Tag Archives: Racing

Becoming Half a Sinner

I looked down at my watch again and did the math in my head for the thousandth time. I’d lost some time on this leg, but in theory, it was still *possible* that I’d be able to finish my first 100 miler within the 30 hour time limit. However, there were a few problems. First, it was nearing 10pm, and my headlamp was in my transition bag which was another mountainous 8km of singletrack away. In addition, I wasn’t actually sure when I had last ate or drank anything, and my whole body felt ‘off’. And so it came to pass that I had to make peace with my decision to pull myself out at the next checkpoint, at the 82.2km point in the race after having given it my all for nearly 15 hours. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my story of the Sinister 7 Ultra!

Sinister 7 2017

Two weeks have passed since I excitedly got to the start line, did some pre-race yoga and centered myself before launching into what I knew was going to be a tough race. It is high time that I share my whole story with you all. First off, there will be no excuses. I made my own decisions about this race, and feel that in spite of everything, I did show up in form to actually get this done. Yes, I have some leg issue that I’m awaiting an MRI to diagnose, and I hadn’t ran that much since my last 50 miler as a result, but I felt mentally ready, which in this kind of race counts the most.

Sinister 7 isn’t so much a race as it is a crucible designed to test your mettle. While the relay racer category boasts the higher numbers, it is the like-minded group of solos that make this race legendary. Celebrating its 10th year, this year’s edition was definitely the toughest by all accounts. The course had been tweaked, making it just a little tougher, and the weather this year was unrelentingly hot during the day. Given these conditions, less than 18% of the solos actually completed the event, so I was in the vast majority with my DNF, but actually got further than a lot of other racers. But why? Let’s examine.

Tecumseh and Seven Sisters

First off, I was really excited to finally head out west in Canada for a race this year, and was actually re-tracing the footsteps of my immigrant father (but that’s for another story) by arriving in Calgary. Mountains always hold an allure for me, so the setting of Crowsnest Pass was ideal in my mind for a first attempt at the 100 mile distance in trail running. Never mind that this is one of the hardest hundred milers not only in Canada, but North America. As somewhat usual for me, in order to ensure there would be an audience for my success or failure, I was covering this race by producing a video for Get Out There Magazine (see epic final video below), which meant filming not only before and after my race, but during the race itself.

So, how could I make things even more challenging? Well, how about racing it solo and completely unsupported? That’s right, whereas the majority of solo racers would arrive at transition zones to hordes of family and friends there to cater to their every whim, I was on my own to fight through the people to get things like peanut butter sandwiches and water. Mind you, there were oodles of AMAZING volunteers willing to help how they could, but the added dimension of being self-supported is a challenge. However, typically, I thrive in such settings, so again, no excuses, and I relish that extra effort I had to make to keep myself motivated and moving.

The race itself is broken into 7 overall stages, each with their own difficulty ratings. The first to legs are on the ‘easier’ side, but make no mistakes, they are only on the ‘easier’ side compared to the other legs of Sinister 7, meaning they are also tough. Leg 3 of this race is the second longest and has the second most elevation gain, but when you get to it, you are tackling it in the middle of they day, and much of it is exposed. When you factor in that it was around 35 degrees that day, you quickly see why it claimed many victims this year.

Admiring the Big Truck

I’m proud to say I wasn’t one of them. I had played my game carefully to this point. But let’s back it up. The day before, I did everything I could to stay focused and relaxed, hanging out with a few friends from home that were also racing. We took a nice ride to see some of the sights, including the worlds largest truck, as well as some of the course transition spots, to get a sense of the race. We had an amazing pre-race meal at the registration / race expo site. We were bandit camping in the woods right at the finish area, so we wouldn’t have to re-locate the next day after the race. I got a decent amount of horizontal time in my tent (I wouldn’t say I really slept much, but at least I was laying down).

We got up around 5am in order to catch a shuttle shortly after 6am to the start line, a short drive away. While warm early in the morning, it wasn’t sweltering yet. I’d made some last minute purchases to prepare for the forecasted heat, including cooling arm sleeves, a cooling buff, and a new white hat with a mini cape. The cooling gear was purported to produce coolness when it is wet, so I had high hopes for it.

Start Line Photo

At 7am, the race got underway, and I decided to reign in my speed, and pace myself by running with my friend Cal Mitchell, who is legendary in that he has actually completed the Grand Slam of Ultras, which is four 100 milers in a span of 2 months! If anyone knows how to pace in different conditions, it’s Cal. Plus, he’d completed Sinister 7 before, so had firsthand course knowledge. We ran side by side for much of leg 1, with me only pulling ahead a few times to grab some video footage. However, by the time we closed in on Transition Area 1, I had somehow gotten about 10 minutes ahead of him, so chose to cool off in a creek and await him. When Cal got in, it seemed he wasn’t having the best day, and he urged me to keep going without him, and just trust my own pacing.

Climbing on Leg 2

I’d completed leg 1 in 2 hrs 18 minutes, only 12 minutes ahead of my planned pace. I left TA1 pretty much bang on my planned schedule. Leg 2 was a beautiful stage, with some gnarly climbs, but extremely rewarding views higher up, and a sweet section of trail on the edge of a hill with great sidelong views. The end of if featured some super fun twisty turning descents, and I felt pretty good. I was calm, heart rate under control, and nutrition and hydration completely dialed in. I cruised into TA2 (which we also see as TA3) feeling happy. Once again, I was exactly on pace, arriving at pretty much the 5 hour mark, giving me a theoretical 2 hour buffer when compared to the cutoffs.

