continued to propel me. I never fully stopped at any point, which mentally is a big plus in my game!
When I got past Pink Lake and started the final descent, I realized there was still about 5k to go, but there had been 2 fellows trading the lead with me for quite a bit. I decided then and there that I’d have to beat them. One fell off the pace going downhill and hitting the flats again, but the second guy kept surging and pushing. However, I felt I was keeping something in the tank, and decided just to shadow for a bit, the turn up the heat later. That’s right. A battle for 167th place 🙂 Well, I eventually got my chance, and on the final flats, I took off. We then had a sharp left turn onto the narrower trails for the final 2-3km. I pushed hard, worried he’d be right on my heels, but instead, I opened up a little gap that I maintained to the finish. In the end, I only beat him by 36 seconds, but it still felt like a huge gap. We both laughed about it at the finish and congratulated each other for the good push!
Video Race Review
My final time was just under 4:25, and as mentioned, good enough for 167th of 375 participants. So while I was in the top half, it was the lower top half. Not as speedy as I’d dreamed, but given that my body could NOT have recovered that fast from CSM the week before, I took the result with a big smile.
I’ve had an absolute blast this winter training with the group, and skiing lots with Deanna in our lead up to the big events. It’s a bit weird now, as the skiing is all for fun. No need to be fast or get ready for any events, just enjoy the snow. And given the 30cm we got in the last 30hrs, things are looking up for a few more enjoyable skis! It’s also been a lot of fun capturing some of that skiing on video, which I hope gives you some idea of the fun we have out there during winter! Now that the Loppet is over, there remains only 1 race for the winter season, and that’s the season finale in the Mad Trapper series. For that race, no video! Just hard racing, and pictures to go with my impressions. Stay tuned for that story!
Trail-Only Footage of the Loppet
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.