I am a front of the (FOP) pack triathlete. I chase the leaders or am the leader. I am not used to being passed, especially by ten years old. In the second weekend of February I found myself crawling along at a snail’s pace as hundreds of skiers passed me. I could only watch them go by as I wondered if I could even finish.
I picked up a free copy of Vermont Sports from a small pile of magazines. One of the headlines caught my eye – CSM: Two Ultimate Days of Skiing.
What is CSM? I wondered.
Laura and I were in Stowe, Vermont for the weekend. Taking advantage of a credit on Independence Air, which had declared bankruptcy and was to be shut in early January, I had purchased two tickets to Burlington, Vermont, to cross country ski in Stowe. I had Nordic skied only four or five times before. Showing up on the opening day of the skiing season, we spent Saturday at the Trapp Family Lodge skiing by ourselves in the morning before taking a lesson with an older gentleman who admitted to being a four time XC Olympian.
“Canadian Ski Marathon: Two Day of the Best Cross-Country Skiing You’ll Find.” I read through the article in interest. The event covered a total of 160-kilometers or 50 miles over two days. Participants attempting all five ten mile sections each days are placed in the Coureur des Bois category and competed against the clock. Within the Coureur des Bois, there are three sub-categories: Bronze, Silver and Gold. Bronze athletes simply need to finish. Once Bronze, an athlete can attempt Silver, which requires participants to wear a 5-kilo pack. Silver finishers can then attempt the Gold category, which requires them to carry a pack and sleep outside over night.
Two years ago I spent a half-day of Cross Country skiing by myself on groomed trails near Lake Tahoe. I carried Gatorade and snacks, stopping occasionally to eat or check my trail map. Afterwards, I felt the sweet exhaustion of a long workout, but I could have gone longer.
The article mentioned the 6 AM start time and the 3:15 PM cutoff time to start the last ten miles section. I reckoned that worst case, it would take me ten hours to finish the fifty miles. I should finish well before the cutoff time. Maybe I will give it a try.
To date, I have raced in and completed nineteen Iron-distance triathlons: 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run or 140.6-miles in total. Finishing an Iron-distance event is a lifetime goal for many. After nineteen Ironman races, the finish line euphoria is no longer there for me. I still love the race and the distance, but I need something else to give me that feeling of satisfaction. I need a new challenge that will give me the euphoria I felt on my first Iron-distance race.
I consider CSM. I drop an email to some friends. “Any interest?” I asked. No takers. If I do it, I will do it alone.
“Why not?” I said to myself. I should at least try it. I register online and purchase my airline ticket to Montreal. I opt to stay in the dormitory, which includes two breakfasts and a dinner.
Laura and I drive to a local ski shop. After briefly perusing the skis lined up against the wall, I ask the sales person, “Where are your cross-country skis?”
“Against the wall,” she says as she points to a small double stack of skis.
“Oh, thanks,” I say somewhat disheartened. There are only two styles of cross-country skis as compared to a hundred different styles of downhill skis. I wonder if any of the sales people know much about cross-country skiing. “Oh, well,” I thought.
The salesman finds me a pair of last year’s skis in the back. I walk out of the store having spent $300 for skis, bindings, poles, boots and gloves.
“They”ll be ready for pick up on Wednesday.”
I’m staying in the dorm so I only pack a towel and toiletries in addition to many layers of clothing to get me through both days. I fly into the Montreal airport around 12:30 PM then catch a bus ride to the bus terminal to await the shuttle bus to the dorm in Papineauville. While I wait for the shuttle, I walk around Montreal but the wind is bitterly cold. I find a small coffee shop where I grab a cup of coffee and a sandwich for an early dinner.
When I arrive at the dorm, I find out that it’s really just a high school. Hundreds of pairs of skis line the entrance hallway and many skiers are busily applying different colors of waxes. I wonder if I need wax on my skis.
I check in at registration and am assigned to the gym with the other Coureur des Bois skiers. I seem to be the only one who did not bring a foam pad and a sleeping bag.
