The Gatineau Loppet is part of the Worldloppet circuit, a series of 16 Loppet races across the world. Whilst we stay in Canada we can experience one of these international events, featuring a range of skiing abilities from Olympic standard to our relatively novice efforts.
Ken has competed in Loppet races on a number of occasions; I competed in the Gatineau Loppet in 2012, taking a shade under five hours to complete the 51 km course. I reported on it here.
Today’s conditions were a far cry from that relatively balmy day in 2012, when the race was won in 2 hours 37 minutes. We woke to blowing snow, a cold easterly wind that would be in our faces for virtually the whole route, and a temperature of minus 19C that remained like that all day. It was an estimated minus 31C taking wind chill into account.
Arriving with freshly waxed skis at the Mont-Bleu High School at around 7.30, whilst Ken went straight to the bus that would take him to the start at Wakefield (P17), Sue and I kept warm in the High School, together with others who were concerned about the cold conditions. Many, like Minna Kantsila from Finland, pictured below, sported facewear in an effort to protect cheeks and noses from frostbite.
We eventually left the High School at 8 o’clock, Sue and I jumping on the last buses for the 40 minute ride to Wakefield. Once there, we stayed on our respective buses until the last possible minute before taking our places on the start line.
Ken and Sue were perceived to be quicker skiers than me, so they had been allocated to ‘Wave D’ (Ken should be wave C) whilst I was in the ‘old timers’ wave E, last to start – about 8 minutes behind the first off at 9 am. I was right at the back of the 420 or so starters, even behind the last minute faffers!
That was the last picture I took (before the start) before the finish, over 6 hours and 51 km later. It just wasn’t amenable weather or conditions for photography, although a few hardy souls dotted along the route in snow holes did their best to record the event. The snow and cold continued throughout the day, with conditions being tougher than Ken had previously experienced on the Loppet.
I felt I was going really slowly (I was going really slowly), but at the 10 km point I caught up with Sue, whose pace I’ve been unable to maintain for all this trip until now. I slowly drew ahead, but I was still concerned about making the 30 km cut off point by the deadline of 1 pm.
The cold east wind was really biting, as well as blowing dumps of snow onto the competitors and the track. In 2012 we skied along nicely groomed tracks. This year the trails may have been groomed the previous day, but that counted for little as we ploughed our way through fresh snow that was constantly filling the tracks. I soon realised that even if I did make the cut off, I’d be unlikely to finish within 6 hours, let alone 5 hours.
The section from Herridge, where Ken apparently stopped for a while to have his nose warmed by a first aider, to O’Brien was slow but enjoyable – at least the fresh snow made the sometimes tricky luge like descents on trail 36 quite easy, and by now I knew I had a few minutes to spare, arriving at the cut off point with 20 minutes in hand. Sue arrived a bit later with 10 minutes to spare, by which time I’d set off on the long uphill haul to Huron.
During the previous two weeks I’d frequently suffered from cold hands, and on one occasion cold feet. Using Sealskinz waterproof socks completely solved the foot problem, and Sealskinz gloves, often pretty useless in the wet in the UK, have proved to be the best I can find for this type of skiing. I’d bought some Heat Factory disposable hand warmers but didn’t need to deploy them as on this occasion my hands had warmed of their own accord after about twenty minutes, and they stayed warm apart from one short period after a break for a toilet stop at Shilly Shally cabin. Long johns, leggings and waterproof trousers kept my legs warm, and all I needed under my old RAB Vapour Rise smock was an Icebreaker 200 long-sleeved t-shirt. That got a bit sweaty at the start, but after a while it reached an amicably dry equilibrium and was completely dry and warm when I finished. A Lowe Alpine mountain hat, which I find too warm in the UK, is superb headgear for these (-31C with wind chill) conditions, supplemented by an old scarf, a neck gaiter, and on this occasion a buff that I think was superfluous and simply made my neck ache.
For most of the route there was just one usable track, so any overtaking that would normally be accomplished by switching tracks needed to be achieved by running (not that easy on skis) past the skier ahead. This could be very annoying for the skier being passed, and really energetic for the person passing. People passing me often appeared out of nowhere, didn’t give enough space and simply trod on my skis. I tried to be more courteous and chatted to some folk as I went past. Mostly they had nothing to say, though a couple of ladies skiing together bucked the trend by chatting every time they passed me - they stopped for more breaks but were skiing more quickly apart from on the downhill sections, where they kindly stood aside to let me pass before overhauling me again as I slithered slowly up the next hill. People with spectacles seemed to be having a harder time than those of us fortunate enough to have good vision, as in these conditions specs simply ice up for several reasons.
The checkpoints were ideally placed at about the 10, 20, 30, 35 and 45 kilometre points along the 51 km route. These are manned by volunteers who hand out hot drinks and snacks to the skiers as they pass. Some of them looked pretty cold, but mostly they were cheerful and encouraging. Apparently there were First Aiders who were keeping a close eye out for skiers who may be suffering from frostbite. I noticed a few minor casualties.
After the Huron checkpoint there’s a long Parkway section where the ‘endurance’ aspect of the event comes into play. Sue by this time knew she could make the finish and simply bimbled on, stopping to chat with the marshalls at both Huron and at the final checkpoint at the Notch. To avoid cold hands etc I simply carried on at a fairly metronomic pace until the turn down trail 26 signalled the final couple of kilometres. Loudspeakers from the finishing line at the Mont-Bleu could be heard for the last half hour or so as the route circled to the finish. There was a timing chip sensor about 400 metres from the finish, giving the commentator full information on the competitors as they approach the finish line to her blaring encouragement and a group of students with tambourines. I don’t think she was brave enough to try to pronounce ‘Altrincham’, and the number of Brits amongst the 400 finishers could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Having finished, I waited near the finish line (forgetting to turn off the Garmin Gadget for a few minutes) to see if Sue would appear. I just missed her, as after 20 minutes my hands started to feel cold. Meanwhile my camera returned to life.
