Défi de L'Île de Montréal
128 km on inline skates
Burlington, Vermont - It's game 7 of the ALCS baseball playoffs between the New
York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Somewhere after midnight, a miraculous
comeback by the Yankees foils the Sox yet again. Despite the long marathon that
awaited less than 36 hours later, I did not care. I was so excited after my
team won that I felt confident that I could skate the Défi right then. That was
my adrenal glands talking.
Burlington, Vermont - Going to work on very short rest, I make it through the work day feeling like I'm on Cloud 9 after the Yankees' big win over our arch rivals. After work, I took my skates out for a brisk ride through South Burlington under overcast skies to prepare for the cold weather that would await us in Montreal. A big pasta dinner and lots of water had been successful all season long. Why stop now?
The forecast for Saturday in Montreal... No rain (yahoo!!!), overcast. Cool, but not cold. Not like last year.
Unfortunately, I was having some back spasms which were causing excruciating
pain (only when in a stationary position). Given my aversion to skating in cold
weather and my back condition, I did not feel very optimistic and gave myself
less than a 50% chance of skating the 80-mile Défi. After completing the New York
100K and A2A only a few weeks earlier, my goal of achieving the Triple Crown
was in huge jeopardy.
Burlington, Vermont - Less than 4 hours of sleep for the 2nd connsecutive night. With the race starting at 6 am, I awoke at 2 am to get ready for the ride up to Montreal. Henry Busetti picked me up on his way from Stowe, Vermont, around 3 am, and we crossed the Canadian border at Phillipsburg under night skies. It was funny to think that while some teenagers would just be ending their night, we were already beginning our day.
Montreal, Quebec - Around 5 am, we entered the Verdun Auditorium parking lot.
By normal standards, it was rather chilly... probably somewhere in the 30's.
However, there wasn't any trace of wind. Less than 1 hour before the start, I
still wasn't sure whether I'd skate. My back pains were intermittent but were
very intense at times. Had I chosen not to skate, Henry was ready to accept my
decision and do something else in Montreal that day. He had previously
indicated some reservations about skating 80 miles in cold weather also.
On entering the Auditorium, I was immediately greeted by Toronto Inline's Carolyn Gullo and other familiar faces. I ran into another Vermont skater, Bruce Winham, near the registration area. His exuberance and energy definitely rubbed off on me. He quickly reminded me that I had to skate today to complete the Triple Crown. Without any snow, rain, or wind, if I was ever going to finish the Défi, this might be my best chance to do it. In addition, I had my practice partner Henry to skate with. The idea of regretting for an entire year a decision not to skate, just because of pain that would only last a few hours, made it easier to make up my mind. Henry was excited when I told him, "I'm doing it!!" After registering, we both went back to the car to retrieve our skating gear and prepare for the race.
Ten minutes before the start, Henry kindly offered me an extra pair of
gloves and balaclava. Considering how much heat is lost through the head, I
disregarded any possible citations by the fashion police and quickly covered my
head with the blue balaclava before strapping on my helmet. I'm very glad I did.
Bruce and Henry and I got together for some pre-race photos before skating
towards the large crowd of skaters near the start area.
We started promptly at 6 am and rolled the first few miles on a bike-path that was smooth as a baby's bottom. The event had the atmosphere of a large social skate. The skaters slowly stretched out and divided into smaller packs. Henry and I began advancing and eventually latched on to a swiftly moving pack of about 15 skaters. Communication and warning for manholes, waterspots and other obstacles was virtually non-existent at times, so we did our best to keep a watchful eye to stay alert in the darkness. Relying on blind faith and your ability to handle sudden changes in the road surface really teaches one to become a better skater.
During Section 1, I was quite content to take it easy in the first few miles
to develop a good rhythm. Rod Willmot's group, which also contained Xavier
Raclin and Ghislain Pelletier, pulled up to my group. Having skated with them
at Granby only 1 week earlier, I felt comfortable with their pace. There were
several places where we nearly took a wrong turn so I wasn't 100% confident in
leading the pack. At one point, the peleton consisted of at least 20 skaters.
Henry wanted to move at a bit faster pace but I discouraged him from working
too hard by himself. However, several other skaters from the group joined us
and we broke away from Rod, but not before he wished us good luck with our
faster pace. Little by little, Henry and I were picking up stronger skaters in
front of us. I recall skating with a quartet from Victoriaville, Quebec,
wearing their blue Stamina uniforms. They really worked well together.
