A week has gone by. The soreness has passed. The tally of toenails I’m likely to lose is up to three. I’m ready to tell my tale, and I almost think I’m ready to contemplate doing it all over again next year! Yes, I’m speaking about the Canadian Ski Marathon. The yearly pilgrimage between Lachute and Buckingham. 160km over two days of pure classic cross-country skiing bliss. This year I was tackling my Coureur des Bois Gold pin. This entails doing the entire thing with a pack carrying all your food and camping gear, and sleeping out under the stars on a hay bale with other CdB Gold skiers. Read on for the whole story.
Several of you will remember that in the past 2 years, I covered the event for Get Out There by putting together videos of the event (Check out my 2012 videos for Day 1 and Day 2, and 2013 videos for Day 1 and Day 2). This year, I wanted to focus on skiing, to ensure success, and hadn’t planned on covering it. However, at the last minute, I was asked to be part of a media team covering the event ‘semi-live’ from the trail. Of course I said yes. The downside was that it consumed more time than I hope fussing with cold electronics, but the upside is that I have a few pictures and videos to share. Check out my little slideshow below!
The night before the event started in earnest, I got to finally check into the ‘Gold Dorm’ in Buckingham, Que. This is the place nearest the start of the event, and is reserved for only the CdB Gold Participants. It’s not actually anything special, just a school gymnasium, but the company is exclusive and was a good chance to meet up with some people I knew and get the skinny on CdB gold strategies. We had to get up at around 4am the next morning, so I was in bed around 9pm, excited and nervous for the weekend. I’d been successful on my previous 2 attempts, but every year is a challenge, and the route reverses direction. This year was the ‘hard’ route. Easier (shorter, flatter) 1st day, followed by the harder (longer, hillier) 2nd day. All I could do was sleep well and be positive.
Day 1 Map and Profile
The next morning, I was up and ready with everyone else, and heading to the cafeteria to grab breakfast. I met up with the event director, and chatted with him a little bit before fueling up. We would see each other a little later in the day, under much different circumstances. I packed up all my gear, and got dressed to head out for the bus. That was when I hit my first snag. I was at the back of the crowd waiting for buses. As a result, they were all full, and a group of us got stranded and had to wait for a bus to make a return trip from the start line. Unfortunately, that meant we would actually miss the official start of the CdB Gold group, set for 5:40am!
Rather than worrying too much about, we rolled with it. After all, we only set out about 5 minutes after them, but it meant that we were not in the ‘pack’, and the CdB silver hotshots would be bearing down on us quickly. At that time of the morning, it is still pitch black, and we ski by headlamps only, travelling carefully on the hills we encounter.
The first day was split into 5 sections, and out opening leg was relatively easy and only 12km long. Pulling into the first checkpoint, the ski and terrain around us was just starting to lighten up. I had something to eat and drink, but didn’t bother re-waxing my skis yet, as they were in pretty good shape still due to amazing snow conditions. The second section was another ‘easy’ one and 13.6km in length. I got through that one with no problems, and could see this was going to be a beautiful weekend. The sun was finally rising, and the skies were blue overhead. It was great seeing all the skiers, and I was making good progress and the pace was great. I pulled into the second CP in very high spirits and made a little video, taking time to eat, drink, socialize a bit, and re-wax my skis. I left with a big grin, not realizing I would be back there in a bit…
The third leg was where things took an interesting turn for me. This section was an ‘intermediate’ level, and was 16.2km long. For me, however, it turned into a 24km ordeal. The first 2k were fine. Then, I passed a little hand-painted sign stating “narrow trail 2km”. Not a big deal, it just meant we’d be going single file. Up and up and up we went, making slow progress, but in nice conditions. At the top of this hill (in 1.8k or so), we inevitably had to descend. I should also mention that by this point, we’d actually passed 2 or 3 other skiers returning on foot with broken equipment. I made a mental note to be very careful to not end up with them.
