The last time I strapped skinny boards to my feet and threw myself down a hill was 30 years ago. Yesterday, I did it again.
The people at the Vasa Cross Country Ski Trail, held a benefit for women’s heart health. Somehow, I got talked into participating as a heart disease survivor. They promised me that I would only have to ski as far as I wanted and there would be chocolate and hot soup when I was finished. “Ok” I thought, “I can handle that.” I figured that I’d put on a pair of skis, putz along the trail a bit, talk to a few people and head back to the fireplace for that chocolate. It would be a cake walk….a chocolate cake walk.
I got up, put on four pairs of leggings, two sweatshirts and pinned a hand warmer over my pacemaker to keep it warm. Over everything, I put on what I call my “Superhero” T-shirt. It has a detailed diagram of a human heart with a pacemaker-defibrillator. My girlfriend Andrea, picked me up and we headed out. I was a bit nervous. It had been a long time since I had done any kind of skiing. I wasn’t sure if I could handle the exercise in the cold. I didn’t know how it would affect my heart. The last thing I wanted to do was end up lying in the snow somewhere along the trail.
The venue was a sea of red and pink when we arrived. It was a good mix of experienced skiers and casual weekend skiers. I noticed that everyone seemed to have their own skis and we were one of the few who needed to rent equipment. The three “Lodge Dogs” helped me put on my boots with much sniffing and tail wagging. One was a huge droopy eyed bloodhound and let him have a good long sniff so he could search me out if I didn’t come back. I wondered if they could tie a cask of bourbon around his neck.
Tripping over the doorsill, I went out and stepped into the binding of the skis. They shot forward of their own volition! Good Lord, I had demon skis locked onto my feet. A friend gave me some quick instruction and we wobbled off down the trail. Just about the time I was starting to think that this wasn’t so bad after all, we came to the first hill. Trees on each side of the trail had large fluorescent triangle signs, I checked my map to see what they might mean. Steep hill. Oops.
An Olympic ski jump could not have looked steeper at this point. The hill dropped off like a cliff, zigged to the right, zagged to the left and then dropped off again. Someone in a one-piece spandex suit with flames went zipping past me and down the hill. I was sure I heard screams of terror as he disappeared over the precipice. The demon skis on my feet began to slide forward. “No, No,” I begged. “Don’t make me go there!”
It was too late. I gained speed. No amount of flailing my arms or feeble snow plow attempts could slow me. Well, one thing could. Falling down. At least you don’t roll far with six foot boards on your feet. I blinked the snow out of my eyes and realized that I was OK. I survived. One problem though, I had absolutely no idea how I was going to get up. There was nothing left to do, but laugh. My laughter echoed through the woods and was joined by that of my friends
Pat, the more experienced of our little group came to rescue me. She tried to stop just above me, but tumbled over me instead. Now there were two people helplessly lying in the snow and laughing. As we struggled to untangle our poles, skis and bodies, I felt something hit me in the behind. It was Andrea’s ski. She was no fool. Removing her skis at the top of the hill, she was now walking towards us. Other skiers whizzed past us as we removed skis, got to our feet and put them back on again. Brushing the snow from my clothes, I looked back at the hill. It was a gentle curving slope, not a cliff after all
Once you’ve fallen and given up any semblance of dignity, you’ve got nothing to lose. We were off again. The trail was beautiful. Snow was gently falling as we passed from hardwood forest to cedar swamp and stands of pale gray birches. Someone who passed before us wore Valentine tinsel and I would see the occasional tiny red heart left behind in the snow. The vibrant red looked like punctuation points in the expanse of whiteness. First I thought they were geranium petals and wondered that they should be there. Then I remembered seeing the woman wearing the tinsel at registration.
I found my stride. Step, glide. Step glide. The only sounds were the whisper of gentle wind in the tree tops, the quiet staccato of snowflakes hitting the paper number on my back and the sound of my skis sliding in the snow. Step, glide. Step glide. Nothing existed, but the winter landscape and I.After the climb up another hill, I paused while my heart beat dropped to an acceptable level. My friends were nowhere in sight. I had no idea whether I was still on the right trail or not. I fished the soggy map out of my pocket. According to it, I had not yet passed the halfway mark of the six kilometer trail.
SIX KILLOMETERS! What happened to “Ski as far as you want?” Where were the short cuts back to the lodge? WHERE’S MY CHOCOLATE? Oh well, might as well go forward. At least I wouldn’t face climbing back up that killer hill.
Step, glide. Step glide. One foot moving past the other. Time stopped. All the cares of the world dropped away. If ever there was a Zen moment in my life, this was it. I relaxed and became one with my surroundings. The only time I was called back into the present was when my heart would demand a rest at the top of another hill. Other skiers past me in both directions, I graciously stepped aside and smiled as they passed. Greetings were exchanged with people I have never met nor will likely see again. Step, glide. Step, glide. I was at peace with the entire world and all its inhabitants.
The trail turned to the West in the direction of the lodge. Unfortunately it also brought me to directly face the wind, the occasional snowflakes changed to a veil of wet slushy snow. My red scarf caught the snowflakes and was chill around my neck. Each breath I took brought cold air in contact with my lungs and the wires from my pacemaker. I knew that I needed to get out of the weather soon. Picking up the pace, I worried about leaving my friends behind. Hoping they would understand, I no longer waited along the trail for them to catch up.
Step, glide. Step, glide. Where the heck was that lodge? Every time I came to a bend in the trail or the top of a hill, I expected to see it. Signs with arrows pointing towards the finish taunted me. How much further could it be? Then I realized how far I had come. Five years ago, I was lying in a hospital bed not knowing if I was going to survive. Four years ago, I was still learning how to live. Three years ago, I wanted to ski this trail, but the weather was to cold and I had to pass on the event. Two years ago, I was beginning to speak out on heart disease. Last year I became a Womanheart Champion. This year, I was cross country skiing in my super hero T-shirt. Who knows what waits on the trail ahead?
The snow stopped stinging my face, even though it still fell. The tired muscles felt energized. My cold hands were strong as they gripped the poles to propel me. There was another hill ahead. I climbed. It was steep and at times my skis slipped backwards, but I would catch myself and push on. As I crested the hill, I saw large banners and bright flags marking the finish line. Just the day before the area was filled with cheering crowds as professional racers competed in the 27 Killometer Vasa Races.
There were no crowds today, only a large old bloodhound sitting at the gate. Did he know I was coming? The lack of cheering spectators made no difference to me. The big dog wagged his tail as I raised my poles in triumph. I’d done it. I beat the odds and won. I survived.
My friends came in about a half hour later, by then I had time to warm up a bit and change into dry mittens and boots. They had no idea what this day had meant to me. We were all cold and tired, but I had a new idea of what my limits are…..absolutely none. Now, where’s my chocolate?