Here is my experience with Gatineau Loppet 2013.
I. General impression.
Wonderful race held on perfectly groomed and marked (except one point described below) trails, enough competition for skiers from CSU top string down to my level and I believe for everybody. I got perception of being a part of ski holiday.
There is 1200 m to climb, so my pace was 10% lower than at Craftsbury. Feed stations are further from each other than at Craftsbury. The liquid they offered was warm enough despite on -13C windy weather. To those who rely on feed stations fuel: no gels are offered, just some cookies (I tried one, it was good but took too long to swallow even a little piece; I though survived 55km on 2 gels I had).
II. The story.
I was thinking about doing it for several years and eventually signed up this year. The pre-race period was not very encouraging, I was half-sick starting with Sunday before the race, it worsened by Monday night, I had to skip Weston on Tuesday and wasn’t sure I’d be able to go until Thursday evening when I decided I was already good enough to drive for 8 hour one way, race a Marathon then half-Marathon and drive back alone; my wife was still having sore throat, so her participation was out of scope. Though, fortunately I signed for just half-Marathon on Sunday, which had to be over by 11AM; thus I could shower, change, eat lunch, applaud to winners and leave by 1PM, still enough time even if I had to stop for some rest.
The temperature was steady +2C all the way from MA to the Canadian Capital. Nevertheless at 8PM on Friday the guy who was handling over wax recommendations was very confident with his Swix VR30 (he looked at my unshaved beard and hesitantly added that some older folks wanted to add a layer of VR40). I didn’t have VR30, waxed with Start racing wax for -7 to -15 and one layer of some old Rode for -4 to -10. May be it was a bit druggy in the open windblown fields (albeit am not sure, I actually was not losing double poll sections to anyone whom with I could compete, perhaps just usual cold weather glide) but I had perfect kick for the entire race.
School busing to the start from the school took slightly less than an hour. With -13C on windy morning, I fidgeted a little longer than necessary with final selection of clothes for the race, pinning the bib on the top layer, fastening poles over thick gloves and started at the very end of my wave “C”. Though, doesn’t matter, I’m not to win this race and I knew nobody (except Wes who was in earlier wave) in this race, so wouldn’t know whom to try to stick to anyway.
With my way worse than in 2012 shape, terrible performance at Weston where I was not just lazy but half-sick at most of the races, I actually had very modest even by my standards goal. The minimal was to get at the first 50% (I just read Alexandra’s Birkie report, she’s laugh at such “goal” but better something than nothing) and the maximum would be to do it out of 4 hours which looked easy judging by just 5km shorter Craftsbury but this race was expected to be as I thought 1.5 times more hilly.
First 13 km are smooth rolling hills, folks would probably double-pole most of them in shorter race. 5 minutes breaks between 5 waves make crowd thinner on first 5km, so there was no mess like climbing Jodel at Jackson in 2km after the start. I looked at the watch at 10km mark – about 40:50. I multiplied 41 by 5.5, 226 minutes make 3:46, so I had about 15 minutes on slowing down to finish in 4 hours – far from granted and not even very plausible provided no climb has happened yet but theoretically possible, let’s go on; I began to pass those who got tired, folks from wave B appeared among them eventually. I young boy from wave D passed by as if we weren’t moving, obviously too fast to hang on. . Technical section on narrow road falls on 14th to 19th km with the only turn onto a bridge I wouldn’t like if the conditions were any faster at 17th km.
At about 20th km after the 2nd feed station the trail widens and real race begins. [I swallowed the 1st gel – extremely unprofessionally I confess, by some unknown reason I put it into my waist bag and with thick gloves on spent too long digging it out and opening – at -13C, the gel coat acquired the resistance of armor steel – so the train of 10 or more skiers went away. It will fall apart on the uphill and I’ll have to chase them all one by one.] I didn’t do any races except standard set on New England Marathons, so for me the climb is compatible only with Sugarloaf Marathon they held only once or maybe twice about year 2005 on Sugarloaf trail 50. I didn’t have to herringbone too much but sill it was a good exercise! At the moment we all weren’t even looking at each other too much, just puffing and dragging our feet meter by meter, another young skier from wave D chased us – a girl this time. She was passing slowly, so I decided it’s an opportunity to change racing order in out group and tried to follow. The incline has decreased down to kick-double-pole angle, so I switched the style and following turned to be not as hard as I expected. In couple of hundred meters the girl looked back, said something encouraging in fast French and even changed track to follow me. Well, it lasted for a km or so, at next steeper section she easily dropped me and a man whom we just reached.
