Picking a favourite to stand atop the Ironman Canada pro men's podium might be just as difficult as finishing the race itself on Sunday, July 27.
With several top pros in town to vie for the title at the 32nd annual event — the second to be held in Whistler — who's got the inside edge on breaking the tape at Whistler Olympic Plaza on Sunday afternoon is anybody's guess.
On one hand, you've got Kelowna's Trevor Wurtele back to defend his title from 2013. American triathlete Matthew Russell has been on the podium at the past two Ironman Canada races, including a win in Penticton in 2012 and a runner-up finish behind Wurtele last year. He'll be back, too.
Then there are others who will race the Whistler course for a first time this weekend, but come to the resort with impressive resumés. That includes Belgium's Marino Vanhoenacker, who holds the world-record time for a full-distance Ironman at seven hours, 45 minutes, 58 seconds.
And don't count out B.C.'s own Jeff Symonds, last year's winner at Challenge Penticton, or Aussie native Paul Ambrose, who has won Ironman races in his home country and the United States in the past few years.
"It's not going to be a walk in the park to get a top three here," said Vanhoenacker, who has won more than a half-dozen full-distance Ironman races. "There will probably be four or five guys battling it out."
So with his eye on a podium spot, Vanhoenacker arrived in Whistler two weeks ago. It's his first visit to Canada, and he's been vacationing with family while checking out the course in advance.
And he's glad he did.
"You don't want to show up here on Tuesday or Wednesday (before the race) with a big master plan in your head, because it's not going to work on this course," he said. "I think it might be one of the hardest courses I've ever raced on."
And adding to the intrigue of Sunday's race is the fact that all are jockeying for position in Ironman's Kona Points Ranking system (KPR), which determines who gets to race at the world championships in Kona, Hawaii, later this year.
After Sunday, the top 40 men in the KPR standings will be awarded a spot in Kona. Ten more athletes will qualify for the world championships before the end of the 2014 Ironman calendar. Vanhoenacker, 38, is sitting just outside the top 40 right now, and figures he needs a top-three finish to make the cut.
But the others need the points just as badly.
"Matt Russell is ahead of us, but Trevor and Ambrose are a bit deeper on the list, so they for sure need first and second almost to get in the top 40," said Vanhoenacker. "That means they're not here to walk around."
It's been a good year for Russell, who hit the podium at Ironman Texas to help him to a spot inside the top 40 ahead of Sunday's race. Having just finished a block of high-altitude training, he'll arrive in Whistler on Thursday with good memories of the past two editions of Ironman Canada.
"In 2012, I remember coming off the bike in seventh position and I ran my way up. It was definitely icing on the cake, because the week before I had done a full Ironman at Tremblant and finished third there," Russell said, remembering his win from two years ago.
"Last year, I was pretty happy with it, too," added the 31-year-old. "On the run, I kind of paid for it, because I think I had pushed it a little too hard on the bike. Trevor, around Mile 5, ended up making a gap and he got me by about four or five minutes. But I was still happy with the race."
With some lessons learned from last year, Russell thinks he's capable of reaching the event's podium for a third year in a row. But he also knows he'll have to beat out some other strong triathletes to get there.
"Obviously I'd love to win again," he said, "but if I get back on the podium, I'll be standing next to (some) other talented athletes."
Wurtele made it to Whistler earlier this week, and he's spending most of the time leading up to the race relaxing and feeling good about his ability to defend his title.
"(Compared to) where I was last year, I might be a little bit fitter, both in the water and on the bike, and on the run, too," he said.
Wurtele said his Ironman Canada triumph last year was "very meaningful," particularly since it was his first one, and it came in his home province, no less.
"To do it in Whistler (was special) as well," he said. "I spent a lot of time here as a kid skiing, even coming here in the summer to ski the glacier and stuff.
"I think the main thing was just getting that win. I had put a lot of my mental focus and energy into the win at Ironman Canada last year, and it was a big relief to be first across the line."
Sunday will be Wurtele's first full-distance Ironman since he raced in Arizona in November, though he's done several half-distance races around North America. Since winning in Whistler, the 35-year-old said he's found himself racing with a level of confidence that wasn't there before.
"You know you're an Ironman champion, and you can take that into every race. That helps, just knowing I can race with the best guys in this sport," he said. "It just helps with consistency. Every race that I've done, I've just found myself at or near the front of the pack, and a large part of that is getting that victory and getting that confidence going."
Wurtele said the spectator support along the course last year was "really cool" and made a difficult course much less difficult to manage, mentally. He's hopeful that the cheers he hears from the crowd at the finish line on Sunday will come as he's capturing a repeat victory.
"The biggest thing is to come back and defend my title. But there are a couple of new guys here that are definitely right up there and going to be a challenge," he said.
"I've never been in the position of defending an Ironman. It's a good feeling to come into this race as No. 1."
IRONMAN CHAMPS FILL OUT WOMEN'S PRO FIELD
Bree Wee loves Canada, and the 34-year-old pro said she's excited to be making another trip back to B.C. But she's not thrilled about swimming here.
"If there's one thing in the world I don't like, it's cold water," laughed the Hawaii native, who isn't quite used to the glacier-fed water she'll encounter in Alta Lake. "I'm not happy about cold water, I'm not even going to pretend to like cold water, and I'm already uncomfortable thinking about a wetsuit.
"But I know the swim will be done in less than an hour, so I can suck it up."
And despite the chilly swim, the Whistler race is one Wee has had circled on her calendar for a while. Although she competed at Mont Tremblant last year, it will be her first time back at Ironman Canada since 2008.
"I've been to B.C. quite a few times," said Wee. "I'm just really excited to return. I'm looking forward to doing a race that I've heard such amazing things about."
Wee, the 2012 Ironman Louisville champion and a podium finisher in several Ironman 70.3 events, is also chasing down KPR points this weekend, in search of a berth into the big race in her home state. The top 28 women after Sunday will go to Kona, with seven more to qualify over the remaining weeks. Wee is sitting just outside the top 40, but said she's confident the training plan she's been working with will put her in good shape to move up.
"I think if I stick to what I know I'm capable of and keep believing in what my coach has done for me, just keep my head on straight, then I'm going to definitely land in a spot that I'll be proud of," she said.
Much like Wurtele, Jackie Arendt became an Ironman champion for the first time last year, and did it very close to home, too. Arendt, who hails from Wisconsin, won the full-distance race there in 2013. And also like Wurtele, she's been able to approach races over the past year with a new mindset.
"Having a win under my belt has definitely changed things for me," she said. "It's opened my mind a bit to the possibility — and given me more confidence — that I can be up there with the top people. It's helped me in my training to be a lot more motivated and a lot more driven."
The Wisconsin course is a hilly one, too, so Arendt said she's looking forward to having a similar challenge in Whistler.
"I like a little bit tougher course, it doesn't get boring that way," she laughed.
The 29-year-old isn't too focused on qualifying for Kona — "if it happens, it happens," she said. But she is counting on a strong result Sunday.
"You don't always have that crazy breakthrough day, but sometimes you do," she said. "You can't plan for that, but I can plan to have a strong consistent race and see what my body will give me on that day."
The pro racers start their 3.8-km swim in Alta Lake from Rainbow Park at 6:50 a.m. on Sunday, followed by a 180-km bike leg to the Callaghan Valley, Pemberton and back to Whistler, then finish with a 42.2-km run around the resort. Amateur triathletes start at 7 a.m. See www.ironman.ca for full details, or look for a free copy of the Ironman Canada Official Spectator Guide at various locations around Whistler.