Sue and Martin in Mallorca 2019

Sue and Martin in Mallorca 2019
On the Archduke's Path in Mallorca

Friday 13 February 2009

The Canadian Ski Marathon 2009 (CSM) – A Tale of Three Halves (part 2)

Well, we are back in the UK, time flies past, there is post to open, people to chase up, people to visit, things that need to be done, trips to be planned, bookings to be made. 

If I had not started this blog, the record of our CSM attempt this year would disappear, like the previous three, into the library of A6 diaries and maybe never see the light of day.

But the blog is here, followed assiduously by my mother, and thanks to her even now noticed by my daughter....

.....I'm afraid you'll need more time than normal for this entry.

1650 hrs, Sunday 8 February

Helen waits anxiously, having optimistically installed herself at a table for 10 in the CSM banqueting hall that usually masquerades as a giant school gymnasium in Buckingham, Quebec.  Claire joins her, having skied just a couple of sections today.  Helen explains:

"It was so icy on Section 6.  Michael had gone ahead.  Martin and Sue had passed me.  I got about a kilometre up the trail - as far as the narrow ice bridge.  Even the waxless skis were difficult to control.  It wasn't at all enjoyable.  I saw that other folk were turning back.  I didn't think that was allowed on the CSM.  I thought to myself 'if I see five people turning back, I'll join them'.  I did, and I did turn back.  On the way back into Montebello I had to walk down the hill that I had struggled up a short while earlier.  I met a first aider.  She agreed with my take on the conditions, and with my decision to stop."

There ended the 'Scrabbled Skiers' team leader's exploits for the weekend, with a desultory total of one section skied.  But she had survived, and had brought the car to the finish to collect others under her management.

Helen is a better skier than either Sue or me.

So, who would be first to appear from the icy conditions and the gathering gloom outside?

0550 hrs, Sunday 8 February 

Ken had been up for nearly two hours at the Gold Camp, in the wooded hills above Montebello.  It had been a relatively warm night with some light rain.  He was glad he had taken his tarp, and that he had spent quite some time the previous evening laying out his bed of hay.  He was still elated from having achieved yesterday's 77km objective, including the infamous section 3 with its huge hills, with a good half hour's leeway at the final checkpoint, but it had been a smoky night.  Ken worried that his possessions would smell of wood smoke for aeons to come.

He set off in confident mood.  Tired, but fueled with adrenaline for today's 81km stint over undulating terrain in icy conditions.

0750 hrs, Sunday 8 February, Montebello

Michael had set off in a flurry of ice particles and sticky wax in a bid to double the 4 sections he magnificently achieved yesterday.

Helen had ambled on ahead.

Sue and I were about to apply the infamously awful, sticky, klister wax that Ken had so thoughtfully provided for us.  We were however standing adjacent to a 'waxing station', so why not let those nice people from Swix do our waxing for us....

We pondered our experience of this year's CSM thus far.

We had set off from home much earlier than usual on Friday, so as to drive the 180km to Lachute, to drop Ken off at the 'Gold Dorm' - a school gymnasium in which all 250 Coureur des Bois 'Gold' entrants would spend the night.

The dorm wasn't there!  We toured around Lachute, using the CSM's large scale map that pinpointed the dorm's position in the town.  We investigated and eventually located the school. It was indicated in completely the wrong place on the CSM's map.

Composure was recovered with coffees at Tim Hortons, where 'The Two Steves', with whom Ken had practised bivouacking at -30°C a couple of weeks earlier - turned up, bemused about how to find the Gold Dorm.

Leaving the masochists to their cosy accommodation, Helen, Sue and I returned to Montebello, half way along the 180km length of the CSM course, to join Michael in our room for four at the Auberge Montebello.  Our previous experience of the place was that whilst it has a rather un-funny Fawlty Towers air to it, it can't be matched for value in Montebello.  Helen had got a very good deal this year.  I had listened to the telephone call in which she had confirmed everything.

