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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Mass skating event on Big Rideau cancelled, but Skate the Lake Challenge coming

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic

By Martin Cleary

The COVID-19 pandemic has, not surprisingly, cancelled this weekend’s 19th annual Skate the Lake competition, the winter highlight in Portland, Ont. But memo to the long-blade skaters – keep your skates out.

Skate the Lake is one of the main outdoor long-track speed skating competitions in Eastern Ontario, New York State and New England. The races are held about 100 kilometres southwest of Ottawa, which oddly enough was the distance of its longest race in 2018.

A 16-year-old Jordan Belchos (right) raced in the 2006 Skate The Lake event. On Friday, he won a silver medal in men’s team pursuit at a World Cup event in The Netherlands, a week after earning bronze in the same displine. Photo: ISU/SSC/Getty

The ice on Big Rideau Lake is currently more than 33 centimetres thick and hardy volunteers are using plowing equipment to clear and sweep the snow to create the one-kilometre oval track for the inaugural Skate the Lake Challenge. The oval is scheduled to open next week.

Once the snow is gone and the oval takes shape, their refurbished Olympia resurfacing machine will make its appearance to flood the ice and turn it into a smooth, glassy surface. The Olympia formerly worked at the indoor arena in nearby Westport.

After completing the challenge of building the oval, organizers can initiate the Skate the Lake Challenge, which asks skaters to challenge themselves to skate five, 10, 25, 50, 100 or 200 kilometres during the speed-skating season.

Skaters will need to download the Strava app on their phone and join Skate the Lake Club, which will keep track of their laps around the oval. Or skaters can manually log their laps via

When the outdoor speed skating season comes to an end, the male and female skaters who have completed the most laps in various age categories will be awarded prizes supplied by the Skate the Lake sponsors. Results will be published on social media.

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Sponsors have continued to support Skate the Lake, which attracts 80 to 120 skaters each year. About 25 per cent of its field travels from Ottawa and there also is a good international contingent. Skaters also have mailed cheques to assist oval costs.

It costs between $4,000 and $5,000 to stage Skate the Lake with the majority of dollars being spent on fuel. Since there is no speed skating meet this year, organizers have lost the registration fees, which cover half of their budget.

Safety is always the No. 1 concern for Skate the Lake, whether it’s building and maintaining the oval or staging the races as in the past. But in a pandemic, physical distancing would be almost impossible in any race as skaters travel in packs.

“When they’re out there, it’s hard for the skaters to keep their distance because they’re drafting. They get too close,” said Skate the Lake vice-president Ken Maxwell, adding it also wasn’t safe for spectators to gather on the ice or in Hanna Park.

Skate the Lake organizers made the decision to cancel one of the region’s premier events last summer.

“Initially, it was very disheartening,” Maxwell added. “It’s the biggest thing that takes place in the Rideau Lakes area in the winter.”

Marco Smits, one of the four Skate the Lake co-founders, said “it’s weird, really weird” that one of the region’s main attractions will not be held Saturday and Sunday. He and his wife have lived in Portland for almost 20 years.

“Skate the Lake is not only a great way to show off our village, town and region, but also the volunteers have had so much fun building up to Skate the Lake,” Smits said. “What I miss is working to make it the best event possible.

“We have been flooded with emails and postings on social media. Some people have been to every Skate the Lake. It’s a weekend on their calendar that they look forward to. It’s in the heart of the winter and gives them something to do.”

While the traditional Skate the Lake has been put on a pandemic pause, the organizers thought enough of their event to create a Challenge, which encourages skaters to put on their blades, exercise and see how far they can travel.

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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