Victoria 70.3: A Very Brief History and Some "Insider" Tips

After hearing some rumours kicking around for the past week or so, WTC made it official and announced a “new” race this past week: Ironman 70.3 Victoria.  It’s not really a new race, just rebranded from the Victoria Half Iron, which was (is) an important event for me for many reasons.  In a previous life, it was the New Balance Half Iron for 12 years (not to confuse things, but actually started as the IslandMan in 1995;  a one-year disaster before my friend Norm took it over).  Norm, myself, and some of our closest friends gave blood, sweat, tears, and more from 1996 to 2007 to build it into a wildly successful grass roots event here on the west coast (I started with the race in 1997).  It’s also important to me because it was the first ever half iron I did (1996; I had done the “IslandMan” swim on a relay team the year before).

For over a decade, Norm and I could barely recall the months of May and June as it was all half iron, all the time.  We had a large, committed group of friends that helped us do pretty much whatever we asked to help put the race on, and there’s no way that race would have been the same without them.  Some of my now closest friends are so because of all the time we spent together in the New Balance Half Iron trenches.  I literally met one of my BFFs , Corinne, on the run course in 1996 (who, incidentally, was one of the most important people on the organizing team as well).

The early days transition area, circa 1999

The NB Half had seen some top pros of the sport at the time: Lori Bowden, Melissa Spooner and Tara Lee Marshall are past champions, Peter Reid was a member of our volunteer ranks, and in later years new pros (now more like household names) emerged, including Heather Wurtele who was our final women’s champion.  2007 was the last race we put on before turning the reins over to Lifesport.  It was a tough decision for Norm to part ways with the race, but we had basically grown up running the event and it was time to move on.

I have to admit I was pretty surprised when I heard that WTC was considering taking it over.  We had always made the athlete experience top priority, made sure we had high-quality hoodie sweatshirts for the participants, a huge amount of draw prizes, lots of awards, schwag for volunteers, a post-race dinner that was always legendary for those who attended, and more.  My emphasis with sponsors was always to contribute something that added to the athlete experience, not put cash in our pockets.  Those things had kind of eroded since our time at the helm, but still it seemed too “grass roots” for WTC.  Even though I (we) have been disappointed in some of the changes made to the race over the past six years, it’s still a really important event for me on the scale of life occasions.

I have nothing but best wishes for WTC with this race, now Ironman 70.3 Victoria, and hope they get a lot of success from it.  It’s a beautiful part of the world, an amazing community, and in many ways the hub of triathlon in Canada. 

For any of you that have never done this race, but are now considering it, here’s my “insider” advice on the course and the community.

The course

Venue:  The race takes place just outside of the city of Victoria, on the Saanich Peninsula.  It’s set up on the shores of Elk Lake, at Hamsterly Beach Park.  It’s a nice, family-friendly venue, but there is very little parking.  Given that WTC events are also huge in terms of participants (the municipalities always restricted our numbers, but I’m guessing WTC has made some deal with them as their races tend to be bigger), I think the organizers will have to arrange for parking/shuttle buses as parking is tight as it is.  There’s a concrete building with washrooms at the park, and it also has a changeroom on the other side, which is great for those days you want to swim/bike/run the course and get changed afterwards.

Temperature:  June in Victoria can be 30 degrees C (86F), or it can be 15C (59F).  We have had searing sun where everyone is crowded in the shade, and we’ve had it cool and rainy.  Come prepared for anything!  It is usually somewhat windy, but not like those crazy Kona winds or anything.

The lake: Elk Lake is ok.  It houses the national rowing team (across the lake), but it’s not my favourite lake in the area to swim in.  It’s usually a comfortable temperature by mid-June (for wetsuit swimmers), and in a hot summer often by August that it has warmed up enough for wetsuits to not be allowed, but will always be a wetsuit swim in June.  It won’t be freezing though.  
UPDATE: they have moved the swim to the other end of the lake (actually Beaver Lake).  There's more room for parking and transition, so that solves some of the shuttle issues.  However, it's not where I would choose to swim.  I'm sure they're working on making it a good venue.   ANOTHER UPDATE - ignore the last update.  After a bit of a gong show at Beaver Lake, they are going back to Elk Lake for the swim in 2017.

