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38th Canadian Ski Marathon - February 7 & 8, 2004

I first became aware of the ‘CSM’ when old friends reported on it last year. Their team of 4 completed 20 sections (out of a maximum of 40) and beat some class acts. My interest was stimulated and without realising, I had soon been entered in the 2004 event by virtue of Helen's finely honed forgery skills.
The CSM follows well-groomed cross-country ski trails for 156km close to the Ottawa River, in Quebec. It comprises 10 sections completed over two days by more than 2000 participants. The expert "Coureurs des Bois" start early and complete the whole course, in three classes depending on whether they carry at least 5kg, sleep outside, or both. Luckily, I am entered as a "Tourer" which means that I have only to complete at least one section each day. Sections vary in length from 10 to 25km. and also from easy to difficult. As the furthest I have ever skied in a day is 21km, it will be a considerable challenge to meet my target of 5 sections (around 80km) over the two days.
The first adrenaline moment is 3 weeks before the event when a small package with a Canadian postmark plops through the letterbox. The contents are a bilingual booklet explaining all the arrangements, a fabric bib - I am number 2534 -, a badge and a 1:200000 map vaguely detailing the route. I maintain a state of heightened excitement until the start of the adventure a week later, when I gladly escape from the dark, damp, relatively warm Manchester climate to the sharp shock of Ottawa - where temperatures hold steady at around minus 25C………….
After a visit to the ski shop and a couple of weeks’ practice on the gentle slopes of Gatineau Park……..
Ken at Champlain Lookout, with the view down to the Ottawa River
Up the hill beyond Shilly Shally, on trail 1

Slogging up the hill past
Shilly Shally cabin

At the Champlain lookout on the first run out for my new skis
In temperatures of around -20C the value of the warm cabins with their wood burning stoves is immeasurable. But remember always to butter the bread on the outside of the butty before toasting it in foil on the hot iron surface. (Cheese and ham is best!)

Helen and Linda outside Huron Cabin
Outside Huron Cabin

Helen and Ken at Lusk Cabin My hosts, Ken and Helen McNair, outside one of their favourite places, Lusk Cabin
Herridge Cabin
This cabin, Herridge, is an excellent place, frequented also by Bob, the maintenance man, and his snowmobile
I’m relaxing with Tim and Sophie, surrounded by beers, waiting in suspense and with growing concern at the Banquet at Lachute, at the end of the CSM route. We are all were pleased with our day's performance, Tim having completed just the 18km difficult third section together with Sophie, who has also done the next 12km section.
Michael has returned home nursing his painful back strain after completing the first two sections ahead of me.


I have treated the day’s first two long, scenic 38km sections like the training runs in nearby Gatineau Park...only more so - today there were no serious crashes, and the wipeouts encountered were of other skiers attempting the steep slopes I was judiciously strolling down. And I had the thrill of passing the 100km sign.

A major landmark

100km, a major landmark

It had been a cold clear day with the brilliant sunshine taking a little of the edge off the biting cold of a Canadian winter's morning. Ken, Michael and I had found it hard to keep warm in the minus 20C conditions before the 8.00 am starter's hooter went off, but I let the others race ahead, and started 10 minutes after the main melee. My sedate progress was marred only by the usual 'half an hour to get fingers warm in cold weather' problem, my painful shoulder from the previous day (it eased after a couple of hours), and a brief nosebleed coming into the first checkpoint after 16km. "Frozen snot is one thing, but this is ridiculous", I was heard to mutter. Meanwhile Ken had raced on to cover the first two sections an hour faster, and he had last been seen forging ahead of Michael.
The start on Sunday at Montebello
Setting off from
at minus 20C


But what had become of Captain Ken, our flying leader?


