Never again… until next year. If any of you have ever done the Canadian Ski Marathon, you know that this is the unofficial slogan of the event. With 160km of challenging cross-country skiing over 2 days, this is one tough event. This is made even tougher for those of us brave (foolish?) enough to tackle the event as a Gold Coureur des Bois, which means we have to do the entire event wearing a heavy pack containing all we need for the weekend, since we would be sleeping overnight outdoors on a hay bale! For me, this was actually my 4th Gold Camp, and 6th year in a row that I’ve done the CSM. My run started in 2012, when I decided I wanted to try the ‘bronze’ category just one time. Well, surprise surprise, it is now 2017, and I’ve taken part in (and fully completed) every event since then! Read on for a bit more colour around this years’ event.
Last year, the CSM was my only race / event of the entire winter. I had been suffering from pretty bad plantar fasciitis through the fall, and decided to minimize the stresses to my foot over winter by only having one big event. As such, I managed to put in some very solid dedicated training, and showed up fully prepped for this classic-only ski event. This year, I’ve decided to put more events on my calendar, and cover a range of sports, meaning I was training not only for Classic Skiing, but also skate skiing, snowshoe running, and other general strength training. This meant I had pretty high general fitness, but hadn’t overloaded on Classic training. Turns out, that worked just as well. Moral of that story? I’d say unless you are at the very pointy end of the competitive field, adding variety into your training program will give you a better overall fitness, and keep things interested. I plan to employ that going forward into this year. Even though all my races are focused on trail running, I’m planning to do a bit more cycling for variety.
Ok, back to the event. As you can appreciate, you never really know what you’ll get in February in this region. Will it be raining? Will it be snowing? Will it be windy? Super cold? That’s really the challenge of this event. The weather. The reality of the situation is that most times, the weather will change several times over the course of the event. This year was no different. Mornings started out quite cold, meaning we had to layer up appropriately. However, as the day wore on, temperatures rose enough to make it ‘comfortable’. These temperature changes can lead to some waxing challenges as well. I’ve gotten decent at waxing, which meant I had ‘ok’ wax the whole weekend, which I think is better than having ‘great’ wax part of the day, then crappy wax later. The other thing that adds a layer of complexity is when it snows. You can have really old snow base, but piling on a few centimeters of fresh powder can make a big difference.
As with past years, the event started at Gold Dorm for me on Friday nights. As usual, pretty much a mad scramble to get my butt home from work, pack up the car, and get to the venue. Things were made a little more complicated by the fact that it was snowing quite heavily most of the way there. Things were ok for me, but Deanna had to drive all the way home after dropping me off. I probably got there around 8pm or so, giving me just enough time to sort through my gear, catch up with a few friends, and try to grab some sleep. The good news is that we’d all be able to walk to the start line. The bad news was that the start time was before 6am, which meant a 4am wake-up call!
After stuffing my face with breakfast, I bundled up and headed out. The snow accumulation was pretty decent, and the big flakes were still falling from the sky. I stomped over to the start area with my pack and skis, lining up with the rest of my CdB Gold friends, awaiting the starting signal. We got underway right on time, and as usual, everyone was jockeying for good positions from the start, knowing that inevitably, there would be a choke point on the trail. I made the mistake of starting a little too far back, which meant I was a victim of this choke point, and had to fight my way through a sizeable number of skiers before I finally found my stride and had some trail to myself. I’d say that for most of the first leg, I was in this kind of position. My wax was working well enough, but the tracks were pretty snow-filled. I suppose that was one fringe benefit of being further back. I didn’t have to break trail!
Skiing the first leg is always somewhat unique, in that we are all skiing in the darkness and are all at peak readiness level. I’d like to say that the event gets easier, but that is not the case. What I can say is that it definitely becomes a better understood challenge. I’m starting to really know the trails, where the tough parts are, and what level of effort to put in at any point in time to ensure successful completion. I generally end up with a 1-2 hour cushion of time prior to the cutoff on each day. This is calculated on my part. I don’t really have any need to ‘race’ this event. All you do is get too tired, and end up sitting around Gold Camp with very little to do other than choke on campfire smoke and fight off the chill J.
This year didn’t seem to present us with any ‘really’ difficult challenges, but rather a series of smaller challenges that when put together apparently lead to a pretty high number of DNFs. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what that is, but couldn’t put my finger on it. I think it boils down to the notion that people who have done this event enough times, and/or are just very stubborn about endurance events, will always find a way to get through. After all, it is usually the mental aspects, not physical, that cause DNFs. The event really lets you learn about yourself. I can guarantee that every year I hit 1 or 2 patches where I swear I’m never going to do it again, and fail to understand why I’m there. But by the very same token, there are a number of places where you just pull your head up, look around at the beauty and the sheer awesomeness of undertaking something like this, and you smile to yourself. You hold on to those thoughts, and let the other ones go. That’s the key.
