For the past 50 years the Canadian Ski Marathon has been a rite of passage for the nation’s cross-country skiers. Held every February, it has followed a 160km route from just outside Canada’s capital to its second largest city, enticing skiers of all ages and abilities, myself included.
The gently rolling Laurentian mountains – some of the oldest in the world – are perfect for the sport. But it wasn’t until Herman ‘Jackrabbit’ Smith-Johannsen arrived in 1899 that cross-country skiing took off. The Norwegian machinery salesman skied as a hobby and was given his nickname by Cree tribesmen, who were amazed at his speed across the snow. As well as opening up trails in Eastern Canada, Jackrabbit helped found the marathon in 1967, last taking part in 1986, aged 110.
“My technique is reasonable, but my muscles and joints are complaining”
While I aspire to Jackrabbit’s fitness and longevity, my problem is lack of training. So the day I fly in to Ottawa, I go skiing on the 200km of trails in Gatineau Park.
After a steady climb, with the wind whipping up swirls of snow that pass in front of us like ghosts, we turn to enjoy the long glide back towards the bright lights of the capital, just 2.5km away.
The next day, we start from the quaint village of Old Chelsea, further up the park, which stretches 50 km towards the Laurentians, where even wolves roam. Again we ski along one of the ‘parkways’ – roads covered in snow that are closed to traffic in winter. But the 60kph speed limit signs mock my aspirations. I am closer to 6kph – far too slow to complete the marathon.
My technique is reasonable, but my muscles and joints are complaining – and that is in good conditions, which the following day most surely does not provide. The snow is falling hard and I am grateful for the park’s many refuges, which skiers and snowshoers can stay in overnight. But still I cling on to my marathon ambitions like the dead leaves cling to the beech trees around me.