Meanwhile Linda and Helen, having today chosen just to ski the day’s 22km second section - a fairly uneventful experience except for Linda's unfortunate acquisition of a large piece of snot (“not mine” she insists) that attached itself to a ski (thankfully she was ahead of my nosebleed!), her inadvertent running over of her own hand (some sort of crazy form of self-flagellation or what?!), and of course her propensity for getting cold - were luxuriating as (not entirely welcome) guests of Le Lycee sur la Riviere Auberge back at Montebello, the group's HQ for the weekend. Having negotiated an extended room occupation to 4.00 pm, Ken had still not turned up by 5.30. Where was he?
Linda and Helen
Linda and Helen on the piste
The 3.45 pm bus from checkpoint 3 collected skiers wishing to return to Montebello. A number of them were still traumatised following the mystery bum baring woman incident ("I just stopped for a pee, didn't realise you were there!")...was she that buxom lady with the red face and the dark glasses at the back of the bus? They relaxed whilst it trundled its way back to the day's starting point, happy in the knowledge that they would soon be returned to their loved ones for the hour's drive to the sumptuous Banquet awaiting them at Lachute. And so they arrived at checkpoint 4, waited, more skiers embarked, and so to checkpoint 5 – same drill. The full bus could now complete its journey, but given the convoluted route and the frequent stops it had taken a full 2 hours to undertake the relatively short journey.
Ken, Linda, Tim, Helen and Sophie
Relaxing at the Banquet
5.45, and at last - Ken steps from the bus into the arms of his loved one. "YEEESSS - done it - got the gold medal!!!" - it had all been worth it, he had completed the difficult third section today, without incident, taking his total tally for the weekend to 7 sections, as a result of which he will be awarded a 'single tourer's' gold medal for his efforts. This was his target, having achieved a silver medal for 6 sections completed last year, on his first attempt at the event. He has covered 113km of the 156km route, and is feeling a bit stiff from all that time on the bus, but the trio are soon on the road to join us at the Banquet.
Various presentations are made to a plethora of luminaries of the cross-country skiing world. These include a multiple world Nordic ski champion, a man who has skied the whole route with a pack and slept out overnight over 20 times, an 11 year old boy who completed all 10 sections, a 13 year old girl who has for the first time joined the 'hard men and women' who carry packs and sleep in the open (and it was cold last night), a paraplegic man who skied a section in an adapted wheelchair!, and a man from London who heads a team of veteran tourers (including Swiss and Polish 'ringers') who have mostly skied all 10 sections. Meanwhile the survivors of our seven strong group tuck in to the side of beef and its accompaniments and reflect on our performances for the weekend.
Ken has led from the front and achieved his target of 7 sections, followed by Michael on Sunday and by me on Saturday. Neither of us could match his pace over the course of the event. Will he enter as a 'Coureur des Bois' next year, starting at 6.00 am instead of 8.00 am with the aim of doing all 10 sections?
The others all have their stories to tell, having skied between 3 and 5 sections over the two days, but here is the story of my exploits.
I completed 2 sections on Sunday in leisurely fashion as described above. Saturday was altogether more frenetic. The day was warmer, with snow flurries, so lighter clothing was used. Most of our group had found itself on a later bus than expected and arrived at the official start soon after the 8.00 am start time. Realising that it would take some time to get to the second checkpoint of the day, our planned starting point, Ken took a quick decision and left the bus.
I followed, but the others stuck with the original plan. Ken and I were 10 minutes behind the main group, and Ken soon found that his wax needed changing. So I forged ahead, skiing much faster than ever before due to a physiological phenomenon which automatically infuses my system with adrenaline at the start of such events. Also, I was getting wonderful 'glide'. Lots of slower skiers were encountered and long delays would have arisen without the use of a somewhat 'gung-ho' technique. Or, more accurately, lack of technique. Skiers scattered as I wiped out on virtually every downhill stretch. Despite this I managed somehow to maintain a commendable speed – about 8kph compared with an expected 6kph. And how much faster without the wipeouts? It went something like this: overtake 20 people, wipe out, 10 people re-pass, overtake 20 people, wipe out, 10 people re-pass....and so on. Any vague amount of skill acquired in training had completely deserted me, but some strength had obviously been gained.