Knowing that the next leg was going to be brutally hot, I made sure my 2.5L bladder was completely filled, and grabbed a couple peanut butter sandwiches before turning around and trotting back out. I didn’t touch my transition bag at this point, as I had all I needed. I was also making liberal use of my trekking poles, and they were pretty much a fixture in my hands for the rest of the race.

Enjoying a Sandwich on Leg 3

Although I haven’t mentioned other racers, I will note that throughout the day, there were plenty of great conversations, and trading footsteps with other hearty solo racers as well as relay team people. Although I’d spend lots of time alone, there always seemed to be people not that far away, so if you slowed pace, inevitably someone would show up to perk you back up. On Leg 3, this was much appreciated, as it definitely started feeling like a race of attrition. Temperatures were soaring, and it was starting to get very challenging to regulate my body heat.

Leg 3  (see full race leg descriptions here) featured a series of climbs and descents, with many of them quite exposed. To deal with the heat, I basically stopped at every single trickle of a stream to dump my hat in the water, soak my buff, and wet down my arms and legs. There was simply no escaping the heat, and we were still burning tons of calories, while not fully replenishing them. I have enough experience that I know what I need to do, but it was TOUGH to keep things in check. Luckily, I’d known Leg 3 was a critical ‘make or break’ stage, so I worked hard at managing everything.

I’d given myself a conservative 6 hours for this leg, and wouldn’t you know it, I cruised into the Transition Area at 5:58pm, having taken pretty much precisely 6 hours to cover this leg. I was happy to see I was racing exactly to my plan. This is absolutely key in a race like this. I made the decision at TA3 to take a little longer rest to change socks and shoes, giving me a chance to check my feet over. That’s when I discovered that somewhere in all the punishing downhill runs, I’d *finally* managed to nearly completely dislodge one of my big toenails. As a result, I ended up spending over 25 minutes in transition while I waited for a medic to remove the toenail and associated lingering tissue (yes, I know, yuck!), and then completely patch it up to prevent infection later.

Steady Progress on Leg 4

I would say this was the start of my undoing in the race. You see, instead of taking the time to properly eat and drink in the aid station, I was stuck sitting in a chair while they worked on me. Then, anxious to make some time back up, I abruptly headed back out. Yes, I’d re-filled on fluids, added food to my pack, but I should have eaten and drank a bit more while in the relative calm of the transition. However, given that I’d been right on track, I knew I had to get moving.

In my mind, Leg 3 had been the ‘beast’, and Leg 4 would give me a reprieve. This was my second fatal flaw. I had not actually studied the course / leg profile, and was therefore not intimately aware with what was awaiting me. I won’t make that mistake again. With the hot temperatures still sitting with us well into the evening (it was now around 6:30pm), I set out at a modest pace, and attempted to eat and drink a bit on the first climb (since you’re forced to hike anyway). I marveled as a couple young gents blazed past me, but realized they were clearly relay racers with fresh legs.

My Undoing

In all honesty, it’s tough to truly recall that much about Leg 4 even now. Looking back at the profile, I now understand why I was losing my mind. There was a MONSTER CLIMB that I totally didn’t count on. This essentially killed my mental state. I hit a very deep low, and couldn’t seem to climb out of it. The longer the climb lasted, the more I felt like this was completely unnecessary suffering, and I wanted it to end. Even once I FINALLY reached the top, I was in a funk. That’s when I realized I’d more or less stopped eating and drinking, and had no desire to try to get back into that groove.

Looking at my watch, I also realized I’d lost over an hour as compared to my plan, which further dissuaded me. In reality, even with my conservative plan, I’d left 2 ‘spare’ hours for unforeseen challenges, but I felt it was too ‘early’ to be using those up. After all, the hardest leg is Leg 6, and I was a long way from there! Due to the lost time, I also made the realization that I wouldn’t finish this leg in the daylight, and I had made a STUPID last-minute to move my headlamp from my TA3 bag to my TA4 bag, meaning I’d be stuck finishing this leg without light. If you’re keeping track, that was fatal flaw #3!

Strava Capture

All of these circumstances culminated in my mentally throwing in the towel. During the slow, arduous descent to the next checkpoint, I convinced myself that I was going to pull out at the next checkpoint. I rehearsed what I’d say in my mind, and even thought I was at peace with it. I’d managed to race just over half of the course, and while not completely broken, I had some concerns around residual impacts of continuing, and also the very real risk of having an accident thanks to clumsy feet and no light on the final section of the leg. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t add that the BUGS WERE ABSOLUTELY INSANE on this leg!! Another person at the checkpoint basically quit because of the bugs alone!

And so it came to pass that I pulled the plug at CP4B in Leg 4, having covered just over 82kms in just under 15 hours. The 2 volunteer staff there were great, they were completely neutral when I said I was pulling out, stating it was definitely my decision, and they’d respect it. But at the same time, they actually offered me a headlamp if I wanted to continue. A little part of my brain immediately tried to speak up and say “Take it. Keep going. You’ll make it to TA4 and re-group”. Unfortunately, it was too late, the bigger, meaner part of my brain had already bullied me into submission. I should have listened to the littler part of my brain. That was the REAL me. The one that keeps going in spite of the odds. Had I done so, I would have learned that there were warm meatballs and soups awaiting me at the next transition, along with other clothes if I wanted, and my amazing headlamp to keep me going.

