"This section is always the toughest for me: you climb and climb, and then climb some more."
This was the 40th anniversary of the Canadian Ski Marathon. Started as a Canadian Centenary event in 1967 by former Canadian National Ski team member, Don MacLeod, it has now become part of the Canadian mythos, and not infrequently a part of the participants’ pathos.
Here’s an account of my long and winding tour through it: the 9th time I’ve finished it, 7 times as Gold Coureur des Bois. The number of times I have started it is now fading into the fog of time…
After rushing around most of Friday to get my gear together, skis waxed up, and the weekend chores done for the required redemption of ‘CSM spousal points’, it’s very pleasant to sit down to a tasty pasta dinner, with a glass of red wine, with Peter and Frances Hoffman who’ve driven up from Waterloo: Peter to ski the CSM, and Frances to research the National Archives in Ottawa. Also with us are ‘le gang’ of Paul, Dave, Natalie, Lorne, and Real holding our semi-annual conference, the other being the Rideau Lakes Bike Tour. It’s then off to Buckingham Palace, AKA ‘Gold Dorm’, AKA gym floor, to get a night’s sleep. My claim to fame this night is to sleep at the feet of Sharon Crawford who is a Marathon legend with 18 Gold finishes. Mine turns out to be a surprisingly sound sleep thanks to earplugs and eye cover. I can’t vouch for Sharon’s.
Up at 4:30 Saturday morning. This year, rather than lining up for breakfast at the cafeteria, I take my own breakfast of banana and tofu burger, washed down with Gatorade. It tastes efficient. Outside temp. –21’ C: put the final five of layers of Swix special green (I already have Toko mint, over green klister binder as a base.) Depart for the Buckingham golf course with Lorne and Dave. As we are a bit early, I try jokes on my companions to while away the time. They respond with big, and not entirely appreciative, yawns…
It’s then off to the start line around 5:30. I don’t know the stats, but this seemed like the biggest field of Gold Coureur des Bois yet. It’s then the Marathon starting chant of allez, allez, allez-- and we are off at 5:45.
I’m skiing in the night with the full moon in my eyes, humming a Neil Young song. Would not want to be anywhere else right at this moment. Good glide and good kick, pity there’s only a single track and so the going is slow. Once we’re through the ‘tunnel’, the trail widens to an excellently groomed set of double tracks. Need to get warm. Pick up the pace, double pole, double pole. At the first check point just after 7. Drink. Fill up my water bottle. Go. Hands very cold still. Can barely feel the tips of a couple of my fingers. Stop, put hands inside clothing to get them warmed up, windmill for circulation, go, go. Pick up the pace with lots of arm movement. Fingers are warming up, the sun is coming up, and life is good by the time I get to the second checkpoint. Skiing by the long lake on the third section with my friend Pierre who’s doing a few sections this year for the pleasure of it, I’m having a fine time.
The day warms up to special-blue fast conditions, beautiful sunshine, cheerful volunteers and tasty food at the checkpoints. I settle to a more comfortable pace, since I know that tomorrow is a long, tough day and want to have something in reserve. I come up a hill and see my friend Maureen with her friend sitting down for a break. I chat a while and as I’m about to pull out one of my fudge bars, they offer me some very tasty beef jerky. Good life can always get better!
We then get to the farm house where wonderful ‘les gens du pays’ are serving cake and coffee! I have a bit for taste: ‘Merci beaucoup. Vous êtes très gentils. A la prochaine’ and I’m off. We’re rounding the corner of a farm, when the guy skiing ahead of me points to a huge, impressive lama! Not exactly what I was expecting in the Québec countryside. Then he tells me how he ended up being a lama farmer for a while. I learn much about lama breeds and their farming economics by the time we are at the fourth checkpoint around 1:15 pm. I bask in warm, lovely winter afternoon sunshine for a while, meet up with Marathon friends Moreno, Georgina, and Natalie and then head for the Gold Camp.
My only fall of the CSM occurs when I’m walking over an iced up piece of ground by a barn: I slip forwards, fall on my chest, and have the wind knocked out of me, but not much else. I arrive at the Gold Camp at 3 pm, having done about 75 kms for the day, and set up camp with Dave, Real, Trevor, Lorne, and Paul. After the usual hay hunt/fight, to procure hay to lay our sleeping bags on, we socialize, and eat a good supper by a roaring fire. Paul eats his baguette and cheese, washed down with the chianti he’s brought. I offer, selflessly, to share with Paul my freeze-dried ‘chicken kong fu’, or even some of my soy kibble. He sips his wine, smiles, and makes no counter offers.
Into the sleeping bag at 6 pm, I sleep very soundly, waking up only a couple of times to the soothing sounds of the CSM tabernac snoring choir. Every time I’m awake, I peak out my sleeping bag to get a look at the beautiful moon and stars out there. I also eat an energy bar and drink some water to keep warm. It reportedly gets down to –27’ C over night, but mercifully it’s very still and I’m snug.
Up at 4:30 and it’s cold, cold from when I’m out the bag until I’m sitting by the roaring fire, started by Lorne, him of many woodsman skills. After the usual eating of the gruel and warming of the boots, we pack up and go down for a 5:45 am start. They let us out a bit early since there is a 5 km addition to this section for the Gold CdB because of re-routing required for logging activity.
It’s again a beautiful moonlit trail as we wind our way from the Gold Camp. I have changed to the Craft lobster mitts and my hands are comfortable, even though it’s still -24’ C by the time I get to the first checkpoint of the day around 7:25. Then the sun is up and it’s off to the longest section of the Marathon, just over 20 km, with some great skiing by Kinonge river.
I get to the next checkpoint by 10:35, have a quick refuelling and then I’m off to climb the infamous Bobsled run. This section is always the toughest for me: you climb and climb, and then climb some more. After doing all that climbing, there’s a hair raising Alpine descent. But we’re not done yet. We get to climb and climb some more now. This pattern goes on for seemingly ever, until there’s just a long, long steady climb. Finally there’s a nice descent to the Carling Ski Centre. And then it all somehow seems to have been not too bad at all. Amnesia is your friend on the CSM ;-)
I leave the Ski Centre just before 1 pm and get to the last checkpoint by 2:30 pm. There I have the pleasure of meeting up with Helene who is a Jackrabbit co-instructor at Nakkertok ski club. I hang around there till 3 and then I’m off to do the final section. By now my energy is ebbing, but this is an easy section with mainly downhills. Towards the end I ski in the company of another CSM legend, John Hueston, and we both manage to make it to the finish without breaking anything on those last few damned sting-in-the-tail downhills. Total for today: 82 km.
It’s then off on the bus, full of Coureur des Bois of all sorts, tired but brimming with achievement, to the banquet school in Lachute. The shower is surprisingly warm, and the beer is agreeably cold: at least we’re not in England. I meet up with Peter Hoffman and hear of his unfortunate stomach troubles the day before, and am glad that he was well enough to ski today. The highlight of the banquet, for me, is hearing Don McLeod who has returned from his current home in New Zealand to attend and ski sections of the event he envisioned and got started 40 years earlier. His was appropriately bib # 1. He gets a heart felt, and lasting standing ovation. I can only imagine the sense of satisfaction he must have to see his vision carrying on in strength 40 years on!
My thanks go out to the great, cheerful, efficient organizers, volunteers, and trail crew of the CSM for making such a complex event happen so flawlessly— and not least to my lovely wife for her graceful redemption of this year’s CSM spousal points ;-)
Parham Momtahan, CSM Permenat Bib # 166,
Ottawa, Ontario, December 2007
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