Felix Walchshöfer is a man on a mission. Just one week ago he made the announcement that the Challenge Family would be taking over the running of one of the crown jewels of the Ironman calendar: Ironman Canada (based in Penticton). The inaugural Challenge Penticton is now pencilled in for August 25th 2013, and following the announcement Holly Bennett caught up with the man driving the growth of the Challenge brand around the world.
Where were you born?
I was born in Erlangen, about 25-kilometers north of Roth, because my mom has a heart disease and there’s a special heart hospital there. She had to give birth in that hospital in case there would have been any complications. But I’ve always lived in Roth.
Do you have any pets?
Hugo. He’s a five-year-old Dalmatian. He swims 1.5-kilometers in Rothsee [the lake in Roth] with me. He runs with me and he even runs next to my bike. If he ever learns to ride a bike I’ll have to create a new kind of race!
Is it true that you’re the undefeated world champion of table running? [Table running is a tradition at Challenge Roth, following the final race week celebration, when all the picnic tables in the banquet tent are lined up and daring competitors race at top-speed, sprinting from table top to table top.]
Yes. I was one time defeated, but that was after having run already 15 times and defeating everyone. On the 16th time I lost, but I think maybe that didn’t count!
How many years have you been doing this?
Since 2003. And athletes like Belinda Granger, Pete Jacobs – they’ve all competed against me.
Have there been any serious injuries?
No, thank goodness not. We have a saying in Germany that guardian angels are with kids and drunks. So maybe, because of the second thing, no one ever gets hurt!
Along with your sister Kathrin and your mother Alice, you head the Challenge Family. But it was your father Herbert who founded Challenge, correct? How did he first become involved in triathlon?
In 1982, the best friend of my father, Detlef [Kühnel], was the first German to compete in Hawaii. And he brought back the crazy idea. He went back in ‘83 to do the race in Hawaii again, and after he said to his friends, “Let’s do a triathlon right here in Roth in ‘84.” Everyone was like, “This is completely insane.” But they did it, and the first year about 25 people competed in the race. The people in Roth were just fascinated by it. They thought, “This is so crazy, we’ve got to support it! We’ve got to get into this.” So in ‘85 we hosted the Franconian Championship. There was only one triathlon in Franconia anyway! The year after we hosted the Bavarian Championship. There was only one race in Bavaria anyway! Then we hosted the German Championship, and then the European Championship. And I believe that year Valerie Silk was in Roth to see the event, and at the awards ceremony she granted the license to Roth and we started a relationship with Ironman. My father was the head announcer, and he was also doing all the marketing and PR for the event. In his real job he was responsible for all marketing and advertising for the city of Nuremburg. This is why we always want to work a lot with the communities taking care for their needs. What they want is athletes who stay long, enjoy the region, come back for holiday – so we are very good at understanding that, because of the former job of my father. In 2001, Detlef retired and sold the company to my father. We had discussions with WTC because the agreement was up for renewal. Then all of a sudden the demands from WTC were really weird. They demanded a one-loop bike course, which would have destroyed Solarer Berg Hill – because if the athletes just pass by once, there wouldn’t be that buzz anymore. And they said the swim start should be a mass swim start. You know the Kanal – that is ridiculous, it’s too narrow. You can’t do that. There were a lot of those points, and of course more money as well. My father said, “I think we would harm the event, we would harm the race and it would be against the best interest of the athletes.” So we decided to go on our own. Everyone thought he was completely crazy. Back then it was a total Ironman monopoly everywhere. But he said, “We can rely on our strength. We can rely on the community, on the legacy of the event, on the history, on the records that were set here. We can rely on all of that. And we’ll give it a try. But we’ll give it a try under the premises that we change a lot.” We wanted to do a festival week. We wanted to add all those things we have now in Roth like the rock concert, the kids’ triathlon, the fun run, and we wanted to bring the prices down significantly. We wanted to give a better experience to the athletes and a better quality to the athletes. So he announced that to the mayor, the president of the county, our title sponsor, our presenting sponsor and our team. And there was total silence. And then all of them said, “Hervie, if that’s the way, we’re your friends and we’ll all be on your side. But we don’t really know where this whole thing will go.” And Hervie said, “Well, I am pretty sure where it will go and I’m just the luckiest man on earth that you’re staying on my side!” And then we began.
What kind of man was your father?
I am prejudiced because I’m his son, but I have a lot of admiration for my father because he never gave up. No matter what it took, if he believed in something he was going that way, no matter how big the stones were in his way. And this is what I admired the most about him. This is also what he passed onto Kathrin and to me. No matter what happens to us, both personally and business-wise, he always said, “Stay on your way, trust in yourself.” He believed in something back then that not a lot of people believed in. It’s an honor for me and for Kathrin to carry on his legacy and his vision and his dream. I’m so sorry that he only saw Challenge Wanaka of all our races now. He couldn’t actually go there because he was lying in hospital, but I was standing at the start talking to him on the phone. He was in intensive care in Germany and I said, “Our first sister race has just started.” This was his dream. My mom, yesterday night [the night before the announcement of Challenge Penticton], sent me a picture of him, my sister and me standing here [in Penticton] at the swim start 20 years ago. We were here to spectate. And I was so touched because if he would have known that 20 years later we would be here…
He passed away in 2007?
