CSM Memories

Ok, since I’m going to use this blog instead of the Slashdot one, I thought I’d bring some Slashdot entries over here. Oh, and maybe fix them up a bit as I do it.

This one concerns the Canadian Ski Marathon, which I skied in several times in the 1977-1982 timeframe. Back then, the CSM was a huge event, with over 4,000 people participating. The course went from La Chute Quebec to Montebello Quebec one day, and the next day from Montebello to either Hull or Ottawa, depending the weather and the organization, for a total distance somewhere between 160 and 170 kilometers over two days.

My Canadian Ski Marathon (CSM) memories are bitter sweet, because of all the things I’ve had to give up because of the pain, cross country skiing remains the one that I miss the most.

Anyway, a couple of times in the CSM, I did the Courier du Bois (CdB), which involves skiing the whole course over two days. There are three categories of CdB, Bronze, Silver and Gold. Bronze just means you are attempting to finish the distance, Silver means you’re attempting to finish with a 5kg pack on your back, and Gold means you’re going to camp out overnight, with just the clothes and food in your pack (although the campground has a communal fire and bales of straw to sit and lie on). You had to have completed the previous level before you could attempt the next. I completed my Bronze and Silver, but was never crazy enough to attempt the Gold.

The CdB skiers start very early in the morning, 6am, long before the sun comes up. At first, there are lanterns and road flares guide the way as you leave the village of La Chute Quebec, but very shortly after the start you’re winding your way through the trees in almost complete blackness. Some of the skiers have headlamps, but mostly you’re in dark or at best pre-dawn near-light. The skiers are quiet, because it’s cold and they know they’ve got a long long day ahead of them. Besides the occassional clinking and creaking from their packs and the swish-clunk of the skis and poles, it was eerily silent. The skiers around you are just half seen forms ahead and behind you. It’s almost impossible to believe there are a thousand of you out there in the woods. You slip through the trees like ghosts.

After an hour or so, the sun starts to come up. Parts of the trail go through farm land, and you can see farm houses coming awake, lights coming on, farmers heading out to do their chores. Some wave at you. Sometimes we wave back. Mostly we keep chugging along. You can start to resolve the details of the skiers around you, maybe recognize what colour clothing their wearing or what brand of skis they’re using. Maybe you chuckle to yourself at the guy ahead of you with the Blackfeather ski poles, because you know these poles are extremely light, extremely expensive, but also extremely fragile, not the sort of thing you’d want in the middle of the bush with the dreaded “Bobsled Run” coming up in a few hours (plus, you’ve coveted Blackfeathers for your normal racing, but haven’t saved up enough money for them yet). Maybe you think that next year you’re going to bring a headlamp as you nearly catch your ski in a sapling beside the trail.

As the sun comes up, you go through some fields where the ridge line to the east means that the sun has hit your head but not your feet. You wish it would come up faster because you’re cold, and you know that the magic time when the sun hits your feet will make it all better. You’re cold because you dressed for high exertion, and for the temperatures you’re expecting for the majority of the day. Sure, later in the afternoon you’re going to be skiing with your ski suit zipper wide open and your hat tucked into your backpack, but you didn’t want to wear something warm enough for now because you’ll be carrying it all day. So for now you just shiver a bit and wish the guy ahead of you would ski a bit faster. There aren’t too many opportunities to pass on this stretch. Later on, there are lakes that you cross – plenty of opportunity to pass there, if you’ve got the energy for it.

By the first feed stop, it’s quite light out. People are a little warmer, a little more relaxed, and they start talking to each other. Unlike a normal race where feeding stations are grab and go affairs, the CSM is an all day event, so you actually stop, drink the drinks they have on offer, maybe grab an orange slice or two, maybe shove a few oranges in your pack for later, and stop for a pee. The snow is getting warmer, so you rewax your skis. In the light, you sometimes are startled to recognize somebody you know from races back in your home area or from a non-skiing activity like Orienteering.

The next highlight of the day is the “Bobsled Run”. You think about it for an hour before you get there. Is the snow going to be well groomed, is it going to be icy, will somebody fall and take you out as they go? Then the climb starts. You climb and climb and climb. I think officially the ridge that is the pinnacle of the Bobsled Run is 800 feet above the ground before and after it, which doesn’t sound like much when you’re sitting in front of a computer. You climb it in about 10km, and it’s pretty hard going. Maybe you stop and rewax along the way to get more grip. But mostly you slog along and think about the downhill to follow. That 800 feet is lost in about 3km. It’s steep, it’s twisty, it’s narrow. One year there had been a big thaw just before the weeked of the race, and natural springs had covered parts of the run with water which had then frozen into ice dams. That year, I saw a woman being carried out a stretcher with broken ribs and missing teeth. I walked. A large group of us were walking down, congratulating ourselves on a wise safe decision as we picked our way over another ice dam in our slippery ski boots when somebody came careening by on skis. He looked just on the edge of control, but definitely in control. Then we noticed that he only had one arm. None of us thought to ask if he’d had two when he started.

Even in good years, the Bobsled Run looms large in our memories. It was on one of the good years when I found myself in a tight group snowplowing and dragging our poles, going just about as fast as I’ve ever gone on skis. We were also too close together. I was sure that even if the guy behind me fell, he’d take us all down in a big pile of skis and legs and arms. That could be painful. I found what I thought was a safe landing spot and cut out of the line, but unfortunately it was softer than it looked and I ended up falling, but at least I didn’t take anybody else out. At the feeding station at the bottom of the Bobsled Run, I noticed that the guy with the Blackfeathers actually had a collapsable spare pole that he’d made himself sticking out of his pack. Maybe he’s smarter than I gave him credit for.

