Challenge Wanaka still improving says veteran

Challenge Wanaka continues to grow and get better, according to one of the godfathers of New Zealand triathlon.

Tom Pryde, who is the chairman of the Wanaka trust that owns the event, has been associated with the sport for as long as it's been raced in New Zealand and he's still competing – on Saturday he lined up to do the 3.8km swim leg in the Challenge teams event.

Pryde remembers being a competitor at the Auckland Ironman in 1994 and recalls vividly the abuse participants were subjected to by locals unhappy at their city being shut down to host the event.

That sort of response was one of the catalysts for the race being shifted out of Auckland to a smaller centre, but finding a suitable home proved to be difficult.

Queenstown was looked at carefully as a potential long-term base.

Organisers were very keen to go there because it was considered a "sexy" destination, but eventually the logistics proved insurmountable and the plans were abandoned, Pryde said.

Wanaka was looked at briefly but Taupo seized the initiative and has now become the spiritual home of the New Zealand round of the Ironman series.

When the Challenge franchise, which was originally formed as a breakaway group to the more recognised Ironman brand, looked at starting a race in the southern hemisphere, Queenstown was again targeted by promoters who were yet to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The same problems that had cropped up before and that made it too difficult to contemplate shutting down central Queenstown for a day, meant a late decision was made to move it to Wanaka, but the inaugural event in 2007 struggled as a result, according to Pryde.

Now under the same management since 2008, under the stewardship of event director Victoria Murray-Orr, Challenge Wanaka was developing its own reputation, he said.

"The last few hours are the best," Pryde said. "You get the last runners bashing their way around the course and the atmosphere along the waterfront is really special."

It wasn't so special on Saturday night, with a cool wind coming off the lake probably keeping many of the competitors who had completed their races back at their accommodation.

As an example of the event's growing prominence, a reporter from a United States triathlon magazine with 60,000 subscribers was in Wanaka at the weekend working on a travel and race feature she will write for readers at home and in Europe.

Triathlon, and Ironman in particular, is a high-decile sport in the States, with Triathlete's subscribers earning an average salary of $90,000.

About 1200 competitors took part across the events on Saturday, with many more supporting them from the sidelines throughout the day.

"It's going up and up," Pryde said.