I lie down to sleep on my thin towel at about 10 PM. There are over a hundred other athletes in the gym with me. People continue to trickle in well past midnight; some talk as they enter the gym. At least one person is always snoring. I lie on my back for fifteen minutes then turn to my left side then to my stomach then to my right side than back to my back. I cannot get comfortable on the hard surface, and the cold radiates up from the floor into my tired body. I do not sleep except maybe 30 minutes.
February 11 – Day 1
I set my alarm for 4 AM but everyone gets up at 3 AM so I am up, too. I slowly put on my layers that I had laid out the night before then stand in line at the cafeteria for breakfast. I load up on oatmeal, pancakes, yogurt and juice.
At 4:50 AM, we board school buses to the start at Gatineau. I relay my story about sleeping on the floor to the folks around me on the bus. They can’t believe I’m from Virginia and have only skied a half dozen times in my life only two times this season. Two Canadians, Jake and Graham, mention that they are staying in a nearby farmhouse B&B, which has an extra room available because one of their buddies canceled at the last minute. I will need the sleep tonight so this sounds like a very fine option. “Get some klister on the bottom of your skis at the start,” they both advise. “It will help keep the wax on your skis.”
The temperature is below -20 Celsius (-6 F) at the start (-28 Celsius at the first checkpoint). I am wearing a wool undershirt; two fleece jackets and a shell on my upper body and a pair of fleece-lined tights underneath a pant shell. The morning is bitter cold as I stand in line to have my skis coated with klister.
The ski wax technician looks at my skis and points to the fish scales on the bottom, “You don’t need to wax these. The scales will grab the snow.”
“Oh, OK,” I said. I slowly realize later that I am one of the only participants of the 2,000+ registered that has fish scales on the bottom of my skis. Translating my fish scale skis into triathlon equipment, it’s the equivalent of using mountain bike instead of a triathlon bike. It’s doable, just not efficient.
The Bronze Coureur des Bois category starts promptly at 6AM. I am still in line to get into the starting chute so I start at approximately 6:05AM after the main rush. Thirty seconds later, I fall. I scoot to the side then get back up on my skis.
The sun is not up yet so many of the skiers have small lights attached to their heads to light the way. The moon is bright so it’s not completely dark. Two quiet lines of skiers surround me as we head out for the first of five segments, each approximately ten miles in length. My goal is to start each section by the two-hour mark in order to finish in ten hours.
The air is bitter, bitter cold. My eyelashes are freezing the exposed skin on my face stings. I pull up my neck gator to cover my nose and mouth. The gator later freezes. I keep moving to generate heat. When I put on my sunglasses, my breath fogs them, creating a thin sheen of ice that I need to scrape off with my mitten.
I am at the back of the pack and seem to be moving along with the majority. A few people pass me and I pass a few others. On the down hills, I seem to be slower than most except if I double pole. My form is sloppy but I am in shape so I compensate for less efficiency by more poling. I am careful on the down hills to keep my weight forward to minimize loss of balance and falling. I fall a few more times on the flats when my thoughts drift away from my skis.
I ski the first 12 km section in two hours. I know that I have given up some time at the beginning due to crowding and the late start, but I am a little worried about making the 3:15 PM cutoff to start the fifth segment at this pace. I minimize my stopping time at the first checkpoint by making a quick trip to the port-a-john and grabbing water and food.
Food and drink at triathlon aid stations on the run typically consists of water, Gatorade, gel, bars, cookies, pretzels and fruit pieces. The food and drink at the ski marathon checkpoints was different – cold and warm drinks including warm Gatorade and warm soup; cookie pieces, bananas, trail mix peanuts and chocolate covered peanuts. I did not understand the peanuts, but the salt and fat tasted good. When I ask an athlete about the chocolate covered peanuts, he mention that that XC skiing burns 1,000+ calories per hour as athletes use multiple muscle groups plus need to generate heat to stay warm. Peanuts and chocolate provide the needed calories.
The snow is cold, and, as other skiers tell me, rough on the wax. Plus, there are bare spots as the trail runs along or crosses roads. After every rough section, I see pockets of skiers off the side of the trail vigorously rubbing wax against their skis. I just watch if I should be rubbing wax on my skis. I keep skiing.
