JUST FOR THE FUN OF IT - Athlete Journal by Clara Hughes

Sometimes I wonder about myself, where I get ideas that seem so good at the time. With the season all but officially over, I returned home after the World Championships wondering what I was thinking when mentioning the idea of skating a 10,000m race at the Olympic Oval Finale, the season-closer for speed skating. I not only made the mistake of vocalizing this idea, I took it another step further and convinced training partner Catherine Raney to go the distance with me. My main selling point was that I would pay her entry fee and, oh yah, it would be ‘fun’.

Returning home from Europe Wednesday afternoon did not bode well for the motivation factor with the ladies open 10km a few days alter on Friday night. The fact that it was night, and for my body, morning (my calculations: 3am body-clock time) did not help matters, either. Training for the week entailed shopping in Torino, Italy, where the team spent a few days before coming back, and 5 laps and two accelerations on the ice Thursday morning. My theory was I had enough residual fitness to get me through about anything. At least that’s what I thought…

After lying in bed all day, I left for the oval bitter after failing to sleep as planned in the afternoon. Jet lag does funny things to the body: I loathe it at the best of times and despise it more than ever while setting out the oval, feeling like I was sleep walking.

My best attempts to offhandedly convince Catherine, who I convinced to do the race in the first place, that we should bail out of the race failed and after a bumped up start time, (which we managed to delay after our coaches begged for a resurfacing, knowing my intentions of trying to break a somewhat mythical ‘unofficial’ record set by German skater Gunda-Neiman over a decade before…) we made our way to the line.

I couldn’t help but laugh that we were actually going to skate the 25 lap race. I have seen the distance covered by myriad teammates; seen them suffer through good races and bad, and now it was my turn. Unbeknownst to me, most of our training group came just to cheer us on. Their encouragement was to be invaluable when the race became, as it inevitably does, really, really hard.

From the beginning of the race I felt the rhythm set in. Lap after lap passed and I felt like a metronome, so precise was the pace. After ten laps or so, the encouragement from the coaches changed from early technical cues to ‘STAY AWAKE’ and ‘DON”T FALL ASLEEP’. People have told me that when a skater gets into that 10km zone, it is easy to space out and before you know it the lap times begin to slow. I was lucky that each time that happened, the coaches saw and reacted with these cues that made me refocus and build the next turn, get the rhythm back.

It wasn’t until 11 laps to go that I noticed the lap-counter board. It was a conscious effort that did not allow me to look before that, and when I saw more than half of the race was over and I was ahead of the legendary world record, I knew there was no way I was going to slow down.

At 7 laps to go it really started to hurt. But, like so many times before, I have faced the ultimatum of when the body wants to shut down and the brain has to override all rational thought and desperation. Only, I had never reached that point after so many laps. The fighter in me prevailed, and though I could feel the slobber running down my chin, I ignored the display of suffering that I was and pushed on.

The cheers of teammates pulled me through those last few laps, across the finish line and to the realization that I broke Gunda’s record by three seconds. Even Catherine set a record, chopping over a minute of the USA mark set only the weekend prior. Though exhausted, we felt giddy with the fact that we actually finished the distance. We did it, and it was fun. There was really nothing to gain by doing the race: no prize money, no ‘official’ record, and no glory save for the much appreciated high fives from the team. Yet there was so much to gain.

After the pressure of a long season, in a pre-Olympic year where stress is but a mere fraction of what it will be the following year, it was so beautiful to go and skate ‘just for the fun of it’. Even looking at the time I skated, really, it is nothing compared to the record I broke. Gunda skated that unbelievable race on traditional, non-klap speed skates. I don’t know how she did that, and can only imagine what she could have done with the equipment I skated on yesterday.

And, as Catherine and I both agreed, we’d do it again.

Well, maybe…