My new group included Lanny Totton from Toronto Inline. Familiar with Lanny's accomplishments in other marathons, I found it very comforting to know that he was in my group. It gave me a boost of confidence to be skating with him. His efficient skating style seemed to give off a sense of steadiness and control which Henry and I found very reassuring, especially when we hit the rough stretch on Senneville Road. This section was the Défi's equivalent of A2A's Gatorback. Gatorback is a nickname the Georgians use to describe a stretch of bone-jarring pavement, because it's like skating on an alligator's back. From my A2A experience, I found it advantageous to pull the group through this section so I could see the sub-par road conditions ahead. As a first-timer in the Défi, I kept wondering how much longer this would go on and when was that hill in Section 2? Finally, we hit the hill on Senneville Road. The poor road surface may actually have helped us gain better traction going up the hill on the slick pavement. I was rather patient and relaxed while pulling a large pack of excellent skaters. We even had to cross 3 or 4 stretches of dirt and gravel where we had to roll or even walk over with caution. (Not as adventurous as A2A where there was 300 yards of wet dirt).
I heard several sighs of relief when we were out of the forest and heading towards good pavement again.
As a footnote, through much of the first 40 km, our pack followed a woman on her bike. I'm not sure if she knew some of the skaters in our group but she set a perfect pace for us to follow. Eventually, we overtook her along the Pierrefonds Blvd bike-path but I certainly appreciated her efforts. Our pack of 10 or 12 skaters was really cruising along in spite of the numerous manhole covers, gravel, debris, and twigs on the bike-path. A typical scenario for several kilometers: Approaching an intersection... our hands go up to motion a slowdown... no wait... the coast is clear... keep going!! This accordian effect took its toll on some of the skaters near the rear but we were still at least 10 strong.
And then, somewhere between Checkpoints 2 and 3, I was very surprised when I recognized the familiar jerseys of Carolyn Gullo (Toronto Inline) and Bernard Doth (Roller-Montreal) waiting at an intersection. How fast was our group going to have caught 2 excellent skaters such as Carolyn and Bernard? I only remember 1 or 2 other skaters in their group, so I'm sure it provided a nice lift to see such a large pack of skaters joining them. Although our pack grew to as many as 12-15 skaters at various points along the race, a core 5-person group consisting of Mark Siebert, Henry, Carolyn, Lanny and myself made a formidable alliance for the remainder of the race.
Along the way, I admired the fantastic development of recreational paths
throughout the island, while observing the beautiful scenery around us. With
50 km to go, I quickly calculated that we had a realistic chance of breaking 6
hours. I found this hard to believe, so I stopped looking at my watch. Of
course we hadn't yet reached Section 5, where a vicious headwind always seemed
to slow down skaters.
At Checkpoint #4, most of our large pack paused for a few minutes to refill our Camelbaks. Half a dozen skaters, including Lanny, continued their journey on the bike-path along the river. I couldn't find Henry and assumed that he had already taken off with Lanny's group. From my A2A adventure, I was hesitant to pause too long for fear of losing the rhythm; however, I didn't want to leave without the two experienced Toronto skaters, Eric Gee and Carolyn. Once they were ready, we began rolling again. After reading previous Défi reports of strong headwinds in Section 5, I wanted to make sure I was skating with at least 2 or 3 other skaters. And then... off in the distance, I was very surprised to hear Henry voice's about 100 meters behind us as he hustled to catch up to our group. I slowed the pace slightly to allow him to catch up. Henry is a strong skater and tremendous athlete, so I felt fortunate to have him back in our group. Our pace picked up again as we headed along a scenic bike-path next to the river.
Then another surprise... Once again, I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw
Lanny's 6-skater group, which had gotten a 3-minute head start, about 500
meters ahead. Our 5-person pack kicked it up a few notches to reappend to the
contingent in front. It was a huge lift, both physically and mentally, to catch
another pack this late in the race. Once again, we were at least 10 skaters
strong. When we hit some gravel and poor road conditions, the pack began
spreading out. Sensing a potentially dangerous situation, Henry and I
instinctively moved towards the front of the pack. Lanny, Carolyn, and Mark
skated their way to the front as well. Once again, we were down to our core 5.
