Tag Archives: Silver

Finding Silver on the Canadian Shield at Wilderness Traverse

[My apologies for not getting this race report written up sooner! Amazingly, two weeks have already passed! A few days were just for recovering, then life got in the way. But without further ado, here we go.] A mere three weeks before this race, I was tackling the toughest race I had tried to date, the 4-day Untamed New England. However, being slightly shorter, at 24 hours in length, does NOT make a race easier. In fact, racing with my ‘semi-pro’ competitive team actually made this another really tough race, thanks to the relentless pace, and the taste of podium pushing us hard the whole way.

Two weeks out, we had a good look through the roster, and figured we had a legitimate shot at winning this race, which is one of the toughest fought adventure races in Eastern Canada (if not Canada). It attracts top teams from all around, and this year even had 2 teams from France competing. However, a day later, I noted that a new team had signed up consisting of Benoit Letourneau, Alex Provost, Vincent Meunier, and Liza Pye. Yup, pretty much the dream team, and technically 3 time returning champions.  They usually win by huge margins, so victory was FAR from assured, but we had to go in with a strong positive attitude, which we did.

With the race featuring a remote start early Saturday morning, we all converged on race HQ Friday evening for gear checks and race briefings. Maps were distributed around 8:30pm, and were pre-plotted with CPs and TAs. Harper then got to work on the important job of route determining. With tethered laptop we scoured Google Earth and Bing trying to make sense of the terrain to find the ‘hopefully best’ route. In AR, you are always taking a bit of a gamble when the course is predominantly raw wilderness. As the name implies, this race has that in spades. Race director Bob Miller never holds back, spending the better part of an entire year designing a kick-ass course. The asses being kicked of course are the racers’! Back at our hotel room, we wrapped up map prep and gear sorting and were in bed before midnight to get a solid 4-5 hours of sleep before rolling back to HQ to catch buses and start the race, knowing we wouldn’t be back there until sometime the next day (although we hoped for a quick finish by racing hard).

Stage 1: The Paddle

Annotated Map 1

The first section of the first leg of the race was meant to put water navigation to the test, as it featured a canoe paddle amongst thousands of tiny islands to pick out a ‘needle in a haystack’ with a CP on one of the islands. You could either pick a direct route, or use a ‘handrail’ by sticking closer to the mainland and having visual cues of where to turn. We had chosen the ‘safe’ route as shown above (click to see full size), but unfortunately had our boats improperly balanced. Nat and I were in one boat, and James and Harper in the other. They were the stronger boat, so we had mismatched speeds. We arrived at CP1 to see many other teams had grabbed it and were on their way to the next CP already! Oh well, chasing from the  back is easier, right? The full splits had us as 14th to arrive there!

We also delayed further at CP1 by shuffling the boats, now putting James and I in one boat, and Nat and Harper in the other. We all agreed it was ‘hammer time’, and set our goals on re-capturing the front of the race. With speed balanced out better, and fire in our paddles, we raced off. In short order, we had passed a number of teams, and were continuing to pull ahead. We then got a break further into the paddle when all the lead teams got tripped up in a ‘blind bay’ where the route back out to a river we wanted to follow was not obvious. We saw all the leaders, and even compared notes before we all set off en masse again.

We noted that Benoit (Team O-Store) and his crew opted to take a gamble and try for a portage rather than look for a tributary. However, we saw them just as we were actually starting the completely navigable stream, which in theory should help us. We traded paddle strokes with the other leaders, including the teams that had arrived at CP1 in 1st and 2nd. By the time we hit CP2, we were sitting in 4th overall, and held that placement until the first transition, where we were gearing up for the trek. All told, after the initial delays, we were pretty pumped with our position, especially knowing that our strength is in the trekking leg, which is what we were about to tackle. To buoy us even further, O-Store was still on the water, and we were leaving transition just as they were arriving. Their portage idea had hurt them, but they pushed hard to make up time.

Stage 2: Trekking

Annotated Map 2This section was where we knew we could pull ahead of many of the chasing teams by pulling off a solid trek. On the water, there is not much room to get ahead, as all teams are limited by hull speed on boats, as well as limited route options. With only 1 real portage, it had been just a straight up paddle. However, on the trek, there are many route options, and teams all have very different speeds when traversing real bush. We are fast on our feet, and have a top navigator to guide us. With over 20km of bushwhacking ahead of us, a LOT can happen.