Yes. He had a very seldom lung disease where the lung all of a sudden stops working. He had a double side lung transplantation, and he survived transplantation nearly three years. And he changed a lot from that as well. We always knew that he wouldn’t have so much time anymore, and so we concentrated on what was really important. That was our family, and that was Challenge. And when he died he was completely clear in that last night. He told us exactly what he expected of us, and what he was really proud of about us. He said, “Felix, for your own credibility you have to finish a long-distance triathlon. So inscribe yourself for Wanaka.” And I did, twice. He was really awesome. I believe he sees all this now. This is where I am most proud, for my dad. That his vision is coming true.
Did you always know you would work in the family business?
Yes! I was first a sponge boy at the aid stations and a balloon boy at the finish. [At Challenge events, local children run behind the professional athlete finishers with large bouquets of balloons.]
What’s your favorite thing about triathlon?
It’s the athletes’ faces when they come on the finish line. Because they speak a million words without them saying a single word. It’s the most rewarding thing for me. It’s recharging the batteries to see that. It’s amazing. And everyone has his or her own personal story. It’s such a true, honest moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s yelling, if it’s being angry, if it’s crying, if it’s happiness – you see all different kinds of things. But for me that is the most inspiring thing of each race. This is why I enjoy being there on the finish line from the first athlete to the last. It doesn’t matter if it’s Challenge Roth or Copenhagen or Barcelona – I just love it because you get immediate feedback from the athlete. What was good, what was bad – it’s completely honest, and that’s good.
So you’ve raced twice in Wanaka – have you raced in Roth as well?
No, this is always my dream. Someday I have to!
What’s your best time from Wanaka?
It’s not really a good time: 13:26.
Well you get more of the experience the longer you take to finish!
Definitely! I had such great experiences. When I did it the second time, I had a severe problem with my knee. After seven kilometers I couldn’t walk anymore, so I was limping. I thought: OK, I’m not going to DNF, that’s not a choice, so let’s limp it home. So I limped for 35 kilometers. And Rebecca Keat, she finished – she won the race – and she heard that I was hurt and limping. She got her bike out of transition, went to the gas station, bought Coke and ice cream and came and walked next to me for 25 kilometers. I will never forget what Beks did for me then. And on my first event, I was going down that wonderful finish chute in Wanaka and all the pro athletes – Chris McDonald, Marilyn McDonald, Luke Dragstra, Belinda Granger – everyone waited with balloons and ran behind me. Because I was the kid who was running behind them so many times. I was bursting into tears! I couldn’t believe it! It was one of the best experiences of my whole life.
Judging by the way the Challenge Family puts on events it’s obvious that you really enjoy celebrations. So what are birthdays like in the Walchshöfer family?
Well I think they are not as big as our parties at the race! We don’t do a fireworks display! Normal birthdays are actually quite small. We just invite close friends and family and celebrate in a small group. But this year my sister has a 30th birthday and this will be a very big thing. Everyone is coming. She rented a pub in Hilpolstein, so it will be a huge one.
When you’re planning a Challenge race and festival experience, do you take inspiration from other events?
Yes. You can learn from everything. You can learn from a golf tournament. You can learn from rock concerts. I love being at other triathlon races because you can always pick up good ideas that you can then assemble in your race. You can always, always learn. I think the strength is that we always say we are not perfect. We are not. We can always improve and that’s what drives us. We have to get better year by year. A lot of athletes give us feedback and we can learn from our customers. It’s awesome! For example, we had 12 or 15 women last year in Roth complaining that the finisher shirts were the men’s cut and much too big for them. So we changed to women’s cut and men’s cut. And the very same women wrote us this year and said, “Thank you so much for hearing us, that’s absolutely awesome. This is why we do your race.” That is so rewarding, when the same person says, “Wow, it’s great that you did that.” All of the emails we get in Roth, they always begin by, “You are awesome, but we want you to be even better.” The way people put it is so nice!
The announcement of Challenge Penticton is obviously huge news. Can you give any hints as to other plans on the Challenge horizon? Because there must be more!
Actually there are a lot. And we were very surprised how many emails and offers we got today [the day of the announcement], especially from places or races in the United States. We were stoked about that! At the moment we have about 20 races in the pipeline that want to get Challenge, or cities that want to be a host city for Challenge. But having said that, we will not take on 20 races next year. It’s Penticton now for next year and I think there could be two or three more worldwide. But ultimately we will have more in North America – we want to come to the U.S. And how we work is that we don’t take just any offer. For us it has to be a perfect fit. The organization team, the community – it has to be a Challenge feeling from the beginning, the same page understanding of where we want to go together. Because we don’t want to hop from city to city. We want to find a host city that we can work with.
One final question: Do you ever stop smiling?
Now, here in Penticton, definitely not! Because we are so happy! I think it’s so easy to smile. Because I do triathlon myself, I’m absolutely passionate about the sport, about the people in the sport, about their stories in the sport. And if you are blessed to work in this sport, it’s the best that could happen to you!