The Canadian Ski Marathon has become a defining part of my life. It is a one hundred mile challenge across the wooded landscape of western Quebec, held annually for over 50 years. I just celebrated the 40th anniversary of when I first participated, made all the more special by sharing the experience this year with Alec, my youngest son.
The CSM has no racing categories; just to accomplish it is challenge enough. It takes place over two days and is divided into five sections each day, stretching in a roughly linear route from start to finish. Most participants ski a handful of sections each day, and awards are given per number of sections completed relative to one’s age. For those attempting the entire length there are three levels of difficulty, each one a mandatory qualifier for the next. The first award level is the Bronze Coureur De Bois, where skiers must ski the entire length but sleep and eat in dormitories. Upon accomplishing this, one is eligible for the Silver award, which consists of skiing the entire length carrying a pack weighing a minimum of 5 kilograms but still staying indoors at night. Finally, there is the Gold award level, where participants ski with a pack holding necessary gear to spend the night outside. They sleep in a camp and are provided with two straw bales, fire, and water. Beyond this there are special awards, such as a permanent bib number after succeeding at the gold level 5 times, platinum status for accomplishing this feat 10 times, and so forth. I have succeeded at the Gold Coureur De Bois level seven times so far.
I did not make it this year. I skied well the first day and slept in camp, but was unable to eat dinner or breakfast. Part of this was likely due to dehydration, and part due to the body’s natural hunger-suppression response to continuous intense long-term effort. Facing the prospect of skiing another 50 mils with an unfueled body, I chose to withdraw. I was disappointed for a number of reasons. The snow conditions were decent, the temperatures were moderate, and I especially desired to succeed this year since Alec was with me. It would have been sweet to share the finish line with him as I did two years ago when he earned his Bronze award.
Nevertheless, I knew I would be back next year. This annual trip up north has become a tradition of sorts, and a benchmark for reflecting on my life. And despite the physical challenges and outcomes, it is always an uplifting experience for me, with a positive, friendly, supportive atmosphere characterizing participants, volunteers, and organizers alike. The craziness of what we do in pursuing our passions for skiing and the outdoors inspires an infectious good humor that prevails everywhere on the trail. I always cry at the start, packed in the corral in the dark at 5:30 AM with a couple of hundred other CDB skiers, all with headlamps, all shuffling to stay warm, all crazy in our own ways.
The CSM is deeply rooted in my past and my initial experience marked a turning point in my self-perception as a physical person. The first time I skied the event, it was by far the biggest physical accomplishment I had ever undertaken, and stood in sharp contrast to my perception of myself as being non-athletic. In the few years leading up to it I had discovered a passion for Nordic skiing and winter camping, and this afforded a context to measure performance against an objective standard, rather than comparing my performance with others. Again, this is not a race. It is a challenge people undertake to see if they can do it. The same year I did my first CSM I also started working Outward Bound standard courses and then decided to live and work in southern Africa. It was a big year leading to tremendous growth and expanded horizons, and the CSM has always been linked in my heart to that personal new beginning.
Now it has come to mean something more. Although I did the event a handful of times in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, this is the ninth year in a row I have travelled north to attempt the challenge. Last year I was not successful. But actually succeeding in the event has somewhat diminished in importance. It has become a driver of a lifestyle of healthy choices, joyful choices. Running, cycling, roller skiing, paddling, hiking — all are no longer in service of simply “training for the CSM,” but are enjoyed for their own sake. Two of the times I feel most joyful and alive are when I roller ski up and down our road listening to The Last Waltz by The Band, and when I push up hard on Pumpelly Ridge on nearby Mt. Monadnock. I feel vital, present, and on fire. I know that snow can be poor or icy, it could be “wicked” cold like some years, I could get sick the weekend of the marathon, a snowstorm could prevent me from getting there. There are no guarantees of success no matter how well one prepares. But my focus is now on the process, the lifestyle of trying to stay at a fitness level demanded by the CSM.
But even more important, it is a metaphor for reminding me to live life intensely and fully in all the areas of my life, not just the physical. Body, mind, heart and spirit are all dimensions in which I am alive. I aspire to set worthy challenging goals for each, to nurture the health and “fitness” of each, and to live as if I am on fire in each part of my being until I reach my life’s finish line. I certainly fall far short much of the time. I must be graceful in acknowledging the limitations of age, especially in the physical realm. But this experience reminds me to always keep trying, to keep living. And it reminds me to pay attention to the lessons that this approach has to offer. About being present, about focus, about commitment and hard work, about being positive, about camaraderie, about love.
I am suddenly reminded of one of my favorite quotes from my Outward Bound days, one familiar to all in the OB community and giving the organization its motto. It is Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem Ulysses where he imagines the great Greek hero, after accomplishing his great Odyssey, being discontent to simply sit around in his remaining years but rather deciding to continue his adventures, living as fully as he can. This is the final verse of that poem, speaking to his comrades:
“Tho’ much is taken, much abides, and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield….”
I have new goals for the CSM now. I am very excited to prepare as best I can for next year when I hope to share the time with Alec as he earns his Gold level award. I have desire now to try to succeed 10 times, and perhaps once when I am in my 70’s. But just as Ulysses embarks on new adventures knowing that winds, storms, and numerous unknown and unforeseen obstacles will inevitably arise to alter his course, I too know that I may or may not succeed in my new goals. But it is the decision to continue to strive and embrace and attempt new challenges as best I can in all the areas of my life – body, mind, heart, and spirit – that is important. I know the richness of the rewards of a worthy challenge mastered. They are easily felt and measured in a physical event like the CSM, but they are also felt as strongly – and perhaps more strongly – in other areas of life as well. But even more important than attaining challenging goals is the process of living life in a way necessary to achieving them. When the process itself is satisfying and rewarding, it is easy to let go and be open to whatever outcome may result. The real growth is rooted in the journey towards the goal. I know this boarders on the trite and cliché, but it is helpful for me to remind myself of this periodically.
I wish you well on your own adventures and journeys!
(This blog entry, though written about this year’s marathon, includes edited parts of journal entries from past years…)