A year later, the partners have competed in three more of the notoriously brutal obstacle races, and neither has missed the podium yet. In June in Montreal, Bédard placed second among men and Godbout third among women. A month later in Pennsylvania, Bédard was again second while Godbout won the women’s race, and last weekend in Slovakia, both Quebec natives won the first-ever Spartan event held in continental Europe.
So: running over hill and dale, crawling through mud and barbed wire, climbing fences, jumping over fire, dodging blows from gladiators … is this going to become a second career for the 2010 Olympian and his girlfriend, who also has World Cup experience?
Probably not. After all, both are aiming for the Sochi Olympics, which are just a year and a half away. Earlier this summer, Godbout told FasterSkier that the 2014 Games were her main focus.
“This is pretty much as big as it can go for me,” Bédard said in an interview from Ramsau, Austria. “We’re biathletes so we need to focus on that. This is fun for us and it’s good cross-training, but we’re not training at all to be good at it. It just happens that way, cross country skiers are good overall physically, so for us it’s easy to perform well.”
National-team coaches were not initially pleased when the pair mentioned heading to Slovakia for a race (their trip was paid for by the organizers). But the biathletes are set on making Spartan racing work for biathlon and tried to think outside the box.
“We were able to negotiate to get a training camp while we were in Europe, since they were sending us anyway,” Bédard said. “Instead of just sending us for five days and doing the one race, we get to stay here for longer [until the end of the week]. We’re having a good training camp right now in Dachstein. Our coaches were pretty happy about that, because otherwise we wouldn’t have gone to the Dachstein this year.”
Spartan organizers helped the Canadians get a car, and they are staying in some apartments owned by Fischer, Bédard’s ski company. Bédard has been to Ramsau several times before, so it’s easy for him to get around; the duo also has several contacts in town and regarding the glacier.
“We get a free trip to Europe and a free training camp, so that’s amazing,” Bédard said.
Why would organizers go so far out of their way to help a few biathletes? According to Bédard, it has a lot to do with publicity. While more than 400,000 people have participated in Spartan races so far, the bulk of those entrants are in the United States. The franchise is already successfully expanding into the Canada, but it wants to go farther.
And not just geographically: organizers dream of a day when Spartan racing is a competitive, more or less professional sport. Already in the U.S., some races put up prize money and there are bigger purses for end-of-season points leaders. In order to encourage that development race promoters need top athletes to show up to the starting line. And with their records, Godbout and Bédard definitely qualify. For the Pennsylvania event, Godbout was even featured on a poster advertising the top women who would be competing.
And in Slovakia, organizers offered up $10,000 to anyone who could beat Bédard. They also arranged for the pair to go on the country’s equivalent of Good Morning America to introduce Slovakia to the concept of Spartan Racing and demonstrate how they conquer some of the typical obstacles. According to Bédard, it was as a “very weird” experience.
“Really we don’t even know what happened!” he laughed. “They filmed us doing a bunch of stuff and asked us a bunch of questions, but it was funny because it was all in Slovakian so in between the questions in English they were just talking, talking, talking in Slovakian. We still haven’t seen the footage.”
Since the champions are putting in their time to do publicity for the franchise, it’s worth the organizers’ effort to keep them racing, even if it means subsidizing a few more days in Europe.
And while the training camp in Austria is an exciting development, it’s not the only way that Spartan racing is helping out the Canadians’ biathlon careers. In Pennsylvania, the two combined for over $2,000 in prize money, which Bédard said was more than either had ever won in a biathlon race. Becoming part of the Spartan world has gained them sponsors, too.
“It’s not only that we get the checks from them, but those people are really into sports and love competition, so they want to help us,” Bédard said. “There’s a lot of contacts [to be made] … they have brought us a couple of sponsors already, and I’m sure these races this weekend can help. We got good money out of this and it will definitely help us for the winter.”
He and Godbout use their appearances as a platform to tell people about their day-to-day job as athletes, too.
“People know that we train for biathlon, and we put that at the front, that we are biathletes, and this helps our sport,” Bédard explained. “Especially in the states, people don’t even know what this is, so it’s really in a lot of different ways that we’re trying to get the most out of this.”
But while plenty of Spartan participants are interested in biathlon, Bédard said there was a big difference between his attempts to promote his “real” sport career and his experience when he talks about Spartan races. He may be raising awareness about biathlon, but he doubts that he is gaining the sport any new athletes.
“We talk about our sport to people and they are happy to hear about it, they even want to hear more, but they’re not going to go out and buy some cross-country skis and a gun,” he said. “It doesn’t really touch them personally because they don’t see themselves doing that. These races are more people-friendly. With all the videos and stuff they make it seem like it is hell, but really it just challenges people physically, and getting people off their couches is huge.”
Although Bédard is unlikely to defend his original title from the 2011 Spartan Beast in Killington, Vt., on Sept. 22 — he has already done three of the races this year and his coaches aren’t keen on losing him to another, despite the allure of $4,000 in prize money — he and Godbout said that they’d do a few of the races next summer if they could fit them into their regular national-team training schedule, and particularly if the organizers keep catering to their needs as biathletes. One key to their participation is removing the cost of competing.
“We’re not ready to put money into it, because we are already struggling to be able to race in our sport,” Bédard said. “But if we’re able to do more training camps like this, like doing one race and then being able to do a sweet training camp, then that’s a really good deal, to my ears. If it happens that they still want us next year, and I think they will, then I think, why not? It’s good cross-training and it’s fun.”