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2008 Gatineau Loppet Reports: 19 years of Keskinada and Gatineau Loppets…Some thoughts
By:  Dev Paul   (2008/02/28)

It took me a week and a few days to get my thoughts wrapped up after the latest edition of the Gatineau Loppet. This was my 19th year in a row competing in the "Long Skate" event…with previous incarnations being the Gatineau 55 and a variety of variations of Keskinada. Through the years, I participated on bobsled runs in behind Meech Lake, the Legendary 1994 Noah's Ark Meech Lake crossing when we crossed the Lake in knee deep water before the back breaking climb from Blanchet Beach up Trail 40 and 24 to Champlain, the classic 1995/96 course through the biathlon range, the 1998 Ice Storm induced Parkway drag race, and many many many years of seemingly sub minus 20 wake up temperatures.

Over the past 19 years, mother nature has thrown every conceivable weather hiccup at the organizers and racers, but every year, somehow, quite magically this race comes and goes, adding a unique event to our local sporting community that serves as a winter focus…the "A" event for many locals.

The first time I entered the Gatineau 55 way back in 1990, I could barely stay up on skis compared to today. The longest ski in my life was 90 minutes. I had no idea what I was getting into. I started in the "F" wave, as there were only 2 events…the 55K and the 35K…no skate and classic differentiation…just a free for all. I barely survived the climb out of Meech Lake to Champlain and scooped up everything I could in the ensuing aid stations. Finishing back in 500th+ position  in around 4.5 hours the guys in the "A" wave were veritable rock stars as far as I was concerned. These guys were on skis like they were extensions of their bodies. It was silly how easy they made the sport look.

Over the next decade I gradually started to get a bit better on skis. Thanks to Dave McMahon, who helped me "get off the ground" any semblance I have today of technique (that still needs a lot of improvement), was instilled. But I continued racing like a triathlete, just hammering harder until I blew up.

It never really occurred to me that I could get faster with less effort.

Doug Stern, a swim coach from New York City who passed away from Cancer last year, left me with many thoughts, the most impactful of which is: "STRONG WILL TAKE THE WEAK, BUT THE SMART WILL TAKE THE STRONG."

Up until 1998, I just hammered getting stronger and stronger and eventually in the year of the ice storm I made it to the "A" wave. It seemed like forever, but I did it….I made it into the rock star A wave. Now I could start in the corral a few feet behind Olympians and ski gods and goddesses. What I was doing there, I was not quite sure, and to this day, I sometimes have to pinch myself to think that I got myself from the F wave to the "A group" in the premiere mass start ski race in Canada!

But let's go back to Doug Stern's thought. By 1998, I was 33, still away from my "peak" as an endurance sport athlete. People like Carlos Lopez who won the 1984 Olympic marathon at age 37, had already proven that the peak for an endurance athlete was in his mid to late 30's. Mark Allen had won the Hawaii Ironman 1995 at the age of 37 and in 1994, Dave Scott, at the age of 40 placed 2nd overall. Not to mention in XC skiing, Maurelio deZolt (sp?) of Italy had won numerous world cups into his 40's….I still had time to improve. Seemed like a lot of hammering would make me faster!

But then age kept moving forward, and I had stagnated in the 'back of the A wave" having made no improvements in 5 years, until I remember Sheila Kealey saying, "the cool thing about XC skiing is that I can get faster, not by getting fitter, but by getting better technique"….another athlete touting the "SMART WILL TAKE THE STRONG…."

So over the last few years, I decided that I needed to learn the art of skiing and while there is still a huge learning curve, I'm not only making it into the wave with the rock star "A Wave" guys, but I'm actually racing…not just surviving and touring. I still don't really feel that I belong there, largely because people regard me as a triathlete dabbling in XC skiing. The reality is that in the winter I am a skier first and triathlete second. When you ski over 2000K per XC season, how can you be anything but a skier!!!

As an older athlete, the thought that I can get faster while my physical capabilities might decline is comforting. The last 2 years have been my fastest and most competitive races ever at age 41 and 42. This past year, I had an incredible time skiing in a pack with my friends Ian Dalling and James Young. It seemed just like a group bike ride from 15 years ago, with everyone hammering the other guy and no one wanting to give an inch even if it means death from bonking on the parkway.

From Champlain to the finish, our group of 16 eventually got pared down to 8, with only the "smartest of the strong" surviving….but I guess I was not smart enough…an ill timed attack with 2K to go, put me at the front of the pack with 1K left, but it seems like I left my legs out on the parkway…down towards the stadium and the boys all blew by me. A huge congrats to my friend of many years James Young. He's been waiting for this magical ski race and it finally happened…I finished at the back of our group in 2:46 and 38th….but what a race. The most racing fun I have had in years. And in my 'backyard' in Gatineau Park!!! I used to be the guy finishing in 500th place. Now I'm racing in the top 50! Someone pinch me and wake me up from this dream!!!

Several years ago my friend Catherine Bridges, had set a personal best at Ironman Lake Placid, and took a trip out to the BC to volunteer at Ironman Canada and sign up for the following year's race. Unfortunately, on her drive there, Catherine, a passenger in a VW van was in a head on collision. She spent several weeks in a coma and thankfully for all of us, emerged with the same will. However, she did  not emerge with the same body that she had before the accident.

I've done 19 Gatineau Loppet races in a row now. There are very few things that I have prepared for and done for one day every year for the past 2 decades. Actually I don't think there is anything that meets that criteria. I know that a person like Catherine would truly love to have the health and fitness to compete like she used to and for that reason, as long as I can, you'll find me at the start line of the Gatineau Loppet…because I can…and maybe if I train and race smart, I can keep getting faster, even though age make a toll on absolute fitness.

In the last few years, I have even been able to introduce kids that I coach in the Kanata XC ski club to the Keski 5K classic, and 10K skate, so hopefully there will be another generation of skiers beating down our favourite trails…the parkways, Penguin, Ridge, Burma, 1B….oh and don't forget that killer hill on trail 5 that the organizers have thankfully moved to the first 10K….THANK YOU THANK YOU.

Finally, to the organizers, please consider adding a 10K classic and a 5K skate. I have coached many kids who would like to try a race longer than 5K classic but 16K is too big a jump. Also, many kids would be willing to try a 5K skate race, but 10K is a bit intimidating to start…the courses are already there….so what do you say? These kids are our next generation of ambassadors of this sport!

Interesting Reading. . .
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