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Bill Narasnek conquered the coast to coast cycling challenge
2021-02-06

In the words of the immortal Danny Gallivan, the likes of Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey could go coast to coast as very few others could.

The same could be said for Bill Narasnek.

Though the Creighton born athlete possessed somewhat limited skills on the ice, he would come to excel both as a runner and a cyclist.

In the summer of 1991, the only child born to parents who were both only children themselves (a true rarity at that time) would leave city hall in Vancouver. Thirteen days and six hours of cycling later, he would arrive at town hall - Halifax, establishing a trans-Canada mainland record that would stand for twenty years.

Easily into his forties at the time of his coast to coast adventure, Narasnek had only started cycling, in earnest, less than a decade before. His journey in athletics, however, dates right back to his childhood roots north of Lively.

“My father was always involved in sports: badminton, tennis, bowling, softball, baseball, shinny,” said the 74 year-old current resident of Manitoulin Island. “I was tuned into sports, but in those days, there wasn’t the kind of organized sports that there are now.”

In fact, it wasn’t until high-school, under the tutelage of teacher/coach Cam Desormeaux, that Narasnek would truly develop his base in sports, a key contributor with a handful of varsity teams representing the Lively Hawks. “Basketball was the one that we had the most success with, so the one with the best memories,” he acknowledged.

“We had a lousy football team that whole time I was there as quarterback, maybe one winning season. The school was so small that we just didn’t have enough kids to compete with the bigger schools.”

Though he would leave the area to study at Waterloo for a year, the attraction of full-time work at Inco quickly returned him to his homestead, with Narasnek married and starting a family quite young. It really wasn’t until ten years or so later, with the youngsters becoming increasingly independent, that he would find himself once again immersed in sport.

“I hit thirty and I was thirty pounds overweight,” he recalled. “I grabbed an old pair of basketball shoes and my old football jersey and went out running. I made it for about half a mile the first day and figured this sucks. But I kept at it.”

“I’ve heard that if you keep at running for six months, you will keep at it for life.”

So it was for Narasnek, at least for a few years.

Completely smitten with his new-found passion, he would connect with the likes of the Sudbury Masters Running Club as well as fellow Sudbury Sports Hall of Famer Terry McKinty, progressing to the point where he could not only complete a marathon in a personal best time of 2:41, but also lay claim to the title of Mr Fit Sudbury for the first two years that the Sudbury Fitness Challenge was contested.

Narasnek excelled not only as a runner, but as a race organizer as well. “Terry (McKinty) was a brilliant guy - and he was into everything,” said the man who would cover the 26-mile course in places like Detroit and Ottawa, Toronto and Massey. “I learned so much from Terry and his work with the Northland Athletic Club, with the Fitness Challenge.”

“The most I learned was on the administration side; he was super with that kind of stuff. I was always picking his brain and leaning on him because he was far better at it than I was.”

Unfortunately, Narasnek’s body, at the time, was also sending him a message. Distance running training had taken its toll. Where some might have trouble transitioning to another sporting endeavour, Narasnek would find solace on the bike.

“I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied with running, just knowing how competitive I was,” he said. “I couldn’t get any better as a runner. I couldn’t do it without breaking down, and if I can’t do it, then I was going to do something else.”

Enter coach Battista Muredda and the Sudbury Cycling Club.

“I really started to enjoy the cycling,” said Narasnek. “I had a son that was into cycling, he was with the cycling club, so I started training with them.”

Before long, he was racing the Ontario circuit, capturing a veteran’s A race in 1989 that still ranks as one of his favourite memories in sport. Free time would be spent sifting through cycling magazines, a source that first piqued his interest in the Race across America - and his eventual decision to tackle the Canadian equivalent.

In order to be fully and completely prepared, Narasnek required a multi-dimensional approach.

On the one hand, there was no denying the physical demands that would be placed on his body, spending nearly two full weeks where cycling is consuming anywhere from 16 to 20 hours a day.

“For eight to nine months before the race, my training was at a full-time level,” said Narasnek. “Even though I still worked, that’s all I did - train and work. I even trained at work.” While some who had attempted this type of cross-country challenge did so using a strategy to ride until they dropped, every day, Narasnek treated it more like a stage race.

“You plan out a certain number of kilometres a day that will give you the record and you try and stick to that plan,” he said. “If that means riding 22 hours in a day, that’s what you do. If it’s 15 hours on another day, that’s what you do. You have a plan that will allow you to break the record.”

Which brings us to the second major requirement that would be critical to success.

“There is a big planning issue that goes into this race, it’s a tremendous administrative challenge,” suggested Narasnek. “Without a good support team, you’re going to fail.”

Here, he would catch a break. Beyond the five man crew he had assembled, the Pelmorex Radio Network had freed morning man Rick Malo to accompany the group. Reporting back to Sudbury with regular updates was a given. Yet Malo would offer so much more than that.

“First, he was hilariously funny, so he was good for the morale of the rest of the guys,” said Narasnek. “But he became an intricate part of the team, handling the photography and helping out wherever he could.” Same for the official assigned by the Canadian Cycling Association, whose only true responsibility was to authenticate the record attempt.

As expected, there were ups and downs - physically and emotionally.

While the crossing of the Rockies went better than expected, a rare eastern head-wind crossing the prairies proved a tough pill to swallow. “We had researched the weather; we should have had a strong tail-wind to help push us right across the prairies,” said Narasnek. “But the wind was coming out of the east and stayed that way for three straight days.”

“Those first two days into the wind took so much out of me, I never fully recovered from that.”

Thankfully, an emotional lift would come at just the right time.

“There was a night in Quebec, as we were heading towards Trois-Rivieres,” said Narasnek. “I lost it in the afternoon - I was tired, I was weak, I was leg weary. It was the first time it had happened all trip.”

Narasnek had no choice - he needed to rest. But the two and a half hour delay could put the record at risk. “I decided to try and ride through the night, and it turned out to be a fantastic night. The weather was perfect, people were out partying on the streets - and I never had another episode like that again.”

By the time he arrived in Nova Scotia, the record was clearly in sight. Narasnek jokes that the final five minutes of his journey may have been his favourite - though that is not entirely true.

These days, there is plenty of pride that accompanies his tales of the once in a lifetime adventure.

“I was never going to the Olympics, I was never going to be a national class athlete” - but Bill Narasnek could go coast to coast with the best of them.

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