Q&A: Brandon Rynka, the first Canadian to complete a tree-athlon, on how to bike, swim and run with an 80-pound log
This month, Burlington’s Brandon Rynka became the first Canadian to complete a “tree-athlon,” a triathlon with a giant piece of lumber strapped to your back. The 29-year-old marketing manager turned motivational speaker and author talked to Toronto Life about the biggest challenges of race day, which is to say everything, when you’re swimming 1.5 kilometres, cycling 40 more then running 10 kilometres with an awkward 80-pound passenger.
When and how did you decide you wanted to become a tree-athlete?
I was a double athlete at U of T—varsity wrestling and football—and when I graduated I started to think about what to do next. I did what I called the “365 Days Challenge,” where I chose a new mental and physical task every month and chronicled the results on my blog. In December, I got up every morning at 5 a.m. and ran five kilometres, and in January, I did 30 days of powerlifting and kickboxing. Then I started following this British adventure athlete named Ross Edgley, who ran the world’s first tree-athlon back in 2016. I wanted to be the first to do it in Canada, and I wanted to do it for a good cause. I completed this race to raise money for Burlington Green.
How did you go about choosing your tree?
It was a pretty involved process. I wanted to find one in the 80-to-100-pound range. The first one I tried was short and thick but it completely crushed my lower back, so I started looking for something I could strap higher up. One of my clients lives on a farm and she had this large branch from a dying tree. It turned out to be the perfect dimensions: eight feet long and 17 inches in diameter. It was the one!
And then you had to name it.
Right. Everyone was saying I had to name it, so I did an Instagram poll with my top three choices: El Chopo, Woody and Groot, which was the clear favourite. I’m a huge Guardians of the Galaxy fan, so I was happy with the result.
Were there any name suggestions that you weren’t so fond of?
One friend wanted me to name it Kenny Loggins.
During training, did you worry that you wouldn’t be able to complete the race?
The issue wasn’t whether I could finish, but making sure that I got through it without any injuries or strains. I have a bunch of other races planned this year, so I wanted to be very careful.
You must have gotten a lot of attention running around with a tree on your back.
I definitely got some looks in downtown Burlington. I also hit a few signs.
Other tree races?
No, no. I’m doing Ultra Marathons in B.C. and California, but I’ll have to do them without Groot.
Was there a time during the race when you thought of throwing in the tree, so to speak?
I was never going to throw in the tree, but riding uphill into the wind was pretty brutal. Usually you’ll get traction by standing on the bike, but you do that with a tree strapped to your body, and it really sways back and forth. It was a slow go and my legs were burning.
Did you ever worry you were going to hit other racers? That tree is pretty wide.
It was actually my own event, so I didn’t have other racers next to me. I messaged the Olympic triathlon committee to see about competing in one of their races, but there were some concerns about me being in the water with other racers. I figure it made sense to limit the logistics and just create my own event based on the official distances.
And I guess that means you won!
Yes! That’s the great part about doing your own race.
Where’s Groot now?
Groot is leaning against the house, chilling in the sun. That’s where he’s been since the race.
Aren’t you worried he’ll get stolen?
It’s a big tree, man. Where else am I gonna put it?
What’s next for you two?
I have plans to use Groot in another adventure.
I read something about a Great Lake swim.
I did say that, but I think I need to make sure it’s safe. Very few people have swum across Lake Ontario without a log strapped to their back. That said, why can’t I be the first one?
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Brandon Rynka was currently working as a marketing manager. Toronto Life apologizes for the error.