Off to Tim Horton's that is! Realizing that it would be futile to start a road trip without some strong black coffee and a half D (half a dozen donuts), we stopped at our former place of employment and stocked up on sour cream glazed donuts (the best donut in the Tim Horton's line up), blueberry fritters, dutchies, and of course, maple dippers. We were now fully outfitted, and we headed north on the 400, loppet bound.
Gatineau, Quebec where the Gatineau Loppet was taking place is about a 5.5 hour drive from Barrie, Ontario where Trev lives. We could have taken a southern route along the 401 through Kingston, or a northern route on some smaller roads that would take us through Algonquin Park. Since it was a nice day and the roads would be clear, we decided to take the northern route. This was a good choice as it was a really nice drive on quiet roads that wound through snow covered conifers and alongside frozen lakes. The roads looked like they would have been fun on a bike as there were lots of twists, turns and rolling hills, but that adventure would have to wait until summer time as it was a little too cold out.
We eventually rolled into Ottawa, past the parliament buildings (long live Stephen Harper!), and across a river and into Quebec. We pulled up at the Mont-Bleu Secondary School at 3:45pm, with plenty of time to pick up our race packets before registration closed at 5pm. There was an expo area set up in the school gymnasium, so we spent some time browsing there after getting our packets. They had some good deals on skis and clothing, and we were both sorely tempted to purchase skin suits at rock bottom prices. The things that prevented this were: I already have a skin suit, purchased after the Birkie, and Trev was forbidden from doing so by the Nordic Skiers Code of Conduct, which says that one may only own a skin suit after completing a 50km loppet in non-skin suit attire (and preferably finishing in front of a few skin suit-clad skiers).
We left the expo area empty handed (other than our race packets and a few vanilla energy gels that we had purchased) with our credit cards still in their holsters, and walked over to check out the start/finish area which was just outside a nearby stadium at the edge of Gatineau Park. It was still pretty nice out, and we stood gazing down the finishing straight that we would ski down the next day to the deafening cheers of thousands of adoring fans.
Suddenly, a flash of prescience snapped us out of our dreamy reverie: we are standing at the edge of Gatineau Park (renowned for its skiing), there is plenty of snow, the grooming looks good, and there is still daylight … what the stink are we standing around for, let's go skiing! So we dashed back to the car, changed into our ski gear, and then returned to the start area and headed out for a short ski on the race course. The snow seemed nice and fast, having been packed out pretty well by the classic skiers who had raced that morning. We only skied about 7km or so, but it was nice to get our legs going a bit after sitting in the car for 5.5 hours. We returned to the car just as it was getting dark, and headed to our hotel.
We were staying at “Auberge de la Gare”, a nice establishment that was a 5-10 minute drive from the race. We checked in, and then walked to a nearby restaurant called “Cafe Cognac” that had been recommended by the lady at the front desk of our hotel. It was pretty fun being in Quebec with everything being in French, and plenty of opportunities to practice staring blankly when someone addressed us in that language. I also really like hearing people with French accents speak English, I wish I had grown up with French as my first language. The restaurant was pretty good, though I was convinced that the buns they brought out for us had dirt on them. Trev finally convinced me that it was some sort of blackened flour, but I had never seen anything like it and I still think they might have all been dropped on a dirty floor or had dirt sprinkled on them (maybe to spite the two bearded anglophones) before being sent out. They didn't taste too bad though, so we decided not to inquire further. We shared some bruschetta as an appetizer, and from there forth our nutritional strategies diverged widely, with me ordering grilled vegetable pasta and Trev ordering a flank steak with fries. Only time would tell which pre-race fueling strategy was a better choice.
We elected to skip dessert (although the “Chocolate Avalanche” cake sounded quite appealing) and we headed back to the hotel room where we showered, laid out our gear for the next day, and watched some Olympic coverage before drifting off to sleep. The alarm went off bright and early the next morning at 6:30am, and it took some doing to haul Trev (a sleep-deprived father of 2 year old twins) out of bed.
We groggily suited up in our racing clothes, all the while questioning the garment decisions we had made the night before due to what looked like a very cold morning. It was -6 C out, with light snow falling and the temperature forecast to rise to -4 C by noon when we would be finishing. In the photo below I am looking thoughtful with my freshly trimmed racing beard, wondering whether I should put some long underwear on under my leiderhosen. Trev and I had both been working on loppet beards in the months leading up to the race, but from the photos you have probably noticed that Trev was able to manage a full blown Unabomber Loppet Beard while I could only muster a Junior Loppet Starter Beard due to my wispy facial hair.