Soon somewhere about 25km the 38 and 55 km races part the ways, so trail becomes way less crowded. My new co-racer was very concentrated on pushing forward, I heard not a single word except what I grasped as some French cursing when his ski slipped at occasion – albeit he had a perfect kick, probably better than mine, so I had hard time on uphills. We reached a flat section, the guy tried to accelerate then started to slow down to the point that I got in front by dozen meters and (as I couldn’t fight feeling that he disliked me thus bringing this to personal level competition) decided to keep it so on the coming downhills. I usually lose downhills terribly even at Weston. But this time either because my skis were well glide-waxed or I recollected couple of years ago experience of following team of college girls at Rangeley and how they were actually working (not just resting) on downhills by taking the most aerodynamic body position and choosing the shortest line, I managed to stay ahead. Well, might be he just over-waxed of course but winning downhill gave me some boost; the man stopped chasing me and I switched to couple of skiers in green and white who just appeared ahead on this winding trail.
At this about 30km point, I started to feel accumulating tiredness. It was not bonk-threatening yet but it was still only 2:1X in the race time-wise and there was about Jackson race distance to cover. The hills here were not too long and not incredibly steep but they were coming on us one after another, the folks in white/green ahead were getting closer by just lollipops steps, I started to wonder whether I’ll be able to catch even them. Until today, I was at times getting cramps and felt reaching the point of exhaustion at Marathons but no earlier than by 36 or 37 km, it came too early today; plus we had 5km more to go. Well, we’ll see, there is nothing to do now but keep moving.
The trail led us to wider road again, the incline decreased. There was sharp 180 degrees turn with chip control point and course started (in general, or in my perception at least) to descend. The guys whom I passed weren’t in immediate proximity, few dozen meters minimum. Another little group of obviously tired skiers is left behind. I ate my 2nd and last gel at the next feed station, pushed a little and surpassed the green/white couple (one of them turned to be a woman). The trail became easier and it has its effect; from 36th km I felt as it was all downhill – it was not terrain-wise, there were uphills of course but rolling ones, I could hold my breath even on them and folks ahead were gradually becoming slower (well, sure all the fast skiers were simply way ahead but we compete with our peers). I realized I could push full steam, most probably I wasn’t to bonk. A skater (probably on the warm up for tomorrow skate race) caught me up on that wide road, I decided to follow him. In 300m he turned to me and said something in French then digested for a few seconds my reply that I don’t speak French (I even thought I had replied in Russian, was dizzy enough for that) then he said “you’re doing well, let’s catch that black-and red guy ahead, you can do it!” . I trusted him and reached the guy and couple of others by next (the last) feed station, the feeling was they were slow. I obviously was in one on my best races, at least for the second part. Something about 3:40 at 50km; I probably won’t break 4 hours but should be up for 4:0x, hopefully x<=5, it wasn’t so hilly anymore!