Finish Line Photo

However, as I write this, we know hindsight is 20/20. I have to live with my decision. And unfortunately in this case, that’s what it was. My decision. I hadn’t been cut off. I hadn’t suffered some terrible accident or injury. I was just ‘off’. And that, friends, is humility. As I will always tell people, you learn as much from failures as you do successes, so I will spend the next year (or 2, or 3) learning my lessons and doing my homework until I return to Sinister 7 once again for a shot at my redemption!

Interestingly, yesterday, I read a very relevant article making the case for why quitting is sometimes the best decision. While a long read of itself, I highly recommend giving it a read. It’s an overall life lesson, not race-specific. Read it here. One line that struck me towards the end was:

“Use trying and quitting as a deliberate strategy to find out what is worth not quitting.” – Eric Barker

In some ways, I feel this very succinctly encapsulates the entire reason why I get into these situations and tackle things like overly ambitious long-distance races. I’m on an eternal quest to determine what is worth not quitting.

Right. Well, I’ve made you all stick with me long enough to share this tale, but it was one I have been re-hashing in my mind for the past two weeks and was anxious to share it with you all, so let’s wrap things up!

All is not Enough

So, what did I do after dropping out? In a nutshell, waited around for a drive back to the finish. Upon arriving, I learned that all 3 of my buds had also dropped out. They were all sitting in lawn chairs near the finish, enjoying beers, and essentially just waiting to learn of my fate. They poked fun at me, I had a shower, ate an amazing burger from a food truck that had set up at the finish and stayed open ALL NIGHT, and dusted myself off. I tried to sleep, but couldn’t, so I hobbled back down to the finish line from 2-4am to cheer in finishers, then back there again from around 6:30am until the 1pm cutoff to cheer in the very last solo racer. It was a girl I’d ran with a fair bit in the middle of the race from Utah.

Her race? Well, she crossed the line at 30 hours and 4 minutes, so was officially a DNF (did not finish). No belt buckle, no wine, no official finish, even though she had persevered and completed the entire course. That’s the bitch of it all. If you don’t finish by the cutoff, you are not an official finisher! Just try to put yourself in her mind at that moment. Delirious, having given everything, only to be told you were 4 minutes late after 30 hours of racing 160 grueling kilometers in the mountains!

Needless to say, I congratulated her, gave her a hug, and turned away choking back my own tears for her predicament. Ultras are emotional beasts, and I guarantee they can put anyone in tears in the right circumstance.

Cal and Steve

For my part, I made the best of the rest of my vacation, enjoying a couple more days with my friends, including a remote night camping completely disconnected from the world, and a very memorable day / night in Calgary and at the Stampede. Mark my words people. I. WILL. BE. BACK. Till I am, sit back, and enjoy the video I made of my experiences! Next up, Squamish 50/50 in a few weeks, where I plan on at least earning myself a truckers’ hat. One DNF is enough in a season, right??

Staring down the Stairs in Ithaca

Welcome back race fans. Two weeks ago I lined up at the start line of the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile race for the second time. This is notable in some respects, as I VERY rarely repeat ‘away’ races. I ran in (and covered) this race last year, and was captivated by it for a few reasons. Firstly, Ithaca is a really cool little New York town, with a hidden secret: the canyons / waterfalls just outside the core! I had absolutely no idea that there were such cool natural features so close! Add to the fact that there is a tasty brewery close by, and two great state parks to camp in, and there is ample reason to choose to try this race out. In addition, it is only about a 4.5 hour drive from Ottawa, and the timing makes this a great early season test race. While I didn’t film any video this time around, I have a pile of pictures, you can see them all by clicking left / right in the frame below.

Cayuga Trails 50 - 2017

It was therefore with high hopes that I was coming back to this race a second time. The race also serves as the USA Track and Field trail 50 mile Championships, so you just KNOW there will be excellent competition to mix it up with ( and in my case, I just KNOW I have NO chance at a podium!). Deanna and I once again made this a pretty quick trip, spending less than 48 hours total in the States. We had 2 nights booked in the Robert H Treman state park, which also serves as the start / finish area. Boy, are we glad we FINALLY bought a bigger tent last year. So nice to actually be able to stretch out, relax, and get dressed without knocking each other out (and we each have our own door!).

Gangsta Camping

As mentioned, I had high hopes. Last year, I managed to finish just under 10 hours, but was hoping to better that time by an hour if at all possible. I was pretty confident I could at least take 30 minutes off. Part of my bravado came from the fact that a month ago, I felt I had proved myself pretty capable by snagging 5th overall at the 12 hour Black Fly Trail race, and believed that the suffering I had put in there might translate to extra strength and speed a month later. My training had been going well, and recovery after hard efforts even better, so I believed in myself.

Race start was 6am on Saturday morning. We’d gotten in town around 7pm the night before, so we didn’t have an abundance of time to get into the ‘zone’, but I slept well enough, and had no excuses. I got my kit together, and headed to the start. Ironically, almost exactly like last year, I found myself as the last dude waiting to use the washroom, with a mere minute or so before the start of the race. Nothing like pressure! Ha ha ha. Luckily, we actually started a couple minutes late, so I still had time to mingle and get settled into the start chute before the start horn (literally, a horn made of an animal horn of some sort….).

