A NEW CHAMPIONSHIP
IBRING LOTS OF bias when it comes to talking about Challenge Family’s inaugural Championship race at the X-bionic Sphere in Samorin, Slovakia – I was hired as the race announcer and MC for the press conferences and banquets. That bias aside, though, it’s easy to say that the event was a huge success – exactly what Challenge needed if it is to make any headway in the half- and full-distance race landscape around the world.
It started with incredibly exciting racing. Canada’s own Lionel Sanders took the title, but not before he endured an “Ironwar” type battle for 16 km of the run with Germany’s Sebastian Kienle. The two were seconds apart throughout the swim and bike, and took turns battering each other on the challenging (pardon the pun) run course that included sand, grass and intense heat. Sanders finally broke away with 5 km to go.
The women’s race was even more exciting, although the result wasn’t such great news for Canada. Heather Wurtele seemed on track to take the win, only to be passed with 1.7 km to go by Australia’s Annabel Luxford, who was then passed in the last kilometre by Lucy Charles, who, until just a few years ago, was a member of Great Britain’s national swim team.
The racing was special, for sure, but there were so many other positives. Athletes loved the 20 m draft rule that was enforced for both pros and age groupers. The live coverage of the race, produced by Peter Henning, the 18-time Emmy award-winning producer who used to produce the NBC Ironman World Championship show, was spectacular and put Ironman’s offerings for all their races except Kona to shame.
“My overall feeling for the Championship was that it really was a “championship” in regards to the professionalism – the race, the course, the way the athletes were looked after and the field that it drew,” said Luxford at the press conference after the race. “All of those things are the epitome of what a championship should be.”
Maybe it was the smaller field (there were only 900 athletes competing in Samorin). Maybe it was because it was all so new. But despite all that “championship” feeling, there was a relaxed atmosphere that made the race special. The positive energy from all the athletes at the awards ceremony was second to none.
Here’s the kicker, though. Challenge already has Roth, a full-distance race that exudes all those same feelings. This was a great start for this first-time race. Now they have to figure out how to deliver something close to that same experience at all their races, which now number almost 40 around the world. I hope that Challenge can figure out how to make money with events that feature smaller fields and 20 m, draft-free racing for all the competitors.
Don’t get me wrong – the last thing I would ever do is tell you not to get to any of the races held at Mont-tremblant, which is every bit an amazing experience, but a very different one. Or many of the other great Ironman events held here in Canada and around the world. To continue to grow, though, our sport needs options so athletes can enjoy lots of different race experiences.
The pros and athletes who took in the Championship made it very clear that this was one experience more triathletes should take in. The bar was set very high. Now the Challenge Family will have to figure out how to meet future expectations.