The rest of the first day was pretty much just another day skiing. There were a couple of unofficial feeding stations set up by people whose property the course crossed. They were even friendlier than the volunteers at the official feeding stations. There were lakes, where people passed you and you passed others, only to have the order reestablish itself at the next uphill. There was the inevitable encounter with the Siren Ski Team. I think they’re from Montreal. These guys start at 8am, when the non-CdBs start, and they still manage to finish the course. They come roaring past just when you think maybe you should slow down a bit if you’re going to make it the next day. Ok, forget that idea – if they can go fast, so can I.

One year on the way to the last feeding station I got caught up by a guy from the Ottawa University ski team who slowed down to chat. His team was competing in the same category as the Siren Ski Team, and he was despairing that he wasn’t going to make the last feeding station before the cut-off, because non-CdB have to get to the station by 2pm or they can’t ski the last leg. If he didn’t make it, his team would be disqualified for not having 4 finishers. I told him that I was pretty sure I was going to get there by 2pm, and so he took heart and skied off again.

The first day finishes in Montebello Quebec, and while it’s not quite as restful as just getting into the shuttle bus to the area accomodation, I always loved picking up my skis and walking into the Chateau Montebello. Such a beautiful resort, and far too posh for me to be there any other time. We walk past the sign that says “Gentlemen are requested to wear jackets and ties in the Dining Lounge” in our sweaty ski clothes, and crash in the chairs around the stone fire place that is the center piece of the massive main hall. The pictures on the wall show Trudeau, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and other heads of state arriving in helicopters and limos for G7 summits and other important functions, but this weekend the place goes a little downscale with people drying out their ski suits around the fire. The CSM banquet that night is a huge affair, and approximately 2,000 of the 4,000 CSM particpants eat there. One year I was so wiped by the skiing that I fell asleep with a forkful of roast beef in my hand.

The next day, you get out of bed at 5am, and hobble to breakfast. You think to yourself “if I can’t even walk to breakfast, how am I supposed to ski the 86km into Ottawa?” After breakfast, you wax your skis, prepare your pack, and head out into the darkness to the start line. You put on your skis, and take a tentative shuffle, and realize that while walking hurts, standing around hurts, but skiing actually doesn’t hurt. So you ski. The second morning is pretty much like the first, except the second day is much flatter, more open, and is the real fun day of the two.

One year it started off really cold in the morning, probably around -15C or colder, but by the height of the afternoon it was +2C. Hard waxing, but I skiied along in the brilliant sunshine with my ski suit top down around my waist and my hat in my pack, I was thinking what a beautiful day. I was even doing a double pole with a kick, which is a less efficient but faster propulsion method, such was my confidence in my abilities and stamina. I passed a couple of skiers who exclaimed “Un beau, eh?” as I passed. I even managed to get out “tres beau”, thus exhausting 2/5ths of my French vocabulary.

I think that was the same year my mother decided to skip the first two legs of second day and caught the shuttle bus to the start of the third leg. She started from there at 8am, and about 1pm I caught her. She was pretty amazed when I came up behind her and offered her an orange slice.

One year, toward the end of the second day, I got caught in what I still think of as a death trudge. There was a line of skiers ahead of me, and they were all skiing very slowly. So slowly that it was inefficient for me, and probably inefficient for most of the people in the line. After trudging along with them for a while, I realized that I would never make it if I had to ski at this speed, so I marshalled some reserve of energy and passed them in a very narrow space. It was hard work, dodging the trees on the side of the trail, but it was worth it when I got past them and could ski at my normal pace again. It was like a rest just being able to stretch out. I noticed that about a dozen people followed my lead and passed the death trudge line. I even let a few of them past me because their natural pace was faster than mine. One of the people was a guy I knew from Orienteering, and although he sped ahead, I eventually passed him later. One of us wasn’t pacing well, and I think it was him.

Before the end of the CSM in Ottawa, you have to pass through Hull. Hull isn’t the nicest looking town at the best of times, and in order to find us snow to ski on they routed us through some grimy industrial land and the back of a paper mill. The snow was full of grit and hard to ski on. But you’re soon down to the river and across. One year we crossed on the ice, but usually they shovelled snow onto a bridge. When we crossed on the bridge, we usually got to ski past the Prime Minister’s residence on Sussex Drive. The year we crossed on the ice, I had a severe “bonk” climbing up the hill beside the canal locks. I grabbed some gorp and an orange out of my pack, and ate it, and just as I was about to resume my skiing, Ron Lowry of the Canadian Orienteering Team came skiing by. Evidently he’d hit the last checkpoint with so much time to spare that he’d stopped for a nap. I have no idea why he did that instead of just finishing, but there you have it. I skied with him for a bit until he got fed up with my slow pace and sped off again. Coming down along the canal, you get a bit of a second wind seeing all those people out skating on the canal, and the smell from the concession stands, and the music from the speakers out on the ice. Then it’s into Lansdowne Park and collapse. Come to think of it, there’s no comfortable seating or warm place to relax in Lansdowne Park, so maybe that’s why Ron had a nap at the previous feeding station.

Skiing the CSM is an incredible feeling. You ski from pain to triumph, and afterwards you feel like you’ve seen the limits of your body, and they’re pretty far out there. And those little bronze and silver badges that you put on your ski hat afterwards, you know that most people who see them won’t know what they’re for, but you do. And that’s all that matters.

To quote David Wilcox’s song “Make It Look Easy”: “You can’t keep it in a camera, not a trophy on the shelf, not a tale to tell your children, not a way to prove yourself”.