Chasing Silver in the Hills

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My Prize - The CdB Silver Pin

Now, normally, people chase gold when they head into the hills. But if you’re me, and the event in question is the Canadian Ski Marathon, you chase silver! At least this year. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry, it will all become pretty clear, and it’s pretty simple really. This blog post will be all about my quest to complete the CSM for the second year in a row. CSM has a progression if you are trying to complete the whole event as what is known as a Coureur des Bois. The first time, you need to just finish, that gives you bronze. The 2nd time, you must ski the entire length AND carry a packing weighing a minimum of 5kg, giving you silver. The 3rd time, you must ski the entire length, carry a pack AND sleep outside overnight on a hay bale. Doing so gets you a gold pin. As this was my second year, I was trying for silver. Deanna was also with me, and going for bronze. I was there to ski, as well as document the trip for Get Out There and produce some videos, which I’ve embedded further below. You can also check out some pictures we took before reading the whole story.

The CSM is a quintessential Canadian winter event. It is known around the world, and is considered by many as one of the longest, toughest, cross-country ski challenges. And it’s right in our backyard. So of course it was natural that I’d eventually find my way to taking part. Last year was my first effort, and admittedly I only signed up a few weeks before the event and with relatively little training. The event is purely classic style skiing, and last year I had focused on skate skiing. This year, I vowed to be a bit better prepared (even though I was successful last year, it was pretty tough, and I cut it close to the wire!). My desire to be better prepared was bolstered by the fact that Deanna has also been bitten by the cross-country skiing bug, and was keen to take a crack at bronze this year.

As we were both committed to training and succeeding in this event, we took a few steps to help that. For Deanna, that first meant buying her first pair of good cross-country skis that would require waxing. Along with that for her came learning about choosing the right waxes and applying it, which she’s getting pretty good at. Our second step involved signing up for lessons with Dave and Lise of Natural Fitness Labs. There are worse things than being coached by ex-world cup and Olympic-caliber skiers! The purpose of this was to help both of us get better technique which in theory would help us finish the event with less effort than if we just spent the whole time flailing through the snow.

Leading up to the event, our training went pretty well, and we logged quite a few kilometers of excellent skiing in the beautiful Gatineau Parc. Understandably, Deanna was a bit nervous, but that is to be expected when tackling something tough like this for the first time. Things got a little tricky closer to the start date, as Deanna developed a problem with some leg muscles, and then to top it off, got really sick in the 2 weeks prior to CSM. And we’re not talking a little cold that some would use as an excuse for a day off work, we’re talking a quarantine-yourself-in-another-room kinda sick (after all, I had a few other races to do in that timeframe, and didn’t want to get what she had!). So unfortunately for her, the cards definitely seemed stacked against her.

However, I will say this about Deanna, she has great willpower, and perhaps a touch of stubbornness when it comes to these things. Although physically she had been in rough shape, mentally, she was very much looking forward to this adventure. And it truly is an adventure. Sure enough, in the final couple days, we sorted and packed gear, and chatted about our strategy on the trails. As a silver CdB, I was allowed to start each day 10 minutes before Deanna, but I had told her I really wanted to make the journey with her, so I would forego the head start. After all, 10 minutes really wouldn’t make a big difference in my chances of finishing. We did agree in advance that if the pacing looked like we might not make it, I would get her blessing to leave her behind so as not to lose my chance at getting the silver pin.

Selected Pictures from the Event

For those who are not familiar with CSM, here it is in a nutshell: 160km of classic style cross-country skiing over 10 sections that lasts 2 days, with 5 sections each day. You start the skiing at 6am and must make it to the last section (at around the 65km mark each day) before the time cutoff of 3:15pm in order to be allowed to continue. The trail crosses a lot of private land, and runs from Lachute, QC, to Buckingham, QC via Montebello, QC. Each year, roughly the same route is used, but it reverses direction. This year, we would ski from Lachute to Montebello on day 1, then from Montebello to Buckingham on day 2. Many people like this route, as the harder day is the 1st one, and it includes some pretty awesome downhills (including the famed ‘toboggan run’).

After work on Friday, we loaded up the car (in a snowstorm!), grabbed Subway for supper, then headed out to Papineauville, which is where we’d be spending the next 2 nights. The school there serves as the ‘dormitories’ for those who wish to spend the whole weekend immersed in the event. While there, they feed you, and you get bussed to the start line each morning. Of course, it means sleeping on a hard gym floor, but it’s a better deal than paying for a hotel. We got as organized as we could Friday night, and tried to get to sleep by 10pm.

