Maybe the Canadian Ski Marathon and I are parting ways

The first time I tried the Canadian Ski Marathon was in 2005. The leader of a canoe trip I was on pitched it as a fun thing to do and I signed up. Despite having done not a lot of training and never having actually learned how to ski. I made two sections on the first day and went home after aggravating a foot injury.

Fast forward almost 20 years whereupon I did six of the nine sections on offer and finally I’m thinking I’m done.

I feel like I’ve peaked

I have actually completed the event twice: in 2019 at Coureur de bois Bronze (80-ish km, both days, sleeping indoors) and Coureur de bois Silver ‘virtually’ in 2021 (50km of your choosing on two consecutive days, carrying 5kg). And there have been two years where I’ve done the full distance one day and then ‘cracked’ on day two: 2018, and this weekend, aka 2024.

After my early disappointment, I took it up again when my daughter started cross-country skiing with Chelsea Nordique. The program organizers encouraged skiers to do it and staying at the Château Montebello was a huge draw for the kid. So we would go every year with her skiing friend and her family, ski a few sections, come back to the hot tub, head to the buffet, repeat the next day, then head home.

It was a brilliant mid-winter treat that embraced our climate and its challenges.

As my daughter and her friends got older (and faster) the event got more fun for the grownups too. The kids would race off on their own, see how many times they could go back to the food table at the checkpoints and get up to all sorts of things. Which meant I could focus on skiing. When it became reasonable to say ‘meet you back at the hotel’ I started thinking maybe I could do the whole thing.

That was probably always the plan for me. Subconsciously, anyway. See I can’t stand not-finishing anything. In 2005 I wrote about being “almost in tears” after stepping off the course.

I can deal with the pain in my foot, I just wonder if I can deal with pain of quitting amidst my psychological retinue of competitiveness, machismo and assorted patriarchal baggage.

Me, 2005

So I was always going to come back.

And I did. At least six times. Probably more. They were just pre-Strava so… they don’t count.

Progress over time

In retrospect, I can’t believe that 2005 Chris thought he could ski four sections a day when he described himself as a ‘weak skier’ who felt like he could fall down while standing still. Those early CSMs came with many memories of long recovery periods from various contusions and (mostly) soft tissue injuries. Twenty-teens Chris had a much clearer idea of what was required to actually ski the marathon and his technique improved too.

By then, my daughter was skiing three times a week at Nakkertok and, as the family ski sherpa, I was there too. And there’s nothing else to do there on a winter evening except ski. So I was skiing a lot (compared to what I once thought of as a lot) — between 45 and 60km per week. My cardio-vascular system was in good shape from cycling and the evenings spent Nakkerlooping got the muscles needed for skiing in good shape. So when I finally did it, it was do-able. My technique was very rough and inefficient (I will always be a cyclist who skis) but I did it without burying myself or cracking ribs.

So what happened this year

Kiddo has moved on from ski racing to focus on other things which bring her joy and prepare for imminent life as an adult. And the weather has been terrible for skiing (I rode a meteorologically comfortable metric century on New Year’s Day this year, for example). I still signed up for the Coureur de Bois Bronze, figuring this would likely be my last chance at the father-daughter Canadian Ski Marathon. Next year she’ll be at university and I am certainly not going to spend $1400 + on a weekend at the Montebello for myself. I knew I would be under trained, but I reckoned if I could get my skiing muscles out from under the initial shock of starting up again after three seasons of road riding, I might be okay.

Nope.

Rookie move. To quote Monty Python “I overdid it on the first day.” I tell myself it’s just that I only know how to ski one at one pace, but it was a choice. I picked a pace based on past efforts — 6.0 minutes per kilometre — and aimed at that. But I also knew — or should have known what would happen. It’s what happened the first time I tried to complete all the day’s skiing as a Tourer. I was so spent at the end of the day that when I sat down and leaned over to take off my boots I could barely sit up again.

The pace required to have a reasonably good shot at making the time cutoff and doing all the day’s skiing is 8.0 min/km, see. I knew that but still chose something silly.

It wasn’t all bad news though. I feel like my technique is much improved. Bounding up hills, I resort to herringbone much less frequently. I don’t tail-slap any more and the only hills I walked were the ones at the start where it was still dark, the trail was scraped bare and there were hordes of other skiers around.

Silver lining

I noticed the base layer of one of my skis was delaminating from the core, just behind the heel plate. Snow was working its way into the crack. It was skiable, but tech issues never help my morale. My plan to meet up with kiddo at section 3 came to naught. We did cross paths later, but she was headed in the other direction.

I completed the five sections and got back to the hotel. Kiddo and I decided we would ski together on the second day. How many sections would depend on how we were feeling. We would wake in time to do three, but see how we felt.

In the end we decided to only do two sections. And the Marathon organizers shrunk that into one slightly extended section due to deteriorating course conditions. But we skied together. And that was fabulous. My daughter is great company and a joy to watch. She’s funny, she says what she needs and she is supportive and kind to her dad.

The day was a hundred fold better than it would have been if I had tried to do the whole thing.

A sign of something

I was feeling in a much better mood when we finished, despite having missed the sportsy goal. I had met the parenting goal. Which was good because for the second time in my CSM lifetime, the CSM people sent our luggage to Papineauville. Having learned my lesson from last time, I skied with my keys and wallet. So it was easy enough to drive down the road to collect the luggage. But there was a bag missing. Like the snowy winters, I fear it’s gone for good.

The CSM staff person who helped me try to find it did everything she could. She was polite, kind and resourceful despite having to juggle a bajillion things all the while trying to sort out the dude who left his bags in the wrong room. I thanked her and turned to head back to the car and Ottawa, “Hope to see you next year,” she said.

Post facto note: my knapsack did in fact show up eventually at the CSM office in Montebello. Everything that I cared about was still there. Not sure what happened to my headlamp, though. I reckon I forgot to pack it.

cmkl Feb 28 2024

I do wish the CSM many more years of success. COVID was really hard on the organization and I fear their numbers have not recovered. They’ve adapted — entry fees seem to be a lot higher, they’ve cut shuttle services and they’ve introduced different categories to attract more skiers. But I fear that as we bake our planet there will be more years like this one where there’s not enough snow to make the course happen and they’ve had to incur extra costs to rearrange things. They did this admirably well — ingenious really — but it takes a toll on a volunteer-driven organization that is already spread pretty thin.

Despite great memories and fondness for the adventure of it, I don’t know if I will be back. I think the sudden need to replace my skis, half my ski kit and likely need of a new ski buddy is a sign. To do it again I would need ski buddies, a training regimen and much much cheaper accommodations. Failing that, if I want to ski long, there’s 200km of trails just 20 minutes drive from my door.

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