SO THERE WAS DAD, cheerful in the face of a brain tumor. And here I was, gloomy because I'd caught a cold two days before the big race in Ottawa, and was reduced to obsessively guzzling tea, sucking on zinc tablets, and fretting about compromised respiratory efficiency. But on race morning I was up at 5:45, and I was the first to arrive at Gatineau Park. I splurged $30 at the ski-waxing booth and watched the ski techs patiently iron on purple and red and then a coat of klister because the tracks were icy. I took my skis outside, tried them for a few strides, and instantly felt my mood soaring—I had rock-solid kick and lustrous glide. They felt like perfect extensions of my legs, each twitch converted into forward momentum.
The starting pen for my wave filled with other backpack-carrying skiers, about 40 of us among the hundreds of more conventional racers. An official weighed the rucksacks, making sure they topped the infant-king-Haakon line on the scale. We shuffled back and forth in the tracks for a few minutes, trying to stay limber, until the Norwegian ambassador to Canada sounded the ceremonial horn and we took off.
Because of the packs, it was easy enough to keep my competition in sight. We hit the first long uphill, and my legs felt so strong I had to consciously rein myself in a little, remind myself I'd be out on the course for a good three hours. One by one I picked off the guys in my wave—a fellow carrying a blaze-orange knapsack, a fellow in camouflage Lycra, a fast-looking skier who somehow managed to fall on the first small downhill. Twenty minutes into the race, a fellow in a brown rucksack was in front of me, and I was pretty sure he was either second or third in my wave—in other words, if I passed him I'd be in the money. I stayed on his tail for a few minutes, pulling abreast occasionally, even chatting for a while to let him know the pace wasn't hurting me. And I passed him.
After that I was skiing by myself. The hills just kept on coming, and my form began gradually to erode; by the halfway point I was laboring. I stopped for a drink of water and a ClifShot, and the people manning the table seemed concerned. "You're shivering," said one. "Are you hypothermic?" Before they could ask again, I skied off.
At some point along the course, a photographer crouched, taking pictures of everyone coming by so that he could try to sell them at the banquet that night. Through his lens, I was just one more tired-looking guy stuck somewhere in the middle of an unimportant race. And yet for me it was an epic. I crouched down in my tuck and let my muscles recover for a few minutes as the trail tilted downhill. Then came a long flat. Finally, at about 40 kilometers, the trail turned back on itself, and for about 500 yards you could see the skiers right behind you. Oh, God—one had a brown backpack, the same fellow I'd passed nearly two hours before, now right on my tail, maybe 40 seconds behind. Worse, my limbs were slowing down—I couldn't muster more than a sluggish kick. I could feel myself about to give up, about to be passed, about to turn normal.
And then I didn't. I made it up one hill and coasted down the other side; after that, though I was shaky and absolutely drained, I managed to go hard. Not fast. But fast enough, because I was still passing people. Fast enough, because every time I looked over my shoulder, the tracks were clear. Eventually there was a sign by the trail and it said: "Finish 1,000 Meters." Did a thousand meters mean a kilometer? Ten kilometers? My hypoxic brain fuzzed the question around until suddenly the trail spit out onto an open field, and the finish was only a few hundred good old English yards away. I sprinted, I fell across the line, someone picked me up and wrapped a wool blanket around me. They said I'd come in second in my wave.