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Sara McIlraith is good at a whole lot of somethings
2020-04-16

A little confidence can go a long way.

In the case of Sara McIlraith, it can apparently go a long, long way, in a variety of formats, in very fast times.

The lifelong Sudbury multi-sport athlete has captured the women's individual title at the Beaton Classic nearly a half dozen times, is likely the foremost master nordic skier in the province, captured her age bracket in the 2019 Subaru Triathlon Series, and has completed a half-marathon in just over ninety minutes.

And she has done all of this after celebrating her 30th birthday.

More active than intensely athletic in her youth, McIlraith nonetheless developed a base upon which she would build, later in life, when her time would come.

"We were very outdoorsy, but not so much in terms of organized sport," noted the 48 year old daughter of teachers, the younger sister to one older brother. "I tried a lot of things when I was younger, everything from cross country running to swimming and skiing, even ringette for one winter."

"I had my feet in a lot of things, but I never really had that competitive drive."

Sure, there were some signs of what might come later, as McIlraith worked out with three male teammates with the Voima nordic ski club, and swam under her father, as coach, with the high-school team at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School.

But by and large, right through university stops at both Western and Guelph, this Geography major who specialized in geographic information systems would tend to back away as the level of her sporting involvement became more serious.

The birth of daughter Kate, now 20 years of age, signalled an up-tick in keeping active, making family walks a regular part of her schedule, and contemplating the notion of becoming a runner.

But truly, it was the impact of co-worker Glen Johns, a running mainstay in Sudbury, diagnosed and eventually succumbing to brain cancer, that prompted a life-altering shift for McIlraith.

"I kind of took it upon myself to take over as a runner for him," she explained. Still, the trepidation was ever-present, as McIlraith ran simply for the joy of running, oblivious to split times and such, before tackling her very first race some two years later.

"I had built up a little bit of confidence in my running, but I had no idea what kind of times I was running," McIlraith reminisced. "I had never compared myself to anyone, had never timed myself. I decided to run the Sudbury Rocks half marathon as my first race and finished first in my age group."

"That's when I realized that maybe I was good at something."

Years later, it would become apparent that Sara McIlraith is very good at a whole lot of somethings. Initially, however, running was her only true pursuit. "It was something that I could do totally on my own, and for me, it was completely distance based," she said.

"I was just trying to increase my distance, I never even wore a watch." As she and her ex-husband separated, McIlraith would immerse herself in the comfort zone that was taking to the trails, or making new friends in her sport.

"That really fueled me to take running on, more seriously, and about the same time, Vince Perdue recruited me and I became part of the Sudbury Rocks Running Club." And though running remains at the forefront of her athletic repertoire, McIlraith was about to experience an explosion of possibilities.

Just as her parents had done with her, Sara would introduce her daughter to the joys of nordic skiing before her third birthday. "I was in the skiing world, as a coach, and met Neil (Phipps) through coaching," she said.

"He opened up a whole world to me and helped me gain confidence. Neil would buy me presents - new skis, a new bike," she laughed. "This was a whole new world that I immediately fell in love with."

Sure, there had been degrees of success as a runner for McIlraith. A personal best time of 1:32 in the Ottawa Half Marathon, posting increasingly faster times in completing Around the Bay (30 kms) in Hamilton, finally running a sub-20 minute five kms.

Yet the realities of the stress of constantly training a single sport as one ages, combined with the single-minded focus that McIlraith would strive towards reaching goals that were falling just out of reach, prompted a change.

"I did transition myself over, because I had always considered myself a runner," she stated. "A few years ago, I switched over to doing a lot more triathlons during the summer. It was just a nice change from straight running. I really enjoyed it."

The variety now was nearly never-ending. Skiing in the winter, with the occasional run, cycling and swimming in the summer, mixing in distance workouts on foot. "It gives me something different to work on," admitted McIlraith.

"I was finding that I was not loving running anymore, because I had these incredibly high expectations of myself that I don't think are sustainable."

The very nature of triathlons tended to dissipate her ultra lofty goals. "Triathlons are a little like skiing, because every course is different, so how you do in one is not the same as how you would do in another."

All of which is not to suggest that McIlraith has cast aside any personal targets entirely. After decreasing the distance to the shorter Subaru Series events after dealing with a pair of frustrating half ironmans, the local woman is looking to spend more time training, this summer, in anticipation of another shot at the half ironman in September.

Where many a sport is completely grounded by Covid, McIlraith has not yet been forced to substantially alter her training regimen. "I'm pretty privileged on a lot of fronts," she said. "I do miss the Sudbury Rocks (group), because I would run with them probably two to three times a week."

"But I am a trail runner, at heart. I love to run the trails, with the dog, and I'm doing a lot of that now."

Coming off yet another phenomenal winter of nordic ski racing, McIlraith is contemplating perhaps entering the World Masters in Alberta in 2021. Gliding across the snow at speeds that exceed the vast majority of local high-school competitors, she is most in her element with the one sport that dates back to her very early childhood.

These days, however, she tackles it with confidence - and that's a very good thing.

Orendorff and Associates