Day 1 – Lachute to Montebello

3am is early. REALLY early. Unfortunately, that’s basically the time you have to start thinking about getting up on the first day of CSM. You have to be dressed, packed, have eaten breakfast, and ready to hop on a bus by 4:30am with all your gear! If that sounds crappy, well, it kinda is. But you suck it up and do it, because that’s what everyone else around you is doing in the dorm. Luckily, the temperature wasn’t too bad on Saturday, and with a touch of nerves, we soon found ourselves in the start corral in Lachute, watching the other waves head off in a flash of headlamps before it was our turn.

In the bronze wave, there seemed to be a lot of people. There is also a wide range of skill levels and speeds to contend with. As such, putting ourselves pretty much at the back wasn’t the best plan. We were held back quite a bit for probably the first 40 minutes or so, including several early climbs. However, we found a rhythm, and tried to stick with it. The first hour passed, and although our pace had been a little slow, it was forgivable due to the darkness, the crowds, and the climbs. By the time we finished the first section, we were about 15 minutes behind our pace goal, but by skipping through the checkpoint quickly and not stopping too long for food and drink we left only a few minutes behind my next goal, and we still had high hopes now that the sun was up.

At the end of each section, you are scanned in, and have the option to eat and drink, as well as re-wax your skis (you inevitably need to do this as the day wears on due to changing conditions and wearing off your wax). You are then scanned again before starting the next section before you head off. Sadly, it wasn’t too long into the 2nd section when I started clock watching a little closer, and started worrying about our ability to finish. I tried to not worry too much, and kept encouraging Deanna as we went so that we could hold our pace. However, somewhere around the 20km mark, on another of the seemingly endless climbs, we stopped at the top to confer. Deanna admitted that this was turning out to be even harder than she thought, and as a result of her cold and muscle issues, she encouraged me to go ahead. She wasn’t stopping, but didn’t want me to miss my chance to get silver.

I had mixed feelings about it, but I knew that it was true that if we stuck together, we would miss the cutoff at the end of section 4. The longer I put off moving on, the harder it would become for me to make up anylost time. I had timed things out so that we would arrive at the last section exactly at the cutoff, so any time lagging at this point was putting that at risk. With a kiss goodbye and final encouragements, we set off again each at our own pace now. I gradually pulled away and after a few more climbs, we were out of sight of each other.

Once on my own, I fell into my own pace and rhythm, making solid progress and picking my way through skiers ahead of me. It’s funny that although you might ski with someone for a little bit, most people have their own pace, and inevitably one person pulls away from the other, which means you really only ever see very small groupings of people, not big crowds. There no such thing as a big group in my experience. It is really more of an individual journey. The other place things change are the hills. People have different strengths and weaknesses not only when it comes to climbing, but also on coming down the hills. I’ve gotten quite a bit more confident, to the point that I’m comfortable descending every gnarly hill in the event, sometimes sneaking my way around other skiers on the inside corners, and whizzing past those who choose to walk down some of the steeper descents. This only got me in trouble twice on the first day, and mainly due to me choosing to fall rather than plow into someone who was losing their own control. It’s nothing to feel bad about, as most skiers fall at least a couple times in the 160km trip!

When the snow finally settled at the end of section 4, I realized I was 45 minutes ahead of the cutoff, so I could definitely let up the pressure a bit and enjoy the last section to its fullest. Easier said than done though, because regardless of how you think you’ll feel, after 65km of skiing, it starts to be a slog! It also didn’t help that the estimates of distance were off a little on the last section, because when I finally skied into Montebello, I had a reading of 85km total for day 1!! I was cooked. Deanna wasn’t at the finish, so I could only assume she was either back at the dorms, or still stuck out there somewhere. Turns out she was at the end of section 4, with others who had missed the cutoff, waiting for a bus. It would be some time before I saw her.

