Report - Ralph Hartmann



Although I feel like a veteran as this was my fourth straight Défi, my day's plan did not work out quite like I would have liked. In order to attempt to beat my time of last year, I decided to go out very hard. Although I know all about the rabbit and the hare (slow and steady wins the race), I decided to start quickly for several reasons. First of all, I know the first stage of the event very well, as it is the place I do almost all of my training. Furthermore, as I often skate at night, the darkness on this part of the stretch is not really an obstacle for me. My goal was to stay with the lead pack until at least the end of Section 2 in Pierrefonds, and then pace myself for the rest of the way.

Despite the rain and cold, it was a great pleasure to skate with Charles, Allison, Simon (whom I knew as a "partner" in last year's event), Martine, and Said. There is nothing quite like the feeling of "flying" in a pack of tightly spaced speedskaters who really know what they are doing. Except for a couple of close calls with some road-snakes in Lachine and Dorval, the trip to Ste-Anne felt good for me. The one incident I had came where the road was closed under the bridge in Ste-Anne. After coming to a stop, someone told us we could continue on a small path down by the locks. As my wheels hit the wooden path right by the water, I lost all traction, and for a split second I thought I was going to slide under the railing into the lock. Luckily, just like in a good action movie, I managed to stop just in time.

After shaking the cobwebs out of my head, it was back to work as we approached the famous Senneville hill. Probably because of the cold, it almost felt good to bring the heart rate up a notch, and the climb was a relative breeze. Although speeding down is always a thrill, the rough road at the bottom always seems to get longer every year. By the time the pavement got better before the end of Section 2, it was becoming a struggle for me to keep up with the group. My eyes began to burn (rain, sweat, dirt, pollution, all-of-the-above, who knows?), but I made one last push to stay with the pack. My initial goal was achieved as I reached the beginning of Section 3 with the lead group in a little over 2 hours.

I let the "pros" forge on, and I coasted for a few hundred metres while catching a snack and checking with some of the volunteers in a support car. Not wanting to skate alone I asked if anyone knew how far back the next group was. No one was sure, but the consensus was that we had built up a pretty good lead. This is when the weather effectively killed my strategy. Skating alone in those conditions became a mental hardship. At one point along Pierrefonds Blvd, a truck zoomed through a deep puddle, sending a wall of water through my already drenched clothes. Ironically, because I had slowed my speed, I was actually getting colder because I was not working as hard. This was compounded by not having anymore "wind blockers" to skate with.

Although I did manage to get another 8 km to the corner of Sources Blvd, my day was done. After stopping at a phone booth to call home and let my wife and kids know I was still alive, I could not believe how cold it was back outside. I was beginning to shiver uncontrollably, and luckily saw a cab waiting at one of the corner gas stations. The cab driver who let this soaking wet guy with roller blades into his car was my true saviour. Thirty minutes later I was back home, taking the longest, hottest bath of my life.

The Défi did manage to beat me this year, but I'll certainly try and be back next year. Although I didn't manage to finish, I won't soon forget the "experience" this day brought me once again.

Thanks to Robert Fortier and all the volunteers who make this one unforgettable experience, rain or shine.

Ralph Hartmann