Tag Archives: Skiing

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!

Earning another Gold Bar at the 50th CSM

Hello my loyal and dear readers! I’m sure that by now, many of you have been wondering what has happened to the ‘real’ ActiveSteve. You know, that nut that seems to race every other weekend and posts all about his exploits on this site. Well, the reality is that I’ve pretty much had my head down and not doing too much training all weekend. As you may recall from my most recent race, I have been fighting a pretty bad foot problem, which is more or less just a bursitis and plantar fasciitis. Ultimately, the only thing that can make it better is totally resting and re-habbing the foot. This can take months, so I decided to not run at all this winter. I also made the decision to not sign up for ANY races. However, the Canadian Ski Marathon is not a race, right? So as you will guess, I made an exception! Read on for the story about this year’s epic attempt at this storied event.

Right off the bat, I should mention as well that the reason I decided to return to the CSM this year was principally because they were celebrating their 50th Anniversary! That’s right, this classic Canadian event was actually a Canadian Centennial project, with its first running in 1967. A lot has changed since then, but the difficulty of completing the entire event as a Gold Coureur des Bois has not. In spite of not running at all this winter, and the late start to the ski season, I DID put a LOT of distance under my skis. Apart from skiing, my only other outlet was spinning on my bike in the basement, which gets very old very fast I find. Once fully trained up, I also paid a visit to a sports medicine doctor (after Ultrasounds and MRIs confirmed the exact troubles with my foot), and was the recipient of an ultrasound-guided corticosteroid shot right into my heel to the main site of my bursitis, to relieve the inflammation and give me a fighting chance of getting back to training. Thank goodness, as I was going to need to dig deep for this year’s Gold Bar!

Day 1 – Buckingham to Montebello

Below you’ll see a map of the Day 1 route (which you can click on to see in fullscreen on my flickr page. This year, the route went from west to east, starting at Buckingham, QC, and ending at Lachute, QC. Our first day clocked in at about 78km of total distance to get to the Gold Camp. Although there are no ‘official’ stats on everyone, I can assure you that MANY people did not ski that entire distance. In fact, this is the only time I can remember where people who skied only 2 sections in one day, but skied the entire 2nd day were granted their awards and recognized as having ‘completed’ the CSM! From where I sat (having completed the ENTIRE distance) it was hard to feel that they ‘deserved’ that distinction, but as you’ll hear the reasons, I’ll let you make up your own respective minds about that!

CSM 2016 Day 1

Let us not forget just how challenging  a year this was for snow in our region. We didn’t get proper snow to ski on until well into the Christmas holidays, with many not really getting in any real skiing until into the new year. That gave participants only 5-6 weeks to prepare for a grueling 160+km 2-day ski event. I’m sure many people opted to either not ski or to shorten their goals to become ‘tourers’, but for me, there is no such thing as half-measures or cutting back. This was my SOLE winter event, and I intended to push through the entire ordeal.

2 weeks out from the event, and there was barely enough snow to ski, so there was a lot of trepidation by the event crew leading up to event, reminding us all that this was an ‘adventure’ event. However, prayers were answered, and midway through the final week before the event, we got a monster dump of snow. I think it was like 55cm. All systems were go, and there was a lot of relief.

To help prepare for the event, I’d done a lot of training using my actual event pack, doing experiments on exactly how light I could get it while still having all the gear I’d need. I managed to cut things down to the bare minimum, with about 16 lbs. of gear for the big event. I had to cut out some luxuries, but I DID pack tasty snacks and a pint bottle of Southern Comfort for Gold Camp (where I had to sleep outside on a hay bale). I figured even if I was exhausted and miserable, the booze would warm me up and help me get a little sleep!

Section 6 Picture

Yup there I am, fully decked out with my ski gear and slogging my way through what I believe was the 5 leg of day 1. Hard to tell from that picture, but I was SOAKED, as it had rained for much of the day. The night before we started off, the snow swooped in once again, and ironically, made a mess of things. The organizers tried their best by sending grooming machines our not too long before we set out, in attempt to trackset the course once again (all tracks were GONE thanks to more heavy snow). However, that would backfire, as you’ll learn.

So at 5:40am, in the pitch dark, with giant snowflakes falling down and covering everything, we took off. Temperatures were relatively mild, and the forecast called for what we like to call ‘challenging’ waxing conditions. The weather would warm up, and with it, bring LOTS of rain for the rest of the day. So, we were faced with heavy, wet snow, turning into slush as the snow turned to rain. On the plus side, it meant perhaps staying a bit warmer, but then again, if I got too wet, things would also deteriorate. My solution was to opt for hear to toe rain gear, and stick with that all day.