Trail-Only Video From Day 1

Regardless of how tired I was, upon arrival at the dorms, I had to get to work getting organized for day 2, just so I could try and get to sleep early. I had to change, shower, eat, charge all my various devices (headlamp, GPSs, cameras, etc), and completely re-do my skis with fresh grip and glide wax. When Deanna finally got back, I was in the wax room hard at work, and offered to prep her skis as well, so that she could grab a shower. She was keen to ski at least a few sections the next day, even though she wouldn’t get bronze. I was proud of her attitude, and really happy to see she was still happy, and had been very realistic about the way things unfolded. Once all was done, and we’d eaten, it was still well after 9pm before crawling into a sleeping bag, and waiting for my 3:30am wakeup call. Lucky for me, Deanna, would skip the 1st couple sections, which meant she could take our car and all the gear to the finish line, then get bussed to the event the next morning. This would make things easier at the end of the event.

Day 2 – Montebello to Buckingham

Morning 2 broke far too early, and far too cold. Although mild temperatures had been forecast, they were a lie. It was around -25 as we headed off, and the snow was very slow as well. There were a lot of silently miserable skiers making the best of it. Day 2 is always tough to start, as your body really resents being forced to do the same thing to it you did on day 1! Due to the cold, my cameras didn’t feel like co-operating, and neither did my hands or feet! It was supposed to get much warmer later, but even with the sun rising about an hour later, it still felt really cold. I think it was a full 2 hours before I finally felt like I was hitting my stride and getting comfortable out there.

I had taken advantage of the earlier start for silver on day 2, more to get going than anything else, and was glad I had. There were far less people to deal with at the start, and we were all of a similar skill level to boot, which made it nice to chat with people around me, and to share war stories of CSM from other years, and how we’d done on day 1. I also had the chance to chat with Dave and Lise, who were skiing the course that day. Of course they were zipping by pretty quick, but at least took a few minutes to chat with me before heading off in a blur of red and white.

There were much fewer tough descents on the second day, but there still seemed to be a fair bit of climbing to do. Lucky for me I don’t actually mind the climbs too much. As far as the trail was concerned, we were once again treated to some excellent grooming. No complaints there. And with the sun out, it was admittedly incredibly gorgeous. The aid stations were also consistently well set up with hot soup, warm water, warm honey water, warm gatorade, and various snacks to enjoy. At one aid station, I also had to do a mandatory bag weigh-in. I was relieved, as I would have been annoyed if I’d been lugging 13lbs over 160kms and not even been checked! I passed the test, and headed out once again.

I once again reached the final checkpoint with about 40 minutes to spare from the cutoff, so there was much jubilation amongst all the skiers in the final rest area, because they all knew they’d either be getting their gold, silver, or bronze pins, barring any major catastrophe. Also, the last section on this day was thankfully short, and really just a formality. 13km to go! With big grins and digging deep for the energy, I made it to the finish line to find Deanna waiting for me with kisses. What a nice way to finish. In the end, due to a couple snafus with shuttle buses (and navigation issues on here own part ), Deanna only got to ski the final 2 sections of the day, and was feeling pretty good. I was still happy to know that she’d at least gotten out to enjoy some of this day’s course.

Trail-Only Video From Day 2

From the finish, it was now time to head to the banquet location, shower, change, and enjoy the closing ceremonies. It’s always a little sad to see how few of the coureur des bois stay for the whole banquet, but there are a couple good reasons. First, most are too exhausted. Second, they actually charge an extra $35 for the meal and banquet, which to some is probably unnecessary. It’s too bad though, as I find all the speeches and meeting some of the veterans to be a very inspiring part of CSM. Witness the 12 year old boy who got his CdB bronze, and the nearly 80-year old ex-Olympian who almost got all 10 sections as a tourer (meaning he only started at 8:30 each day AND had to meet a 2:30pm cutoff instead of 3:15!). Deanna and I stayed for the whole thing in spite of my near-exhaustion and inability to walk much with swollen Achilles tendons, but were happy to finally hit the road to get home.

There is NOTHING like flopping into your own bed after a weekend of skiing 160km, sleeping on a hard gym floor in a sleeping bag, freezing your butt off for hours on end AND getting up around 3am for two mornings! However, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. If you’d ask me on Sunday night if I’d go for CdB gold next year, I would have been questioning the sanity of doing so myself. However, after recovering from it, and reviewing the footage and my memories, I think it’s safe to say that I’ll likely be hefting a big backpack and sleeping on the hay bales next year!! It was another great experience, but now I had only 1 week to recover until the next race, the 55k Gatineau Loppet! Stay tuned for that race report next.

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