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Ironman 70.3 Victoria continues tradition

2,200 competitors compete in 26th annual Half-Iron race today in and around Elk/Beaver lakes and the Saanich Peninsula
Triathletes listen to orientation instructions as they prepare for today’s Victoria Ironman 70.3 at Elk Lake on Saturday. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

The public knew little about triathlon when a few hundred hardy souls turned out at Elk/Beaver lakes for the first New Balance Half-Iron in 1995.

“People would ask me back then is that the thing with skiing and shooting?” Lance Watson said with a laugh.

Five years later, in 2000, triathlon made its Olympic debut and Watson coached Simon Whitfield to the gold medal in the shadow of the Sydney Opera House — and everything changed in a flash.

Once viewed as the purview of a few hardcore endurance eccentrics, little could anybody have imagined how the sport would break out into the mainstream and that Victoria would be one of the epicentres producing the likes of Olympic gold- and silver medallist Whitfield, Olympians Kirsten Sweetland, Brent McMahon and Matthew Sharpe and multiple-time Ironman Hawaii world champions Peter Reid and Lori Bowden.

The result of that growth was evident Saturday as thousands of parked bicycles glistened under the sun at Hamsterly Beach as 2,200 competitors prepared for the 26th annual Half-Iron race today at 6 a.m. in and around Elk/Beaver lakes and the Saanich Peninsula.

The event has been interrupted only by the two years of the pandemic. It has been known since 2015 as Ironman 70.3 Victoria and operated by the iconic Ironman brand. The corporation is based in Florida, so all Ironman events are calculated in imperial distances. The 70.3 designation, formerly known as Half-Iron, includes a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bicycle race and 13.1-mile run, totalling 70.3 miles.

“Victoria has such an incredible history of high performance in triathlon — with people such as Simon, Peter, Lori, Brent and Matthew — and this is a big event for our community,” said the veteran coach Watson, who was inducted into the Victoria Sports Hall of Fame last year.

“There are all kinds of volunteers who make this happen so that super-fit men and women can do what they do.

“And lots of kids watch, and so they might think if that 58-year-old woman or man can do it, maybe I can do it too and be the next Tyler Mislawchuk.”

Mislawchuk is Canada’s big hope for the 2024 Paris Olympics and currently in Victoria, the home of Triathlon Canada, for a training block.

Making the whole thing work is an army of more than 1,000 volunteers. “They make the whole operation possible and they do it in a caring way and with a smile,” said Victorian Kiah Wheeler, director of volunteers for Ironman 70.3 Victoria.

“The volunteers are incredible and have been putting in the hours since we began setting up Wednesday.”

Wheeler is also the director of volunteers for the annual Ironman Canada in Penticton but said there is something about the sport’s connection to the Island.

“Triathlon Canada is based here and people are so invested in the sport here,” said Wheeler, a triathlete who has competed in six 70.3 Ironman races and four full Ironmans in Penticton, Whistler, Hawaii and Boulder, Colorado.

“You can just feel the energy here this weekend. The place is buzzing.”

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