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E-Load/E-Mend Marathon Race Report: Gatineau Loppet: 51km classic, Saturday, February 14, 2015
By:  Arthur Ayers   (2015/02/26)


An Unusual Race Day

I can speak only minimally for others, but it certainly was an unusual race by anyone's standards. For my part, I was happy just to get out for a good, hard, long ski. Looking back on my days of racing though, this one counts as how NOT to race a marathon.

Mistake #1: go in out of shape

For my part, I came into Saturday's race unprepared. With a late fall plagued by strange weather, stranger work schedules, requiring almost weekly all-nighters, illness, the Christmas thaw, taking away that precious chance for the non-elite racers among us (who do not travel to snowier places) to get some early season miles in, and finally my usual work week, which I just wanted to recover from, I was unsure about my ability to suddenly jump into a 2.5 hour race... if only it was actually that short! My premonitions turned out to be correct. I performed what appears to be somewhat well known as the "O'Brien Bonk, where one over-exerts themselves during the first part of the race along Philippe, Mousseau and Meech Lakes and finds themselves suddenly out of energy and/or strength to race just when it starts to count. I had 30km in me, not 50. By O'Brien, my body just wouldn't move anymore. It was a long way home.

Mistake #2: miss the wax, on an easy wax day

Too much grip wax, to be exact. It's an error that sounds hard to make, especially when one considers that winner Ian Murray went with NO grip?? Don't know how he climbed O'Brien, but hats off! I have developed a complex over the years of being a poor classic skier, which means I like LOTS of grip, and on a long race, I would rather not run out. I applied the usual 6 layers of wax to a 6 layer ski, as per Wayne Johannsen... but that was on top of a base binder layer and under a top cover layer. Somehow it didn't occur to me that I had 8 layers on. I had great grip and was glad for it, but noticing on the flat and downhill sections, I was losing ground. Otherwise, the Vauhti powders and gliders were working great.

Mistake #3: poor pacing and positioning - over-exert at the beginning of the race and don't get into the right position for the big move

This is something I think I've never done in a ski race but probably came from both the uncertainty as to how fit I was and cycling tactics. Contrary to Nor-Am races, I had a poll position to start and quickly found myself at the very front, breaking trail with only 3 to 5 others, who included teammates Karl and Matthias. Perhaps 10cm had fallen since the groomers had passed, so leading required much more energy than staying behind.

The smart thing to do in these cases is work as little as possible. The trouble is, everyone was thinking the same thing, no one wanted to lead, and whomever did would ski so slowly that the entire "lead" group of 50 or so, which included the women, who started 1 minute after us, would collide into a mess at the bottom of each hill and stretch out like an elastic band over the top. Very annoying and somewhat energy consuming even in the pack, out of the wind and in the skied-on track, with the frequent accelerations.

Here is where I find cross-country skiers conservative. No one wants to make an early move to create a chess match. In long cycling races - and for them, long literally means all day, 6 to 8 hour, 250km+ bouts - some riders will often "break early", accelerating and creating a substantial gap with the main group and a dilemma among those riders. The big group can reel them in easily, but let them go for too long and too far, and they might just get away and win the race. Alternatively, you can accelerate slightly, just enough to put the others behind you into difficulty, and "thin out the pack".

With a lead pack of 50, I was eager to reduce our numbers to a comfortable group of 5 or 10. I tried both of these moves, hoping to entice Karl and a few others to come along, but only Matthias would follow and we would only make a slight gap on the rest, who appeared to accelerate only slightly. So I found myself at the front, going as slowly as I could to conserve energy, but when I finally stepped back into the middle of the group, the pace picked up and I quickly found myself first blocked in and then in difficulty, struggling to close the gaps that would open up. I was off the back before O'Brien, couldn't close and finished thereafter. It felt like I had skied 30km easy and a few km hard. I should have had more power, but didn't.

Mistake #4: lose time feeding

Food-wise, I did manage to down a few e-load gels down during the first half and they probably saved my life. They worked, energy-wise, but they were also easy to grab from under my suit sleeves and to tear open - useful when you have giant -20 mittens on. Liquid-wise, the wisest tactic here, employed by most skiers, was to carry a bottle belt and change bottles periodically when they are frozen or empty. I have a net preference for camel backs, which although are prone to freezing, offer a much better weight balance on one's back. I'm convinced that hip belts contributed to my lower back problems. So I opted for a camel back, which I figured from testing that I could get a few drinks out of by tucking the tube into my race suit and blowing the liquid out of the tube after each drink. On top of it, I could carry more weight in extra gels and glove liners.

So what did I decide to do? Ditch it at the second feed, at Fortune Lake, and take about two minutes to do so - I'd been dropped anyway by that point. The tube had predictably frozen and I was nice and warm, so I figured it was just extra weight and I could stuff the gels into my suit. Well, the extra e-loads gels quickly slid from my hips down to my knees... good thing we had a few more pit stops. When I turned onto the Parkway at Huron... "shoot, now where were those glove liners... uh oh".

Mistake #5: underdress

Here is where my wax strategy may have worked better. I wore my standard -20 combination, and until Huron thought it was perfect, but it was no match for the winds on the Parkway. The wind seared through my suit to the skin and made me shiver on the descents. The sweat in my gloves cooled to the point where I had to stop four times to warm my hands up. Recall that I had bonked at 30km and was tripping over myself by Huron though not quite delirious. A great recipe for frostbite and hypothermia. Sadly and needless to say, this last part of the race was no longer about racing. Not to worry too much though. With all the staff and our helpers by the trail, I was confident to be able to get assistance if l had to make the decision to stop.

Aftermath: Now I have a few battle scars to boast of - a few patches of frostbite, including the tip of my nose, which must have frozen under a giant... and which will probably make my look like a famous reindeer by weeks end, a finger I think I froze and cramping adductor muscles which surprisingly make sleeping very difficult.

I'm already looking forward to next year! Thank you to all our support: Mike, Nevin, and Mark for feeds; Craig Storey, Peter Rozmovits, and John Suuronen for waxing. Hats off to all my team mates as well for a very strong showing: Karl placing third, Matthias 6th and our girls rounding off the podium with winner, Li Hongxue.
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