I set out at a good pace and was hanging out at the front of the entire Gold group, which I think was a good strategy. When I got to the 1st checkpoint, I was with people I had no business skiing with, including Pierre Lavoie. On the upshot, since there were no tourers or the CSM silver and bronze Coureur des Bois, progress was swift. I barely stopped to re-fuel, and decided to press on. With the rain now starting, I wanted to keep moving.

The next section was also quick, and I was starting to be REALLY surprised that I wasn’t getting passed by more skiers. Normally, by now, the speedy skiers from the silver and bronze group would have overtaken me, but they were nowhere to be seen. Another ‘litmus test’ was the fact that I still hadn’t seen Dave and Lise (my ski coaches), and in fact, they wouldn’t pass me until near the end of the 4th (of 5) sections. Very weird. As it turns out, behind us, things were getting bad. Due to the conditions, there had been some MAJOR bottlenecks in the trail, with only 1 or 2 sets of tracks availble for people to use. That lead to people waiting literally 45 minutes as they slowly shuffled along (kind of like a highway traffic jam, where when you pass it, there is seemingly no reason that you even were slowed down!).

About 5k into the section, I was about to careen down a crazy downhill, but I kept hearing what sounded like a car alarm, which I thought was very odd for the middle of the woods. Luckily, on the downhill, I wiped out before going around a blind corner. Why lucky? Well, as I turned the bend there was a MONSTROUS BROKEN-DOWN GROOMER!

Stage 3 was where everything went sideways for most people. Having made such good time, I once again only took a short break before setting out on the 3rd stage. I remembered this one as a pretty challenging one, with interesting twisting downhills and narrow sections. I’m always amazed at how they are able to groom it, and imagined them using small machines to do so. However, that is not the case, as I’d soon learn. About 5k into the section, I was about to careen down a crazy downhill, but I kept hearing what sounded like a car alarm, which I thought was very odd for the middle of the woods. Luckily, on the downhill, I wiped out before going around a blind corner. Why lucky? Well, as I turned the bend there was a MONSTROUS BROKEN-DOWN GROOMER! I was amazed at the size (and very precarious position) of this giant snow churning machine.

So remember how I said the groomers had gone out not far ahead of skiers? Well, I’d caught up to him now, and he was going nowhere (in fact one of the entire machine treads was being removed). I removed skis and carefully walked around this beast squealing in pain, and soon realized that beyond him were NO TRACKS! Yup, I was now forced to slog through very deep, fresh snow with no real tracks. Luckily, 1 snowmobile had been able to backtrack to the groomer, so there was a slightly packed single track, but I was also now facing tourers on the trail. These are the people that choose to only do only a few sections each day, getting bussed around. Typically, they are families, and not very fast. Passing these ‘tourists’ was quite tricky with the deep snow, but was a necessity if I had any hope of making the time cutoffs.

In my mind, I was the lucky one, because at least I was on my way, and past the disaster. Little did I know that what they’d actually done was close down the section shortly after I’d started it. This lead to more bottlenecks, and people waiting over an hour in the pouring rain to get bused forward. That is why ultimately, the event organizers made the tough decision to declare you a ‘finisher’ even if you’d missed sections 3-4-5 on day 1. After waiting for over an hour in pouring rain, many skiers were de-motivated, and freezing cold, and not wanting to go on. Some real tough skiers did however only take the bus to the next checkpoint and continue. In my mind, THEY would deserve the finish, but I have a hard time sympathizing with those that skipped 60% of day 1. However, mother nature would pretty much take care of that on day 2 as well! But we’ll get to that in a moment.

After pushing hard through 10km of terrible non-track, I finally made it back onto something that was groomed. Luckily, they had more than 1 groomer, and the rest of the day was at least tracked. I stopped long enough at the next checkpoint to eat a bunch of food and re-assess waxing. By now, we’d stopped using wax, and I’d moved onto what is known as ‘quick klister’. Let’s just say it is the stuff of legends as far as making EVERYTHING you own sticky, but at least it worked in the wet, slushy snow today. The next 2 stages, while long and tiring, were pretty uneventful, and I was VERY happy to make it to gold camp.

Once there, it hit me just how much carnage was strewn out behind me. There were not a lot of people in camp yet, and it would be a long time before all the firepits would have campers. However, thankfully, I hooked up with a group of friends from NY who are adventure racers, and we had a ball. Also, the rain had let up while we hung out, there was live music, AND free beer at camp! Definitely a mood booster. As usual, once it was dark, and I’d eaten 2.5 meals, and re-hydrated, it was time to turn in. Yes, it was only about 8:30pm, but it was another long night and day ahead. No sooner did I crawl into my Mylar bivy sack and sleeping back did I hear the pitter-patter of rain. It rained pretty much all night! How do I know? Well, because I was basically awake the whole time, and trying to keep the water out (unsuccessfully). I slept in wet clothes in a wet sleeping back on wet hay. Hooray! Let’s just skip to the next day, shall we?

