Ironman Canada 2013 - The Muskoka Bid Story
Ironman Canada has a rich 30 year history in Penticton. Aug 2012 saw the final running of Ironman Canada in Penticton after 30 editions. Next year, the Challenge Series moves into town. The World Triathlon Corporation is now looking to a number of communities to host a "new round of Ironman Canada". But which community will be able to do the event justice and live up to the amazing legacy of Ironman Canada in Penticton.
As athletes, we can actually thank the community of Penticton for showing the rest of North America how continental Ironman events should be run. It was back in 1999, that Graham Fraser took the Ironman Canada model and dropped it into Lake Placid, then Panama City, then Madison and so on. Before we knew it, there was an Ironman series event in every region of the United States providing athletes the Kona experience close to home, often in driving distance. Most recently, the Ironman series expanded to the Eastern half of Canada with amazingly successful events at both the 140.6 and 70.3 distances in Mont Tremblant.
Now a number of communities are vying and bidding to be the home of the new Ironman Canada. WTC will take bids from various communities until the third week of September and will converge on a decision on their selected choice sometime in October.
Those of us who are veterans of Ironman Canada perhaps regret the move of Ironman Canada from Penticton. The reality is that no community will be able to instantly replace the soul of Penticton that was injected into this event for 3 decades. The community was entirely behind Ironman in their back yard, putting its soul into making their home the home of athletes from around the world for one special week per year. Many lifelong dreams were realized in Penticton, be they becoming first time Ironman finishers, personal bests or for the very lucky few, it was the last stop on the road to Kona.
Now a new chapter will begin, but where should it "start"?
Just like WTC is the custodian of Ironman Hawaii, they are also the custodian of Ironman Canada, both of which predate the existence of WTC by multiple decades. To WTC we entrust the care taking of these institutions in triathlon history. While they "own the events", they also have a larger responsibility to the global triathlon community beyond revenue and bottom line only.
Many communities have been mentioned as potential candidates: Victoria, Whistler, Kelowna, Vernon and Calgary (amongst a few other options). But none of these has the same legacy of hosting international triathlon events as does the city of Huntsville and the Muskoka region 2 hours north of Toronto. However, in the group of cities bidding, Muskoka clearly stands out, in that it is not a Western Canadian bid, rather it is totally at the other end of the continent.
We caught up with the Muskoka bid team, led by Rich Trenholm of TriMuskoka (www.trimuskoka.com) and they shared how they intend to honour that 30 year legacy of Ironman Canada, by offering another community lead event with another distinctly Canadian experience which, while not based in the mountains of the interior BC, offers a setting that is equally Canadian, amidst the rolling hills and forest on the edge of Algonquin Park. The Muskoka bid team wanted to share some of their story with us, the athletes, giving all of us a window into what we can expect at a full 140.6 mile Ironman event in their backyard.
But, first a bit of background. Muskoka is no stranger to big events. You want big, how about hosting the G8 summit with the 8 most powerful heads of state and their associated entourage for multiple days of high octane negotiations on "how the world should be run". But before the Government of Canada decided that Muskoka could step up to that, there have been scores of sporting and cultural events in this resort community.
Specific to us, high profile triathlons have been hosted in Muskoka since way back in 1990. In 1990, the Canadian Tri series Championship was held there (this was back in the heyday of the USTS, and yes, we Canadians had our own gig). Then the next year, the Nationals were held in Muskoka. Then the year afterwards, we welcomed Simon Lessing and Michelle Jones as the new ITU World Champions finishing on the same strip of tarmac where Craig Alexander and Mirinda Carfrae have won the Muskoka 70.3 in recent years. In fact, over the last 20 years, the marquis race in Ontario's Subaru tri series, has been in Muskoka. The series hosts over 10,000 athletes per year, in races ranging from sprint to half Ironman.
Bottom line, the Muskoka bid team is not offering up a venue based on vapourware and cool powerpoint presentations.
Those of us who live in the corporate world know the large divide between powerpoint and real product that can be purchased. Rather, the bid team is offering up a solid proposal based on 22 years of hosting races of all distances, on proven infrastructure, community involvement and backing, and a track record of execution and attention to detail. If this was not the case, by now, we athletes would have stopped coming back to Muskoka, but we've come back for over 2 decades, for one of the best triathlon shows that Ontario puts on.
While this provides some context, most readers will want some more visibility into what this community has cooked up for us. The Subaru Ironman 70.3 Muskoka race that currently happens on the second weekend in September is known to be one of the hardest half Ironman courses in North America. At least that's is what Craig Alexander has said, and if you plug in "Craig Alexander" in sportstats.ca, you'll see that his times in St. Croix and Muskoka are within minutes of each other. Before Vegas came to exist, Craig would make Muskoka his last "racing test" before his wins at Kona. Funny that the guy who was planning to go win on the Lava fields of Kona would come to the rugged hills of Ontario for his final test.
If you go to race at the Subaru Ironman 70.3 Muskoka you don't go for bragging rights for a fast time. The course itself is a challenge. But what is good for 70.3 may not be great for the full 140.6 distance.
