By Darren Lum
Starting from Feb. 6, over the next few weeks until March 7, there will be more than 1,200 Nordic skiers gliding and double-poling their way along snow tracked routes all over the country towards achieving personal goals motivated by family connections, a passion for the outdoors and the sense of camaraderie shared among endurance athletes with a desire to push physical and mental boundaries for this year’s virtual edition of the Canadian Ski Marathon.
Dubbed North America’s longest and oldest Nordic ski tour, this event brings together a group of passionate Nordic skiers seeking a test of the human spirit.
Eagle Lake resident Tina Koskelo, 58, knows the CSM first hand, having completed the bronze Coureur des Bois category held in Lachute, Quebec back in 2005. The bronze includes a demanding 160 kilometres over two days of skiing. She acknowledges the virtual edition will be slightly different, but the heart of the event remains the same.
“It’s just a huge participatory event of all ages of people skiing all different distances on some incredibly beautiful and, yes, some challenging terrain. I have that experience and so I have that memory of the spirit of the event. It’s quite fabulous and still quite vivid,” she said. “For me it’s truly part of this COVID-19 year and the events of our lives. Yeah, it’s totally different, but still I love to ski and the spirit of the event is quite fabulous when I think of the number of people who are still participating wherever they are. To me it’s not diminished. It’s a different thing.”
The virtual edition is a first for the storied event, which was started 55 years ago.
With this format, participants choose to complete one of the CSM-Taster, the Tourer, the Half Marathon or the most challenging, Coureur des Bois. Distances range from 12 kilometres up to 100 kilometres, which is completed over two days. More than half of the participants this year will complete less than half the maximum distance.
A Nordic skier for more than 30 years, having taken to it as an adult during an Outward Bound course, Koskelo still remembers the event well despite the 16 year absence.
“You know I haven’t done events in a long time. I used to really like it. I thought I sort of moved away from that. I just haven’t [been] drawn to do them, but this year … here I am,” she said. “It’s a crazy event. It’s fantastic. It’s incredibly challenging when you do the actual marathon in the marathon geography and terrain in Quebec. It’s kind of a gift we get to do it locally in our own chosen terrain because we’re certainly not going to pick as challenging of a course.”
The virtual edition of this event also means the longest distance is shortened to 50 kilometres a day compared to the 80 a day when it is held in Quebec, where participants must endure the treacherous descents on rugged routes that traverse private property only created for the event, and the extreme of winter weather from blizzards to rain storms.
Koskelo said she will find support in being able to do it at the same time as her good friend Joleen Thomas, who is looking to earn the most difficult category of the gold Coureur des Bois.
“This year is exceptional and an opportunity to ski with my friend, Joleen. That’s really a great thing so we have so many limitations these days on what we’re asked to do or not do. We can get our groceries and we can go skiing,” she said.
An event like the CSM demands many miles of skiing.
Koskelo is appreciative to all the volunteers in this area with the Haliburton Highlands Nordic Trail and Ski Club Association for their work in creating and maintaining the trails she uses.
She has simple advice for new CSM participants.
“You just keep going,” she said, laughing. “That’s the thing. You just keep going.”
When it comes to the CSM, Alison Bruce, 58, said the family aspect was central to her decision to decide to participate with her 22-year-old daughter Brynn, who is with her after she graduated from Guelph University last April.
“I don’t think I’d be doing it if it weren’t for my dad,” she said, referring to her father, Stuart Bruce, who died two years ago. “I probably wouldn’t have known about it if it weren’t for my dad always doing it. He was always doing stuff like that.”
It’s been 35 years since she tried to complete the bronze Coureur des Bois with her late-father. She still remembers the pre-dawn bus ride and sleeping overnight at a school gym where hundreds of other skiers slept before the pre-dawn start.
While growing up in London she remembers how her father’s love of the outdoors would bring her and her siblings out on day-long excursions to ski along Medway Creek to the Sunnybrook Golf course and back home every Sunday in the winter.
Her dad started to participate in the CSM when she was in high school and always enlisted one of her four siblings to go with him, which eventually led to her going while in university.
Part of the event includes time limits related to the completion of certain sections on the 80 kilometre course each day. If a participant doesn’t complete the section in time, they are pulled from the event. Bruce’s 24-year-old son Del, who is studying at Western University, has also signed up. She expects him to complete the CSM at the end of February, but doesn’t expect him to do it physically with her because of COVID-19 restrictions for non-essential travel.
