On the morning of August 20, 1983 some two dozen triathletes huddled together on the banks of Okanagan Lake in Penticton, British Columbia. They were gathered for the Ultra Triathlon, the very first Ironman-distance event outside of Kona, Hawaii. Comprised of 22 men and just one woman, the pack took off into the expansive lake before biking and running through the lush Okanagan valley, tucked between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Range.
For the next 30 years, this tradition continued, exponentially growing in popularity. In 1986, it was coined Ironman Canada and maintained that title until 2012. It was then when Ironman moved their Canadian event to the challenging terrain of Whistler, some 333 miles away. But that will soon change, as Ironman announced they’re returning to Penticton for the 2020 event. The final edition of Subaru Ironman Canada will run in Whistler on July 28, with next year’s event in Penticton slated for August 30, 2020.
“We are excited to return to Penticton, the genesis of Ironman Canada and one of our longest-running events,” said Andrew Messick, President and Chief Executive Officer for The Ironman Group in a press statement. “With over 30 years of history, we expect that the return of Ironman Canada to this unique venue will energize both the veteran athlete who participated in the original event and a whole new generation of athletes who will come to experience the Okanagan tradition that has enriched this amazing race venue.”
Rumors have been swirling for months that Ironman would be bringing their Canadian race back to where it all began–despite the fact that the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and Tourism Whistler (TW) had signed a contract extension in 2017 to keep the race in the resort until 2020. However, last May, the City Council of Penticton voted unanimously to negotiate a five-year agreement with Ironman to host the race. On July 16, Ironman announced that it would be moving the venue, thus terminating the agreement with Whistler one year early while thanking the city for “being an amazing host over the last several years.”
So after such a storied history, why did Ironman leave Penticton in the first place? It was actually the city’s choice. In 2012, the city council opted to usher in the Germany-based brand Challenge Family as the new host of their local event, with then Mayor Dan Ashton citing the choice was partially based on a potential boost to the city’s economy. (Incidentally, the decision was one of the most buzz-worthy news stories of the year in the town of 34,000.) However, Challenge Penticton was never able to match the numbers of Ironman. According to the Penticton Western News, the city lost $377,032 in the first year of Challenge Penticton. By 2017, its final year, the race had just 500 athletes in the full-distance race (Challenge Penticton also offered a half-distance race, which had 1,600 participants in 2017). In September 2017, race director Michael Brown announced a mutual parting of the ways with Challenge, which by that time, had reduced its cache of North American races to just its Penticton event.
While the triathlon spirit has remained alive and well in Penticton–the city hosted the ITU World Championships in 2017 and the Super League Triathlon in 2018–the news from Ironman has certainly bolstered the excitement even further. Some 2,500 athletes are expected to take part in the 2020 event, many of whom will vie for the 40 qualifying spots to the 2021 Ironman World Championships in Kona up for grabs. Another 10,000 visitors are expected to pour in for the race next August–and locals hope those numbers will fuel both tourism and the region’s economy.
“Our city is going to be humming again for a couple weeks at the end of August,” Penticton mayor John Vassilaki told a buzzing crowd that gathered for the official Ironman Canada announcement as well as to register for the 2020 event in the city’s Rotary Park. “I can’t tell you how much it’s going to help the economy of the South Okanagan—not just the City of Penticton but the whole region.”