III. Stupid part of the story.
Soon after 51km, there was a well marked left turn with fat arrows and few signs. Straight read “51km” – OK, this is for tomorrow 51km skating. 20km to the left, some other signs to the left. Where is 55km??! Damn, NO 55. I walked around all the signs – still no 55. No flagmen. Both trails make turns ahead, I could see nobody ahead. Looked backwards – I’d done a good job, those bypassed aren’t even visible, it’s about 300m or more to the turn behind. I remember there was a left turn in few km to the finish, so perhaps all the classical races go to the left. I turned left. That was fatal: in few minutes after descent there were still no people. What to do? I continued until reaching a trail fork with few recreational skiers waiting. “Where is 55km race?” They weren’t sure (well, how clear do I speak through all this ice on my beard?). “Did you see anybody with bibs like mine for the last few minutes?” No they didn’t. That was like that man from the woods who hits a marathoner’s head with a frying pan. Everything started to hurt. Shouldn’t I just go to the stadium (perhaps I can hear it, not too far..), what’s the point of racing after taking a walk through the woods for . . I didn’t even look at the watches, don’t know for how long I’m here – and I’m too lazy now even to lift my hand.. OK, nevertheless DNF would be the worst. U-turn takes essential effort – thigh cramps at the attempt to turn ski backward, I have to do it in few short steps. I slowly walk back to the main trail, the modest uphill seems as big as the major climb 30km ago. I check again for 55km sign at the fork – no miracle, it is not here – and start the last 3.x km. Lifted the head and saw in 70-100 m the man in read whom I had raced 30km behind on the major hills. Damn, it’ll be completely unfair if even he finishes ahead of me! Perhaps I still can double-pole, that thigh cramp has gone, arms and abdominal aren’t too bad (perhaps 1300km of kayaking per summer help, I noticed I became better in this technique after starting kayaking 5 years ago and particularly after essential improvement over there during previous 2 years).
I did reached that guy and few others on the last 3km, felt relatively fast again – though, it’s not a big honor to be fast at finish line vs. people who would have been couple of km behind if you hadn’t taken a leisure walk prior to finishing the race. I was sure very angry about the sign, the final time of 4:21 but still, the impression is good. The real left turn was about 1.5 km ahead, most of others raced here before or weren’t alone at this point, so the absence of sign looked like my personal problem. The irony is if I hadn't dropped the train few km earlier by more than 500m but stayed in just few dozen meters, I would have won over them all - most people did it previously and knew the trick; perhaps I had become too stupid after 51km, otherwise could guess in just a couple of minutes that I was not on the right trail.
IV. 27km half-Marathon on Sunday
My “Saturn” said it was -19C in the morning. Add a strong wind to understand that they moved the start 30 minutes forward. It warmed up to -17 but the wind picked up, so the benefits of the time shift were doubtful. I was scared of cold and perhaps slightly overdressed; albeit, some folks of my wave “C” were wearing something like 3 outer layers, you could count them!
The snow was screaming under the skis but as it was mostly re-frozen, it was not as slow as I had expected.
My Sunday 27km race went generally uneventful. I was sort of afraid of falling asleep while driving 8 hours alone from Gatineau in exhausted state and didn't dare to push hard most of the race; after all, I was less than 50% sure I’d do it at all, thought I might be coughing again after a week inside followed by 55km on Saturday. First 9km are easy, mostly wide trails, flat or with rolling hills. Then there are lots of climbs on narrow trail 15 - perfectly groomed but the only way to pass is double-polling uphill, the thing I had no energy for after 58 or so km on the ski I actually did yesterday. Skating race waves are divided by 2 minutes only (why??) therefore there is a big jam of us, slower folks from previous waves and faster ones from the next waves. So, few dozens of us were climbing step by step for quarter an hour until hitting wider road again. Feed station, take a drink.. A gel taped under by bib is easy to reach but at -17 it’s almost as solid as glass, I fight this time not the strength of its coat but its resistance to leave it. At about 15km, 27 km race left the wide road and we’re on trail 15 again. This time, the climb is steeper but there is twice less thick crowd, so it’s getting shape of a race. As the fast folks are out of reach and there is no crowd, I am able to pass a few folks on these hills – with thinner crowd, everybody is polite and allows to overtake him/her. Descents are not bad, at least not with these conditions.
For the last 5km I realized I won’t kill myself and could push. I passed the same man in red at almost the same place where I took a wrong turn yesterday then had to work hard to drop him off which led to passing a girl and a man of nearly my age who had stuck to her right on the stadium - probably I looked at the edge of collapse because volunteers at finish rushed to take the skis off me, sort of unusual... Gosh, volunteering in the open field for few hours in such a weather .. I admire these folks, they must be real enthusiasts!