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Sara McIlraith epitomizes a true love of sport
2023-08-22
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As many of the city’s top athletes gathered for the 2023 Beaton Classic just over a week ago, many questions remained to be answered.

And one, generally speaking, did not.

The winner of the Women’s Solo bracket was almost a foregone conclusion.

Having raced the event on an individual basis no less than 13 times, including this year, and having finished first in her category far, far more often than not in that bracket, the newsworthy part of following the accomplishments of Sara McIlraith lies most in the wonder of just what kind of specialness she will unveil next.

Her 50th birthday behind her, the woman who would have placed in the top third of the men’s grouping is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down - which is not to say that her races, year after year, are exact reproductions of one another.

That wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

“My solo forays into this race have taught me so much about multisport racing,” said McIlraith recently. “Most important is to have a huge respect for the sport - and that hard and smart training pays off. Initially my goals were just to finish and race hard.”

“I now focus on more nuanced goals: getting the weight perfect in the canoe; better pulling in the swim; improving my transitions - all the little things that make big differences.”

Since first stepping foot on the course (or more appropriately into a canoe) in 2001 as a member of a four person team and on through her first solo effort at the Beaton in 2009, McIlraith has remained committed to a path of continuous athletic self-discovery - age be damned.

“Three years ago, I fell in love with mountain biking,” noted the warrior who has now Conquered the Crater on three different occasions, garnering two gold medals and a silver as she morphed her way over to off-road adventure triathlons. “I had been riding (mountain bike) for over a decade but it always felt like I was in a battle with the trails.”

“Shifting my perspective allowed me to see the trails as an opportunity to challenge my skills. Mountain biking opened up a whole new world of racing to me.”

We are talking, after all, about a competitor who hurtled herself at a 50km trail race to “celebrate” turning fifty, bypassing the need to perhaps complete a conventional marathon completely. “This was one of my most cherished races,” exclaimed McIlraith. “It was a rare day where I felt strong the entire race (and finished first overall).”

Crowned as Miss-Fit Sudbury on multiple occasions, the partner of Beaton race director Neil Phipps and mother of fellow Beaton competitor Kate Richards is gradually recognizing that the landscape of athleticism will shift, at least to some extent, as one enters their second half-century on earth.

“I can no longer solely rely on hard training,” she conceded, perhaps with a touch of sadness. “I’m embracing the science that thankfully is now emerging for “mature” athletes. Endless mileage is now balanced with strength training, short speed sessions and a lot more cross-training.”

“It is also motivating to know that my primary sport sees many older athletes reach their prime in their fifties or beyond.”

For as much as McIlraith is something of a machine when it comes to pushing herself through an incredibly demanding calendar of events during the summers, it is once the snow flies that she excels even more.

“My first love will always be nordic skiing,” noted the woman who was again in attendance at the 2023 Canadian Masters Cross-Country Ski Championships, besting a former Olympic medal winner in capturing her division in the process. “Skiing has given me my proudest achievements and my deepest soul-crushing moments.”

“Only a true love of sport will bring you to tears at the finish line.”

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