Day 2 – Montebello to Lachute

Okay. Day 2. Couldn’t be worse than what we’d gone through the last day and night, right? Well, don’t be too quick to say that…. I’ll start with the good news about day 2. It was NOT raining! And all forecasts showed that trend would stay true all day. So what were they calling for? Unseasonably warm temps! Uh-oh. Waxing might be a challenge, since it was cold starting out, and would warm up, BUT was also quite wet in the snow. I started trying to stay with my quick klister, in hopes the magic formula from the last day would work. As the map below shows you, today we had 86km before us. Ouch.

CSM 2016 Day 2

After doing my best to have a decent breakfast (ok, let’s face it, I poured boiling water into a pouch with granola, choked that down, and ate a granola bar….), it was time to line up and head out. Once again, Gold Camp broke early, and we were on the trail by 5:40am, well ahead of the other skiers (silver and bronze) who not only would start later than us, but were also starting a couple km away. This would give us the luxury of getting ahead an avoid any clogging.

However, clogging of skiers would NOT be our problem. What WOULD be an issue was a little thing called snow conditions. It was becoming evident that the klister was causing a fair bit of snow to build up under the skis. In theory, this was GREAT for climbing up the steep climbs, but on the top, where you’d like to swish away, you were stuck. Imagine walking through wet clay with your boots. Ever have that? You know, when it sticks to your boots and makes you feel like you have cement shoes? Yup! That’s how it felt. I felt I was dragging concrete blocks under my skies.

On top of the first two major climbs, lots of skiers were already scraping off their klister or other waxes and trying something else. I opted to just use a stick to scrape off the snow and press on, confident that the advantage on the uphills was worth the struggle. However, by the 4th or 5th big climb, I caved in and joined a line of about 20 skiers on the side of the trail all plying their craft and knowledge of wax to try their luck. For my part, I foolishly scraped ALL my klister off and applied hard wax (but warm-rated). I took off happy to be gliding effortlessly. However, as soon as the trail left level, I realized I’d made a horrible mistake. The skis behaved as though there was no wax at all. I just slipped uselessly, forced to attempt a hybrid classic / skate technique to make any progress. And it was SLOW progress.

I did remember to do one other thing that helped me keep going. I looked around. I took in the scenery. I appreciated the opportunity I was seizing. I was LIVING! A bad day in the woods on skis beats a great day in a cubicle yearning to be outdoors.

I continued fussing and trying different things, to no avail. It was either concrete skis or no grip at all! This literally continued for HOURS, and through the first 3 sections of the day. Lucky for me I have grit and determination. I realized the futility of the exercise and just focused on moving. Others, much stronger than me, used to good waxing technique, wasted FAR too much time trying to solve the problem, only to FAIL and get cut off. I was amazed at some of the stories I heard of the time people spent trying to get grip. My best bet was a far-shortened ‘wax pocket’ under my ski with klister on. I’d still pick up snow, but in a shorter length of ski, that I could periodically scrape.

I gritted my teeth, and pressed on hard, as the temperatures continued to climb. I did remember to do one other thing that helped me keep going. I looked around. I took in the scenery. I appreciated the opportunity I was seizing. I was LIVING! A bad day in the woods on skis beats a great day in a cubicle yearning to be outdoors. My high school had a great motto in latin: Palma non sine Pulvere, translated loosely to No Success without Struggle (or Victory not without Struggle). I’ve always remembered it, and it is one of my base mantras.

As I finished Stage 4, and was preparing for the penultimate stage, I ran into Lise Meloche. Not only is Lise one my unofficial ‘coaches’, but is also an Olympian and the first Canadian to win a world cup gold medal in biathlon. She is also eternally cheerful and an amazing supporter of all around her. Usually, she’d be demolishing the course with Dave, but he’d had a run of bad luck, and ultimately abandoned in the previous stage. As such, Lise saw me, and basically said “you ready”, and that was it, we left together to ski the last section together.

Finish Line Pic1

Something very magical happened in that last section. Yes, I was exhausted. Yes, I was mildly frustrated with the ordeal of the last 2 days. I had kept going on almost no sleep in 2 days. I wanted to be done, but usually, that leads to a very marked slow in my pace. However, with Lise skiing with me, and providing welcome company at just the right time, something great happened. I felt lighter, faster, and happier. We joked and skied, me expecting her to peel away at any time, but she stayed with me. Turns out I was going quick enough to keep her happy. Looking at my average pace on the first 4 stages, I was skiing at 8.2, 7.3, 7.0, and 8.9 km/h. This stage? 11.1 km/h!