It was nevertheless no great surprise to find that we had no booking - well, we had, but it was for the following month.  I won't bore you with the rest of the story, just picture an excerpt from Fawlty Towers, with Basil and Sybil in good form at reception.  After some 'ducking and diving' all round we eventually got a room, and there was much negotiation on price as Helen had been quoted the much cheaper March rate.

The nearby Bistro (we have learnt from bitter experience not to dine in the hotel) provided a hearty meal, though I was very fortunate not to dislike too much the soy sauce from which my chicken had failed in its bid to escape a 'death by drowning' verdict.

The following morning (Saturday) Michael had left to get the early bus to Lachute, where he started with many other 'Tourers' at Section 1.  Kerry also started here, but Michael zoomed ahead and completed 65km on the day - 4 sections, missing the 1515 hrs cut off time for the fifth.  He is a good skier, if not as fit as usual this year.

Meanwhile, Helen, Sue and I had 'lain in' until 0630 and after a good breakfast from Helen's cool box had caught the 0740 bus to the start of section 4.  The CSM hires school buses for transporting people from place to place - there is no room for private cars.  There was a jolly crowd on the bus, including a teacher and five children from Dublin School in the Adirondack - "I'm feeling chipper this morning!" said the teacher, who builds canoes in his spare time.

 0702bus1 0703bus2
We set off in a group of 50 to 100 folk soon after 0830 on a vaguely sunny day that was destined to cloud over during the morning. 

Here we are, waiting for the 0830 starting gun, after which we passed one by one through the canopy, our numbers being recorded and our bar codes being 'swiped'.
0704start Sue and I soon found ourselves going more quickly than most, on lovely, freshly groomed trails in the excellent snow conditions we had become accustomed to on this trip.  Note the lovely pristine trail.0705track Section 4, 20km, was completed in 2½ hours.  Half way along we enjoyed this refreshment stop.0701csmdrinks At the end of the section there were lots of goodies to nosh, and very few people, so we applied a bit of dark blue wax (good for warm conditions - it was about -5°C) whilst munching chocolate covered peanuts and bits of banana, and soon set off on the 18km section 5.  For the first time since arriving three weeks earlier, we were skiing in a single pair of gloves.  The trail was easy, given the conditions, and we had no significant incidents.   Even the 'downhills' were easily negotiated.0706slope We were 'breaking trail' - almost leading the field, albeit having started at kilometre 46.  It's not surprising therefore that none of the speedy Coureur des Bois contenders caught up with us before we passed their turning to the 'Gold Camp'.  In fact, just 4 people passed us today:

  • a lone youth of about 12, going along very professionally at about twice our speed
  • a fast, athletic, man
  • a man who effortlessly glided past whilst we were double-poling energetically near the finish.  "You've got motors in those skis, you cheat" I accused...."No" he replied, "my good friend waxed the skis...."
  • a man who flew past just as I was judiciously negotiating one of the final bends.  He missed the turn and landed in a heap.  I don't know why I apologised and let him get up and continue ahead of me.....but it's not a race.

It had started to spot with rain as we passed a marker showing 2km to go, so we were pleased to finish before the rain started properly.  We'd done the 18km in about 2 hours, our quickest skiing of the whole trip.  The sweeping downhill runs into Montebello were a sheer delight.  This was a lovely section to ski.

Pasta soup and other goodies sustained us for our 20 minute walk back to the hotel, where Helen was waiting to guide us to our new room.  She had done the first section, slowly, and got the bus back.

I was happy and warm on this 20 minute walk, probably relieved at having come through a CSM day without injury (it's a rare event), but Sue recalls it being 'unpleasant, with rain freezing onto clothes and skis and my hands being extremely cold'.

