How Canada’s Most Extreme Triathlon Helped Heal Lac-Mégantic, Que.

Thiago Menuci had never heard of Lac-Mégantic, Que., when he received an invitation to compete in a triathlon there in 2020. Menuci, 40, a coach and endurance athlete from Porto Alegre, in the south from Brazil, was looking for a new challenge after winning Fodaxman in 2019 – one of the most grueling extreme triathlon events in the Americas.

He googled Lac-Mégantic, and only then did he learn of the disaster that had struck the town of 6,000 on July 6, 2013, when a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed, triggering a series of explosions and a blaze that leveled the city center. and killed 47 people.

Nine years later, with reconstruction continuing and residents still waiting for the railroad to be rerouted through an industrial park on the outskirts of town, Lac-Mégantic spells tragedy for most Canadians. But for triathletes like Menuci and his wife, endurance athlete Daniele Crivalero, 42, Lac-Mégantic is on the map not because of what happened, but because it is the home of CanadaMan/Woman – an endurance event few can aspire to complete.

« It’s an opportunity to be in a very beautiful and special place, » said Crivalero, who arrived early last week with Menuci for the July 3 race, to give himself a few days to test his legs on the hills around Lake. « It’s a race where the competition is an internal challenge: facing ourselves, our own difficulties. »

Just preparing for the race — the toughest she’s faced so far — means digging deep, Crivalero said.

« It takes enormous physical, emotional and spiritual growth. »

Daniele Crivelaro, left, raced as an assistant to her husband, Thiago Menuci, over difficult terrain at XTri Fodaxman in the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina in 2019. After winning the race, Menuci was invited to CanadaMan/Woman, but due to the pandemic he had to wait two years before he and Crivelaro could travel to Canada. (Submitted by Daniele Crivelaro)

« In terms of one-day effort, this is by far the toughest triathlon in Canada, » said Kevin Mackinnon, former professional triathlete turned coach and editor of Triathlon Magazine Canada, after attending the fourth edition of the event, which has been moved from July 2021 to October due to pandemic restrictions.

Water temperatures of 12C at this time of year meant a shortened swim – 1,500 meters instead of four kilometers – but the autumn colors were on full display, a welcome distraction for participants climbing 2,500 meters on the 180-kilometre bike course, then climb 1,500 meters in the marathon that ends at the astronomical observatory at the top of Mont Mégantic.

Sunday’s race is the fifth edition of the CanadaMan/Woman Xtri event, and for Jean-Thomas Boily, director of operations for Endurance Aventure, it’s something of a comeback. The 2020 race had to be canceled and last fall’s race was off-limits to most foreigners due to continued uncertainty over travel and public gatherings.

“Last year we had, I think, one or two athletes from outside the country,” Boily said. « This year people are coming from Norway, from Colombia, a lot of people from the United States »

« So, indeed, it’s a relaunch, and we’re really happy to be up and running. »

A middle-aged man wearing a chef's hat sits outside in a wheelchair with a camera in his lap.
Jean-Thomas Boily, seen here at the October 3, 2021 CanadaMan/Woman event, said the July 3 race is something of a comeback, now that international athletes can count on entering the country to compete. (Kevin Mackinnon)

Boily, a former cross-country skier and Paralympic cyclist, co-founded Endurance Aventure in 1998 with his high school friend Daniel Poirier, a long-distance triathlete and outdoor enthusiast who, like Boily, grew up in Magog, 125 kilometers to the east. from Montreal. Together with race director Bastien Michau, originally from France, they have organized more than 250 events, notably in China and in Quebec communities as far away as Kangiqsualujjuaq and Umiujaq in Nunavik.

« It must have been difficult »

Boily and Poirier wanted to organize the first North American event demanding enough to be hosted in the brand new XTri World Tour, a series of extreme triathlon events that began in 2003 with Norseman, a long distance triathlon in Norway. This race, which takes place every August, begins with a pre-dawn dive off the back of a ferry into an icy fjord and ends 1,880 meters above sea level at the top of Mount Gaustatoppen.

“We wanted a region that, for people coming from outside the country, symbolized the idea of ​​Canada. So big swaths of forest, good roads and, to qualify for XTri, it also had to be tough.

They immediately thought of the spectacular landscape around Lac-Mégantic.

Three cyclists climb a steep hill, with fall foliage blazing with color on the surrounding slopes.
Triathletes climb a steep hill during CanadaMan/Woman 2021 last October. The race, normally held in July, was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic and postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions the following year. (Michel Caron/Endurance Adventure)

“It must be there,” Boily recalled thinking in 2015. “We called people from Lac-Mégantic, but we had doubts. They were rebuilding the city. What had happened was quite recent.

