Canaqua Sports hosted Canada's first Individual SwimRun Championships Sunday morning at Kivi Park, making this the third SwimRun challenge in Sudbury since the organization was introduced by its president Ian Feldman in 2006.
The seven-stage course included three swims and four runs, on four different trails, equaling a total distance of 17.3 km. Out of 22 participants, Sudbury's own Sara McIlraith and Mat Legault earned first and second place, allowing them to advance to the World Individual SwimRun Championships taking place in Grado, Italy on Sept. 8.
Canaqua is a multi-faceted organization that hosts Open Swim and SwimRun events across Canada, in addition to supplying swim clubs, races, and organizations with equipment such as t-shirts and medals. In the past five years, the Toronto-based company has established races across the country, with plans to expand to British Columbia and Nova Scotia in the coming year.
The preliminary races for this afternoon's event were held in Welland, ON and Kenora, ON, but that doesn't mean the season has come to a close. Canaqua also held a race in Alberta today and will be hosting another in St. John, New Brunswick next week, as qualifiers for next year's Sudbury-based championship.
Originally introduced as a distributor, Canaqua has evolved over its lifetime to suit its founder and the country's evolving athletic environment. As a long-time swim coach, swimmer since he was eight and former triathlon athlete, Feldman said he knew the athletic community wanted a change, but it wasn't until he tried open water swimming that he found the solution.
The experience took place eight years ago and inspired Feldman to begin hosting races under the umbrella of Canaqua. Five years later Feldman was introduced to SwimRun, a program started in Sweden around 15 years ago, that he said has surpassed triathlons popularity in Europe.
"I believe that over the next five years SwimRun is going to grow considerably across Canada and around the world," said Feldman. "There's definitely a want and a need for something new."
Second place winner Legault, was also introduced to SwimRun by a friend but this year ran alone and in record time. This he said, was thanks to years of running experience and particularly intense training this past winter to prepare for the championship.
When asked whether it was the swimming or trail running that motivated him to return for a second season, Legault said it was a little bit of both.
"I like both honestly, just because it breaks it up - it’s not just running or just swimming, both together it’s just fun," he said.
While swimming may not have been what motivated first place winner McIlraith to return, she said it has been the focus of her training this past year.
"I did the SwimRun last year and was a little sad with how slow my swimming was, so I joined the Laurentian master’s swimming club and swam my heart out all winter, to see how it would improve this year - and it did," she said.
"It's a real boost to know that my training is paying off."
Feldman said that Canada's SwimRun events are mild compared to the 70-80 km courses hosted in Sweden, but it was important for him to find a course worthy of the sport's extreme reputation. "We needed a place where we could have a good challenge, but not be so hard that it's going to scare people away," said Feldman.
In the search for a location to host his event, Feldman was approached by a Sudbury resident who suggested Kivi Park as the "perfect spot" - which he said, it was indeed.
"First off, the park is gorgeous," said Feldman "and it's hard to find a place where you can find 15-20 km of running trails in a singular park." "The whole set-up makes it ideal for this type of race."
While this year's event did attract more participants from as far as British Columbia, Feldman said he hopes to establish a local following by developing stronger community partnerships moving forward. This focus on community and expanding the variety of events offered by Canaqua will mean big changes for next season's championship.
"The next step is trying to involve kids and introduce clinics such as lesson programs and workshops – so people can get a feel for what SwimRun is like," said Feldman. "It's about finding new angles to build support."