Dinner was booked at the Bistro for 1830.  Michael arrived back from completing 4 sections just in time to join us, albeit unwashed, for dinner, with Claire, Kerry, Sophie and Tim joining the four of us tonight.  The four of them had each completed two sections, in Sophie and Tim's case one of those was the 'killer' section 3, incorporating the infamous 3 km descent known as the Bobsled Run - so well done to them.

The 'Scrabbled Skiers' literary contest was later won, as usual, by Michael - he is undisputed champion.   Here, Helen and I practice in vain.0707scrabbleMichael is also king of section 3, though his means of control is perhaps suspect..."I couldn't make all the corners on the Bobsled Run" he reported, "I had to bale out a couple of times."  'Baling out', in Michael's book, involves launching oneself into a snow bank beside the trail by way of a bizarre braking technique.

1700 hrs, Sunday 8 February

Sue and I spotted Helen at her 'table for 10' in the banqueting room.  She reiterated her tale of woe at having turned back after just 1km.  We commiserated, having found the morning's first stage (section 6) tough ourselves.

We located the car, stashed our skis for the last time this year, and changed in the car whilst Helen resumed her search for the missing warrior, Ken.

Sue and I reflected on our day.  We had achieved our objective, but had skied for over 7 hours, excluding stops, to cover 49km, whereas yesterday we had covered 38km in 4½ hours.  It had been a tough day, especially at the start, where the route was icy, and

the skis had seemed to be too wide for the tracks and kept sticking, or the track had collapsed in places, leaving us with awkward moves.  Our poles frequently disappeared far into the crust of badly compacted snow.  We wondered whether this 'post-holing' was due to the weather, or had the trail just been inadequately compacted by the grooming machine?  Or had all the people who had gone before us simply left the trail in bad condition - we were at the tail of the field today.

It was slow going.

We are not quitters.  By the time we finished section 6, some 12km and 2 hours after our 0800 start, the weather had brightened and the snow had softened a little.  Sue had damaged a shoulder in a fall, and had followed that up with a spectacular 'head plant' into a snow bank (see below for a similar contemporaneous incident in the Alps) after following too closely and having to avoid me when I fell.

She took some time to extricate herself from the deep snow, with skiers flying past around the tricky corner and me shivering in wait at the bottom of the hill.

We abandoned our battered skis to the nice Swix people, who waxed them with something quite sticky whilst we refreshed ourselves with goodies (volunteers serve hot Gatorade, honey water, soup, cookies, granola bars, peanuts and chocolate-covered nuts at all the checkpoints) and made use of the ubiquitous portaloos - they must hire hundreds of them.

Setting off on section 7, Sue had problems making her skis work, and she walked down the hill from the start.  I'd put the precious camera away today and was being very careful, but I started to find the downhill sections easier, especially a long back country sort of trail through a wood, after which I had a long wait for Sue.  She is usually much more confident (and more skilled) on the skis, but today I was managing fine whilst she was walking.  After the slow first section we knew we couldn't make the cut to ski the fourth section of the day, so we relaxed and enjoyed ourselves at the back of the field in the sunshine.

We came across one of the occasional 'unofficial' support points, where local people lay out trestle tables outside their homes and provide coffee and cakes etc to participants.0803house Here we encountered a man with one pole, its broken twin perching like an antenna in the top of his rucksack.  Disconcertingly, he kept repassing us at speed, but he did retire at the end of the section.

Both pairs of gloves were needed today, and the head wind was very strong in open country.  Luckily it diminished whenever we got into trees, so we weren't constantly debilitated by it.  Great care was required, even when walking, to avoid punching deep holes into the snow crust and getting stuck in these 'post holes'.  The 20km section took us around 3 hours.  The chap who chattily waxed our skis at our final checkpoint commented "you can tell the Brits - they all have Lowe Alpine Mountain Caps and RAB jackets", kit which is not available in North America (they are jealous).  We didn't meet any other Brits this year - the participants from the UK can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Our speed quickened on our final 16km section, which took a shade over 2 hours.  It was a lovely, if uneventful, ski beside rivers and lakes and through scenic woodland.  0804trail
We finished at 1535 and just missed a bus so had a long wait chatting to folks from Massachusetts (they have a 2½ hour drive to New Hampshire to train for the marathon) and various more local places.  A man arrived with a very bloodied face - embarrassingly he had fallen near the end of the section and bitten quite decisively through his lip...