While the first day was relatively cold, I kept moving, stuck to short breaks in the aid stations, and pushed on until things warmed up in the afternoon. I’d say the only real annoying part of the trail this year was based on mother nature. Given that the CSM is only really a groomed trail for a few days, there are major challenges to preparing the track. This year, we had a few sessions of heavy freezing rain earlier in the season. When the CSM people tried to prepare the track, the groomer was unable to fully chop up the ice to give a smooth track. Instead, it pulled up a lot of coarse ice. In some sections, it literally looked like I was skiing on an endless trail of ice cubes embedded in the snow. Bye bye grip wax! Within 5k of any aid station, much of the wax would be scraped off. To add to the challenge posed, some of the hills were VERY treacherous, especially if you were unlucky enough to ski down them AFTER a large number of the ‘Tourers’ had gone through (these folks pick and choose sections to ski).
In the end, I made it to gold camp safe and sound with at least a couple hours of light left. This gave me ample time to change into warm clothes (yay for new ‘puffy pants’), start trying to dry gear, get food into me, and set up my little mouse bed of hay. Once again, I linked up with my AR buddies from NY, several of whom had beat me to the camp. As usual, stories were swapped, jokes were cracked, and food and booze was passed around. And once again, like last year, we were actually provided with beer at gold camp! Bonus!
Unfortunately, there was a bit of an ominous cloud hanging over the entire camp. News had been spreading of a fellow that collapsed and passed away on the trail. I had missed this, as he was a bit further behind me. However, one of my camp mates was actually the first on the scene, and essentially stayed with this fellow for over an hour (with 5 other), provide CPR the entire time until the paramedics finally made it to them. When he arrived to our camp, we could clearly tell there was some trauma there. I can’t even imagine going through it. He’d even left most of his dry clothes there, as he’d covered the person in an attempt to keep them warm. It was a very sobering couple hours as we all coped with this news and the ramifications. The next morning, there was a minute of silence to commemorate the skier before we took off, but the event continued, as it should, in my opinion.
Overnight, we were fortunate enough NOT to be snowed on. There is nothing worse than needing to dig your way out of your sleeping bag in the morning! Temperatures were low, but not super cold either. As with other years, getting up on day 2 proved to be one of the biggest challenges. The mere act of stripping down, re-dressing, and needing to prepare food and pack everything back into our backpacks is a drain. On the plus side, you really don’t have much of an option, and the day can only get better, right? I can’t even imagine how challenging it must be for people like Ray Zahab to pull off a self-supported Arctic Expedition in the dead of winter!
Back on the trails at 5:30am the next morning, sliding away into the darkness as they prepared to ‘burn down the camp’. I once again let myself start at about ¾ of the way back in the pack. Definitely wasn’t in a rush (yet). I wanted to see how the skis felt and what kind of energy I had. Happily, I seem to have most aspects of this event dialed in now, down to the amount of food I bring for both the trail and camp, so I didn’t feel too drained. I suppose one other point worth mentioning is that I was once again filming the event, which always adds a little extra complexity for me. Filming in winter is a challenge in the best of conditions, but trying to keep gear dry, warm, and functional while taking part in something like this is a whole other challenge. Batteries need to be considered, clothing choices like gloves to operate gear. Mounts, where to stash the camera, etc. Bottom line is that while I can pull it off, there’s a lot more to those 2 minutes of footage you might see than you might imagine!
For the most part, I simply went with the snow, and enjoyed my day skiing a long way with several hundred other like-minded folks. Early in the day, the trails were pretty good, with just low temperatures to contend with. As the day wore on and the legs got heavier, the snow once again decided to attack us. The snow got progressively heavier as the day wore on, which made things VERY beautiful to see, but did get tiring as your face was constantly bombarded by little cold bits of precipitation. Oh yeah, and the wind also decided to pick up! By the time I found myself on the last leg of the day (which is always a great relief), I was ready to be done. This year, the changed the route slightly again, allowing us to basically ski right to the finish line behind the Lachute School. Unfortunately, this meant quite a bit of skiing on essentially city roads. We were lucky to have snow falling, as I suspect without that, the skis would have been completely destroyed (as opposed to only mostly destroyed, which is what you get at CSM!).
The finish line, which was meant to be a festive atmosphere, looked more like the frozen planet of Hoth, and I felt like Luke Skywalker just trying to find my way back to base. The snow was blowing hard, and there were no cheering crowds. Just a few hearty individuals, and the announcers huddled in an enclosed tent calling out names of finishers and playing tunes. As soon as I crossed the line, I took off the skis and headed inside to find heat, and a warm(ish) shower. Too bad my feet had gotten destroyed out there. They were quite raw from being wet and rubbing in my boots. When the water hit my body, I was jolted into full awakeness once again, as they pain went through my body. But the pain just served to remind me that I had done it once again, and collected my gold bar. Another year in the books.
As per usual, I had little time to celebrate or reflect, as the next weekend, I was slated to do 2 back to back ski races again. I hung around the school for a bit while I waited for Deanna to make her way to me again. Not an easy feat, as the snowstorm was wreaking havoc in the area. The entire highway had been shut down, so she had to take less-maintained side roads to reach me. Getting home was quite an ordeal, and I managed to stay awake long enough to first hit McDonalds, then get home and crash. After all, I had to work the next morning early!
I’d say that about wraps things up for this year’s story. I’m surprised my post ran this long, given that for the most part, it just feels like Groundhog’s Day to me. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next race stories, which will chronicle my next week’s races. If you have a few minutes, why not check out my resulting video, posted below. At least you’ll get some of the visuals from the weekend! Till next time, stay active!