by Glen Herbert
Nearly everything you can say about the Canadian Ski Marathon is astonishing. It’s 180 kilometres over two days, set against the backdrop of the Laurentians between Ottawa and Montreal. Time is important, but to win gold, you also have to carry your supplies with you and camp out at night. The race is a test of endurance, and patience, and being alone with your thoughts for hours on end. For those who participate, success is finishing. Many don’t. But Calum did. He’s a Grade 10 student who was part of a delegation from Rosseau Lake College who had been training together for six months. And, on February 12, after 22 hours on skis, he crossed the finish line. I asked him about why he did it, what it felt like, and if he'd ever do it all again.
This was your first time at the CSM, and also the first time RLC has participated in a number of years. But when the opportunity was presented at the beginning of school year, you put up your hand. Why did you want to do it?
I don’t know. I think I did it for my mom, to be honest. My mom does a lot of running. And it’s something I kind of wanted to do like her, if that makes sense. I just wanted to do it. She was tracking me through the whole thing [there was a digital tracking system] and was pretty excited I think.
You mentioned that you weren't sure if you’d finish the marathon. When was the moment that you thought, “Yup, I’m really going to do this”?
Because I finished the first day, I felt like I just had to do the second day and had to push through it. I was the only one from RLC that could have done it [because the others hadn't qualified coming out of the first day] so there was a bit of pressure I guess. But I also had to do it for myself. I pushed the first day, so I had to push the second day.
When you say that you pushed, what were some of the challenges?
I didn’t fuel enough. You’re supposed to take breaks at each checkpoint. And the second day, during the 22-kilometer section, I didn’t take any breaks. And it was horrible. I didn’t think I was going to make it. But at the checkpoints you start to feel better, after eating. If you don’t eat, you’re going to feel horrible. And that’s why most people drop out, because they didn’t eat at all between checkpoints.
But that’s the most important part of the whole race, I feel. The food. Because you can really feel your body. You can really feel yourself getting tired, or getting slow. And then you can really feel food energizing you.
What did you eat?
I brought fudge, different fudges, just for the calories. And I brought bread. I don’t know if that helped, but it just tasted good. I brought a baguette. On the checkpoints they had Gatorade and hotdogs.
What flavour was the fudge?
It was chocolate with nuts in it.
I know that RLC sent a delegation, but they had different goals, different abilities. Were you on your own most of the time?
There were a lot of other people around me, and the first day I skied with my friend Caden the entire time. We pushed each other. The second day I skied with Trevor, and he’s probably the reason that pushed me. He was a bit faster than me. I’d catch up to him at each of the checkpoints. But I like to know how far each section is—I see how long it is, then divide it in half, and set my stopping points in between to eat and then keep going again. But he was the only person that knew how long each section was going to be, so I had to go fast to catch up to him to plan out my route. And I skied the last section with him as well.
But I met a lot of people. I was at the back, because I was tired, and there were a lot of people like that as well. So I skied with just a bunch of people that I didn’t know. The second day, I recognised all the same faces, and we said hi. And I skied with them for a little bit. Everyone is paced differently, so you branch out, but you kind of get to know everybody in a way, without even knowing their names.
How long were you skiing each day?
The first day I skied 12 hours. It started at 6am, and the second day it was 10 hours.
Were you talking to people around you most of the time, or was it just you lost in your thoughts?
Me lost in my thoughts. A lot of times I kind of just blanked out. The best type of skiing or running is when you’re not thinking of anything. Because then you wake up again and you’ve gone another five kilometres without even realising it.
Otherwise, I guess there’s always that thought: Am I going to stop? Do I continue?
The hardest part for me was the ending of the first day. Because everything was hurting. I took a lot of breaks, wondering if I should go back or not. Wondering if I shouldn’t finish it. The last section, about a kilometre in, I was going up a hill and I didn’t think I could finish. I took my skis off and I sat there for a few minutes wondering if I should go back. And I was thinking “I can’t do this, there’s still 15 kilometres left.” But then I kept going, and I’m glad I did.
What did you listen to when you had music?
That's a good question. I honestly don’t know. I just had it on shuffle. I listen to whatever has a fast beat, because, you don’t really notice it, but your legs move to the beat. So, whatever is kind of fast, I’ll put onto a playlist.
It was a couple very early days. I think you all stayed together at a local school?
Yeah, we stayed in a school, and it was about an 80-minute drive. On the Saturday we woke up at 3 in the morning for breakfast and the bus left at 4:10. The race stared at 6 o’clock.
Being at the starting line that day was also an amazing experience. Sitting in the dark. The first section was probably one of my slowest sections, because I slowed down and looked around a lot. Because you could see the mountains, and all the headlamps in the dark, everyone being together. It was amazing. I talked to my friend Caden about it, and that was probably one of the most fun moments of the whole race. Just starting. The music. And everybody going out together. It looked cool, and it felt cool, being in that group.
The first section was nine kilometres, and that’s when the slow people and the fast people spread out. The second section of day one was twenty kilometres. That took about three hours, and that was a really long time. And that’s when we were by ourselves. I was with Caden that day. And when we stopped, we really didn’t see anybody. Everyone really spreads out.
The first day was considered the harder day, because of the hills. But I actually preferred that, because it wasn’t just flat. The second day, the second part, was completely flat, 22 kilometres. I hated that. Because we were just going through farm fields, and you could see the track doing loops in the field. You’d do a U-turn, go down and come back, and then you were into the next field, and it was really long. You could see people way ahead of you, and you knew that’s where you were going. I hated that. That’s also a section where I didn’t eat at all, so I was really tired. That’s when I thought, “I can’t do this anymore.”
When did the excitement of it all really kick in?
I felt excited finishing the last stretch of it. You have to get to each checkpoint at a certain time, or else you don’t qualify. And when the checkpoint closes, you can’t go any farther. So, when you get to the last checkpoint, the last stretch, you can take as long as you want. Once I made it to the last checkpoint, that’s when I felt happy and that’s when I felt that I’d crossed the finish line, basically.
What was it like in that moment when you first saw the finish line?
You can hear it before you see it. There’s music playing and everyone is cheering. We finish in the dark, and they can see the headlamps coming through the woods. And everyone starts cheering. But that was an unreal moment.
But I think finishing the first day was more exciting for me, to be honest. Because, the second day I had more motivation. I knew more that I could finish it. But the first day I had no idea, so when I got to the finish line it felt unreal. It felt amazing.
Will you do it again next year?
Yes, one hundred percent. It’s still in my mind now. I feel like I’m still on the race, though it’s been a day and half since, and it’s still all I’m thinking about. And I’ll a hundred percent go for the silver next year. It was an amazing experience. Everything about it.
For more on the marathon, see Graham Vogt's article RLC commits to participating in a signature Canadian challenge. This year we were joined by two RLC alumni who participated in the 1980s. For their story, see Alumni join the RLC delegation to the Canadian Ski Marathon. For details on the race, see the CSM website.