The Riding Mountain Triathlon will return on Aug. 19 after a one-year hiatus, and it will bring a brand new race with it.
The 31st edition of the race was postponed for a summer after extensive roadwork in Riding Mountain National Park made the bike course on Highway 10 unavailable.
For race organizers Ellis and Deb Crowston, the postponement of their event for a year in exchange for a new cycling course was a nice trade.
"It’s going to be beautiful," Ellis Crowston said. "There isn’t another cycling course like it in Manitoba, but I’m biased. You’d have to look pretty hard to find something as nice as that."
In 2015 and 2106, Parks Canada had a 27-kilometre section of the highway rebuilt, much of which has been paved.
The work will continue this spring, with paving from the main South Gate entrance to the Grayling Lake turnoff scheduled to be completed by mid-June.
The Crowstons, who have run the triathlon for the past decade, have also unveiled plans for the Riding Mountain Half Marathon on Sunday, Sept. 17 with a course that begins in town, heads to the golf course, wishing well and Deep Bay before returning to Wasagaming along the lake.
They will also run a 10-km race that day.
Crowston admitted it was nice to have the break, adding that it gave the couple a chance to re-evaluate what they’ve accomplished in their first 10 years and to chart the path into the future.
"What we found was that it’s a very important event that has great value both for the triathlon community and what surprised us was the amount of locals, cabin owners and people who spend their summers up there who come up to us and say ‘We missed the triathlon. We understand that you’re not having it,’" he said. "It really is a significant part of the park, and it’s built itself into the culture of that park. That really hit home to us."
The race now features two distances, the Olympic, which has a 1.5km swim, a 40km bike ride and a 10km run, and the Sprint, which is a 750m swim, a 20km ride and a 5km run.
The shorter Try-A-Tri distance, a popular event for newcomers to the sport, was dropped due to safety concerns involving the turn-around point on the bike course.
The race hit its high-water mark in 2012, breaking its own provincial record when it drew 542 athletes. In the next two years the triathlon drew around 500, but it encountered a significant drop in 2015.
"The road was in such a state that we knew that people weren’t bringing their bikes there," he said. "They have very expensive bikes so we knew it was time to take that break."
Crowston said the popularity of the race came from a confluence of a spike of popularity in the sport, extensive work done in appealing to Saskatchewan athletes and a terrific website — rmtri.com — that the couple unveiled in year two after taking over the race.
But the course itself will always be the race’s biggest appeal, Crowston said.
"They realized what a beautiful spot that was and what a jewel it is within the two provinces because there’s really nothing like it in Manitoba or Saskatchewan," Crowston said. "There’s no course like it. The word of mouth just went out."
Interestingly, while triathlon has a hardcore group that races year after year, there is also a weekend warrior "bucket list" contingent that sometimes only remains in the sport for a couple of years.
As a result, about half of the field every year is composed of newcomers to the race.
The early numbers for this year’s race, which costs $80 before the early-bird deadline of July 22 and $95 from July 23 to Aug. 13, are encouraging, with Crowston saying early registration has been brisk and is similar to what they saw in 2012.
They’re also pleased with the early numbers for the half-marathon, which has been years in the making. Since the triathlon owns all of its own equipment, it was a matter of charting a course and picking a date.
With just two other half marathons in Manitoba in September, the Treherne Marathon on Sept. 10 and the Fort Garry Rotary Half Marathon, also on Sept. 17, the date seemed like a good one for the Crowstons.
"We made it in the fall because it is such a beautiful, beautiful venue at that time of the year," Crowston said. "It was just a natural, the more we thought about it. And this being the 150th anniversary (of the country, which the parks are celebrating), we thought it was a perfect to have the inaugural half marathon."
He said the early registration suggests the race, which is the first that he knows of in the park that is officially sanctioned by the Manitoba Runners’ Association, will have a strong draw from Winnipeg.
The half marathon costs $70 until July 30, with the price rising to $85 from July 31-Sept. 10. Registration for the 10-km race is $60 before the early-bird deadline and $75 after.
"Deb and I are really excited to bring that running community into the park and introduce the park to them and them to the park," he said.