Défi de L'Île de Montréal
128 km on inline skates
[Translated by Rod Willmot] Défi 2004 started like most of the ones I've taken part in, meaning in the deep dark of the early morning, except with rain added to the mix to make things tougher. 5h55... I head for the starting line, where I join the gang of crazies who have come together to celebrate this annual autumn pilgrimage. Robert Fortier's son gives a brief talk about skating the course safely, then off we go (and I'm not at all warmed up).
We take off along the dark trail, heading west, there are leaves everywhere, it's raining and it's slippery. The lead pack takes shape. Peter Doucet from Toronto is with us and takes a few photos of our lovely morning outing. There are about twenty of us doing everything we can to stay up at the front: Robert Mitchell, Sébastien Houle, Said Rahim, Jonathan Royer, Nick Zacchia, Morgane Echardour, Peter Doucet, Yann Gaudreault, Alain Bisson on bike and a few others. But already at Lasalle the rain and the leaves are claiming victims.
Lachine Canal, the speed stays high thanks to the regular rotations of our strongmen. Unfortunately my back and my lack of a warm-up soon make me leave the lead pack, or rather it leaves me and I watch it disappearing into the darkness. Powerless, I let them go without saying anything, for I can see the approaching end of my Défi 2004, I'm just looking for a decent place where I can drop out quietly. But giving up is just as hard as continuing alone in the darkness. My friend Yann Gaudreault from the club has also let the pack go on ahead. I catch up to him, his ankles are hurting, he didn't warm up either, so we keep each other company for a few kilometers; but his speed is beyond what I can do today, and again I start thinking about quitting. I slow down, and slowly he gets further away.
Soon I'm in Dorval, the end of the linear park at Lachine. I'm rolling along Lakeshore, suddenly Peter Doucet, Morgane Echardour and an American (Sean Bratton) catch up to me from behind. They offer me a nice warm spot to hang out in their group (not that it's much easier, I still have to skate). Five, ten minutes go by, I recover a little, long enough to take my turn up front; but it doesn't last long because my back is fragile, and finally I let them go on because Peter is pulling too hard for me today. Alone again on the road, but my friend Alain Bisson had stopped to repair his bike, and now we join up to carry on together. "Cool" I say, "come and keep me company" (the idea of giving up had started to dissipate in the daylight).
Alain hadn't intended to get up on this particular morning, for the rain was a "no, no" coming from his lips at 4h00 in the morning - we'd promised to call each other before heading over to Verdun for the start. But Alain was easily persuaded by a guy who was going to do the Défi whether it rained or not. I already had a few rainy long-distance skates under my belt: Athens to Atlanta (140 km), the 2002 Défi (128 km), Mont Laurier to Labelle 2003 (88 km) among others. So Alain would turn out to be a key piece in the puzzle of this day of skating, which was beginning to seem like a roll through the West Island.
Soon we'd reached the end of the island of Montréal, to be precise Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, where now a group of about 10 skaters had us in their sights. They caught up to us at MacDonald College, just before the middle of Ste-Anne. We stayed together as far as the famous Senneville hill. This group included François Leclerc, Robert Landry, Bernard Doth, Patrice Bance from British Columbia, a few others. I remember that later the group fell apart into smaller groups. The climb was hard and slippery, but I held my speed right to the top, where I looked around and realized that nobody was with me. So I decided to keep skating at my own speed, which in my view is the best way to go since each of us has his own speed at which he's most efficient and effective. The extremely rough section of road that follows that hill makes it imperative to skate well so you can get out of hell as quickly as possible.
Then I see Peter and Morgane about 400 meters ahead of me. I say to Alain, "Let's catch them," but I could see they weren't really skating, and in minutes I was beside them. Morgane said her ankles were killing her, the slippery conditions had taken their toll in scrapes and fatigue. Alain and I continued on and soon were joined by Patrice Bance and Sean Bratton. We skated nearly the whole of section 2 up to Pie-IX Bridge, i.e. checkpoint 3. When he got to the bridge, Alain decided he'd earned a rest. For my part, I'd recovered the bag of food I'd hidden the night before in a bush not far from the bike path, and without saying anything I went on alone. As soon as Alain realized that we'd left without him, he took off to catch up to us. From this point on the pavement was nice and dry, so we could pick up the speed and try to make up the time we'd lost in the various parks where the path had been covered with leaves. Gouin Boulevard was really nice because we had the wind behind us, so I could relax my back and get ready for the home stretch along Notre-Dame.
