PASSING THE TORCH IN RIDING MOUNTAIN
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