City officials, however, gravitated to the idea.

« We would really like that, » Boily said, they told him. « Precisely because, slowly but surely, we have to move on. So that when you Google Lac-Mégantic, you see something other than images of the drama. »

Thus began a partnership between race organizers and the city that has been transformative in ways no one could have imagined.

« We’ve built a great team, » Boily said. « People were really open, driven by the idea that rebuilding is not just about the buildings, but about the life that goes on around them. »

Unforeseen benefits

The CanadaMan/Woman race is limited to 125 experienced athletes, plus each athlete’s support team, which must include a runner to accompany their athlete through the final section of the race – essentially a rock face climb , for many, in the dark. To allow more mere mortals to participate, the organizers are holding a sprint race the day before the main event: a 750-meter swim race, followed by a 20-kilometer hilly bike ride and a trail five kilometers.

julie morin left
Lac-Mégantic Mayor Julie Morin, left, said town residents have embraced CanadaMan/Woman and come out to cheer on the athletes. She said one of the side benefits of the event is the number of locals who now participate in the sprint race and other outdoor fitness activities in the area. (Submitted by Karine Dubé/Town of Lac-Mégantic)

“Suddenly, we see more and more citizens who want to participate in the sprint race,” said the mayor of Lac-Mégantic, Julie Morin. « People are changing their lifestyle. They are training for the event. They have organized open water swimming groups, to train together. More and more people are showing up to swim at the municipal indoor swimming pool , for training. »

There are running clubs in all the surrounding towns and a marked cycle route.

Last year, demand was such that the municipality set up a permanent, marked swimming lane in Baie des Sables, where the swimming portion of the triathlon takes place, so that people can train all summer long in complete safety. security.

« There’s even a school triathlon program now, » Morin said. “Thus, young people see that even they can get involved in this type of event. Everything indicates that there are positive social spinoffs, but also tourism and economic spinoffs.

A silent walk

Olympian Lyne Bessette, a retired professional cyclist who served as Liberal MP for Brome-Missisquoi, also in the Eastern Townships, witnessed first-hand the community’s response to CanadaMan/Woman.

Bessette, who was para-cyclist and Nordic skier Robbi Weldon’s gold medal rider at the 2012 Paralympic Games, has raced CanadaMan/Woman every year, winning the women’s category in 2017 and 2018, losing to Britain’s Caroline Livesey by 10 seconds in 2019 and finished second again last fall, this time ahead of Quebecer Florence Lavoie-Deraspe, when she lost half an hour after getting lost on the run course.

lyne bessette winner canadaman woman 2018
Olympic cyclist Lyne Bessette was the first woman to reach the summit of Mont Mégantic for a second consecutive year, in 2018. (CanadaMan Xtreme Triathlon/Facebook)

“The people behind this event have big hearts,” Bessette said.

She said that for the first two years of CanadaMan/Woman, the event didn’t start at the beach, starting with the swim, but with a walk in the pre-dawn darkness from the site of the downtown where the derailment occurred.

« There was a silent march to remember those people who passed and the horrible thing that happened to the city, » Bessette said. “So the organizers really care about what happened in Mégantic, and they wanted to make a connection [between] their event and what happened. »

A long line of people walk in the dark, a lit church in the background.
In the early years of the CanadaMan/Woman event, participants and spectators gathered before dawn in downtown Lac-Mégantic and walked in silence, crossing the train tracks to reach the beach for the start of the race, tribute to the 47 people who died when a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded on July 6, 2013. (CanadaMan Xtreme Triathlon/Facebook)

There is no silent march planned this year; however, athletes like Menuci and Crivalero say that by starting the swim at 4:30 a.m., in the dark, they will feel the solemnity of the event.

« This swim, before dawn, is very important, » Crivalero said. « It is in memory of those who died in the explosion that took place a few years ago, and it moves us. »

The best of the athletes will arrive at the summit of Mont Mégantic in broad daylight, but the latecomers, having started their race in the lake in the dark, will finish in the dark too, in a place anxious to maintain its status as the darkest place in the south of the Canada, known for its starry skies.

No matter how dark, no matter what time you finish, you’re never alone, Bessette said.

“The organizers are there. The supporters are there. People are there all evening, to say hello when you’re done,” said Bessette, who will be a spectator for the first time this year. « It’s a really well-supported and fun event – even though it’s one of the toughest I’ve ever done. »

A man raises his arms in victory, holding the hand of an invisible person. Another tired-looking runner, a woman, looks on.
Sandoval Ramirez Alejandro Cesar, 46, of Longueuil, Que., and his race assistant cross the finish line in the dark on October 3, 2021. The race ends at the astronomical observatory atop Mount Megantic. (Michel Caron/Endurance Adventure)

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