Outdoor enthusiasts and athletes from across our region are not letting a global pandemic stop them from taking part in some exciting winter challenges this month.
February is typically the busiest time of the season for cross-country ski loppets and other winter sport challenges. Of course, this year is different, with a number of events having to cancel or postpone. But – fortunately for many enthusiastic participants – some are offering virtual “at-home” versions.
One of those offering a virtual event is Canada’s oldest cross-country ski event, the Canadian Ski Marathon (CSM). Described as the ultimate Nordic skiing adventure, the CSM is a two-day annual event that takes place between Mont-Tremblant – Montebello and Lachute Quebec.
Skiers are challenged to cover a total distance of 160 kms or 80 kms per day. Over its 55 years, despite hurdles such as ice storms and lack of snow, the CSM has always managed to successfully bring the ski community together and this year is no exception.
Instead of just one weekend, the 2021 edition of the CSM takes place Feb. 6 to March 7 and offers registrants the unique opportunity to participate at their own pace in their own region.
Don Hill, an avid cross-country skier and a longtime member of Hardwood Ski and Bike, was thrilled to hear this news.
“My first experience at the Canadian Ski Marathon was in the early 90s,” explained Hill, “and since then I have achieved four Coureur des Bois Gold awards, so I was really looking forward to completing my fifth this year, making me eligible for a permanent bib number.”
The CSM is organized into various levels, with Gold being the ultimate challenge. Skiers must complete the entire 160-km course in two days while carrying a backpack (weighing no less than 5 kilograms) containing all the necessities for overnight camping (under the stars), including food, sleeping bag and clothing.
Once a skier accumulates five Gold awards, they get to join the prestigious group of skiers who have been given permanent bib numbers and whose names are recorded in the CSM history books.
On the weekend of Feb. 13-14, Hill achieved his goal by skiing the adapted version of the event at Hardwood Ski and Bike.
“The distance this year was shortened to 50 kilometres a day instead of 80, but we were still required to camp out,” said Hill, who arranged with Hardwood to set up his camp just off one of the trails.
Hill admitted that it felt a little bit like cheating, although he did miss out on the usual support provided, including food and rest stops every 15 kilometres, and the camaraderie. “That was somewhat of an equalizer,” he said.
With his five-time CSM Gold accomplished, Hill is not ready to take a break from skiing. He continues to be out at Hardwood whenever he can.
“I’ve been skiing for 40 years; I just love it,” said Hill, adding that Hardwood provides one of the best trail systems anywhere.
“Hardwood has been a great support for those of us training for this and other virtual events; they are actually an official training site for the CSM. It wasn’t the same as navigating the usual CSM course with its challenging terrain, but still, allowed us to participate and support the efforts of the CSM organizers," said Hill.
Other popular ski events have also been adapted to encourage participation this year. The Gatineau Loppet, which attracts over 2,000 skiers from around the world each year, kicked off its virtual event on Feb. 13.
Participants have until Feb. 28 to complete a variety of distances and have even opened up the event to other forms of activity, such as showshoeing and cycling.
Cyclists, especially fat biking enthusiasts, are also looking forward to an upcoming challenge that is being offered as a “close to home” event.
The event is called “Bridge the Gap” and takes place for one week between Feb. 20 and 27. Cyclists are challenged to ride 50 kilometres close to home to raise funds in support of the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) Suicide Memorial.
“As soon as I heard about this event, I wanted to get involved,” said Katherine (Kat) Ross of Oro-Medonte, a member of the OPP. “It’s a great fundraiser.”
The funds raised will support the construction of an outdoor memorial gazebo and indoor memorial wall at OPP headquarters in Orillia in remembrance of those lost to suicide.
As an 18-year veteran of policing, Ross understands the importance of working hard to bring awareness to mental health and how crucial it is to stay healthy, strong and resilient.
Ross began her career with the Town of Midland police service and then joined the OPP where she worked in recertification training before moving into an administrative role as a Municipal Policing Specialist.
Ross sees the Bridge the Gap opportunity as another way to have a healthy outlet in the midst of what can often be a stressful job.
“We need to get outside and exercise," said Ross. "I know it’s not going to be a solution to everything, but there’s not anything bad that will come from it. Even small efforts can have huge impacts.”
Ross, who says she has had a lifelong love of fitness, participates in all kinds of outdoor sports from paddling to ice climbing, and more recently, fat biking.
“This is my third year fat biking,” explained Ross. “I love it just as much, if not more, than regular mountain biking. I’m out two or three times a week. There are a few of us that hit the Simcoe County forest trails together, usually between 6 and 6:30 am.”
With her training schedule, Ross said she was prepared to complete the Bridge the Gap challenge by riding 10 to 15 kilometres a day. That is, until she heard about the plans of her friend and OPP colleague, Marion Tilstra.
“She challenged me to join her in completing the 50 kilometres in one day. It sounds a bit crazy to me, but I’m willing to try it,” said Ross. “It’s ambitious, but all for a good cause.”
Ross and Tilstra will attempt their goal on Saturday along with some other local riders and the support of family and friends.
You can learn more about Bridge the Gap and support riders (Ross is listed as Kat’s Kilometres), online here.
Or check out some of the other virtual events taking place this month – there’s still time to register and get your kilometres in.