Report - Rod Willmot



"The slipperiest Défi in history!" No doubt that's how it will be remembered, especially by veterans, who could tell you a few tales. The rain itself wasn't really that much of a factor, unlike the frigid deluge of two years ago. This time it was almost warm, for anyone used to autumn in Quebec, and by mid-morning the sun had showed up to cheer us on. The leaves though, that's another story...

But let's talk first about that cool start. Robert Fortier and company had gone all out to make sure we set off with pizzazz. All those flares lining the path! I was so taken by the spectacle I was actually glad the world was shiny-wet to reflect the flames.

Sploosh... the first deep puddle. Sploosh... another even deeper, but though my knees were soaked my feet stayed perfectly dry. I really laughed. For the rain at least I was well prepared, having written the article on How to beat the rain. Thanks to my system my boots stayed dry to the end, yet I could still tighten my laces without ripping everything apart. At the 2nd checkpoint I saw one skater tearing off his plastic bags, since obviously it wasn't going to rain anymore. But what about the ponds awaiting us later on? Like the one just before the end that welcomed the survivors of Défi 2002? We ought to give it a name, like Victory Lake.

But those leaves... They figure large in everyone's report, so instead of telling the story of my incessant slipping and how frustrated I was at not being able to push, let me just remind you that they were pretty as hell. Whether still up in the trees or under our wheels or cleverly making the path invisible, those were some lovely autumn leaves! Along the way I heard a lot of exclamations about the scenery (more than about the slipping, actually). I'd already decided the night before that there'd be no point in going all out, so my goal for the day wasn't to finish fast but to enjoy the whole process to the max.

"Enjoy it... enjoy it.." I kept telling myself. Especially when another aborted push produced nothing but another slip. But I enjoyed myself in different ways, for example whenever something crazy happened. Remember the road-kill just meters from checkpoint 2? I needed to stop for water, so there I am braking snow-plow fashion when suddenly I'm slipping, in an instant I see the guts and smeared flesh and change tactics to roll straight-up - and then I smell it: skunk! One more second of braking and I would have fallen right in the middle of that. Which wouldn't have been so good for the reputation of the skating community, since I would have stunk like hell for the next 78 kilometers.

Poor skunk... Does that explain why there were only 3 volunteers at that checkpoint? ...Really the number of volunteers was amazing this year. Always friendly and super-helpful, they were really appreciated. (Thanks everybody!) I was equally impressed by the care taken at certain places to mark the course, for example at the intersections through the linear park alongside Notre-Dame. (I will never understand that tiny minority of individuals - one or two every year - who insist on breaking the rules through there. Staying in the street to gain time, what exactly do they gain by it? Their time at the end is meaningless, for they've lost the whole Défi by short-changing themselves.)

Specially neat things this year: number one, the prowess of fellow Sherbrooke resident Nicholas Ratté (#108), who skated the entire course backwards. It was amazing to watch, especially considering the countless pitfalls of the roads we had to deal with. Yet only the sidewalk along Notre-Dame managed to slow him down enough for my group to pass him. He had stopped for a moment, maybe a bit exasperated but still smiling.

Also very cool were the trails through the woods in Sections 3 and 4, where the leaves were so deep there were times you could only guess where the trail went. My companions tended to get worried at those places, especially when we had a nice sweet curving downhill beckoning us to try our luck. But I've got this thing about downhills, so I just let go and never had a problem, while my more cautious friends were the ones who fell! These serpentine trips under the trees were magical for me. At a trivial climb where I had to go onto the grass and walk up just to get anywhere, I didn't really mind that Lady Nature said slow down. It was fun, and awfully pretty.

Several skaters mentioned later that their teams didn't hold together this year, and I experienced the same phenomenon. My theory is that skaters who normally would have skated together all the way were affected quite differently by the slippery conditions. Some were able to adjust their technique without too much trouble, others kept slipping no matter what they tried. There were stresses that affected some bodies worse than others, even when they were equally strong. Thus whatever teams may have formed early on tended to fall apart, and even friends became separated. The good side was that at one time or another I skated with a lot more people.

Till somewhere into Section 3 my comrade up front was Ed Leung from Toronto Inline, whom I met this summer at a marathon there. Young and strong, he pulled hard and we worked well together. (He was thrilled with the Défi, saying there was nowhere in Ontario with skating like this.) Louise Bussière, whose first race ever was the 24-hour relay in July, was in my group as far as Senneville, where the hill and the rugged asphalt pulled her back. For a stretch in Section 3 I was with Francis Ross and Mélissa Vézina (we were moving it!), till Francis started having trouble and we separated. Bruce Winham from Vermont was with me all the way from the start till just after the final checkpoint, when an abrupt change of speed left him suddenly far behind. My teammate from last year, Denis Lessard from Trois-Rivières, burned himself out by starting too fast; a teammate again in Section 4, all at once he wasn't there anymore. Tough days are like that.

