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Champions defend their titles

“Repeat” was the word of the day at the 2014 Valley First Challenge Penticton Canada after Penticton’s hometown champion Jeff Symonds (CAN) and Carrie Lester (AUS) successfully defended their titles from last year.

Symonds crossed the line at 8:26.58, shaving nearly three minutes off his 2013 time. Sunday’s finish was 20 minutes ahead of Chris Bagg (US) and Nathan Cochrane (NZ) to round out the top three. Victoria’s Andrew Russell had been trailing Symonds in second for the first half of the run, but Bagg’s challenge and steady pace proved too much after the Okanagan Falls turnaround. Bagg captured second (8:47.01) with Cochrane finishing third (8:50.05).

The Penticton, B.C., triathlete in his sophomore year of full-distance competition summed up his feeling at the finish line: “Winning in your hometown: it is hard to get any sweeter than that.”

The swim began with near-perfect conditions – a placid Okanagan Lake recorded at 24 degrees Celsius to make officials declare no wetsuits for the pros. Josh Seifarth (CAN) emerged from the water first at 53:40, seven seconds ahead of Symonds, Sean Bechetel (CAN) and Russell (CAN). Reminiscent of the 2013 race, Symonds powered his way to the front early on the bike, carving out a 10-minute lead ahead of Russell and Bechetel by the Keremeos out-and-back. He entered T2 after 4:39.28 on the bike, and ran a 2:50.36 to a 20-minute lead ahead of the pack Symonds bounded across the line again, reminiscent of his 2013 championship win taking the first Challenge Family title in North America.

Although more healthy at the finish than last year, Symonds said the run was a grind. “I just had to get ugly and get it done. No excuses, just go hard. I believe in myself, but I didn't know how my body would respond, so I am pretty stoked,” said Symonds, noting it’s a mental battle leading a race for so long. “I like being the hunter, I love that kind of mentality of chasing them down. When you are out front, you are the hunted and thinking ‘I can't let these guys catch me.’”

Lester also proved too much to handle again for her competition. The 33-year-old from the Sunshine Coast emerged from the swim at 59:52, and pushed hard through Penticton to carve out a wide lead ahead of the pack. The rugged Okanagan mountains set her pace back slightly, igniting Karen Thibodeau (CAN) to try to catch up on the Australian just before the out-and-back but pulling out of the race just after Twin Lakes. Wicked elevations at Richter Pass and Yellow Lake taxed the pack, slowing down Jennifer Luebke (US) and Christine Fletcher (CAN). Mackenzie Madison (US) and Penticton’s own Jen Annett (CAN) were able to pace each other through the rollers outside of Yellow Lake and emerge slightly ahead of the field. Lester completed the bike in 5:09.31 and took a commanding lead on the run to finish 9:27.24, followed by Madison (9:47.49) and Annett (9:48.58).

“It's the first time I have come back and defended a title, and it definitely feels good two in a row. I don't think I found it any easier than last years at all, it was possibly harder. … There were some gnarly winds out there that picked up and came out of nowhere. I found that pretty tough on my own,” Lester said, adding that she realized at the run turnaround her lead was solid. 

And if Lester has her way, “three-peat” will be the lips of fans in 2015. “If I can get a hat trick, awesome,” she said. “In the last two years we have come to this race, we just feel so welcome and I think that makes a huge difference for us because everything is so relaxed, friendly and there is no pressure. It is a fun race and there is a lot of companionship out there even amongst the males and female pros who are all out there supporting each other.”

This was the first year that Valley First Challenge Penticton Canada held a half distance race, and 20-year-old Alistair Eeckman from Berkley, Calif., captured the inaugural title with a time of 4:20.33. Eeckman came out of the water first with a 28:09:22 swim and posted a 18:22.53 bike at to give him a lead over second-place finisher Manson Jeffrey from Vancouver. Dave Matheson from Penticton finished third.

Eeckman said winning the half was a shock. “It’s definitely a very challenging course, and one of the most scenic courses I’ve done,” he said in post-race interviews. “I took the lead on the bike on the first climb by Oliver and never looked back. … It was very painful, but worth it.”

Katie Frauts, 38, from Calgary, Alta., won the women’s half, posting a 30:16 swim, 18:52.14 bike before crossing the finish line at 5:02.45, ahead of Cailla Patterson from Kelowna and Christine Cogger from Pemberton. “It feels amazing,” said Frauts at the finish line, calling her first-place finish “unexpected.”

“At the end of the day, it’s just me against my own watch,” Frauts said. “It was a perfect day, not too hot, not too windy, and so well organized. … I’ve been here a couple of times and it’s just amazing, a very special place.”

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