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Keen eye, true aim needed for spike-driving contest

Marty Carlson of Canadian Pacific Railroad drives a railroad spike by hand north of Mahnomen Wednesday afternoon as part of the railroad’s spike driving competition. Each competitor is timed while they set and drive three spikes by hand. BRIAN BASHAM/RECORD

Though he has been competing in Canadian Pacific Railroad’s spike driving contest since 2006 — and has won the U.S. regional contest for two years in a row — Marty Carlson admitted that he was a little worried heading into the first heat of the competition Wednesday afternoon north of Mahnomen.

“I’m a little nervous,” Carlson said.

“Right now, I have a few butterflies, (from) wanting to beat that time,” he added referring to the fact that his boss, Darin Syverson, had recorded the best time in the competition the previous day.

“We run two heats, with the average of those two being their official time,” said Randy Garnas, who was the official timekeeper for the competition as well as serving as a manager in Canadian Pacific’s engineering department.

Each heat involves setting and driving three steel spikes into a series of three consecutive railroad ties along a stretch of active railway (a lookout is used to make sure no trains are coming).

It’s not a head-to-head competition, however; on Wednesday, Carlson was the only competitor, though a total of 35 people were registered to take part in the contest from Canadian Pacific’s U.S. West region.

The competition is open to all Canadian Pacific employees, men and women — the only difference for the women being that they have to drive just two spikes instead of three.

Each spike must be driven close to the ground, or there is a time penalty, Garnas added.

Syverson had finished with an average time of 24 seconds on Tuesday — but his best time of the day was 21 seconds, while Carlson had only managed 25 seconds in the previous year’s competition — when he won the regional contest and earned a trip to the finals in Calgary, Alberta.

“For Marty to have ‘bragging rights,’ he’s going to have to do under 21 today,” Garnas said.

“My best time ever is 18 seconds,” Carlson said.

After his first heat, Carlson was worried; he’d only managed 27 seconds.

“I don’t think I can shave any more off,” he said in a brief respite between heats, as they waited for a train to pass through. “I think Sarge (Syverson) has got ‘er.”

But in his second try, Carlson’s competitive streak kicked in, and he finished his second heat in 19 seconds, which averaged out to 23 seconds overall — just one second ahead of his boss.

“We’ve been competing with each other for years,” said Carlson, adding that the last time Syverson had beaten him was in 2009. “I think this is the closest it’s been between us.”

A 22-year veteran with Canadian Pacific, Carlson said he started with the railroad when he was 19 years old, on July 15, 1991.

He continued to work part-time on the railroad during the summer and fall, then go back to college in the winter.

“In 1999, I got a permanent job (with CPR) and made it my career,” he said. “I’ve been full-time ever since.”

Though much of the work on setting railroad track is now done with hydraulic spike driving machines, Carlson said they do occasionally pound the spikes by hand when it’s a smaller job, like setting three or four railroad ties.

“Some are better at it than others,” Carlson said of spike driving. “I don’t mind doing it — it’s fun.”

The annual spike driving contest, however, is primarily a means of paying homage to Canadian Pacific’s past.

“Railroading is a modern industry, but we feel it’s important to recognize this skill that’s such an important part of this industry’s history,” said Canadian Pacific spokesman Andy Cummings, who served as lookout for Wednesday’s competition in Mahnomen.

Spike driving is about more than sheer power, Carlson added — there’s a lot of precision involved as well.

“You have to keep your swings to a minimum — the more swings you use the more time it takes,” he said. “I try to do it in three (swings per spike).”

“There are two things that are pretty important in spike driving,” Garnas said. “First is setting the spike, and second is to make sure that every time you hit the spike, make it count.”

Carlson did just that. In his second heat, he managed to pound the second spike down to the ground in just two strikes.

He admitted that one of the reasons why he enjoys the contest is the adrenaline rush he gets from competing.

“The worst feeling is coming up here (to the Marsh Creek crossing, north of Mahnomen, where Wednesday’s competition was held), being all nervous and anxious,” Carlson said. “But when it’s done, there’s relief, excitement … it’s a good feeling.

“I feel lucky,” he added with a smile.

As of Friday, Carlson still held the top spot at 23 seconds, with Syverson’s 24 seconds holding steady in second. Two people were tied for third place at 28 seconds.

“There will be one more competition this week, but unless someone posts a better time than Marty then, he’ll be the winner and will go to the finals in Calgary,” Cummings said Friday morning.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

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