PASS­ING THE TORCH IN RID­ING MOUN­TAIN

Triathlon Magazine Canada - - T1 - BY LOREEN PINDERA

HE SMOOTH BLACK AS­PHALT OF MAN­I­TOBA HIGH­WAY 10 STRETCHES AHEAD OF ME LIKE A SATIN RIB­BON CUT­TING THROUGH THE BOREAL FOR­EST. PED­ALLING HARD, I PASS ONE CY­CLIST, GAUGE THE DIS­TANCE BE­TWEEN ME AND THE NEXT BIKE UP THE ROAD AND SCAN THE CRAGGY TREE­LINE FOR ANY SIGN OF MOVE­MENT. THE POS­SI­BIL­ITY OF SEE­ING A BLACK BEAR DOESN’T ES­CAPE ME.

This feels like flight: a wee bit of wind at my back, a curve in the road and just enough of a de­scent to make the ride feel ef­fort­less. I’ve just emerged from the cold, clean water of aptly named Clear Lake, but I’m warm­ing up quickly in the morn­ing sun.

This, of course, was months ago. Clear Lake is a skat­ing rink right now, and High­way 10 through Rid­ing Moun­tain Na­tional Park is snow­cov­ered. But mem­o­ries of the Rid­ing Moun­tain Triathlon last Au­gust spur me on as I pound out the kilo­me­tres on my in­door trainer this win­ter.

With 500 par­tic­i­pants, give or take a few, the Rid­ing Moun­tain event is the big­gest triathlon in Man­i­toba and Saskatchewan com­bined, yet it may be prairie triath­letes’ best kept se­cret. Sur­rounded by pan­cake-flat farm­land, the rugged ge­og­ra­phy of the park it­self is a sur­prise. It rises up sud­denly, a sharp es­carp­ment to the east and a val­ley to the west that stretches out to be­come the Saskatchewan Plains.

“It’s such a beau­ti­ful set­ting,” says El­lis Crow­ston, who, along with his wife Deb, has or­ga­nized the triathlon for the past dozen years. “In Wasagam­ing, where the swim takes place, you can see right across to the north shore of the lake. On the bike course, you are cy­cling on a trail cut right through a mag­nif­i­cent na­tional park for­est. The scenery, those un­du­lat­ing hills – it’s not a flat out-and-back, there are some great climbs. You come off that, and the run is along the lakeshore – From be­gin­ning to end, it’s just this beau­ti­ful at­mos­phere.”

The Crow­stons live about an hour south of Wasagam­ing, in Bran­don, but they have a sum­mer cot­tage at Grey Owl, on the edge of the park. El­lis, 63, was a life­guard at Clear Lake as a teenager in the 1970s. In 1986, a run­ner and out­door en­thu­si­ast named Lau­rie Pen­ton or­ga­nized a triathlon there – one of the first on the prairies.

“Lau­rie had a vi­sion that Clear Lake was the per­fect spot,” says Crow­ston. “So he put on a triathlon, and it’s been go­ing ever since.”

Crow­ston watched from the side­lines for the first few years, but in the early 90s, he bought a sec­ond-hand road bike and gave triathlon a try.

“Twenty years later, I’m still in­volved with this sport,” he says, laugh­ing. “It can be­come an ob­ses­sion.”

Pen­ton even­tu­ally passed on the torch to a leg­endary Win­nipeg track coach, Man­i­toba Sports Hall of Famer David Lyon, who or­ga­nized the race for a decade. Then, a dozen years ago, the Crow­stons, who’d been vol­un­teers at the event for years, agreed to be­come race di­rec­tors.

“We had a vi­sion of what we wanted to do with that race,” Crow­ston re­calls. “We wanted to cre­ate a feel and a look of one of those big-name races that you would have to travel out to B.C. or south­ern On­tario to go to. By hav­ing it here, the av­er­age lo­cal week­end war­riors could come and get that feel­ing.”

The Crow­stons grew the race from 200 par­tic­i­pants to more than dou­ble that, top­ping 500 three years in a row. In 2016, the race took a hia­tus when the park all but shut down High­way 10 for ma­jor road­work.

It was about time. The road had been crum­bling for years, and triath­letes on stiff car­bon frames joked about the beat­ing they took on the bike course – water bot­tles go­ing fly­ing, axles break­ing, hands still vi­brat­ing hours af­ter the race ended. The road’s resur­fac­ing was wel­come, but still, El­lis Crow­ston won­dered if triath­letes would come back when the race did. He needn’t have wor­ried. “It was a huge hit,” he says. “That brand-new, steam­paved road – to get a cy­cling course as nice as that one is now, you would have to go to the foothills of Al­berta or east to Muskoka. It’s a gor­geous ride.”

The new and im­proved course, the balmy weather, the en­thu­si­as­tic vol­un­teers – last Au­gust, it all added up to a near-per­fect race. What the Crow­stons weren’t telling any­one is that they al­ready knew it would be their last

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