This year's edition of Subaru Ironman Canada is bringing back some familiar names in the men's professional category.
But for the first time, they'll race on a looped bike course instead of a there-and-back after Village of Pemberton council voted against supporting a new contract to keep the race in the Sea to Sky last summer. Ultimately, the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Tourism Whistler and Ironman parent company Wanda Sports Holdings agreed to a three-year extension that will keep the race here until 2020.
Instead of cruising through Pemberton and into Pemberton Meadows, participants of the full-distance Ironman race this Sunday, July 29 will complete three loops of the course between Alpine Meadows and the Callaghan Valley before transitioning to the run portion in Whistler Village.
Trevor Wurtele, the Kelowna runner who won the inaugural race here in Whistler in 2013 and was third the last time the pro men competed here in 2016, has plenty of experience with looped courses at other Ironman venues. Admittedly, some are easier to navigate than others, and it'll be difficult to figure out how the new route will play until it sees action on race day.
"Typically, three-loop courses can get a little bit crowded on the third lap, especially with the (half-distance) 70.3 going on as well," said Wurtele. "It depends on how the timing of athletes exiting the water works out. Sometimes, it's no problem at all but sometimes, I've done three-loop courses where it can be a little bit of a cluster."
While landmarks such as Suicide Hill are no longer on the menu, Wurtele counts himself in the camp that doesn't think the changes make the course significantly harder or easier, even though it has some fairly striking differences.
"I know a lot of people are talking about how much harder it is, but I don't think it's going to be too much harder," he said. "We miss the Pemberton flats and whatnot, which was pretty scenic and they replaced that with the rolling hills, but the last 30 kilometres at the end of the old course, that was a really tough go."
Victoria's Brent McMahon, who was raised in Vancouver and has plenty of familiarity with Whistler, said the opportunity to do a there-and-back bike ride is a rarity on Ironman circuit. While he's disappointed he missed the chance to race on such a course in his home province, the two-time Olympian and three-time Ironman champion is looking forward to challenging Ironman Canada for the first time.
"It's pretty unique to be able to do an Ironman course that's one loop, essentially," he said. "There's not a lot of events out there that get access to that much terrain that they do one loop. It's too bad that they don't have the one-loop course anymore, because that was pretty unique, but it also allows you to mentally break the course up, take one loop at a time. Once you've done the one loop, you're halfway through and you know exactly what's going to happen on the next loop."
McMahon also explained while congestion might be detrimental to a potential champion, the flipside is the exciting opportunity to race alongside amateurs and half-distance competitors whose paths they would never have crossed before.
"It is fun doing two (or more) loops because you get to race more with the amateurs and that's a great thing about Ironman: We all do the same course and we all get the same challenge and we all do it at the same time," he said.
McMahon explained that he expects Sunday's course to be difficult, but it is a challenge he relishes.
Meanwhile, Matt Russell of Sarasota, Fla.—who won the final Ironman Canada in Penticton in 2012 and has a pair of half-distance 70.3 titles to his name—reiterated how important a strong time on the bike is to a victory. Russell was also second to Wurtele here in Whistler in 2013, and said from looking at the new course on a map that he expects greater difficulty. He stressed, however, that no one else has it any tougher or any easier than he does.
"The old course was pretty tough and then this one has more climbing, but we're all doing the same course," he said, noting he planned to come out to Whistler a few days beforehand to survey the course.
This Sunday, pro men will start at Rainbow Park at 5:50 a.m., the age-group athletes will go at 6 a.m., and the 70.3 athletes will start at 7:20 a.m.
For more information, check out www.ironman.com.