Runner's Web

May 18, 2001

Chilly toes and noses all part of the fun of winter triathlons

[Photo by Jon Stuart]
Rudy Hollywood demonstrates the milk carton transition

Canadians use winter sports to get them in shape for summer triathlons, reports Leanne Yohemas-Hayes

Nothing was going to stop Rudy Hollywood from competing in one of Canada's longest running winter triathlons, even broken equipment.

The veteran triathlete had a very bad start at the February event which takes place in Ottawa, the country's capital city. The gun went off and within the first 200 metres Hollywood, 55, took a tumble.

A few minutes later, he appeared in the transition area clutching his ice skates.

His binding broke.

"Anyone have extra skates?" he begged volunteers and race watchers. He was thinking about borrowing a pair from the lead competitors upon their return.

Hollywood was wearing a special type of skate known as a transition or canal skate. It's a skate that can be worn with cross-country ski boots. A ski-boot binding is attached to the top of the blade. It makes for fast skating and quick transitions.

He borrowed some blades from a recreational skater and away he went starting at least 10 minutes behind the lead pack.

He spent so much time passing and squeezing by people, he had a few more crashes. But Hollywood managed to finish the race and placed second in his 50-59 age group.

Triathlon: not just a summer sport

As Hollywood knows well, triathlon in Canada is more than a summer sport. If you trade the wetsuit for a pair of skates, the bike for skis and keep the running shoes, you're all set to train and compete in winter triathlons.

Participating in winter sports is one of the best ways multi-sport athletes can maintain their fitness in the off-seasons, especially in a country where in most regions one can expect at least four or five months of below freezing temperatures. It sure beats spending endless hours indoors on a turbo trainer.

The distances at Ottawa's race are reasonable. The triathlon starts with an 8-kilometre skate down the canal which runs through the centre of the city, followed by a 6-kilometre ski through a park. It ends with a 5-kilometre run on the road.

Athletes can do all three or register as a part team.

Dave McMahon, this year's overall winner, says it's good to start out with a strong running base. From there, athletes can learn how to ski. Skating, he says, is only slightly different than the skate-skiing technique. Athletes could either use the skate-ski or classic technique. Most chose to skate-ski.

"It's really important to learn how to ski," said McMahon a computer engineer who did his O-levels in Lincolnshire. "If you get skiing, you can muddle yourself through the skating."

The real challenge then becomes the weather, and each year brings a new challenge.

Icy and cold conditions

[Photo by Jon Stuart]
Beards often lead to ice accumulation

Weather made the 2001 Winterlude Triathlon particularly challenging.

Two days before the race, the city was pummeled with rain, freezing rain to be exact. This type of rain is found mostly in eastern Canada. It occurs when warmer rain touches colder objects and freezes instantly, causing a solid-ice encasing. If that wasn't enough, the temperature race day was about minus 17 C, but when the windchill was taken into consideration, it felt like minus 37 C.

"I brought all the clothes I could find," joked pro Ironman triathlete Eric Roy, 27, as he fished through a bag big enough to hold a small bike. Roy had won the race two years ago.

Before heading outside, people covered their faces with Vaseline to protect them from the wind while others smeared lip balm on their faces.

Theresa Grant, a 35-year-old physio-therapist, covered her face with strips of medical tape in mummy-like fashion to help keep the wind out. She's done this before and says it works well to ward off forstebite.

Conditions were extremely difficult, but that didn't deter anyone. About 250 people signed up to compete. And nearly all showed up race day, Feb. 11.

The ice was covered with wee blisters that crackled when skaters crossed over. The park where the ski portion took place was so icy, officials cut the distance 1.5 kilometres and took out some of the dangerous down hill sections.

Race director Rick Hellard admitted the ski portion was treacherous.

He should know. He also competed in the event and ended up in third spot.

Still, he had some troubles.

"The challenge was to stay steady," said the 34-year-old coach and elite triathlete. He fell four times.

Charles Plamondon, 23, said despite the cold temperature, conditions weren't bad for people who dressed for it.

It was Plamondon's first triathlon.

"I only felt cold for the first 500 metres," he said. "Then I was fine." He kept an extra pair of gloves in his running shoes in the transition area.

Competitive spirit

Plamondon, who specializes in 10-kilometre running races, gave veteran cross-country skier and four-time winner of the event McMahon quite a chase.

McMahon felt the icy conditions on the ski forced him slow down to about 70 per cent of effort. He wanted to remain relaxed for the run.

At two kilometres to go on the run, he noticed Plamondon was starting to close the gap. But McMahon, former national biathlon and eastern Canadian mountain running champion, surged in the last kilometre.

Plamondon ended up in second place in 52 minutes and 27 seconds. McMahon came in at 52 minutes and 15 seconds.

As McMahon checked over his shoulder and picked up the pace, another intense competition was going on in the woman's race.

[Photo by Jon Stuart]
Multi-Sport Athlete Sheila Kealey

Dubbed by many "the battle of the Sheilas," 36-year-old Sheila

Kealey and Shelagh MacDonald, 40, were not letting each other out of their sights.

Over the years, Kealey has done a half-dozen of Ottawa's winter triathlons, winning a few along the way. MacDonald has done about twice as many and has won most of them.

Kealey started skiing competitively while she was in high school and in university. She got into duathlons and triathlons in university.

"I got dropped off the lead pack right at the start," said Kealey, whose strategy was to get in with the fast people and draft. With the wind at their backs, these so-called fast people cruised along at about 40-kilometres per hour.

Meanwhile, MacDonald, who was a bit back from the lead pack, fell once but managed to stay ahead of Kealey. But by the 4-kilometre turnaround Kealey caught up to MacDonald and with the help of others they formed the chase pack.

This was an important race for MacDonald, who began skiing as a young girl after her family moved from Walton-on-Thames to Canada.

"It was a big one for me. I put in lots of work," she said.

"I knew I would be happy to be with Sheila at any point, but didn't find my running legs."

Kealey caught and passed McDonald about 800 metres into the run. Kealey, who won a 3-kilometre snowshoe race the day before, came in 58 minutes and three seconds. MacDonald came in 50 seconds later (58:53).

In the end, Hollywood ended up in second place in his age category (1:13). He said the prospect of not finishing the race was never an option.

He may have had some additional motivation. Competing in the winter triathlon is the first race in a series of events athletes need to complete in order to qualify for the Rudy Hollywood Award. It includes an Ironman, marathon as well as other skiing and cycling events.

"It's supposed to be really hard to do," said winter triathlon race director Hellard who came up with the idea.

"That's why we named it after Rudy."

[Photo by Jon Stuart]
Brilliant sunshine made the day look warmer

Ottawa's winter race facts:

What: Winter starts mid-November ending mid-March
Temperatures: Range from plus 5 C to low minus 20 C and snowfall can be quite substantial
When: February (three weekends)
Events: Canadian ski marathon (160 km of cross country skiing over two days), 3-km snowshoe race; Winterlude Triathlon and Keskinada ski races.
Web sites: (for the ski marathon) (for Keskinada ski races)
Zone3 Sports (for the Winterlude Triathlon, snowshoe race and Rudy Hollywood Challenge)

(An excerpt from this article first appeared in 220 magazine, a British triathlon magazine)

Top of Article