Report - Rod Willmot



Sunday, October 21: Yesterday was the biggest, best, most beautiful Défi in its 6-year history. What an incredible day! To Robert and Diane Fortier, their son, and all of the volunteers, we owe enormous thanks. You've put on an event that has given joy and pride to well over a hundred people, challenging everyone who took part to discover a strength within themselves that the couch-potatoes of the world will never know. Thank-you, and congratulations on a magnificent Défi!

For the rest of this page, let me tell you my own story of the Défi. I finished in 6:15, an hour and 18 minutes faster than my previous best. Thinking myself incapable of beating 7 hours, I was completely amazed and overjoyed. I'm not strong (believe me), so how did it happen? ...A solid training base, experience, and teamwork.

Starting in June, I skated at least 60 km every weekend, having worked up to it carefully in the previous months. During the week I also did two or three shorter skates to work on speed, technique, hills and so on. But it was the long skates that built up deep endurance, the ability to go for hours without feeling tired. Whenever I could, I joined the gang from Montréal-Elite (Charles Beaudoin and friends) for a Sunday skate at Granby or the Grand Tour of Verdun and the South Shore. I also took part in as many races as I could. These are things that get you used to having fun while skating your heart out; they teach you to relax, to think of a race as a celebration, a reward for all the training you've done. And they turn you on to teamwork.

Until September I was having my best year ever. Then I had a brush with heat-stroke, and my training fell apart; I just couldn't seem to skate properly anymore. My solution was to relax about it and let myself heal. I couldn't hope to get any stronger, but I knew that all my work from the last few months would still be there as long as I stayed in shape. A month later I went to skate Athens-to-Atlanta (138 km) with Charles Beaudoin, Allison Turner, and Bernard Doth. For me it was a big holiday! I couldn't expect anything great, but at least I could have fun. As it turned out I skated rotten, was a complete weakling on the uphills, and endured the most pain I've ever known -- all while taking 1h05 off my time from last year (and yes, having fun). That trip was my happiest 5 days of the whole year.

With only two weeks separating A-to-A and the Défi, there was nothing I could do but rest and skate a little -- just enough to remember how. At 6 am yesterday I didn't have any great expectations for myself; I was just delighted to see SO MANY SKATERS out there, and relieved that it wasn't raining. I started out near the front at what felt like a nice easy roll, and kept expecting lots of skaters to come up and pass. Soon there was a small group behind me, and it was we who were passing others who had started too fast. Simon Côté was with me from start to finish; Mathieu St-Germain skated courageously with us for the first 2 hours before suddenly fading; we picked up Ralph Hartmann early in Section 1. I was so relaxed that at first I was happy to stay in the lead unless someone volunteered to pull for a while. But gradually a team started to form, and by the time we picked up Nicolas Quendez late in Section 2, we were all working together.

There are basically two different ways to skate the Défi: do it on your own, or do it in a team. Skating the Défi alone, you try to maintain a constant level of effort, never letting yourself get tired; skating is safe because you have a perfect view of the road ahead; you can attain a degree of concentration that is almost like doing zen. Skating the Défi in a team, you push yourself over and over to a significant level of fatigue -- whenever you take the lead -- and then recuperate by resting behind your teammates. You go a lot faster, but the skating is riskier because often you can't see; you have to pay attention like crazy.

One side of me loves solo-skating, the other side loves team-skating. They are profoundly different but equally valuable, and I honor them both. But whenever I have the chance now, I team-skate, not because it's easier (it isn't!), but because I love the intensity, the speed, and the excitement of working with others. A good team can inspire you to surpass yourself over and over in ways you could never do on your own.

From late in section 2 until the end, it was me, Simon, Ralph, and Nicolas. My role was to keep the team going at maximum efficiency. This meant looking after everybody, not letting anyone pull for too long or get separated behind. Only the skater in the lead should be working hard, while the others should be resting -- drafting as close as possible. Whenever I wasn't pulling I stayed in the number 2 spot, making it easier to navigate, call out warnings, and keep everyone together. We kept our stops to a minimum, quickly topping up on water a couple of times, making one collective pipi-stop in the woods before the final checkpoint.

Near the end of section 3 we came to that crazy S-turn in the trees, where so many skaters have fallen. After warning the others I foolishly took it at full speed -- and went down hard! When I finally got up (with numerous scrapes and a bleeding finger), I noticed that Nicolas wasn't there. For a moment I thought he'd gone on ahead, but the others said he was still behind. That's when I realized that we'd been pushing too hard; everyone looked tired. I took my accident as a lucky break, a warning that it was time to ease up a little, rest and regroup. If I hadn't fallen we might have worn outselves out too quickly, and would have lost Nicolas.

When we turned into the wind on Section 5 -- that inevitable, awful headwind at the end! -- I knew that if we didn't skate smart the team would fall apart. I silently counted strokes for the skater in the lead, and would call out a change after the count reached 60. Simon was in top form, so I'd keep him going to 80 or so, while I went to 100. In the park at Promenade Bellerive we took another brief rest-stop, to let Ralph stretch out his back. Nicolas was getting cramps -- he hadn't drunk enough.

With 15 km left to go, Ralph started talking about letting us go on without him. No way, teammate! All it took was a few words to convince him that he could make it, and indeed he finished strong. But it helps to know the course, and it was wonderful to reach the Jacques-Cartier Bridge and be able to shout "Just 8K left!" All the better at the turn onto Wellington, only 2K! That's the kind of thing that gives you energy you didn't know you had. We started skating faster and faster, till at the end it was like taking all of the pain from 128 km and packing it into the final 200 meters. But what incredible joy at the end, to realize what we'd done, the time we'd finished in! The pain and fatigue were over, and irrelevant.

A few brief pleasures along the way: looking out over the St Lawrence at around 6h30, seeing a tiny distant cluster of lights which Simon identified as Beauharnois, so pretty. Leaving Ste-Anne and looking up to discover the clouds clearing, blue sky taking over after so many predictions of rain. Hearing Ralph's father announce that we were keeping a steady pace of 22 kph -- and feeling that it was effortless. Coming upon freshly-paved sections of street or trail, passing a group of smiling volunteers, noticing yet another arrow or sign to mark the way. It gets better every year.

I was so impressed, yesterday afternoon, to see so many skaters coming in with excellent times and radiant faces. Yes, I know that some of you were discouraged at the end, demoralized by the final 30 km of wind and awful surfaces. I've been there too. But everyone who finished achieved something equally great, no matter how long it took or how much it hurt. The Défi is a very tough race. Completing it puts you into a very select group of extraordinary people.

Rod Willmot