Report - Rod Willmot



I'm sure you haven't forgotten those three sweet stretches of gravel on Section 2? Did you know there was a guy who instead of crossing them like a normal person -- walking -- actually sped up, charged onto them like an idiot, and rolled straight across while laughing like a maniac???

Yeah, that was me. There were witnesses. If there's one thing I hate worse than braking, it's walking in skates. The wings under your feet turn into clown shoes... So, at the first stretch of gravel I tested the waters so to speak, but by the third one I took a good run... tilted up on my back wheels... and surfed right through! It was fun... Then I waited for the clowns to catch up.

It was moments like that, like flashes of fire, that kept me going through the Défi this year. Because I have to say, I've never been so tired for so many hours at a stretch, going for at least 50 km in raw survival-mode -- and yet, every now and then something would happen to boost my confidence, make me laugh, or give me a jolt of pure joy.

For the first time -- on my 5th Défi! -- I gave it everything. Usually after races I'm ready to party, but this time, 10 minutes after finishing I just wanted to go to bed. The evening at Magnan's was wasted on me; I kept wishing I could curl up under a table. Which is really cool, when you think about it. Two years ago when I did 6h15 I was thrilled about setting a huge personal best, but I was strong that year, I've always known I could have gone faster. This year, coming back from a catastrophic summer, I would have been happy with just finishing. So to end up with 6h13 felt miraculous... In reality it was thanks to great teamwork, and giving it all I had.

Going back to that gravel: you know, it makes a neat metaphor for how to do the Défi. First of all it's wacky, so okay, we're agreed on the need to be wacky sometimes. Then there's the getting ready, giving yourself momentum. And then just going for it, staying confident -- looking at obstacles not as obstacles but as different ways to get where you want to go. And all the while, wring out as much enjoyment as possible. (I'm convinced that having fun makes us that much faster, and carries us safely over practically anything.)

So then, getting ready. Making a comeback from the summer meant carefully getting myself in shape, mentally as well as physically, and not imposing any stupid expectations on myself. No expectations whatsoever, in fact. Just come along nice and easy, avoiding any risk of getting hurt. And now here's a plug for Roller-Montréal: when you're used to doing our weekend outings -- 60 km or more every Sunday -- you've got a good base of distance in your body. The number 128 doesn't exactly make you tremble.

I got ready in other ways too. Have you read my article on skating in the rain? In case we had another day like last year, I didn't want to have to quit again -- I wanted to enjoy it! So when Charles organized an 88 km adventure on the P'tit Train du Nord, back on the 4th, I was really happy that it was cold and wet. Gave me a chance to check out all the tricks I'd collected. Believe me, on the morning of the 18th my anti-rain gear was set to go! But in the end it turned out dry, and I went with my very best setup for that, which was a good decision in spite of the slippery parts on the West Island.

Finally there was the team. Last year, all the skaters who'd said they'd be on my team took off like hound-dogs in the rain. This year, if somebody wanted to join up with me and start nice and easy like you should, okay, we'd have a good time together. Otherwise... I felt calm, I wouldn't chase after anyone, I'd rather skate it alone like I did on my first two Défis. But I had a good feeling about my new buddies. With Ghislain Pelletier and Xavier Raclin I had the makings of a genuine team, and the fact that I knew we'd be faster than they thought was a very good sign.

Saturday at last, we find each other in the dark... Very nice, nobody in my group goes rushing off... After a while the relays begin, and besides Ghislain and Xavier the group includes Isabel Camara and Ed Leibnitz from New York. Soon we're following Sue Hayward along the trail. I ask if she wants to skate alone or in a team, and for a long while she stays where she is, up front, skating exactly the way she likes best. I encourage my group to tuck in behind, take advantage of her pull. That's the approach I'll take throughout the day -- getting my team to rest whenever possible.

Early in Section 2, Ray Vermette comes up from behind, pulling his Ottawa team and a few others. We've all teamed up before in races, and Jan and Inga are my favorite people west of the Ontario border. But geez, to tell you the truth, right now there are too darn many of us! What are we gonna do? ...For several minutes we're in each other's way, because Jan and Inga and Lyle Adams all want to be up front with Ray, and I insist on being in the same place, and my guys want to stay together too! I start talking about splitting up, keeping the two groups a few meters apart so we can keep our rotations and not risk tripping each other. In the end it's the Senneville hill that sorts things out. Ray, Ghislain and I go up easily, but even though we wait at the top for the others, spaces have opened up. On the other side, Ray and I fly down together like a bullet while most the others are more cautious. Not long after that Ray observes that the split-up I was talking about seems to have happened. Our team now was the fastest skaters from both.

Ed Leibnitz kept with us for a while, but at one of the first intersections on Pierrefonds Boulevard he said, "I'm so tired, I think I'll take a break." He hadn't complained at all till then, so I thought he was joking! A while later I realized he wasn't there anymore, and wished I'd said good-bye. Meanwhile, back before the checkpoint Denis Lessard had come to join us, and for the next 80 km or so that was our team: Ray, Ghislain, me and Denis. And a close-knit team it was.