The bike course:  
UPDATE: there is a new, one-loop course.  Read about it by clicking HERE.  The paragraph below applies to the old course.
In a word: hilly.  As we always said in our race guide, “train for hills”!  Not big climbs, but relentless short hills.  Nothing crazy steep (there was a year with a crazy steep hill due to some road construction), just non-stop rollers and some false flats.  It’s pretty, through a mix of semi-rural, rural, farmland, and small communities.  There are lots of corners and turns.  It’s a tough course, but not Wildflower tough or anything.  It can be tiring as the technical nature of the course doesn’t leave a lot of places to get nutrition in, so stay on top of your calorie intake.  I haven’t heard if the course will be changing at all (and it’s changed slightly a few times over the years), but safe to say it will remain a multi-loop course as it’s on a peninsula surrounded by ocean.  Traffic is relatively light as it’s Sunday morning in a rural area.  The municipalities also put tight timelines for course closures in the past (we had to have everyone off the bike course by 11:30), but I have no idea what kind of arrangements the new organizers have made.  The course has always been between 86-88 km depending on the year; we were never really able to get a true 90 km out of it.  UPDATE: it's a two-loop course, 86km.  UPDATE #2: There's a rumour going around out there that it may become a one-loop, 90km course. I'll post info on the new course when/if that happens.  UPDATE #3: Yep, one loop course.  I'll give my thoughts on it soon.

The run course:  In a word: flat.  As we always said in our race guide, “don’t train for hills”!  The run is around Elk & Beaver Lakes, on a flat running path that is a combination of gravel, chip trail, and trail.  It’s shady of 95% of the run, so regardless of weather, a fast run is possible.  It’s a 10-km loop around the lakes (and a popular spot anytime for runners), so the race is two loops for a total of 20km.  Not a true half iron distance either, but close enough I guess?  UPDATE: yes, they did make it a true 21.1km by adding a short out-and-back section.

The community

How to get here:  Victoria is on an island (Vancouver Island), and as such you can arrive by plane or boat.  YYJ (Victoria International Airport) is served by Alaska Airlines, United, Air Canada, West Jet, and some other smaller airlines.  You can drive onto a ferry:  BC Ferries come to Victoria (actually Swartz Bay, Sidney, about 20 minutes from downtown Victoria) from Vancouver (actually Tsawwassen).  Washington State Ferries come into Sidney from Anacortes, WA (north of Seattle), and the Coho Ferry comes right into Victoria's inner harbour from Port Angeles, WA (on the Olympic Peninsula).  Finally, you can catch a passenger-only ferry, the Clipper, from downtown Seattle right into Victoria's inner harbour.  There are also several seaplane airlines from Seattle and Vancouver, but they can't accommodate bikes/bike boxes.

Where to stay: The Howard Johnson Hotel & Suites Elk Lake (less than 2km from the race site) was always a huge supporter of the race.  They have regular hotel rooms and larger suites with kitchens.   The Quality Inn Waddling Dog (Saanichton) and Accent Inn (Victoria) are also around a 5-min drive and were long-time loyal race sponsors in our days.  There are of course heaps of hotels downtown Victoria as well, which is about a 15 minute drive.  If you want some specific recommendations, from basic budget to chichi luxury, let me know! 

Where to eat: This is where things get tricky as it seems like every triathlete has specific dietary requirements, especially leading up to a race.  So I’ll tell you the places I like, and do with that what you will.  If you’re riding or driving the bike course, stop in at Breadstuffs Bakery (in Brentwood Bay).  They were a super-enthusiastic sponsor and athlete back in the day, and have delicious baked goods.  They use locally-milled flour and it’s all baked in house.  I don’t think they’re gluten-free and I know it’s not cool to recommend non-gluten-free things to triathletes, but whatever – I like baked goods.  Deal with it.  Rebar Modern Food (downtown Victoria) has delicious vegetarian food.  Red Fish Blue Fish (inner harbour) has fantastic seafood and a really cool atmosphere (it’s in an old shipping container, a must-see for sure).  Spinnakers Brew Pub (Esqiumalt) has a gorgeous, waterfront location right on the inner harbour, and makes great beer.

