ActiveSteve Tries Something New

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Good evening sports fans! Well, a few days have passed since my last race, so I figured that it was time to fill you all in on my latest athletic endeavour. It was a doozy for me, and something completely new to me. What was this feat you ask? Well, how about the Gatineau Loppet? And what is that you might ask? Well, try on a 53km classic ski race that attracts an International field of competitors for size. Yup, it was certainly a crazy pursuit in my mind, but something I wanted to try my hand at nonetheless. Also, this was a necessary component if I plan to get a Rudy Award this year. Of course, that plan may be dead in the water, but at least I would give most of the races a try. If you’d like to, you can look at a few pictures from the event that I took, although none from the race course itself. After that, come on back for a more detailed account of my day in the snow!

I started getting the impression that I may have bitten off more than I could chew some weeks back. That was when I finally decided I should get a little more serious about preparing for this race. After all, 53km is a pretty long way to ski. Obviously, I’ve ran quite a few marathons in my years, but I’ve never done it with a couple of skinny planks strapped onto my feet and propelling myself partly with my arms. Also, it turns out that most people that do these sorts of races are pretty good at this sport. At any rate, my point is that when I finally headed out for some solo long skis, I quickly realized that my predicted time of 4 hours was far too ambitious. Why? Well, my 30+km training skis averaged out closer to 6min/km, which would mean it would take at least 5 hours to do the deed! D’oh!

With that knowledge gained, I decided that I really shouldn’t get too worked out about my chances to do well in the race. After all, a time of over 5 hours would put me pretty much at the back of the entire field. A place I’m not too accustomed to being in for most of my recent races. You see, with years of training and racing, I’ve managed to make my way to the top 20% of the field in most of the races I take part in. Time to eat a little bit of humble pie I guess. Regardless, as a nice side benefit of preparing for the race, and getting out skiing a lot more than I normally do, I realized that I really do love cross-country skiing. I think what I like most about it is that I don’t feel like I have to really put on the jets and try to be fast. After all, I’m not a ski racer, I’m more of a ski tourer, and that’s quite nice. There’s nothing quite like having the right wax on your skis, getting a good grip, and gliding along in the winter wonderland either alone, or with like-minded friends. It’s something I hope to do a lot more of in the winters to come.

Another of the challenges leading up to this race was mother nature. It’s no secret that we’ve had a pretty low amount of snowfall this winter. I can’t even remember the last time we had a big dump in Ottawa. I’m pretty sure it was before Christmas! As a result, the Gatineau Park conditions have taken a beating. All things considered, I have to tip my hat at the crews that take care of the trails, because they’ve had very little to work with for a long time. However, they still do their best and groom the trails at every opportunity to give poor folks like me the chance to ply our craft. In spite of the low snow, I was still able to get out for two 32k skis in the two weeks leading up to the race, as well as a few shorter skis. Now, this is certainly not the volume I would put in to marathon training, so I set my expectations accordingly.

Friday evening I had to head to the start/finish line in order to pick up my race kit. Essentially, just get my number and timing chip. However, like a marathon, there was also a race expo, only this time it was a ‘ski show’. All the big name vendors were on site showing off their latest advancements. You know, the stuff all those silly Olympic gold medalists would be using. Yeah, I basically skipped all that stuff. The only thing I did spring for was a new tin of grip wax for about 7 bucks. You see, when classic skiing, the key is to pick the right waxes. Serious skiers will have dozens to choose from, but for me, there are only 3 choices. I decided to up my selection to 4. The main reason was that I had a temperature gap right where the snow was likely going to be the next morning. What does that mean? Well, I had a wax for about -7 to -3, and a wax for -1 to +1, but nothing specifically for -3 to -1. I figured my performance could only improve by slapping on a couple layers of that stuff on my skis. And that’s pretty much how I spent my Friday night. Waxing my skis and trying to get a good night’s sleep 🙂

The next morning came far too soon in my opinion. I was up and wolfing down my traditional oatmeal breakfast and drinking some water at about 7am in preparation for the race. From there, it was off to the race site to find some parking. After all, there were over 3,000 athletes in total taking part, and only a fixed number of parking options. Even though I thought I was early, I still had to park at a nearby facility and walk over to the race start. I carried all my gear and bag over to the start area. Already, there were lots of skiers on site warming up and testing out their waxes. For me, there was really no going back now. I had committed to my choices, and just focused on getting in the right headspace.