Yeah, nuts! Of course, it was the easiest stage of the day, but still, it was great to wrap up the last stage so quickly. As you can see by the above picture, I finished in full sunlight at the gold course in Lachute. The shadow beside me? Yup, that’s Lise. She dropped back just a couple meters just to let me have my moment at the finish. It was a remarkable finish to an incredibly tough weekend. I crossed the line, removed my skis, and headed inside to collect my hard-earned Gold Bar. In there, I learned about the ‘modified’ finishing rules, and the fact that even with those changes, there was still a LOT of people who didn’t complete their journeys this year. Yes, I was proud of my accomplishment, but also recognized that I could just as easily have given up and been part of the group of non-finishers. As always, it just serves to show you that if you want something, work for it, and don’t give up. You’ll get to that finish line.

As usual, I have vowed to never again put myself through that again…. until next year! After all, I’m only 2 gold bars away from getting a coveted Permenant Bib! Hope you enjoyed my all-too-long post that I wrote while recovering from a 3.5 hour run. Yup, I’m on the mend, and have big plans for 2016! As always, check back here to hear all about them! Till then, Get out there! Have fun!

Doubling Down at the Gatineau Loppet

Would somebody PLEASE turn up the heat on this year’s winter? Please?? I’m starting to really get tired of taking an hour or more to thaw out from training and racing activities. In fact, I’ve gotten more mild frostbite and windburn this year than I ever have, this in spite of the fact that winter actually came a little late this year! But I digress, you don’t want to hear me moan about our frosty temperatures, do you? Nope, you’re all here to read yet another race story, aren’t you? Well, in fact, you’re in for a double story this time, seeing as I raced in not one, but two races on Loppet weekend. More specifically, I was actually signed up to take on both of the long events, that’s a 51km classic ski race on Saturday, and a 51km skate ski race on Sunday! I’ve never tried that out, and never even skate skied that far in one sitting, so this could be interesting!

So just what got into my head to do both this year? Well, chalk it up to a bit of a desire to prove to myself that 40 is just a number. Yes, friends, dear ActiveSteve will be celebrating his 40th birthday later this year, and to celebrate, I’ve decided to audaciously tackle a slew of endurance challenges this year. I already mentioned the Rudy Award in a previous post. Well, this time, I’m talking about a little-known, completely innocuous thing called the ‘Triple Ski Challenge‘. The only reward? Your name goes on a simple website listing the year of the accomplishment. To get your name on it, one only needs to complete the CSM at any of the CdB levels, then follow that up a week later by finishing both the long events at the Loppet. And so I found myself covered in lycra and polyester at the start line of the 51k classic event with lots of fresh snow and freezing cold temperatures.

The beauty of the Loppet this year is that once again, for the long classic event, the race was point-to-point. We started out at the Wakefield Parking lot, making our way to Lac Phillipe, then O’Brien Beach, up towards Huron Cabin, then making our way to the finish at the Mont Bleu School in Gatineau. This is truly a beautiful course, and I’m really glad they are able to make it work logistically. Given that I’d skied 160km the weekend before, I stayed pretty low key during the week. I did get out for maintenance skis on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but just at low tempo, and testing my waxes out. For the classic, I was actually using brand new skis, so I had to ensure the wax pocket was set correctly. These skis are super light, and I was looking forward to trying them on a long ski. However, I could have done without the -20 temperatures! To compound the problems, there had been about 10cm of fresh powder dumped the night before, and the trails were not groomed! Of course, this was more of a problem for the leaders, but it affected everyone.

I was set to start in Wave C, which got underway at 9:04. Luckily, the buses that took us to the start stayed on site, allowing us to stay warm on the buses until it was time to line up. The start area was funny, as the trail basically snaked around the fields near us, so you could see all the people ahead for quite a while. It made things look very busy, but all told, the start managed to go off without a hitch and I never felt like there was much of a bottleneck. They really do have this even dialed in.

Although the going was tough, and my legs were tired, the sun was shining brightly, and it was hard not to smile when I raised my head just a bit to take it all in. It was a quintessentially beautiful winter day in Gatineau Parc. Skiing on fresh snow, blazing sun, and snow covered trees everywhere you looked. Now if only there wasn’t this pressure to go FAST for 51km! For my part, knowing I had the next day’s race ahead as well, I focused again on a steady pace at about zone 3 rather than pushing my max level. This did allow me to enjoy the day a lot more and make sure I didn’t burn out. Aid stations were well spaced, and although I had brought some of my own food, I stuck purely to race food, which included chocolate covered raisins, and my favourite, Fruit2, washed down with warm Gatorade.

