It’s been bloody cold this week. Rochester is a lot damper in the winter than Southern Ontario, so it really cuts through you. But it reminds me of the winter of 1979-80.
It was my first year at the University of Waterloo, and I joined the cross country ski team. We trained VERY hard all fall. I kept a training diary, and I was doing 10-15 hours a week of both endurance and strength training. My rest pulse lying in bed in the morning was down in the low forties. Damn I was fit.
We had a training camp in Sudbury in the week following Christmas. It was incredibly cold. Most days we did some work on technique until the video tape machine froze up, and then we just skied around trying not to over-exhert ourselves in the cold weather because of the danger of lung damage and other problems (I quickly learned the benefit of a plastic baggie down the front of my underwear – you might not have had penile frostbite, but believe me it’s not something I’d care to repeat.)
The National Team women’s team had a training camp at the same location, and they were doing pretty much the same. Years afterwards I told people about how I passed Angela Schmidt out on the trails (and omitting how she then finished taking off her warm-up jacket and then passed me back).
I wasn’t anywhere near the best skier on the team. The university’s mens team had one guy (Pete Peircy) later joined the National Team development squad, another guy (Kevin Jones) who had competed in the World Orienteering Championships, and another guy (Steve Bauer) who later won a silver medal in cycling in the Olympics, and another guy, (Ian “Go Wild” Lowe-Wilde) who was just a damn good skier (he might have been on the national team later, I lost track). As to the rest of us, the also-rans, we also had a member of the National rowing team and a few other very athletic people. The women’s team was also populated by some heavy hitters – the then-current North American Orienteering Champion (Megan Peircy – Pete’s sister), the then-current Canadian Orienteering Champion (Sue Budge (later Doctor Susan Lowe-Wilde)) for example. I usually got to be the designated alternate on the team because I had a car, not because I was the best of the also-rans. One of the also-rans was a guy who ran marathons and who wrestled collegiately – with that mixture, you know he had both the endurance and the strength to be a good skier, but at the ski camp his technique was so bad that we kept the video tape of the earlier sessions to entertain people at parties. By the end of week his technique was MUCH MUCH better, and he became much faster.
The first race after New Years is the Muskoka Loppet. (Loppet is a Swedish(?) word meaning Citizen’s Race – ie a race open to everybody, not just racers.) It’s 35km through pretty rugged terrain. I’ve done the Muskoka Loppet several times, and it’s a great race. You park at the Huntsville Holiday Inn or the Deerborn Lodge, and buses take you to the start. The finish is at Deerborn Lodge, and you can get a bus back to the Holiday Inn if you parked there.
1500 people start on a big windy lake, and rush across the lake where the trail narrows down to about 6 across. If you try and do the right thing, and ski at a pace that would be good for the whole race, you’ll find youself in a huge traffic jam there, stuck behind much slower people who gave all their effort for the sprint across the lake. You’ll spend the next 5-10 kilometers trying to get past them, longer if you’re not agressive. But at the start, the racers were lined up ahead of the citizen tourers, so if you were careful to keep ahead of them, you were usually all right.
Soon after crossing the lake, the course goes across a couple of roads. Volunteers from the local snowmobile club are there to shovel snow into the roadway and direct traffic when somebody wants to drive through. I always try and give them a friendly “hello” no matter how hard I’m working, because skiers and snowmobilers often don’t get along, and so it’s good to see them doing nice stuff for us. You’ll also see them at various parts of the course, repairing damage to the course and (more ominously) waiting to evacuate people injured at some of the nastier downhills.
The Loppet organizers have feeding stations at about the 1/3rd and 2/3rds points of the race. As well as diluted hot Ribena drinks, they have a “sag wagon” bus to pick up anybody who needs to quit the race. I think there are other things there, but I’ve never slowed down long enough to see.
In 1980, the Muskoka Loppet weekend was just as cold as the previous ski camp. It was -40C at the start. I saw a couple of racers decide to bag the race, but most team racers were still in it. Snow that cold is very slow – almost like skiing on sandpaper. And to ski on it, you need your wax to be EXTREMELY thin and highly polished, and because the snow is so abrasive, you have to put on a lot of layers like this. Don’t ask me why several thin layers acts differently from one thick layer, but it does. Oh, and if you have the slightest trace of a warmer weather wax on your skis, either because you didn’t do an adequate job of cleaning or because your cork transferred some when you were polishing, forget it – you’ll be snowshoeing before long. Fortunately, because of the ski camp in the cold weather, my skis were waxed perfectly for it, and everything else (clothing, technique, equipment) was correct as well.