I was supposed to be in Wave ‘C’ at the start, the group set to finish by 4hrs12mins. However, I had already decided to self-seed myself in the middle of the ‘D` wave, just to make sure I wasn’t in fast skiers’ way. One small saving grace for my race was the fact that the organizers had opted to change, and actually shorten the course to 49km. Truth be told though, I was a bit disappointed. The reason? Well, I had spent a couple of my training sessions focusing on a couple of the trickier trails with a lot of ups and downs and narrow tracks. As you might imagine, those were the sections now removed!

Well, no big whoop, it was time to put my skills to the test. I lined myself up at the start, and was ready for the start gun. There were two waves to head out before our start. The real speed demons started right at 9am, then 2 minutes later, wave B started. Finally, at 9:05am, waves C, D, and E got started. From then on, it was basically nose to the grind, and ski my little butt off. I’d decided to wear a 2L camelback so that I wouldn’t have to fuss with stopping and drinking on the trail. I’d also stuffed some food into my pockets, and some wax in case my grip didn’t work well. In other words, I was much more loaded down than many of my competitors. Given my predicted speed, I didn’t think it would make much difference.

I’m happy to report that my wax choices seemed dead on. I had a great kick when I needed it, and a supremely smooth glide as well. It was awesome. I was even able to basically run my way up most of the hills in the race, rather than have to herringbone like many people seemed to be doing. The course changes had made things a little boring as far as the trail goes. We were sticking a lot to the parkway and the wider trails, which are not my faves, but at least there was lots of room to maneuver. I decided pretty early on in the race to not bother keeping track of my pace or heart rate. I just worked on keeping steady and keeping up and/or passing as many people as I could.

At Penguin Picnic area, we turned off the parkway and onto a nice section of steep climbs all the way up to Keogan following the ridge. This is where my light frame and good wax choices really started to pay some dividends. I pulled away from the group of skiers I’d been hanging around, and even caught up and passed some people that I thought were much faster than me. I’m not sure why, but I just think I’m more at ease on technical trails and those that are more like mountain biking trails. It was a nice boost to my energy levels.

On and on this went, with me choosing not to stop at any of the feeding stations along the route. I’d just glide on through and push on hard. I only grabbed a few cookies and chocolate covered raisins at a couple stations. It was a little strange at one point in the woods, as I found myself basically all alone. I was shocked, but I saw no one ahead, and had no one behind either. Luckily I had my tunes blasting in my ears to keep me pushing on. At about the halfway point, we reached the peak of the race, and would gradually make our way back to the lower altitude of the start by way of a few really long descents. I was really impressed afterwards to find out that I hit over 50km/hr on one of the downhills. I’d hate to imagine what would happen if my skis came out of the track!

Towards the end of the race, probably around the 47k mark, I really started feeling the tiredness a bit more. I was lacking any motivation to keep my form intact and use good kick. Instead, I resorted to a whole lot of double-poling to make my way to the home stretch. Whatever works, right? I had a right to be tired. Before long, I was passing by the 1000m to go sign, and dug deep and started picking up my pace again. With about 500m to go, I had to contend with a huge wave of skiers starting the 10k race I think. I thought it was odd, as they were supposed to start at 1pm, and that would have been only 4 hours after I started. Weird. Coming into the final chute, that’s when I realized that I was actually going to finish pretty much right at the 4 hour mark!! Crazy! How had I managed to be an hour faster than expected? Well, it turns out when push comes to shove, and the race is on, I can turn on the jets, even in skiing!

Looking at the length of this post, I should pretty much wrap things up here. The finish was a little bitter sweet for me. Even though there were thousands of competitors, wandering around after the race, I didn’t see a single person that I knew. I would have liked to have a beer to celebrate, but given that I was on my own, it just didn’t seem like it would’ve been too fun. Boo. Having a look at the results later on, I was pleased to see that I made it into pretty much the middle of the pack, even though in my category I was pretty far down. 13th out of 14 to be precise. Later on, I got an additional sting when Haggaret joked that he was unimpressed given that he had just watched the men’s 30km pursuit in the Olympics, where they skied 30km in 1hr15mins! Guess I’ve got a long way to go after all. Still debating whether I’ll have to make Kev eat his words some day. Nah, better to just have fun. That’s 2 events down for a Rudy award, 3 to go. Only one more winter race on my calendar, and that’ll be this weekend. Come on back to read that story next week.

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