The year was 1989. Word around the town was that an organization called Trisport out of Grimsby was going to run a triathlon – the TriResorts (Deerhurst Resort, Hidden Valley Resort and Grandview Resort) Triathlon.
Triathlon!? “What was a triathlon?” local athletes asked of each other. This was a valid question since triathlon was a very new sport. The international governing body of the sport had only just been formed in 1989 and the first World Championships of the sport were held in Avignon, France in that same year. It turned out that a couple of local athletes had actually done a triathlon and were able to explain what it was! Swim. Bike. Run. A few of those locals decided to give the TriResorts triathlon a go.
Very early in the event it became clear that a triathlon was very challenging.
With a 1500m point-to-point swim from Hidden Valley across Penninsula Lake to Deerhurst , followed by a 40-km bike with hills that taxed one to the limit and then finishing off with a 10-km run over many of the same hills, the participants bodies were screaming out, “What are you doing to me? Quit this nonsense”.
But there was something magical about crossing the finish line and basking, along with their fellow finishers, in their success (just finishing). The community became hooked on triathlon.
The event was sufficiently successful that another TriResorts Triathlon was scheduled for 1990 and then, the National Championships in 1991 and the World Championships in 1992. The World Championships! In Huntsville! And, word was that there would be a “citizens’ wave” in the World Championships in which 100 “citizens” (not members of a national team) would be chosen by lot to compete in the race.
With the ongoing success of the event a the cadre of local triathletes had grown from a few in 1989 to about a dozen by 1990 then to about 30 by the time of the World Championships in 1992. Competing in a world championship in any sport; to be on the same course at the same time with some of the best athletes in the world, was something most local athletes never imagined for themselves. They were determined to get themselves into the Citizens Wave and a number of them were lucky enough to get chosen.
At the completion of the race, when the local athletes compared their times with the members of Canada’s national team some realized that their times compared very favourably with some national team members. Might they be able to qualify for Canada’snational triathlon team?
By the summer of 1993 there was a robust group of about 30 local triathletes that were now racing in the Trisport series of races in Ontario and doing quite well. Two Huntsville triathletes qualified for the National Age-Group Team and competed in the 1993 World Championships in Manchester, England.
There was a World Cup race scheduled for Huntsville for the autumn of 1993 but some friction had developed between the race organizer (Trisport) and the local community. The race was not well publicized and was not well attended even though the reigning World Champion, Spencer Smith of England, had come to race.
There was no race in Huntsville in 1994 or 1995. However, triathlon was by now well ensconced in the community and that robust cadre of local triathletes referred to earlier were doing very well in the Trisport Ontario series (the largest series of triathlon races in the world at the time) and some were becoming fixtures on the national and international scene.
Four of them qualified to compete in the 1994 World Championships in Wellington, NZ. Two qualified for the 1996 World’s inCleveland, USA. One of them was the gold medalist in the 1996 Canadian Triathlon Championships and silver medalist in the 1996 National Duathlon Championships. Three qualified for the 1997 World’s in Perth, Australia.
Meanwhile, in 1996, Trisport was sold to a new owner who was anxious to re-establish a race in Huntsville. The event was to take place at the current site of the Canada Summit Centre with the swim to be in Fairy Lake and the Muskoka River, the bike an out-and-back on Brunel Road towards Baysville and the run an out-and-back on Main Street and Aspdin Road. There would be more than one event. There would be a sprint (750-m swim, 20-km bike and a 5-km run) and a long course (2-km swim, a 55-km bike and a 15-km run). There would also be a duathlon (run-bike-run).
The 1996 race was a success and the Muskoka Triathlon was run from 1996 to 2012 on the third week in June each year. It increased in popularity peaking out at about 1500 participants in the event. The race quickly became the marquee event of the Trisport Ontario Triathlon Series and attracted some of the finest triathletes in the world.
World Champions like Craig Alexander, Mirinda Carfrae, Simon Lessing, Spencer Smith, Heather Fuhr, Jo-anne Ritchie, Luc van Lierde; Olympic Champion Simon Whitfield; iconic names in the sport like Lisa Bentley, Michael Lovato, Luke Bell, Richie Cunningham, Mark Bates; and up-and-coming stars like Lionel Sanders have come to race in Huntsville over the years.
Craig Alexander, one of the greatest names in the sport, loves the course and feels it should be the Ironman 70.3 World Championship course.
