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Club Profile: The Cape Breton Barbarians

Official or not, the proof is in the output. Close to sixty people participated in triathlons last season, including seven who completed an Ironman.

“If you could bottle and sell it, you’d have quite the business model,” says Glenn Basso of the intangible energy generated within a burgeoning Cape Breton triathlete group, the Cape Breton Barbarians.

Basso has always been an avid runner, and he added biking and swimming to his athletic mix in 2005 when the club started to take shape.

“It’s not even an official club, it’s just a Yahoo group,” jokes Dr. Chris Milburn. 120 people are signed onto the website group, which helps to organize the many runs, swims and bike rides. Official or not, the proof is in the output. Close to sixty people participated in triathlons last season, including seven who completed an Ironman. The Barbarians span in age from 20 to 70, and everywhere in between.

“It’s just less scary when you do these things in a group,” says Milburn, originally from Cape Breton. “It can be very intimidating to do your first one, so it’s important to have other people to ask questions, to talk about training, makes it easier to get involved.”

Milburn and his wife, Dr. Julie Curwin, moved back to Sydney in 2003. They’ve competed in triathlons for more than 20 years, raced in hundreds of competitions, including more than a dozen Ironmans. Curwin topped her age group at the inaugural Regensburg, Germany Ironman last August, which earned her a spot in Kona, Hawaii this past fall.

“If not for Chris and Julie, I wouldn’t be doing triathlon at all,” says Basso. “They made it seem possible. They are high level athletes, but their willingness to share their knowledge opened it up to folks who thought it was beyond their abilities.”

When the seasoned triathlete couple moved back to Sydney the active running group, The Cape Breton Road Runners, was in full swing. Milburn helped start the local cycling group,VELO. Then Curwin decided to start a masters swim team.

“I thought there was a need for a masters team here — although people said it wouldn’t work,” says Curwin.

The first year they thought they’d be lucky to get 20 people and 30 signed up. Now there are more than 60 involved and the club trains six times a week.

Not long after the masters team was up and running, Milburn and Curwin noticed numbers were down for two of the really good local races, Ingonish and Port Hood, so they decided to put more than a dozen teams together. “What’s gets people over the intimidation is to start as part of a team,” says Milburn. “People see others doing all three sports, and they think, if they can do, I can do it.”

As swimming is often the biggest hurdle, and the most difficult to maintain over the winter, the start of the masters swim team provided the perfect introduction to the sport for new triathletes.

“If it wasn’t for the group, there’s no way I’d have even considered doing a triathlon.” At 35, Erin Neville never considered herself an athlete. She’s lived with diabetes since age three. Just last year, finding herself recently divorced, a mother of a 2 1/2 year old and living with diabetes, she decided to try her first sprint triathlon in Ingonish.

“I did it!” Neville still laughs with excitement. “Crossing that finish line was so unbelievable. Made me realize I’m stronger than I think.”

She credits all the Barbarians for welcoming and encouraging her.

“You have the support of the group even if you’re dead last,” Neville laughs. “You’re training with all these fantastic athletes, but I don’t feel intimidated, it’s just fantastic.” Since her first triathlon, Neville has completed two more sprints, a swim meet and a half marathon. “And the celebration after the events is great, too.”

These include impromptu beer nights, “fun” triathlons, open swims, and sing-a-longs.

Milburn and Curwin’s cottage becomes the unofficial Barbarians headquarters during the summer. Situated in Boulandrie, Cape Breton, on the Bras d’Ors Lakes, it’s ideal for swimming, and has great biking loops and hills, for all levels.

While many of the Barbarians attribute their triathlon involvement to Milburn and Curwin and their endless support and sage advice, they say they gain just as much from the group. “It’s partly selfish,” says Milburn. “The bigger and better the group is, it carries us along, motivates us to do better.” And, the ER doctor adds with conviction, “I love to see people active and healthy – it’s much better than pressing on someone’s chest in the emergency room.”

“With this group there’s a certain momentum, whether it’s swimming, running or biking,” says Curwin. “And that energy attracts other people.”

“It’s like a snowball rolling down a hill,” adds Milburn. “The bigger we get more people we pick up, and on it goes.”

Basso says the momentum also helped him recover from major stomach surgery last year. “I couldn’t wait to get back to the group, that kept me motivated,” says Basso. “Don’t know if I would have recovered as quickly without the goals of getting back on the road and in the water with the crew.” Due to his health, Basso was forced to scuttle his plans for an Ironman last year. But he’s among a dozen Barbarians signed up for Ottawa in September, where he plans to do a half-Ironman.

Whether counting down the seconds between swim sprints, spinning out workouts, or running intervals, there’s an intensity of spirit, determination and friendship.

“For us, if this community didn’t have the Barbarians group, we wouldn’t be here,” says Curwin. “It’s good for the area. In a place that is always trying to recruit new professionals, a healthy, active group of people is what makes a community a good place to live.”

Milburn puts it this way. “There’s two types of people in life, those that say: ‘that’s hard, I don’t want to try that.’ And those that say: ‘that’s hard, I want to try that!’ Triathletes are the latter group,” says Milburn. “They’re not only interesting in the sport, they’re interesting in life. And a whole lot of fun to hang out with!”

Norma Jean McPhee is a freelance journalist and broadcaster from Sydney, Nova Scotia.