Geoff's 2012 Canadian Ski Marathon Report
By: Geoffrey White (2012/02/15)
(It’s a long one, but so is this event. Pardon the run-ons and typos – I was losing focus when I wrote this.)
This was my first attempt at the Canadian Ski Marathon (CSM) Coureur de Bois (CDB) Gold – skiing 160 km, over Saturday and Sunday, from Buckingham to Lachute, under some time pressure, and sleeping out overnight Saturday night with nothing but what you carry on your back, and the comforts of two bales of hay, hot water, and fire pits at the Gold camp. The previous two years I had gone through the required progression from bronze (skiing the entire distance) to silver (same, but with a 5kg pack). I have been using the CSM as a building block for my attempt at IronMan Tremblant this August, and also perhaps a Rudy Award if I can get my engine started this weekend at the Gatineau Loppet’s 51 km classic event.
THE COURSE: The trail map, with descriptions on page two, is linked here: http://csm-mcs.com/media_lib/pdf/trailmap_2012.pdf. Going from Buckingham to Lachute, down from Section 10 to Section 1, the sections were as follows:
10 > 13k (intermediate) 9 > 14.6k (easy) 8 > 16k (intermediate) 7 > 21.3k (easy) 6 > 12.8k (easy)
CDB gold had an extra km or two to ski up to Gold Camp, and then 2k less to ski than other CDB classes Sunday.
5 > 14k (intermediate) 4 > 19.4k (intermediate) 3 > 18.6 k (difficult) 2 > 13.5 (intermediate) 1 > 14.7 (intermediate)
CONDITIONS: It was a cold, cold weekend – with temperatures down to -22C at night and generally very cold all of the time, but thankfully not much in the way of headwinds. We were blessed to see sun both on Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon – which helped reduce the cold. Wax selection was straightforward, but it was necessary to wax often due to the cold, icy old snow and occasional stretches on gravelly, if not almost bare, roads, which would strip wax off quickly. The countryside was spectacular – in every sense we were treated to mother nature at her best – rolling hills, forests, lakes, beautiful farms and chalets - it just kept going and going and was such a treat to be able to move point to point, with a sense of destination, unlike the modified, at times monotonous, loop course around the Chateau Montebello’s Kenauk grounds from the previous two years due to lack of sufficient snow cover. (Side note, if you are the rare breed of climate change skeptic / cross-country skier, then check out the report on climate change and the National Capital region and our beloved winters here: http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/earth-sciences/projdb/pdf/tourism2_e.pdf). The trails were in very good condition thanks to good grooming by the CSM, and understandably they did the best with what they had in certain sections where Mother Nature simply wouldn’t cooperate and on tracks that necessarily had to go alongside roads briefly to connect one section of the trail with another.
TRAINING and PREPARATION: My training this year, like the previous two years, included mostly winter training with the Ottawa Rowing Club. Erging (rowing machine) 5-7 times a week in the morning, and weights on your own time. I also skied about 37 hours from December 26 to January 26 with my good friend and training partner, Rich, who last year finished the entire CSM
as a tourer, and this year was going for bronze. In addition, I have been doing Ian’s “deluxe bike/run” training on Sunday’s at Cyclelogik. The main difference between this year and the previous two years in terms of training was I didn’t ski as much as I had for Bronze but more than what I has skied for Silver, and also tapered (i.e., did absolutely nothing) for the week before the event except sleep, go to work, and eat. I took Friday off to relax and sort my kit out. I stayed Friday night at my parent’s chalet in Montebello, semi-slept about 4 hours, and then was on the bus from the Chateau Montebello to the start line at Buckingham.
