By David Stewart
After much anticipation the Challenge family finally landed on Australian shores, and Trizone was there to see what all of the hype was about, and how the event compared to Australian Ironman events run by IMG and more recently WTC. Challenge chose to partner with USM for the staging of the event, an organisation that have proved they know how to run major Triathlons with their slick handling of Noosa, Mooloolaba and most recently the Sydney Dextro ITU event.
In terms of the event administration everything was very slick, the event was easy to enter (and that as to be a major plus compared with the WTC events!), the website was professionally presented with good information about the event and the Cairns area. There are no complaints in this respect and you would have to give it to Challenge over WTC here as there was no mad rush to enter with many people left frustrated and disappointed.
On to the event itself.
Challenge and USM Events laid on a whole week of festivities and events, starting with the Coral Coast Triathlon (Olympic, Sprint and Enticer distances) on the Sunday before the race, and including ocean swims, runs, and a junior triathlon (great value at $30). Also included was a concert and welcome party. This creates a great party atmosphere for the week, similar to that which you experience at Noosa, and allows all supporting family and friends to get involved and challenge themselves. The medals handed out to the kids were every bit as impressive as the medals for the iron distance event. Challenge wins hands down over WTC in this aspect.
With regards to the location: Port Macquarie, Busselton, and Cairns are all beautiful locations. Cairns does have the advantage of a major airport only 5 minutes from town, it also has a balmy tropical holiday feel, and is a great spot for a few days R&R after the event. Most athletes we spoke to had arranged fishing trips of snorkelling on the reef for the Monday after the race.
It is also worth mentioning the support of the local community for the event. The locals and the media (Cairns Post) were behind the event in a big way. They are over the moon to have the event, are determined to make it a success, and to see it become a long-standing major fixture on the sporting calendar. The press coverage in print and on the television was extensive, and uniformly positive.
Being Cairns there were a few pearly white backpackers wondering about, not sure what all the fuss was about, but after a few coldies they got into the spirit as well.
Port and Busso are both great holiday locations, and this is a close one, but in our view Cairns does probably have the edge here as well.
I do not think it is really possible to compare the courses as they all have their pluses and minuses, so we will just comment on the course in its own right. The swim is in an amazing location; the course was set out as a two loop M shape, with an exit and approx 50 meter run before re-entry at the half waypoint. What we particularly liked about the swim was the relaxed nature of the start, there appeared to be none of the angst ridden, testosterone fuelled nerves that we normally associate with the start of an Ironman race. Competitors generally hung around, seemingly relaxed, with the guns taking their place at the buoys for the deep water start, while the others either stood knee deep in water, or on the beach for a more relaxed entry once the hooter went.
The bike course was incredibly scenic, a good quality road heading to Port Douglas and back, and fully closed to traffic. This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the course. The route was probably slightly more undulating than most had anticipated, which accounted for slightly slower bike times than many had planned.
The run was deceptively tough. Race day saw temperatures climb a couple of degrees higher than normal, and probably peaked at 30 to 31 degrees. For all those travelling from states south of Queensland this was a shock to the system, and the day felt hotter than the thermometer was declaring. The first 16kms of the run involved running back from Yorkeys Knob to Cairns. This was tough, very little shade, long straight roads, with a fair few false flats. For much of this section of the run you were running along a main road which had just a narrow path sectioned off with cones for the runners, while cars passed very close by, all be it slowly. The heat of the cars added to the discomfort of the runners.
Once into Cairns the iron distance athletes ran three of approximately 8km loops along the boardwalk by the sea, and past the cafes and bars by the side of the road. This section is beautiful, and the atmosphere builds throughout the afternoon as spectators enjoy the cafes fares.
The finish shute is good, and similar to that which you experience at Ironman, though I would have to say it was rather narrow, and did lack some of the atmosphere of Ironman finishes (Pete Murray is a great MC but you need a big crowd to get to that level). From a press point of view the section provided at the end of the shoot was inadequate. WTC wins this one. Another potential issue was that both races were finishing in the same shute. The issue was when the winners of the Challenge Carins race were coming the to the finish the organisers wanted a clean shute. Rumours are that a number of Cairns Half competitors were held up for a considerable amount of time to clear the shute. Now these were the tail end but whether you are doing 4 hours or 7 hours for a half you do not want to lose 10 minutes in your run. This is an issue if it was the case. I know I would have been fuming.
The expo was impressive, well laid out with over 30 exhibitors, all the usual suspects and a few we had not seen before. Being outdoors it and a better feel to it than those held in marquees, and in my view was significantly better that the jumbled lay out of the Port Macquarie expo.
A significant issue for this race however is the split location. The race starts approximately 15kms north of Cairns at Yorkeys Knob. This is where T1 & T2 take place, but the race finishes in Cairns. USM organised transport to get athletes, bikes, and supporters to and from Yorkeys Knob, both for check in, race day, and post race day. This was frequent, easy and effective. However to transport your bike to and from transition added $35 to the race cost ($550 – $650 for the full depending on when you entered) and most athletes did find it a pain having to make the journey to collect their bike.
It is hard to see a way around this issue, you cannot swim off Cairns, and yet you want the run to finish there. We will probably just have to live with this downside.
So in summary: this event is well organised, with only 618 athletes doing the full distance (and 606 doing the half) entry is painless. The location is fantastic, and the whole event lends itself to being part of a longer holiday/adventure that the whole family will enjoy. Challenge seems to run events that feel slightly less â€˜intense’ than a traditional Ironman, and while the split location is a pain, and the finish chute does need pumping up, all Australian long distance Triathletes should add Challenge Cairns to their bucket list, and do so before it starts selling out in 60 minutes flat.