As we all know, the level of difficulty and time of year, both conspired against the Ironman in St. George Utah becoming appealing to the mainstream athlete. It seems that athletes prefer easier early season races, and they will even go to races with moderate difficulty if they have time to train for them. Note that the level of difficulty of Lake Placid, Penticton or the new Ironman Tremblant have not deterred athletes from signing up.
Keeping this in mind, the Muskoka bid team has formulated a course that is not 2x the existing 70.3 in difficulty. Instead, it uses all the 70.3 bike course along with some additional flatter terrain to create one large and one small loop for a total of 180k.
Essentially the first and last 10k of the 70.3 are the most difficult and are only traversed once, while the middle 74k or so are moderate to rolling and repeated twice with an additional out and back section added to the first loop to given the full 180k distance. Basically you get one loop worth of the full 70.3 and another loop that uses less challenging terrain. In the end, we expect something in line with the difficulty of Ironman Lake Placid. Expect in the range of 6000 feet of vertical climbing over the day. Enough to make sure that there are no free tows to T2 in the vein of Ironman Florida or Arizona, but at the same time, not the degree of difficulty that you may see at Ironman Lanzarote or Ironman France. This certainly won't have the full blown difficulty of Embrunman with the Col d'Izouard shoved into the course to entirely shred the legs for the marathon!
The run course will also use a modified loop of the 70.3, starting from Deerhurst resort, and running along the lake and through the actual downtown Huntsville, going by all the restaurants and patios on race day, connecting up with the old Muskoka "Chase" course. Those who raced in Muskoka in the past, know that this run course will be less challenging than the 70.3 but also have a number of rolling hills. It probably will be similar in difficulty to the Ironman Canada Penticton run course, but not as difficult as Ironman Lake Placid. The run course will be 2x21K. Enough of spectators to see athletes 4x, but not so dense to have the same congestion that you see on some of the European courses like Ironman Switzerland or Ironman France where you have 2000+ athletes crammed into a four loops of 5.25K out 5.25k back.
Finally the swim (which should have been covered first, but as athletes, most of our questions are about the bike, so we covered that first). Along the lines of Ironman Tremblant, the swim will be held in the Lake of Bays where the current 70.3 event is held. Expect pristine conditions in this Lake, with mirror flat water at 7 am. Unlike Lake Placid or Woodlands Texas where the start areas is narrow, there is plenty of room for athletes to spread out, in what will likely be an "in water start" (at least this is what is done at the 70.3).
To help visualize the environment, a video was prepared for the 70.3 set up a few years ago, which provides visibility into the set up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkRns6d8y6Q&feature. As athletes we want to know about the course, but what about all those other things. The bulk of the racing population comes from those 35-54 years old often managing sport around family and work life. This often means that racing decisions are formulated based on what is good for families? What are accommodations like? How do we get there? What is there for families to do? Can I get there for training camps? Can I drive there? Can I fly there? What time of year are you having this? Do I have to take the kids out of school or will this happen during summer vacation? Did we cover all the usual questions yet? Oh yes, we forgot to ask "Can I walk around town in lycra and compression and if I do, is it safe, or will I be mocked out of town?" All joking aside, the bid committee in Muskoka has strived to answer most of these questions and yes, they won't laugh you out of town if you hang out in compression gear!
Let's examine how they answered some of the other questions
In terms of accommodations, the community has over 5000 rooms within a 30 minute drive of race start with the bulk of them being within 5-10 minutes. This is a community that is built around vacations. Accommodations range from top tier resorts like Deerhurst which has hosted not only the 70.3 events for the past 5 years, but also the ITU worlds. There are many hotels in the town of Huntsville. In the vicinity are countless cottages, condos and vacation homes on lake front properties. The entire place is built around family vacationing, with countless non triathlon activities available for family members to engage in.
To make this attractive to both athletes and families, the organizing committee has gotten the town council on board to offer a variety of dates that would work well for WTC. In essence, most communities try to push triathlon to the season outside "prime vacation season" hoping that we triathletes will fill rooms and restaurants when no one else wants to come to town. Instead, Huntsville is offering to work with WTC and the bid organizers to host a full Ironman event here in July if that works better. They are welcoming a full Ironman right in the midst of prime vacation season!
This seems to address 2 issues. The first is attracting athletes. It is a lot easier to fill a race in the midst of prime vacation season when their kids are out of school and families are looking to go on a vacation anyway. At the same time, this also solves what could be an issue for WTC. A date in late August overlaps with an already busy calendar with Ironmans in Mont Tremblant, Madison and Louisville. Offering a July date steers clear of this, offering an alternative to the already sold out Ironman Lake Placid. But that is not the only aspect of the package. Muskoka will continue to host the Subaru Ironman 70.3 event in late summer/early Sep and the 5150 event in late June.
Alternatively if it works for WTC, the organizing committee would like to have a full build sequence: June 5150, July 70.3 and Labour Day Weekend Ironman 140.6. Either way, they have full backing for local government and stakeholders, with the mandate of winning the bid. Then Muskoka will "make it happen" recognizing the value for the region of this combination of events.
