Whistler's bid to host Ironman Canada in 2013 passed a major milestone late last week with confirmation that the bid — put together by the Resort Municipality of Whistler and Tourism Whistler — was shortlisted by the World Triathlon Corporation. Other cities to make the cut include Kelowna and Huntsville, Ontario. Other bids by Vernon, Kamloops, Victoria and Calgary fell short.
There are no details yet about what the course will look like — all details of Whistler's bid are considered confidential as the World Triathlon Corporation is a private organization.
While Whistler was shortlisted, there is a lively debate among Whistler locals whether the resort could pull off the event, which includes a 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and 42.2km run. It also draws over 2,500 athletes each year, and roughly 10,000 spectators were at the start line in Penticton this past August.
Whistler's Grant Lamont, who helped to organize the event for several years and participated in it twice, is one of the skeptics who would like to see the plan for himself. He believes that Whistler could probably host a pretty good Half Iron event or even a "Dustman" long distance off-road triathlon, but can't see how the resort can possibly stage Ironman Canada.
"First of all, we'd probably need to tear down trees everywhere to do a transition," he said. "There isn't a site that can handle 3,000 people and 3,000 bikes," he said.
The mass start swim is also a problem. "A bunch of years ago, the town wanted to move the Ironman start from the Okanagan side to the park at Skaha, but that was rejected because the park at Skaha was considered to be too small — and that park is probably three times the size of Rainbow."
If the bike route heads north to Pemberton, which is the rumour, Lamont also says the quality of the road is not good enough and that the hills back to Whistler are too tough — although the sections through Pemberton and out to the Meadows are flat and have recently been repaved.
"The geography here is fairly hilly. One of the biggest complaints we had from racers in Penticton was that the course was too hilly so (the route was changed), and there are worse hills here. It's steep. And the quality of the surface, it's just terrible... I think it would take a significant upgrade to the highway to make it happen."
While Lamont is skeptical about the course, he does feel the resort has far more in the way of accommodation to offer racers, as well as facilities like Whistler Olympic Plaza and the day lots that are better than what's available in Penticton.
"I'm not doubting that we could do it, I just don't think we have the venues to facilitate it properly, to do it really well," he said.
On the flip side of the coin is Bob Deeks, who completed his third Ironman Canada in August. He believes that Whistler can host a great Ironman event, and is less concerned about the route and infrastructure than Lamont.
"I think it's an absolutely amazing opportunity for Whistler and we can put on a fantastic event," he said.
He believes Rainbow Park is big enough to accommodate all of the athletes and the first transition, without using the parking lots. The lake is also more than big enough — one training swim from Wayside Park to Rainbow and back weighed in at 3.2km, and he says it would be easy to make the course into a triangle to make up the extra half kilometre.
If Deeks were organizing the event he would send riders south through Squamish and then bring them back to Whistler after using the overpass at Porteau Cove to turn around. If the race goes north through Pemberton, he's not particularly concerned about the hills —in fact, he used to train for Ironman on the ride out to D'Arcy and back because the long climb back to Whistler out of Pemberton is similar in length — about 38 km — to the last big climb at Ironman Canada.
"Because it's so flat out in the Meadow once you get to Pemberton, there's actually a lot less up and down than out of Penticton," he said. "I actually think you'll find that the bike times for Whistler will be a little bit faster than in Penticton."
As for the marathon course, Deeks said it's simple to organize — just do two laps of the North Face Whistler Half Marathon course. Because the route follows sections of the Valley Trail, Deeks said the course lighting would actually be better than at Ironman Canada where people are running in the dark for hours to make the finish cutoff at midnight.
As for weather, a few years ago Deeks said the temperature for Ironman Canada peaked at 38 degrees, which is a lot hotter than athletes could expect in Whistler. And while Whistler is statistically more likely to see bad weather, Penticton has had its challenges — Deeks remembers one year when there was rain and hail through the entire race in Penticton and a high of 12 degrees.
Deeks likes Whistler's chances. He doesn't think that the race will move to Ontario because that would alienate the base of athletes from the west that have supported the event for so many years. Kelowna is a possibility, but it's too close to Penticton and the Challenge triathlon race that will replace Ironman next year. Having two events in such close proximity and within a few weeks of each other wouldn't help either event.
"We have the hotels, we have really good facilities like Whistler Olympic Park and the conference centre, we have the name recognition for people that travel to race, we're closer to the airport. I think we have everything we need to put on a really great event," he said.
Deeks said the economic spinoff will be substantial and last longer than the weekend of the event, given the number of athletes that will come up to Whistler to train. He himself went to Penticton twice this year to train for this year's Ironman event. "We paid for accommodation, we bought food, we bought gear and went to the repair shop, we went out for dinner. We spent a considerable amount of money there before the event," he said.
The only thing Deeks is concerned about is the ability to recruit volunteers. The past Ironman Canada race had 3,500 volunteers helping out, which Deeks thinks would be a challenge for the resort. "We would have to draw in Squamish and Pemberton and Vancouver to make this happen, although I think you'll find that a lot of the volunteers in Penticton aren't from there either and there are a lot of volunteers loyal to the Ironman brand that would follow it here," he said.
Subaru Ironman Canada is the second-oldest Ironman event to the original race in Hawaii, celebrating its 30th and final anniversary in Penticton in August.
Penticton will instead stage a different race next year called Challenge Penticton, one of 13 international Challenge triathlon events that cover the same distances as Ironman but offer more prize money ($60,000 for Penticton) and are slightly cheaper to enter. Reports suggest that it will also cost Penticton less to host the event, which is reported to create roughly $10 million in economic activity each year.
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