PENTICTON, B.C. – Heavy smoke and poor air quality due to wildfires burning throughout the province have forced officials in British Columbia’s Central Okanagan region to cancel two triathlons.
The remaining races for both the Super League Triathlon in Penticton and the Kelowna Apple Triathlon were scrapped on Sunday, and while athletes were disappointed by the last-minute cancellations, two racers from B.C. have come out on top.
As racers could not ride, swim, and run on Sunday, Penticton Super League organizer Darren Hailes said the top 10 male and female professional triathletes racing in Penticton would be graced spots in the first round of the world championship series being held in Jersey, U.K., in late September.
That’s welcome news for Nathan Killam and Rachel McBride, two British Columbian pros who will now have the chance to race in the world championship series.
Killam, a professional triathlete from Vancouver, has an uncommon perspective on the calamity that forced his race to be cancelled — a perspective gained from spending the past nine years as a firefighter in Delta, B.C.
“These conditions are nothing compared to what all the first responders and citizens are dealing with who are coming from these evacuation zones,” Killam said in a phone interview Sunday from a hotel in Penticton, the race’s planned finish line.
The 32-year-old, who still works as a firefighter, said he arrived in the Okanagan last Thursday and immediately noticed how bad the air quality was, saying it was “two or three times worse than in Vancouver.”
Hailes said that while both athletes and organizers were disappointed to abandon the race, they were still able to celebrate on Sunday.
Amateur triathletes who finished their races on Saturday were awarded medals, while the food and drink typically reserved for the end of the day was doled out a bit earlier than expected.
“We’ve kinda just taken a disappointing situation and were able to turn it around,” said Hailes.
About an hour’s drive north in Kelowna, Matt Canzer, the board chair of the Kelowna Apple Triathlon Society, said his view of the course early Sunday was like the stuff of nightmares.
“To be honest, early in the morning it looks apocalyptic. It’s a sad sight to see,” he said.
Canzer said the group was thrilled for the 2018 races, as they had taken a year-long hiatus from hosting the event and had planned a special route.
“Historically this is going back to our roots — this is where the race course ran 35 years ago during our first race,” he said.
Triathlon Canada CEO Kim Van Bruggen said the safety of the athletes and coaches is her organization’s top priority, and she thanked the directors of the Apple Triathlon for their support.
Environment Canada rated the air quality as “Very High Risk” for the Central Okanagan on Sunday, with the region scoring over 10 on its index.
Dr. Trevor Corneil, the chief medical officer for Interior Health, the Okanagan’s provincial health-care co-ordinator, said even professional triathletes could struggle if particulate entered the lungs and blood stream.
“Elite athletes will face difficulties breathing, some early exhaustion, and in extreme cases if they’re also dehydrated, they may experience confusion from difficulty breathing the air,” said Corneil.
Although his Sunday races were not to be, Killam said one particular event will stand out — he won his Friday time trial, beating American Olympian Ben Kanute by three seconds.
“I can’t say I’m disappointed, because I guess on paper I’m the leader of the race,” he said.
— By Spencer Harwood in Vancouver