Awaiting the Starting Gun

The plan out of the gate was to not go all out. At the Black Fly, I stuck to the front runners from the star, but in this race, knowing it was the championships, I didn’t want to get sucked into an untenable position. So I let myself float back a bit in the crowd, opting to chat with people I recognized from last year. This made the first few kilometers fly by without even noticing, but once we hit the first set of climbs and technical bits, my desire to pick up the pace a bit took over, and I started pulling away and passing other runners.

I decided to run pretty much by feel, and not pay too much mind to my watch. The only exception was when I’d get to an aid station, just to see how far ahead of my conservative 10 hour pace card I was. The course is a double-loop course, but also a bit of a figure-8, so there are really only 3 aid stations that you see several times during the race. The first one is always basically ignored on the opening lap, as it comes up only 6k or so after the start. In fact, it wasn’t even  really set up when we ran past it the first time.

Piper at the Stairs

By and large, the course was pretty much the same as the 2016 edition, with a few modifications, including a new 1.6km trail section through old growth forest. The idea was that this modification would cut off a bit at the end, to give us the full 80k. Most of this race is in the shade (luckily), and takes racers through impressive canyons with even more impressive stone steps to run up and down. There are also long sections in the woods, and a few access roads and VERY little pavement, which is greatly appreciated. A couple sections are less awesome, like a seemingly long stretch running in an open field, but all in all, I find the course very balanced. The big challenges are the stairs, which cumulatively lead to some serious quad fatigue during the 2nd lap. The overall climbing only registered as 2,600m, but it seemed a lot more than that. Of course, given the GPS coverage challenges in the canyon, perhaps it was…

After the first aid station, I found myself running more or less alone, keeping my eyes on a few runners just off in the distance ahead. I was enjoying my solo running, feeling light on my feet. However, all of a sudden, I realized I had a runner right behind me. I figured he must have just been off the trail taking  a ‘nature break’ before joining in with my stride. I assumed he was a more speedy dude, and would want to pass me, but instead, he seemed happy to just stay on my heels. I was trying to decided whether I should pull ahead, or pull aside, and then just opted to run my race. Eventually, we struck up conversation, as it became clear we’d likely be running together for a while. Sometimes I like the solitude, other times, the company is nice. In this case, it was welcomed company, and we learned all about each other as we ticked over the miles on the course.

Winding our Way Up

Interestingly, at this point in the race, I was WAY ahead of schedule. I’m talking like a projected finish of just over 8 hours!! I had told Scott, and he intimated that this was probably not sustainable, and I also agreed, so mentally we tried to reign it in a little bit, but things just felt good at that point. We actually kept running together again after this turnaround, as he caught back up to me as I was navigating the long stairs back up the canyon. Once again, the miles started ticking by. Unfortunately, this is also about the time that I took a spill. As usual, in the heat of a race, I never really remember if it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as my focus is on recovery. Essentially, it was one of those ass over tea kettle falls, with a bottle being ejected. I stunt-man rolled with it, recovered my bottle, and was back on my way as soon as possible. My new friend Scott had seen the whole thing (and reported on it in his blog), and was making sure I was okay. Of course, macho racing ActiveSteve shrugged / limped it off for a few hundred meters, and thought nothing of the impact or the slight trickle of blood from my knee. At the next aid station, Deanna also noticed it and said “looks like you fell”. Indeed. But another quick inspection didn’t concern me.

Entry to Underpass Aid Station

I’m not sure where exactly I pulled ahead of Scott, but I did. In ultra running, there is no real saying ‘goodbye’ and pulling away from people, it just sort of happens. Everyone ebbs and flows in the energy department at different points, so this is the natural flow of the race. Actually, now I remember. It happened when another runner joined us, a female from Toronto named Karen. She was FLYING. I got sucked into her slipstream as she passed and we were talking. I guess we sort of pulled slowly away from Scott, and that was the last time we ran together. I stuck with Karen until after the next Aid station, when I told Deanna I had to get going as I had to follow my new friend. However, it was clear she had the engine firing on a better gear than me, and I was now limping every time I had to start running away. I had noticed a little tightness in my right calf lately. Nothing debilitating, but noticeable nonetheless. As I kept running, I decided it was perhaps a side effect of switching to zero drop shoes recently, since tight calves / Achilles are common. I decided I’d change shoes at the halfway point to hopefully provide relief. Again, status check didn’t raise any red flags, so I ran through the niggling pains. Good ole endorphins!

As decided, when I cruised into the halfway turnaround point (the start/finish), I took a slightly longer pause to change shoes and socks. There are a number of water crossings, so it feels SOOOO nice to slip into dry socks for even a little bit. I told Deanna that I’d be slowing down, and noted that I *was* feeling some pain in my leg, but not to worry. I headed back out, and settled into a comfortable ‘ultra-cruising’ pace, which is somewhere between 7 and 8 mins / kilometer. The opening 25% I ran in 2:10, by the 50% mark, I was at 4:30, so I was definitely slowing, but still hopeful for a 9.5 hour total. Sadly, I got into my own head for the second loop.

