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Ironman is back! Jeff Symonds’ take

Triathlon Magazine Canada chats with Symonds about the history of Ironman and Challenge races in Penticton, and the return of the race in 2020

No pro is more excited about the return of Ironman Canada to his hometown of Penticton than Jeff Symonds. He won the full-distance event twice after the Ironman race moved to Whistler, taking Challenge Penticton in 2013 and 2014. We sat down with Symonds about his personal memories of the Ironman (and Challenge) races over the years.

Jeff getting ugly at the Penticton Boston Pizza Triathlon in the mid 1990’s! (Credit: Jeff Symonds)

TMC: What are your first memories of Ironman Canada?

Jeff Symonds: My first memories were in the early 1990’s coming down to watch the final age-group athletes finish near midnight in downtown Penticton with my parents. I don’t think I even realized at the time that it was a race. It felt more like people were completing an epic challenge. Then before I went into grade 4, my teacher Mr. Reimer won his age group at Ironman Canada and became an “Ironman”. This really impressed me. I still see him around town here and its cool to see him still running and staying active.


TMC: Were there other ways your family was involved in helping out with the race?

JS: I aspired to become a professional triathlete after university so my family and I thought it would be a good idea to help out by providing a home-stay for the race professionals at the time. This way we could see first hand what their lifestyles were like and how the business of being a pro triathlete works. Over the years my parents have hosted quite a few pros: Bryan Rhodes the year he won the race in 2008, Leon Griffin, Matt Lieto, and many others.


TMC: What about your involvement in the race as volunteer?

JS: I’ve been at the transition on race morning a number of times to help out with the local bike shop Bike Barn, providing mechanical support for age groupers. I have also helped out Ironman on their promotional side of things over the years. My own personal highlight as a volunteer though was in 2005 when the great Simon Lessing was racing and widely expected to win. I was volunteering as a bike lead when the pros were on the run and got to witness first hand the ugliness (and epicness) of pro racing in an Ironman. Lessing ended up having a rough day and spent part of it throwing up in the bushes while getting passed by underdog Chris Lieto. It showed me right there the uncertainty of Ironman racing and really inspired me.


TMC: What were your thoughts on Ironman’s departure in 2012 with having not raced it as Ironman Canada in your hometown?

JS: It was unfortunate but I was also quite excited about racing the new event Challenge Penticton. It was a brand new fresh series for North America and we were all in on making that work in Penticton. With the local community committed to it I felt that my part as the pro athlete was to race it at my very best and I was able to follow through with that.


TMC: How big of a thrill was it to win the Challenge Penticton race in 2013?

JS: It was six years ago and I still have chills thinking about what an awesome day it was! It’s hard to imagine any future day I’ll have in my life that will top that one. To win in your hometown, the first Challenge race in North America, to beat the great Macca (5X world champion Chris McCormack), and run into the finishing chute bloodied from my bike crash during the race was unbelievable. I went from leading the race on the bike and feeling like a hero, to crashing and thinking it was all over. Being able to bounce back up from the crash and keep fighting for the win was an epic feeling. Even though my hands were cut bad from the crash I was so amped I gave high fives to people at the finish that came out to watch me. Such an amazing moment that still gives me chills thinking about it day!

Riding the pain train at the 2017 Penticton ITU Multisport World Championships (Credit: Jeff Symonds)

TMC: Were you ever expecting the Ironman race to return to town?

JS: I had heard rumours the past couple of years that the race would return but then they turned out to be false. The multi-day short course racing events like Superleague are cool, fast, and fun but not really in line with my interests of epic one day races. I believe that long distance triathlon is something that people still value in this region and not having a full-distance race here is just not the same. And as soon as I had given up on the race returning there was a Penticton city council meeting about deal with Ironman to bring the race back. The return of an iron-distance race next year certainly has fired me back up!


TMC: Do you expect the community support to return for the event in 2020?

JS: Yes definitely. I think it already has with great local businesses jumping on and making financial contributions. I can see the excitement return just in this past month with community members getting excited and signing up for the race. I think that sometimes you need to have a separation for two parties to realize how perfect they are for one another and Ironman and Penticton are certainly a match that will work.


TMC: Why do you think that the people of the Southern Okanagan love Ironman Canada so much?

JS: I think its because so many people here have done the race or know someone in their lives that has done the race. It takes a lot to finish an Ironman and you can’t fake it without the hard work. I think the community here respects the training that goes into it and what it requires to reach the finish line. And that feeling is contagious in both the athletes and the volunteers at a race like Ironman where for one day ordinary people get to go out and do something totally epic.


TMC: What are you up to these days?

JS: I’m almost recovered from a broken collar bone injury that happened about 10 weeks ago so I’m patiently waiting for the okay from the doctors to return to swimming again. I’m able now to do a fair bit of cycling and I’m hoping to be racing again on the Ironman or Ironman 70.3 circuit in September. Hopefully I can have a really strong fall race season with a full-distance race or two to end the year on a high note. I haven’t had a big race since last year so I’m itching to get back out there.

(credit: Jeff Symonds)

TMC: What would that mean for you to win Ironman Canada here?

JS: It would be pretty awesome, and its great to have that new motivation now. All the former champions now have their names on plaques permanently at the Penticton waterfront so it would be amazing to be included in that list. After winning the Challenge Penticton races this feels like a new mountain to climb with the Ironman back in town. It’s also encouraging that I’ve come second at Ironman Canada in Whistler twice. I’ve been close and almost tasted it, but to win after getting second twice would make it even more special. I find the most rewarding races come after periods of the toughest buildups. With my recent injury setbacks I think no matter what place I finish in my next Ironman it is going to be an incredible feeling when I cross that finishline!


TMC: What sponsors are you currently partnered with?

JS: The two that have stood by me the longest are the Bike Barn and Shimano. Podium Imports and Pioneer are two other companies that have been along for the journey for most of my pro career. I am also honoured for the opportunity to coach some amazing athletes with both the KISU Swim Club and the TriPower Triathlon Club.