By Martin Cleary
For about 40 years, Ottawa’s bravest winter athletes have marked the first Saturday of February as the date to go head-to-head with Mother Nature.
They’d gather their speed skates, cross-country skis and running shoes and test their skills in the Winterlude Triathlon. And if the weather didn’t co-operate, which has happened often, it would become the Winterlude Duathlon.
But in the aftermath of one of Winterlude’s oldest events, race organizers affectionately labelled this year’s offering ‘Winterlude Whatever.’
The main sport was dropped and replaced by a new one. The date needed to be changed. The event was forced to centralize at one venue. Participation was down.
Ten days out from the start of the event, Rick Hellard, who is co-race director of the multi-sport challenge with Don MacDonald, didn’t like how the pieces of this moving puzzle weren’t snapping together.
The Rideau Canal Skateway, the world’s largest skating rink, wasn’t opened and the forecast for the start of another skating season wasn’t good. That meant athletes looking to train on the canal would be out of luck and the Winterlude Triathlon’s opening competitive leg was in jeopardy.
As the race date drew closer, weather forecasters were sending doom and gloom messages of extreme cold and biting winds for race day, which was Saturday, Feb. 4. As it turned out, Ottawa recorded its coldest temperature, minus 32.2°C, in 100 years and the wind-chill made it feel like minus 40°C.
Time for Hellard and his organizing committee to take action.
The race date was moved ahead one day to Sunday, Feb. 5 at 8 a.m. as the forecast was for more moderate temperatures, less wind and a more athlete-friendly environment.
If the Rideau Canal Skateway wasn’t going to open – and it’s still closed today approaching the second weekend of Winterlude – the competition schedule had to be adjusted. Speed skating was scratched and nervously replaced by snowshoeing, which was making its event debut.
Instead of competing in three different sports at three different locations and passing through two transition zones, the redesigned Winterlude Duathlon was staged at one venue, Mooney’s Bay Park.
But with no skating on the canal and the introduction of snowshoeing, registration took a serious hit. Skating on the skateway is a major draw for the Winterlude Triathlon and not all participants could find snowshoes in their athletic closet. The change to Sunday from Saturday also didn’t agree with everyone’s schedule.
In past years, the event has become familiar with different formats – run-ski, skate-run or even ski-run-ski several times.
On Sunday, 44 athletes went to the start line and 39 finishers received an official time and placement. The original registration had about 70 athletes. The event usually attracts around 200 athletes for the individual race and relay. There was no relay this year.
“I’m not sure (snowshoeing) was the right decision in terms of participation, but it was right for being wintery,” Hellard said in a phone interview.
“But we still pulled off the event with lots of regular participants. The organization went very well. We had a good reception and co-operation with the NCC and Sportstats.ca (timing). All the sports worked out well.”
The Winterlude Duathlon opened with a six-kilometre snowshoe race (twice around a three-kilometre loop) and a 10-kilometre cross-country ski test (three times around a 3.3-kilometre loop).
Mooney’s Bay Ski Centre was a logical choice as the cross-country trails are groomed daily. The athletes followed a trampled down snowshoe course, which ran parallel to the ski trails.
“We were confident of having an event. It was just what sports would be in. If it was just a straight run or ski, we would have done that,” Hellard added. “People who do our race are versatile. They’re able to handle it.”
While the organizing committee survived Winterlude Whatever, Hellard is already looking forward to 2024, which will be the 25th anniversary of the event since he became a race director. Glenda and Alan Jones and the Ottawa Pacers Speed Skating Club organized it for the first 13 years before passing it to the Kiwanis Club, which handed it off to Hellard.
Weather permitting, Hellard envisions a skate, run and ski triathlon in 2024 for the milestone event, which he hopes will include returning to skating the full length of the Rideau Canal Skateway (7.8 kilometres).
Winterlude Whatever also produced plenty of chili, hot chocolate and butter tarts for the finishers and probably, for the first time, there were no items on the lost-and-found table.
Competing in his ninth Winterlude Triathlon in the past 25 years, Dave McMahon of Chelsea, PQ., won the men’s, overall and 55-59 age-group titles in one hour, 12 minutes, 15 seconds. He scored an eight-second win over runner-up Daniel Ribi of Ottawa, who finished in 1:12:23.
Trent Gordon had a personal-best third-place result in his fifth edition of the winter triathlon in 1:21:40.
Erin O’Higgins of Ottawa made her race debut and won the women’s championship in 1:26:09. Lise Meloche of Chelsea, the 2017 silver medallist and 2002 bronze medallist, was second in 1:26:19. Third place went to Tamara Schindeler of Ottawa in 1:30:40.
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Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 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 OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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