Penticton Ironman's last hurrah

Something was decidedly missing down at Ironman ground zero at Rotary Park on Monday.

“A little bit different atmosphere down here today,” said one man casually milling about the mostly empty park which is normally a hive of activity the day after Ironman Canada in Penticton.

Instead of the seemingly endless snaking lines of people wanting to sign up for next year’s event, there was just one for racers who took part in Sunday’s 30th and final Penticton Ironman looking to pick up official finishers’ gear.

“I was standing at the start of the swim (Sunday) morning and probably had about 500 athletes hug me and I was crying the whole time,” said former owner of Ironman Canada Graham Fraser. “I always made sure I took care of the athletes first and it was nice to see them acknowledge that this morning.”

Fraser rode the bike portion of Ironman on Sunday, taking in the atmosphere of the final Ironman race in Penticton. He said in his wildest dreams he would have never thought this triathlon that started with just a handful of competitors would grow so popular. Looking forward, Fraser said he knows when it is time for him to go and he won’t be involved in Challenge Penticton, which is taking over the triathlon.

“Penticton will be fine. The one thing I know about this community is that it is resilient and it rallies around and figures it out. It is a special place that way,” said Fraser. “So for the people of Penticton, don’t take this as a negative, take this as a new start.”

After 17 years at the helm of the Penticton Ironman, Fraser said he will cherish many wonderful memories.

“Penticton has been a special part of the history of the sport and that is the part the athletes know and it still will be. Penticton is a triathlon town,” said Fraser.

Meanwhile over at the South Okanagan Events Centre, people moved along rapidly through a lineup to register for the 2013 Challenge Penticton. Live music serenaded the crowd while food and drinks were handed out by the Challenge Family CEO Felix Walchshöfer, the mayor and members of city council.

“We are stoked, we had really good and positive feedback with hundreds of people coming up. That is actually more than we expected, so we are absolutely thrilled,” said Walchshöfer. “The in-boxes are full from Challenge Family especially from Europeans but also a lot of athletes from Canada and the States that are asking when online (registration) is going to start.”

The organizers of the new race already have successful events in Germany, New Zealand and the Canary Islands, Penticton is their first foray into North America. The Challenge Penticton event invited in-person registration on Monday morning and it was opened up worldwide online on Tuesday.

“The 9 a.m. registration is a bit difficult for the Europeans because it will be midnight, but I already got a lot of emails from people staying up to be first in line to register, so that is very, very promising,” said Walchshöfer.

Laura Campbell was grinning ear to ear as she came out of the SOEC as a registered participant for the 2013 Challenge Penticton.

“I think it is amazing. I know a lot of people might be pissed but I was excited,” said the Vancouver native of the changeover. “I thought that in the future I would love to try a Challenge series event and now I get to. Doing the actual event is what means the most to me. I don’t care about a brand, it’s the fact I am doing that distance.”

For Penticton’s Colin Madill, who missed the bike cutoff by just a minute on Sunday, the news of the change over to the Challenge was “devastating.”

“I think there is something magical about saying you are an Ironman,” said Madill, who was in the lineup for the Challenge registration with friends but said he would make his final decision when he got to the front of the line. “I was upset at city council for letting it go, but hopefully it will be a positive change.”

Others had mixed emotions about seeing the event switch hands after having such an impact over 30 years as an Ironman Canada branded race. Martin Wennen of Vancouver said he plans on signing up for both the Challenge Penticton and the yet-to-be-determined location of Ironman Canada 2013 race, which was accepting online registrations.

“I love Penticton and it was the big draw for me. I looked at Coeur d’Alene Ironman for signing up but I just love Penticton,” said Daphne Brown, who drove down from Salmon Arm on Monday to register for Challenge Penticton. “I want to check this off my bucket list ... at first I was kind of disappointed because I can’t say I am an Ironman, but I don’t really care. It is just the fact that I am doing the event.”

Professional triathlete Christian Brader, who is from Germany, home of the successful Challenge Roth, said he hasn’t entered into a Challenge Family race.

“It’s not the last race here. It’s just another label. I don’t think it’s less attractive than before. They do a good job. I’m sure it will be a good race. I would also come back it if is not an Ironman,” said Brader.

The feeling seemed mutual between many of the professionals asked if they would return to Penticton for the Challenge Family race.

“I would always race in Penticton. I don’t care what the name of the race would be. If the community is behind it and Steve King and all these organizers are here, I would always come here for this race,” said professional female winner Gillian Clayton.

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