Welcome to the Canadian Ski Marathon, where an emphasis on adventure and camaraderie return cross-country skiing to its origins.
"I really like that it's a classic event," says Mary Peabody, referring to the marathon's traditional kick-and-glide skiing. "So much of skiing nowadays is skating. You go fast and look cool. This kind of brings it down to the roots of skiing."
First run in 1967 as part of Canada's centennial celebration, the world's longest ski tour follows a route just north of the Ottawa River in Quebec's Western Laurentian Mountains. The course is broken into 10 sections, five each day, of approximately 10 miles each.
Though the trail is modified some years because of snow conditions, it traditionally runs between Lachute on the outskirts of Montreal and Gatineau just north of Ottawa. The starting point alternates each year, but the overnight is always in Montebello.
Participation peaked at about 3,500 people in the '80s and organizers expect about 2,000 entries for the 45th edition on Feb. 12-13. Skiers can register the day before, but the cost goes up beginning next Friday.
Those who want to ski all 100 miles enter the Coureur des Bois category, which is named for the woodsmen who skied and snowshoed between the traps they set in the region's streams and forests.
There is also a general Tourer division and further breakdowns for age and gender, as well as for families and teams.
Tourers do as many or as few segments as they wish each day.
That's what Peabody, from Keene, N.Y., did last year with her daughter Maeve, then 12, and her husband, Michael. It was Maeve's second year and they skied two sections each day, covering about 28 miles the first and 22 the second.
"If you want it to be, it's a very family-oriented thing," Peabody says. "Little kids are out there skiing 10 to 15 kilometers. Parents switch off days, with one skiing on their own while the other skis with the kids. Then the next day they switch places."
Aid stations at the end of each leg provide food, drinks, restrooms, waxing stands, and shuttle buses to other checkpoints and accommodations.
"It's kind of this huge party on skis," Peabody says. "Three-quarters of the people are out there doing the same thing you are, plodding along and having fun."
The Coureur des Bois, literally "runner of the woods", are the one-quarter who are on a mission. Starting off at 6 a.m., the fastest finish the 50 miles in about eight hours, while the back of the pack will straggle in 12 hours later, finishing as they started, in the dark by headlamp.
The Courer des Bois category is broken into three levels, with skiers needing to achieve one before they can attempt the next.
It starts with the bronze, which requires skiers to cover all 100 miles. The next step is the silver, in which they must cover the entire course carrying an 11-pound pack. Those in the gold level Coureur des Bois carry a pack with sleeping bag, food, cooking utensils and clothing so they can camp out at the end of the first day.
A tent adds too much weight, so John Hardie usually brings a light tarp he can throw over his sleeping bag if it rains or snows.
"My pack usually ends up weighing 25 pounds," says Hardie, a member of the CSM board who has skied in the event 32 straight years.
"At gold camp, it's actually quite luxurious," he says. "You're given two hay bales, one to sit on and one to break out on the snow to put your sleeping bag on."
A fire, firewood and hot water also are provided for each campsite of six to eight skiers.
The 67-year-old Hardie is among the 269 people who have earned a coveted permanent bib number by completing the gold level five times. "I wanted Wayne Gretzky's number, but someone beat me to it," says Hardie, who missed by two and got No. 101.
Though only 12 of the permanent bibs belong to women, with most being earned in the last 10 years, Sharon Crawford of Frisco, Colo., has racked up 23 gold medals since 1981.
"She was the pioneer," Hardie says. "One tough cookie."
Kjell Dahlen is hoping to join their ranks this year.
The 64-year-old eye surgeon from Plattsburgh, N.Y., first skied in the CSM about eight years ago when he was looking for motivation to train after learning he had high cholesterol.
"The camaraderie is one of the reasons that I keep coming back," Dahlen says. "Also, I need some kind of incentive to keep working out. I tell myself, 'I need to work out or I'm going to kill myself in the Canadian Ski Marathon.'"
Dahlen, who skied growing up in Norway, completed all 100 miles in his first attempt, though he wasn't sure he was going to make it.
Even though it's not a timed event, "you may be racing to reach that last section," Dahlen says of the 3:15 p.m. cutoff each day after which skiers aren't allowed to begin the fifth section.
Skiing with a pack, Dahlen's weighs about 30 pounds, adds a significant challenge.
"When you're carrying that much on your back it affects your balance," he says.
Not only do you have to work harder going up, but the extra weight throws you off going downhill and makes the tricky descents for which the CSM is known even more challenging.
While Peabody, Hardie and Dahlen all live in places where they can do most of their training on skis, James Meier doesn't have that luxury. "It is murder trying to get in shape for this living in New York City," the 66-year-old management consultant says.
If there's snow, he'll ski in Manhattan's Riverside Park. Another training staple is strapping on a pack and hiking the stairs in his apartment building. He augments that with swimming and skiing in state parks north of the city on weekends.
"It's really putting it together in different ways to make it work," he says of his training.
He's doing something right. Meier has skied as a Coureur des Bois for 26 years, succeeding about two-thirds of the time.
"With the changing weather and snow conditions, you just never know what to expect," he says. "In a sense it's a different race every year."
Pat Horne, AP Sports Writer
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