I actually felt great the whole day. Probably due to the fact that I wasn’t pushing too hard. When I saw people on the trails that I knew, I was quick to have a chat with them, and pull away all smiles. I felt like I had energy on all the hills, and was never lacking grip either. What more could a fellow ask for? Well, the finish line I suppose.

I ended up crossing the line after about 4:48. Definitely not breaking any land speed records, but pleased with the way the day had unrolled. Heading inside at the school, I was happy to bump into friends and talk for a while, and also enjoy the post-race meal. There was much laughter and happiness.  Even better was learning that Deanna had snagged 2nd place in her category for the 27km classic ski. I was stoked for her as she picked up her medal. Although we could have lingered longer, we hastened a retreat home, on account of me needing to prep skis for the final challenge. I was racing the 51k, and Deanna was again challenging the 27k.

A funny thing happened later that day. As I was prepping all our skis, I was checking the weather. It was now calling for temps of -24C with windchills hitting -40C, and steady winds of about 30km/h during the entire event for the next day. This was bad news. It gets VERY difficult to race in those kinds of conditions, and in fact, I had never had the prospect of quite as bad a race. Shortly after seeing that forecast, word started filtering through that the races were being modified in light of the extreme cold. My 51km race was shortened to 42km, and Deana’s was being shortened from 27k to 21k. These don’t seem like big changes, but it was still a nice thing to read, given how much I was now dreading getting up early for these races.

At the end of the, all we could really do was laugh. Oh, and dress even warmer, including taping and using vaseline on our faces. Frostbite wasn’t just a risk, it was a likliehood. In a race, the plan is to wear as little as you can get away with, to promote moisture management while not getting cold. However, this was going to be pretty tricky to race for. In the end, I did wear a light jacket as an outer layer, but stuck to just thermal and tights on my legs. I had also picked up nice lined boot covers for my feet, which should keep my feet warm. We were dressed and out the door shortly after 8am, anticipating our 9am start. Once there, we bumped into lots of people we knew, every one of them worried about the conditions. Some were talking about not starting, others about bailing at the 8k mark (there is a first loop of 8k that takes you back to the start). However, for most of us, it was just a matter of wanting to get things started, and see how it went.

We stayed indoors until the last possible moment, as the winds in the field at the start were quite miserable. There were only a handful of spectators actually standing outside to cheer us all on. It was really tough to keep any warmth on my body before getting underway. The gun went off, and I double poled for the first couple hundred meters, as much to warm up as to avoid tripping over other racers. The skate races are always tricky at the start with flailing limbs and skis. People always snap poles at the start, and trip over skis. I focused on staying upright and avoiding danger. But there was no avoiding the crazy headwinds we were skiing into. I couldn’t wait for the first set of hills, which would take us into the trees and provide some relief from the wind.

I knew there was no way in hell I’d have a stellar race day. It truly was a race of attrition. Only the strongest would get through a day like this. Between the past weekend and the day before, I was starting at less than peak physical shape, but my mental toughness was probably at an all-time high. As such, my thoughts of abandoning at any point were only a low-level nagging voice, not a screaming lunatic. The same can not be said for many others. When I was finished and reunited with others in the cafeteria, I heard lots of stories of people, including good friends, deciding to throw in the towel at 8k. After all, with any exposed skin, you’d have basically no feeling there, and be risking frostbite, with the hardest sections yet to come.

Back onto the trails after that 8k point, I redoubled my efforts to stay smooth and ignore the pain. I also made it a conscious point to fully stop at each aid station and have at least a couple cups of warm drinks, and eat a few things. I can’t imagine the calories I was burning up out there. With the 42k course we were now on, the hardest work was front loaded. Meaning the first 24km or so had a lot of climbing in the woods to get to the highest points in the parc. Normally, that would mean you could be excited about the second part, which featured lots of downhills, most of them on wide open parkways for easy descents. However, if you combine the windchill factors along with very high speed descents on skis with very little clothes, and you’ll understand why even the downhills were painful on this day.

One thing I will say is kudos to the race organizers for being very cautious and taking good care of us. At every aid station, as well as at the bottom of pretty much every descent of consequence, they had first aiders stationed. These volunteers would make sure each and every skier showed them their face and confirmed how they were feeling. They pulled any skiers with obvious frostbite off the course at least for a short bit to try and warm up their faces before letting them head back out. For my part, I did a good job maintaining circulation. On all the downhills, I’d just tuck in, bringing my big mittens up and covering my exposed face. This, combined with breathing warm air on my face in those moments ensured that I could at least briefly get blood flow back into those areas and prevent any serious damage. That being said, 4 days later and I’m still showing a bit of windburn and brown spots on my face which are telltale signs of exposure. But, I’m no worse for wear!

