It was still dark at 6 a.m. on Sept. 26 when Jeannot Cormier dipped his toes into Lac Delage, northwest of Quebec City. A friend paddled out just ahead of him, a bright light fixed to the kayak’s stern to guide Cormier as he swam through the inky, 13-degree water, all alone.
It was a far cry from what the 36-year-old phys-ed teacher had imagined one year ago when he signed up for Ironman Cozumel, which was to be his first long-distance triathlon.
“You spend all this time training and imagining yourself doing it,” said Cormier. “I had pictured myself swimming among all these tropical fish.”
Video credit: @laureantardifproduction
The plan had been to make the trip to Mexico a holiday for the whole extended family — his fiancée Véronique Dallaire, 34, their young children and both sets of grandparents. Then came the lockdown last March, and all travel plans were nixed.
“The pandemic shook everything up,” said Cormier. “I had to make a decision: do I stop training and push everything back for a year? Do I keep training and see if the event goes ahead? Then I started thinking, ‘Why don’t we just make the best of this? Do the Ironman right here — and raise money for MS.’”
The cause of research into a cure for multiple sclerosis, or MS, is close to the Cormier-Dallaire family’s heart. In June 2016, when she was just 30, Dallaire was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease which attacks the protective covering of nerves called myelin, interrupting or impeding the transmission of nerve impulses to the brain. Canada has one of the highest rates of MS in the world, although no one is sure why. And women, most of them diagnosed as young adults, are more often affected than men.
“We didn’t know much about the disease. No one else in the family had it,” said Cormier. “It put a lot into perspective.”
Dallaire’s diagnosis turned their world upside down, Cormier said. Their eldest child, Nora, was just a toddler. Dallaire, who like her fiancé had always been fit and active, ran a yoga centre. As time went on and they learned more about the disease, she started offering classes to people with MS and other physical limitations.
“Little by little, we got involved in the MS community, whether it be a yoga fundraiser or the MS Bike Tour.”
So, an MS fundraiser seemed a natural fit for what Cormier decided, due to COVID, would have to be a solo Ironman. But he didn’t talk it up much as he continued his training through the spring and summer. The whole family made sacrifices, he said: Dallaire, heavily pregnant with their third child, “our surprise,” held down the fort while he put in the hours. Cormier planned his solo event for late September, after the baby’s arrival, when the autumn colours would be resplendent on a course that would take him on his bike from Lac Delage to a turnaround near Trois Rivières.
The swim went extraordinarily well for Cormier, a natural athlete, but a self-described sinker who only learned to swim before he signed up for a sprint triathlon in Quebec City in 2017. Accompanied by his father, who followed him in a car on the bike leg, Cormier kept up his planned pace until he was just past the halfway mark, when he banged up his right knee.
“The last three hours of cycling, I was not 100 per cent,” Cormier recounted. “I was really worried about the marathon.”
Cormier ditched his bike in Cap-Santé, after 180 km, in a respectable time of five hours, 50 minutes. He was exactly 42.2 km from the park in Quebec City’s Sainte-Foy neighbourhood where Véronique, Nora, two-year-old Charlie and their two-week-old son Fred, were waiting with friends and supporters.
The day was unseasonably warm, and with Cormier’s knee throbbing, the run turned into a painful run-walk. His friend and running coach Kaven Després ran alongside, dishing out encouragement.
“At the 15-km mark, I told him, ‘I can’t believe I have 27 km to go.’ I was really hurting.” But Cormier found his rhythm again with 12 km to go: the video of Cormier running towards a handmade banner that reads “Ironman finisher,” with his five-year-old Nora at his side, says it all.
Cormier and Dallaire’s story, reported by local media and shared on Facebook and the MS Bike fundraising pages, caught people’s imaginations. They had not had time to do much door-knocking and had hoped to raise $1,500. At last count, the tally was $8,000.
“Looking back, what I loved about my Ironman is that I turned the pandemic situation upside down,” Cormier said. “Rather than resign myself to having to quit, I said, ‘I am going to do something audacious, turn a bad situation into an opportunity to raise funds for MS and inspire people.”
“For me, having done that is a bigger thrill than having done an Ironman.”
Those interested can make donations to mssociety.ca