The Huntsville location has a number of very attractive features. Being a small community, the annual triathlon was the focal point of the community on triathlon weekend and who doesn’t like to be the centre of attention?
Huntsville is a tourist town with tourism being the major economic driver in the community. Major events such as the Muskoka Triathlon bring thousands of people into town for the weekend. Town councilors and business people understood this and the town council committed the town to event tourism and tries very hard to help facilitate such events. The business community was very supportive as well. And local citizens enthusiastically volunteered to help run the event.
Being a tourist town meant the infrastructure (hotel/motel rooms, restaurants, bike shops, etc) was already here. Many of the local citizens had, at some point in their lives, worked in the tourism industry and were very knowledgeable and skilled at making visitors feel welcome and at looking after their needs. The triathlon volunteers are very highly regarded by visiting athletes and their families.
The geography of the area – clean lakes and rivers, rolling terrain, granite outcroppings, forests, winding country roads, quaint and interesting downtowns – provided a spectacularly beautiful environment for the race. And the hills made the course very challenging and the challenge attracted many of the world’s best athletes.
In 2008 the Muskoka Triathlon moved to the next level becoming a part of the highly successful international Ironman series ofraces. The first Muskoka Ironman 70.3 Muskoka was held in the autumn of 2008 at Deerhurst Resort. It was, in a manner of speaking, returning to its roots. The event has been held every year from 2008 to 2016 with great success. The Ironman 70.3 Muskoka was held in addition to the regular Muskoka Triathlon in downtown Huntsville until 2012.
The year 2011 was a watershed year for triathlon in Huntsville. The Town Council had committed to underwriting the Ironman 70.3 Muskoka for a three-year period (2008-2010). It was not prepared to do so beyond 2010. The TriMuskoka Triathlon Club was formed with the express purpose of raising the money for the race license fee. It was successful and the event was saved. The club has since gone on to redefine itself as an advocate for endurance sports (principally triathlon) and a club serving the needs of local and visiting triathletes.
In 2012, another new event was introduced – The Grind. This was a triathlon with the bike and run portions of the race being on trails. The event was hosted by the Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve. The event was very successful from the athlete’s point of view but the hosts had some issues and there were no succeeding Grinds.
In 2015, triathlon in Muskoka moved up to yet another level with the announcement of two new events in our community. One that was short, and one that was long.
First, the TriMuskoka Triathlon Club announced that they were picking up the pieces of the rich history of short course triathlon in our community that had been a part of every race from 1996 to 2012 but had given way to the longer Ironman events in 2008. The TriMuskokan race promised to be much more of a race for locals who wanted to get their feet wet, literally, in this small homegrown grassroots event. It was hoped that the shorter courses – a Try-A-Tri (375-m swim, 10-km bike and 2.5-km run) and a sprint (750-m swim, 30-km bike and 7-km run) – would attract some new people to the sport.
As well, it was announced that a full Ironman event would be held in Huntsville at the end of August in 2015. There were only two other communities in Canada hosting a full Ironman. This full Ironman was in addition to the Muskoka Ironman 70.3 race.
Ironman Muskoka was the result of relentless lobbying by TriMuskoka, the Town of Huntsville and the Huntsville & Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce. Athletes from around the world would come to Huntsville to take on the course affectionately referred to as, “The Beauty and The Beast”. With this event Huntsville could truly consider itself one of the top triathlon communities in the world.
The full Ironman was very successful from every perspective except the financial one. Some grant moneys that had been promised did not materialize and the town was left with a large debt. The town council was not prepared to underwrite another full Ironman event in Huntsville so the 2015 full Ironman race was a one-off event. But many hope that it will return some day, as there is a lasting buzz in our community about this event even to this day.
In 2017, the 10th annual Muskoka Ironman 70.3 will be the hosted at the same location as those highly popular races that were held from 1996 to 2012 – the Canada Summit Centre. The swim course will be similar to the former long course. The bike will still be around Lake of Bays but with a different start and finish and the run will be loops through Huntsville’s downtown. The downtown location for the race promises to make for an exciting event for both the community and the competitors.
Triathlon in Huntsville has one of the longest (26 years), most extensive and richest histories of any triathlon host community in
the world. And, Huntsville triathletes have excelled provincially, nationally and internationally. And this success story started with a modest TriResorts triathlon back in 1989. Who would have guessed?