Boreal Loppet: Epic Scenery, Epic Conditions, Epic Day

I threw up at the kilometer 70 aid station. I’d drunk a cup of water and eaten a couple of pan-roasted fig bars, a bland gel, and topped it off with some cheese. My stomach had been feeling strange since early in the race. I’d thought I was hungry… NOT!  Everything came up in four huge heaves, and suddenly I felt refreshed.

The apocryphal stories of hurling always seem to involve superhuman, anaerobic sprints to the finish line. Instead, I was motoring along at a subhuman pace, two-thirds of the way into the 103 k Boreal Loppet in Forestville, Quebec, with the toughest sections of the course behind me. Around 30 k, I wasn’t sure I’d finish because I felt hungry. Now, I couldn’t keep anything down.

The volunteers looked at me. “J’ai mal d’estomac,” I said, mustering all the French I could remember and hoping it was intelligible. Between my French and their English, we agreed that I would continue, and the volunteers down the trail would be watching out to see that I was OK.

They’d already been watching out: as anglophones are scarce at this race, at many of the aid stations, they looked at my bib and said something like “Ah, New Jersey.”

I’d read about the Boreal Loppet a couple of years ago, and became fixated on skiing it. It’s a cross country ski metric century, run on one huge loop among glacial hills and lakes of eastern Quebec. The route seemed to be primarily snowmobile roads. At least once a year, I need to ski somewhere that I’ve never been before. Last year the 100 was canceled due to poor conditions. The organizers kindly carried my registration over to this year.

parking lot for ski club trails

Parking lot for access to local ski club trails

The weather forecast grew steadily colder as race day approached. On Saturday morning, road buddy Colin and I went to warm up around 7:30. The weather was as described in the pre-race meeting: -2 degrees Fahrenheit, with a harsh -22 wind chill thrown in for good measure. In other words, wicked cold. Although I was wearing every warm article of clothing that I owned, the wind blew hard across the flat plain behind the motel and cut right through me.

 

The start went OK, with the front-runners immediately pulling away from those of us with more quotidian motors. The first few kilometers run parallel to the main road and past an airport before turning north. I

trail in the first 5 k of the Boreal Loppet

Part of the race route, about 5 k from the start

worked with a few other skiers on flat and gently rolling trails before pulling over at around 7 k to shed my vest: I was finally beginning to perspire. Sweat management would be important today.

 

We crossed a giant power line right-of-way that must run right across Quebec, and with nothing to block it, the wind was especially fierce. The first real hill came into play here, not long, but given the length of the race, steep enough to warrant a diagonal skate.

That hill was just the warmup act, thank you very much. Pulling into the first feed station, where the 27- and 54-k racers take a detour, I drank a quick cup of water and ate a handful of nuts. A kilometer or two later, we climbed three steep hills with screaming descents.

For the next 40 k, the route alternated between long flattish sections and brutal climbing. The pace allowed me to appreciate the awesome scenery: glacial hills thick with tall pine trees and studded with dozens of lakes. The photos are from warmup the day before. If I’d broken my no-carrying-a-camera-while-racing rule, the battery would have frozen anyway.

There were spectators hanging out and cheering at the foot of a particularly fast descent around 35 k. Going past them, I worried that I’d just blown by a feed. Suddenly, I felt really hungry, unsure if I had the gas to get to the next feed. A few k later I stopped to eat, but the bars I’d brought along were frozen solid. Although skiing at a decent pace, I was beginning to wonder if I might bonk and DNF.

Our drop bags awaited us at Camp Jos-Beaulieu, at kilometer 49, the high point of the race route. I took my time at this one, eating well and changing into a dry top, hat and gloves.

The next 10 k were primarily downhill. As there were significant icy sections that had thawed and re-frozen, I wondered if this section was the one that caused the 100 to be canceled in 2010. Two of the skiers who’d passed me at the k 49 aid station were stopped in the middle of the a disheartening climb at around 55 k. Were they gassed? I made up ground, but they got going and opened the gap again.

At 60 k, I arrived at the Chalet Truchon aid station. I felt like I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. As I arrived, the two skiers I’d seen on the hill at 55 k were departing. I again ate well and continued, reeling in the two skiers at the 70 k feed. Later, I learned their names: Dino Perron and Real Du Chene. While I was emptying my stomach, they again pulled away.

The last 30 k trends downhill, crisscrossing the power line right of way. With only a few gradual climbs, I settled into a rhythm of primarily V2 alternate skiing. Eventually, I caught up with the two guys I’d seen at the last few aid stations, and a third, Patrice Gravel, who’d gone by me back around 25 k. I settled in behind them and caught a break; after a few minutes, I moved to the front to take a turn pulling. Five or so minutes later, one of them took the lead, and I realized it was only he and I. Then he stopped to wait for the other two.

A couple of policemen on snow machines cruised back and forth periodically, and I finally figured out that they were checking to see if I’d make it. After vomiting, I was afraid to eat anything at the remaining feeds and went the final 30 k on a couple of cups of water and half a fig bar. Everyone at these feeds asked how I was doing and if I felt OK. The volunteers in this race really go the extra mile to help you have the best day you can have.

The biggest challenge was at kilometer 94. A little grunt hill that gained no more than seven vertical feet compelled me to herringbone it. Once over it, I could cruise on the flat. One more icy patch in the final crossing of the power lines. Through the pine forest, and then a turn took me alongside the far side of the airstrip I’d passed nine hours earlier. With less than two k remaining, I looked over my shoulder and saw Dino and Real. What had been a minute gap was now maybe fifteen seconds. I picked up the pace long enough to lead into the finish. Patrice came in a few minutes later. Staggering into a big tent, we sat in camp chairs by a fire drinking warm broth and exchanging high fives.

If you’re looking for something extraordinary, I’d strongly recommend checking out the Boreal Loppet. The scenery is stupendous. Considering the logistical challenges of grooming a 103 k loop, the course was in very good shape. It seemed like the whole town of Forestville pitches in to volunteer and make the race happen. The people are really nice and they go to great lengths to put on a good event.

View across the Saint Lawrence River

View to the south shore of the Saint Lawrence, about 20 miles away.

1 comment for “Boreal Loppet: Epic Scenery, Epic Conditions, Epic Day

  1. March 10, 2011 at 9:05 AM

    Peter,

    Thanks for all the good comments, it was cold but sunny and the half way down very fast. Our volunteers are extremly proud of this event and they do all they can for the skiers having a good experience.

    We hope that we could welcome more skiers from USA. We have few bunch of guys every year but if we had enough, a transportation by bus could be organized, starting from Lake Placid, for example.

    Hoping we’ll see you and Colin again
    Eric Maltais

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