Report - Rod Willmot



The worst day possible, the toughest, even dangerous -- and yet, the most memorable, maybe even legendary, a day of incredible courage, human warmth, inspiration, and yes, of joy! Rain, cold, wind -- it was the first time in the 7 years of the Défi that we had such conditions, and despite the fears of some, the human results demonstrate the rightness of our motto: "Fair weather or foul, the Défi will go on!"

Amazing to think that in spite of the rain, the Défi set a new record for participation: 193 skaters registered, including 23 that morning. No doubt with nicer weather we would have had closer to 250. There was a new record too for out-of-town participation, with 12 Americans, a German, and several Canadians from other provinces. The Défi's reputation keeps growing and growing.

How many took the start? We think about 150, for in order for 90 to finish in such tough conditions there had to be more than usual fall by the wayside. I know about that intimately, because I was one of the many who had to drop out.

Ironic, isn't it? I, who had handed out so much advice to other skaters, I made a fatal mistake in clothing. More afraid of being too hot than of being too cold, I set aside my rainsuit for a speedskating jacket that I was certain was just as waterproof. I thought I was 100% ready for the worst! Instead I was soaked after just an hour, and freezing after two, in a state of desperation, rigid and shivering, my body producing only a fraction of the heat I needed, my thoughts becoming confused. I was caught in a trap: if I stopped moving, it was all over; if I kept going much longer, it was all over! I had to find a way out, and finally I saw one and accepted it. Two American women, Denise Blahut and Rosie, were in a jeep accompanying Denise's husband, Jeff Blais. The moment they saw the state I was in they had me get inside in the front seat, turned on the heat full blast, and covered me with a heavy blanket. Denise, Rosie, I can't thank you enough! You saved my day, probably my health, and quite possibly my life.

Here's where my story takes an upturn... Back at the Auditorium, I was the first skater to have to figure out how and where to get off my skates, change my clothes, clean my injuries, look after my bearings. All while trying to keep warm, please! When I was finally done I had time to look around, discover certain places (not obvious) that were good for what we needed, others definitely not. It was cold in the lobby. The toilets nearby were minuscule, kind of dirty, their doors kept open to the view of all and sundry. But elsewhere there were spacious washrooms that also happened to be clean and warm, and an eating area with tables and chairs and radiators pouring out warm air!

About an hour after me, two Ottawa skaters arrived, my buddies Inga Petri and Jan Riopelle -- both of them 2-time veterans of the Défi. Having come back by taxi from the 2nd checkpoint, they hadn't benefited from the same heating-up as I had had, and Jan was hypothermic. This was when I observed the pattern that would hold true for the rest of the day: on entering the lobby they saw the bench right there, the toilets right there, and in spite of the cold and the inconvenience they thought that's all there was for them. Later, when others started to arrive and I had figured out what to do, I saw first-hand how incapacitating hypothermia really is.

The hypothermic skater isn't able to help himself, can't even follow simple directions. I had to guide them, Come with me, we go inside here, turn to the right now (not left), sit down here and take off your skates. Do you have your bag with dry clothes? Give me your keys and I'll go get it. Now, come upstairs with me and you'll be warm, here we are, you can use that towel. And when you come down, go over to the eating area, all your friends are there, it's even warmer! Later still, when shower-rooms had been opened for us, numerous hypothermic skaters had to stand for minutes under the hot water before they could recover. Even then we had to take them in hand, not just tell them where to go. Our four towels -- mine plus two that Chrisy Grudzien had -- repeatedly half-dried on the radiators, made do for a whole lot of skaters!

It is a stirring and impressive thing to see an athlete reduced to a shadow by fatigue and hypothermia. Such courage, such strength, such determination he has expended to reach the finish, or to get as far as wherever he had no choice but to stop. A while ago he was almost superhuman -- but now he is the weakest of human beings. He's shivering, he doesn't know what to do, his fingers refuse to undo his boots, and if you leave him like that he'll just sit there and freeze. He isn't even able to think of asking for help. But take him in hand, and he'll do what you tell him; little by little he'll respond, slowly coming back to life. It's very moving, and deeply rewarding to be able to help. That's how my Défi 2002, begun so catastrophically, turned into my best day of the year.

But let's not let all this talk of hypothermia make everyone frightened! There was a lot of joy too this year, and I consider myself lucky to have been there to see it. Really it was the fast skaters who truly suffered. It was awful to see the first four skaters struggling toward the finish -- their faces contorted into masks of pure suffering! Subsequent skaters arrived in much better shape, and as the hours went by we saw more and more smiles. Yes, the slower skaters had fun in the rain! It was the direct opposite of what we usually see. Last year for example -- on a day that favored speed and record times -- those who were at the finish saw, throughout the first hour, nothing but smiles, as if the "challenge" had been a piece of cake. Later though we saw the fatigue of those who hadn't benefited from the same level of training. This year I just loved the success, the victory of the slow! For it was they who were victorious against the bad weather, they who proved that we should never let rain stop us from practising our sport, and they who showed definitively that the Défi is not just for élite athletes.

