Name: Julia Polloreno
When Challenge Penticton was announced, a lot of us were curious to see how the race series, based largely in Europe and Asia, would translate on North American soil. Challenge Roth in Germany has become one of the most sought after races in the world—the 2014 race sold out in 90 seconds—and the Walchshöfer family is on a mission to recreate that experience in Penticton. But it’ll require some patience, a fact that’s not lost on Challenge CEO Felix Walchshöfer and the native Penticton crew. So on multiple occasions throughout race weekend the race host and organizers were quick to thank racers for being there, for having the good faith in their ability to create a worthwhile experience in the face of transition.
Somewhere around the 75-mile mark on the bike, it occurred to me that people who chose to race here were in it solely for the personal challenge and experience, not to chase a world championship slot or hear Mike Reilly declare them an Ironman (also two immensely gratifying pursuits). In a way, it seemed like a return to basics. Something about that mid-race musing, paired with the constant, rhythmic whir of my rotating cranks, imparted a sense of calm.
I was most nervous about the swim. I’m a decent swimmer and had logged some solid pool time in prep for Penticton, but the thought of swimming that far without stopping never ceases to intimidate me. Looking out over Lake Okanagan before the start, I knew we’d be in for a tough swim. The wind had kicked up, creating small swells and rough chop that would make sighting tricky (in the massage tent after the race, I heard my neighbor say he battled residual sea sickness through the first half of the bike leg). But in the final minutes before the race start, the anxiety lifted inexplicably, replaced by a distinct sense of gratitude and hopeful anticipation. Moments later we were churning toward the first buoy, and I found my rhythm. My sighting fears were quickly legitimized, and I ended up wasting a fair amount of time and energy resetting my course multiple times. Still, I felt energized by the incredible setting—the lake water was pristine and the temperature was ideal: wetsuit-legal but not achingly chilly. I watched the sun rise higher into the sky, and saw the horizon loom closer. Getting to my feet, I heard the announcer say my Project Penny teammate Jené Shaw was in transition. The hunt for Jené prey was on.
With the eager help of some wetsuit strippers and changing tent volunteers, I was quickly out of T1 and onto my bike. The first third of the bike course flew by, with tidy grids of grape vines and fruit orchards stretching in every absurdly scenic direction. At one out-and-bike stretch that cut through a vineyard, a few cyclists coming toward me had to hit the brakes hard to avoid hitting a family of deer crossing the road. Miles 90-100 provided the lowest point of my entire day, as my mind started to wander and my stomach began to rebel from my regimented intake of sports drink and bars. I questioned how I’d be able to run a marathon, let alone at goal pace. But then I invoked my chosen mantra for the day: Live in the moment. I’d worry about how I’d run a marathon as soon as I got off my bike. I dumped the rest of my sports drink and filled my bottles with water for the ride back into town, and was feeling much better by the time I reached T2. I’d really wanted to ride sub-six hours and tried to ignore the sting of disappointment at missing that goal by less than 20 minutes.
Onto the run, my legs felt strong and my rhythm steady. I ticked off mile after mile, walking through each aid station for swigs of ice-cold Pepsi, bites of juicy watermelon and the occasional salt pill. I can’t say enough about the generous souls at those aid stations who cheered us on with such earnest enthusiasm and made each racer feel like they were hometown hero Jeff Symonds racing toward the win. The out-and-back course let us follow the action of the pro race, and also helped keep an eye on the age-group competition. Two hours into the run (and a good buffeting by headwinds later), I reached the turnaround for home, and the thought of being so close to the finish after such a long day gave me a huge surge for the next few miles. I also got a big lift from seeing my husband Lance at various spots along the lakeside run course. He actually rented a boat and beached it at various points to snap photos and slap some high-fives. Not knowing if I might see him around any given corner made the run way more tolerable.
The last five miles of the run were purely an exercise of mental will to lift one foot off the ground and then the other. My pace slowed considerably, and I just coasted on autopilot back into downtown Penticton. My goal was to finish in under 12 hours, and it would be close. I also spotted a girl in my age group closing in, and the final out-and-back toward the finish line was a paranoid sprint until I reached the red carpet and looked at my watch. 11:51. Felix was just beyond the finish line, arms outstretched for a congratulatory bear hug. The warmth and hospitality shown to our crew during this whole experience won’t soon be forgotten. Thank you, Felix!
I’m also so grateful to my coach and friend Jimmy Riccitello, who always kept the training fun and efficient and acted like my race goal was a foregone conclusion. OH and for helping me better my previous iron-distance PR by about two and a half hours. Jimmy is the real deal, thanks JR!
The transition from Ironman to Challenge wasn’t without its hiccups, but on the whole I was impressed by how the inaugural race went off, endlessly amazed by the staggering beauty of the venue, and grateful for the generous spirit of the people of Penticton, who are committed to recreating something special here.