One half of a very active, comfortably athletic Sudbury couple, John MacDonald understandably was drawn towards wanting to do something to support families of children with cancer. At the age of two, his son Malcolm was diagnosed with a Rhabdomyosarcoma tumour in his inner ear (thankfully, the now eight year old is five years cancer free), prompting MacDonald and his wife to take action.
“With just six weeks of notice, John is going to bicycle across Canada,” recalled Tracy Hayes, physician, spouse and co-founder of the XTERRA Conquer the Crater weekend at Kivi Park.
But with two young children at home and Tracy working full-time, hopping on a bike for a lengthy journey, while very well intentioned, was not an overly practical plan. “I suggested that he do something local and this set the wheels in his brain in motion,” said Hayes. “Apparently, he had always dreamed of hosting an XTERRA race.”
The MacDonald/Hayes tandem had participated in the event, previously, on a couple of occasions, partaking in what amounts to the off-road version of races ranging from the triathlon to the well-known Ironman series. Substitute mountain biking for road cycling and trail running for the standard road races, shorten the distances somewhat to allow the times to remain relatively consistent with the on-road versions and they were off to the races – literally.
In 2019, some 200 athletes tackled the challenge at the inaugural Conquer the Crater, with the event moving to the virtual variety in 2020 but boasting in-person competition last summer, albeit forced to drop down to one standard distance to account for the hurdle that was Covid-19.
This summer sees more new wrinkles added to the mix, with the host venue remaining the constant, an absolute must for MacDonald and company.
“It’s always at Kivi Park,” he said. “It’s so beautiful out there. We start the swim at Crowley Lake and then try and change up the mountain bike course every year, based on racer feedback. We’ve always wanted to contain the race within a single venue – and the distance between Crowley and the front of Kivi Park allows folks doing the mountain bike to get into the single track (racing) and avoid congestion.”
Given that the XTERRA brand is global in nature, with World Championships later this year in Italy, the fact that the only Ontario-based race of the series is in Sudbury (and one of just four XTERRA weekends across the country) is huge in attracting their following to make their way north, looking to secure one of the 26 qualifying spots at Worlds.
This year, the local organizers have added both an ultra marathon (1500 metre swim; 24 kms on mountain bike, 9 kms run) as well as a 21 km run that serves as a World Qualifier for the Half Marathon Trail Run series.
For those who might wish to take a more relaxed approach to the weekend, there are no shortages of options: a short and long triathlon in addition to a duathlon, all of which can be done as a team; 5km/10km/21km runs and a kids’ event.
In three short years, this group has learned plenty.
“That first year, we took the racers back and forth across the front and back of the ridge (for MTB), which is very pretty but very challenging,” said MacDonald. “We had a number of crashes; that was gnarly. We changed it up to make it flow a little faster; it’s not supposed to beat people up.”
“We try and throw in something new every year – and Kivi keeps building new trails.”
Still, as noted earlier, there are constants, including the event’s affiliation with the Miles Against Cancer charity. In fact, Conquer the Crater is the only XTERRA event on the planet from which 100% of the monies raised go directly charity, some $200,000 to date. Considering their point of departure, that is exceptionally impressive.
“When we started in 2019, we had no idea if there was an XTERRA community (in Sudbury),” said Hayes. “We had no business plans to see if there was a need, none of that – we just did it.”
“I had been talking a bit with an XTERRA rep and they said to just run with it,” added MacDonald. “We honestly had no idea what to expect that first year.”
Come the weekend of July 23rd and 24th (2022), hopes are that the gathering will be between 300 and 500 athletes strong. “The draw is the XTERRA name, for people who want to qualify for Worlds,” said MacDonald. “People are chasing those spots.”
There is already a solid core of U.S. participants confirmed to take part. And, of course, there‘s the Philippino triathlon delegation from the GTA, with no aspirations of heading to Italy but adding notably to the colour of the Conquer the Crater scene.
All in all, it sounds like a much better option than cycling across Canada – with Sudbury being the prime beneficiary of the efforts of John MacDonald, Tracy Hayes and a boatload of friends and supporters.
(for more information, visit the Conquer the Crater website at https://www.xterraplanet.com/conquer-the-crater)