.: Ski XCOttawa.ca :: Skiing in Ottawa and Gatineau Park

The spreadsheet that sent me around the Earth, mostly in Gatineau Park
By:   Andy Jonynas   (2023/03/22)


I am not an elite cross-country skier.

I did not set out to ski the distance around the earth.

I just found it intriguing how numbers became a force in my life.

I had lived in Ottawa for 10 years before discovering the power of the Gatineau hills. In the 1980’s, a coworker convinced me to take up cross country skiing which I did mostly on small trails around Ottawa. Then someone else brought me up to P10 and the vast expanse of the park’s trail system.

Gatineau Park has many signs showing you the distance to the parking lot. By the time you see how far you’ve gone it seems like you’d be too tired for the trip back. Nevertheless, on probably my very first excursion I wanted to know the number of kilometers I had skied.

I classic skied irregularly until buying my first pair of skate skis, which greatly enhanced speed, the related workout, and its distance.

So, in 1994, in perhaps one of my most visionary moments, I decided to start recording my trips and distances. Today’s ubiquitous sports watches, with their 10,000 steps a day guilt trip, weren’t really a thing back then, so I needed to be creative. Estimating distances from signs and maps, I started recording in a handwritten log, but soon transitioned to my first home computer spreadsheet, which my wife later enhanced with graphs, charts, and statistics.

That first measured season I skied 1,204 kilometers, about the distance from Ottawa to Chicago. That somehow became the number for a successful winter. It sounded impressive, but it also set a precedent. Anything more felt like I was powerfully pushing the envelope; anything less was capitulating to laziness, ceding territory.

That season I began noticing changes to my body shape despite eating anything I pleased. After skiing a few hundred kilometers, propelling myself around a hockey rink or tennis court now became so much easier. My face regained a healthy colour, even from the low January sun. These benefits, however, did not come cheap. Because it involved skiing up hills, the activity also commanded respect. Four or five days in a row and you hit a wall, physically and mentally unable to face the pain of the inclines. But you tend to value something more if you must work hard for it. These kilometers certainly felt earned, a kind of personal currency in a bank account that kept growing.

There was something more that drove the training and numbers involved. A thirty-kilometer trek felt physically grueling at the beginning, but soon the rapture of sun illuminating the infinite forest made me indifferent about returning home. A strange Zen-like buzz of energy/ fatigue lasted the rest of the day and lifted me out of bed the next morning to brave the frigid temperatures all over again.

In 1997 it snowed so much our condo had to hire workers to clear our roofs. Not coincidentally, that year I recorded my personal best: 1,870 kms. I felt physically supercharged, like the mythological Norse warrior god Thor. After all, it was Nordic skiing, and it didn’t take much to imagine Thor and his father Odin lurking around the next bend in the forest.

In 2000, the weather turned consistently foul, and 626 km was my miserable total. A lack of snow is kryptonite to skiers. Back then a bit of rain put the park out of commission until more snow arrived. Despite that built in excuse, I felt like Aergia, the god of sloth and indolence.

That was also the year the National Capital Commission, which ran operations in the park, sent a letter to passholders apologizing for the lack of snow. A few years later equipment arrived to grind up the ice on the trails, to everyone’s relief.

So, to ensure I was staying in shape, I willed myself to ski 1,200 to 1,400 kilometers almost every year since. One year I chose not to ski in minus 40 temperatures for a few days and ended at 1,141- so close to my minimum, but unacceptable, nonetheless. In 2012 a week of 15-degree heat in March did the same. The Park’s sudden closure in March 2020 due to Covid stopped me dead at 1,158.

Every season had its same routines. Each trip my wife and I would consider the conditions and how fresh we felt before setting an acceptable distance for the outing. Often, summoning our last reserves of energy to eke out a few extra kilometers, as we got to the car, I thought of the old Communist newsreels I had seen showing workers gloriously exceeding their assigned output “Plan”. Pushing past our target of the day always felt good.

Monthly, the numbers became more corporate. When my wife asked why I insisted on skiing in marginal conditions, I replied, deadpan: “It’s month end, and the numbers don’t look good.”

There was a time when I was a slave to cigarettes. Now I had become a slave to the spreadsheet.

Most importantly all its totals - month by month, year by year-took on outsized meaning. I was still racking up totals the same as from a decade previous. I was getting older, I told myself, but I was not aging.

And yet, I couldn’t ignore that my average trip statistic was declining every year. I could no longer grind out extra-long trips as I did in the past.

Which brings me to a year ago, when the numbers on the spreadsheet became even more significant. I looked at my running total and discovered that I was approaching 40,075 km, the distance around the Earth, measured at the Equator. Awed by this realization, I programmed a new running countdown total in the spreadsheet. Friends that knew about this would ask me what the number was every week. Then on March 6, 2023, a simple ceremony was held to commemorate my “feat”. A small globe was ordered online for the photo op. I carved “40,075” into the snow behind me, a lasting monument until the next snowfall. Passing skiers probably wondered whether it was the numerology of some local cult. The next day I embarked on my second attempt to circle the globe. According to my calculations, I should achieve this by age 98.

Consider this: it is estimated that the average person walks around the globe three times in their lifetime. Now, I am sure elite skiers have doubled or tripled my totals without realizing they’ve circumnavigated the Earth. But there was a time, before taking skate ski lessons when I could barely go a hundred meters before collapsing. Like anything else, chipping away at something may lead you somewhere you never imagined possible.

Interesting Reading. . .
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