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!
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!
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!).
[pullquote]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![/pullquote]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.
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.
[pullquote] 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.[/pullquote] 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.
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!