Sock and Shoe Change at Turnaround

I spent most of my loop on my own, and with no one to visibly chase, and with no one passing me to put the pressure on, I just let my pace naturally drop I think. By the time I hit the 75% mark, I’d hit 7:15, or in other words, it took me 35 minutes longer than first time to cover this distance. As I often do to pass the time, I started crunching numbers, and knew hitting 9:30 would be VERY difficult. I once again chose to ignore the watch and just focused on getting through what was now just becoming a painful final 21k or so. Luckily, my nutrition and hydration were working perfectly, so that was a good thing, and something to note for my next race in terms of strategies.

Daunting Challenge 2nd Time

This last 21k became VERY challenging. I willed myself to keep actually ‘running’ and not power hiking the climbs, but some of the long stair sections did get the better of me. I also had the realization that the course would definitely be over 80k (I logged over 83k by the finish). I was extremely relieved to reach the final aid station, knowing it was mostly downhill and only 6-7k to the finish. I had a few final perogies (god-send out there!), and got back out there.  Somewhere in the closing section I risked a look at my watch. Ugh. I realized that if I rallied, I should at least be able to salvage a sub 10 hour finish. I gave it one final mighty push (once again sacrificing my toenails on the descents!), and flew the final downhills until I could literally hear the finish line music and see the open field leading to the finish.

The Finish Chute

With a mighty effort, I crossed under the banner clocking an official finish time of 9:58:26, almost EXACTLY 1 minute slower than my 2016 time. However, the course ended up being a bit longer, and I will argue that conditions were not as good this year (some mud sections). The final results bear this out, as the 2016 winner finished in 6:40, whereas this year it was 7:32! My overall standing also improved. I finished 32nd male, and 6th in my category (last year was 38th and 5th respectively).  Overall, I couldn’t complain.

5 Guys Burger and Fries Post Race

We capped off our day by delicious Five Guys Burgers, and picked up some tasty Ithaca Brewing beer for the campsite. With only a month until my upcoming 100 Miler, my plan was to recover fast and get in some final training, but as some of you will note, that nagging pain in the race? Yeah, not great. Turns out I tore something (undetermined as of this writing, as I await an MRI). However, I believe it is healing well, and I’m still optimistic. Regardless, once again, Cayuga Trails kicked my butt, and was another memorable and enjoyable race. One of these times I should really add a day to the trip to truly enjoy the area! Maybe next year, right? Well, until next time, hope you enjoyed my wordy race report!

Strava Track

Muddy Mayhem at Inaugural Black Fly Ultra

In theory, we should have been super happy. After all, there was no blazing sun, and there were no swarms of the namesake Black Flies harassing us as we ran. However, what we got instead was just as draining mentally and physically. Lots of rain, and lots of mud, which only worsened as the hours ticked by. What exactly am I talking about? None other than my first ‘summer’ ultra trail running race, the Black Fly ultra taking place in my personal playground! There were options to race for 3, 6 or 12 hours. Can you guess what I opted for? Of course, 12 hours! My plan was to use this as a long training day to see how things were progressing for my journey to Sinister 7 (my first 100 miler coming up in July). Read on to learn more about this new and exciting race in our area!

Inaugural Black Fly Ultra

Last year, you may recall that I took part in the inaugural Bad Beaver Ultra, a 3-day staged ultra race taking part in Gatineau Park. Well this year, they added a couple new events to their roster, and I decided to throw my hat in the ring and try them out. After all, who doesn’t want another cool hoodie to add to their collection, right? The idea behind the first new event, the Black Fly, was to pit racers against themselves on a looped course that you would run for 3, 6, or 12 hours straight. The winners would be whoever logged the most loops in the allotted time. In my mind, that meant that regardless how far I’d run, I would at least be able to say I did a proper 12 hour training day.

My going in position was not to take it too seriously or competitively. After all, this was pretty early in the season, and I was running on untested feet! Plantar fasciitis has been a recurring theme, with my right foot currently suffering the brunt of it. I’d been putting in trail time, but due to a lingering winter, I hadn’t been on trails very much yet, just a lot of road mileage to remind my legs how to run. The week before the event, I headed out to the venue and did about 4 practice loops of the course as best I could piece it together. Bumped into a few other folks doing the same thing that day, and we all agreed the trails were in great shape and it should be a fun day racing in a week.

Satellite view of Trail

Well, good ole mother nature decided to play tricks on us, deciding that later in the week should be characterized by biblical rains, and that the actual race day should also feature her favourite natural hydrator. In fact, I learned later that the race organizers were actually on the fence whether or not to cancel the event outright the evening before, due to the risk of damaging the mountain bike trails we’d be using! In the end, the decision was made to slightly modify the original course, and see how things progressed during the event.
As the original plans called for the start/finish/loop area to be in an open space, Deanna and I made a bit of a mad scramble the day before the race trying to secure a pop-up tent that I could use as my private ‘aid station’. Luckily, the fine folks at Euro-Sports had one available, and were kind enough to let us use it! On race morning, we learned that the aid area was relocated to the lower level of the Camp Fortune lodge, so it would be dry. However, I opted to still set up my own tent to keep things simple for my race. It would also mean I hopefully wouldn’t be too tempted to stay indoors and dry when the going got tough, which I was sure it would.

In keeping with my ‘long training day’ mantra, I had a few other tricks up my sleeve. Mostly, this consisted of my testing out a whole lot of new things on race day! I had new shoes to try, new socks, and even new nutrition / hydration. The way I saw it, since we were doing loops anyway, if something wasn’t working, I could swap it out. All told, I went through three pairs of socks and three pairs of shoes, changing out every roughly four hours. I can honestly say that putting on dry socks twice, even if it lasted less than 10 minutes, was a real mental boost during the slog! Oh yeah, and as is often the case these days, I was carrying cameras and getting trail footage for a review (which you can find at the bottom of the post).