My strategy of slow and easy also seemed to finally be paying off. I had been using what’s called one-skate technique for much of the course, which kept me balanced and skiing smoothly. The upshot was that the further we went the more people I would slowly overtake on the way to the finish. However, that really wasn’t my motivation anymore. I just wanted to get this damn race over with, and make my way back to warmth and my awaiting friends and wife. At a time of around 3hours and 48 minutes, I pulled under the finish line banner. I promptly went to retrieve my down jacket and head for the cafeteria. There, I bumped once again into my friends, and learned who had stuck it out, and who had pulled the plug. Unfortunately, Deanna was one of those who pulled the plug. She had serious concerns for her face, as she couldn’t feel anything, and was unsure about frostbite, so rather than risking it, she joined a group of 6-8 people we know that also decided to stop at 8k. I was sad for her, but completely understood. Not everyone is as foolish as I am 🙂

After warming up a little bit, and trading stories with other warriors from the day, it was time to finally head back home. But not until I stopped at the medal table to retrieve my certificate showing I had tackled both the long races, and receiving the commemorative pin that goes along with it. No medals or podiums for me that weekend, but another great testament to perseverance. However, needless to say, I was happy it was over. After all, we had sort of given up Valentine’s Day weekend, and I was also about to fly out to Edmonton on Deanna’s birthday, so to say it was without some form of sacrifice would be a lie. Luckily, I have a very loving and understanding wife, who supports my desire to challenge myself the way I do, and gets that it is part of who I am. Thanks Deanna! You are the best!

Results of Triple Ski

To celebrate the end of the challenge, we had gotten a great invitation to join some ski friends for a post-Loppet and CSM pot luck party. When we arrived, the house was full of race-weary ski friends, all engaged in swapping stories of this year’s races, sprinkled in with tales of many other races in years past. Although I had been reluctant to go out on account of being beat, it was totally worth it. It is always invigorating to hang out with others who know what you’ve been through, and truly appreciate what it takes to get through it all. For that, I would definitely say we have an amazing group of friends.

As with the CSM from the weekend past, there aren’t may pictures that tell the tale of the struggle, so my words will just have to do this time around. Just one last race to go this winter season before I start turning my mind to trail running, mountain biking and kayaking! Stay tuned for the final chapter in Winter 2015! Till then, as always, I hope you are all staying warm, but don’t forget to still get out there and enjoy what we have around us!

Gold Bricking it at CSM

Every year, while I’m in the middle of it, I swear I will never do it again. I’m of course speaking about the venerable Canadian Ski Marathon, now in its 49th year. The event is pretty much unique in its nature. At the core, it is 160km of cross-country skiing, split over two days. Each day is split into 5 sections, with varying degrees of challenge, from easy to hard, depending on whether there are big climbs, tricky descents, or wide open fields. Participants have the option to tackle the whole event as a coureur de bois, or just be a tourer and take on the number of sections you’d like. This year was my fourth time in a row tackling the event as a CdB participant, and 2nd time that I’d take it on as a ‘gold’ participant. What does that mean? Well, not only do I ski the whole thing, but I carry a backpack with my overnight gear and food, and sleep outside on a hay bale with my fellow CdB gold friends.

Every year, finishing the event it not guaranteed. There are so many things that can go wrong, and so much unpredictability with the weather and snow conditions. Oh, and did I mention that there are time cutoffs during the day as well? For example, if you don’t get onto the 5th section before 3:15pm, you are pulled off the event and bused back to the middle point. Lucky for me, I’ve been able to successfully complete all 3 of my previous attempts. So, would luck hold out, or would this year break me?

To begin, let’s set the stage by taking a look at the training I had under my belt. Last year, we had a nice early dump of snow, and were skiing full time in early December. We also stayed home over the holidays, and put in lots of mileage to prepare for CSM. This year? Well, for starters, we moved in late November, which meant leading up to the holidays we were focused on moving in and unpacking. Plus, there was no snow? The holidays? Well, we were overseas for two weeks in Belgium visiting family, so obviously no skiing there. We got back on January 7th, and skis didn’t really hit snow until January 10th. If you do the math, you’ll note that gave us less than a month to whip into CSM shape! Lucky for me, I have a decent endurance base and a really stubborn persistence on these things, so my plan was to simply tough it out regardless. I figured it might hurt, but I should be able to squeak by.