The CSM is something Bruce’s sister and brother have been doing for the last five years and they called Bruce about the virtual edition.
“You don’t have to go all the way to Quebec. You can do it in your own backyard, any time between February 6 and March 7.’ So, I was like, ‘Ohhh.’ They said, ‘We should do it. Let’s do it for dad,” she said.
That led to four of the five Bruce siblings, including Alison, to register to participate.
Bruce said she won’t only be skiing in her father’s memory, but also on his Nordic classic skis that are 30 years old. “We thought we’d really go for it,” she said.
She appreciates the virtual edition for how there is an ability to pick and choose when to ski, which can be an advantage related to picking ideal weather and conditions contrasted with having to endure what happens on the day.
Doing the CSM this year is about sharing an experience by being apart.
“It’s a fun way to do it and a fun way to be with your friends and family that aren’t with you,” she said.
First time CSM participant Lauren Green, 35, of the Highlands is excited about her first 50 kilometre event and first time in the CSM. It fulfills her competitive drive, but also satisfies her passion for the outdoors.
The married woman with two young boys at three-years-old and six months sees the entire experience related to Nordic skiing as something that makes her smile.
“I like the race atmosphere a lot because it pushes me, but at the end of the day it’s just about challenging myself and seeing how far I can go, how hard I can work and for me it’s a mental break,” she said. “Like everybody who gets out and exercises and gets outside just knows that. Especially this year with everything that’s been going on. It is just a gift to be able to get outside and ski and feel that fresh air and just be in the backwoods. A lot of people just don’t get to get that far into the woods especially in the winter, you know? That just brings me so much joy.”
She adds getting outside also helps her to be the best person she can be, as a wife and a mother.
Like her other passion of running, she said, Nordic skiing is more about surpassing personal limits than going faster than someone.
Green has been Nordic skiing for the last seven years, but her start with Nordic equipment came before – with the sport of skijoring with her dogs – getting pulled by a dog on Nordic skis.
Before Nordic, she was a lifelong alpine skier.
She said typically the CSM is a classic-only event so with the virtual aspect this year she considered registering since an open category with her preferred discipline of skate skiing is permitted.
She said getting to do this with her good friend of close to four years, Kyra Powell will help to enrich the CSM experience.
“Doing it with Kyra I know we’ll be able to just help each other along, you know? It’s very much a solo sport so it’s kind of fun to set that goal with someone else. Even if we’re not skiing right beside each other we have each other to keep going when it gets tough,” she said.
The two met each other when their children were first born in a midwife pre-natal class and while Powell got Green into trail running, it was Green who got Powell into Nordic skiing.
Technically, they are registered for the 45 kilometre half-marathon category to be done at one time, but will still complete 50 kilometres.
Like Green, Joleen Thomas sees the advantage of getting to share the experience with her good friend Koskelo.
“This is such a gift to be able to [do it with her]. The year that she did it I was unable to participate and she’s not wanted to participate the years I have and to be able to do it at home together … I’m so excited to be able to do this. We’ll be able to motivate each other,” she said.
Thomas, a 44-year-old mother of three children, is the veteran among this group with 15 years of experience, who has earned her permanent Tourer bib.
She sees the value in being able to endure and to develop resiliency.
“Everybody chooses something really hard in their lives. I value having a fit and able body, and I recognize when I’m not able to use my body how limiting that is and how sad that makes me feel and so the fact I’m able to use it I enjoy pushing it a little bit further than what most people would feel comfortable, but I think in everyone’s lives [we choose to push ourselves to feel discomfort which] gives us a great sense of accomplishment once we reach a goal,” she said.
It’s always been a goal for her to earn her permanent gold bib.
The road to earning the chance to earn her gold this year wasn’t easy. It took her five attempts over five years to get the silver Coureur des Bois, prerequisite for the gold category.
“In some years I didn’t get it the first day. I didn’t make the cutoff. It was a slow ski year … other years I skied eight sections and then my elbows – I just couldn’t pole another stroke even if I wanted to and so I had to bail out. My elbows gave me grief over a few of those years,” she said. “I remember one year I had frost bite so bad they pulled me off the course in the middle of one of the sections because I didn’t even snowplow across the road. It was like I was going right into the trees,” she said.
