The Loppet

The Loppet

January 30, 2020 Nordic Skiing 0

Been a while since I’ve indulged my writing hobby so here’s a story I’m going to call “The Loppet”. A long short story, if I may.

This story could begin and end in so many different places. In our new covid world, the physical start/finish line is just a nondescript placement of two small orange flags stuck in a snowdrift on the frozen surface of lake louise. There’s no cowbell-clanging crowd to meet you, no check-in, just a simple goal: to ski down from the lake, along the valley bottom to castle junction, and then back, a round trip of over 70km.We were about two thirds of the way in when i advised my training partner that i would very likely cry upon crossing the finish line, if i got there. Things were going well at that point, but i knew going in that, for me, this would be a very difficult physical challenge. Finding the “whatever it takes” to meet it would undoubtedly stir up some emotion. I was a nervous wreck the whole week leading up to the event. What to eat? How many calories do i need per hour? Do i need electrolytes? How much water do i have to carry? How will i carry everything? What if i get a blister or have an anyuerism or shit my pants? Should i rest all week before the big day, or should i ski a little bit each day, or should i do some cross-training or go ice-fishing or what? Having not done anything like this for a very long time, i was just rattled and confused all week. Then i was reminded: “just enjoy the day”.

So that was the plan, and for the most part it unfolded that way. It was warm, sunny enough to get the vitamin d receptors firing and i had great company. The scenery, well of course, it’s beyond superlative. Still, finishing this challenge was not a foregone conclusion for me. While skiing 70+ km might be an ordinary accomplishment for some people, i am not one of them. This would be among the hardest things I’ve ever done. Having to break tracks in 10 to 15cm of new snow for the first 20km was icing on the cake. Had we started half an hour later, we would probably have finished half an hour earlier, as more skier traffic would have sped up the tracks a lot. But that didn’t happen. Anyway, let’s not call it an obstacle, but a character building opportunity.I’ve been skiing a lot this season and was fairly confident in my physical ability to do this. But mentally, i knew i was headed for uncharted territory. Knowing that the mind gives up before the body, i had prepared myself for the dark thoughts that would most assuredly bubble up to the surface. At this point, darkness had begun to fall, literally. In the gathering gloom, the final climb was the only box that remained unchecked. My training partner seemed to sense where i was at when I said: “please don’t wait for me”. I suppose my body language must have projected the real message i was trying to convey: “I need to do this part on my own”.

And so off he went, leaving me to my own private darkness, 66km down, 6 to go. “Just remember, you’re going to conquer this”, he said as he left. Those words mattered. I allowed myself a few moments of strategic wallowing. At this point on the route, there are several convenient places where you could bail out. The traffic from the nearby road can be clearly heard, all those travelers heading up to the chateau with it’s warm, soft beds, cozy fireplaces, hot tubs and indulgent food. So easy. Stumble out onto the road, get a ride back to the van and forget this day ever happened. I had accomplished my main goal of completing the outward leg in under 4 hours anyway, you know, back when it was sunny and bright and beautiful. So i could go home satisfied at that point, right? No. No.The final 6k can be broken down into segments. The first landmark, a junction in the forest. There’s a small bridge over a frozen creek there, about 1.5km along. Then leg 2: another km to the road crossing from the bridge. Then, about 2km more to the junction with Moraine Lake road where i counted on getting a little burst of energy, knowing the finish line was less than 2k away. So with the segments broken down in my mind, i started trudging up the hill. 1, 2, 3, head down, counting each stride in turn. I play this mind game, where i estimate how many strides, how many shuffles, I’ll need to get to the next landmark. 4,5,6. Try to see how far i can count without looking up. 398, 399, 400, 61, 86, 44, 79. Lose track, start again. 47, 48, 49. Why did i start at 47? Lost track again. Stop. Stretch. Reset. Regroup. 1,2,3,4… Deeper and deeper into the inner silence, separating myself from the pain. The last landmark takes shape in the dusk. 300 more strides? 400? I go with 400, figuring that will be enough. See, if you pick a low number and look up to see the finish line doesn’t seem closer, that’s demoralizing. If you pick a bigger number and reach the landmark before you run out of numbers, that’s progress. 315, 315, 315. When you realize you’ve been counting the same number over and over for who knows how long.

Visions of the blueberry bagel with two slices of turkey and a glob of mustard waiting in the van. Probably frozen by now. Powerful motivation after eating nothing but handfuls of dates and clif bars all day. There’s the road, the parking lot. I’m there. I’m going to make it. Veer left to get up and around the parking lot. 10 more metres of elevation to gain. Had it been 11, i might still be out there. But it was 10 and i found the gap in the trees that leads to the trail that leads to the lake and suddenly there i was between those orange flags again. Done. And as predicted, i cried. Alone, in the dark, without knowing why. Thankful to my ski partner for his intuition in somehow knowing that I needed that space to myself. In hindsight, i should have let these emotions run off leash a while longer. It’s not an everyday thing to be moved in this way and it’s quite cathartic. But the call of the bagel was apparently stronger. So i gathered myself, sort of, and got ready to go home. I remember babbling incoherently about some nonsense all the back to the van. It took a while before i could actually eat the bagel. Whole body quivering from the inside out. I almost left without putting my skis back in the car. Had i been alone, i likely would have. Actually, had i been alone i might have just sat there, empty, for a long time. All in all, it was quite a day. You’ll find me and my nine and a half hour time near the bottom of the leaderboard. But even if you finish last, you still get to live the experience and learn from all of it; and you beat all of the ones who didn’t try.