Report - Lisa Bongiorno



Coming to the Défi, and meeting the kindest, warmest people, was the perfect culmination of my skating year.

The spontaneous decision I made one boring afternoon in September to book a flight to Montréal was indeed the right one. I rarely leave Atlanta, Georgia, to travel to any skating events because I have three little children at home, so this trip was an unusual treat for me. I figured if I could only get away for one weekend out of the year, I should pick an incredible event in a beautiful city, and Défi de L'Île de Montréal was the one!

The night before the race, we met some Roller-Montreal members for dinner. Benoît Julien insisted over and over: "There is no way I am skating if it's raining. I won't do it. I will stay in bed, I won't even show up!" To which Rod calmly replied: "It is going to rain, so get prepared!"

Merde, il pleut!

Leaving our hotel at 4:30 am, the man at the desk asked us where on earth we were off to so early. When I told him to inline skate 128K in the rain, of course, he said "bonne chance!" and that was the first of the many pitying looks we would get that day.

I did not know until reading these reports that your motto was: "Bon temps, mauvais temps, l'épreuve aura lieu!" That explains that crowd of skating fools getting ready in the rain at 5:30 am. I got to the Auditorium and saw so many fanatical skaters lacing up their boots, including Mr. Benoît "I am not doing it in the rain" Julien. I decided that if they were truly all going, I would try too. Talk about determination! The skaters of Quebec are serious and dedicated, if not a bit insane!

Rod Willmot had formed a team which included Benoît Julien, Chrisy Grudzien and some others. I decided I would try to stay with them for the day. After poor Rod nearly froze to death and was smart enough to stop skating, Benoît Julien had to take over as team Leader. Rod named the team "Que t'aimes ça, que t'aimes ça pas, c'est ça qui est ça, that's it, ffffffff..." I am not sure what it means exactly -- bla bla bla, ffffff -- but damn good name for a team!

It was very exciting at first, a big paceline working well calling out "manhole cover!" every 3 seconds. For such a pretty little town, why do they need so many manhole covers? It was the deep pondering of such mysteries that kept me going in the freezing rain.

I had trained very hard this past year for Athens-to-Atlanta, at which 2 weeks earlier I was unable to finish, due to crippling heat exhaustion which destroyed my strength completely. That was a big disappointment to me because I had finished A2A three times before and I felt I was in the best shape ever and that I could easily beat 6 hours. But after what happened to me at A2A, I know it is not always the will of the mind over the body. Certain pain your mind can push though by sheer determination. Certain other physical pain cannot be ignored by the mind or else you can get very sick, and could even die. I wanted so badly to finish A2A, my mind wanted it badly, but my body said no. I was stunned that all my hopes ended just like that.

Those who abandoned the Defi due to hypothermia were wise to stop before they really got into serious medical trouble. We are all strong, but when we get reduced like that due to conditions beyond our control, we become so weak that the only option is to stop. When there are factors such as really hot or cold weather, your heart is working double time, to heat or cool, as well as trying to get energy to your exercising muscles. We can get obsessed by turning in a good performance to prove to ourselves and to others what we are made out of. But it is not worth risking your health.

My boyfriend, Kevin Langton, wanted to ride the Defi on a bike and also give me support. I told him I thought maybe he should support me from the nice warm car, but he chose to come along by bike. The bike was really loaded down with my camera and extra food and supplies. I think he may have suffered more than the skaters did! He was soaked and really cold, but he finished the entire 128K in the rain, plus a few extra kilometers due to a wrong turn.

I was worried about skating on flat ground because I only skate and train on hills to prepare for the hilly 138K A2A. I had been warned that flat skating would be very difficult, because I would get no rest. But I found skating on flats to be very pleasant and easy, since my weak point is my anaerobic system. I can skate at an aerobic heartrate forever without tiring. This type of skating did not wear me down, I had plenty of energy.

I enjoyed the beautiful scenery, especially the little towns of section 1 -- which appeared to be very wealthy, although Benoît was explaining to us that it was the slums, and these people led a wretched life! He was a real joker during that beginning part of the skate. The towns and areas we went through expanded my knowledge of Montreal. I had assumed the island was just the one big city and did not realize that there were many other small towns. I also enjoyed a lot of Section 4, Pie IX Blvd & Gouin, along the parks and waterfront, and the North end of the island. Those sections were beautiful and fantastic, scenic skating.

