Training and Racing in Canada's Sub-Arctic

Athlete blog by Matt Durand

Over the past three weeks I have had the opportunity to race, what are arguably, Canada’s two most Northern Triathlons. These races were some great warm up events in preparation for my ‘A Race’, Ironman Canada, and while living in the sub-arctic provides some very unique opportunities it also provides many challenges to training for long course races, especially when paired with being employed full time in the Army in a position that sees me leaving for weeks at a time!

The Great Hay River Triathlon took place in Hay River, North West Territories and was put on by the Town’s aquatic director. Hay River is a quiet community known as the ‘hub of the north’, the town consisting of approximately 3600 people is set just north of the 60th parallel and just south of Great Slave Lake, approximately 35kms from the Territories Hwy 3. The race was a standard sprint distance with a heat started pool swim, an easy transition area and a very fair out and back run and bike course. After putting together a decent 12min swim I ran eagerly into T1, a sloppy transition here made clear some areas for improvement, mainly making sure bottles are properly strapped down! The bike course went out the local two-lane highway on a slight incline that lead to a nice negative split for the second half of the course. After finally taking the advice of coach Mark I dropped my gears and upped my cadence which left my legs feeling strong as I got off the bike in about 32mins and hit a PR of 19:48 on the 5km run that followed the same route. The quick splits lead to a 1:04 time and a first place finish for the race. Beyond the generous hospitality of the town the scenery on the way into Hay River is stunning, particularly Alexandria Falls, (seen below). The race was well put together and with the addition of the scenery nearby, a great reason for anyone interested in heading to the North.

The next race took place approximately 160kms north in the North West Territories capital and only city, Yellowknife. The Midnight Sun Triathlon took place at the Ruth Inch Memorial pool and was hosted by the Yellowknife Multisport club, a fantastic organization that hosts everything from marathons to mountain bike and canoe races. This race was another sprint distance with a rolling start for the 500m pool swim. I was able to hammer that out in 7:30 after trying to chase down one of the local swim clubs best distance swimmers. The lessons learned from Hay River and the transition drills I incorporated paid dividends during this race as I was able to make up a significant amount of time and take the lead only 100m into the bike. Again keeping my cadence high led to a strong bike despite some heavy head and crosswinds, (looks like coach Mark was right!). Another fast transition in T2, likely my fastest to date left me feeling confident heading into the run where I put down the 5km and set another PR of 19:25, ultimately leading to another first place in the race and a new sprint distance PR for myself!

Its clear in retrospect that the work Coach Mark has been putting me through since January 2017 has improved my fitness, technique and fitness in all three disciplines of the race. However, as I mentioned training in the sub-arctic while also employed as a member of the military is not easy. The biggest hindrance to training is undoubtedly the weather. Temperatures hit 0 degrees Celsius in early October and drop as low as -40 during the winter, all this before you include the wind-chill. These wont bounce back to the positives until mid-late April, which means that if you’re planning to train up here, you better get ready for a ton of time on the trainer and the treadmill! Once that snow finally clears and the gravel is cleared off the road (its too cold here for salt to be effective on the roads), getting outside feels great. This is where the next problem lies. There just isn’t too many places to go! Beyond biking through the city center which has limited bike lanes and plenty of stop lights, Yellowknife has two roads for cyclists looking to put down long distances; Hwy 3 to Edmonton or the Ingram Trail, a 75 km road (only 45 of which is paved) that ends at a lake in the middle of the NWT wilderness. Out and back rides are as good as it gets here, which wouldn’t be terrible if the roads weren’t almost entirely sealed gravel. The shaking and rattling across it on the bike really can wear on the feet and arms after a few hours! If you can make it past this and the high winds that start at about 10am and average 30km/h then you’re in for some beautiful scenery of lakes and boreal forests of the Canadian Shield. The last challenge with training here is the lakes, years of mining around Yellowknife has left many lakes either dead and polluted with Arsenic. Additionally the long cold winters mean that even up to the may long weekend, many lakes still have ice on them and don’t warm up to a good swimming temperature until early July.

The second challenge that Coach Mark has helped me battle through on my way to Whistler is my busy schedule as a military member. Right when we think we can squeeze a big loading week into the training I usually end up deploying to somewhere in the Harsh Canadian Arctic where training is impossible. Everyone has periods where they will miss a weekend or so of training, however the work trips I attended often saw me gone and out of the gym and pool for 3 – 4 weeks at a time. These happened at critical timings of the training plan, early March, April and even a few days in July, just weeks away from race day. This can really rattle your confidence and make you question whether you’re truly ready for that big race. The help and support that Coach Mark has provided allowed me to meet these work obligations and get back to training without much delay.

Living North of the 60th parallel has so far been an outstanding experience and allowed me to see some of the most remote parts of our vast and beautiful country, parts that many Canadians will never have an opportunity to see. It has allowed me to race in the countries two most northern triathlons. Despite the challenges we have faced, Coach Mark has developed a training program to get me exponentially more fit and improve my technique enabling me to reach new PR’s in back to back races and head into Ironman Whistler feeling fast, strong and ready. - MATT

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