Debb Brathauer has spent every summer of her life at the family cottage on Victoria Beach, on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg. The prevailing winds can blow up big waves on the vast, shallow lake, so last summer she waited for an August morning when the water was calm before setting up her transition station close to the dock, within sight of swim instructors and their pods of young pupils.
“I swam between the buoys, 25 m up, 25 m back, just counting my lengths,” Brethauer said. Then it was onto the bike and up the highway, returning for a 5 km run on the beach’s maze of well-trodden trails. At the end of her one-person sprint triathlon, she uploaded her photos and Garmin files to the link in her online race kit. Her 2020 Riding Mountain triathlon — the virtual edition — was in the bag.
“I took it as seriously as if I was really racing,” said Brethauer, 61, a devoted triathlete, race official and one-time president of Triathlon Manitoba. “For me, a virtual race was just a great motivator.”
Sixteen months into the pandemic, it’s hard to think back to a year ago, when virtual racing was a novel concept. But when COVID killed the 2020 Canada Day 10K run in East St. Paul, on the outskirts of Winnipeg, race organizer Dave Lipchen initially pooh-poohed the idea that he turn the event into a virtual one.
Lipchen, 44, is a veteran tri coach as well as a race director. Back in his days as Triathlon Manitoba’s development coach, he persuaded a talented young athlete named Tyler Mislawchuk to hang up his hockey skates and give triathlon a serious go. (Mislawchuk, ranked 8th in the world, will compete in the Tokyo Olympics later this month.) Now the founding owner of the Windburn Multi-Sport Academy, Lipchen takes great pride in putting on the kind of races that athletes look forward to all season.
“I want them to be like, ‘I want to do this for sure,’” said Lipchen. “Super-cool swag, wicked atmosphere, great food, good sponsors and lots of music — all the kind of stuff that inspires me to compete.”
But with the Canada Day race a non-starter and everything else shut down last summer, Lipchen decided he had nothing to lose. “I said, I’ll create something completely new: five races over five months.” He called up his usual race sponsors to see if they’d consider throwing door prizes into the pile for a virtual event, designed an add-on to his website and a custom medal, and the Windburn Cloud Series was born.
Skeptics said no one would pay to run a virtual race when they could go out for a hard run anytime on their own. But the series took off.
Brethauer was among the first to sign up. The 61-year-old grandmother hasn’t missed a running season since she showed up for her junior high cross-country team 50 years ago this September — and she wasn’t about to let a pandemic tarnish her record.
“The very first virtual race last year, I trained so hard,” she said. “I got back home and my husband said, ‘Well, now you have to train even harder to beat that time next month.’ And I made sure I did.”
The success of the Cloud series got Lipchen thinking that perhaps a virtual triathlon might also work. Windburn Academy’s financial survival and Lipchen’s pride in upholding a gentleman’s handshake were riding on it. In 2018, he’d inherited the organization of Manitoba’s longest-running and biggest triathlon, held in Riding Mountain National Park. Lipchen wanted to make good on his commitment to his predecessors, Ellis and Deb Crowston, to pay for the race rights over three years.
“In 2020, it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to generate enough money to pay off the race with a race that wasn’t going to happen. How would I make that final instalment?”
There was no road map for organizing a virtual triathlon, and Lipchen struggled to get insurance for such an event. He combed the internet for other races’ waivers, finally drafting his own based on what he found in the U.S., where virtual racing was becoming a thing.
“I gave it to my lawyer, and we dotted as many ‘i’s’ as possible…. And I was like, here we go,” he said
Lipchen went to town building the Riding Mountain Triathlon’s virtual version. He ordered custom-designed socks brandishing a COVID monster from the Canadian startup endūr to go into every triathlete’s cycling kit. Sponsors donated other swag, all of which Lipchen laid out on tables set up in his suburban driveway. He posted photos of what looked like a real triathlon expo, promising everyone who registered for the race a chance to win loot.
Once again, Brethauer jumped at the chance to sign up.
“You could easily blow off a workout during the pandemic, but this made me never miss one,” she said. “I just followed the same training program that I would have if I was going to get up to Riding Mountain for the race.”
Meanwhile, park officials in Riding Mountain embraced Lipchen’s plan. They agreed to set out the giant buoys the Crowstons had donated to the park years earlier, so that triathletes training on their own in Clear Lake, the usual swim venue, would have a marked course on which to train and race on their own.
“The park has become a destination training ground,” Lipchen said. That didn’t change, even when triathletes no longer had an August race weekend to plan for.
In the end, 116 athletes signed up for the Riding Mountain 2020 virtual edition, at $40 an entry. It was enough to ensure the survival of the event, even though it now looks like the next real-life version won’t happen until 2022.
Lipchen rolled the dice in early May this year, deciding even before the third wave left Manitobans staggering that Riding Mountain would be virtual again this summer.
“A race of this calibre, you can’t half-ass it,” he said. “I could probably make it happen within three weeks if I had the all-clear, but that would be one major roller coaster that involves lifting restrictions all over the place.”
“Just having food out after the race — I don’t know how I would do that. Nobody’s going to be going to the open food table, where everyone puts their hand into the same candy jar, right? There’s lots of tiny things that just can’t happen.”
For 2021, Lipchen has a template that he’s proven can work, and the provincial triathlon body is providing insurance coverage to all sanctioned events free of charge in 2021 as “a way to support those events and help encourage more people to participate in a year where annual membership sales are understandably well below their norm,” said Jared Spier, the organization’s executive director. Lipchen is putting lots of his energy into tweaking how to make the Riding Mountain race bigger and better when the pandemic is behind us. But, he’s made another key decision: with the logistics now in place and enthusiastic triathletes signing up from all over the country, the virtual edition of the race is going to be a permanent option.
“The very first two people to sign up for this race last year were from Ontario — a father and son,” he tells me. “You might not be able to come to Riding Mountain in any one year, but you will still get to be part of it.”
That idea appeals to Brethauer.
“What if next year I happen to be away on a trip?” she asks, laughing at what a foreign concept that sounds like to most of us right now. “The idea of doing the race virtually — I really embrace that.”
An earlier version of this story erroneously reported Triathlon Manitoba is insuring virtual races for $5 per person this season, however, in fact, the organization is providing insurance coverage to all sanctioned events free of charge in 2021.
Montreal’s Loreen Pindera is a regular contributor to Triathlon Magazine Canada based in Montreal, Que. She’s anxiously awaiting her chance to use her qualifying spot for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship.