Report - Nick Zacchia



I've always loved inline skating, drawn to the freedom and grace of a body in motion. This is why I joined Roller-Montréal this past summer. Being only fifteen at the time, I was the youngest skater there and often found it gruellingly difficult to keep up with all these veterans. However, never being one to pass up a challenge I always struggled through it. Naturally when I heard about the Défi I was very anxious to give it a shot, not quite realizing what I was in for.

I had trained quite a bit during the summer and come October I felt ready to tackle anything. But a week-long battle with the flu left me a little unsure of myself. In the days leading up to the Défi I was often working on one or more different medications, but having wanted to finish a marathon for a good year or more, I was not ready to let anything stop me. This was also true when I learned of the weather predicted for the 19th. A little rain, so what, I'll wear a few more layers, that's all. Indeed I had prepared for rain, but nothing could prepare me for the conditions we faced that day...

I began the day in the Auditorium like everybody else, heart pumping, ready to go out there and do my best, with a goal of 8-8:30 hours. This goal would later change to just finishing the event, which I was more than happy to do. Things started to go wrong about 4 minutes before the start, when I was lacing up my skates, only to have one of the laces snap in my hands... Nooo, I thought, my race is over before it's begun! Luckily I was able to find a piece of string/shoelace that someone had forgotten in their haste to make it to the starting line. And so I started with the rest, in the gloomy darkness of pre-dawn Montréal. It was quite beautiful and I was skating at a reasonable pace with a pack of about 20. About 40 minutes into it though, I realized that I wouldn't be able to keep that pace up, so with skates already soaked I slowed down to a slower pack.

By the first checkpoint I was going relatively well, and had managed to stay warm with the help of a big thick sweater. The man I had been skating with however, Marcel Lafontaine, was not doing quite so well. He had been feeling sick all day and used the 5-minute break to throw up behind some bushes. Understandably and with no objections from me, we took the next section at a slower pace. It was here that my plan backfired; the same big thick sweater keeping me warm had now become soaked and only served to weigh me down. Luckily my parents were very supportive of my entrance into this event and I was able to call my father on the cell-phone I had been provided with for emergencies. And so, having dumped the excess weight of a sweater and a bag full of things I wouldn't have the time to use, I continued. I continued through roads that felt like cobble-stone under my feet and up hills that seemed never-ending. Pain. Pain in my feet, pain in my legs, I don't know if I can do this. It was here that I fell for the first and only time this season, I was demonstrating the double push to Marcel. Luckily I just sort of skidded across the layer of water resting on the road and was amazed to find myself unscathed... but quite wet. The only way we made it out of that hellishly painful section was through mutual support between Marcel and I.

Pierrefonds to Montréal-North was easier but presented a whole new set of problems. By this time I had given up on any notion of the sun coming up to warm us. Instead it felt like it only got colder. It was during this section that I also began to notice the squeaking underfoot. My bearings are done for, I thought, but if I could keep some water in them they might just last until the end of the race. I still had the 8:30 hour goal in mind. Then I spotted my father's car rolling by, he had come to ask me if I needed a lift home. I wasn't ready to quit. I couldn't quit, I wouldn't, not if my life depended on it. I was still on top of the world. Then, just for pacing purposes I asked him to drive alongside us and tell us what speed we were cruising at... "15km/h, maybe less."

Impossible. It felt like 25, I suppose the cold and rain had gotten to me. My goal dropped to 9:30 hours, and my spirits dropped with it. The next half-hour of skating was silent as I re-evaluated the situation. Finally I realized, Hey, why did I come out here, to beat the competitors? No. To win a medal? It would be nice, but that's not why I'm here. I'm here to do the best that I can and to challenge myself... To overcome.

Things were going better, until we came to a large hill. I've never been good at hills so when Marcel passed me I thought nothing of it. I kept struggling and slowly was making my way up the monstrous obstacle. But then at one point I saw my partner at the top of the hill while I was still in the middle, unable to push myself up any more. He waited for a while, but I knew I wouldn't make it up for quite some time. "Go on ahead, I'll catch up." I said. I had no intention of doing so. My legs cramping badly, I made my way to the side of the road and collapsed. Just a two-minute break, I promised myself. The two minutes were drawn into ten and for the first time in my whole life I contemplated quitting. I'd always pushed myself to be the absolute best that I could be, to conquer any and every obstacle, but the Défi, I feared, had conquered me.