Anyway, back to the descent. It didn’t look super-hard. There were tracks heading straight down, and thought that would be the way to go. I let the skiers ahead of me get a little gap before I started off. Well, my skis were gliding great, and by staying in the tracks, I was bearing down fast on them. I had to try to snowplow of step out of the tracks to slow down. That didn’t work so well. In very slow-motion in my mind, I realize my left ski (and body) were heading for the trees on the trailside (as it was quite narrow). I managed to avoid the trees with my body, but heard a “crrrrrack!” and suddenly found myself airborne. I knew what had happened, but was still processing it.
As I flew through the air, a thought crossed my mind. “Hmmm, cross-country ski bindings don’t automatically release, do they? My left ski doesn’t seem to be attached to my foot.” I hit the ground, no worse for wear thankfully, and fearfully stomped back up the hill to the little group of 2-3 trees where my left ski had gotten wedged. It wasn’t in two pieces, and I was hopeful. Until I fished it out. The binding (and entire top layer of the ski) had been torn off the base, as you can see in this picture.
Upon retrieving my broken ski, I started to evaluate my options. My first thought was to head to the bottom of the hill and fix it somehow to keep going. Once at the bottom, realizing that the binding was actually completely broken too, I realized there was just no way I’d be able to ski out on this. In a snap decision, I realized i’d have to hike out of my predicament. Yeah, 4 km, with a big pack, carrying broken skis, on snow that I kept punching through and sinking into while trying to avoid literally hundreds of skiers coming the opposite way. Luckily, one of them was my lovely wife, so I did manage to get a nice kiss and some words of encouragement. I wasn’t giving up, but distinctly realized this might be it for my dreams of a gold finish for this year.
When I finally got to the last checkpoint, 40 minutes had easily gone by. I went straight to a ski tech on site. He took a quick look and confirmed I was screwed. Then, someone said ‘go see the Swix guys, they can fix anything’. Nope. Another confirmation of my horrible position. It could possibly be duct taped, but that would mean having the tape in the grip zone, making things really bad. Then, my guardian angel appeared. A man with a piece of cardboard hung around his neck with a hand-written event number and the words, “The Prez” on the sign.
I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
Tennessee Williams. A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
This was none other than Boomer Throop, the actual presidenc of CSM. After a few moments consideration, he offered, no, insisted, I take his skis. One glance confirmed from me that unfortunately, he used NNN bindings, whereas mine were SNS. Completely incompatible. “Well, what size are you?” he asked. I replied 8.5. “Perfect, mine are 11”. Well, in my world, that isn’t a perfect fit, but could work. Before I could even think about protesting, he was taking off the skis, boots, AND his socks, standing barefoot telling me to “take the f*cking skis, and don’t say another word. Get out there”. Another volunteer ran off and found me another pair of socks, bringing my total to 4 pairs of socks. I layered them on, slid my own orthotics into the ski boots, and stuck my foot in. They were nice and warm, and I was able to get them tight around my feet, albeit with quite a bit of room in front of my toes.
So that is how I spent 134 km of the 160 km event. Skis that were too long, with an unknown kick zone, boots nearly 3 sizes too big, and 4-5 pairs of socks. This would make for quite a finish if I could pull it off. Needless to say, when I started back out, things were a bit awkward, but I WAS SKIING! That’s all that mattered. I hadn’t given up, and I now had the MEANS to finish, I just needed the right SPIRIT. My parting words to the president were that the only way I could think of repaying him for his kindness was to actually compete the event and get my gold, which was precisely what I intended to do. Unfortunately, by the time I set out again, I was well over an hour back. All the golds, silvers, bronzes, and even tourers were gone by, and meeting the time cutoffs later down the trail were weighing heavy on my mind. As such, I put my head down and just focused on skiing as efficiently and quickly as i could. I made steady progress, eventually catching and passing lots of fellow skiers on the way, but lots of these tourers, meaning they weren’t trying to meet a time cutoff. As such, they were quite happy to encourage me on and move aside if needed. For their part, the skis were pretty decent. I had a heck of a time controlling them in some situations due to the longer length, but I was getting decent kick and glide. For that, I can probably also thank the very forgiving snow conditions!
