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How to train for your first cross-country ski endurance race

Put in the time and make the most of races such as the Gatineau Loppet

​Dave McMahon has had many many years to figure out the best way to tackle the endurance cross-country ski event called the loppet. 

He first competed in biathlon for the Canadian national team, and when he retired from international competition in that sport, the turn to the loppet. These events originated in Scandinavia, and are generally speaking very competitive cross-country ski events over long distances and they are usually quite well attended. 

McMahon raced for a Canadian team in the Worldloppet Series and learned first hand just how well attended some of the European events are, with tens of thousands of competitors sliding their well-lycraed cabooses up to the start line at the largest ones. 

The Gatineau Loppet, which runs Feb. 15-17 this year in Gatineau Park north of Ottawa, hosts the Canadian Worldloppet event. The other North American stop in the series is the American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin. 

The Loppet has been held since 1979 and has also been called the Rivière Rouge, Gatineau 55 and the Keskinada Loppet. It’s a big event. Thousands attend. And if one is looking for serious competition, it can be found in Gatineau.

“It’s a real testing ground,” says McMahon. “There is a certain amount of prestige associated with it, and it is an objective a lot of people have.”

But how do you get from dreaming of success at the Gatineau Loppet, to actually making it happen? Well, McMahon has a plan for that too. 

For 30 years, McMahon and his wife have operated Natural Fitness Labs, the largest adult cross-country ski and snowshoe program in the country.

The Gatineau Loppet offers a number of distances, but the linear 51 kilometre course in classic style or frees technique is the stuff of which Nordic dreams are made. And for ths, McMahon always insists upon a consistent schedule with athletes getting out on the skis three or four times a week. 

“From there we gradually increase mileage, one hour, an hour and a half, until you get used to skiing most of the morning two, three, four hours,” he says. “It will take someone two to four hours for the 51K loppet.”

Once athletes are able to do that, and are capable of finishing the race at least, it is on to the real work. Here are four steps McMahon says athletes should consider to maximize the Gatineau Loppet experience: training, technique, equipment and tactics. 
 
  1. Training: “Introduce intervals, higher tempo, higher intensity, to get ready for a higher intensity pace and develop other fitness attributes.”
  2. Technique: “Almost anyone can benefit from ski lessons. Improved efficiencies especially over a greater distance like the Loppet, if even one percent make a big difference.” He suggests concentrating on areas such as climbing and downhill.
  3. Equipment: “Find the right skis but also be sure to prepare the equipment properly, know how to wax them as well as good clothing and nutrition.”
  4. Tactics: This element is essential, especially for those new to the loppet. To them, McMahon urges patience. “You’re in for the long haul. Quite often, the pace of the loppet is very intimidating at the beginning, everyone is in lycra and they all look fast and fit. The gun goes off and the speed is quite fast,” he says. “But the reality is, stick to it, the pace after the first half hour moderates. Find your groove. The second half of the race is nowhere near as intimidating or as panicky as the first little bit. Don’t get psyched out.”

Remember, the Gatineau Loppet, and other such events are also very social. Take part in the festivities, and bask in the glow of a serious athletic achievement. 


 

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