End of section 4, we're at Sherbrooke and 81st avenue, the other skaters have stopped to get food along the way so from the start of the section I'm alone. Alain however has loaded up on the bananas and other surprises in my bag. Now we're on Notre-Dame in the headwind, the trail is good, I seem to see three skaters far ahead but they're moving fast and I won't see them again. I stay in my zone, keeping the fatigue at bay. Alain too is pretty quiet, just turning the pedals without asking where we are, unable to do much more than follow. Slowly we cross the kilometers to get closer to our goal. Then a van draws up beside us, surprised I recognize a friend, she lowers her window and says something but not a word gets through my head, too tired, back-ache on top of it.
The van moves away as so many others have done before. Alone again... And then we see the same van ahead but this time parked beside a guy sitting on the ground who bears a strange resemble to big Bob (Robert Mitchell). In fact this guy, he's holding big Bob's skates in his hands (what a coincidence ha-ha). I stop to help my friend Bob and find out what could have made him drop out, because he had a 10-minute lead on the other skaters in the lead pack, at least whatever was left of it. Bob tells me's completely done in and can't go on, he ran out of food and drink a long time ago. He had to drop out, he said he gave it everything for 3h45, he'd skated a solo breakaway all the way from Senneville hill. I took my leave of Bob and went on my way because the hardest part still lay ahead.
Alain stayed with Bob a little longer, but he would pay dearly for those few seconds, for the wind has more effect on a bike than on a skater. Out of breath and nearly 10 minutes later, Alain showed up behind me to take advantage of my draft. "So there you are," I said to him; we were in the refinery area, where there's nothing but wind and cars. Then the Port of Montréal and Hwy 25, then the "lovely trail" on the sidewalk, which I kept having to jump off of because there were cracks everywhere. Finally the corner of Dickson and Notre-Dame, a dangerous corner, in fact there'd been an accident there just before we went by. Once on the north side and the trail through the linear park, we were in the part we all love to hate: the bricks and the weather-warped bike-path, oh god my poor feet, ouch my toes.
After that torture-section, the Jacques-Cartier Bridge heralds better pavement. Here's a little rise, the one on Réné-Lévesque at the corner of Amherst, then the downhill on Berri through the traffic of 11h50 on a Saturday morning. Finally the Old Port, and this section is fabulous because we pass so many people who have come to sight-see, not one of whom has a clue that we've just spent 124 km in our skates. Right now it feels like we have the right of way, we're like a top-priority vehicle in Mille Bornes (Make way, get over, I've got a race to finish, can't stop, diplomatic immunity, orders of the president, well I'm rambling, it's in my head, too much Robaxacet mixed with Gatorade).
Suddenly I seem to be hallucinating, not surprising with all the muscle relaxants taken since the start: before me I see my friend Said Rahim from the club, he seems to be skating real slow. I pull up to him, I can't restrain myself from giving a shout. (I wanted to surprise him, ha ha Familiprix, imagine the look on his face.) But I was so excited at seeing a guy from the lead pack, so I shouted "SAID!" He turned around, but Said was not in good shape. He looked half-dead like me. He said he hadn't had any fluids for a long time; without hesitating I handed him my bottle of Eload (electrolytes, sodium, etc.), then we did the last few kilometers together. I stayed with him because he was confused and didn't know the course anymore. Alain suggested we should finish with the three of us together, Alain in the middle. So we crossed the finish line and it was a pretty euphoric moment, I'd finally finished the 2004 Défi, woohoo.
For me this was the hardest Défi I've ever done, but it proved to me once again that nothing beats training and perseverance, especially in the darkest moments when the only solution seems so simple: to give up, throw in the towel. But to quit after so much hard work, so many sacrifices, so many long hard skates, I would have regretted that for the rest of my life because in spite of everything it was a great opportunity to skate with our peers, enthusiasts like us. So you have to find a reason to carry on. Why do we skate? Firstly because we enjoy it, then to stay in shape, and because we meet people who share the same disease as us, the skating fever.
I want to congratulate Sébastien Houle for finishing first at his first Défi, good job, and to all you skaters, you who took part in this annual happening, a thousand times Bravo!
I'd like to thank the organisers of this Autumn Classic, Robert Fortier & family, along with the volunteers who cheered us on through the hard parts, giving us water, taking down our numbers, telling us our time; and thanks especially to Alain Bisson who was my lifebuoy since without him I would have taken a bus on Lakeshore Road. Thanks and see you next year.
Charles Beaudoin, #76