Even in Section 2 I'd felt how weak I was compared to other years. By halfway through Section 3, damn, it was getting tough! I felt ashamed that I couldn't pull for very long, but I told myself I was contributing in other ways: keeping the team together, not letting Denis burn out too fast, knowing the course, the distances and some of the traps to watch out for. Each of us did what he could. Then we came across Pan, dressed practically for summer, so cold that he hadn't been able to skate well and had dropped out of the lead pack. He was pretty demoralized and for a few minutes just hung in behind us, but soon he wanted to pull, and he ended up helping us a lot. At the third checkpoint someone gave him a jacket, and near the end of Section 4 I gave him my gloves. To think I'd started the day too hot! For three hours I'd skated with my sleeves pulled up, my gloves in my pocket, my jacket unzipped...

As I said earlier, for a good 50 km all I could do was survive. It's true. More and more I wondered if I'd have the strength to take my turn up front, and when my turn came I was amazed that I could do it at all, even if it was less than a minute. I consoled myself by thinking that if I had to drop out there were at least thirty friends coming along behind, so I wouldn't have to finish alone. Then I looked at my watch and realized what a terrific pace we'd been keeping. If I could stay as long as possible with the team...

At the start of the final section we caught up to a long train being pulled by team Stamina from Victoriaville. They'd all started out too fast. As soon as we got onto Notre-Dame I said to the guys to rest up, let the train do the work for us. Sometimes team spirit has to be selfish! In other circumstances we would have worked together, but after 100 km our groups were well defined. We took it easy behind them for at least 15 minutes, not just being pulled but going slower too. Finally it was Ray who made the captain's move: at a turn where the train spread out he moved up to go in front, and naturally I took off after him with Ghislain and Denis close behind. Even though I wished that I could have kept resting, I knew he'd done what was best. But my physical condition was getting more and more desperate. When Ghislain said he might have to leave us, I told him to let me know because I'd drop back with him -- the pace was too fast for me. The effect of this little pact was to boost our morale, since neither of us ever gave up.

I began using every trick in the book to keep going. I tucked in as close as possible to whoever was ahead. I drank, ate, pulled down my sleeves to conserve heat, stopped peeking out to check the road, confident at least that I could roll over anything. In any case I was having more and more trouble seeing, as if my glasses were all fogged up (they weren't). Later on Robert Fortier said that others had reported the same phenomenon. I think it was due to the heavy cloud-cover, our dilated pupils letting in too much non-visible light.

Ray and Ghislain didn't have things easy either. There was one surprise turn to follow the railway that I managed to make in a fraction of a second, but Ghislain didn't. He had to work hard to catch up again. And Ray has recounted in his report how he got trapped at the corner of Dickson and Notre-Dame, watching the pack disappear. I do remember asking at various times, "Is Ray there?", "Is Ghislain there?". But I was in no condition to reassemble the troops. Where Ray was concerned, I thought he had all the strength in the world, so if I was up front then surely he must be close behind! (The "trouble" with Ray is, he never looks tired! He just keeps skating along cool as a cucumber, looking like he's holding back and could take off whenever he felt like it.) As for Denis, it's not surprising he finally lost us. He was skating with his weight on his toes and was constantly stumbling -- even before Notre-Dame.

It was heart and spirit that propelled me along that final section. The word is indeed "propelled", not "sustained". This year I found that the kilometers flew by fast, and each moment lived was a victory. I remembered to drink? Victory. I didn't fall? Victory. Miracle of miracles I was able to pull? Victory!!! I was absolutely the most tired I've ever been in my life, and I was happy as a clam.

It helps to be a veteran Défi skater... The more you've done it, the better you understand the distance, the landmarks, how to measure out whatever you've got left. When Jacques-Cartier Bridge appeared in the distance I said to the guys, "Once we're there it's just 8K more." When we got to Dickson -- it's one of those critical landmarks -- I didn't think twice about deking through the cars with Pan. I think my afterburners switched on there. That linear park alongside Notre-Dame is horrible skating -- the bricks at every corner! -- but this year I loved it. I loved those crossings where I shouted to the guy ahead not to slow down, just go. I felt pushed by a joyful eagerness, a new strength. And climbing that bridge over the railway I discovered my legs were working again, it was easy! The closer we got to the finish, the less tired I felt. Unbelievable.

Once again I have to thank the man who created this beautiful beast called the Défi, Robert Fortier, along with Diane and all the other volunteers. Without you we would never have lived some of the finest moments of our lives.

And my teammates. Denis, bravo -- you skated courageously all the way, and I hope to see you soon (with a helmet!) in Roller-Montréal. Ray -- till next time, you know I'll always be proud to team up with you. And Ghislain -- that hot tub you've got has no equal on this earth, as I know the others who were there Saturday will agree; but the real pleasure was skating with you.

Rod Willmot, #14