WHERE ENDURANCE MEETS COURAGE: Veteran cross-country skier leads group that tackled treacherous 100-mile overnight race in Canada
Blazing an icy trail with overnight race
It is a challenge that Nordic skiing enthusiasts have attempted for years.
And one that requires a lot of preparation, training and planning. And a desire to spend a winter’s night in the chilling Canadian air.
The 100-mile Canadian Ski Marathon spans two days on the second weekend in February, and has since its creation in 1967. Yet not everyone who has stepped to the starting line can lay claim to having finished the longest and oldest Nordic ski tour in North America.
But Scott McGovern can. He’s actually completed the tour seven times out of 10 attempts since first trying the event in 1978 as a student at Dartmouth College.
McGovern, the Nordic ski coach at ConVal and Peterborough resident, made his fourth straight trip and third with his wife, Peggy Brown. With them on Feb. 9 and 10 were friends Beth Corwin and Lisa Goodhue, both of Peterborough, who each went for the first time this year.
“I was inspired by Scott,” said Brown. “It just sounded like an interesting venture and I saw it as something we both enjoy doing together.”
This was a special year for McGovern. He earned his permanent gold bib after completing all the requirements to become part of the exclusive club that has just over 300 members in the event’s 46-year history.
The first year McGovern attempted to complete the CSM in 1978, he earned his bronze award by completing all five sections, about 50 miles total, each day in the allotted time, while sleeping inside.
In 1984, McGovern made the first of three attempts at receiving his silver award. For a silver, McGovern had to ski all five sections on both days, while carrying a pack no less than five-kilograms, or equivalent to about 11 pounds, and sleeping inside.
His first attempt failed, as did his try in 1985, but in 1986, McGovern broke through for his silver.
“Even though I didn’t make it in 1984 and 1985, I had a good enough experience to keep going,” said McGovern.
Now the gold is a much different set of circumstances. Skiers still have to complete the two, 50-mile point-to-point sections each day in the allotted time with at least the same size pack as the silver, but they also must carry camping supplies to sleep outside for the night.
“There’s no way I’m going to do anything like that,” said Brown.
So in 1990, McGovern missed out on his first chance at gold, but completed the grueling task in 1995.
Then life happened and McGovern did not go back until 2010. After a skier achieves their first gold, they must earn four more gold bars to earn a permanent bib. After the 2013 CSM, McGovern has one of them.
“I get to do what I love for 10 or 11 hours in a day and then I get to do it again for another 10 or 11 hours,” said McGovern.
When McGovern made it in 2010, he really got serious about getting his permanent bib. So in each of the next three years, McGovern skied 50 miles the first day, camped in the frigid cold of Canada in February and skied another 50 miles the following day.
The only things provided for McGovern were two bales of hay, firewood and port-o-potties. The rest, McGovern had to bring in.
Once at camp, McGovern would change out of his wet clothes, set up his tent and get his food ready before it got too dark.
“The trick to winter camping is to stay busy,” said McGovern.
Over the years he has developed not only a system for the CSM, but also in his training. He uses a 40-pound pack during the late fall and early winter to prepare for the one he uses, which is around 22 pounds.
“The training part for me actually begins in the spring,” said McGovern. “You’re building up endurance in the summer and shifting to intensity in the winter.”
For Brown, this was her third straight year going for the bronze, while Corwin and Goodhue made their first attempt.
“What Scott did was not on my radar,” said Goodhue. “He’s got it down to a science. He knows how to train and how to eat. He’s got everything mapped out.”
Brown made it through the first day in 2011 and 2012 and partway through day two before deciding to stop. With cold temperatures and long distances between check points, it can be hard to maintain a steady rhythm to make it through both days.
This year, Brown once again made it through Saturday’s first 50 miles in the allotted time, but decided to stop after two sections on Sunday due to the cold.
“I was very worried about frostbite on my hands,” said Brown. “I just couldn’t warm them up.”
Corwin had competed in long distance events like the Bretton Woods Nordic Marathon and the American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin, but nothing like this. She had no preconceived notion on how she would do. She just wanted to try it.
“Hearing Peggy and Scott talk about the CSM, it really appealed to me,” said Corwin. “I had no clue what I could do. It’s one of those things you really don’t get until you do it.”
Corwin made it through four of five sections on the first day and missed the cut off for section five by 10 minutes. Although she could not complete the bronze challenge, she still skied three sections on Sunday.
“I put a lot of what I learned on Saturday into what I did on Sunday,” said Corwin. “I actually managed it a lot better.”
Goodhue, an English teacher at ConVal, took on the challenge with her friends and trained all through the fall and early winter.
“I did it because I thought it would be fun to train for it,” said Goodhue.
But two weeks prior to the CSM she came down with the flu and was out of commission for a week. Behind in the training, Goodhue was determined to make her attempt. She completed four of the five stages on Saturday and then went out and did two more on Sunday.
“I wanted to end on a good note,” said Goodhue. “I’m really glad I did it. It was an incredible experience and I may do it again, but I just don’t know.”
And while all four greatly enjoyed the experience of being there as a group, not one is ready to commit to next year’s CSM.
“There’s something about the nature of the event that it either appeals to people or not,” said Corwin. “And it’s unbelievable what Scott has been able to accomplish.”
McGovern would like to do it someday with his son Alec, a college skier, who has expressed interest in attempting it. But until then, McGovern will enjoy the thought of having his own personal bib at the CSM for the rest of his life.