Back then there was a rumour that instead of using cold weather wax (Swix Polar), you could use a goopy honey-like wax made for refrozen snow near freezing (Swix Silver Klister) and freeze it overnight. I never had the guts to try.
Anyway, that day I got a decent start, and thing were going as well as could be expected in the cold. I was skiing better than I’d ever skied in my life – remember this is the first race after an autumn of extremely good training and also some tremendous work on technique, so this was like the vindication of everything I’d done. One aspect of ski racing is that you spend a lot of time alone in the woods, and have no way to know how many people are ahead of you and how many people are behind you. All you have is the clock, a feeling of how your own body feels, and if you’re lucky some sort of distance indicators out on the course, otherwise your own memory of the course if you’ve done it before. Sometimes the volunteers at the feeding station will give you some information. I felt like I was doing great, but other than the fact that I hit the first feeding station in what seemed like record time, I didn’t really know.
Nearing the second feeding station, Steve Bauer caught up to me. We chatted a bit – he’d evidently been on a bus from Huntsville that had arrived at the start lake just as the gun went off, so he’d had to quickly put on his skis and take off, and he was behind all the slow pokes at the pile-up at the end of the lake. It had taken him nearly 20km to catch up to me. We skied together a bit, but he slowly pulled away.
I got to the second feeding station and I noticed the volunteers peering intently into people’s faces looking for frostbite. I kept my head down, and hoped my beard would cover enough – I knew I had a touch, but it wasn’t bad (I could still feel it) and I didn’t want to slow down. I found out later that Steve Bauer had been taken aside and made to warm up in the sag wagon because of frostbite on his face. I tried to get through the feeding station as quickly as possible – normally I grab two drinks, but this time I only dared to take one. It worked.
Later on in the race there was a gentle downhill, and I amazed myself by poling and skating – normally even in the early stages of a race I use every downhill as a rest. I took this as a sign of how fit I was that year. One of these downhills took a sudden increase in slope, and I suddenly found myself going faster than I’d like – and when there was a hump in the course the force of all the people ahead of me going so fast had dug extremely deep ruts. I was tempted to fall just to slow down, but I didn’t.
The race ends with another long stretch across a windy lake, and this time it was right into the wind. It was bitter, bitter cold, but I was still strong enough to skate a bit. I have a memory of passing Timo Palotie (former National Orienteering Team member) on the lake, but I’m not sure if that’s just because afterwards I was trying to remember if I’d passed him or not.
When I finished, there was a newspaper photographer who took several pictures of the wreath of frost and icicles on my beard and the steam coming off my body, and my coach (Anton “Toni” Schier) was standing there as well and handed me a well deserved cup of Gatoraide. (I could never stand the taste of Gatoraide except when I really needed it.) He confirmed what my watch said, that I’d done it in 2:48. My previous best in better, faster conditions had been around 3:20, so I was well pleased. I went into the lodge to await the results. They posted my time as 2:58, and I was not amused. I complained, and they revised it to 2:53 (split the difference). I never discovered whether the time difference was because somebody wrote my time down wrong, or because they hadn’t synchronized the time clocks at the start and the finish. That’s why I was searching my memory to see if I saw Timo anywhere near the finish, because I knew him well, and his finish time was recorded as somewhere between 2:48 and 2:58.
The result of the inter-university cup were a disappointment – we’d lost the men’s trophy by less than the 5 minutes I thought they’d gotten my time wrong by, and we’d come in second in the women’s trophy as well because our best woman’s skier had listed her affiliation as the Kawartha Ski Club instead of the University of Waterloo. But on the other hand, I had the third best result on my team, my time was way better than usual, and as a percentage of winners time, it was AMAZINGLY better than usual. My time had gone from around 3:20 to 2:48, and the winning time had gone from about 2:10 to about 2:25.
The aftermath of the race was that that summer the Ontario Ski Federation issued a directive that they would follow Federation Internationale du Ski guidelines, from now on no races would take place below -15C. If it was below -15C, they could still allow skiing, but they weren’t allowed to record times to discourage people from pushing themselves hard enough to damage their lungs. Below -25C, the event was supposed to be cancelled entirely. And the next year the Muskoka Loppet was held in -40C weather again, and so they lost their official sanction.
Those were the days. I miss skiing so much it hurts.