Ironman wheels keep turning

Neale Emslie

THE dust has not even settled after the completion of one Spec- Savers Ironman South Africa event when the wheels are put in motion to prepare for the next race 12 months later.

That shows the scale of this annual race and how it has developed into one of South Africa’s major sporting events under the guidance of race director Paul Wolff since he initiated the idea to stage the ultra-distance triathlon in Nelson Mandela Bay 10 years ago.

Next year, the event will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the full-distance race in Port Elizabeth.

The first race Wolff organised in 2004 was a half-ironman, now known as the Ironman 70.3 South Africa and hosted in East London.

The Ironman South Africa takes place in Port Elizabeth over the weekend of April 12-14, and the main race comprises a 3.8km swim, 180.2km cycle and a 42.2km run.

But the whole concept has grown far beyond one race, Wolff says, with events such as the Pritt Ironkids South Africa, the Vodacom Corporate Triathlon Challenge and Iron Girl South Africa now big events in their own right.

While there are massive challenges for the Ironman South Africa staff – an initial staff of three has grown to 15 permanent staff members who work year-round on different events – Wolff’s biggest headache is getting the general public on board regarding road closures.

“Our biggest thing on the day is to close the city down traffic-wise,” he said. “The traffic department closes the roads to ensure the safety of the athletes.”

Wolf speaks glowingly of the way the Port Elizabeth public has embraced the event, which he says is a major boost for the competitors.

“The spectators camp out the night before to keep their spot. In that crazy weather last year [gale-force winds], people were along the route for 17 hours of the race. The general public have embraced it and every year more and more people are coming to watch because it is a unique event for the city.”

Some may accuse Wolff of being biased but for someone who has raced triathlons all over the world, you have to believe him when he says there is no better place than South Africa for these sorts of events.

“The SA event is one of the best in the world, not because I organise it; you can ask anyone – just the atmosphere and how our country embraces ultra-endurance sports makes it special.

“The support from the spectators just lifts your game. We print your name on your number and even if they don’t know you, spectators will shout ‘Go Paul’ and it’s just phenomenal.

“When I’ve raced overseas, there is not a soul along the route of some courses. There are people walking along the beachfront, but not to watch you, just because there’s a beachfront.

“They don’t travel to watch as we do in South Africa. We get people travelling from Joburg, Cape Town to watch, not to mention the PE spectators who camp out along the full course.”

Wolff is under no illusions about the value the race has for Port Elizabeth.

“We get international TV coverage and international exposure, although it is difficult to quantify. But the direct spend in the city is around R62.7-million.

“Year on year, there is substantial income to the city, and more and more people are getting involved. Ironkids is sold out, the Corporate Triathlon Challenge is almost sold out, and the Iron Girl is flying, and then there’s the Ironman. More and more international athletes are coming here to race, and are bringing their families along.”

The 45-year-old Wolff, who grew up in Queenstown and went to Queen’s College, took up triathlons when he got bored with road running. This year he will compete in the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, which he describes as the “holy grail of triathlons”.

“That’s where it all started 35 years ago when a group of the US Marine Corps were having an argument over a beer about who was the fittest,” Wolff said. “So they set up this race, first held in Honolulu, and had 10 entrants. Now it has grown and grown and they had to move to the big island of Kona.”

The Port Elizabeth event, though, remains highly popular on the world calendar and this year it is set to draw more international entries than ever.

After last year’s gruelling weather, Wolff is hoping for better conditions this time, but whatever happens, he is sure it will be another memorable international occasion for Port Elizabeth.

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