Reach For The Stars
"Reach the stars before midnight" - that's the motto of CanadaMan. Midnight seemed like a very distant prospect as the compeitiors gathered at 3:30am, though at least the darkness meant it was easy to see the stars you were aiming for.
As we said in our preview, Daniel Poirier made his vow as organiser to the racers in a short briefing before the start "We will do everything we can to get you to the finish line. It says 'midnight', but we may have racers finishing until 2am - help each other: supporters, help your friends; and we will help you all as much as we can". That help was self-evident along the route, with excellent refreshment stops, hand-ups of water, energy drinks and watermelon pieces staffed by the local community. Plus there were other smaller stops with manned toilets so there was no need to hide in the bushes, and a great feeling of community not just from the racers themselves but from all the villages and townships the race passed through.
After the short pre-race briefing the Mayor of Lac Megantic, Julie Morin, lead the racers from the Centre Sportif out on the 'Wind Walk', a commemorative path which passes the epicentre of the rail crash of five years ago and the destroyed downtown area. Looking at the grassland, the sculptures that line the trail and the boardwalk, you'd be hard pressed to imagine what the centre of town used to look like, just open space, which the racers passed through quietly on their way down to the water.
The mass start swim wasn't too chaotic, with a line of buoys with lights attached stretching out along the width of the lake. Swim tactics in triathlon seem to consist of trying not to get kicked too much, either by going out hard at the front or being conservative and sitting in the pack, and the latter tactic suited CanadaWoman winner Lyne Bessette better this year. The two-time Olympian, who retained her title from last year, knocking five minutes off her swim time despite not going out hard like she did previously, saying it had also helped her legs for the climbs on the bike. The 235 swimmers soon ended up strung out across the course anyway, and perhaps the biggest gains were to be made on the bike route.
We've already said that the bike route was 'undulating', and while this area of Canada isn't as mountainous as the west, the rolling hills provide their own challenges. The climb of 'du Morne' was a particularly vicious example, a two-stage climb with precious little respite between the two ramps, rising over 300m in 13km total, with a final steep kick of 180m climb in the last 3km that reduced a handful of racers to walking.
The entire race route had 11 graded climbs - loosely using the UCI's climb grading - four Cat 5, four Cat 4 and three Cat 3 - but that too doesn't quite paint the picture of how many peaks and troughs the riders had to pass through - topologically, rather than physically or mentally - to get through the race route. Peak temperatures of 26C, little shade out on the road, and intermittent winds of around 20km/h made for a hard time, with racers glad of their support vehicles for refreshment and encouragement. Though I'm not sure the crew driving alongside a rider on the du Morne climb, blasting 'Highway to Hell' at him on a Bluetooth speaker was exactly the encouragement he'd been after. Ditto, the signs reading "Go hard or go home" and (translated) "EPO for Sale. Same as Froome".
Once at the end of the bike, the run began just north of the US/Canada border on gravel road and mountain bike trails. A helpful sign just after the transition offered drivers crossing the border northwards a quick conversion of speed limits from kmh to mph, though I assume few of the race support crews needed the reminder. The early sections were comparatively easy underfoot, but recent thunderstorms meant the ground was still not completely dry, and the few muddier sections sapped the legs of strength they would desperatly need later.
Some open sections along the shoulder of the main roads added to the exposure, and a quick glance up in one section would have afforded runners a glimpse of the Mont Megantic observatory, a distant white spec on the hillside but the end point of their journey. The real trail began at the 33km mark, where the racers entered the Megantic park and a section refereed to as 'Canada Wild'.
This section, and much of the final climb of Mont Megantic itself, used the small hikers trails through dense woodland, and these trails are very much left to be part of the wilderness, with roots, rocks, stream crossings and boggy patches left as nature intended. Hard going for the team runners, who only had a marathon to complete without having done the preceding bike and swim. Harder still for the solo racers with the over 200km under their belts already.
The final climb is a particularly cruel one, jinking in and out between trail and tarmac, and climbing 500m in the final 10km, from the Welcome Centre at the park entrance towards Mont St-Joseph and then across the saddle to finally summit Mont Megantic, finishing with a cruel tarmac ramp up to the observatory itself.
Jérôme Bresson, last year's second place finisher, took the CanadaMan and overall win in 10:59:37, taking just under 8 minutes off Chris Stirling's winning time from last year and nearly 25 minutes off his own previous best. He attested part of the success to taking the start of the run a little easier to allow for a stronger finish, and crossed the line nearly an hour ahead of second place finisher Sylvain Lafrance who came in in 11:54:06.
Shortly behind him was third place overall and CanadaWoman winner Lyne Bessette in 12:02:00. Tthird male finisher was Éric Gauvin in 12:15:39, and the female podium was rounded out by Federica Frontini from Uruguay ahead of Joannie Desroches from Montreal in 14:14:21 and 14:21:12 respectively. The Teams category was won by Mouv C from Shawinigan in 10:35:24, with Le Coureur Siboire from Sherbrooke second in 10:45:52, and local team Les Jeunetrix in 3rd place in 11:19:39.
After a nights sleep, all that is left now is the pize giving, and the long journey back from the stars!
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