Now I would like to honor a few individuals who were part of making this a great day.

To begin, Charles Beaudoin (1st) et Allison Turner (1st-F) are the undisputed king and queen of inline skating in Quebec. You know their superb performances at the Défi. Beyond that, they are two individuals whose passion for skating and whose personal warmth have brought together a great bunch of skaters in our club, Roller-Montreal, forming thereby a hotbed of development that has contributed so much to the blossoming of others. Simon Côté (2nd) came to us last summer, and did great at his first Défi. Everything pointed to an amazing season for him this year -- till a foot problem ruined everything. Just a few weeks ago he was limiting his hopes to just finishing. And then, lo and behold, his friends encouraged him, the foot got a little better, his hopes began to rise -- and he pulled off the dream that he and I shared, to beat 6 hours! Said Rahim (3rd) is one of the stars among our younger skaters. When he joined the club this spring he stood out right away with his enthusiasm and obvious talent. With the club's help he got equipped for speedskating, and never stopped getting faster. His 3rd place on Saturday demonstrates a strength of character that will surely let him achieve whatever dream he cares to dream.

Gerald Roehme came from Germany for the Défi, and for an hour or so I skated nearby him. Despite being happier on ice than on slippery asphalt, he went on long after I had succumbed to the cold, until a hard fall spelled the end for him as well. I think everyone who dared to take the start on Saturday deserves recognition, and I'll try to include their names in the results, with DNF instead of a position.

Lisa Bongiorno came from Georgia, USA for the Défi. Thanks to the Internet we already knew each other, and she joined my team -- of whom most stayed together and everyone but me finished. Lisa's success was all the more satisfying because, just two weeks earlier, she'd been completely undone at a race on her home turf, the 138K Athens-to-Atlanta. Held this year amid sweltering heat, that race caused many cases of heat exhaustion, Lisa among them. But now she's gotten her revenge!

I also want to mention the 7 skaters who improved their times this year. Considering that nearly all the veterans were slower by an hour or worse, their achievement is all the more significant. I've mentioned Simon Côté above. The others are: Denis Poirier, Roland Boisvert, Gilles Bouchard, Sylvie Turpin, Carole Daoust and Stéphanie Bernier. Bravo my friends! Bravo too to our master-of-masters Raymond Bélisle, who at age 59 completed his seventh Défi -- the only person to have done all seven -- and this in a time of 8h51. Another bravo for Vicki Atkinson, who took on the Défi as a work of charity, skating to raise funds for AMI (Association for the Mentally Ill). And one more bravo for Sue Hayward, whose initiative resulted in a fine article about the Défi appearing recently in The Gazette, and who has now completed her second Défi. I'm so proud of you all!

And now, how could I not point out Mario, the guard at the Auditorium who did so much to help our skaters? The moment he noticed that something was going on, he came to offer his assistance. First it was chairs near the stairway, later he opened two shower-rooms for our exclusive use. Whenever he saw an athlete "walking crooked", he led him to the showers and the heat, and came over afterwards to let me know. Mario, you don't know how many people are truly grateful to you!

Other people helped as well. With a leg injury earned while training for the Défi, Youri Juteau spent the first part of the day accompanying the leaders, giving them food and bottles of liquid. Later he helped at the Auditorium, as did Martine Charbonneau. Others too came to help, and I wish I knew all the volunteers who served at the checkpoints so that I could name them here. A volunteer who waits for you in the rain, now that's a volunteer!

Did you recognize that lady who was at the finish, the lady in a yellow poncho who so carefully took down your number and finishing time? That was Diane, Robert Fortier's wife, the only person in the world who knows just how much time and energy he gives to the Défi. Diane is there too every year, and at the end, when we were going through the results together, she told me that some years she's waited till as long as 8 pm. Because, she said, even if someone who takes over 12 hours won't get a medal, they deserve to have somebody meet them at the finish. Now that's a volunteer!

And Robert Fortier, the tireless some might say, but he too gets tired and in future we should help him a whole lot, in my opinion. I have some idea of the work he puts in for us, and it's enormous, far more than you'd think. Robert has set a dream in motion, his dream has awakened dreams among hundreds of skaters, and his dream is now a symbol of courage, determination, love and hope, and above all pride. Robert, you are our pride! Thank-you to you and Diane, and to everyone who helped. Till next year, and till the next Défi!

Rod Willmot