We set to work on this section with a vengeance, with Harper leading the charge on a mission. Our first CP was a nice remote checkpoint where the staff had actually arrived by float plane on the lake! We crashed out of the woods to find out we were now sitting in 2nd place, and had arrived less than 10 minutes behind first place. We also learned that O-Store were now the team we were chasing! Yes, Benoit, the AR trekking legend, was working his magic once again and his team had completely overcome their earlier paddle snafu. As you’ll see, this is the theme that would define the rest of this race. O-Store in 1st, with use chasing hard, and a slightly longer gap behind us for 2 teams battling it out for 3rd.

The terrain had been [relatively] forgiving on the trek. Sure, we hit a number of swamps, but the bush itself was not super thick, which meant we were able to maintain a very good pace. At the end of the trek, Nathalie informed us this was the fastest  she had ever moved through a bushwhack in a race. From CP4 to CP5, we veered NE to look for some features, deviating from the proposed ‘ideal route’ we saw later, which was a more easterly route. It resulted us in hitting a river, and following it for a while before catching on to an ATV trail that we’d revisit on the bike. Harper noted that we hit the river much further west than he’d hoped, but on arriving at CP5, and looking at the stats, I would say that didn’t hurt us, as we were holding steady at 2nd place, under 10 minutes behind O-Store. More notably, for the trek between CP4 and CP5, we were a mere 24 SECONDS slower than O-Store! That is an amazing stat for a race where you are literally crashing through the bush and everyone takes a slightly different route, hitting swamps, deadfall, etc.

The final leg of the trek was a straight bushwhack between CP5 and CP6/TA2. There were no good features or possible trails, so we just got to work on it. With more solid footwork, we emerged at the transition zone to see O-Store still there, with Benoit actually sitting down eating and resting. Imagine their surprise at seeing us so close! We had been only 2 minutes slower than them, and emerged still a mere 10 minutes behind them!  They left in a hurry, but not fast enough, as we had a smell of blood! We pulled off a remarkably fast transition for trek to bike (fastest, at under 11 minutes), and left the peace of the transition zone now a mere 5.5 minutes behind the leaders.

Now, allow me to whine for just a moment about this type of racing. Transition zones, especially between two long legs, are a great chance to fuel up, change, and recharge. However, when you are racing at the level we were here, it is sheer panic and pandemonium. We are going through everything like a well-oiled machine, but you have to forego things like eating and sitting for a moment. O-Store had spent over 16 minutes in this transition, and the slower teams? They spent over 45 minutes there! Obviously, this is what you HAVE to do to be competitive, but inhaling two poptarts in 30 seconds is an impressive feat, but starting the bike with a mouth full of dry pastry and still putting gloves on can be a bit of a mental challenge! I seriously questioned whether I rather this kind of race or the more relaxed pace I had experienced at Untamed New England. Perhaps something in between?

Stage 3: The ‘Hydro Line’ Bike

Man oh man, what can I say about this leg of the race. It was by far the mentally most difficult, and technically pretty challenging as well. We were lucky, as we did 3/4s of this section of the race with daylight, and in dry conditions, but it was still a HELL of a slog! The beginning of this section was easy enough. About 12km of clear road riding.  We formed a paceline, and just hammered. arriving at the next CP still about 9 minutes behind O-Store. Unfortunately, we were aware that the next, and super-long section of biking could be our weakness. As a team, we knew we’d be slower on the technical power line section than O-Store. We were also unsure how far our nearest competitors were, nor how fast they may be. All we could do was push hard, and maintain our pace.

We literally spent much of this leg glancing behind our shoulders, expecting to get passed at any point. Our nerves were also severely tested by a completely unforeseen foe. DEERFLIES! OMG. I have no words for what these bastards did to our spirits. Even Steely Harper completely lost his shit with them. Our speed was simply not fast enough to out-run them, and they kept flying directly into the vents on my helmet, eating chunks of my ‘head buffet’ as I battled the tricky riding, with both hands on the handlebars. All 4 of us were unanimous in our loathing. In a tough race, you do your best not to complain or be negative, but this was simply too much for us, and we basically were all whining like little babies, at times cursing at the top of our lungs at these buggers. Harper said he had NEVER experienced bugs this bad in ANY race he’d done (hint: he’s done LOTS, including in jungle climes).