It was a really nice surprise when Giuseppe Lanovara caught up to us in Section 3. After a few minutes I asked if he wanted to join us, and soon we were working together. The truth is he was doing by far the most pulling, giving the impression he could go on forever. I should have gotten the message when he said he wanted a 15-minute break at checkpoint 3 under the Pie-IX bridge. 15 minutes! Setting off alone, soon I was in a re-formed group with Bruce, Denis, Véronique... But eventually Giuseppe caught up to us again - and again started doing most of the pulling - which goes to show how hard this guy could skate.

It was in the final section that a Lone Skater looked like he wanted to join us. It was Charles Désautels, whom I'd noticed from time to time ever since checkpoint 1, moving along well, calm and strong, always alone, very clearly enjoying his Défi. After resting a few minutes behind us, he took off in front. To leave us behind? Perchance to pull? You never know with Lone Skaters, because even when their intention is to pull they always take off way in front! Immediately Giuseppe jumped out to go after him, and I let loose with a sprint to reel them both in. Bruce however had no chance at all - he'd just been pulling and was exhausted.

And up went the speed. Charles was going fast, Giuseppe was going fast, and even though I wasn't strong as them I had all the speed I needed to follow closely. Up went the fun! I realized with delight that for the first time since the start I was skating my way, without holding back. It was exhilarating, the kind of skating I love.

All at once there was the horrible sound of an impact, followed by the screech of tires. Charles had connected with a car going by fast. This was on Notre-Dame, that disgusting section where you're skating on the sidewalk, which this year was covered in stones and debris and in a couple places had construction. Though we had to step briefly into the street two or three times to get around an obstruction, at this particular moment we were back on the sidewalk - me and Giuseppe at least. I don't know how Charles came to be so close to that car. Had he tripped? Did the driver change lanes without looking, or get the idea he'd put a scare into some athlete? Luckily Charles didn't seem to be hurt at all - he hadn't been thrown down. The car however had a broken mirror and some scratches. The driver insisted on calling the police, and with commendable good will Charles agreed to stay.

A minor accident, as it happened: the cop let Charles go on to finish his race. However - friend Charles wasn't wearing a helmet... And each time I relive this episode I can't help thinking that if those two moving objects - an automobile and a human being - had been closer by just a centimeter, the minor accident would have been at the least quite serious. Serious with a helmet. But without a helmet, potentially catastrophic. One single centimeter and Charles would have been spun around and thrown against concrete or asphalt. This kind of thing you can't train for. But you can wear a helmet.

We're always telling people that if you want to do the Défi you have to wear a helmet, yet there are always some individuals who just don't get it. Occasionally someone writes me to ask, "Do I really have to wear a helmet at the Défi?" And I answer at length and with fervor, because I care about skaters and I want them to go on skating happily for the rest of their lives. Sometimes I convince my correspondent, sometimes not. I can only hope that if Charles and his loved ones read these words, they will reflect that life, and the capacity to live it to the full, are worth more than this addiction to skating bare-headed.

But let's get back to the Défi... People always talk about how rough the last section is, but I maintain that the last 8 km are pretty darn nice. By the time you reach the Jacques-Cartier Bridge you're more or less out of the wind, the skating is good and varied, and even the quick little rests imposed by red lights are acceptable. Most of all, you know you only have 8 more to go, which quickly becomes 6, then 3... You can let loose! Giuseppe had expended a little more effort than he should have, but he was a go-for-it guy like me so we blazed the trail for each other, going as fast as we could. I think he'd have fun with the gang in Roller-Montréal.

Another memorable moment at the little green bridge in the Old Port: we're going down carefully, knowing we have to make that double hairpin at the bottom, when a skater just ahead of us loses control and goes flying out of the curve - SHLANG! - into the wire fence. He wasn't hurt, on the contrary he hung onto that fence like a cat on a window-screen. It was like a fanfare to celebrate the finish... (Fence-player: Lyle Adams of Ottawa Inline, who finished a few minutes after us. Thanks for the music, Lyle!)

One last sploosh through Victory Lake, and we were done. So as you can see, in spite of the insanity of skating through Leaf-World, not to mention the sadism of my boots of which I'll say no more, I achieved my goal at this Défi - to have a ton of fun. For that, as I've done every year for the last 7, once again I'll thank Robert Fortier and his wife Diane along with those wonderful volunteers. A huge thanks too to everyone I skated with, you guys added plenty to the pleasures of the day.

Rod Willmot, #60