One of my favourite ski races was the Kawartha Ski Tour. It wasn’t an official part of the race calendar, but it was the longest race available that weekend, the weekend before the Canadian Ski Marathon, so it looked to me to be a perfect tune-up for the CSM.
The first year I did it was my best year, my first year at University of Waterloo. My coach didn’t want me to go to the KST because there was an official race that weekend that the team was going to, but like I said above, it seemed to me like the best plan for getting ready for the CSM (which also wasn’t on the race calendar).
The Kawartha Nordic Ski Club’s trails consisted of a large loop, with branches off it at the top going to one trail head, and off the bottom going to another. In the KST you had two options – you did 25km down one side of the loop one day, and then the second day you could either ski 25km up the other side of the loop, or ski 50km around the whole loop.
The first year I did it, I decided to only do the 25km/25km option because I had a bit of a cold. My mother also did the 25km/25km. It was beautifully sunny, and about ideal snow conditions – fresh snow, far enough below freezing that the snow wasn’t wet or sucky, and not so cold as to be granular and slow. (That usually means somewhere between about -8C and -2C, Swix Blue or Rode Super Blue weather – have I mentioned before that cross country racers tend to think of snow conditions in terms of wax type rather than temperature?) The trails were lovely, but quite narrow and wild. For much of the trial it was only single tracked, which is usually pretty bad for racing. Fortunately, up in the racing packs people were good about trail manners and would let a faster skier go through when they called “track”. Mom told me afterwards that it wasn’t like that back where she was – people would refuse to step aside if you called “track” and would actually try and block you.
On the first day, I was doing pretty good, and I was in a group of people who evidently were all new to the course, because after a while one guy announced we were on the wrong side of the loop. We had to ski a trail that crossed between the loops, adding several kilometers to the length of the course. In retrospect it probably would have been better to continue down the wrong side of the loop, except for the fact that we thought we’d miss the feeding station. It turns out that we did miss the feeding station, so it was all for nought.
Later in the race, I was feeling the effects of my cold. I was behind this guy and he was skiing quite a bit slower than my natural pace. I decided to stay behind him to conserve my strength. But my skis were quite a bit faster than his, so every time the trail went the slightest bit downhill, I’d end up running a bit up the back of his skis. He was getting annoyed at me, and kept offering to let me past, but I could barely keep up on the uphills so I didn’t want to go ahead if I was going to be slowing him down on the uphills. After a while, I finally took pity on him (and he seemed to be flagging a bit), so I did pass him and put on a burst of effort to get far enough ahead that I wasn’t slowing him down on the uphills.
The second day my plan was simple – I was going to go out hard until the first feeding station, then I was going to slow way down, pull out my 110 camera that I had in my bum bag, and take pictures of the racers passing me. The start was in a small field, and people were lined up in a quite wide line. While waiting for the start, I was talking to kid who was quite a good racer in his age class I sort-of knew from the circuit. There was only a hundred metres or so before it narrowed down to a simple double track. I knew exactly what that meant – everybody would sprint like hell, and then there would be the traffic jam from hell. And that’s exactly what happened. I had to push and elbow my way through huge crowds of people who seemed to have gone through the initial sprint and then just died. After a while, I finally got some breathing room and managed to get into a real stride. And suddenly the trail came out around the back of the start field – I could see the massive traffic jam filtering into the woods. Mom told me afterwards that she saw me come by and I looked really good. The trail immediately went under a bridge and then up a big hill. I couldn’t see anybody ahead or behind me, and as is typical in a cross country ski race, I had no idea where I was in the pack.
After a few kilometres, I was having up another hill when I heard somebody coming up behind me. I stepped aside, and found I was being passed by Mike Waddington. I knew Mike from orienteering – he’s quite a bit younger than me – he was probably about 14 or 15 and I was 19 or 20, but he was a much better runner than I. A few years later he made the national team, and I believe he won a few national championships after I left the sport. Anyway, I let him go by and told him to have a hot chocolate ready for me at the finish.
When I got to the first feeding station, I prepared to implement my plan – I was reaching for my camera when one of the volunteers told me I was only the third person through. I knew one of those two was Mike. For some reason, I had this idea in mind that the other one was the kid I’d been talking to before the race, and there was no way I was going to let him beat me. So the camera stayed in the bag and I kept the pace up.
About half way between feeding stations, I passed Mike. I guess age and experience beats youth and vigor over the long haul. At the second feeding station they confirmed that I was still in second place. I was starting to feel the effects of the cold and the high effort I was putting out. But I kept the effort up all the way to the finish – in spite of the fact that I knew that this would be bad for my performance next weekend in the CSM. I never did catch the person ahead of me, and I never did discover if it had been the “kid” I was chasing in my mind. But I made sure I was at the finish line with a hot chocolate when Mike came in. He joked that he’d let me go ahead just so that I could have the drink for him instead of vice versa. Yeah, I believe you Mike.
Because of the huge diversion the first day, I figured that in spite of the second place finish the second day, there wasn’t any point staying around for the award ceremony, but I found out later that I came in third overall in the 25/25 category. I guess most of the other racers I’d been with on the first day had been in the 25/50 category.
Anyway, I still have a soft spot for that race. Not just because of my success in it, but because it was beautiful and wild, and also because a lot of the people there were tuning up for the Canadian Ski Marathon the next weekend, so in a way it was more relaxed and relaxing.