Where to go for bike stuff: Oak Bay Bikes and Pro City Cycles are the best shops in town.  You will be able to get anything you need at either place.

Where to go for other stuff:  There are two shopping plazas (Royal Oak Center and Broadmead Village Shopping Center) within a 5 minute drive of Elk Lake, with grocery stores, drug stores, fast food if that’s your thing, and specialty shops.  Downtown Victoria has a lot of specialty shops and quaint little stores, Canada’s oldest Chinatown, and an amazingly beautiful inner harbour to walk around (or take a harbour ferry tour).

Victoria's inner harbour

Where to swim:  Saanich Commonwealth Place (2 km away from the race site) has a 50 meter pool, hot tubs, showers, etc.  If you want open water, Thetis Lake can’t be beat.

Where to run: The path around Elk/Beaver Lakes.  For nice waterfront, head down to Beacon Hill Park and get a stunning view of the Olympic mountains in Washington state as you run along the Victoria marathon route (you don’t have to run the whole marathon!).

Where to ride: if you’re looking for a pre- or post-race spin and don’t want to ride the course, try the Lochside Trail or Galloping Goose trail.  They are flat, multi-use trails through the city, great for spinning out the legs and chatting with friends.  If you want to rip your legs off, ride the Munns Road climb in the Prospect Lake area.

Where to get coffee:  Full disclosure: I am not a coffee drinker (gasp!), but I have heard that people love Habit (downtown).  There are coffee shops everywhere (this is the PNW after all), and cyclists seem to love the ones along Cook Street Village as well.

That’s about all I can think of off the top of my head.  If you have any specific questions, fire me an email or leave a comment.  Put the Victoria 70.3 on your schedule in the future, and let me know you’re coming so we can meet up!


  1. I just registered for this as my first HIM, so this is great information and interesting to learn the backstory. I live in Texas but loathe the heat, have always loved western Canada, and an early summer race fit nicely with my marathon training schedules, so as soon as I read about Victoria it sounded perfect. All the tris I've done so far have been in summer in Texas so I've not had need of a wetsuit. Any idea what the average water temperature of Elk Lake is in June? All else equal I'm inclined to get a sleeveless suit because it would be more comfortable for local races, and because I'd rather be a little cold than a little hot, even if I give up some buoyancy. Would be interested to hear your thoughts.

    Ellen Williamson

    1. Hmm good question. I have a full sleeve wetsuit. There has never been a June here (to my knowledge) that lakes haven't been wetsuit legal, however they are sometimes warm enough in July or August that wetsuits aren't allowed. I'd bank on needing a wetsuit in Elk Lake in mid-June. FYI... the wetsuit cutoff for TriCan (our version of USAT) is 22 degrees C (74 deg F). I think the USAT temperature cutoff is 78 deg F, so we're a little tougher here I guess! :)

      My recommendation is to go with what you're most comfortable in. That said... I have had full-sleeve wetsuits that are really comfortable, and some that haven't been. The way they fit is critical; if they don't fit properly they can pull on your shoulders and definitely can restrict your stroke. If you can, try some out in the water and see what you like.

      But I too agree that it's better to be a bit cold rather than a bit hot. Again, go with what you're most comfortable with, but make sure it's an educated decision by trying some out. If you mainly race in TX, you probably only need a sleeveless there at best!

      Good luck, and keep me posted!

  2. I am planning on racing Victoria this June! This is awesome information! Thanks so much!!

  3. Am doing Victoria 70.3 2017. This was great insight and very helpful, many thanks. Only spent 1 day in Victoria after Whistler, so am excited to return for a longer duration.