I decided going to Sudbury to do the Ontario Cups and then staying in town a few more days to visit with the family would be a nice idea. I decided this rather last minute. I was looking forward to a solid skating race and the site of my last Ontario Cup victory in 2001. Ok, technically that 2001 race was on the neighbouring golf course and my last race on the University trails was sometime in the previous century.
Sudbury is where I grew up, and I have put in many a lap around the Laurentian University trails where the races were being held, so no need to go any earlier than Friday to check out the course. Choosing not to worry about arranging a ride, As I've done the drive often enough over the years, I decided to fly and I booked a flight; Ottawa-Toronto-Sudbury.
Friday morning I arrived early at the Ottawa airport to check-in. I have with me 2 bags: one very tiny duffel bag with just 2 pairs of ski boots, a change of clothes and a very small selection of grip and kick waxes weighing well under the Air Canada baggage limit, and my ski bag with 1 pairs of skating skis, 1 pair of classic poles, 1 pair of classic skis and 1 pair of classic poles all nicely wrapped in my ski clothes (racing and warm-up) for padding. Check-in was quick and smooth. I got my boarding pass, made sure my bags were tagged through to Sudbury correctly and then I proceeded to drop off my as small-as-possible ski bag at the over sized baggage area. I did not come up against the usual "Only one pair of skis and poles regardless of type" rule that often plagues xc racers traveling on Air Canada. Sitting at the gate I watched as my ski bag was loaded onto the plane.
One plane change and three hours later, I stood in the Sudbury airport watching the empty baggage carousel go round and round without my luggage. At that point I realized the mistakes I had made that morning.
Mistake #1 - Putting my ski boots in checked baggage!
In all my years of flying to races I guess I've been rather lucky. I've never actually had my baggage lost or delayed for more than a few hours. It has never inconvenienced me. It can happen when traveling with a large team of skiers and is I think becoming more frequent. Since I wasn't with a big team, each with a giant ski bag, I was confident my ski bag would make it to Sudbury. Avoid my mistake and take your ski boots with you in your carry-on.
Mistake #2 - Not packing a spare ski suit!
My ski suit was in my ski bag, wrapped around my skis to pad them from damage. A lot of good that did me when my ski bag didn't arrive. For a single weekend of races, 2 suits might seem excessive but packing a spare suit, wind briefs and thermal underwear is always a good idea when flying. Again, carry-on is best and if your worried about space stuff it inside your boots. Not getting my skis or luggage was frustrating but something I couldn't control. There's not much I can do once I drop it off at check-in. Where it goes is a mystery, when it arrives at the destination on time might often be a miracle. Had I avoided the mistakes I just pointed out, all I would have needed was to show up at the race site and beg to borrow skis and poles. But I was without boots and no matter how many times I tried calling the Air Canada "delayed baggage" hot line I could only ever get through to a nice man in India who assured me they were taking care of this inconvenience on my behalf. I wasn't very reassured, so I went to the airport at 8am to see if my bags had arrived. I was partly lucky! While my ski bag hadn't turned up, my bag with boots, gloves, wind briefs and a hat had arrived on the last flight in the night before. Great, but what about my skis? "Not here, but there's another flight at 9:35am so why don't you wait and see if they're on that flight?" , I was told. Why can they never tell you where your luggage is? But it sounded reasonable to wait as I had time. While the race started at 10am, Open Men didn't start until 12:45am. It was a 40min drive to the site from the airport. That left me about an hour to warm-up once there, which was sufficient if not perfect. But when the next plane landed, my skis where not on the flight.
So where was I at this point? My new reduced race expectations for the day were to get to the starting line fully dressed with skis on my feet and poles in my hands. Currently, I still couldn't race but I had (from head down) a toque, sun glasses, gloves, windbriefs and ski boots. That's about 50% of what you need to race. So what was my plan? Beg and borrow.
Arriving at the site and picking up my bib put me at 55% ready. Luckily, right after that I ran into Matthias Purdon of Carleton who kindly lent me his Carleton suit. (THANKS!) Once I made sure the suit fit I was 60% prepared with 50min until race time. My t-shirt would have to do as a thermal layer, and my sweater as a warm-up jacket...62%.
Next up was finding skis and poles. There aren't many skiers my size, but I'd settle for short poles and soft skis. When I explained my predicament to Laurentian coach Bob Hanson he handed me his son's equipment saying Russ wasn't racing due to illness. Sorry to hear that Russ, but thanks for the use of your stuff!
Wow, 100% equipped with 45min to spare. My panic was replaced with a "Now what do I do?" feeling. A warm-up. I ran into my buddy Kerry Abols who mentioned it would be a good idea to ski the part of the course I wasn't used to as it offered a few surprises. That took us about 30minutes to ski. So with 10 minutes until start I was warmed up. I also realized I was exhausted and starving. In all my purposefulness to get the hard goods I needed to race I had barely prepared. I hadn't eaten since 7am, and it was nearly 1pm. I wolfed down 3 fig bars with some water and got to the line on time. Racing on someone else's skis, wearing someone else's suit is a weird experience!
Not much more to say about the race. I went out hard, at the pace I knew I should for that course. Bonking at 2km into a 15km race is also a weird feeling. From then on it was hard to tell if the skis were fast, since the conditions were fast but I knew the way I was skiing wouldn't translate to a great time! At least I got to race, and I enjoyed every extra minute of it thanks to Matthias, Russ and Bob. I also relearned a few valuable lessons.
Would you know it, but on the flight back to Ottawa there's a Sudbury Master's skier headed to the World Master's and what does he have with him as carry-on? Only his boots!
My big mistake might have been traveling with an airline that regularly discriminates against cross-country skiers. Air Canada's official policy for passengers traveling with skis is that "each passenger is allowed 1 pair of skis and poles as part of the allotment of checked luggage". Air Canada often enforces this policy regardless of ski type and charges over baggage fees. Ask Andrew how much he had to pay to have his skis get to Japan for the World Championships last year! How does that make sense? Any pair of downhill skis weight at least five times more than a pair of cross-country. Same is true of downhill vs. xc poles. And don't get me started on jumping skis! But we'll leave that as a point to debate later.