Ok, rant over. The point is, the riding was tough, our going felt painfully slow, the trail was long, the terrain endlessly undulating, and our nerves shot from the bugs, AND spirits worried that we’d be passed at any moment. The hallelujah moment was at the next CP, where we were STILL in 2nd place, albeit trailing by almost 45 minutes :-(. This wasn’t the end of the bike though, and we were now continuing on in the dark, and the rain, for the final push to the next transition zone.  Without the bugs though, this didn’t seem quite as miserable (yes, even in the rain). It was about another 12km of ATV trail riding.

On the closing kilometers of the bike, we passed by a slightly tired-looking team O-Store, who were starting the next trekking section. We knew the transition wasn’t too far ahead, and this lifted our spirits, knowing they were not super far ahead of us. They were also WALKING which had us surprised. Emerging at the TA, we discovered why. Apparently, Benoit was having some GI issues, and was periodically ill. Small blessing for us I suppose. By executing another blazing transition (over twice as fast as O-Store), we managed to leave that transition about 30 minutes behind O-Store, and not willing to give up the victory just yet.

Stage 4: Final Trek and Bike

Annotated Map 3

Well, this is it! The final push, and location of yet another ‘close call’ for Mr. ‘Zero percent body fat’ Meyer. We left that transition running hard. So hard that we momentarily set off on the wrong trail. D’Oh! We recovered quickly, but were annoyed at this trip-up. Our plan was to run the entire section where possible, in the hopes of closing the gap to O-Store, and ensuring we kept the 3rd place team safely at bay. Unfortunately, they did to us the exact same thing we had done to team O-Store. Namely, we crossed paths with them at nearly exactly the same place O-Store passed us. This meant we only had about 30 minutes on them too! Damn! That meant we had to keep pushing hard, in spite of starting to feel the effects of a long day racing at 100% output.

At this point, it was raining, but nothing too hard yet, so the terrain wasn’t too bad. For this section, we had about a 10-12k trek to pull off before the final bike leg. As part of the trek, we also had the ‘option’ to swim to a couple checkpoints rather than taking a long trek around. Of course, it wasn’t really an ‘option’ for us, as we knew we had to do this to keep the pressure on. Armed with that knowledge, I had put a dry shirt and rain paints and raincoat in a dry bag in my pack with the intention of changing directly after our swim.

We made good time on the lead-up to the swim, and wasted very little time in ‘taking the plunge’. Our progress was only slightly nerve-wracking in the fact that we were tackling this in the depths of the darkness. Although it was supposed to be a full moon, the rain and clouds meant no visibility. Luckily, the volunteers at one CP had lit a fire, so we essentially had a beacon for the first swim.  The distance was likely around 300m. Had we had daylight, I suspect we could have chosen a spot just a bit further that would have made that 200m. Regardless, off we went, swimming out little hearts out.

Unfortunately for me, I started cramping about halfway into the swim. These were leg cramps that I couldn’t get massaged out. I have to be honest, this was a bit frightening, as we had no flotation, and not a lot of chance for any sort of rescue, so I knew I had to suck it up. Luckily, my years of swim lessons (and lifesaving lessons!) kept me relatively calm, and I just focused on using my arms only. It made for slower progress, but I got there. Once at the CP, I hopped out to take a minute to attempt to massage out the cramps, before we hopped back for the next swim.

Harper estimated this swim at 100m, but in reality, it was as long as the first, and I guess 300m.  Looking at the maps, it was painfully clear that we *could* have cut that to between 50 and 100m by going a little way around the point, but in the darkness, we opted to just head straight towards our landmark, which was a stream on the other side. By the time we hit the far shore, I wasn’t the only one getting a big cold, and we took the time to ensure we’d stay warm for the next bit. For me, that meant stripping off a layer on top and bottom, and swapping out for a dry shirt and putting on my rain gear. I instantly felt better. Well, except for my legs, which were left rather sore from the cramping. I wolfed down as much food as I could while everyone else finished getting set. Then off we went, back in pursuit.

This bit wasn’t too bad, and we managed to hit a good stream that took us basically straight to the final trekking CP. Elated with that, we bushwhacked quickly back to the ATV trail which we’d follow back to the road. Guess what we did once there? Yup, RUN. Ugh. I was feeling pretty beat, but didn’t dare say anything, and just joined in. Within a very short time, I was then overheating with the extra layers, AND had to have a nature break, but had nary time to deal with either. Eventually, James helped by carrying my pack while I peeled off my jacket and pants WHILE RUNNING. It was tricky, but allowed us to not lose much time. For the nature break, try as I might, I was unable to do the ‘running pee’, and eventually pulled off, did my business, then had to run twice as fast to catch back up. Double ugh. But, these are the things you HAVE to do to win. We were also paranoid that team Epitact from France would emerge behind us at any time.