THE RACE: I had the section distances, and pacing, written out on a laminated business card, with paces at 6kph (too slow to make the 3:15 cutoff to start each day’s last section), 8kph (fast enough) and 10kph (as if!). At 5:40 a.m. Saturday, in very cold but windless weather, we were off – I believe approximately 200 CDB Gold snaking their way through the trails with headlamps – probably one of the greatest moments of the CSM – skiing an hour and a bit with your kindred spirit moving as a pack, with an unspoken sense of a common goal uniting us all. It was fast and easy going for the first 2-3 sections – averaging about 8kph, if not 9kph. I observed strict timing discipline – 10 minutes or less at the checkpoints – drink drink drink, eat eat eat, wax and go! During the event I also took my sweet time navigating the more challenging hills, with apologies to anyone I may have delayed behind me.
There was no doubt that I would make it to the cut-off in time Saturday, which I hit at about 2:15, an hour before it closes. My Dad, my original ski partner, was at the cut-off checkpoint to wish me well and to ‘try’ to slip a mini-bottle of Drambui into my pack. We had a laugh or two and then I was off again – motivated by the goal of getting to camp sooner than later. As fast as the first big chunk went, the day began taking its toll and by Section 6, at which point Rich had caught up with me. My usual burning, screaming foot pain from bad boots and wrist pain from rowing started to kick in, but thankfully Rich was able to pull me, psychologically, to the fork in the trail close to the Chateau Montebello where CDB Golds went two more KM to their camp and the others went to their finish at the hotel.
Gold Camp was an amazing experience for a first-timer. It was well organized – two bales of hay provided immediately, a friendly chap named Guy welcomed me to his fire, which the cadets had been lighting around the camp with a propane torch, and warm and hot water was in plentiful supply. I immediately stripped by top (light wind shell, one Helly warm, and one smartwool base layer) and put on dry layers and a light down jacket and heavier down vest, as well as down booties. Guy and I chatted, and his friend Michel came in about an hour later (carrying four tins of Keith’s – which he shared with us, HALLELULAH!). We ate our dinners (dehydrated fare for most, but some had smoked salmon and other lovely indulgences) and many hunkered down early. I waxed my skis, though many seemed to defer that chore to the next morning. Having not tested my -30 sleeping bag, and not being very good at cold weather, I decided to go to bed at 7 p.m., with a Nalgene bottle of hot water as my heater, and a bale of hay and thermarest foam mattress for insulation. I found it cold, but not to the point of discomfort. I didn’t sleep very much – perhaps 30-45 minutes, due to (a) nerves about the next day being considerably more difficult; and (b) the loud snoring punctuating the night erratically.
At 4 a.m., Sunday, which came way too soon, we were up, packing our gear, trying to stay warm by the fire, shoveling in the oatmeal, and feeding off the nervous energy that seemed to be pulsing through the -22 air. At 5:45 we were off, with the same procession of headlamps and in “silent running” mode for a good hour or so. About an hour in was the trail highlight of the CSM – a steep (I mean *steep*) single-file herringbone climb up an icy patch with skiers going down and sliding backward occasionally, and with skiers having to prop up the falling skier in front of him to prevent he/her from backsliding and causing a cascade of misery! It was a true moment of when the CSM seems to act as a whole, not as a group of individuals. (Other moments include the friendly concern expressed by skiers to others who fall, and, personally, the 2-3 skiers who let me have a hit off their water bottle on Section 3 (which was the longest, most difficult section of the race due to pure climbing for, it seems, ever) after my water bottle hadn’t sealed properly and leaked out entirely across my chest, leaving me dangerously dry and in a precarious state of
alertness.) I carried on the same as Saturday, hitting my 8kph target pacing but only knowing with about 5k to go on section 5 that I had bought enough time to complete Section 4 without missing the cut-off. I made the cut-off with about 20-30 minutes to spare, but skied pretty much right through (with a brief stop by the liquids table to suck in as much as I could). At this point I was mentally done with the skiing and wanted to get to the end so on I went, moving like a turtle for the last section which lasted forever and ended with some bad, bad downhills which I elected to walk down the sides of, not wanting to injure myself. I had fallen 3 times that day (I think twice on Saturday), once by missing a downhill turn and going into deep, deep snow which took me a good 5 minutes to extract myself from, and another time catching dirt road under my ski moving on a downward slope pretty fast and face-planting and also bashing my now-hugely-swollen knee and catalyzing a long, loud, cathartic profanity-fuelled tirade into the crisp winter air and aimed at no person or thing really except my knee. I was not in the mood for another battering. I did witness a few epic falls on the last downhill only a few hundred metres from the finish line – one that seemed to almost knock one man silly, but he seemed to be OK. In any event, turning the corner to the finish line I saw my Dad, who has been waiting in the cold for over an hour, and a sight for truly sore eyes, my beautiful fiancé who had driven from Ottawa to bring me home across the line and then home to Ottawa after a cold beer. What a treat all of that was! Even more of a treat was when Rich, who I had heard had been struggling a bit earlier in the day, came across the line for his Bronze about 20 minutes later, elated to be done.
