The thought crystalized as clearly as the ice sculptures I’d seen the day before in the Crystal Garden of Confederation Park: I couldn’t feel my feet.
Standing on frozen Dow’s Lake, in the early morning before the Winterlude Triathlon, this January, I had done my best to bundle against the cold. My three layers, plus hand and foot warmers, and makeshift balaclava, weren’t fashionable, but they were functional against the -23 degree Fahrenheit morning (with wind chill). Around me, as the Ottawans either gathered their gear or rallied as cheer squads, they observed the morning was “a bit brisk.” The weather felt more fitting for cozying up than competing.
A signature event of Winterlude, a three-week-long festival celebrating winter and northern culture, the triathlon had drawn 300 individual registrants and 42 relay teams to the line in Canada’s capital city. For most, mornings spent skating, skiing, and running were second nature. “These are three activities that many Canadians learned to enjoy as children and continue to enjoy into their senior years,” says Nancy Coke, who has competed in the event 15 of its 32 happenings. This year the Ottawan placed second in the women’s division—at 50 years old, giving credence to the assertion that these are lifelong sports. And the climes? Not only surviving them, but also being good sports about it, was an infectious point of pride.
The triathlon is just one event of the many outdoor festivities than unfold during Winterlude and throughout the cold winters in Ottawa, ranging from the frivolously fun to the focused. On the same morning as the triathlon, 200 Scotsmen gathered for an…um, refreshing?…skate in their kilts. Later in the week, Winterlude would host the bed race—a Bay to Breakers type event where the decorations of the competitors’ beds are equally important as who is first across the finish line. Skating the Rideau Canal Skateway, the largest, outdoor, natural rink in the world that follows the natural path of the canal 7.8K through the city, is a tradition. So much so that many locals use it to commute to and from work and school. For skiing, the Greenbelt around the city offers 150K of cross-country ski trails, 40K of which volunteers groom. Also in the capital region, Gatineau Park has more than 200K of trails, interspersed with ten warming, day-use huts. For those looking for racing more than recreation, there’s the Canadian Ski Marathon, a 160K ski over the course of two days, coincides with the festival in early February. The Gatineau Loppet, the biggest cross-country skiing event in Canada in which gold-level competitors ski 51K classic and ski courses, falls at the conclusion of Winterlude.
But on this January morning, Coke was toeing the triathlon line, eager to see some of the best parts of her hometown as she sped by among the lead pack with Carley Kenwell, ultimately the 2015 women’s winner. At the gun, competitors skated 8K down Rideau Canal. The lead pack returned from the skate just 17 minutes later. The men’s beards had frozen into icicles, and all the competitors eye brows and eyelashes were frozen. Still, they pushed through, most happily, if a little breathlessly. They shed their long blades (skate blades that clip onto cross country ski boots) and commenced an 8K, double-loop skate-ski or classic cross-country ski, which the competitors later said felt more like skiing on sandpaper than snow as the frigid temps kept the track rough. The final event, a 5K run, led them back along the canal, and competitors wore trail running shoes or micro-spikes to navigate the icy terrain.
“In a race that combines three completely different sports it doesn’t really matter how good you are at any one event but how consistent you can be throughout,” says Kenwell, 31, of Nepean (a western suburb of Ottawa). “In all honestly the outcome of this race was a complete shock,” Kenwell says of her win. “You never know who will be at the start line and where their strengths or weaknesses lie and it’s really difficult to gauge your position during the race. My strategy was survival.”
[bctt tweet=”“My strategy was survival.””]
Although most racers donned tuques (knitted caps) and mitts (mittens), most wore little more than I would have on my winter runs in much warmer climes. Standing there, in snow midway up my shins, I longed to join in. To move, to float on the ice and along the snow. To warm the air with my breath, and my body with its most efficient heater, my heart. However, having not grown up skating and playing shinny (pick-up hockey) as many Canadians do, a skate along the canal seemed as formidable as an excursion into the wilds rather than a tour through downtown Ottawa.
This morning, I would have to be delightfully content with a trip down the snow slides at Snowflake Kingdom, at Jacques-Cartier Park another site of Winterlude just over the Ottawa River in Gatineau. Though my feet were still numb, shooting down the epic Chinook slide on an inner-tube, another thought arose: This is fun.
Ashley M. Biggers is a writer and editor who makes her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has contributed to Outside and New Mexico Magazine, among others. Learn more at ashleymbiggers.com.