“You know, you really should compete,” my friend T told me one afternoon as we packed up our kit and prepared to drive back into town after a glorious ski in Gatineau Park.
It had been another episode of “Let’s go for a ski” which actually meant “Drive me to the trailhead and I will immediately disappear down the trail.” If anyone has ever written a listicle about top 10 annoying ski-mate habits, that has to be one of them. But T was pretty good natured about it.
And I, oblivious to my anti-social behaviour, took T’s suggestion as a sort of compliment. But what he was probably actually saying was “You think you’re so fast. You should step up to the line and see what real skiiers can do.”
Meanwhile in my head I was already making plans to do exactly that.
I did, actually, want to see how I compared to others (Strava and the nordic ski community aren’t well acquainted with each other it seems) but I also wanted to put myself in my daughter’s boots for a bit. See, I send her off weekly over the course of a winter to stand up in front of a crowd of spectators, parents and other racers to launch herself around the course at full gas.
I have all these pictures of her waiting for her start. She looks so focused. Almost grim. I reckon if I’m going to keep asking this of her, I should know a bit what that feels like.
So I signed up for the Gatineau Loppet.
I have good aerobic fitness from cycling, but my skiing technique is really bad. My classic technique is stronger than my skate so I reckoned my best shot was at the 51km classic race.
I’d never done the Loppet and have zero track record so I ended up in the fourth of five waves, Wave D. I welcomed that because I do better psychologically when I chase and I reckoned I’d have to be faster than someone, so any overtaking I did would feel like victory.
Get into space, ski my own race
My strategy was to try to get into space between bunches of racers as soon as possible and stay there so that I could just ski at a pace I set for as long as possible, there being nothing riding on this apart from my enjoyment of a winter morning in the park.
The ride out to the start line (near Wakefield, at P17) was a brooding 30 minutes in a school bus. When we got there, I skied a few laps around the warm up track, desperate to not look awkward, avoid tail slapping and stay upright. I took off my warm-up jacket and skied into the Wave D paddock. I timed it reasonably well as I wasn’t waiting long before they launched us.
Unlike Mallory’s races where ‘mass starts’ line racers up in an alloted position in a track, this was truly a jumble. We started slow and yet skis and poles were flying everywhere. Eventually everyone slotted themselves into one of two tracks and we began the procession toward Rélais Plein Air, at Gatineau Park’s south end.
The first few kilometres were a bit of a traffic jam. A lot of surge and stall — bounding and kicking hard to get around slower skiers then biding time until another space opened up. This maneouvering is where I miss waxed skis. On skin skis I can’t seem to even take a single skate stride reliably, which makes switching lanes a slower, and more awkward process. It wasn’t a ton of fun.
I passed through the Masham Bridge and was headed toward the first feed stop when I broke my first rule — always stop at the feed stations. Approaching the station I saw a swarm of skiers and reckoned this was my opportunity to get into space. I was only 10km in and I felt like I’d just started, so I reckoned (hoped) I wouldn’t be punishing myself too much. So I blew through at pace and floored it for a bit. It worked. I spent the next hour or so mostly on my own, occasionally switching lanes to overtake one or two skiers at a time.
It was perfect. Most of the people I was passing were from Wave C, so it looked like my psych-strategy was working.
The first half of the course is green circle trail — the 53, then the 50 — until just after Herridge cabin. The course takes the 36 — blue square — to O’Brien. The organizers’ write up notes a couple of “significant” downhills with sharp turns at the bottom. As I suck at hills, I was steeling myself for this all morning.
I didn’t know what hills they were talking about as I’d never taken the 36 in that direction. So I was a bit nervous. But as it happens, they’re nothing compared to most of what I encountered the week before at the Canada Ski Marathon. I probably still plowed harder than most other skiers. But I didn’t fall. And I didn’t walk. So victory.
Badger on up Fortune
After O’Brien (the parking lot for the Meech Lake beach) it’s a long climb up to the Fortune Parkway and then the Fortune climb itself. I was starting to feel tired at this point. I stopped caring about how much noise I was making, kept my head down and badgered on.
Though I was now catching B wave skiers so I was still in good spirits. Plus I know this part of the park well, so I could mark my progress and offer myself reassurance with the landmarks. I knew how much up. How much down.
Indeed once I passed Gossip Corner, the kilometres just seemed to melt away. Back-side Blacks, King, The ‘T’, Lac Bourgeois, Notch Road Overpass, all seemed to reel by. Before I knew it I was descending Pink with 5km to go.
The course leaves the parkway at Trail 26 to take the straight rollers down to the field behind Réseau Plein Air and the finish.
They announced me as I crossed near two other skiers and before I knew it I was taking off my chip, picking up my bag of warm up clothes and heading home.
So how’d I do? Drum roll please: my 3:48:04 time was good enough for 149th place out of 493 overall, 21st out of 60 in my age category. I was pleased with that, though, because I’d hit the first split (at 9km) in 195th place.
It was humbling and yet I feel like I gave a good accounting of myself and did about as well as I could do. And by humbling I mean really. Andy Shields, who placed first in my event crossed the line an hour and 13 minutes ahead of me, averaging almost 20km/h, compared to me — back on page four of the results — at 13.4km/h. Phil Shaw, the first in my age group, finished almost an hour ahead of me, averaging 17.7km/h.