Last Sunday I skied the Lake Louise to Banff Loppet. A 72km classic cross-country ski which was (thankfully) mostly downhill. The event got off to an inauspicious start. I didn’t realize that participants were expected to come to the pre-race meeting ready to ski, so I left my stuff in the car thinking I would have time to get ready after the meeting. During the meeting they described the race start location, but not being super familiar with Louise or the event, I didn’t really understand where they were talking about.
I was standing on the shore of the lake, getting the last of my gear ready when the racers took off. The race began in the middle of the lake so I hastily began to ski across the lake in an attempt to get to the start line and catch up with the rest of the participants quickly. Unfortunately the route I had chosen was through deep snow, my skinny skis bogged down and it was a slow trudge to the start of the race. I reminded myself that a few minutes lost at the beginning of an 8hr race weren’t going to make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Eventually I made it and began skiing down the course. I was surprised to find another tardy skier (bib #75) racing up the tracks towards the start line as I headed down the course. This meant I wasn’t in last place! #75 looked like he knew what he was doing and I was sure he would pass me soon.
I was hoping the downhill on this section would be screaming fast, but I found it quite gentle. I think the fresh snow on the track slowed the track down a bit and I had to double-pole to keep up speed. I soon began to pass other skiers. There were two sets of tracks so it was easy to pass for the most part. #75 cruised past me easily. I didn’t even entertain the thought of keeping up.
There were two occasions where participants were skiing side by side and wouldn’t move out of the way when asked. Instead, they needed to have the full explanation of why it was not only rude, but a hazard to take up the full track. It was a little annoying but I got over it. It was a long race and a few seconds explanation weren’t going to make a big difference in the grand scheme of things. I did feel bad for the one lady who fell over in a failed pass attempt though …
I was surprised to find that there was an aid station half way through Leg One. It was well stocked, complete with hot tea and brownies. I had brought my own munchies so I didn’t need anything, but if I do this race again I won’t bother bringing any of my own stuff. After the aid station the course navigated an underpass with a steep hill. This is where I discovered what my nemesis would be for the rest of the day.
It was quite warm (around 0C ) and my wax didn’t have a ton of grip. It worked well on the flats but didn’t help much on the hills. I wasn’t too concerned about the lack of grip as I could fish tail as needed. I usually use my poles to hold most of my weight when I fish tail and it helps me get up the hill faster. This time however when I went to push up the hill with my poles they just sunk deeper into the soft snow. My baskets weren’t big enough to support my weight against the snow. I could barely maintain my balance, never mind get up the embankment. I never really solved this problem and I was a total spazz on every hill for the rest of the day.
The rest of that leg (and most of the rest of the race) was single-track trail. I was faster than most of the skiers but it wasn’t convenient to pass, so I would just try to wait patiently until I got an opportunity. #75 and I leap-frogged again. He was a better skier, but he had an unfortunate run in with some gravel so I wound up in front.
The end of the leg came quickly, the downhill had been deceptively fast and it was hard to believe I had skied 21km already. Alan and Arielle met me at the aid station with a chocolate hazelnut croissant. It was delicious. I grabbed a fresh water bottle and took off for Leg 2. I was well ahead of cutoff and I told myself to relax.
A funny thing happens when you’re in a race. It becomes impossible to move at a relaxed pace. I found myself constantly pushing to pick off the next skier. Lucky for me, I don’t know how to ski fast so I wasn’t actually able to push very hard. I probably was at a 65% effort level, simply because I don’t know how to go faster.
Arielle and Alan magically appeared at each of the road crossings. They would crank up the tunes, cheer and take photos. It’s pretty awesome to have your own cheering section. The sun was now fully risen and the scenery was spectacular. I found myself wishing that I wasn’t skiing so that my hands could be free to take photos. My competitive drive wouldn’t allow me to stop and take photos so I just kept on skiing.