Leading up to the weekend, mother nature gave us a few more decent snowfalls, so it was obvious we’d have decent snow conditions. Now it was just a question of temperatures. This year was yet again a very cold winter to date (and continues to be), so I was nervous about the overnight. There is nothing worse than getting up at 4am from a frozen sleeping bag, exhausted, hungry, and facing an 80km ski slog! I did everything I could to shave weight this year, and make sure I didn’t carry more than I needed to. I think in the end, I got my pack down to about 22-23 lbs (including a bottle of Bailey’s I was bring to someone there as a favour, but that’s another story…). I decided to forego a full bivy bag, instead opting for the simple discomfort of a silver foil version, in which I stuffed my down sleeping bag and a thermal liner. I’d tested it at home at around -16, and while I didn’t overnight in it, I was hopeful it would work okay for 1 night at CSM!

Bedding Down at Gold Dorm

So with only a couple hundred (if that) kilometers of skiing in my legs, I was driven to the Gold Dorm in Lachute on Friday night. Deanna was tackling bronze this year, so had to drive back to Papineauville from Lachute for her sleeping accommodations. Despite our best efforts, I wasn’t finally settled onto the hallway floor in my sleeping bag until probably 10:30pm. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but the fact is, we would be getting up around 4:00am to start getting ready for the event. At that time, we had to pack our bags, prep our skis, eat some food, and make our way to the start line in the dark. The alarm on my watch didn’t even have a chance to go off though. As usual, this event causes the nerves to go into overdrive, which means waking up every hour or so. The fact that you are surrounded by lots of other like-minded skiers makes it a generally noisy place. I was up and at ’em before I knew it.

During breakfast, I bumped into a few familiar faces that were also tackling the gold this year, but not as many as last year. I wasn’t sure who exactly I’d be sharing a campfire with later that night (provided I made it). I mad emy way to the start leisurely, and had time to spare, getting my clothes and pack well adjusted. We got underway right on time, a long snaking line of headlamps disappearing off into the groomed tracks and into the woods. We seemed to bottleneck almost immediately this year, as from the start, we were herded almost directly onto 2 of pars tracks, then a little further down the path, onto a single set of tracks. Luckily, we get to leave 20 minutes before the bigger crowds, and I just settled into an easy pace, knowing that the clogging was out of my control and that it would sort itself out over the next few kilometers.

Day 1 of this year’s CSM was the tougher day, featuring all of the major climbs and tricky descents. There were two different sections listed as ‘hard’, and there was also one leg which was over 20km in length. Again, not a big deal if it was isolated, but when you combine these things all together on the same day, and factor in wearing a heavy laden backpack, you can start to understand why this is one tough event. For the most part, the weather on this day was pretty much par for the course. It was cold, but not unbearably so. I was wearing lots of layers, and well covered up. In fact, I was wearing more than I would in a race, due to the slower pace, and the occasional stopping.

There is really only one ‘secret’ to completing this event successfully, and it isn’t all that secret. Consistency. You need to keep moving. Steady as she goes. All day. There’s no sense racing up ahead to pass people, but there is no room to just stop and enjoy a picnic either. While the aid stations are a great reprieve, and you may be tempted to just stop and relax for a bit, those who do so too often will be disappointed. The one advantage of a cold day is the fact that you really aren’t tempted to stop and wait at the aid stations too long. If you do, you’ll simply start getting cold, which is what happens to me at every single stop. My hands, although they felt warm while skiing in, inevitably turn to blocks of solid ice any time I stop for more than 5 minutes. It then takes me probably 15 minutes or more of hard skiing coming out of the checkpoints to warm them back up!

All in all, day 1 went as I expected. It was tough, but I stayed ahead of my targets slightly, and emerged from all the tricky sections relatively unscathed. The biggest accomplishment was the fact that unlike last year, I finished the day on the same skis as I started with. What a relief! My falls were kept to a bare minimum. In fact, I think I only fell once while trying to avoid a skier that went down in front of me on a hill. Thankfully, there was lots of fluffy snow to break the fall. As a side note, anyone that tells you they didn’t fall at ALL at CSM is most likely lying 🙂

Upon arriving at Gold Camp, I was greeted by my buddy James, who had a terrific day out there and had already been in for almost 2 hours!! Amazing. I don’t know how he does it. Personally, I’d rather take a little longer on the trails, as once you are at Gold Camp, there really isn’t much to do but eat, get cold, and go to sleep. Last year, when I got in, the campfire we chose was already encircled with a big group of my friends, but for now at least, it was only James, Dan and myself. So, I had managed to get there quicker than a fair number of people. Principal reason being that the cold weather made the snow very slow, and a lot of skiers, myself included, simply hadn’t put in the volume of training they would have liked.

