Ironman Canada returned to Whistler on Sunday, July 27, with close to 2,000 racers taking part in the event's second year in the resort.
Although an estimated 300 fewer participants took to the start line at Rainbow Park compared to Whistler's first year hosting the 226-kilometre triathlon, race director Evan Taylor saw the event as a booming success.
"I'm extremely happy," he said. "We had a good turnout, the weather was great and there were no major problems."
The slight drop-off in registration is typical for an Ironman in the second year at a new venue, Taylor explained, who said the new race date — moved up from Aug. 25 in 2013 — could have also played a role.
"What it does is reduce the training time by a month, so what we're anticipating for those diehard Ironman Canada fans is that people will learn to adjust their training to compensate for that," he said.
Taylor also commended the traffic plan in place for the event, saying representatives from the Ministry of Transportation onsite relayed "nothing but glowing reports." He added that roads closed as a result of the race reopened "very close to on time" and earlier than expected in some areas of Pemberton.
Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said she's received only two complaints regarding traffic flow so far, and said the municipality will continue working with race organizers to ensure ample information is getting out to residents about expected delays and closures in advance of next year's event.
She said staff and council will also be looking at this year's removal of free parking in Lot 4 for Ironman set up to see if other arrangements can be made for residents and visitors who use the lot.
While participation in the race was down, volunteer numbers were similar to 2013 despite some positions remaining unfilled just days before the event. After some last-minute sign-ups, however, over 2,100 came out to lend a hand, according to Ironman volunteer director Donna Savage.
The logistics behind coordinating such a large contingent of volunteers can be mind-boggling, Savage said, who credited the 98 team captains with keeping things running smoothly.
Savage continues to be amazed by the level of support and dedication of volunteers who man the various stations, highlighting one particular woman who, upon discovering a racer might not have her medication, cycled from the swim course to Day Lot 4, rummaged through thousands of athletes' supply bags, tracked down the correct one, biked back to Alta Lake, located the racer just as she was about to enter the water and reassured her that her medication was on-hand.
"I'm humbled," Savage said. "I heard story after story of people who helped out and it's these people who make dreams come true."
Organizers hoping to improve the spectator experience included several minor course adjustments this year, including a modification to the 180-km bike portion to siphon racers through downtown Pemberton for the first time. The change was added as a result of feedback from Pembertonians and was also intended to improve convenience for local residents.
"I think the alternative route through town opened it up to more spectators, which is good," said Pemberton's acting mayor, James Linklater. "I think it allowed some early access in the morning for some downtown residents to move freely as well."
Linklater admitted traffic likely remains a major issue for many Spud Valley drivers, especially for Meadows Road residents, where a good portion of the bike course is situated, but applauded Ironman for its efforts to reduce delays, including opening up The Glen, which "allowed some ease of traffic from the village east towards the industrial park and golf courses."
The spike in traffic wasn't relegated to the roads, however, as Ironman once again attracted a significant amount of activity to Whistler on race day as well as the days leading up to the event.
Room night bookings paced "well ahead" of the same dates in 2013 and 2012, according to Tourism Whistler's director of planning, James Buttenshaw.
"Not only do many of the competitors visit the area numerous times to train, Ironman competitors typically travel with a number of family members, making their race week a Whistler vacation," he wrote in an email.
Whistler Chamber of Commerce CEO Val Litwin also highlighted numerous businesses along the Village Stroll which took advantage of Ironman's Business Showcase by "participating with decorated storefronts and sidewalk sales." He also reported increased community engagement in 2014 through Ironman's Canada Village Expo, where local merchants could purchase a booth in Olympic Plaza to showcase their products.
Marketplace store Skiis and Biikes was one of the local vendors that set up a booth at the expo, and served as the race's official bike techs. Between the main store location and the expo tent, general manager Erin Keam anticipated that bike service sales were up five to 10 per cent from an average summer weekend, a slight decline from the 2013 race when Skiis and Biikes was not involved with the expo.
"Financially, I'm going to say at best we broke even when you factor in the extra hours for staffing, set-up and teardown (at the expo)," he said. "But on the exposure side of things, I think it's amazing and gives us a whole new market to delve into."
Last year's Ironman generated $8.4 million in local economic activity, including $7 million in spending in the resort. The RMOW contributed $250,000 in RMI funds to the event as part of its five-year annual agreement with Ironman.
Local businesses without a direct link to the race also got in on the mix — Nicklaus North Golf Course staff, for example, set up a beer garden along the Valley Trail to cheer on racers who passed through the area a total of four times during the run course. General manager Michael Zuccolin said that creative businesses can find ways to attract the influx of visitors during an event that is ultimately a boon for the resort.
"(Ironman) definitely adversely affects us in the golf industry, but that doesn't bother us because we understand it's about the greater good of the community," he said, estimating a total of 1,500 people came through the club on race day, quadrupling last year's numbers. "Not every event that comes to town is going to benefit everybody, but we found a way to create greater community enthusiasm and rally people around it."
The golf course wasn't the only place y spectators incorporated unique strategies to rally participants, however.
Last year, 34-year-old Whistler resident Jamie Drummond selected a racer to support with the bib number that corresponded to her birthday. The participant, a U.S. woman, was brought to tears by Drummond's personalized sign and raucous cheers — so she decided to do it again this year, this time using her boyfriend's date of birth.
"I get so much joy seeing people struggle through something," she said. "It's just so inspiring to watch people to something like this."
Ironman Canada returns to Whistler on July 26, 2015.
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