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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!