Leg 3 ushered in the start of the “adventure” skiing. The trail became bumpy and icy, with a thin layer of snow over the ice. I struggled to maintain balance at times and I slowed down so that I wouldn’t break anything. I pushed with my right pole and my basket broke though the top layer of crust down to deep snow. I stomped my left ski down to regain my balance and accidentally stomped my other ski pole. It now has a significant bend. Note to self – it might be a good idea to bring a spare set of poles next year.
The second half of leg 3 was very pleasant. With amazing views, no ice and smooth trail. I felt like I was flying through the valley. Alan and Arielle met me at the transition area with a special treat – potato chips! I had hardly been eating or drinking because my hands were too busy skiing, so the chips tasted like heaven.
Leg 4 began with a climb on a track paralleling the Bow Valley Parkway. It was very warm, and the snow was slick. My poles were sinking into the deep snow and I sound myself wondering how I would ever get up this #$@!ing hill! I briefly contemplated taking my skis off and running up the road. I could see tracks where someone else had made that choice. But, I am stubborn so I kept my skis on and somehow muscled my way up.
What goes up must come down, and I thoroughly enjoyed the descent. Part of it was in the ditch beside the road, I underestimated a sharp turn in the trail and did a full faceplant. It was exhilarating and I found myself laughing out loud. Another portion of the downhill had us skiing along the top of the snow embankment which had been created by a snowplow. The hill was too steep for me to be comfortable bombing down it, but the ski tracks on top were not wide enough to allow for a snowplow. Again, I thought about taking my skis off and running down the road but I decided that safety is over-rated and just went for it. I kept one ski on top of the embankment and hung the other one down on the side. By squeezing the ski against the side I was able to slow myself down enough to maintain control.
#75 passed me in the transition from Leg 4 to 5. This was officially the furthest I had ever skied and my arms were tired. I tried to keep him in sight as we skied along the track, but I didn’t have the energy/motivation to push any harder and catch up. The trail turned off the highway and continued through a meadow into the Backswamp. The view of Mount Rundle from the meadow was spectacular. Mount Rundle and Banff are synonomous in my mind and I could feel the finish line calling to me. Only 15km left to go.
We had to take our skis off to navigate the Sunshine overpass. Alan and Arielle handed me a cheese bun and I opted to walk and eat instead of run. I had just one leg left for the Loppet and I wanted to get some calories in me so that I could have a strong finish.
Leg 6 is an optional skate ski. I don’t know how to skate ski so I continued in the classic style. Unfortunately the classic tracks were in really rough shape. There had been no fresh snow in Banff and the skate skiers and run over most of the track. I told myself it was okay; the tracks might suck but we were back on solid snow so I could push hard with my poles again. The first half of Leg 6 had a series of rollers and I felt like I flew over them. All the fatigue in my arms had somehow been forgotten.
After the rollers the course flattened out onto a wide path with no trackset. The path was solid ice with a thin layer of snow on top. Try as I might, I could not figure out how to classic ski on that surface so I decided it was time to learn how to skate ski. I figured out some sort of movement that seemed to propel me forward and I only fell once. I’ll call that a success.
The course transitioned onto the river where there was a perfect trackset. I knew the finish line was around a bend on the river. I was so close! I looked at my watch – 7hrs. I had been fairly sure this journey would take me close to 8hrs to complete, so coming in to the finish line shortly after 3pm was like a dream. I came around the corner and there it was – a huge FINISH banner. Alan and Arielle cheered me in.
Thank you to everyone who has supported me on this journey:
- My husband Matt for never complaining about the hours and hours I spend training, and for cooking up the millions of calories I need to eat to maintain this crazy lifestyle
- Arielle for pushing me to try things outside of my comfort zone
- Alan and Arielle for giving up their day to follow me around the course and for taking photos to document the adventure
- My mom for buying me boots and being the catalyst that convinced be to FINALLY purchase my own skis
- Lifesport for their excellent customer service and patiently answering my gazillions of questions
- All my skier friends for patiently answering my gazillions of questions 🙂
And now, it is time to get back focused on trail running.