We waited here:0805bus It was 1700 by the time we reached Buckingham, and the banquet, and concern about Ken's fate.

1730 hrs, Sunday 8 February

Fresh from the privacy of our Subaru changing cubicle, Sue and I headed back towards the banqueting hall in the gathering gloom of the evening.  Who should we meet in a corridor?  Ken, elated with success, having finished the whole course with nearly half an hour to spare at the last cut-off point.  A fantastic achievement.  Well done Ken.

This set the mood for a very jolly time at the banquet, where Kerry soon arrived, having done the last 3 sections today.  It was her first CSM, and she was lucky to have avoided today's first tricky section.  She, like us, had completed five sections, entitling us to a bronze 
'pin' which we all duly collected.  It was a good hour before Tim and Sophie arrived, having also completed the last three sections and gained their bronze pins - they had been delayed by having to return to Montebello for Tim's car.  The final two at our table for 10 had just beaten Tim and Sophie to the table - Lynette had done at least 5 sections and her partner, Lester, who is one of Ken's training pals, had done the whole course as a Coureur des Bois silver participant - meaning that he had to carry at least 5 kilos, but unlike the 'golds' he could stay overnight in a hotel. 

The 'silver' participants have to carry ballast - they don't need camping gear, so there's a tradition that they wait for their mates who are doing the 'gold' at the turn off to the gold camp.  Bottles of scotch are duly handed over to alleviate the pain of camping out on bales of hay.  The two Steves, who both also finished, benefited from this act of charity from a friend of theirs, unsurprisingly named 'Steve'.  Ken duly benefited, but as Lester hadn't kept up with him he didn't receive his own bottle.  [The Steves all work for 'The Government' - identified by their Blackberries - I think 'Steve' must be their code name.]

The food at the banquet used to be great, with huge sides of beef, but these days there is no main sponsor for the event and costs have been pared, so outside caterers supply a rather average buffet.  At least there's plenty of it, and the mobile bar didn't run out of beer.

The formal business of the banquet involves all the successful Coureur des Bois participants going onto the stage and introducing themselves.  Special mentions are made - the 12 year old who skied the whole course, the 70 year old who skied the whole course as a 'Tourer' (very hard) [well, he did take part in the bobsled racing in the Innsbruck Olympics], the family who have around 100 compleations between them, the elderly granddaughter of a 'founding father' Jack-Rabbit Johansen, who gave up skiing at the age of 108!  And so on.

After the Coureur des Bois awards come the Hat Trick Awards.

To qualify for a Hat Trick Award you:

  • Must have completed the CSM as a Coureur des Bois;
  • Must have run any marathon in under five hours; and
  • Must have completed any "double century" cycling tour (two 100-mile tours or 160 km in two consecutive days) in an official event 
  • The three events must be completed within one calendar year.

Ken was one of the dozen or so folk who had achieved this accolade, the trophy for which he received rather in the manner of a cyclist taking the Yellow Jersey.0802kenhattrick 
Here's his trophy:
He and Helen enjoyed the moment:
And the rest of us enjoyed the banquet:
From left to right: Lynette, Sophie, Ken, Helen, Kerry, Tim, Martin, Claire (taken by Sue, with Lester absent at the bar)

So ends our tale of three halves

  • a fine day's skiing on Saturday
  • a horrible first section on Sunday
  • followed by a relaxing afternoon's skiing and a most pleasurable banquet.

There are many more tales being told of this and other CSM triumphs and failures.  The links from the CSM website are here.

Here are two opposing reports:

This first report is by way of a video, taken on the descent of the steep and narrow hill on section 3 - the 'Bobsled Run' that is far too hard for us to tackle.  Who says cross-country skiing isn't an adrenaline sport?