GEAR: (photos courtesy of Michael Webster) I started with approximately 11kg on my back – way too much. A 45-litre MEC pack with floating lid; Fischer cold racing skis; Excel poles with duct tape wrapping as advised for blisters and equipment damage; Salomon racing boots plus Salomon liners; one expandable hiking pole as pole-breakage insurance; a NorthFace -30 sleeping bag and cold weather thermarest; Petzl 90 lumens headlamp; yellow glasses; a very light Pearl Izumi wind shell, a light puffy jacket, heavy puffy vest, and down booties for camp; two of each of smartwool socks, gloves or mitts, toques, balaclava or neck-warmer, long underwear, tights, smartwool top, thermal shirt; one Nalgene bottle in chest-strap holster; 5 waxes (3 too many) with tools; two dehydrated dinners (only needed one), 4 energy bars (needed more than that for 2 days), 3 instant coffees (didn’t want any of them), 3 packs of instant oatmeal, 4 electrolyte tablets, 2 sets of handwarmers (I am prone to dangerously frozen hands), some Advil (I *may* have needed these a time or two), and last but not least, Mission Skincare anti-chafe – which has saved me from horrible arm-strap and other assorted unmentionable chafing in two years prior. For next year I’d bring less clothing (having been able to dry it all out at camp), and leave the thermarest at home, but bring more energy and more beer. The checkpoint fuel is all good but starts to become unpalatable as the time wears on. Also, I would bring sunglasses over yellow shades no matter what the weather calls for, and I’ll refer you to the many new wrinkles I have on my face from this weekend in support of that suggestion. Unless it will be rainy or snowy, I would suggest that less gear is better.
PARTING THOUGHTS: My hat is off to everyone who participated this year, and especially the men and women with numerous gold bars, and the one chap who was awarded a bottle of bubbly at Gold Camp for his thirtieth appearance.
During the tough moments I thought of two things: (i) the advice I overheard on the bus Saturday morning to focus on technique rather than fatigue, during those low energy moments; and (ii) two people I know, in a real marathon with cancer. As hard as the marathon can be at times, it’s really a blessing to be out in the backwoods – not really a challenge at all in comparison to life’s real ones. If anything, the CSM is more long than it is difficult (but all things are relative!)
I completed the event in thanks/tribute to my Dad, who introduced me to cross-country skiing at a young age and also to the CSM many years ago when he and I would ski a section or two and he would press on after I gave up.
The CSM was well-organised and well-run this year, as it always is, considering the enormity of the logistical challenge it presents, especially when run in its original point-to-point
configuration. Sure, the KM marking was off (which, with apologies, I grumpily and ungentlemanly bemoaned at the penultimate checkpoint), and we ended up skiing longer than bargained for, but in hindsight, who cares? I took Monday off work but the reality is it will be Tuesday where my body and energy crash. As of Monday evening I was still riding an endorphin high and bouncing off the walls with energy.
Maybe see you out at the Gatineau Loppet.