Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Gatineau Ski Marathon, or We Found Winter At Last!

The last 3 years I’ve headed out to the Birkie, which has been a lot of fun and I think I’d finally dialed in all the logistics and had had a couple good races.  Having gotten that figured out I decided to forego the Birkie for a new challenge, the Gatineau marathon at Gatineau Parc in Gatineau, Quebec.  As an added bonus, the World Cup was coming to Canada for the Ski Tour of Canada and so I could stay for the sprints.  Awesome!  With the snow disappearing rapidly in New England, it wasn’t hard to convince Rob to join me in between Feb. vacation ski camp and JNs and so he signed up for the 27 km skate race. 

At the time it seemed like a good idea to stop at Craftsbury for a ski on the drive, but we arrived after driving through some pretty warm and torrential rains to find sheets of ice with standing water, so went to Plan B and did a little speedhike down Lost Nation Road instead.  The next morning a fresh coating of snow made everything look a bit more like winter and after a good Craftsbury breakfast we made the longish drive to Gatineau Parc to find…..wait for it…..mounds of snow!  White, cold, sparkling snow with no grass, no rocks, no dirt, no gravel!!!!  It was like heaven!  After getting some advice at the Parc visitors center we got in a nice ski and some wax testing on the hardest part of the classic marathon course in brilliant sunshine.  The trip was already worth it.  The only dilemma was whether to go with straight hard wax or klister covered given that a bit of rain had fallen the day before and left behind a light glaze.  So, I waxed up two pair of skis in the warm and dry parking garage that evening just before bed and then stewed about it all night during sleepless bouts.

Given that I was doing the point-to-point 51 km classic race on Sat. and Rob was doing the half marathon skate race on Sunday he helped me get my skis finally prepped and tested.  The overnight grooming was good and I felt that straight hard wax would do just fine, hopped on the bus to the start while Rob went for a ski and lunch.  At the start there was little but the start area, a nice warmup track and some fluids and porta-johns.  It was pretty chilly, but no wind.  I got in a good warmup, dumped my bag on the truck and lined up on the start.  Steve Wright from NWVE was right behind me, Joanne Hanowski off to one side, Damian Bolduc (NWVE) was in Wave 2, and a few other familiar faces in Wave 1 of 4.  At the gun we took off and wrapped around the field a couple times to spread things out and then narrowed to 2 tracks into the woods.  I have to say that the snow was perfect, the grooming was excellent, the weather just fine (Toko Red covered by Toko Blue was great) and the course a delight for the first rolling 27 km.  In that stretch there was 10 m of herringbone and everything else strideable and really nice skiing on rolling hills on park roads with lakes, sun and white, white, clean snow.  Delightful!!!!  I was dangling off the back of a good group of about 6, realizing that I was going to have to pace myself carefully as I didn’t have a lot of pop.  At about 27 km we turned off onto Trail 36, a narrower double tracked trail and this is where the real work would happen for the next 8 km where we climbed several long herringbone hills with some pretty tricky but fun decents past some more lakes.  At 30 km we came down the last tricky downhill to P11 parking lot where Rob and Jim Fredricks were waiting to cheer us on.  Up ahead Joanne Hanowski was having a great race, having passed me about 11 km in and Damian Bolduc had also passed me early starting from Wave 2, also having an excellent race.  I had a good group of masters skiers to chase all through the hills but I just wasn’t closing the distance much and now was getting really tired.  After 30 km we climbed up a tough little section with off-camber herringbone sections until we got back up on park roads.  Now it clouded over and the wind came up and I struggled to keep it moving effectively into the wind.  Now we faced long, gradual uphills, very strideable, but I was shuffling a lot of it.  It helped at one point when I was able to tuck into the draft of a young woman for a couple km and recover a bit, but eventually she dusted me as we headed onto Trail 1 for the last tough climbs of the race to the height of the course at 35 km.  Just for perspective, the Gatineau has 3500 feet of elevation, compared to 2800 for Craftsbury, just to give you a comparison.  A lot of it is nice rolling hills, but this middle stretch took the starch our of me and I was very happy to turn back onto the wide park roads and start heading downhill for a change, allowing some recovery.  I started chasing a group in front in earnest as we hit the longest downhill in the race, about 1 km long or more.  In an endless tuck at about 23 mph my back was seizing up and I stood up in the squirrelly tracks and decided it was better to tuck as much as possible.  I was not comfortable!  Now the wind was tough in places and I was really starting to fade…..but the ks started to click by reasonably quickly…..48 km, 49 km, and finally 50 km at the end of the last long downhill where I passed one last skier.  Only a km to go!!! Uffffff, my elation blew away with the wind, now in my face when I realized on the flats that I had nothing left.  Ok, I can get through one lousy km and I noodled along with limp arms waiting to turn off the road on the final trail to the school…… except that it seemed to go on and on and on.  Past the race photographers (why don’t they take race photos somewhere besides the end of the race!  They are terrible!) and finally we turned off at about 51 km.  Almost there…up a hill and around a corner and……a 1000 m to go sign!  Wait, what???  A total fake-out and now for real the last km.  No one to chase, no one passing me I settled in and finally limped in to the finish line happy to just stand still for a few moments.  Not a bad race, but not a great one either.  However, it was a great course with great snow and grooming, so nice to bang out 51 km in such nice conditions on a point to point course through the beautiful Gatineau Parc. 

I conked out as soon as I hit my bed for a well-deserved nap.

The next morning it was Rob’s turn to race, but things could be a bit more relaxed because no bus ride was required.  The skate race took off with snow falling fairly heavily, which made for slower skiing than many wanted.  I skied out on the course and  found a good spot for photos and got well chilled watching Rob, Robert, Dave, Jim Fredricks and some other New England compatriots (Damian was doing a double, having signed up for the 27 km skate) ski by a couple times before they headed out on some serious climbs up a narrow trail that was quite difficult.  I skied around and then positioned myself to catch Rob in the last km as he skied in, quite tired and happy that he had not signed up for the longer race.  Damian looked fresh as a daisy in his second race and Robert had the best race of the season and was very happy with his result.

The next couple days we got in some delightful, sunny, powder skis on some of the really nice Gatineau trails.  This really is a very nice place to ski and we only skied a fraction of what is available, and all within a short drive of downtown Ottawa.  One afternoon we got a very nice tour of Parliament that was just Rob and I and a very knowledgeable tour guide and so we got to pepper her with questions.  The next afternoon after our 2 hr morning ski we took in the National Gallery and then the official opening of the Tour of Canada World Cup.  Tuesday we skied early and then headed to the sprint venue dressed very warmly a bit too late to watch the qualifying races, but in plenty of time to snag an excellent viewing spot for the heats!  It was great fun watching the US contingent of Sophie, Andy, Jessie, Simi, Ida and Sadie ski the heats with Simi and Jessie thrilling us all with their historic double podium.  The next day we started the drive home, stopping off in Montreal long enough to watch the women’s classic distance race in Mont Royale Parc on a twisty, turny course laid out just for the Tour in fresh snow that appeared to cause waxing problems for many.  Lots of herringbone going on, something you don’t see a lot on some of the world cup courses.  Theresa Johaug destroyed the field as the cold wind swirled around blowing snow everywhere.  It was great to see so many Americans racing in the field and for some like Katherine Ogden, getting their first World Cup experience right after some good performances at Jr. Worlds.  Then, sadly, it was time for the rest of the long drive home through an almost snowless, brown Vermont landscape….very strange after a week of perfect skiing conditions. 


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