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Ironman to build on success

Stakeholders plan to debrief on event to improve race for athletes and community
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TOUCHING IRON B.C.'s own Trevor Wurtele celebrates his Ironman Canada victory with the crowd on Sunday afternoon. Spectator numbers were beyond anything organizers expected. Photo by Mitch Winton coastphoto.com

Ironman Canada organizers are hailing Whistler's inaugural event as a great success, from the enthusiasm of the volunteers and spectators to the course and feedback from athletes.

"The overall impression was that it was really, really good," said race director Keats McGonigal, who makes a point of collecting feedback from athletes, volunteers and spectators.

"The swim venue worked out a lot better than we were anticipating, the bike course — the athlete's feedback has been really positive, they saw how spectacular it is. And people liked the run course too because it was a bit of a mix with some sections on trail, some sections on road. Overall it went really, really well."

Pro athletes that have raced around the world confirmed that the bike course is one of the most difficult on the circuit — not that it's a bad thing.

"It is definitely one of the more challenging (bike courses) on the circuit..." said McGonigal.

Overall times were close to what the organizers had expected, including on the challenging bike leg, but McGonigal confirmed that run times were slightly slower than predicted.

The next step is to collect feedback from staff members, volunteers, local governments and other stakeholders and look at things that can be improved. It's likely, said McGonigal, that there will be a few changes next year.

"This year we really focused on the athletes and their experience, and worked to deliver a world-class athlete experience, but the next year or two years we will put more of our focus on our volunteers and the spectators," he said. "I think there are things we can do to improve those two areas to make it better.

"The volunteer support we had was phenomenal, and we absolutely came in with all the volunteer support we needed and then some, so that was fantastic.

"And from a spectator experience, that was one of the areas where we were a little surprised — particularly on Highway 99 in terms of the number of people out watching the bikes all the way through Whistler. One of the things we will do is look at how spectators are managed so everybody is safe and has a good spot to watch the athletes."

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who along with several other council members cheered on athletes as they crossed the finish line at midnight, was impressed.

"I was absolutely amazed by so many aspects of the competition," she said. "How well it was organized, how calm and focused the volunteers were, and then just the sheer athleticism of the 2,500 participants — it was absolutely mind-boggling."

There were some concerns voiced before the event regarding the road and Valley Trail closures and the Ironman Expo's impact on local businesses, but Wilhelm-Morden said she didn't field one single negative comment on the day of the race. "In fact, it was just the opposite," she said. "Everything I heard from spectators, volunteers and race organizers was very, very positive."

The Resort Municipality of Whistler and other stakeholders including the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and the Village of Pemberton, have signed a five-year contract to host the event. The RMOW will contribute $100,000 in funding from the Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) fund, plus provide other services-in-kind.

Wilhelm-Morden said there would be an opportunity in the coming weeks to look back at this year's race and make improvements for next year in cooperation with the organizers.

"I think we will definitely be looking at what happened this year and areas of improvement, areas for change," she said. "For example, the levels of business — what were they? And where, perhaps, can we help our business community become even better prepared."

Whistler Ironman athlete Scott Brammer, who completed Ironman Canada eight times in its former home in Penticton, also gave high marks to the Whistler event.

"It was really good," he said. "I was a little concerned with the volunteers and not getting enough out, but that whole side of things was great, it was better than anything I could have imagined. I've done Penticton eight times and they say the Iron Army there is amazing, but I honestly couldn't tell the difference here, it was just as good. For a first year event, that's something to be proud of."

First-time volunteer director Donna Savage has worked for almost a year to assemble a team of captains and recruit volunteers and they were still recruiting only a few weeks ago. Then, out of the blue, they were swamped with applications and by the end had more than enough to help out with 3,000 volunteer shifts.

"The volunteers were utterly awesome and they made dreams come true out there," she said.

Savage said the first volunteer shifts on race day started at 4 a.m. with athlete marking and while shifts only last eight hours a lot of the volunteers wouldn't leave and kept helping out the whole day. "We couldn't get them to go home," she laughed. "Some might have gone for naps but they were back again at night to help out at the finish line after doing two or three shifts during the day because they wanted to."

The registration for volunteers for 2014 opened on Monday at the same time the general registration opened for the race.

Savage said there were a few good lessons from this year, including not to underestimate her volunteers.

On the retail front, Erin Keam, manager of Skiis and Biikes, on Main Street said it was a good week, but it was also challenging given the demand for very niche items that would be difficult to keep in stock year-round.

"CO2 cartridges were easy to sell, and everyone was running disc wheels so I bought a quantity of long-stemmed tubes," he said. "But we had customers looking for zip ties for Zipp wheels and that's a $150 tire, and I can't have a stock of 15 of those in."

For next year, Keam said he plans to speak to local Ironman athletes to get a better idea of the things that every triathlete needs before a race and to dealers about carrying specialty triathlon items on consignment, such as tri bars for road bikes — if he doesn't sell them he can send them back, rather than carrying them in stock for another year.

"There are things I don't mind having — certain types of pedals, interface systems, things that if people are in a jam I can help them out, but it's hard to get deep into it," he said, That said, Keam added it was a busy few weeks for his store and a positive experience overall. "It was good. As much as we knew what to expect, I just don't think we expected as much of it.

"I think this is going to be a great thing, and there's always growing pains with events. Even the World Ski and Snowboard Festival had growing pains, and like that event this is just going to keep getting better and better.

"I can't imagine why anybody would be against having (Ironman) here, to be honest. All you had to do was wander Olympic Plaza over the last week and you would see that this has been incredible."

One facet of Ironman has always been its ability to inspire, and there was no shortage of inspiration this year.

Take Sindy Hooper from Ottawa, Ontario, a 50-year-old mother of two. Ironman has had racers in the field before that have battled cancer, but Hooper may be the first athlete in the history of the race to participate while she was actively undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for pancreatic cancer. She and her husband finished the race in 16:24:28 with over 30 minutes to spare.

"It was incredible, I can't believe I finished," she said at the finish line. "There were tons of signs out on the course supporting me, I really couldn't believe it. People had signs that read 'go Sindy go' and lots of people came up to me on the course and asked if they could run with me for a bit."

More than anything she was pleased to get her message out.

"I'd like to inspire other people to take on something they don't think is possible, and not to listen to other people when they say something is impossible — and of course to raise more money for Pancreatic Cancer Canada," she said.

Another inspirational duo was the Lower Mainland team of Brian Cowie, a visually impaired athlete, and Meyrick Jones, his guide and a below-the-knee amputee on his left leg. They swam together, rode together on a tandem bike and ran together using a tether.

"This was a fun course to do," said Jones. "We'd raced twice before in Penticton and it was a different experience here and it's a great race. But we had three flats on the bike and it slowed us down a lot.

"The crowds were just amazing, there were people everywhere."