I enjoyed a few boil in a bag meals and some questionable make-in-a-bag s’mores before finally deciding that it was time to bunk down (as best as possible in -15 weather. The ritual of wriggling into your sleeping bag at Gold Camp is a thing of magic. First, you want to get all your clothes in there ahead of you, to keep warm and dry, then you have to make yourself in as carefully as possible and TRY to get comfortable. As an added twist, we checked the forecast, and sure enough, it was set to start snowing overnight, so we had to make sure all our gear was well covered and protected from the wet. Worst thing in the morning would be the need to step into snow-filled and frozen ski boots, a sure recipe for frostbite.

Once again, we roused ourselves at the ungodly hour of 4am to prepare to reverse the previous nights’ spectacle of sleeping bag insertion. Only now, we had to deal with wet and frozen bivy bags and gear, fumbling around in the dark, cold, and snowy camp. Luckily, the camp scouts had kept our fires burning all night, so at least we had the fire to help warm us up while we wolfed down our boil in a bag breakfasts. You really don’t have to push anyone to get out in the morning, because once you’re awake, pretty much the only thing you want to do is get underway. The quicker you start, the sooner you’ll be done the day. It’s amazing how much the actual event seems to be miserable and undesirable, yet you push on and persevere, propelled mainly by the knowledge that “we’re all in this together” with your fellow skiers.

Day 2, in spite of it being shorter than Day 1 this year in distance, and with less ‘hard’ sections, does not feel like it. When you compound two days of poor sleeping, the hard effort from the first day, and the desire to just get things done, there are moments out there that you truly question why you are doing it. Some people actually break down and give up by the first aid station of the day, their spirits broken, and desire for a warm beverage and relaxing in a chair too strong. Then there are people like me, who choose to ignore the voices, and press on. We’re eager to test ourselves. Eager to see how far we can push ourselves in SPITE of ourselves. There is no amazing prize awaiting us, just the quiet satisfaction of having pushed ourselves to persevere and succeed.

Weather wise, in case you haven’t guessed yet, was quite a bit more challenging for us on day 2. The snow was falling, in fact driving in our faces. The winds were being whipped up in every open field, and the temperatures cold. Normally, when it is this cold, there is no snow. However, mother nature decided to make it interesting for us. Each time we’d ski into an aid station, I’d get flooded with relief at the fact that I could eat and drink. However, within minutes, I immediately regret even momentarily stopping, as I’d get really cold. To make matters worse, some aid stations were completely out of warm drinks and most food, forcing me to drink ice water (literally with ice floating in it) and gnawing on frozen bagel pieces. Yup, it was that tough!

As always, the final 10km of the day or so seem to be simultaneously the longest and shortest stretch of the day. You know that your almost done, so you are having small internal celebrations at that fact, but I seems to keep going forever and ever. This year was no different I was exhausted from the effort, and just wanted to slide under that banner, onto a warm bus, then back to my dry clothes. Upon finally crossing the line, I raised my arms up halfheartedly, and made my way to the awards tent. Given that this was my second year at gold camp, I was entitled to what is called a ‘gold bar’. Normally, it’s just a little pin. However, for this year, the organizers had re-conceived all levels of the event recognition. This meant there were not specific medals for gold, silver and bronze CdB finishers, as well as a very hefty gold brick for anyone who had completed more than one year at the gold level. I will admit, it was pretty awesome getting that chunk of hardware!

Gold Bar After Event

I was so knackered, that I have basically no photographs of me at the event at all. I usually make a point of snapping a few, but this year, I was simply too focused on getting it done in one piece! Nonetheless, the feeling of accomplishment is the same. Once back at the school gym, I sought out and found Deanna. Sadly, she had missed the day 1 cutoff at CP4 by only about 7 minutes, so her dream of getting bronze had been dashed. On the plus side, it meant the car was there and waiting. So, without too much fanfare, I collected my things, chatted with a few people for a little bit, then we headed home, making sure to stop at McDonald’s for some junk food before eating supper #2, a big St. Hubert tourtiere. Once again, at the finish, I swore I wouldn’t do this event again. I’ve said or thought it at the finish of all 4 of my CSM finishes. However, inevitably, within 24 hours or so, I’m already imagining tackling the event just ‘one more time’. This year was no different. Even more importantly, next year will mark the 50th anniversary of CSM, so you KNOW I’ll want to be a part of the experience, or, as the tagline actually says “Become Part of the Legend”. Till then, keep reading the blog for more exciting race stories!