Lead Pack

For the 12 hour event, our race got underway at 6am, after a briefing indoors, where we were instructed to always run through the middle of all puddles and mud areas, which would limit trail damage. It was clear we’d spend the day very wet and muddy. There were 34 of us brave souls at the start, with a pretty low-key start line. I decided to hang out near the front and see how things went. It was clear quite early that one dude out to put a little distance between him and the crowd as soon as possible, but apart from that, I found myself running a nice solid race pace with a group of about 4-5 other accomplished ultra runners. Initially, I had a feeling that I’d drop back within a loop, but much to my surprise, I spent the majority of my first 4 hours running with this lead pack (minus turbo dude in front).

We had a good group spirit, and traded stories and jokes as we got progressively wetter and dirtier, and the trail god increasingly more treacherous. To call it a trail in spots would be a misnomer. It was more like a river carving its way along the remnants of trails. It felt quite rain forest-esque in some spots as well. Luckily, it wasn’t super cold, so I was making do with tights, a merino wool long sleeve top, and a gore-tex shell. Ironically, I’d grabbed that gore-tex shell as an afterthought on the way out, but it ended up being my outer layer for the entire day! I was having so much fun running with these guys that when nature was calling, I was paranoid about losing them, so I had to time my stops. At one point, I was sitting in a porta-potty, keeping the door open a crack to see when the lads would be running by (this was between laps). Amazingly, I didn’t lose to much time and got to hang out a bit longer with them.

Regardless, when hour 4 came along, I decided to take my first real pit stop, and change socks and shoes. Yes, I’d lose time, but that wasn’t as critical to me as it was that I check my feet for any damage, and try another pair of shoes. In an ironic twist, my ‘pit crew’ ended up being none other than Ray Zahab himself, who feigned being grossed out by peeling my socks off for me. But knowing what he has gone through in the past, I have no doubt it was more acting than real disgust! I changed my Salomon Wings Pro 2 shoes for a pair of Inov-8 Mudclaws, which I thought may work better in the now deep mud. The plan was to run in this combination for the next 4 hours.

Full Stride

Well, about 3.5 hours later, a couple things happened. First, I was informed that I’d only be doing one more ‘long’ loop up Brians trail (that whole section was getting cut). Secondly, I’d had enough of the Inov-8s. They were killing my feet. With minimal cushioning and large lugs, every time I’d push off or land on a rock, the lugs would drive into my feet, causing discomfort. I opted to take my 2nd pit stop a bit early. This time, I wanted a full boost. SO, I put on a new dry shirt, new gloves, new socks, and BRAND NEW shoes! Yup, trying out a pair of Skecher GoTrail waterproof shoes for the first time. Lots of cushioning. At this stop, Deanna noted that I didn’t seem very happy. I think she was right. The mud and rain, and sore feet were getting to me!

I lingered an extra minute or so before finally trotting out, with warm, dry feet, and a little trepidation at the final 4+ hours of running I had ahead of me. By now, I had definitely lost the pace of the front runners, and was more or less running my own race. In the past 4 hours, we seen the numbers swell first from the 6 hour runners joining us, and then the 3 hour runners joining. However, after the 9 hour mark, it was back to just the 12 hour runners, and things quieted down a lot. I was on my own. However, something magical happened on that lap I think. I felt lighter on my feet again. It was the shoes! These things drained the water fast, felt light, and were like pillows on my feet compared to the previous pair. When I finally jogged in after the next loop, Deanna could see I was much happier again. Of course, maybe it was also the slice of pizza that I had inhaled!

Either way, when you know you only have a bit more than 3 hours to go, you are starting to see the end of the misery (fun?). By this point in the day, I could tell that my pace had dropped. Without really being aware of it, I had now been lapped by the leaders, who seem to have an inhuman ability to keep pushing at the same pace they’d started at. For me, there was definitely starting to be ‘groundhog day’ feel to the loops, and I realized I now knew exactly where the rocks were hiding in the puddles, which roots to avoid, and which rocks were the best to jump on and off from. Things had definitely moved into the ‘cruise control’ portion of the day. Now it was all in the mental game. Willing myself to just keep going around another time, despite realizing that there was nothing amazing waiting around the bend! Luckily, people were still hanging around at the lap area, occasionally even emerging from the warmth and dryness of the building to cheer us on.

Filming and Running

Energy-wise, I’d say that I’d done a good job with nutrition. I was testing out Tailwind as a substitute to solid food, and it worked pretty well. My only concern was that by moving to a liquid-only option, I think I drank too much, too fast in the early hours, as I did end up with some bloating and discomfort for a few laps. I suspect that on a hotter day, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue, since I’d need the liquids more. At any rate, later in the day, I went back to my tried and tested combo of Nuun for hydration and Fruit2 for nutrition.

