Défi de L'Île de Montréal
128 km on inline skates
I've been meaning to do the Défi for many years now. It presents a unique challenge in inline skating. It has a certain appeal to me and I'll tell you why.
Many years ago when I was an army reservist, we often went on field exercises in the Autumn. Each year, I would have to drive a long distance to a strange place and find a few restless hours of sleep on a rubber air mattress. At O-dark-thirty I would be rudely awakened, have a quick breakfast, and "kit-up": the process of assembling the equipment I would need to get me through the rest of the exercise.
The army believes strongly in the motto "one man, one kit", so if I neglected to bring an essential piece of clothing, say a rain jacket, I did without for the remainder. If I brought too much "kit", I was also stuck carrying it around for the remainder. So "kitting-up" became largely an exercise of balancing comfort and convenience against bulk and weight. The kit I did bring would have to get me through the frosty, dark morning hours to the warm afternoons, through wind, rain, mud, and Lord knows what else.
The exercise would start and off I would go into the pitch black, with hardly any chance to get my bearings or become familiar with the terrain. Until the sun rose, it was mostly a matter of following the dim taillights ahead. For the next several hours I could expect to be constantly on the go, with little support and few breaks.
Doesn't this all sound just like the Défi?
Sure, other races are longer, more competitive, or more difficult. But the large range in temperature and variations in weather, combined with the long distance and mostly self-supported nature of this event appeal to the Boy Scout (or in my case, army reservist) in all of us. Being prepared is what it's all about.
Am I prepared? There's only one way to find out.
Was I prepared for the Défi? Yes and no.
Training wise, I could have done much more to prepare. Equipment wise I was prepared for every weather scenario except snow, and I had to be, because the forecast for Montreal on Saturday changed several times in the days leading up to the race. Food and water wise I was "good to go" with a Camelback and at least one calorie-packed energy bar for every hour I expected to be skating. Knowledge-wise I had little clue as to how the course would be, what obstacles to watch out for, and how to pace myself. My best bet was to find a Défi veteran and hang on for dear life.
The one thing I was totally unprepared for was the super-sonic trip through downtown Montreal to get to the Défi on time! Bernard Doth is well known for his tendency to take the lead and pull long and hard when skating, and he is no different driving. Following behind him in my car was an exhilarating experience I won't soon forget!
I wasn't prepared for the massive turnout or the camaraderie of the Défi either. Over 200 skaters were present for the six o'clock start in total darkness, with temperatures hovering just a few degrees above freezing. This huge turnout for a non-competitive event with relatively little in the way of promotion. The atmosphere was different -- more like a social skate than a serious competition. People were there to have fun and challenge themselves, rather than each other. I ran into a number of familiar faces from TISC, Roller-Montreal, and parts beyond. Rod Willmot, Lanny Totton, Eric Gee, Bernard Doth, Pan, and others. OUISC was represented by four skaters: Inga Petri, Jan Riopelle, Lyle Adams, and myself.
Finally, at six o'clock, the countdown "trois, deux, un.." and we were off.
The first leg was mostly baby-bottom smooth bike path closely following the river. Volunteers had set up flares at crucial points to light the way, which, combined with the darkness and the silence of the sleeping city, gave a surreal feel to the event. We soon fell into a steady, relaxing cadence.
The bike path ended and we skated through city streets as dawn approached. After the first checkpoint we passed through upper-class neighbourhoods with huge mansions and new development, which unfortunately meant some dirt and gravel on the road. Our Ottawa pack consisting of Lyle, Inga, Jan and myself, grew in size as we picked up skaters here and there. Lyle took a tumble but quickly recovered and rejoined us. Lanny was suffering from a sore back and we soon caught up to him, then Rod Willmot. Our group at one time numbered 20 or 30 skaters, loosely arranged into packs of 3 to 5 or so.
After about an hour we encountered the one serious uphill of the entire course, which was made worse by washboard pavement and a light rain which made the oil and dirt rise to the surface. Montrealers refer to this section as their version of A2A "gatorback country". Unlike the A2A gatorback, there were no dogs pulling 20 feet of chain behind them, so I was thankful for that. As we climbed, the groups splintered into well defined packs. At the top I found myself with Rod Willmot, three other Montrealers, and Ed from Brooklyn NY. After the hill we crossed three short sections of gravel road. I used the same technique we use in Gatineau for skating on the grass shoulder and, to my surprise and relief, it worked. Unfortunately for Ed, the gravel was the straw that broke his back and he soon dropped off.
We picked up Pan (Pan Fry!) then Eric Gee a little while later. Both had underdressed for the occasion. Eric didn't bring enough (or any?) food, and when we passed by an intact energy bar on the path shoulder, he almost stopped to pick it up. Fortunately our group had food to spare and Pan secured a jacket from someone and we carried on.
Our pack started to grow again in size. We re-joined the inliners with the "Stamina" jerseys we had skated with earlier in the day and picked up some stragglers here and there until we numbered about 20 or so.
Hour five: we crossed several busy intersections. At one point, the group dashed across a four-lane highway to enter a bike path and I was stranded on the other side. Several times the oncoming lanes were clear and I started to cross, only to find there was too much traffic moving too fast in the opposite direction. Darn Montreal drivers! They must have gone to the same driving school as Bernard Doth and Jacques Villeneuve. I felt like the frog in the video game "Frogger". Not wanting to get squished, I played it safe, biding my time for a break in traffic before crossing. I could see the pack growing smaller and smaller in the distance. The Agony! Finally, the heavy traffic lifted and I sprinted across like a porcupine on highway 17 caught in the headlights of a tractor-trailer, which is to say, not very fast, but with lots of effort.
The sprint wasn't over. I had to play catch-up for the next five minutes before I was back with Rod and the others, only to stumble on some uneven pavement and fall back again. By the time I re-caught up to Rod, I could see a bridge in the distance, which I took as a good sign. "How much further?" I asked Rod. "About 10k to the bridge," he replied. "Excellent," I thought, "we are almost there!"
Not quite. The bridge came and went and we were still skating. I was beginning to think the finish line was not unlike a mirage in the desert: no matter how far you travel, it is still tantilizingly out of reach. We had a number of streets to cross and red lights to run before we reached the finish line, six hours and thirteen minutes from the start.
Rod had a PB and was pretty happy about that. I was just happy to finish, as I imagine many others were who completed the Défi. It was very painful at the end. However, as I write this report, I know I will be there again next year. The Défi is one of those challenges that every inliner should attempt at least once. The sense of accomplishment of having completed a long-distance event like this is overwhelming. As the organizers will tell you, it's not a competition, but almost all that cross the finish line feel as if they have won something.
To Rod Willmot, Ghislain, and other other Défi veterans I skated with: thank you very much for leading the way and pulling as much as you did and to the Défi organizers and volunteers: thank you very much for an excellent and challenging event and I will see you again next year!
Ray Vermette, #121