Thousands now rise to multisport challenge

More than 1000 Wanaka schoolchildren compete in the junior challenge each year, and it is part of...
More than 1000 Wanaka schoolchildren compete in the junior challenge each year, and it is part of the school curriculum. Photo: Sean Nugent
It started off with 63 competitors. Now there are more than 2500. A week before the 13th annual Challenge Wanaka, Sean Nugent takes a look at the history of the event and how it blossomed from humble beginnings into a bucket list triathlon and a staple in the Wanaka sporting calendar.

The waters of Lake Wanaka glisten on a cool, calm February morning.

Joggers and cyclists make their way down Ardmore St, alongside an empty Pembroke Park.

The atmosphere is relaxed, but that will all change in just a few days.

Organisers are preparing for the 13th annual Challenge Wanaka triathlon event, set to host up to 2800 people of all ages over a three-day period from Thursday to Saturday.

Six separate events events are scheduled for the 2019 edition: an individual and team half-ironman, an "aquabike" (swim and bike with no run), and a secondary schools, intermediate and junior triathlon.

For the first time, there will be no full ironman event, for individuals or teams, which race director Bill Roxburgh admitted was "a real shame".

A large crowd on the Wanaka lakefront cheers as Christchurch’s Dylan McNeice wins the 2015 event....
A large crowd on the Wanaka lakefront cheers as Christchurch’s Dylan McNeice wins the 2015 event. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
"Worldwide, the trend for full distance has dropped off. It takes 16 to 20 hours a week to train for the full, and people can get away with half that time training for the half.

"Numbers for the full has dropped right back, so this year we had to make the call to take the full right out of our programme. It looked like we were going to be well under 100 individuals, which just doesn’t make it a viable event, really."

Despite the loss, Mr Roxburgh said Challenge Wanaka’s strength was its ability to adapt.

When it first began in 2007, the individual full ironman was the only event, and attracted a mere 63 athletes.

One of those, local GP Andrew McLeod said it was a "very small group" and "long stretches of road with no-one to see".

Challenge Wanaka was the first Challenge event outside Germany at the time, and Dr McLeod said there were "a lot of unknowns" regarding how the community would view the event and whether athletes would enjoy the course.

Both received a big tick of approval.

"The crowd support in town for the swim and run was amazing and the volunteers, then as now, were wonderful in providing their time and encouragement."

Challenge Wanaka race director Bill Roxburgh in front of the finish line in Pembroke Park. Photo:...
Challenge Wanaka race director Bill Roxburgh in front of the finish line in Pembroke Park. Photo: Tim Miller
Two years later, 474 athletes from 19 countries took part in the individual and team formats, while a further 180 children aged between 6 and 15 took part in the first Junior Challenge.

The following year, entries jumped to over 1000, as the half ironman races were introduced, and an estimated 6000 spectators watched.

The growth was immense but it did not surprise Dr McLeod, who has competed in the event every year.

"The location, organisation and volunteers make the race, and all of these elements are of exceptionally high quality in Wanaka, so no it didn’t surprise me that this has become an event that triathletes around the world have on their bucket list."

Mr Roxburgh concurred.

"Wanaka is a real mecca for people in sport.

Simone Maier, from Wanaka, settles into the long ride in Challenge Wanaka as she heads towards...
Simone Maier, from Wanaka, settles into the long ride in Challenge Wanaka as she heads towards Glendhu Bay in the 2016 event. Photo: Gregor Richardson
"It’s probably the place in New Zealand with the most professional triathletes living there.

"The lovely clear water to swim in. There’s not many freshwater places you can swim in where it’s so nice and clear.

"It really is a bucket list event".

Wanaka GP Andrew McLeod is greeted by a small crowd during the run transition of the first...
Wanaka GP Andrew McLeod is greeted by a small crowd during the run transition of the first Challenge Wanaka event in 2007. Photo: ODT
That is the case for children, as well as adults.

Participation numbers have blossomed in the Junior Challenge, to the point where a separate intermediate race has been formed for year 7 and 8 athletes.

"We had so many [entered in the Junior Challenge] we had to change things," Mr Roxburgh said.

"We only want to race 1000 on the Friday and it looked like we were going to have 1200, so we took the year 7 and 8s and are now racing them separately on the Thursday."

Despite the positives, there have been regular concerns from local retailers and others in the community about the road closures and traffic issues during race day.

However, with the departure of the full ironman discipline, Mr Roxburgh said the effect on the roads would be a lot less.

"It’s always been a struggle having the event out on the road for so long. This year we’ll be starting at 6.45am and we’ll have everyone through the town by 11am or so. The last cyclist should be off the road by 2pm, so it makes it a lot easier for road management."

More athletes, a shorter distance and for a shorter time — the event has certainly changed since its inception, and those changes will likely continue in the future.

"We just have to keep changing with the times," Mr Roxburgh said.

"You’ve got to be flexible."

 

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