This effort did net us the fastest split on the final run from that CP to the transition, and ready to mount up on our bikes for the final push. On arrival at that TA, we learned that O-Store was still exactly 30 minutes ahead of us. D’oh! Apparently they found their mojo again. The final leg was a biking leg, and was supposed to only take about an hour, which meant catching them would likely not be feasible. Despite that, we left quickly, in order to keep a gap on 3rd place. At that point, we had no way of knowing they’d eventually fall over 1.5 hours behind us at that transition! Soggy and tired, we mounted our bikes, and pedaled off into the darkness, aware there was one final ATV section, before grabbing roads to the finish.

This final ATV section is where something interesting happened. THE SKIES OPENED UP! And I mean sheet rain. It was the heaviest rain we’d ever raced through in Ontario, and it lasted. Not just 5 minutes, but for HOURS! Knowing O-Store was probably out of the ATV section by then, we were totally sunk. We had to navigate the final bits of the race in rivers that were forming on the trail. Eventually all we could do was laugh. We knew everyone else was stuck in the same shit, so it would be a great equalizer, and guarantee our placing basically. Luckily, it wasn’t too cold.

Emerging at the 400, all we had to do was jump on the access road to town, and ride the big hill back to the finish area. Our time on this section was the worst of the 4 teams that eventually actually did it (only the top 4 teams did the full course including this ATV section, the rest of the ‘full course’ teams were allowed to go by roads the whole final section. We lost another 15 minutes on O-Store, meaning we finished off 45 minutes behind them at the finish. Despite this, they all told us this was the hardest they had to race to ensure their victory in this race in their last few years, which made me feel pretty good. They were nice enough to still be up to greet us. Apparently they had been quite surprised to see us in the transition zones where they did. We gave them a good run for their money (both figuratively and literally, given the $1500 cash prize on offer!).

When all was said and done, we’d raced nearly 21 hours non-stop at full throttle, and had a great result to show for it. All our gear and nutrition worked perfectly in this race, so big shout out to all our various sponsors and supporters (Xact Nutrition, 2XU, North Face, Nuun, Milk2Go Sport, and Osprey Packs popping into mind right away). 3rd place was another 1.5 hours behind us, and 4th place another 1.5 hours behind them! Amazing race. Undoubtedly, much of this likely had to do with the extreme rain that had taken over the course. As we went to sleep for a couple hours, it was insane how heavy the rain was falling down.]

Once we were back up, we dealt with gear, had a first breakfast, then a BBQ lunch, and finally the awards ceremony, and time to catch up with our fellow competitors. All agreed that this was yet another epic Wilderness Traverse for the books. Bob always puts on a great race, and it seems every year, the weather also plays a starring role. We’re already looking forward to returning next year for another run at Bob the Beaver (the winner’s trophy). But till that time, there’s still lots more racing. For me, next up is the Bruce Peninsula Multisport Race, which I’m really looking forward to. For that one, I’ll also be filming, so keep your eyes open for that report! Till then, hope everyone is having as much fun this summer as I am!

 

 

 

Chasing Silver in the Hills

My Prize - The CdB Silver Pin

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.

Taking the Ultimate Challenge for a 2nd Time

Silver for me in Mens Open

Let’s just clear the air here once again people. There is no such thing as an EASY race. Nor can there be a ‘relaxing’ race, or a ‘fun’ race. You are either racing, or you are participating. Why don’t I know that by now? As you are probably aware, last year I participated in the ‘Full Challenger’ version of UltimateXC. 3 gruelling days of racing, starting with a 67km kayak leg, then a 57km trail run, capped by a 100km mountain bike leg, all of which took place on and around Mont Tremblant. It was probably the toughest race I’ve ever competed in. But a great venue and event, so I wanted to come back. However, I opted to race in the 1/2 Challenger version, so a ‘mere’ 21km paddle, 21km run, and 50km mountain bike. My logic was that it would give me more time to just relax and enjoy the resort village. Ha! I fooled myself. This was still a tough race, and thanks to good friends and competitors, a hard fought battle for the podium. Curious about the whole story? Glad you are, as I will fill you in on all the gory details after the break. Before that, why not have a look at some of my pictures from the race as well?

