THE ALOHA YEARS: IRONMAN CANADA, 1986-91. Penticton's little race became Canada's big Ironman in 1986. For the next five years, Ironman Canada strove to bring a touch of Kona to the Okanagan—and a touch of Canada to the worldwide Ironman phenomenon
1986: the first Ironman Canada
"Just where is Penticton?" That was the question I would hear race secretary Deb Davidson most often try to answer before Ironman Canada got big. One caller asked me, "Is Penticton near Montreal?" Another confused triathlete asked, "How do you get to Okinawa"? It was funny how many "Yanks" would confuse Penticton with Pentagon.
Our first Ironman had to be very special. We certainly wouldn't see any pros in 1986, for we offered no prize money and couldn't even afford appearance fees. Triathlete Magazine all but laughed at us. But we could make Ironman Canada a very special race for the ordinary hopeful Ironman and Ironwoman, especially if we could introduce them to the stars of the sport. So we invited such Ironman celebrities as Commander John Collins, Valerie Silk, the infamous Cow-Man (Ken Shirk), who wore a steer-horned helmet throughout the race--even in the swim, the colourful (if black and white) Zebra-Man (Patrick Garlepp), First Nations Ironman Lee Crowchild, Ironwoman and author Sally Edwards, the original Ironman winner Gordon Haller, and of course the reigning Ironman champion Dave Scott.
With all these touches, and the enduring commitment of our race captains, crews and volunteers, Penticton's first Ironman Canada--and the world's first licensed Ironman-distance event on the North American mainland--was a great success. But next year's race, the 1987 Ironman Canada, was our big coming out party.
Canada's first Ironman was sponsored by Molson Canadian, the beer company. Molson's representatives were all great people and very good to the race. One of my favourite race stories involves a very kind, very short and very round Molson rep. He had never seen an Ironman before and when it was announced that the first place finisher was approaching Gyro Park, he went down to watch. The poor fellow had forgotten he had the Molson Canadian finish line tape in his pocket. It made for a very funny finish watching this portly beer rep race Canada's first Ironman to the finish line in hopes of getting the tape up in time. You can guess who got to the finish first!
While the 1986 race was a big success, in hindsight it seems like the dress rehearsal for the races of 1987-91. Ironman Canada was about to hit the big time.
1987-91: the beautiful race
I never made a secret of the fact that I was as focused on the theatrics of Ironman Canada as I was on the swim, bike, run. I could do that because I had such confidence in my division captains. People like Chris Prowse and his crews from The Bike Barn, swim course coordinator Ann Morgenstern, marathon course captains Tom and Sandy Wilson. Thanks to them, I could work on all the little extras which I believe resulted in Ironman Canada’s uniqueness. In addition to an amazing new sport, what was Ironman if not live theatre? Improv at its wildest and a living installation to rival anything by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. And through it all was “The Voice”, Ironman Canada’s star race announcer Steve King, our very own ringmaster for this new three-ring circus.
I had to keep in mind the original intent of our first short course race in July of ’83, that being to increase local tourism in Penticton’s shoulder season. Tourism in Penticton always sank after the mid-July Peach Festival.
The most readily available pool of triathletes other than Canadians was, of course, the Americans. I remembered that most Americans envisioned Canada as “The Great White North” where the people all played hockey and said “eh”. Hence the expression “Aloha, eh?” that we used in our marketing. I wanted our international athletes to experience Canada, but I also wanted them to find a bit of Kona here.
If Ironman Canada was theatre, that meant we had to emphasize setting, costuming and music.
The setting was a narrow valley of ice blue lakes surrounded by white sand beaches, the upper reaches as golden as Greece giving way to the vineyards and orchards of the lower valley. Scenery created by God and a ten-thousand-year-old glacier.
Costuming was important to consider. We needed bright primary colour T-shirts coded to help both crews and athletes find their way through transition, to help identify security or medical personnel. But the Budweiser finish line was always a compulsory red and white. Added to all this was the Scottish kilts of the Penticton Pipe Band and the traditional Aboriginal dress of First Nations dancers.
Music was essential. For me, the most important part of the Ironman production was its soundtrack. During the race-day morning check-in I played a CD I have since lost called Pink Breakfast. I can’t recall the name of the group, and I can’t find any sign of the album online, but I distinctly remember how much the athletes enjoyed it. (If anyone knows what I’m talking about, please email me.) At race start we played a rousing orchestral rendition of O Canada before the Penticton Pipe Band marched the athletes to the swim start. Next came Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.
Music played from the announcers’ booth throughout the day as race announcer Steve King kept spectators and crew current about events on the course.
For the first finisher, we always played Jump by Van Halen.
The theatrics continued even after the race was over. Every awards dinner from 1984 onwards began with a surprise entrance by the full Penticton Pipe Band. Here's a scene from the 1985 awards banquet to show you what it was like:
The athletes loved it. After dinner and the awards presentation, we played Stout-Hearted Men as a final tribute to our Ironmen and -women. I was so pleased that everyone seemed to get it and get a smile out of it. As the evening drew to a close, everyone began to mingle and “talk story” as they called it in Hawaii. Translation: I’ll listen to your race story if you listen to mine.
Say what you might about beer sponsors in athletics. Anheuser-Busch, Budweiser and certainly Bud Light were invaluable partners in the development of both the Hawaiian Ironman and Ironman Canada. I feel sure that Ironman New Zealand, sponsored by Double Brown Breweries and Fosters, would agree that their beer sponsors were integral to the success of their event. If you ask me, there's nothing like a cold beer at the end of a long, hot race day.
In the late 1980s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was still Canada's largest and most prestigious television network. When we landed CBC Television for our 1987 race, we felt we had broken away from the pack. Ironman Canada was broadcast across the country on CBC and in the US and globally on ESPN. Don Brown and his CBC Sports broadcasting team quickly became part of the Ironman Canada family.
We did it!
One of my favourite photos: me and Valerie at the finish line of the 1987 Ironman Canada. The first finishers are in and the race has been a success. What a relief! Val is wearing one of our most popular shirt designs, SWIM BIKE RUN.