Looks easy, doesn't it!  Oh to be able to parallel ski, let alone do it down a narrow track...

Here's another take, extracts from a report on this year's event by Sheri McCready:

"In a nutshell:
So the CSM was a beautiful, painful, and expensive nightmare. But don't let me dissuade you from entering and doing the training for this out-of-this-world, fantastically organized, and fun event.
This year, Steve and I decided we were going to get out of our comfort zone and take our physical, mental and emotional challenges to the next level by doing the infamous CSM.
Friends warned us that many people don't make it to the end because they miss the cut off time to start the fifth section of each day. Apparently, 'making it' boiled down to nailing endurance, technique and time management.
Regarding endurance, we were going in with a half Ironman, an Ironman, 2 half marathons, and 2 full marathons under our belts during the 2008 ski off-season. We'd skate skied for five years completing four, 53km skate ski Keskis and one 29km classic Keski. We knew we were fit.
Regarding technique, we had a long way to go? They said the conditions for descending very technical down hills, especially, were always very difficult by the time the last wave went through, with a combination of ice and destroyed tracks. They could not have been more correct, and there was NO WAY we could re-create the conditions in training. But I get ahead of myself?
Event weekend came and off we went to Montebello: Steve, Nancy, a friend of hers, Evan (also a first timer) and myself. We stayed at an inn (Domaine Montebello) down the road from the Chateau, which was affordable, well-equipped and close by. Perfect. There was a lot of trepidation about the weather because it was going to be really warm and maybe wet. Damn, we had never even used red or purple wax before! We appreciated a little 'clinic' Nancy's friend Ed gave us about klister binder under layers of cold wax that progressively got warmer. Scary! There were heat guns, degreasers, scrapers and gooey substances inscribed with foreign language all over the place. By the way, the wax, at least for Saturday, was exactly right. We added purple along the way and had no trouble with that part of the plan all day.
Event day. Ahhh! It was dark at 6:00am so I had a head lamp, but it was so crowded. It was surreal, like penguins, there were hundreds of us on two tracks sliding along, opening up every so often on little descents. Bamm! Fifteen minutes in, I stutter-stepped over to change tracks to get back in the slightly slower track and I fell, stepping on my carbon pole, breaking it about seven inches from the end. Weirdly, I didn't notice right away. Once I did, I had no choice but to shimmy backward along the side of the track to look for a silver pole end in the dark! It took awhile and lots of crying out, "Have you seen a pole end???" Eventually, someone saw it. I stuffed it in my pocket and off I went. I asked at a road crossing, manned by the military, for duct tape. Eureka, they had it, but my MacGivor skills are terrible. It didn't really provide any resistance for poling. I asked at the first section checkpoint if they had spares. None. Steve offered to take a turn with my misery sticks while I used his "man poles". Better, but not ideal. At the second checkpoint they did have a spare alpine pole. Whoo hoo! Let's let it rock!
The third section is famous for its insane descents. It lived up to its reputation! Unbelievably, there were line-ups at some hills more than forty people deep! On one hill, in particular, I was really freaked out. I decided to follow a Gold (someone who has successfully completed multiple events) down the hill to learn the etiquette for walking hills. There were a few disgruntled snowplowers jeering at us that we were more of a hazard walking, but I called out that I was more of a hazard falling in the middle of the trail taking others down with me. We walked in the very deep snow switching sides to be on the least hazardous side for the skiers. It was the right thing to do when you saw the aftermath of other big wipeouts. I should say that we took Lise and Dave's downhill clinic, but it would have worked better if someone had taken a bulldozer to the hill.
Somewhere on that section the second mishap occurred. My boot zipper had slipped down spontaneously a few times in training. I had meant to go back to the store to ask about the boots because they were only a year old. I didn't. Somewhere on section three, the zipper failed and the boot got packed with snow, only to ice over. I couldn't clear the boot or un-freeze the open zipper. I was stuck with an ice pack that provided no support for the rest of the day.
Oh well, I completed Section 3. Nancy had passed me on a hill, even though she'd started 2 hours after us! Meanwhile, Steve's binding had frozen, unbeknownst to me at the last checkpoint, so he had unfrozen it with lighter fluid. He was slow starting and had some trouble, like I'd had, on the down hills, so I never saw him all of Section 3.
Reunited at Section 4, we knew we had a real chance to make the cut off! We were skiing well, especially on climbs and flats. We were nailing time management, minimizing breaks and moving with urgency. Endurance was holding up. It was possible.
That's when the third and most crushing blow hit!! Approximately, 10km from the end of the section, after more falling, I realized the tip of my ski had snapped, almost right off. I say approximately because I don't know exactly when it happened. The ski wasn't 'working right' so I kept trying to adjust, or there was a climb, so I didn't notice until I took it off to inspect. At that point I tried to hold back tears and begged Steve to go on without me. He refused because he's just that kind of guy... We carried on, with me pushing and grating in the track for the rest of the section, missing the cut off by 20 minutes. We got on the sweep bus as it filled with others who had had their own versions of disappointments for the day.
We might have made it if one or two things went wrong, or if I was a better descender, but there was too great a cumulative effect to overcome everything.
Later that evening, we found out that I could rent skis from the Chateau for the second day. Starting late, after the store opened, we set off on an extremely windy, rather icy trail. In contrast, with Saturday, there was almost no one around. The skis were waxless and wide so the grating was very slow in the icy, narrow tracks. My ski would jam in the track and haul me down to my knees at random intervals. The uphills were sheer ice, so the sliding was brutal. Again, I offered to cut Steve loose, but he wouldn't go? We completed two sections of the five when I decided I'd had enough of going nowhere slow.
We learned a lot over the weekend about classic skiing, waxing, technique, nutrition and character. I know I was a little naive to think I could achieve a Bronze level given my skill and experience. Others made it. Evan was very successful and I heard other newbies celebrating, but I have a deepened respect for the challenges the CSM offers. I also have to add to the list of elements for success at this event: endurance, technique, time management and ? equipment. Sounds a little like an Ironman, huh? I've done five and I can attest that the CSM is way harder.
Sheri McCready"

