On an intellectual level, you can know what to expect from bobsleighing.
Of course, it'll be cramped, chilly, and really flippin' fast.
And on a fairly warm November day, when I climbed into a four-man sled at Whistler Sliding Centre (WSC), it was all of those things. With former Canadian Olympic champion and current Russian head coach Pierre Lueders piloting the craft for the ride, which also included Lueders' interpreter (also on his maiden voyage) and a WSC employee who volunteered to round out the run, I felt like I was in capable hands.
That's not to say I didn't have doubts about my own performance. WSC's Philippe Melun warned me in advance about the G-forces that would be affecting my body. As I would be sitting second, right behind Lueders, it was particularly important to keep my head up (not to bow down aerodynamically like the professionals), and to fight the forces so that I didn't bump into Lueders, who needed full concentration to navigate the track.
The sled includes safety features to minimize harm in the event of an accident — the side of the sled juts up right at the back to be about even with the riders' head levels to create some separation between noggins and the track should the sled flip up. Other modifications to the sled included slightly different blades — "we don't need that extra hundredth of a second," Melun explained — and cushions in the bottom of the sled to make the ride a fair bit cozier.
Before my ride, Melun explained the Bobsleigh Sport Experience Program offered to the public starts the journey seven corners down the track to allow the sled a more gradual acceleration, noting the professionals begin with a steep drop, so it's off to the races with the wild ride beginning immediately.
And instead of having the four riders push the sled and pile in one-by-one, the participants sit down and get their bearings while a WSC employee pushes the sled with everyone in it down the ice.
It was a fine solution for me, as even at a standstill, I had to spend the better part of a minute figuring out where to put my feet and would have been entirely lost trying to make it work as we hurtled along the ice.
The time for adjustment was welcomed, even though it still felt brief to this first-timer — it sure seemed like we were up to speed fairly fast even after nicking the sides in the first few seconds. We eventually maxed out around 125 kilometres per hour.
As we cultivated speed, well, it was a matter of holding on tight. I was instructed to grasp onto two cables on the inside of either side of the sled and not let go until told it was safe — even if the sled had already come to a stop. My fists tightened proportionally to the acceleration, but the inverse wasn't true after we'd stopped. Still processing events, my brain took a couple of seconds to send the message to my hands that it was OK to let go.
Sitting in the second position, I was able to get a sense of the track and intuitively figure out how to brace my body for each approaching twist and turn in the track to avoid getting shaken around too vigorously. I hadn't eaten all that much during the day before going on the ride, and I'm still not sure if that was the ideal situation or not. Any space in my relatively empty stomach seemed to be rendered quickly non-existent as the walls conformed around the oatmeal, raisins and coffee that happened to be in there. I can't say whether that would have been the case had there been anything else in there, or whether I would have been wiping half-digested peanut butter and jelly from the inside of my helmet, but let's just say I wouldn't take the trip after gorging on unlimited sushi before the ride.
Once the sled stopped and it was safe to dismount, I walked out onto the platform and let out a "Woo!" made up equally of exhilaration and relief.
After having my photo taken for Facebook posterity with me standing triumphantly on the podium with the sled's time (42.39, for anyone keeping score at home) flashing on the marquee, and watching a couple more runs, I was asked if I wanted to go again.
Well, of course!
This time, though, I was the last to enter the sled, assigned to the fourth position. All three riders were about my height, so this ride went a little bit differently. Not being able to see the turns in real time affected my ability to brace myself in the same way I could in the first go-around, as I rammed my shoulders into either side of the sled. Though many things about the ride are similar to a roller coaster, this wasn't one of them. At an amusement park, you can barely move as you're strapped into your seat, but in this case, there is a little rumbling around. Maybe it's the adrenaline, but it wasn't and didn't become painful. It was just a part of the ride that goes with the thrill-seeking territory.
The Winter Bobsleigh Experience at Whistler Sliding Centre is $169 plus tax. Those looking for more information or to book can visit www.whistlerslidingcentre.com/activities/public-bobsleigh.