Coming out the other end of the 3rd leg, I was happy to make if to the next checkpoint feeling good. I was now up against the longest leg of the day at over 20km, and the looming cutoff. Without even looking at the time, I set about grabbing a quick bite and drink, and re-waxing the skis, taking a complete guess at where exactly to apply the grip wax. Knowing that Boomer was a bit bigger than me (who isn’t?), I assumed I could go pretty far forward, even with my pack on. I guessed correctly, as starting back out again, things still felt decent. I kept pushing hard the entire leg, uncertain of exactly how much time I had, as i was afraid to look. It was indeed a long and demoralizing leg when you are on borrowed gear, but I did eventually find myself at CP4. Time to spare to cutoff? Nearly 50 minutes!!! My hard pushing paid off, but now I worried I’d put too much into the effort. I vowed to take the next and final leg easier, as it no longer mattered how long it took. The only thing to do on arrival at gold camp was to eat, drink, set up camp, wax skis, and sleep. I knew I’d have friends there, and likely a reserved spot.
In spite of taking it ‘easier’, I was still feeling completely drained by the time I hit the gold camp turnoff near Montebello. On the plus side, I’d never seen Deanna again, which meant that she had easily completed Day 1 herself, and was likely gliding into the finish for the day. This lifted my spirits a touch, and I set off on the final 2km slog, with a few other skiers. Happily, I can report I was by no means the last camper in either! Sah-weet! Another nice thing on arrival was seeing my buddy James basically waiting for me. He grabbed my skis, and showed me to our camp, where the fire was already roaring. I dropped my pack, and headed off to claim the 2 hay bales that were assigned to me. One to sit on at the fire, the other to spread out as an insulative mattress. Luckily, even though the sun had technically set, there was still some light, and I got mostly settled in before it was dark.
Day 2 Summary
After getting myself organized, I joined everyone else around the fire, trying to dry my ski clothes, eating and drinking as much as I could, while swapping war stories with my fellow skiers. Turns out I wasn’t the only one with a bad day. One of our friends had had an accident, and dislocated his shoulder, needing a medical evac. So things could have gone much worse for me. However, I was completely and utterly exhausted, and quite concerned about the next day, which was the harder of the two days of skiing! It didn’t help when I was assured I would absolutely hate getting up the next morning in the cold trying to make food, break camp, and head out by 5:30am. Yikes. I decided to live for the moment, and tried to just have a good time around the fire, which was quite easy with the fine company I was sharing the time with. We were amongst the latest people to still be up, finally turning in around 9pm, after filing a quick video, and dropping Deanna a line to see how she was.
I’d love to report that I had an amazing sleep, but I really didn’t. I tossed and turned, trying to keep my ski clothes warm and dry with me in the sleeping bag, and also recharging both my GPS watch and cellphone. I wasn’t overly cold, as temperatures hovered around -12c, which all things considered, was pretty good for gold camp it turns out.I perhaps got 1.5 hours of fitful rest before hearing my alarm go off at 4am, and trying to figure out just how i would get ready for the day. In the end, I decided to just get out of my bivy, and stand outside in the head area while I got dressed. That actually worked out quite well, and I was soon bundled up again, and bustling around getting breakfast ready and packing up my campsite. I’d also decided to throw on a 5th pair of socks for this day, as the pain on the tops of my toes was getting bad, and wanted to try padding them a bit more. I had waxed the skis the night before heading to bed, and was ready to take off. All the campers were making their way to the exit area to be scanned out and start their 82 km day of skiing. I felt pretty stiff and sore, but optimistic.
One of the funny things about CSM is that although you are skiing with hundreds of others, you are, for all intents and purposes, on your own. Everyone has their own pace, and most people just opt to ski at the pace they want to, which means you may find yourself with people for a little while, but then one person will speed up or slow down, or stop for a break, and you’ll be on your own. As such, all my camp mates basically left at different times, and I only bumped into them again along the route at checkpoints. I don’t mind too much though, as I like the solitude at times anyway. Pacing was going to be the word of the day anyway. The ratings on the legs for the 2nd day were intermediate, intermediate, hard, intermediate, and finally, easy. In other words, the first 4 legs would be hard fought. Lots of long climbs, steep descents, and road sections. My plan was to just ski at a pretty steady pace all day and see where that left me for the cutoff at the end of the 4th leg, which for today was 3:30pm. It certainly didn’t seem an impossible task, given that we still had great conditions.