This does all sound a little melodramatic, especially as after all their training they only managed a similar mileage to us.  I think our kit is more basic, for example we have cheap poles and skis that are very flexible (my poles have recovered from a right angle bend in the past).  But our shoe zippers are fully functional!

I'll end with another video that actually provides a good overview of the flavour of the CSM:

Monday 9 February 2009

The Canadian Ski Marathon 2009 (CSM) – A Tale of Three Halves (part 1)

This, our final posting from Canada this year, is just to let you know that we had a (‘Mostly’, and as AS would say ‘the capital M is important’) great time on the CSM and all returned (we think, Michael hasn’t reported in yet) safely to Ottawa, our various objectives having been achieved.

That means Ken was star of the show. He completed the entire 160km route, carrying a pack and spending the night on a bale of hay under a tarp. He now has his Coureur des Bois Gold Medal, and was also one of the few people who received a Hat Trick Award, about which more later. Here he is receiving the award at last night's banquet.

Well done Ken.

As expected, cameras stayed in the rucksacks for this trip – just as well as there were a few tumbles. Sadly that means there is a limited photographic record. So for this entry the header shows skiers enjoying their first refreshments stop after about 10km on Saturday’s section 4. The footer shows me, in the middle of section 8 on Sunday, having skied about 80km over the two days up to that point.

All that remains for now is for me to welcome a new reader to the blog (albeit only occasionally, when she wonders whether her tea will be available at Dad and Sue’s house). Hello Kate! You will not be going hungry next Sunday.

A fuller report on the CSM will follow. Here it is.