As with last year, a group of us were planning on doing the race, but this year, the registration for the 3-day challenger events were way down. Last year, there were 39 of us signed up for the full challenger. This year? A mere 8 souls were braving the course again. As to the 1/2 Challenger, there were only 7 of us that began the race, and a mere 6 that actually finished! If it weren’t for the people registering for just the paddle, run, or bike days, there would be enough, so I’m glad they did sign up in large numbers, and that Dan continues to put on the 3-day race in spite of lower numbers. Here’s hoping that next year, the numbers take another upswing, because this truly is an epic race that deserves to be recognized and raced by those hardcore athletes out there! In our room in Tremblant village, two of us were doing the 1/2 Challenger (Mike Abraham and I), and two were doing the full (Pete Dobos and Pierluc). The accommodations were simple but adequate, and we had a full kitchen so that we could do a bit of cooking as well if we chose to.

The weather over the three days was absolutely perfect, if not just a touch too hot in the mid-day hours. For the paddle, we had nearly dead calm waters, which meant a fast easy race for all those on super-slick carbon fiber surfskis. It was definitely hot, but that’s better than a miserable paddle in the wind an rain. The run day and bike days were both pretty sunny and hot days with light winds. It would have been pretty insufferable had it not been for the fact that much of this race takes us into the woods where it is reasonably cool. Speaking of the woods, we had been warned that the bugs were out in massive numbers, so both Saturday and Sunday, my ritual included covering head to toe in sunscreen, waiting 30 minutes, then applying a liberal coat of bug dope, waiting a bit more, then slapping on my spandex outfit of choice. However, I didn’t find the bugs bad at all at any time. So again, a total plus for the weekend and the racing.

The only mild annoyance of the weekend was the fact that the 2 full challengers in our room had to be up super early each day for their race (I’m talking 4am here). That was due to 6am starts for them. On the other hand, our starts were at noon on Friday, and 10am on both Saturday and Sunday, so we had more time to sleep in and enjoy the lodgings. But that’s hard to do when, for example, the entire room is being smoked out by Pete cooking sausages at 4:30am on Friday morning! Ha ha. But like I said, only a minor annoyance, and all part of the experience and the collective memories! Alright, enough idle chit chat, let’s get on to the actual racing and daily results, which I’ll tackle by day/discipline for your ease of reading 🙂

Day 1: 21km Paddle on Lac Tremblant

Friday morning was the paddle. For us, it was a straightforward grind along the length of Lac Tremblant. 10.5 km up, loop around a boat that acted as a checkpoint, and 10.5 km paddle back. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Well, save for one thing. I hadn’t brought a boat! This was on purpose however, as I was thinking of buying a new boat for racing, and had a line on a couple at this race that I could try. So at 9am, I was already at the water trying out boats and deciding what I’d race on, even though the race didn’t start till noon. I settled on a Cobra Eliminator, a serious looking boat, albeit plastic. Based on an old K1 kayak design, but basically bulletproof. 17 feet long, and great for adventure racing due to the design. That out of the way, it was time to line up.

The racers were basically split into two groups. In the front, the day racers, all of whom were out on uber-fancy carbon and kevlar surf skis measuring 20+ feet each. When the gun went off, these guys quickly glided out of our reach. Behind them was the rest of the racers, the majority of which were in the 1/2 challenger camp. Luckily, I found myself at the front of that group. Right off the bat, Mike and I found ourselves leading the 2nd group. We matched each other stroke for stroke for most of the first 10.5k. He started pulling away near the turnaround, and I had a hard time responding right away. I also ran out of drink before the turnaround. Not a good thing, as the heat and sun were doing a number on me and my long sleeved shirt. I was hot and sweaty, with no relief in sight. There was an aid station, but since Mike skipped it, I had no choice. A volunteer tossed a little vial of X4 at me at the turnaround. No idea what it was, but I shot it down. Tasted like super concentrated grape freezie.