I make the next two checkpoints within the two-hour mark for each. So far, so good after six hours of skiing.
My body cools down when I stop at the checkpoints, but I am warm while skiing. The wool against my skin stays warm even as I sweat.
On the fourth section, I begin to notice the tiredness seep in to my muscles. My legs are feeling the exhaustion of more than six hours of skiing. They are not used to repetitive motion. In addition, I have been double poling more to compensate for my slower skis so I am burning more energy and effort.
Today is the first time I have used my new equipment. This is a “no-no” in any sport. The front of my shins begin to hurt from the pressure of the front of my boots. Every stride induces a sharp pain to the respective shin.
I slow down, not purposefully, but because I have no other option. I no longer have the energy to do anything but plod along. I am being passed much more than I am passing. The only folks that I do pass are the ones stopped alongside the trail either rubbing on more wax or eating and drinking. I keep moving.
I start the fifth section at 2:50 PM – only 25 minutes before the 3:15 PM cutoff time. I have not been stopping that much so doubts about finishing begin to form in my mind about Sunday – I will be tired and sore starting tomorrow.
The last leg is relatively longer as I am skiing slower. Every step becomes painful. My tight muscles in my groin and inner thighs restrict my range of motion. I pass no one during this last section. I approach the “5 km to go” mark then the “2 km to go” marker. My eyes tear up briefly in anticipation of the finish and the end of the suffering. If I make this far tomorrow I will probably break down and cry. I cross the line at 4:50 PM – almost eleven hours after I began.
I promptly ski over to the food. As I press against my bindings to release them, they are stuck. I pull my feet of my boots and walk across the snow in my socks for hot Gatorade.
I meet up with my two Canadian friends and we catch a ride back to the dorm where I grab my gear and ride with them in their car to the B&B. I am physically and emotionally exhausted. I need sleep that I cannot get in the dorm.
After a homemade organic dinner of duck ala orange and a lesson in ski waxing, the moment of choice comes. What do I want to do tomorrow?
My ego says that I must attempt all five sections. My body says my legs are trashed – I feel as if I had just raced an Ironman. I am too sore to even stretch. I delay the decision until after dinner, but I reluctantly realize that I will not be able to finish all five legs on Sunday. My muscles are not adapted to the motions of XC skiing.
I opt to sleep in and enjoy breakfast before starting the second day at an intermediary checkpoint instead of starting at the beginning at 6 AM. I wonder if I made the right choice.
February 12 – Day 2
I sleep like the dead for nine straight hours. After eating breakfast, our plan it to be back on the trail by 9 AM. We drag our feet before hopping in the car to ride to the host lodge where we catch a bus to checkpoint four in order the ski section three. We start section three at 11:30.
We have two and a half hours to finish 15km in order to start the next to the last section by 2 PM. Section three is the most difficult section of both days as it is either up or down with nothing in between. We climb from the start.
Both of my friends are quickly out of sight. I am alone once again.
Sleeping in was the right decision.
Every stride shoots sharp pain on my swollen shins. My tight and sore muscles restrict my mobility. I cannot extend my forward leg in a glide. I do not have the strength to propel myself forward with my arms. I am humbled as old women and eight year olds pass me. I pitifully crawl along at a snail’s pace. My only thought is to finish the section.
Three hours later, I reach the checkpoint. The next trail is closed to me. I am done.
Fifteen kilometers in three hours is three miles per hour. I was skiing at a 20 minute per mile pace.
My friends are not at the checkpoint so I reckon that they made the 2 PM cutoff and were able to proceed to the next section.
I am disappointed and yet relieved. I told myself that I would keep going if I could, but I desperately wanted to stop the pain in my shins and my feet.
I board the shuttle back to the dorm then take the bus back to Montreal for my flight back.
I arrogantly thought that I could do all ten sections on both days. I rationalized that my fitness and my mental toughness would get me though the event. I was wrong. My body was not prepared and there was nothing that my mind could do to overcome this shortcoming to meet the cutoff time.
I do know one thing. When I return, I will finish all ten sections. The finish will be that much sweeter.