A Brief History of Triathlon (and Duathlon) Esprit Montreal

Every September an event captivates me like no other. What’s that? Oh no, I’m not talking about the ITU Grand Final or Powerman Zofingen. Those are fascinating to follow, but occupy the part of my mind that houses “Things That Are Slightly Out Of My Reach”. No, I’m talking about the Esprit Triathlon in Montreal.

Triathlon Magazine Canada did a fantastic write-up on Danny McCann’s unique event in 2010, to commemorate the 25th anniversary. 8 years later, the event is still going strong with no end in sight. The race takes advantage of the facilities of the Formula One Grand Prix and the 1976 Olympics. This year, the run course returns to the paved path encircling the rowing basin rather than taking on the gravel Voie Maritime, while the bike leaves few excuses for underwhelming times (unless it rains) due to the flat, non-technical layout and smooth road surface.


Photo: Zoomphoto.ca (2018)

Many big names in Canadian triathlon have given this race a try in the past, as you can likely tell by looking at the course records that have stood the test of time. More recently, Esprit has been a mainstay on the Triathlon Canada Domestic Race Calendar as a national championship and World Championship qualification event, especially on the Multisport side. This has made the race a hot ticket to close out many athletes’ seasons. It follows that the one that intrigues me the most lingers near the bottom of the course record list…

Benoit Simard‘s 2008 duathlon course record seems to have stood the test of time. Considering some of the names that have taken on the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve since then, I decided to dive into the results a little more. As far as I can tell the duathlon debuted at Esprit in 2008, when the elite National Championship was accompanied by an age group (non-drafting) event. Since then, an astonishing 42 sub-2:01 times had been recorded since 2008.

Esprit Men

Esprit Standard Duathlon rankings list since 2008

The race has been consistently fast since its debut. Heady names like Simard, Bruce Bird, David Frake, Stephane Proulx, Jonathan Tremblay, Francois Marceau, Eric Noel and Alain Lafleur appear on this list, all coming to their finish times in any number of ways. A keen eye will spot an unusual number of times from the 2008 race (13), and after some further digging I was able to discover that the 2008 course also did not include the Voie Maritime just like 2018 course.

The women’s races have been similarly spectacular, though with a little more recent splash of flavour courtesy of Lynda Gingras. The names are just as impressive here, highlighted by Lynda and Peggy Labonte. A total of 27 women have broken 2:21 at Esprit, including 6 women in 2008. The ideal course conditions and beautiful Montreal autumns lend themselves to very fast times.

Esprit Women

Esprit Standard Duathlon rankings list since 2008 (women)

My name DOES appear on the list, somewhere in there. It came during the 2015 Canadian Championship race, a cagey championship race where I secured one of my best results to date. I also won a tactical affair in 2016, when Esprit hosted a draft legal qualifying race. But something has always drawn me back. I grew up in this sport hearing the names listed above, and looking up to them. A part of me believes that the key to adding my name to that whispered list (the one in my own head) is a time at the top of that list. So that is what I set out to do on September 9.

In the past I’ve linked up with friends, but this year I wanted solitude. I picked a hotel that I knew would minimize logistics, one that is also easy access to pre-race training facilities. My pre-race run session (1 mile easy, 1 mile of 1:00 pickups, 1 mile easy, 1km of 0:20 strides) was on the turf field at the college down the road. I warmed up for the race alone, and shut off from the world until the horn started the race.

Esprit Start

Photo: Zoomphoto.ca (2018)

I was focused on my task. We got a surprise the day before the race, as construction on the basin diverted the new run course onto the Circuit. No matter, there’s nothing that can be done about circumstances such as that. Hand-wringing is wasted energy. I was off the front immediately, racing the clock and destiny. The miles ticked away quickly. 10k was covered in 34:06, but the course diversion added ~300m for a final split of 35:16. The bike course was clear and quiet to start, and Akela and I got to work.

Esprit Run 1

Photo: Zoomphoto.ca (2018)

The air was crisp, so I knew it was important to punch as small of a hole in the wind as possible. I took every tangent on a rail, and was easily the fastest moving bike on my part of the course. The congestion picked up on the last laps, and I was forced to the very outside of the track. Still, the speed ticked up and my excitement grew. I rode to feel, not numbers, and found a dark place that I’ve rarely found on the bike.

Esprit Bike

Photo: Zoomphoto.ca (2018)

Back into transition there was still hope, but it would be excruciatingly close. I had done the training, sacrificed a lot to arrive supremely confident. I had faith. The miles started ticking away, even the volunteers knew something special was happening. I ticked the boxes, making sure to take my last gel. I rounded the bend back onto the basin and felt my goal in my grasp.

Esprit Run 2

Photo: Zoomphoto.ca (2018)

The final straight at Esprit is interminable. The gantry looms ahead of you, but seems to creep closer at a snail’s pace. I picked up a lead bike, and used it to pick up my pace. I was flat out as the seconds ticked by, and the clock came into view. Pulling faces, I watched the digits change. 23…24…25…26. Just like that, it was gone. I enjoyed the final 75 metres and raised my arms as I broke the tape, still undefeated in Montreal but an excructiating 24 seconds short of history.

Esprit Finish

Photo: Zoomphoto.ca (2018)

I had put together the fastest bike (58:44) and second run (17:35) splits of my life. Prep to tape, it was the most complete effort of my career. It was a beautiful race, despite less than half a minute of unfinished business that draws me back next year. I whispered my name amongst the greats of Canadian duathlon, and sit here after a week of reflection satisfied yet still hungry.

Until next time…keep Du’ing it. And check out Strava for Run 1, Bike and Run 2.

Esprit Men 2018

Esprit Men’s Standard Duathlon rankings since 2008…including 2018

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