Bzzzz! Whatever it was, it kicked in, and I was able to bring back some razor-like focus to my paddling and bridged back the gap to Mike, and together we both passed the next closest fellow ahead of us on an outrigger surf ski. We then battled hard the rest of the way back to the finish line. I was getting really thirsty, and the only thing I could do was occasionally scoop a handful of water from the side of the boat and slurp it. Mike kept up the pace, but we were both slowing a bit. Once again, near the end, he pulled ahead a little bit, and I just couldn’t respond. At the finish, he pipped me by a mere 39 seconds. That put Mike in 1st for the 1/2 Challengers, and me in 2nd. I was happy with that for day 1. The rest of the challengers finished shortly after us, with 3rd place coming in 3 minutes later. The pack was pretty tight going into day 2.

For the full challengers, they’d had a loooong day on the water. In the end, Pete Dobos came off the water in 1st place overall, and was extremely happy with that result. The top 4 paddlers all used exactly the same boat. Plastic as well, but longer and more ‘racy’ than mine. However, it was also a $1000 more than what I’d be paying. Oh yeah, that’s right, I decided to buy the boat I raced with, I liked it so much! So now Deanna and I both have boats to go out paddling in 🙂

Day 2: 21km Trail Run on Mont Tremblant

Yay! Trail running day! In my mind, this was my only chance to get any time on Mike as well as my next closest competitors. Mike is a strong runner too, but I thought my experience running the 56k race last year, and the fact that I had just come off a 3:16 marathon after months of training, should give me an edge. With that, I seeded myself at the very front of the pack for the start, as did all the other challengers though! The race started at about 10:15am, and the course looked quite reasonable. The opening 8km was on relatively flat rolling trails, looping back into the village before launching us straight up the mountain in the technical trails. In other words, a chance to warm up on the ‘flats’ before facing the headwalls. At the starting gun, I wasted no time in launching myself into the very front grouping of racers, even if they were only day racers. However, Mike was right on my heels the whole way. We led a pretty blistering pace through that first 8k loop, and by the time we were back in the village, I had distanced myself from the other Challengers, and now was on my own in the front, with the day racers. I kept pushing hard, trying to gauge the effort I could put in without seriously damaging myself for day 3. That was difficult to do during the euphoria of the race.

Pushing hard, I hit the steep climbs with a lot of spring in my step. I ran almost 100% of the course, which if you saw some of the climbs you’d understand why when I say ‘run’ it isn’t very fast! As far as I know, it was paying off, and I was even passing some of the day racers. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no way of knowing where Mike was in all of this. No looking back, I said, and kept telling myself he was right there. During the run, I had a water pack which I drank from the whole way. At aid stations, I’d grab another glass of electrolyte drink, and I had a grand total of 2 gels as well. But I felt strong and fresh almost the whole way, which was what I’d hoped for. My only tough spot came at the very end. I was catching up to another fellow on the downhills, and after hitting the village, I tried sprinting past him, at which point my calves screamed in protest and started cramping! D’oh. I dropped the pace and hobbled to the finish line a few hundred meters further.

At the line, I crossed in 1st of the challengers with a time of 2:04:16, putting in nearly 6 minutes on Mike, and over 20 minutes on the next closest challenger. With that, I was now in 1st, with 5 minutes in the bank to Mike, and 27 minutes to J-R who was in 3rd. Even better in my mind was the fact that I came 7th overall in the 21k run, out of over 130 trail runners! Great result there. Mikes time was also good enough for 12th overall, and 2nd in his category, for which he got a silver medal! Nice. With the run done, Mike and I hung out for a while at the finish watching others, then grabbed the chairlift to the summit to do some sightseeing. Ironically, soon after arriving there, Pete was just coming through a checkpoint at the summit before heading downhill to the finish. He looked a bit rough, and apparently, the run had taken A LOT out of him. I think he was already worried about the next day. All the full challengers looked pretty beat up at the end. I remember that feeling from last year, and even worse, the horror of realizing that the next day, you had to mount your bike for 100km of the most difficult mountain biking you can picture. Ugh! I was suddenly VERY glad I only had 50km of riding to do! And so endeth day 2 for me!

