Get a load of this, nordic ski racers

Cross-country skiers in the Coureurs des Bois class get an early start in the Canadian Ski Marathon in Quebec to complete the entire 100-mile race carrying camping gear on their backs. The Tourer class skis short segments of the route without a pack.  (Associated Press)
Cross-country skiers in the Coureurs des Bois class get an early start in the Canadian Ski Marathon in Quebec to complete the entire 100-mile race carrying camping gear on their backs. The Tourer class skis short segments of the route without a pack. (Associated Press)

Top level participants in the 100-mile Canadian Ski Marathon carry camp gear on their backs

You don’t have to leave North America to participate in one of the longest, toughest nordic skiing events on the planet, but it might help to brush up on your French.

The annual Canadian Ski Marathon ( www.csm-mcs.com/) involves skiing 100 miles over two days in Quebec while carrying a 30-pound pack and camping out overnight in temperatures that can drop below zero.

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. Many skiers take on only a portion of the route each day.

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.

It’s a classic event with emphasis on the cross-country skiing roots of adventure and camaraderie.

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.

Most participants enter the general Tourer Division, and test their mettle in various divisions based on age and gender, as well as for families and teams.

Tourers do as many or as few segments as they wish each day.

Mary Peabody of Keene, N.Y., entered the race as a Tourer last year with her daughter Maeve, then 12, and her husband, Michael. She told the Associated Press 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 told AP writer Pat Horne. “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 25 percent of the participants who are on a mission. They start at 6 a.m. The fastest of them finish the 50 miles in about eight hours, while those in the back of the pack will straggle in 12 hours later, finishing as they started, in the dark by headlamp.

But they have to be at least halfway each day by 3:15 p.m. or they can’t proceed.

The Coureur 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 Canadian Ski Marathon board. He has skied in the event 32 consecutive 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,” said Hardie, who missed by two and got 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.”

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