Here’s local man Pierre-Yves Gauthier, who I must have passed during the ski from Huron.
Apart from the fanfare that greets finishers, even so far down the field, a medal is thrust around your neck and a Toque hat is stuffed into your mit – three years ago it was a buff. That is the extent of the ‘Goodie Bag’ for this event, which costs about £50 to enter. You do get a meal at the end in the High School cafeteria as well. Considering all the logistics of the event, I think this is probably good value.
Here are some more finishers.
Elizabeth Hurdman, from Toronto, was competing in the 15 km version of the race. She’s blind, so it must have been tough for her in these conditions to finish in a respectable 2 hours 22 minutes.
Minna (pictured near the top of the page) would also finish the 51 km course, in around seven hours. There’s also a 27 km course that some people find sufficient of a challenge.
The Garmin Gadget recorded the event as below:
The results for each competitor can be displayed as shown below for Ken and Sue and me (for geeks only), but the search facility doesn’t go as deep as ‘country’, so we don’t know how many people took part from any particular country without going through the data for each competitor. The Total Participants figure of 483 is a little misleading, as that includes 60 or so who didn’t turn up, and a further 20 or more who didn’t get past the 30 km cut off point.
The full results are here, the winner taking about three and a half hours instead of the usual two and a half. That made us all feel a bit better about our slow times, Ken finishing in 5.31, me in 6.10 and Sue in 6.34.
Here’s Sue’s short report on her day out:
The roads were white with fresh snow as we left for Mont-Bleu High School at 6.50am. CBC radio broadcast "it is -20C in Ottawa this morning, feeling like -31C with wind chill". Ken and I exchanged a look in the front seats! Luckily we could wait in the school until the last minute, diving onto the yellow school buses, which took 40 minutes to reach P17, the car park at Wakefield. Again, we could stay on the bus until the last minute, leaving its warmth for the corral at the start line. Surprisingly, Martin was allocated wave E whereas I was in wave D which started 2 minutes earlier.
The open fields were perishing and it was snowing quite hard, so glasses soon fogged up, then became coated with ice inside! They were put away! There wasn't too much vying for space and by the 15km marker, I was skiing alone. Martin caught me up at about 9km and we skied together to the first checkpoint at 10km.
The trail alongside Lac Philippe was bitterly cold into the wind and my two pairs of gloves weren't keeping my hands warm. This was to be a feature of the day, with hands warming on the ascents, but cooling on the descents or after a brief stop. After the checkpoint at Herridge, the ski to O'Brien was a delight with some fast descents. I noted the time I left O'Brien as 12.52, having had my face checked for frostbite. The cut off was 1pm, and I hadn't realised I was so close. From this 30km mark, it was uphill, first steeply up trail 36, requiring herring-boning, then the gradual ascent up the Fortune Parkway to Gossip's Corner. Here, I had to stretch my aching lower back before continuing up the Kyber Pass to the high point of the course at Huron, where the bagels were freshly warmed, washed down with Gatorade.
From Huron, the course is supposedly mostly downhill on the Parkway, however, the fresh snow made going slow, and there was effort required even on the descents. By now, recreational skiers were out, well wrapped against the cold. Unusually, we vied for the single tracks on just one side of the Parkway (normally there are two sets of tracks either side). It was snowing only lightly and the sun shone weakly for short periods.
The km markers tracked progress. Now, my shoulders were aching and I was relieved to turn off the parkway onto a smaller trail and the last 2km. The sound of the loudspeaker at the finish line could be heard, and some snowshoers shouted "Great job!" Alone, I covered the last few hundred metres, to be serenaded across so the finish line by a group of people with tambourines, etc! A medal was put around my neck and it was a relief to have made it and have the opportunity to get out of the cold. The temperature didn't rise above -15C all day, with wind chill taking it to below -20C. The 51km course included around 1000m ascent. Of the 63 women who finished, I came 53rd, in 6 hours 34 minutes. Would I do it again? Yes, but I hope the conditions might be less challenging!
Well done Sue!
But this is after all a ‘Beach Holiday’, so we returned to base to discover that Helen had been deep sea diving to catch our tea.
It’s now over two days since we started the Loppet. ‘Beach Holiday’ activities have delayed this posting. Yesterday Ken attempted the ‘freestyle’ (skate skiing) Loppet, which was reduced from 51 to 42 km – a circuit from Mont-Bleu - due to the cold weather. Unfortunately he found it impossible to keep warm and failed to make the cut, returning to Mont-Bleu, happily without succumbing to frostbite, in two hours after a 20 km ski. Well done for trying, Ken, and thanks also for going outside later to barbecue our steaks. The rest of us stayed in our beach hut (apart from a short walk along the beach) on a day when Ottawa was reported to be the coldest capital on the planet. Even Mongolia was warmer.
We had hoped for a final ski today (Monday) before leaving for home tonight, but with the outdoors temperature at minus 24C (minus 37C with wind chill) we’ve decided to stay in the hut!
That concludes our missives from Canada for this year. Thanks go to our congenial hosts, Ken and Helen, and also to Susan and Roy for organising the Lake Placid trip that now seems like a distant memory. We hope to see you all again soon.