Report - Katia Bilodeau



I guess it was the middle of July when I showed my boyfriend the Défi website. His reaction was simple: "You're crazy!" Taking it as a compliment, that was all I needed to convince me to take part.

Never having taken part in a race on skates, especially not one so long, I did a lot of research, especially on the Défi site, to try to optimize my equipment, training and technique. Regarding equipment, this included buying new oil-lubricated bearings, learning how to clean them, finding socks that would stay comfortable after hours of skating, etc.

As far as training went, I made sure I got in as much skating as possible. On days when it rained I worked out in the gym and went swimming. This year's experience has taught me that I should also have tried skating in the rain a couple of times, just so I'd know what to expect instead of having to learn that very day. The list of mistakes I made is the proof...

As for technique, I searched in vain to find a teacher in the Quebec region. Actually, I did find a connaisseur just the week before the Défi. Though I wasn't able to learn the famous double-push, I did develop a stroke that enabled me to roll fast with less effort. During the Défi however I quickly realized that my improved technique would be no help at all on wet pavement, something I should have tried out beforehand (my first mistake). In effect, a long push results in the wheels having too little contact with the asphalt at the end of the stroke, resulting in a slip. Along with that, inevitably you're pushing on the painted line down the middle of the bike-path -- horribly slippery when wet, especially when the paint is fairly new. If that had been my only problem, I might have been okay.

I began to get apprehensive a few days before the Défi, when the weather-man gave the long-range forecast for Saturday. You guessed it, rain. I told myself that as usual the forecast would be wrong, especially since there was good weather forecast for Friday and Sunday. As the week wore on though, I accepted the idea that it could rain, and decided to be ready for it. Thus I earned my second "You're crazy!", when I said I'd skate even it did rain. I told myself that with all the work I'd put into this, I couldn't let a little water stop me.

First though, I had to find a way not to ruin my brand new bearings. I found the solution in my old skates (the first K2's with softboots), and bought spacers (the piece that goes between the bearings) so the old wheels and bearings would be compatible with my present skates (Salomon TR-9's). I left my good bearings in my good wheels, and the old bearings in the old wheels, so I could install the rain-setup in a hurry if the forecast turned out to be correct. I didn't want to be fiddling with bearings just minutes before the start. The only problem was that my old wheels were just 70mm when I bought them, with a hardness of 82A (yes indeed, my second mistake). Thinking about it now, I know it was a beginner's error. On the bike paths it wasn't so bad, but then came the rough section near the end of section 2. That's when I realized that in terms of comfort, small, hard wheels are awful. The smaller diameter also made them way slower on the bad pavement. It didn't help that my old bearings (ABEC 1) weren't very well lubricated, but given everything else it didn't make much difference, so that was okay -- especially from a financial point of view. I guess I didn't just make mistakes!

My second worry regarding the rain was staying as dry as possible. I'd brought along a raincoat, a garbage bag, small plastic bags and some duct tape, so as to keep both skates and body nice and dry. I thought I was ready for anything except snow, and they were only talking about that for the Quebec area. I'd rather not think about what it would have been like with snow! But enough about getting ready, now let's look at how my day unfolded.

First of all, I had a horrible night's sleep. I was so afraid of sleeping in that I'd brought two alarm-clocks. Even with them, I woke up every half-hour to check the time. So I got maybe 4 hours sleep total, but I was so full of adrenaline that it didn't really bother me. Having gotten up around 4 am, I managed to get some food down and left at 4:50 to make sure I wouldn't be late. I found the Auditorium without any trouble, and started to do my stretches.

Half an hour before the start, it was scarcely raining at all and the last forecast I'd heard was for light rain. Convinced my windbreaker was all I'd need (and that I'd be too hot with anything more), I left all my rain-gear in the car. Observe my third mistake, the worst one of all. My skates were dry for about half an hour, my jacket maybe two hours. That was about as long as I stayed comfortable, relatively speaking. After two and a half hours my skates were like swimming pools and I was as soaked as it's possible to be. After three hours I could feel a blister developing under my foot. Completely sopping with water, now my socks weren't comfortable at all. (I still recommend them for skating when it's dry -- Rohners made for skating.)

Along with the danger of hypothermia there was the risk of falling. In my case, having wheels with less grip, not knowing the course, the leaves hiding the booby-traps, and the morning darkness all combined to make me very nervous for the first half hour. Especially when I fell just 15 minutes after the start. I went down because of a hole in the path which I didn't see till too late. A few seconds before me another skater had fallen in the same place, and I'm sure we weren't the only ones. Personally I was lucky, because I was able to throw myself on the grass and escape with just a scare. My second fall came after 1:45 and wasn't nearly so "pleasant". By then I was in the street and had gotten more confident. My left skate slipped on the yellow line at the same moment that my right skate was aquaplaning in a puddle. I couldn't recover my balance and went down on my right thigh. I started up again in spite of the pain, which quickly disappeared. Later I realized the reason I didn't feel anything was that my skin was completely numb

Being more or less frozen, I had less and less energy and my speed suffered as a result. That's when I lost sight of the people I'd been skating with (whom I'd like to thank for guiding and encouraging me when I was so desperate for the sun to come up). It wasn't long before all the motivation drained out of me, and because I was a bit confused I forgot to keep eating, which didn't help my little body keep itself warm. The last time I ate, my hands were so numb I had to ask another skater for help because I couldn't open the packaging (thanks again!).

Near the end of the second section, around 9:05, I hit the wall half-way up the hill. I sat down on the curb to eat, asking myself why I was doing this to myself. I was frozen, soaked, I was shivering, I was sitting on a block of ice and there was no relief in sight. That's when a policeman passed and called someone to come for me. I was scarcely 2 minutes from the end of the section, but didn't know that. I got in the car thinking I'd just get warmed up and then decide, once I could think clearly, whether to go on or not. I took off my skates and some of my icy-wet clothes. After shivering there for 15 minutes, I looked at my skates and knew I couldn't put them on again. My health was at stake, so for my own good I swallowed my pride and the goal I'd set. Some friends came to get me, and after another half-hour in the car with the heat turned up full (sorry for the others in the car!), a hot shower and after that a very hot bath, at last I stopped shivering. Gradually my energy returned, but my morale was pretty bad because I hate to give up. My friend found the right words to cheer me up: "You did 50 km through hell, that's pretty darn good!"

I'm happy about my participation in the Défi because I learned a lot, especially that there's nothing more treacherous than wet clothes. I've done biathlons, and even at -25°C I'd never been that cold before.

All that to say that now I'm more motivated than ever for next year's Défi. But I'll let myself think twice if it rains...

In conclusion, a big bravo to the organisers, the volunteers and especially everybody who finished! Also, a special thanks to the people who picked me up, loaned me dry clothes and put up with being so hot while I waited for my ride. It was really appreciated.

Katia Bilodeau