The place Montreal (the Verdun arena), the time 6AM its dark, its cold and I’m thinking what the hell is with this -4C wind chill?!
Let me rewind a bit A couple of weeks ago I decided (after some cajoling from skater friends) to try out the Defi race for the first time. In the past I had always avoided this race; its after my main competitive season, and right before off season training, so I typically just take a rest. Also, I had heard so many horror stories, bad pavement, pot holes, crappy conditions like rain, freezing temperatures, wet leaves etc. But I thought I should finally give a try.
After a 4:30AM wake up (this in itself is painful!), we got to the Verdun auditorium a little ater 5Am, signed in, got an event t-shirt and then geared up. Fortunately this is all inside the arena where its warm Several of the usual suspects were in attendance, skaters I know from either Toronto, Montreal or the US. Lots of local skaters from Montreal showed up for the “little skate” that was about to start.
Officially Defi is not a race; its a tour around the island of Montreal. But, with a good number of competitive skaters in attendance its not long before the pack gets the itch to go a little faster. Defi was no exception; even though it was pitch black outside (sun doesn’t come up until 7AM), skaters were eager right from the start line.
This is not to say they were hyper competitive though. Defi is a different kind of event. The atmosphere is just a lot more co-operative and skaters seem to be more focused on having fun and enjoying the course rather than being outright competitive. This is part of what makes Defi a great event to attend. The group as a whole tries to be safe and inclusive before being competitive.
Despite the fact that the first hour of skating is at race pace, highly technical and in the dark, no one had any falls or collisions (that I know of). I fell later in the race but not during the first hour. The first hour is hairy. The path is mostly lit by street lights, and skaters are carrying head lamps and reflective lights etc. But even still visibility is far from 100%. On top of this, you have to deal with; the usual pack jockeying (but on a narrow path), obstacles like poles in the center of the path, patches of leaves/twigs, tight turns, wooden bridges, intersections with curb jumping, cobble stone and just general anxiety about something jumping out at you that you can’t see ahead of time because of the darkness.
So, for the first hour I skated very conservatively, often mid pack or more towards the rear, leaving lots of space between me and the skater in front of me. A couple of times this meant having to work harder to deal with the slinky effects of the pack, but the last thing I wanted was to fall and get dropped then not know where to go. The course is a 129km city course that is weaves through steets and paths, all of which are unfamiliar to me. My greatest fear was just getting dropped from a pack and then getting lost.
The first hour, while nerve racking went well though. No major issues aside from the 0C temperature and the -4C wind chill. The pack was moving very quickly, but also slowing down on some of the tougher hairpin turns or maneuvering through gates etc. Safety was given a priority and a pack of 20-25 skaters had formed that was sticking together nicely. If I recall correctly there was only one very small gravel section at one of the turns, a small foreshadowing of what was to come later in the course.
By 7AM the sun had started to come up and we made it to the first checkpoint. The pack was together and skating well. We had moved off of the paths and on to the streets. Throughout the course there is skating on both paths and streets, its another technical element because you have to deal with curb jumping and then the usual road skating stuff, pavement quality, traffic, gravel etc.
Over the whole 129Km I think we had to deal with about 1km of gravel all told. Believe it or not we started to develop gravel skating technique! Running through gravel (think 300m starts) it one method, also if you can find hard packed dirt on under light gravel you can just scissor and glide through (keeping your weight on the heels), or you can even skated through it if the gravel is light enough. It still slows you down quite a lot though.
The roads offered other technical issues; turns at the bottom of down hills, lots of lighted traffic intersections, general construction (and lots of it). Several railway crossings, I think 4 or 5 in all. The rail way crossings were very flush though so scissoring was enough to get over them easily. A little more than half way through the course we got to one set of tracks and as I was crossing I heard the bells start up; I looked to my right and saw the light of an engine about 1km away. As I was skating away from the tracks I watched the train go through the intersection…thinking if anyone was behind us trying to join our group they just got shutdown!
Back to the play by play – a little while after the first checkpoint I decided to finally go up front and try out a pull. As I was skating up, one of the Montreal guys warned the skaters up front “attack! attack!” …I was only going up front though, and dropped in directly in front of Damien (from our Rapid Lap Dogs 24hrs team) and made it clear that I was only intending to do a pull. I pulled for a couple of minutes (not at 100%), then came off again. I wanted to start contributing to the pack, but also wanted to pace myself. From previous ultra-marathons I know I’ve been prone to cramping up later in the race.
Somewhere between there and the second checkpoint (there are 4 checkpoints), there was a small hill, a decent enough climb angle, and about 150-200m long. Not huge, but enough to get you breathing At the time I was in front pulling, and Damien decided to attack…I jumped on his wheel and chased him down to the top of the hill and then we skated for a bit after the top. Looking back to see who came with us, there was no one, but we also weren’t so far ahead of several other skaters who had climbed hard up the hill.
