Valley First Challenge Penticton arrives Sunday and there is a list of candidates capable of winning.
On the women’s side, the top four finishers from last year are back, in winner Carrie Lester of Australia, Canada’s Karen Thibodeau, local Jenn Annett and American Jennifer Luebke. Challenge Penticton announcer Steve King said they are all going to be contenders.
“It’s going to be an interesting one,” said King, adding that newcomers Madison Mackenzie, Natasha van der Merwe and Jana Candrova will be in the mix among a field of 13, up four from last year. A dark horse in the group is Christine Fletcher, who has finished second in Penticton before. King sees her finding a place in the top three. Annett, King said, is in good form. She won the Peach City Classic triathlon in Penticton a month ago and King is curious to see how she performs on home turf.
The men’s side is led by defending champ Jeff Symonds, who finished second at Subaru Ironman Canada Whistler nearly a month ago. Penticton’s long distance triathlon has had repeat winners before on the men’s side in Peter Reid and Ray Browning, a three-peat winner. King said it might be tough for Symonds to repeat only because of the turnaround, but he still believes in the 28-year-old.
“Jeff, we know, is certainly more than capable,” said King. “His two hour, 40 minute run at the back end of the Ironman Canada race, that is absolutely totally world class. Right up there with the very best.”
Looking to dethrone Symonds will be Scott DeFilippis, the New Jersey native who finished second last year. The two have become friends, communicating over the Internet with the races they have done being among the topics. While DeFilippis has completed three full distance triathlons in nine weeks, he has confidence in what he can do.
“Coming back and knowing the course helps,” he said, adding that the swim and bike is key for him.
DeFilippis, who has been in a relationship with Lester for two-and-a-half years, and Symonds were asked during Friday afternoon’s pro press conference if they have a rivalry developing.
DeFilippis below. (Kristi Patton/Western News)
“It wasn’t much of a race last year,” joked DeFilippis, who attended to speak with fellow pros Andrew Russell, Symonds, Lester, Annett and Nathan Champness.
“I see it more as a kindred spirit,” said Symonds. “Just the way we like to finish hard on the run. We’re the guys that are coming and trying to catch Andrew (Russell). I think Andrew is the favourite. He is kind of laying low there. He knows the race, knows the history.”
Others who King likes are Champness from Vernon, who won the 32nd Pushor Mitchell Kelowna Apple Triathlon (1.5-kilometre swim, 40-km bike and 10-km run) last weekend in 2:25 and the Peach Classic Triathlon, recently. Champness is in good form King said and “it would be nice to see him come out with a top three (finish).”
Champness said he wants to make an impact on the race.
“I’m going to rely on my strength on the bike,” he said, adding that his swim has improved. “I feel confident about what I can do. Being around those top guys, their energy is contagious. The guys at the top inspire you to do better.”
As Champness takes on the elite in the men’s field, he will also lean on his support group.
“Vernon has an incredible fringe triathon community,” he told crowd attending the press conference in the Penticton Lakeside Resort. “It’s my secret weapon. It’s such a boost whenever they show up. They are always coming out in droves.”
Sean Bechtel, 30, competed in Ironman Mont Tremblant last year and finished 10th in 8:47:24 is another one King likes. King described him as a speedster. Russell from Victoria brings experience in the half distance events winning in Vancouver and Victoria and finished fifth in Whistler last year.Chris Bagg finished seventh in Challenge Penticton last year. That is a group King feels still needs to prove themselves on the Penticton course.
“Any of them could shine on the day,” he said.
In total, 16 pros are competing for the title. With a purse prize of $75,000, $12,000 to the winners, the remaining pot goes to the other nine top finishers. What excites King about Sunday’s race are the new athletes taking it on as well as those in the elite division. To him, they will be battling not just to reach the podium, but to be the champ. King sees the men’s winner breaking the VFCP ribbon at about eight hours and 20 minutes if there is a battle, while the women have the potential to finish near the 9:20 mark.
“I’m excited at the prospect of some very fast racing,” he said. “Conditions always make a difference.”
The action begins at 6:30 a.m. with the pros being sent into the waters of Okanagan Lake.
Challenge Penticton notes: During the press conference, Symonds cracked a joke saying his girlfriend Sophia Chadwick is expecting him to improve on his run time of two hours, 40 minutes because he always seems to improve his time. She would like to see him complete the run in 2:33, which King was blown away by adding if Symonds accomplished that, it would set a record for the full distance triathlon. More than 2,000 pounds of bananas will have been consumed for the race as well as 26,000 cups. The athletes true climb at Richter’s Pass starts at the 73-km mark with the climb 219-m in elevation and the peak at 684.