We had a quick breakfast at the hotel before loading up the car and heading back to the Mont Bleu Secondary School. We managed to find really good parking (an advantage of a smaller race like this as compared to the Birkie is that the logistics are way easier to sort out) and then headed into the gymnasium to warm up and stretch before walking over to the start line for the 9am departure. On the way in to the school we dropped our skis off with Franz, our Austrian wax technician, to have him give them a final roto-corking before the grand depart. Inside the gymnasium we soaked up the nervous energy of the hundreds of skiers assembled there while making final clothing adjustments and listening to race information being announced in french.
Trev was starting in the final wave since this was his first loppet and he didn't have a qualifying time, but I had somehow finagled my way into the first wave using my Birkie time from last year. It wasn't entirely clear to me that my time qualified me for the first wave, but I figured that I might as well ask and it was up to them to deny my request if they deemed it misguided. Either my time really did qualify me for the “A” wave or they don't bother checking the times very closely, but in any case after wishing Trev good luck I found myself toeing the line with a bunch of lycra clad greyhounds. Being in the front wave meant that I had to go through a bunch of extra routines (getting my skis marked so that I wasn't able to have Franz pass me a new set out on the course, filling out a form for a temporary racing license in case I wanted to collect FIS points, etc.) that made me feel like a real professional. I was hoping that a random doping control might be administered after the race, but alas, this never materialized.
With 5 minutes to go I took off my down jacket and stashed it in my clothing bag to be picked up after the race, and began to wait for the starting gun. In these final moments of reflection the race announcer was reminding us over the loudspeakers that since this was a freestyle race we were not obligated to use skate technique, and if we wanted we could use classic technique or even slither on our bellies like snakes. This was certainly helpful information, though most people that I saw elected to use skate technique despite these attractive alternatives. At exactly 9am the gun sounded, and we were off!
The race started across an open field before funneling into a short narrow section that climbed a short hill through some woods. Things slowed down a bit here but it wasn't too bad, as everyone in this wave (possibly with the exception of yours truly) was an able and competent skier. Soon after the course opened up onto some wider track and gradual climbs (much of the race course is on a road through the park that is not plowed over the winter) where it was possible to do some passing. The conditions felt a little bit slow since some fresh snow had fallen overnight, but by staying on the part of the track that had been most skied on it wasn't too bad. If you wanted to pass the person in front of you it was necessary to move out onto the slower untracked snow and expend extra energy, so I tried to be careful about only passing when I had to. My skis seemed a little slow on the downhills compared to the people in the groups I was in, maybe next time I'll have to try some high-fluoro wax or figure out what a roto-corker is.
The skiing was really nice, with a good mix of narrower sections through the woods and wider parts out on the parkway. I was usually in a small group of a few people, but moved between groups as some surged ahead and others fell behind. I was definitely at my best on the climbs, and that is where I was able to do most of my passing. The feed stations were well-equipped with warm gatorade, though I wished they had food to hand the skiers since I didn't want to stop and pick up food from the tables. As a result I don't think I ate quite enough, only consuming one gel at the 2 hour mark and whatever calories were in the gatorade that I drank. I began to feel a little bit of hunger knock coming on at the 45km mark, and at this point I was thanking my lucky stars that low snow conditions had forced the organizers to shorten the race from the planned 53km to 49km. Thankfully it wasn't too long after that I saw the welcome sight of the finish line, with the sprint lanes divided by little pine boughs stuck into the snow.
I was feeling pretty wobbly by this point, but luckily the only person I was sprinting against was an older lady from the 29km race who I was catching. After handily dispatching grandma in the sprint to the finish line (with the roaring approval of the crowd in my ears) I made a secondary sprint to the refreshment table where I staked out my territory and feasted on chocolate raisins, cookies, and gatorade. I had finished in 3:00:06 which I was happy with, though if I had been checking my watch out on course I might have been able to muster that little bit extra to dip under the 3 hour mark. I collected my clothing bag from the stadium, and then worked my way back to the finish to cheer Trev across the line. I didn't have to wait long, as at 3:30:35 Trev came roaring down the sprint lane, successfully completing his first loppet in a time a blew away his expectations.
We both collected our finisher's toques and pins, and then headed back into the Mont Bleu Secondary School to change out of our ski clothes and warm up. Our race bibs entitled us to a free lunch in the school cafeteria, which was like a time warp back to grade nine, right down to the juice boxes, zip-locked sandwiches, and steaming bowls of vegetable soup. Despite the somewhat pedestrian post-race feast, it was really fun to be relaxing in the cafeteria amidst the throngs of happy skiers excitedly trading war stories from the morning's loppet.
After finishing up the chocolate chip cookies we were given for dessert, we headed back out into the frozen hinterlands to start the long drive back to Barrie. After finding the nearest Tim Hortons we hit the road, and despite our sore legs loppet fever was already setting in again as we began planning our next adventure on the world loppet tour.