Strolling past the McGill gym window last week was a deeply unsettling experience. The sight of weightlifters was worrying enough, with each lifter solemnly hulking over vast weights, staring themselves down in the mirror for lengths of time that would have impressed Narcissus. But what really disturbed me was the haunting spectacle of all the treadmill runners—each runner looking both bored and determined, with earphones lassoing round their faces as they jogged mechanically, sweatily, and ceaselessly. They reminded me of hamsters in a wheel, wired up for lab tests. The saddest part was that it was actually a lovely day outside.
It got me thinking that there had to be better ways of exercising during the Montreal winter, another means of keeping all those midnight poutines from making themselves at home around one’s waistline. The best way to exercise, I’ve always thought, is outdoors with the fresh air and changing scenery for company. Yet the idea of outdoor exercise during the Montreal winter, for obvious reasons, appears preposterous: the golf courses, the tennis courts, and the football fields are all covered in thick layers of snow; the sidewalks are devilishly icy, and far too treacherous to run on with any kind of certainty.
Fortunately, some family friends provided the simple, brilliant answer to my conundrum: cross-country skiing. Or ski-du-fond, as the Quebecois call it. Extracting me from the warm comfort of the McGill bubble, my friends took me over to Gatineau National Park, just outside Ottawa, where we competed in the Gatineau Loppet, a 51 km ski marathon of 2,300 cross-country skiers. The abilities of the competitors ranged from Olympians of the sport to babies being dragged along by their parents in sleds. My fear, since I was a complete novice, was that I would end up finishing neck-and-neck with the latter group. But as we set off, my expectations changed; my fears became centered around whether I would finish at all.
The beginning of the race was utter carnage. It was -14 degrees at the starting line, and we all set off in a sprint to warm ourselves up. There were over 2,000 of us skiing side-by-side, with the less able of us occasionally tumbling down into our fellow competitors’ paths. Survival instinct was not enough to keep myself from falling numerous times. In a moment of delirium, I began to see myself as a noble Lion King, doing his best against the odds not to tumble into the antelope stampede. It was a strange moment.
Then came the grind, which thankfully brought with it a bit more space to manoeuvre. Cross-country skiing is hard, especially over 51 kilometers, but it is rewarding in so many ways: the distance covered gives you a chance to glimpse some stunning views of mountains, lakes, trees, and wildlife. Getting up some of the hills, though a true test of grit which can make you want to call the rescue helicopter, is always worth it for the exhilarating downhills that follow.
When I skied past the finish line after four and a half hours of non-stop skiing, with my legs as stiff as an Englishman’s upper lip, my first reaction was that I would never do this again; yet the moment I arrived back in Montreal, I missed it dearly. I was addicted.
Fortunately, I soon found out how easy it is to satisfy one’s addiction right here in Montreal. It is extraordinarily cheap and easy to rent a decent set of cross-country skis, boots, and poles from the McGill sports centre (just $10 for the whole day, $30 for the entire week), and give it a go on Mount Royal. It is the ideal place to learn. The pathways are not too steep, and it is incredibly beautiful round the Lac Aux Castors. The technique can be picked up quickly; it is pretty much the motion of ice skating—a motion Canadians are supposedly born with. Besides, according to Fitness Magazine, cross-country skiing even burns more calories per minute than running on a treadmill; what more could you ask for? So with an early spring on the horizon, and thoughts of beach volleyball beginning to take shape in our minds, take the opportunity to give cross-country skiing a try. Or, keep it in mind as a new activity to test out next winter.