Felix Walchshöfer is not at all concerned about the size of the field for the inaugural Challenge Penticton race.
The CEO of Challenge Family spoke at a Penticton Rotary meeting Wednesday, on the eve of race week, telling how the same thing happened when his parents first switched the Roth, Germany race from Ironman to their newly-developed Challenge format. “In 2002, we started with about 1,000 single participants and about 120 relay teams, very similar to here. It has grown to this year to much more than 5,000,” said Walchshöfer.
It’s not only the race in Roth that has grown; the Challenge Family brand has grown to 21 races in 13 countries around the world. That includes Penticton, which is running the first North American Challenge this weekend.
Walchshöfer explained that in 2001, Roth was finding the same problems with Ironman that Penticton experienced. They started running an Ironman in the same year as Penticton, but the length of stay for athletes and spectators was shrinking, and the Ironman organization was taking money out of the community.
Both the city and his parents, who organized the race, felt Ironman was taking a direction they didn’t see as healthy.
“It was kind of a road show. They came in, we had to help them put up the stuff, they packed up and moved away. A lot of things were not rented in our community, were not paid for in our community, it all came from outside,” said Walchshöfer. “The community board and the mayor said they would like to see something different and we shared the same opinion. My mother and father decided to go independent, without the Ironman label.”
Along with adding relay teams to the race and changing the name, Walchshöfer said they also added a range of events, not just sporting events, but a whole festival with cultural exhibitions and rock concerts, intended to keep people in the area longer.
“Everyone has something to join into. This is what we did, and very, very quickly, in 3.5 years, we were the biggest race in the world,” said Walchshöfer, adding that the GFK group, the largest market research group in Germany, prepared a report showing the one week adds €11 million to the local economy.
“It is very important for the business community. We understand here it is the same thing. We have to get the word out, especially in the years to come,” said Walchshöfer. “For us, it wasn’t the first year, right away, 5,000. There is a lot of work required, but everything that is important is already here. Fantastic community that is standing behind the event and we have the best volunteers.”
Walchshöfer admits they were surprised by how fast the race grew and predicts the same for Penticton, adding that the important factor for growth is that decision-making about the race remains in the community, rather than with the World Triathlon Corporation, which owns the Ironman races.
“We are very closely talking with the race committee here, every other week to share ideas, but decisions are being taken here. This is the way, I think, it has to be,” said Walchshöfer.