As the clock marched forward, I started doing the mental math on pacing to figure out exactly how many more loops I’d have in me. You see, as long as you START a loop before the 12 hour cut-off, you can finish it, and it counts. So in that way, the 12 hour race is actually over 12 hours :-). I have a feeling that my internal clock was actually pre-programmed however. On my final lap, it appeared as though my pace was EXACTLY tuned for complete the loop AT the 12 hour mark. I’m pretty sure that if I’d *really* wanted it, I could have crossed the line a couple minutes before the cut off and completed one more loop. However, I also realized it would not affect the standings in the least bit for me. The next person ahead would be at least 1 loop ahead, and I couldn’t catch them, and anyone behind me would be unable to do another loop anyway, and therefore not ‘pass’ me. So I opted to just cruise in comfortably at the 12 hour mark.

Finish Line with Race Directors

A small but energetic group was gathered at the finish cheering in the 12 hour finishers at this point, including all 3 of the race directors. They were chanting for me to dive head first into the mud across the line, but frankly, I was having none of that. I just wanted to be done now, get out of the rain, and rest a while. After all, I was slated to be at a potluck / party in the next hour!! You can just imagine how much fun I was going to be there 😉

When all the dust, or rather mud, settled, the stats on the day were cause for some happiness. I had covered roughly 85km of distance, including over 3,500m of elevation gain. I clinched 5th place overall, and by looking closely at all the results, had a pretty damn good day out there. While I really had nothing to prove, I nonetheless showed myself that my early season fitness was there, and that as long as I stay healthy, I should be in good shape to complete all my challenges planned out for 2017! As to the new gear, again, I’m happy to report positive findings on all fronts, especially my decision to impulse order DryMax socks from the US. After going through this 12 hour torture test, my feet looked pretty immaculate, all things considered. Given that they were submerged in water with churning sand all day, this was a remarkable feat. Mind you, it took HOURS to rinse out all the gear the next day, but I suffered not a single blister! Amazing!

Strava of Route

Well that pretty much wraps up my race report from the Black Fly. I’d say this is a perfect early season event for any ultra runner, as you can go as hard or easy as you want, test new things out, be surrounded by fun people, and get in a hell of a training day with lots of elevation. If you’re into that sort of thing, I’d definitely put this one on the calendar for next year. And in case you need any more convincing, check out my video below! Until next time, get out there, and have some fun. Next up for me is another 50 miler, back to the Cayuga Trails 50 in Ithaca, New York. Stay tuned for that race report!

Freezing my Bits Five Times at Pentathlon

Yes, I realize that writing up a race report from the depths of the winter may be odd, given the current season, but I really have to catch up on things, don’t I? This blog post takes us back a mere two and a half months ago to the Plains of Abraham where I was taking part in the unique Pentathlon des Neiges Quebec. As the name implies, the race has 5 stages; biking, running, skiing, skating, and finishing with snowshoeing. The entire race takes place in the historic Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, making it a fun destination. Read on to hear all about it.

Pentathlon des Neiges 2017

This was not my first time racing in this event. I’ve done both the Pentathlon previously, as well as the winter triathlon that they also host.  The Pentathlon is actually an event that spans several weekends with different events, and I had been invited back to tackle the Pentathlon. The last time, I raced in the ‘elite’ category of the triathlon, and had my butt handed to me by ex-Olympians, national team athletes, etc. Luckily, in the Solo Pentathlon, there was no ‘elite’ category, so I’d probably place a little higher (although still get my ass handed to me!).

Being early in March this year, my hope was that the weather would be decent. The last time I did the event, we had to drive over 9 hours through a snowstorm just to get to the start line, and I really didn’t want to go through that again. Given the extremely balmy temperatures at this year’s Gatineau Loppet, I assumed things would be relatively mild. I couldn’t be further from the truth, as in fact, this would prove to be one of the absolute coldest races I’d taken part in! Luckily, at least the drive from Chelsea was fairly uneventful on Friday night. We had decided to make a long weekend of it by taking Monday off, so we’d be spending three nights in the Chateau Laurier hotel in Quebec city, hopefully taking advantage of amenities like the hot tubs, as well as touring the city.

Trying ot Stay Warm Before Race

My race was the first on tap for Saturday morning, which of course meant the coldest possible conditions. Not only that, but we had a lovely little ice wind blowing just to make sure we got the full experience! On the plus side, the sun was shining brightly, so visibility wasn’t an issue. Luckily for Deanna, we had media / VIP passes, so she had a warm place to go to if required. No such luck for me, since I’d be racing. If nothing else, there was strong motivation to move fast and finish quickly!

The opening salvo was the 14.3 km bike leg, which was multiple 3.8 km loops along the roads surrounding the Plains, including a pretty significant decent off the plains to a U-turn where we had to pedal back up. It was bloody cold on that decent, screaming down a hill at 60km/h wearing only lycra in -35 temps feels more like -50, so as you can imagine, the bits and bobs were feeling it. Or rather, they felt nothing as things were slowly but surely going numb. The course itself was pretty nice, with no major surprises. After the final loop, we turned onto  a groomed snow trail to head to transition. The fast dudes were all riding cyclocross, but for my part, it was my trusty mountain bike (hadn’t yet bought my cx bike…).

Finishing Bike Leg

I rolled into transition as a veritable Stevie Ice pop, and had to get right out on the run. I’d opted to use flat pedals, which at least meant I didn’t have to change foot wear. Instead, my ice block feet got right to work churning snow on the multi loop run course. Something felt off right away, but it was hard to tell what it was, what with no circulation. Eventually, after about 600-700m, I realized the issue. While I had gone completely numb on the bike, the run was actually forcing some semblance of circulation in my feet, and it was causing extreme pain as it passed through my quite frozen tissue. Pretty sure had the bike leg been much longer, I would have had bad frost bite. As it was, the run ‘saved’ my feet, but caused much agony.

