Joni Denroche isn't entering the Sigge's P'ayakentsut 50-kilometre race with any intention of winning.
Well, at least in the crossing-the-finish-line-first sense.
But Denroche fully intends to create champions out of her participation at Whistler Olympic Park on Feb. 27. Through her 50 for Friends campaign, she's raising funds and awareness for the Vancouver-based Callanish Society, an organization that offers retreats for those suffering from cancer. It's near and dear to her heart, as she attended the retreat when undergoing treatments of her own five years ago.
Denroche was first diagnosed with cancer about a decade ago when she received a shocking melanoma revelation.
"It was just a small little red spot on my temple that didn't clear up," she said. "I had a voice that kept telling me 'You need to have this dealt with.' I went to doctors and they said it was nothing and not to worry about it and still that voice kept saying 'Nope.' It took me awhile but finally I had it biopsied and I was told I had less than a year to live."
Denroche underwent a thorough 13-hour surgery where doctors attempted to ensure they removed the entire tumour but was diagnosed with cervical cancer two years later. Lying on the hospital bed after surgery, she was told she had metastatic lung cancer and needed to have a lung removed. She subsequently had melanoma twice more, including one occurrence that was metastatic.
Still living with the effects of the disease, Denroche still plans to put on her skis and complete the full loppet.
"I do a long race — not because I'm fit, because I'm not — but I do a classic and a 50K because it gives me that time to be thankful for every moment and I think of all the people who are touched by cancer," she said. "The classic journey of a 50K is analogous to a cancer journey as well because you start it and you really don't want to do it. You might want to quit partway through, but you can't.
"It's not a race for me. It's a journey."
As of Feb. 16, Denroche said $1,100 had been raised through Cross Country Connection's (CCC) Celebration of Winter event and the staff at the CCC Café donating their tips to the cause as well. Every $1,000 will cover the cost of one person's retreat.
Those looking to donate can do so at CCC at the Lost Lake PassivHaus or online at www.callanish.org/donate under 50 for Friends, or the Marlene and Rita Fund in memory of fellow retreat participants Marlene Siemens and Rita Wong.
"We stayed in touch after the retreat and we continued to give each other support and friendship," Denroche said. "Unfortunately, their journey was shorter."
She added: "I just always, always remember them and I like to think that just because physical presence isn't there, your spiritual presence isn't always around. They're with me all the time."
After a year off in 2015 because El Niño conditions melted much of the snow in the Callaghan Valley, the Payak has fairly strong registration numbers — roughly 440 at last count — and is expected to cross the 500-participant threshold by the Feb. 23 deadline.
Event chair Dirk Rohde ultimately expects numbers to approach 2014 levels when racers line up at the end of the month as cross-country skiing seems to be growing all over the province.
"We should be able to get close to (2014 numbers)," he said. "I've heard a lot of people looking forward (to it). All across B.C., skiers have been coming back in droves.
"People have missed the snow."