Day 3: 50km Mountain Biking around Mont Tremblant

To say that day 3 is hard is definitely an understatement. After 2 days racing, getting up and starting the engine up again is tough. This year, it was much easier to do thankfully, and I was elated to find that I still had pretty strong legs to start this day off. Of course, so did my nemesis Mike. And to top it off, biking is by far his strong suit, as well as J-R’s, the fellow in 3rd currently. On a 50km bike, I could easily lose the 27 minutes to him. I headed to the start line with Mike with great trepidation. There was chit chat with both he and J-R, but there was no joking when I told them this was my weakest link, and that I would be lucky to stay close. They knew that though, and they were hungry to chew me up on the bike. That was abundantly evident when the race got underway. J-R and Nat (his girlfriend) took off like bullets right away. I had to pump my little legs double fast just to keep up. This was not inspiring confidence. Mike was also sucking my wheel right away. Ironically, our little group was actually leading the entire charge, with the single day racers behind us. I took a mental note that this was probably not the smartest way to start the long bike.

It wasn’t long before other racers started passing me, including Mike. I watched, feeling a bit helpless, as the little group started putting distance ahead of me. I kept telling myself that this was for the good in the long run, as there were lots of tough climbs coming up, and I was hoping that they would burn themselves out or maybe not keep as hydrated as they should, and accordingly, suffer a bit more than me later in the day. I did my best to keep a very even pace, and whenever I caught glimpses of riders ahead, tried to keep the distance constant. In a little while, we started hitting the long climbs, and here I was able to make up some time, and catch some of the stragglers on the front of the group. When the going got tough uphill, I’d hop off, but jog up the inclines, which was met with a lot of surprise when racers learned I’d been racing all weekend. I made sure I kept putting electrolytes in me, ate food when I could, and drank lots. The plan was to keep running in top form.

Unfortunately, that fell apart for me around kilometer 36 or so I think. We had finished a really long uphill climb followed by some really gnarly and technical descending. We were now turning back up the hill for a long exposed climb on an access road. That’s when the cramps hit me. Leg cramps. The most painful and prolonged cramps I’ve felt in a long time. It reminded me of a 48hr race I did once where I was taken off course for severe dehydration. The cramps hit, and I just completely fell over sideways from the pain. It was like someone was passing an electric current into my muscles directly, causing them to fully contract and not let go. I was devastated. I screamed in agony, and passing cyclists felt my pain. I dug as deep as I possibly could to tell my brain to ignore the cramps and keep going. As the muscles seized and pulsated, I was able to force myself to walk/shuffle, dragging the legs as I went. Gradually, the cramps would fade and allow me to ride for another while, but always seemed to come back later down the trail for the rest of the ride. I did A LOT of walking on the final sections, and it DID NOT make me happy. I knew with each walking ‘break’ I took, my competitors were gaining on me.

When I finally rolled down the final steep pitches back into the village, I was mentally crushed. I put on as much speed as I could muster, but feared the worst. I knew the worst would be 3rd place on the podium, but even that depressed me, knowing I had held the top rung. I crossed the finish line, still elated by the accomplishment, but needing to know the outcome. J-R was there to greet me right away, and grinning, he said ‘I nailed you on that one, I finished long ago’. But just how long? Well, it turns out it was only 13 minutes earlier, which mean I still had roughly 15 minutes on him overall! Sweet! 2nd was assured. But what about Mike? He was nowhere to be found. Turns out he finished another 7 minutes ahead of J-R. Between them, they grabbed 1st and 2nd overall for the 50k bike of all the competitors! Very nice. If you do the math, it essentially meant Mike was on the top rung, and roughly 15 minutes back was me, and another 15 minutes back was J-R. We were all pretty stoked with the results. Mike a little less energetic, mainly due to the fact that the effort on the bike landed him in the medical tent as he was very dizzy and lightheaded. Turns out they both gave it their all on the bike, which makes me feel pretty decent about how I finished, considering it was my weakness!

Looking back on the whole weekend, it was once again cemented in my mind that UltimateXC is a tough race. But it’s also a great race. A competitor’s race. You can run head to head with the best, or race yourself. Either way, there is something for every level of racer there. Everyone comes out both grinning, as well as with a bit of angst over the difficulty of the race. But hey, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. As you can tell, this was not a ‘lazy weekend’ by any stretch. As to enjoying Tremblant and sightseeing? Well, we went out for supper once. We hit the gondola to take in the views once, and took a quick dip in the hot tub. But, I enjoyed many kilometers of some of the best paddling, running, and riding in the region, and that in itself made for an epic ‘vacation’ 🙂 That ends my tale for this race. Stay tuned for my next report, where I hopefully can claim my place among the Spartans. Yup, the Spartan Race is coming up, and I’ll be reporting on it for Get Out There Magazine. Till then, stay cool!!