It wasn’t until I’d completed a full 1.6km lap and a bit of the run that my feet started to work again. I’d had to stop and shake them out for a while on lap 1 as well, which is quite evident from my split times on the run. Regardless, once I ‘found my feet’, I took the time to enjoy the scenery a bit more and get through the 5 km run. I gotta say, 5k of running has never been quite as challenging in some ways!

Working on Fast Transition

Coming into the second transition I’d now face my first ‘costume change’, as I had to remove my sneakers and put on my ski boots. This is where I was really, really thankful that I had heated gloves on! For once, I actually had feeling in my fingers during a winter transition, making it much easier to untie and re-tie footwear. That was a life saver for me! I had a relatively good transition, and was soon jogging to the ski put-on line. Obviously, I’d be skate skiing my way around this course, and after my race at the Gatineau Loppet, I had a feeling this might be my best leg of the event. I strode out of the stadium purposefully, hoping to make up some spots I’d lost on the first 2 legs.

Again, we were set to do multiple loops around the Plains covering a total of just under 10 km over 3 loops. The snow had been groomed quite nicely prior to the race, so although the air was very cold, the snow hadn’t become too frozen. I had good glide without being too icy. I was able to find a decent grove and sure enough, I was passing people along the way. Going into this leg, I had been 52nd on the bike, and 46th on the run, but wrapped up the ski in 30th. In my category, it was even better. I had been 16th in bike, 14th in run, but emerged 7th on the ski! With only 2 legs left, my intention was to hold my spot as best as I could.

Heading onto Ski Course

Lucky for me, with my endurance base, I can generally maintain my pace for quite a while, even when things get tough, so I was pretty confident I could stay in my place, in spite of not being a strong skater. This would prove to be another interesting leg. All told, I’d been out skating precisely ONCE prior to this race, so I was both practicing and racing at the same time. Round and round the perfect ice oval for 21 laps, that you had to count yourself. On the plus side, once again I avoided a shoe change since my blades clip right onto my ski boots. Thank goodness for technology.

I did my best to imitate the form of a speed skater, leaning way forward and trying to keep my arms in that oh-so-cool looking relaxed behind the back posture. Sadly, looking at some of the pictures, I’d say I was only about half as aero as I felt like I was. It may not have been pretty, but it was hopefully effective. Sure enough, stepping back off the ice and back into transition for the last time, I had maintained my exact standing.

Non Ideal Form

And now for the penultimate stage of the Pentathlon. The snowshoe! This leg could prove interesting for the simple fact that I was running on completely untested gear! I (or rather Deanna) had literally picked up a pair of snowshoes in a mad scramble on Friday afternoon that  had ordered in a few days earlier. A completely new design consisting of a plastic frame that I’d seen around a few races, and wanted to try. They were TSL symbioz hyperflex racing snowshoes, and were almost HALF the weight of my other snowshoes, so I was keen to try them out. As Deanna was driving us on Friday, I was in the passenger seat making adjustments and setting them up to fit my shoes perfectly. My only testing consisted of jogging in the hotel about 10 feet to make sure they were secure!

Lucky for me, things worked very well. These beauties were so light that you barely felt any swing weight at all as you were running. I took note on the course of just how many people had converted to this snowshoe. They have definitely taken the top-end racing scene (at least in Quebec) by storm. I can also vouch for them now. They are sturdy. Given the very cold temps, this was a good test for whether they’d become brittle or cause blistering issues. I’m happy to report I emerged unscathed, and also managed to gain a spot in my category, and 2 in the overall classification.

Last Minute Push

So, the final tally for me? Well, in what I’d consider a very competitive field, I ended up 29th overall, 26th male, and 6th (of 24) in my category. I was happy with that. And even more happy that I could get out of the cold!! It was time to warm up first with a hot chocolate, and later, a beer and a meal! We did also find time to hop into the hotels hot tubs (which were cruelly located outside, meaning a VERY cold bathrobe stroll to get into them. Although we had grand plans to tour Quebec City a bit more this time, we decided it was too bloody cold to make that very enticing. The following day, we watched the elite team competition, which was pretty exciting to watch. Lucky for them, the weather was a little warmer.

All in all, we had another great time at this event, which is definitely one of the best organized winter events I’ve had the privilege of taking part in. I was also covering the event for the magazine, so I had plenty of camera gear in tow. Sadly, footage from my own event was pretty tough to obtain, given that all my gear basically instantly froze out there. Batteries are no match for those really low temps. However, I had much better luck the next day when I could protect the gear between shots. As a result, if you haven’t done so yet, please check out the video I shot below. Till next time, see you out on the trails!

The Good and Bad at 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!

Before the Ski

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.

Classic Route Imge

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.

At the Start Area

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.

Arriving at Finish Classic

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.

Skate Route Imge

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!

Skating on Parkway

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.

Crossing the Line

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!

Looking for Gold out on the Ski Trails

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.

CSM 2017 - Gold Bar

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.

Skiers Getting Ready

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!

Day1 Track Image

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.

Frozen Beard at Checkpoint

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!

Around Gold Camp

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!

Day2 Track Image

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!).

Snow Starts Falling

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!