And then, as if by divine intervention (because it certainly seemed like a Godsend at the time), several skaters came by offering words of encouragement and a hand out of the bushes in which I had been lying. "Let's go. Don't give up. You can do it." I could do it, I thought, and got back on my feet. I was very cold, shivering all the way, wanting more than anything just to reach the Pie-IX Bridge. Living not far from the bridge, I had often gone skating on the bike path along Gouin Bvld. In my desperate search for any recognizable landmarks I was forced by cramping to stop two or three more times, but got up without any hesitation once the pain had subsided. Once I got to a place I was familiar with there was no stopping me.

Before I knew it I had skated into the open arms of my family who were waiting under the bridge. They had brought me food, drink and most importantly, warm dry clothes, including about 3 layers of waterproof rain jackets. My mother told me I could stay in the car as long as I wanted, but all I wanted to do was to get back out there. I was discouraged to learn that I was not even half-way through the race, but with warm, dry clothes I was ready to go out there again.

I was full of life and skating along a path that I knew and loved. I had a big old grin on my face for the whole section, remembering some catchy tunes I had heard and singing them to myself to pass the time. It was this section, on this day, that was probably the most enjoyable skating I had done all year. I made it to the next checkpoint in just over 45 minutes, a feat that shocked me. Hey, maybe this race won't be so bad after all, I thought to myself with a smile. My family just had time to encourage me, give me some more Gatorade and tell me I was doing great before I whizzed by them, anxious to finish.

I continued along the final section, not realizing that it was by far the longest. For quite a while I skated with the big smile on my face, expecting a finish line just around every corner. Then I the cell-phone ringing. It was my father, asking how I was doing. "Well," I said, "How much further do I have?" ...The answer hurt, another 20km or so. Purely methodical movements characterized my next period of skating. I began to grow tired again. I looked at my watch, I'd been skating for 8:20 hours. I took a break, and another break, thinking I had plenty of time before the silver medal cut-off. Soon I was nearing the Lachine Canal and I got a call, it was my father with Charles, one of the leaders of Roller-Montréal who had promised to wait for all of his skaters to come in. He gave me some quick directions and some helpful encouragement.

Wellington Street was a killer. I had no idea how long it was or what I had waiting for me afterwards. All I knew was that I had to finish, preferably under 10 hours, but as the minutes ticked by and the street dragged on I was uncertain of breaking 10.

9:52 -- I'm not going to make it.

Then an encouraging and unexpected break, the end of Wellington. However I didn't know how far I had after that. I just kept going knowing the time was running down. I passed a baseball field and couldn't stand the uncertainty any longer. I called my father, "Where am I? How much further?" Before he could answer I saw a group of what looked like skaters and volunteers, relaxing, sitting... the finish! Only 9:53. I'm going to make it. I put everything I had into racing to the line, racing towards relief. I won't say I sprinted, because it must have seemed like a snail's pace, but to me it was a sprint. And finally, after 9 hours and 54 minutes of the most gruelling event I could ever imagine, I coasted through the finish line.

I had done it!

I was greeted by the smiling faces of my family and many of the members of Roller-Montréal, who all shared in my joy. We took some pictures, cracked some jokes and congratulated each other. Afterwards I had a shower, changed my clothes and went home looking forward to a nice big supper and some well-deserved rest.

The 2002 Défi was by far the most difficult and testing challenge I've ever undergone. But with the help of friends and family I was able to get through it, and I feel stronger as a person for having done so. A big Congratulations goes out to everyone who started, everyone who finished, all the volunteers and especially to anyone who surprised themselves by doing better than they ever thought possible, anyone who overcame. I think that's the message I'll keep with me long after the memories of the cold and rain fade away.

It was certainly challenging, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Nick Zacchia