I could explain in detail all the legs, but there is no need. I skied well. The snow was great. The climbs were at times longs and brutal, but I’m actually a bit of a masochist, and felt a purity in all the climbs on the day. The didn’t bother me at all. I’m good at just powering up hills and getting through them. I’ve developed a pretty good mental toughness over years of racing, and I guess it pays off now and again. I was making reasonable time all day, and pausing at each checkpoint, letting the wax techs take care of my borrowed skis while I ate and drank. I wanted to make sure I didn’t end up bonking later in the day. At various points early in the day I got to ski with Dave, Lise, Nathan, and Annie, all four of which are amazing skiers, and were doing the whole course with the CdB group, but skiing at a pretty good pace. The legend of my story had also propagated through the event, as a number of times, when I’d be chatting with people about my day, they’d inevitably ask ‘oh, are you that guy that had the broken ski and had to borrow skis and too-big boots?’. It was pretty funny. Some of these people even remembered seeing me the day before as I was hiking out, and were impressed to see me still in it, let alone being able to bounce back and get my Gold CdB in the process. Truth be told, that’s probably the main reason I pushed so hard. I hate failing at anything, and this one was basically 3 years in the making!
You might be now wondering how close I was with the time cutoff the second day. Well, amazingly, I still had about 1 hour and 20 minutes to spare at the cutoff. In other words, it was no problem at all. In fact, this year, even with the problems, was the most comfortable times I finished with. Granted, the gold skiers did get a 2 km head start, and a 30 minute lead as compared to the bronze CdB people, but I was still mighty elated when I saw the time we had left. Rest assured, that does NOT mean this was an easy day by any stretch of the imagination. Heading out on the final leg, it was a great feeling. There was only about 12 km to go, and I’d wrap things up at a decent time. I decided to push hard anyway, in hopes of being there with lots of time to shower and be ready to greet Deanna. I will say though, the final 3 km felt like they took forever. After speaking to several other skiers, we are convinced they lied about the distance of the last leg. We are pretty sure it was about 3 km longer than advertised. That may not seem like a big deal, but when you’ve mentally prepared yourself to be done in 2 km, then see a sign saying 5 km to go, it makes a difference!
Regardless, I finally found myself on the final steep downhill run before the finish line, with the smell of sausages (and victory) in the air. They called my name as I crossed and I realized I’d done it. I was now a Coureur des Bois Gold finisher at CSM. That felt great, and exhausting. An organizer found me shortly afterwards to reunite me with my busted ski, and collect my borrowed gear. What a tale eh? I had a sausage at the finish, then made my way to the shuttle bus to head to the gym where the luggage and awards were being dealt with. Unfortunately, that is when I also learned that Deanna had sadly missed a cutoff on day 2, and was on her way to pick up the car. I felt crushed for her, but also extremely proud of what she managed to accomplish this year, and the improvements she has made. Tackling the full CSM is a monumental challenge, and there are loads of stories of people not making it. But she killed the first day, and was having a great 2nd day too. She has already vowed to return to get her “G-D Bronze!”. And I believe her.
That pretty much does it for this story. As I type this, I’m still nursing some pulled muscles in my groin, resulting from dealing with the skis that were too long and having to herringbone up the hills. I’m also nursing my toes back to health, and see about 3 toenails that are dead and will eventually fall off. But I have GOLD! That won’t fall off! Will I return? Quite possibly. After all, if I do just 4 more gold CdBs, I get a PERMANENT BIB! They always have something to keep us coming back! Hope you enjoyed my tale. I’m off for one weekend, then back in action for the Mad Trapper Snowshoe Race Season Finale. Till then, take care of you and yours, and see you out in the snow!