So we skated easy and were joined by 5-6 other skaters. At this point the main group had been split up. Later on our group would get whittled down, but this was the biggest split. A little further on Damien, myself and Stephane (skater from Montreal) had slipped away from the pack on a bit of a break away (not really intentional), we talked about it a bit, and then decided to wait for the others. Its a long race, better to keep more people together to share the work. At this point there was Joel and Ed from Toronto, Damien and Stephane from Montreal myself and two other skaters from Montreal who I don’t know (guys if you read this, let me know who you are!)
We skated together for most of the rest the race. Dealing with all the technical stuff on paths, off paths, lots of gravel and lots of intersections, most of which were not at a green light when we went through them. I have to say, the Montreal drivers were VERY forgiving us Although I complain a lot about the gravel, 95% of the course is excellent and much improved over previous years. Most of it is great quality paths, or streets with good to excellent pavement. Some sections were recently paved and you could still smell the paving oil.
About 20min before the third checkpoint we were transitioning from the street to a path, jumping up a curb, at the time I was also carrying a couple of empty Gateraide bottles and looking for a trash bin to toss them near. I guess I wasn’t focused properly and I stepped up on to the path and I caught something and went down on my right knee pretty hard. Tore a big hole in my Bont tights, and dug in some nice road rash on the top and outside of my knee. At the same time my calves decided to cramp up, and it took me about 30 seconds just to be able to stand up.
The Joel and Stephane helped me up, Ed got up after taking a tumble on the grass (he was behind me), no damage to Ed as far as I could tell. Ed gave me an Advil pill, we regrouped and carried on
At checkpoint three we stopped, fueled up and had 1-2 min rest, then got moving again. From there until the end it was non stop skating! About half way to the fourth checkpoint Ed’s cramps got the better of him and he dropped off. My legs were starting to cramp up as well. Through the race though, I had been drinking lots of Gateraid and I was chewing on Shok Bloks about every 20-30min. I am now a firm believer in using these during a race.
I could feel my legs twitching on the edge of cramping, and within 15-20min of wolving down a Shok Blok, the cramping would turn into just burning legs. Burning legs are no fun, but you can deal with it and keep skating. If your leg just locks up and goes into spasm-ing pain mode…your boned. I personally don’t like the gels, you need to wash them down with a lot of water. The Shok Bloks are easy to digest while skating at speed and they work quickly. I highly recommend.
After the fourth checkpoint, we were all pretty tired, but by this point it had become obvious that Damien and Stephane were doing a lot of work at the front and didn’t seem to be suffering as much as the rest of us. In fact Damien kept getting calls on his cell phone and was skating with us at pace while leisurely talking on the phone. Obviously we weren’t going fast enough!
In the last 10K of the race, Damien and Stephane picked up the pace and the rest of us were working hard just to stay on. One of the other Montreal skaters droped off, and then I was at the back behind a Montreal skater and Joel, who was then behind Damien and Stephane. This last segment is a dozen small segments of path that cross intersections some-times straight across sometimes diagonally. This start/stop action is hard on the legs, especially when they are already burning!
The other Montreal skater between Joel and I got tired enough that he dropped back and then I was chasing down Joel to rejoin the pack. After that it was Stephane, Damien, Joel and myself. We skated the last 5K or so sometimes apart sometimes together. Mostly Joel and I (with Joel leading) trying to catch up with Damien and Stephane.
It was tough, a lot of urban skating, dealing with intersections, railway tracks, small ramps, tight pathways, pedestrians and cars. At one point a car cut in front of us to go into a parking lot, and Joel gave him a thump on the trunk for his consideration.
In the last 1Km Stephane and Damien eased up and decided (apparently) that a co-operative finish would be more sporting, and the four of us crossed the finish line together.
All in all a great event. My legs were completely baked and even a day later I was limping around with fatigue, but I hadn’t actually cramped up during the race. Eat something during races! After the race a food reward was in order; Frit Alors for some awesome burger and fries and back in Ottawa, Earl Grey tea and Blueberry Lemon cheese cake at Oh So Good Desserts (best cheese cake in Ottawa yo!)
I did hear that a couple of skaters were advised to stop due to hypothermia, but so far have not heard that there were any major injuries, even with all the gravel. Next year the course should be even better with fresh pavement in place of the gravel. I look forward to trying it again. If the conditions are wet or rainy, I think I would probably not skate it though. For me personally that first hour of technical path skating in the dark is enough risk. Doing that on top of ice or wet leaves is more risk that I can digest.
I highly recommend this event if you are looking for an ultra-marathon to try. Unlike other events, Defi seems to have a much more laid back, inclusive and fun atmosphere about it. Just seems like a friendlier race than any of the others I’ve been too. Try it out, you’ll see