AUSTRALIA – With two skis under his feet, Canmore's Ken Hughes has become a master of the loppet.
At 69 years old and in the best shape of his life, the globetrotter has landed himself in an exclusive club after braving mountain landscapes, snowy conditions and hustling through very long distances on cross-country ski courses.
Although, for the asthmatic, the rare feat of becoming the 99th Canadian to win a Worldloppet gold medal has been as rewarding as it has been straining.
“The people who design these courses all have a little bit of evil in them,” said Hughes with a laugh. “You have to ski the race to find out what sort of evil person the designer is.”
The cross-country skier in his 60s has put in more than 500 kilometres in 10 Worldloppet races around the world, with the most recent being the 42 km Kangaroo Hoppet taking place in late August in Falls Creek, Victoria, Australia.
It was Hughes' fifth completed Worldloppet race this year.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago if I would be doing five world loppet races in one calendar year, I would have never believed it,” said Hughes. “I’m in as good of shape as I’ve ever been and that’s a great gift.”
A loppet is a long distance cross-country ski race, with the shortest distance on the Worldloppet being 42 kms and the longest 90 kms. Each loppet can attract a few hundred participants to more than 1,000.
Only 18 venues and two associate races are recognized by the Worldloppet Ski Federation, which focuses on popular cross-country skiing marathons around the world.
On top of the Kangaroo Hoppet, over the last seven years Hughes has completed the Birkebeinerrennet in Norway (55 km), Austria’s Dolomitenlauf (60 km), Italy’s Marcialonga (70 km), Iceland’s Fossavatnsgangan (50 km), the American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin (53 km), Switzerland’s Engadin (42 km), Germany’s Konig Ludwig Lauf (50 km), France’s La Transjurassienne (68 km), and Canada’s Gatineau Loppet in Quebec (51 km).
His favourite trail has been "the Jura" in France on his 69th birthday -- for better or for worse.
Hughes described the day as beautiful and warm, so much so that the burning sun melted snow and opened up a patch of grass. It caught his ski "like a hard brake, leading to an inelegant face plant."
One broken ski pole, one broken pair of glasses and one concussion later, Hughes skied the final seven km of the race with 1,100 metres of elevation gain "exhausted, with a memorable facial abrasion, a borrowed pole, and a very good story."
Although, he jokes, out on the course, Hughes is hit by the taxing strain felt in each ski race. As a child, Hughes had to be treated in an oxygen tent more than once with childhood asthma.
He got his first taste of a loppet in the Kananaskis Cookie at age 50, and his asthma flared up. However, Hughes said he's undeterred when challenging himself in the endurance races.
“The bottom line is it feels like way more work,” he said with a laugh.
“Part of it is, you don’t know what your body can do until you push it. One of the benefits of cross-country skiing, I find, is it is an incredibly easy way to get in shape … The human body is amazingly responsive to stressing it a little bit and pushing it.”
However, no matter if it's asthma or age, he hopes people over the age of 50 can find inspiration in his accomplishments on frozen trails.
“As you get older, it gets more important to be active as your condition declines more quickly, and yet I find you can rebuild that conditioning just as easily as years younger. It all requires a bit of work,” said Hughes, who’s the founding chair of Alberta Health Services.
Splitting time between Canmore and Salt Springs Island, B.C., Hughes can often be found during winter at the Canmore Nordic Centre, day or night. He often trains with his wife, Denise Savage-Hughes, also a late blooming skier. Out on he trails, he said they "fly like the wind together."
Hughes expects to ski loppets for the rest of his days.