The next question is "How do we get there and who is going to go". The team was quick to point out that they are only a 2 hour drive from Toronto's Pearson International Airport with direct flights to almost every US city as well as many international destinations. Yes, you can even fly directly from Hong Kong to Toronto in one shot albeit in 15.5 hours. Get in your rental car and be in Muskoka few hours later. Perhaps the draw of racing in Canada and making it easy for athletes is attractive. At Mont Tremblant there were athletes from 55 countries. Mont Tremblant was 1.5 hours from the Montreal airport, but did not have the same array of international and US connections.
While having the Toronto Pearson International Airport is an asset for this bid, the Muskoka team pointed out that the reality is that most will drive. Muskoka is within 2-3 hours of over 7 million people in the greater Toronto and surrounding area. Increase the radius to 6-8 hours and suddenly we're doubling the accessible athlete base. New York City falls into the 8 hour range. Nothing like throwing the bike on top of the car, loading up the vehicle for family and friends and heading over to the local Ironman. To date Ontario athletes have had much further distances to travel. Muskoka in the summer will give them the perfect vacation excuse while realizing their dreams of finishing an Ironman.
In discussing the bid with the team, they were respectful that no one will replace Ironman Canada in Penticton, rather they plan to put a different Canadian stamp on their own race, highlighting the culture of their region and vacation experience for the athletes. We already know that the community has the track record of hosting first class triathlon events, and they feel that what the community is offering in services, will make hosting it in Muskoka the most attractive of all bids, and with the flexibility of dates, an optimal solution can be found for both athletes and the WTC organizers, perhaps addressing WTC's interest in ensuring that they can sell out a new Ironman in Canada, that is not that far in geography from existing events.
Unlike Central Europe, where there are several Ironmans in a span of 3-4 weeks and 6 hours of driving, what is different about Canadians and Americans, is that they are more willing to drive a bit further to get to events and Muskoka is willing to move this event further away in time from existing events to not overlap.
When I started doing this interview, my goal was to present what the bid team was doing, and what they propose to offer both athletes and WTC. However, having tried to capture it all, I now enter into an editorial angle that puts some personal bias on the above.
Ironman Canada has a 30 year history. WTC has been a large beneficiary of what the community of Penticton has done for triathlon in Canada and by virtue of setting the standard for continental Ironmans, the entire US Ironman series of events has also benefited.
As I mentioned above, WTC is the custodian of this "Property" that was built off of the free labour and love of many volunteers and athletes. Many of us certainly regret that Ironman Canada as we "knew it" will no longer exist in Penticton. Tom Evans a former winner of Ironman Canada and a Penticton resident said it best, "I'm going into the 45-49 age group now. My twin girls were never alive when I won IMC. I was hoping to finish Ironman Canada right here at home and be announced as a former winner of this race with a hope of getting a Kona slot. Now I have to go elsewhere". His story is one of 1500-2500 athletes per year for three decades. Perhaps there are in the order of 50,000 to 60,000 unique stories that culminated on the tarmac at mile 140.6 in Penticton.
There is probably a lesson here for WTC management in terms how to collaboratively work with communities to keep them on side. As athletes and consumers we expect that any new Ironman Canada should live up to the standards set by Penticton. Going to a new community will not be the same as going back to Penticton. The new committee will need to add its own flavor, character, culture and soul into the new Ironman Canada. Without having visibility into other bids, I can't say how ready they are to step up to fill Penticton's shoes and give us an Ironman Canada that we the athletes deserve. It seems like 10 months is too little to pull anything of the quality that is associated with Ironman Canada in most new communities.
Muskoka has a 2 decade track record as a community of supporting World Championship caliber events, be they ITU World's or G8 summit. The community government has given the organizing big team unanimous backing and the infrastructure of an existing 70.3 event with which WTC employees have firsthand experience, is there. Muskoka is certainly up to the task of pulling off a successful Ironman Canada. It will be interesting to see which path WTC does go down. Those of us in the corporate world know there are 2 sides of every business: the product development side, and the market adoption side. Muskoka will be ready with first class product that probably can't be replicated in any other bidding community. It seems like the organizing community has also done its homework to make sure that they set this event up in time to maximize the business success and ensure market adoption.
Now as athletes, and potential future consumers we sit back and wait until October when WTC will announce if athletes can achieve their full Ironman 140.6 dreams and perhaps a road to Kona via Muskoka. If you ask Simon Lessing, Michellie Jones who are former ITU World Champions at Muskoka, or Craig Alexander and Mirinda Carfrae, who have both won the Subaru Ironman 70.3 Muskoka and Ironman Hawaii, I have no doubt that they'd be big supporters of an Ironman happening in this community. Of course, they are biased, but I think anyone who has raced there will hold a similar bias.
If you are interested, you may learn more about triathlon in Muskoka, and show your support for the Muskoka bid here..
About the Author: Devashish Paul is a frequent contributor at Xtri.com, and has raced in 21 Ironmans across the world from Nice to Penticton to Roth to Kona to Mont. Tremblant. He did his first 6 Ironmans at Ironman Canada Penticton. Having raced 15 times in Muskoka going back to 1990, like others, he is biased about this bid, but has tried to table the details to give readers visibility into the bid.