I hated Pierrefonds Blvd., right past where the 2nd checkpoint was located. That street had a lot of traffic and the most difficult sidewalk. It rained extremely hard while we were there, I thought I would lose my mind on that scary sidewalk. Each curb ended with a big puddle, cracks, a curb and a hole, then only to cross through traffic into another puddle, curb and hole. I followed Benoît as best I could, he seemed determined to go fast and get us the hell off of that street and on to better parts. He was truly skating like a madman down Pierrefonds. At this time we decided to take a break to go use the restroom. It was Benoît, Chrisy Grudzien, Kevin and me in the group. We chose a McDonalds and it was a mistake to go in there because the floor was covered in French fries grease -- it was the most treacherous surface of the day. We stopped there longer than planned because we had no idea how difficult it would be to put our wet pants back on! We got some strange looks in there. Not what you expect to see when out for a hamburger lunch: 4 totally soaking-wet people, with plastic bags on their skates and shower caps on their helmets. When we left McDonalds, that was truly the low point of the day. We were frozen solid after stopping and being inside for too long.

My problem was not with feeling tired or worn down, but my damn feet and ankles were killing me. After about 5 hours I felt like someone had broken all the bones in my feet and ankles because of all the maneuvering I needed to do to keep from slipping and to navigate the difficult sections of pavement. But my body and heart felt strong. Also because it was so cold, I never worked up a sweat and I had to go to the restroom a lot. There was no place to go and finally I just mooned all of Rue Notre Dame so as not to lose the group.

After a long hard skate through section five, we finished just in time for the Gold Medal, in 7:55. I owe a lot of my success to Benoît Julien, who thankfully pointed out the route. Without his help I surely would have made a few wrong turns, because I could not see very well with the rain in my eyes. I owe my gold medal to him, because by skating behind him most of the day, I saved a lot of energy. He called out all the obstacles as they were coming up and explained what our next challenge was. I know this helped me to complete it faster than I would have on my own.

I truly enjoyed the bilingual atmosphere of the Défi. My spoken French is quite limited, but I plan to study in order to skate the Défi speaking French-only next year. I can speak other languages, but for some strange reason I have always avoided French. It has to do with a bad impression I got about how hard it was to pronounce while watching an I Love Lucy episode as a child, where Lucy and Ethel were destroying the melodious French language! But now I have a goal where I know I will speak French next Fall, so I will study hard. I think I will be speaking enough French next October to speak it to all of you while skating the Défi 2003. I only need to learn certain specialized phrases and I will be all set:

  1. "What lovely weather we are having for the Défi!"
  2. "Watch out for that $#@%^ hole!"
  3. "Shit, this pavement is horrible."
  4. "My ankle is killing me."
  5. "Please wait for me I have to pee again!"
  6. "This headwind really sucks!"
  7. "The kind people of Montreal are so very forgiving of badly spoken French!"

I think if I get all those phrases down perfectly, I will be practically fluent. I am planning to return next Fall, where all of Roller-Montreal (especially Renaud Nicholas) has promised me a nice, dry, sunny day.

Thanks to all of you in Roller-Montreal for making my weekend so much fun. Thanks to Benoît Julien for leading our little team. Thanks to Rod Willmot for all the information he emailed me before I left Georgia, all the hospitality he showed me while there, and his nice words about me afterwards. Thanks to Allison Turner, Youri Juteau and Marcel Lafontaine, for making us feel very welcome. I was thrilled to finally meet those Detroit skating icons, Dan Tripp and Dave Pawluk. Thanks a million to my boyfriend, Kevin Langton, for joining in our suffering and finishing 128K on a bike rented from La Cordée, taking photos of us, and handing me food. Thanks also to Martine and the other volunteers afterwards who helped us get warm and dry. Thanks to Youri for bringing me hot coffee and pointing out to me that I was walking "rather strangely" afterwards in the Auditorium. Thanks to Renaud Nicolas for some fun dinner-conversation -- he is one strong, crazy and dedicated Défi skater!

The satisfaction I feel in completing this true challenge is immense. I came back to Georgia with a great feeling of pride in my ability to prevail in such bad conditions. This summer I had a close brush with quitting competitive skating entirely, due to no longer having fun, worrying too much about my performance in races. The past few months I have been re-examining what skating means to my life. Since then I have been working on changing my attitude by learning to enjoy the process and not focusing so much on the end results. This unique weekend I spent in Montreal proved to me that my new philosophy is working. I will never forget this great day, which served to reinforce the real reason why I skate -- the wonderful friendships you form from being involved in this incredible sport.

See you all at the Défi 2003!

Lisa Bongiorno