The Last Word

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:11 AM ET

There will be sun this weekend in Huntsville, sailboats on the water, fish on the line and a couple hundred guys chasing some very well-toned women through the park bushes.

Nothing unusual about that in Ontario's holiday paradise. Except that these women are playing harder to get than Doris Day in one of those old Rock Hudson movies.

It's the Subaru Muskoka Chase -- 1,400 runners in one of the most unique triathlon events in North America. There will be grannies and kids and elite runners chasing everything from a good time to prizes up to $20,000.

Today's main event features Karen Smyers who, just in case any puckheads have gotten lost en route to the hockey pages, is triathlon's answer to Gordie Howe. There's Craig Alexander, Australian Ironman champion; Lisa Bentley, the 10-time Ironman winner from Caledon, and Montreal's Samantha McGlone, the defending champion who held off a hard charging Simon Whitfield last year.

Yes, that Whitfield, the Canadian men's Olympic champion. In this event men and women race with and against each other.

"It's pretty unique. They start the women off first and then have the men chase us down. There's only one other event like this in the U.S.," McGlone said. "I think the men have an advantage because they can see how much time they have to make up but last year I had a buffer and held (Whitfield) off. It's fun."

Now from the vantage point of your armchair it's difficult to see how spitting up a lung can be described as fun. But for McGlone and Co. this 2-km swim, 55-km bike race and finally, a 15-km run is like a pre-game skate when compared to the real Ironman events. The Muskoka event, McGlone says, will be won in under three hours. Ironman events take about 8 1/2 hours.

"Here, you go as fast as you can from the gun; there isn't a lot of strategy," McGlone said. "You know the boys are making up time. You just hope you get to the finish before they catch up."

Smyers knows all about catching up. This week she was juggling cell phones, visits to her physiotherapist, training, and trying to get home in time to be a soccer mom to Jenna, 8, and Casey, 2.

Now married, she's a former Hawaii Ironman champion and a two-time world champ. She hauled in a stumbling Paula Newby-Fraser with less than a quarter-mile left to win the Hawaii Ironman in 1995. It's a bit of touchy subject.

"People remember it as the race that Paula collapsed but not the one that Karen one," Smyers said. "Not that I care how I won it. But, in some ways people think Paula beat herself more than I beat her."

Smyers also has beaten thyroid cancer. That was in 1999, the same year she broke her collarbone, two years after she severed her hamstring when a shard of broken glass from a storm window ripped into her leg.

Oh, and, one year after she lost an argument with an 18-wheeler while biking.

"He didn't hit me or I wouldn't be talking to you but it sideswiped me off the road and broke six ribs, dislocated a shoulder and I had a lot of contusions. That was scary," Smyers said. "I'm still not over it. Sometimes if I hear a truck I'll stop and pull over. But it also reaffirmed my love for the sport because I didn't want to quit."

So, she is in Huntsville, chasing McGlone, Whitfield and Bentley who, Smyers said, "has some of the most incredible run times I've ever seen. She's awesome."

Canadians are generally awesome in triathlon. Maybe it's the weather, McGlone said.

"We've talked about that. We breed a tough kind of athlete. You're out there in the rain and snow half the year. When it comes to race day that toughness you've developed becomes an asset."

The first Ironman was run in Hawaii in 1978, creating arguably the hardest one-day endurance event in the world. Canadian Peter Reid is a three-time winner. Lori Bowden has won it twice. The first non-American to win was Sylviane Puntous of Canada in 1983.

Today's race starts at 8 a.m. from the Centennial Centre in Huntsville and organizers have tried to make it more fan-friendly.

"Races like this are trying to hold the spectators' interest ... instead of the traditional triathlon where you jump on a bike and they don't see you for hours," McGlone said. It's a move, she says, that has to come if the sport is ever to gain mass popularity. Or not, says Smyers: "Look at the Tour de France. People line the roads and all they see is a blur ... then, it's over."

Today, Smyers, who admits "I'll probably never again be at the level I was once," would like nothing better than to be that blur. Just once more. For old times.


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