The central theme among the participants is how all the skiers are pursuing individual goals, and, yet, are part of a group of like-minded people, experiencing the same hardship, but also reveling in the same fulfillment and joy that comes with overcoming.
Thomas adds it serves her children well to see that enduring difficult experiences can be fun.
“We all can do hard things and by teaching this resiliency to cold, to fatigue or things like that, I’m hoping it instills life long lessons for them,” Thomas said. “But it doesn’t always need to be fun to be enjoyable.”
First timers such as Mike Rieger and Erin Smith with two young children saw the virtual CSM as a great opportunity.
“Our motivation for doing it is a combination of fitness, challenging ourselves and getting to spend lots of time outside. The virtual event is great, because it would be really difficult to figure out the logistics of doing the actual event with work and little kids at home,” he wrote.
Rieger said he learned to Nordic ski as a child and knew of the CSM from his father, who was a avid skier and regular CSM participant. Smith grew up in Los Angeles and didn’t start Nordic skiing until 10 years ago while in Canada. Both of them love the outdoors and Nordic skiing. It will be their first race and believe their skiing this season has taken on purpose and focus because of the CSM.
Thomas’ goal to complete the gold coureur des bois has its own unique challenges beyond the 100 kilometre distance. She needs to carry a backpack while skiing so she is self-reliant and prepared to camp out at night between days – this will have to be modified to a certain degree, as certain facilities in the Highlands don’t permit overnight camping.
Part of the contents of her pack include bedding (down sleeping bag with compression stuff sack, bivy bag), down fill booties instead of boots, a complete change of base layer clothing for day two.
With the virtual edition, Thomas said she was placing a large plastic bin with a lid and filled it with consumables and placed it along the trail off to the side so she can refuel and refill her water bottle every 15 kilometres.
In Quebec, her contents for her bag would have included swim goggles to protect her eyes from the smoke from the fire so she could get as close as possible to dry her clothes and to become warmer.
As far as sleeping outside in the Highlands, she said she will carry her sleeping bag and a bivy sack, but forego a sleeping pad to keep weight down.
Thomas is excited to ski the event close to home.
“I’m really looking forward to skiing on home ground because quite often a lot of the trails in the Ski Marathon are snowmobile trails or single track, cut through the woods just for that weekend so they’re not actually on ski trails. Some of them are on the side of the road or the side of lakes. I’m really excited to not be scared to ski the event,” she said.
Completing this means a lot to Thomas because she wasn’t able to complete it the last time, having been pulled off the course part way through her gold effort after she became so fatigued and dehydrated that she thought the trees were jumping in front her. Although she returned to complete the event after some rest and food, she did not complete every section and so did not receive her gold bib.
“In the world of the Ski Marathon having your permanent gold bib is a legacy. It’s kind of what the diehards in this event aspire to get,” she said.
After starting in 1999, this will be the end of the road for Thomas, who says the only way she would participate again in the coureur des bois would be if one of her children wanted to do it.
The CSM isn’t just for the adults.
Thomas’ three children (Olivia, 14, Violet, 12 and Tristan, 10) will also be embarking on their own adventure with her husband, Stuart Humphries, who went with Thomas to participate in the tourer category in 2006.
It’s all about just getting them out the door, he said.
“Once they’re on the trail they’re fine. The big challenge is convincing them to get dressed and get in the van and actually get there,” he said. “Once they’re there it’s fine. They love skiing.”
They will attempt to complete as many 15-kilometre segments as they can in a day.
This isn’t their first endurance effort, as they have completed the Ski Three Challenge earlier this year in January, which is the outer loop of the Twin Lakes, Glebe Park and Moosewoods. Although this effort was broken up by travel and eating between the trails on the same day, it is 23 kilometres in length.
Thomas said their participation in the CSM is about giving them their own experience and for them to learn first hand the importance of putting in the work to achieve a goal.
New for everybody
The virtual component, Thomas said, is unique for everybody, whether it’s for her with 15 years of the CSM or the first time CSM skiers such as Green, Powell, Rieger and Smith
“This is the first time for all of us so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of experience comes out of it at the end. I can predict what it might look like, but that’s the thing there’s always a story. There’s always so many stories. When you finish that day [there are] stories that you talk about forever,” she said.