On the eve of the inaugural Challenge Taiwan–the Challenge Family’s first race in Asia–Holly Bennett sat down with managing director Michael Dhulst, a native of Belgium who makes his home in Taipei, to learn how and why this new race came to be.
Triathlete.com: How long has Challenge Taiwan been in the works?
Dhulst: Actually everything happened very fast. I talked to Felix [Walchshoefer] and then Murphy [Reinschreiber] came over and visited Taitung. We had a good contact with the local government and they were very interested, and based on this first good contact we just jumped into it. Personally, I’ve been in Taiwan for a few years and I’ve raced in Taitung many times, and I’ve raced in many different locations, so I knew that Taitung was actually the best location to hold something like this. Murphy came here and he was very enthusiastic too, so he talked to Felix and that was basically the base of it. From there we just pushed it through. We wanted to make it happen because obviously with Challenge Family we wanted to expand and we wanted to have a long distance race in Asia.
Triathlete.com: Why is Taitung in particular a desirable location to host the first Challenge race in Asia?
Dhulst: Taiwan as such is a bit off the beaten path, because it’s sort of hidden behind China. But actually it’s very central. If you take a flight to Taipei, there are direct flights to SongShan Airport from Japan, Korea and China and then from SongShan it’s just another 55 minute flight to Taitung. And when you’re here everything is triathlon. So from that perspective it’s a very easy location from all the north of Asia, and also from the south of Asia it’s convenient. There’s space here. There’s beautiful nature, the roads are great, the swim is great, the run is great, it’s not too crowded and it has this nice mixture of original elements, which has been lost in many places. You have the element of the sea, you have the element of the mountains and you have a big aboriginal culture . For me, I’m passionate about endurance sports. I’ve never been very much of a sprinter, but endurance sports to me is like a kind of meditation, so it brings you back to the elements. You start to live with winds, you start to live with water, you start to live with mountains. And all these elements are still very alive in Taitung. I think when triathletes arrive here they start to feel right away that this is a good place where they feel kind of back to basics.
Triathlete.com: What is your own athletic background and how did you get involved with the Challenge Family?
Dhulst: I liked running a lot when I was in school. I was in boarding school in Belgium and I ran a lot there because we had a lot of time for sports. And obviously I was interested in cycling–I mean as a Belgian you have to watch cycling, otherwise you are punished by law! Then I spent a lot of time in China where I did nothing. But then I picked up on triathlon. I raced Laguna Phuket Triathlon in 2006 and I thought, “This is fun!” It fit everything I like–it fit cycling, it fit running and it fit endurance, which I love. Then of course I had to learn to swim. And from there I did a few more races. At the time I wanted to quit my job–I did purchasing, localization and sales for Volkswagen and I had done it for a long time. They wanted me to go back to Germany and I didn’t want to go back, so I asked for a year sabbatical. The plan was to actually study Chinese, so I came to Taiwan but I just missed sport so much living in China that the only thing I did was training. I seemed to be OK with triathlon, and I was competitive so I decided I wanted to qualify for Kona. Obviously I was looking for an iron-distance race then and I found out there was one in Wanaka. I flew down there in 2010 to race [Challenge Wanaka] and it was amazing. For the first time I competed in a race and it wasn’t just about the competitiveness, it was also about having fun. I loved it! They had a farmer’s market around the race venue and it wasn’t just full-on promotion but also people selling their own things–not only triathlon stuff but also fruits and vegetables and everything. It was just a relaxed atmosphere. That was my first introduction to Challenge and I loved it. Coming from Europe I knew the history of Challenge Roth, but I had never been there and I had never felt it. Anyway, I did a few other races, got to Hawaii, raced it, loved it also, and then somehow decided to go back to work. But somehow also Challenge kept coming back into my life. I went to Roth and raced and then through a contact got in touch with Felix and just everything fit. I feel a little bit German working so long for a German company, and I feel very much European, and I feel very much the urge to have this family feeling and this heritage from Europe and this great organization and bring it to Taiwan’s people. I think it fits very well with the Taiwan people actually.
Triathlete.com: Between all the various categories-half and full distance, individual and relay-how many participants do you expect this first year?
Dhulst: We have 700 registrations but with the relays that’s roughly 800 athletes. And then we also have the kids race. It’s actually an aquathlon, so they will swim/run. We’ll have 50 or 60 kids and they’ll have fun with it, and the whole family will have something to do.
Triathlete.com: Where are most of the athletes from?
Dhulst: We launched the brand in December and we were the first to launch the Challenge Brand in Asia, so obviously most of the people here never heard of Challenge. My personal expectation was that we would have maybe 300 locals and 400 foreigners. But the local community picked up on the brand and the philosophy and the idea of Challenge so quickly, I think within a month and a half of opening registration we had 500 local Taiwan people registered. We’re extremely excited about that. Everybody’s using Challenge logos everywhere, you see tee shirts everywhere–it’s really crazy and great! Taiwan people are amazing. If they pick up on something new and it’s about community and being together and family and doing outdoor activity together they just jump on it.
Triathlete.com: What are you most looking forward to on race day?
Dhulst: I still have this competitive spirit in me so I want to see what all the pros are going to do on the race course and when they come back I want to hear how they enjoyed the swim, the bike and the run. Personally I love the run here so I’m really looking forward to hearing how they felt about it. On the other side I’m looking forward to the finish line.I’m looking forward to a party and seeing people enjoy themselves. It’s something I think the Taiwan people will really pick up on, having a party at the finish line, enjoying food and drinks and having fun!
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