Ken waxes his skis outside Lusk Cabin

Ski waxing - an occasional distraction

I was joined by Ken at the first checkpoint, where a routine was established:
take off skis, retrieve mug from bum bag, collect warm honey water and handful of broken choc chip cookies, eat and drink said items whilst locating and queuing for portaloo (gobbling permitted for hygienic reasons), relocate skis and proceed. The aim is to restrict such stops to 5 minutes, but it was taking nearer 10.
Nevertheless, lots more people were overtaken. The first stage was a short 11km, and I again set off ahead of Ken and his continuing waxing problems on the longer 17km second section. This is where all the others in our group had started their day. For me this section went much as the earlier one. On one particularly steep and narrow hill I resorted to taking my skis off after wiping out twice. After strolling (well, plunging through the deep snow next to the 'piste') to the bottom I was replacing my skis when Ken flew past, having skilfully dodged a variety of wiped out skiers on his way down the hill. If he wasn't shouting "Geronimo" that word must have been coming from 'above'. Stopping in this way (as I did a lot the following day) is very time consuming, but I managed to maintain momentum and rejoined Ken at the second checkpoint at 28km distance. The third section was only 12km, but was quite eventful for me. Ken shot off into the distance and I tried my best to keep up. But best wasn't good enough and he drew away. Some of my most dramatic accidents happened here. A wipe out on one long hill was followed by a partial recovery and a further loss of control at which point I spotted Linda and Helen proceeding slowly and safely down the hill. Thankfully I managed to avoid them but for some reason, instead of shouting "hello" as I flew past "heeellpp" was all I could manage! By the time I got to the bottom I was so far ahead of them that they missed the spectacular wipe out that had proved necessary to avoid demolishing a mid-stage refreshment point.
Lusk Cabin - an excellent 'refreshment point'
I was unable to snap the CSM mid-stage refreshment point, so here's a mid-training run refreshment point!
After dusting myself down and saying hello to the girls, I was off again and soon caught up with Tim and Sophie.
Sophie now witnessed my most serious incident of the day - a proper crash. An elderly lady skied confidently down a hill in front of me; I waited until she was well ahead before setting off. After she had unexpectedly wiped out, the lady must have looked back and thought that I was so far behind she could set off again - mid-piste. That was not a good move. In a flash I’d caught up, we tangled, and the two of us shot headlong, crunching on down the slope. Luckily Sophie and the gathering queue at the top of the hill stayed put during the several minutes it seemed to take us to untangle ourselves, relocate the lady's water bottle etc, and shuffle embarrassed to the bottom of the hill.
Whilst Sophie later reported "I blame the lady entirely", she also reported that “Martin looked very white and exhausted" at this point. I emerged even whiter than before and the black leggings that were white with congealed snow from this and other incidents were now torn as well. A bang on the head and an extremely sore shoulder from its being used as an 'accessory ski' added to my discomfort. However, I managed to continue the manic performance but failed to catch Ken, who was just leaving the third checkpoint as I arrived.

My CSM kit

An early shot before I became
a blur of whiteness

Despite my woes, I managed a quick stop and was off on the long 18km fourth section before Sophie, Tim, Helen and Linda could arrive to discourage me. After some initial sharp breezes
and drifting snow, this section was to be a delight, the wonderful glide that I had enjoyed all day had not deserted my skis, despite all their adventures and the lack of rewaxing. There were now only a few people around, mostly moving at the same 8kph pace, and it was fairly flat - I could cope with these hills! There were in fact a number of lovely wide, gentle downhill stretches in this lovely area of undulating farm tracks and woodland paths.
My favourite trail - route 3,  'Burma Road'
This scenery in Gatineau Park is typical of that on the CSM route
At 3.40pm I finally arrived at the fourth checkpoint, only 20 minutes behind Ken, who himself had missed the strictly timed cut off for the last section by only about 5 minutes. If only he had started on time at 8 o clock.... 
Back at Montebello, after hot baths and long pots of tea, the group was soon reminiscing the day’s exploits at a local hostelry. Ken and I were both pleased with our 58km days, but Ken would really like to have 'bagged' all 5 of today's sections. 
So my tally for the two days was beyond my 5-section target and expectation, being 6 sections and a total of over 95km, which is not much less than my total cross-country skiing experience prior to this trip. I am delighted with my silver medal. 
The group completed 31 sections - an average of 4.43 each – not quite up to last year's average, but everyone enjoyed their skiing and had a great time. 
And so ended my first CSM. But I’ll be back next year and I would commend this mid-winter break to anyone, especially those not averse to a little healthy exercise or with friends in the Ottawa area. For more details, see the CSM web site. I think next year’s event is on 12/13 February. I suggest going a week earlier to get a bit of practice in Gatineau Park, where there are around 200km of cross-country skiing trails, of varying difficulty, set in pleasant undulating woodland on an escarpment high above the Ottawa River. Flights are about £350 and information about Ottawa is widely available on the web. And there are culinary delights. Ski hire is easy and cheap and there are also some shortish downhill slopes …………….if you like that sort of thing. 

Martin Banfield
February 2004

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