I was skating very relaxed and rarely thought about how much longer... Just
kept concentrating on the next stroke... That was a good sign. Carolyn and I
tried killing time talking about our A2A experience only 3 weeks earlier. We
struggled to understand each other at times since our faces were numb from
skating in the cold weather. At least there were no dogs chasing us!! (Read
Peter Doucet's A2A story
for details on that.)
It was not until Checkpoint #5 that I attempted to take some nutrition in the form of a PowerBar. Completely useless!!! It was virtually frozen solid. The thought of expending energy to chew through something rock-hard was not a pleasant thought. I took one bite before discarding it. I relied heavily on the Powerade in my Camelbak.
In Section 5, while skating along the St. Lawrence River along Notre-Dame towards our final destination, we encountered a series of traffic lights that were perfectly synchronized to our pace. We had a green light for at least 5 consecutive intersections. And then... disaster!! Our monster puller, Henry, got his skates tied up in one of the numerous tar snakes and went down hard. Drafting right behind him, Carolyn and I had no chance to avoid a very bad collision and tripped directly over Henry going full speed. I landed chest first into the pavement. Carolyn took a bad fall as well. Fortunately, there were no cars behind us. Lanny checked on us and reorganized our group so we were off again in 2 or 3 minutes.
After crossing to the river side of Notre-Dame, I thought I was seeing another illusion about 500 yards ahead. More skaters??? It couldn't be. We caught up to a 5-man group from Quebec. Carolyn identified a familiar orange, white, and blue Toronto Inline uniform as that of Mike Hughes. Carolyn, Henry, and Mark quickly accelerated to catch up with Mike's group. Lanny advised me to continue on our current speed because we were going to catch them anyway. Once again in a pack of 10!!! What a fantastic way to reach the finish line. Depending on the oncoming traffic and the quality of the sidewalk, our group was constantly jumping between the sidewalk and the road. We really had to be alert for cars to our right as well as dips, cracks, and curbs on our left. After crossing to the other side of Notre-Dame, we encountered numerous bricked areas on the bike-path which resulted in constant accelerating and decelerating. That took a toll on much of our group. At an intersection near the Old Port, we really started to spread out.
Sensing their close proximity to the finish line, Henry's group accelerated
in the last 3km, dropping several skaters in the process. Working together,
Carolyn and I caught up to Dany Lévesque (Roller-Montreal) on Wellington St. It
couldn't be long now, could it? Yet it seemed as if we were skating forever. We
couldn't see Henry's group any more. Finally, we crossed in front of the
Canadian Tire store, and onto the bike-path behind the baseball fields. I
remembered going past a housing complex very early in the morning. Then, we
identified the familiar shape of an arena. "We're almost there!!" I said with
excitement. And just as the church bells rang to signal 12 noon, the three of
us triumphantly crossed the finish area with our arms raised together. We'd
done it!!! We each completed our first Défi by cracking the 6-hour mark. That
was definitely one of my best races ever because of the strategy, teamwork,
speed, distance, scenery, and also the preparation invested in training for
the event. By virtue of some miracle, my back was trouble-free for the entire
This race, more than any other I'd ever skated before, illustrated the
well-known fact that a pack is much faster than an individual over a long
distance. At longer distances, every skater becomes physically tired. However,
the psychological benefits of skating with a group can keep everyone mentally
fresh. While a certain level of physical fitness is expected, over a long
distance it is more important to stay focussed and concentrate on your
technique. When you're drafting another skater, you must be relaxed and maintain good
technique. There's a level of trust that must be earned by the athlete to pack-skate
with others. This comfort does not come overnight and must be developed
through practice. Once you demonstrate a level of competency, it's a whole new
world of opportunities for you as a skater.
Thanks to the Défi founder, Robert Fortier, for concocting this brilliant
scheme to skate around one of the world's greatest cities, Montreal, and also
to those volunteers who helped organize this fantastic event. In a long event
like the Défi, working together with people you don't normally skate with was
very important. Our core 5-person group, which included Carolyn, Lanny, Henry,
and Mark, had excellent chemistry and displayed great teamwork. Kudos to
The following skaters were a handful that completed the 2003 Triple Crown by finishing the 3 major ultra-marathons:
Dileep Netrabile, #139