It's official - Ironman Canada returns to Penticton

Long considered one of the sport's most classic events, Ironman Canada will return to its roots next year in Penticton, British Columbia on August 30, 2020.

| July 17, 2019 | NEWS

The swim at Ironman Canada takes place in Okanagan Lake, one of the two lakes that the city of Penticton sits on.

The swim at Ironman Canada takes place in Okanagan Lake, one of the two lakes that the city of Penticton sits on.

Photo >Nalidsa Sukprasert

The History

It all began in 1983 - not as an Ironman, as yesterday's press release would have you believe, but as an endurance race the same distance as the famed Ironman event in Hawaii. There were 26 athletes in the first race in 1983, all of whom were given a swim test the morning of the race before they could start.

In 1986 Ironman Canada would become the second official Ironman World Championship qualifier after Ironman New Zealand, also joined that year by Ironman Japan.

The list of competitors who raced at the event in Penticton reads like a who's who of Ironman racing. Paula Newby-Fraser, Lori Bowden, Erin Baker, Peter Reid, Scott Tinley, Thomas Hellriegel, Faris Al-Sultan and Scott Molina, to name just a few, were all Kona champs. 

As successful as the event was, there was no shortage of challenges through the first decade of the race's history. After years of financial issues through the late 80s and early 90s the race almost went bankrupt. One year the community literally stepped in and donated money to ensure the race would go on. A few years later an investor, Michael Bregman who owned a chain of coffee stores in Canada and was an avid Ironman competitor, came on board to save the event. A few years later Bregman would sell the race to Graham Fraser, who would eventually go on to found Ironman North America and put on seven Ironman races across Canada and the United States.

Under Fraser the event really grew. By the time the race celebrated it's 25th anniversary in Penticton there were 2,588 competitors on race day. It was the culmination of a steady growth in numbers - in 2001 there were just shy of 2,000 participants on race day (1985) and the following year there were 2,032 competitiors. In 2010 there were 2,600 participants at the event, with roughly the same number of competitors the following two years. (Registration numbers for all of those years were much higher - over 3,000 athletes registered in 2010 and 2011, with 2,979 registering in 2012.)

The bubble finally burst, though, in 2012 when the City of Penticton chose not to renew the Ironman license in the city and brought in Challenge. Ironman Canada would move to Whistler, British Columbia, the Olympic host site in 2010, while Challenge Penticton struggled to achieve anywhere near the popularity the Ironman had enjoyed. While Whistler had 2,128 competitors in 2013, Challenge Penticton had 740 competitors in both the full and half distance. The following year there were just 238 competitors in the full-distance race in Penticton, with another 355 in the half-distance race.

Whistler would also have its challenges, though. As race numbers there declined (by 2016 there were just 1,273 competitors in the full-distance race in Whistler), Ironman began negotiations with Penticton again.

The announcement

“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 of Ironman. “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. With many of the same elements from the original event blended with the enhancements we have made over the years; this race is a must for all athletes.”

Subaru, who came on board as the title sponsor of the event in 1997, will be the title sponsor of the race next year. The 2020 event will feature many of the same course features that always made the course so popular - a one-loop swim in the beautiful Lake Okanagan, the one-loop bike with the trademark climb up Richter Pass and a run that combines some of the traditional course with elements to "showcase the City of Penticton."

There will be a pro prize purse, according to the announcement, along with 40 age-group qualifying spots for the 2021 Ironman World Championship.