Founded by endurance and nature-lovers Jean-Thomas Boily and Daniel Poirier, the Canada Man/Woman Xtreme Triathlon is possibly Canada’s toughest triathlon. Cancel that last statement. In terms of a one-day effort, it is hands down Canada’s toughest triathlon. In non-COVID times it is run as a full-distance race, featuring an early-morning (is 4:30 AM early morning, or is that still night?) swim in Lac-Megantic, a brutal bike course that features over 2,500 m of climbing, followed by a run that’s possibly even tougher – the marathon run features a lot of trails and finishes with a climb up Mont-Megantic, finishing at the observatory atop the mountain.
For more information about the Canada Man/ Woman Xtreme Triathlon click here.
Normally the race takes place in July, but this year it had to be moved to October thanks to the COVID restrictions. That ended up requiring a shorter swim – with the water temperature at 12 degrees, organizers decided to shorten the swim to 1,500 m. The run course also had to be modified this year, with the first hill taken out (during hunting season the land is rented out, making it unusable for this year’s race). That meant that the run course was “only” 38 km. Since no one broke four hours for the effort, it’s safe to say that it ran more like a really, really, hard marathon than it didn’t.
After finishing the cold swim the athletes took on the spectacular bike course that incorporates much of the challenging Routes des Sommets. Moving the race to October made for some spectacular scenery – the colours were in full display on the trees.
Which somehow seemed all too appropriate for this year’s race. Boily and Poirier came up with the idea for the Canada Man/Woman event as a way to try and help Lac-Megantic after the horrific train crash and explosion that killed 47 people and devastated the downtown area. What better way to show off the incredible beauty of the area than to bring athletes and their supporters to the region at the height of the fall colours?
Sprint turned to a duathlon
Boily and Poirier originally wanted to focus on the Xtreme event, but quickly became enthralled with the idea of bringing a love of triathlon racing to the community. Local athletes weren’t going to get their start doing the Canada Man/ Woman event, so they added the sprint event to the mix. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though – it is possibly one of the toughest sprints in the country. The race had to be run as a duathlon this year because of the cold water.
Severine Bouchez, who was born in Belgium and represents that country internationally even though she lives near Joliet, Que., proved to be the fastest athlete on the day, coming across the line first overall. The race started with a 2 km run – going up a hill, then down, as a warm up for the challenging 20 km bike that featured some of the climbs the Xtreme competitors would face the next day. The sprint competitors rounded out the day with an equally challenging 6 km run.
Even though the athletes left in groups of four 10 seconds apart, it was clear right from the start that Bouchez, who competed at the World Triathlon Cup Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic earlier this year (another extremely hilly and challenging course), was moving faster than anyone else in the field. She blasted through all three legs of the race for a clear win in 1:13:44. Olivier Lavellee was the fastest man, finishing in 1:17:22, with Kevin Blouin taking third overall in 1:18:45. The second woman overall behind Bouchez was Edith Pepin, who finished in 1:19:18, the fifth-fastest time of the day.
The Lyne Bessette show goes off course
Sunday’s Xtreme event started just after 6:15 AM – “We like to have the athletes do about 15 minutes of swimming when it’s pretty dark,” Boily said when I pointed out that sunrise wouldn’t be until after 6:30. Once again the competitors hit the water in groups of four, 10 seconds apart. The 87 competitors hit the water to take on the three-loop swim course. First out of the water for the women was Sherbrooke, Que.’s Florence Lavoie-Deraspe, a former swimmer for the University of Laval, who was starting her second long-distance race. In August the 30-year-old went to Michigan to compete in the Titanium Triathlon. Unfortunately, asthma issues forced her to pull out of that race. There were still entries available for the Canada Woman event, so she figured she would give that a try. Things certainly started well – she was 2:06 up on American Alysha Krall after the swim, with pre-race favourite Lyne Bessette almost eight minutes behind starting the bike.
It didn’t take long, though, before it became apparent that this was very much an event that is perfect for Bessette. By halfway through the bike the television crew covering the race were joking that they were filming the “Lyne Bessette show.” A former pro cyclist who represented Canada at two Olympic games, Bessette won the first edition of the Canada Woman triathlon in 2017, then finished second the following two years. Bessette steadily gained ground on the men and women ahead of her, and it wasn’t long before she was in the lead of the women’s race and challenging the men. By the end of the bike the strong-riding Bessette was in fourth overall. The grimace on her face as she rode up the final, brutally-steep final climb to T2 that required even a cyclist of her stature to weave back and forth just to keep moving said it all – this is a bike course like no other.
Bessette hit the run with a lead of 13:46 on Krall and 25:37 on Lavoie-Deraspe. But disaster struck early in the run. The former liberal member of Parliament (she was elected in 2019, but chose not to run in the recent election) got lost early on in the run and by the time she got back on track and went through the 17 km timing point, she was 10 minutes behind Krall and five minutes behind Lavoie-Deraspe. Bessette figures she lost over a half hour before she got back on course.
There was no way anyone was going to make up that kind of time on Lavoie-Deraspe, who proved to be as strong on the run as she had been in the water. She continued to open up time on Bessette through the final 21 km of the run, powering past Krall even before the last climb and never looked back as she made it to the top of Mont-Megantic for the win in 11:36:59. Bessette pushed herself to the limit to get past Krall to claim another runner-up finish (11:53:07), while the Krall rounded out the podium in 12:00:51.
Lafrance finally gets the win
Local hero Sylvain Lafrance (Victoriaville) finished fifth here in the first edition of the Canada Man/Woman event, then took second in 2018 and 2019. In 2021 he finally moved to the top of the podium thanks to a solid day that saw him near the front out of the water, lead the men after the challenging bike course, then open up even more time on the extremely difficult run.
American John Hirsch led the way out of the water, but it wasn’t long before the bike turned into a back and forth battle between Lafrance and France’s Eric Bessemoulin, with Toronto’s Josh McPhie taking some time on the front, too. Lafrance got to T2 with a 1:45 lead on Bessemoulin, but spent more time in transition, which meant the two started the run just 10 seconds apart. That was as close as anyone was going to get to Lafrance though, as he dominated the run to easily take the win in 10:30:32. Christian Vachon used his prodigious trail-running skills to move himself into second (11:10:19), while Pascal Coude (third, 11:26:41) also got past Bessemoulin (11:29:56).
Of the 87 athletes who started the race, 84 finished, including 63 men and 21 women. It was a mind-boggling achievement – as spectators and volunteers tried to stay warm under the stars at the top of Mont-Megantic, there would be a loud cheer as each runner ran the last few hundred meters on the paved road after coming off the trail. It was pitch black in the woods as most of the finishers came through that final stretch with their headlamps on to show the way, each with the mandatory runner/ walker who must do that final stretch with them.
It will be a day they’ll never forget. Boily and Poirier wanted this race to be tough, to live up to the likes of the Norseman Xtreme and the other races in the series. It looks like they’ve succeeded.
This story originally appeared in the November issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.