All or Nothing at Ironman St. George


Back in March of 2009, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) announced that its newest Ironman competition would be held in St. George, Utah. Representatives from St. George’s tourism office joined in the press release:

The determination and tenacity demonstrated by Ironman athletes resembles the fortitude of the early settlers in this area and the spirit of our residents. The course highlights the striking scenery and contrasting landscapes. We are thrilled to offer athletes and fans an experience they are sure to remember,” stated Kevin Lewis, Sports & Events Director, St. George Area Convention and Tourism Office. –Iron Man Press Release

As it turned out, the race delivered on its promise of both scenery and being memorable, but its location, combined with its position on the calendar in early spring, would prove to require more tenacity and determination than many Ironman contestants could muster, and perhaps more risk than the race organizers could stomach, particularly in the face of falling participation.

After three years of events with the highest rate of did-not-finishers (DNFs) and slowest overall times out of all the Ironmen races, swim events that required the rescue of swimmers and even some kayak volunteers, and signups for the race rapidly dwindling with each progressive year, the race has been retired at its original Olympic distance and reborn as a 70.3 for 2013.

Though athletes who had the event on their bucket list – as well as some hardcore athletes – are expressing disappointment, most veterans of the race agree that the WTC made the right decision, and expressed fear that at some point somebody would have died on the course.

Speculation about the exact reasons for the switch from full distance to 70.3 has the web forums buzzing, and everybody has their own opinion.

Though whenever the race’s difficulty is mentioned there is a fair share of snarky commentary along the lines of “That’s why they call it an Ironman” and complaining of the WTC pandering to the masses, the truth is that the race had several points working against it.

The early May date made getting in the training hours necessary a challenge and traveling with family difficult for many participants. It also invited changeable weather that literally knocked cyclists off of their bikes and whipped the swim lake into furious swells that blocked swimmers’ views of buoys.

The race also coincided with Wildflower, one of the most popular, long-standing triathlons. In the end, the general consensus is that the decision was made on an ‘all-of-the-above’ basis:

“”Wildflower on May 5th or IMSG on May 5th? WF works great in early May because of mostly good weather, a hard early-season 70.3 is more palatable than a hard 140.6, and……’s Wildflower.
If they moved IMSG later, it might get more attention, but I don’t discount the notion that course difficulty is playing a part. Sellout in 2010 and decreasing participation over the last 2 years as word goes around that the course is pretty hard. Face it, IM is a bucket list item for a lot of people. Those people would probably rather do something easier. “”

Whatever the reason, the final race at long-course distance was held on the first week of May in 2012, and that event sealed the Ironman St. George’s place in history as officially the hardest Ironman in North America.

Most triathlons with tough reputations earn them for one particular phase of the event, though for some both the cycle and the run earn the distinction. In the case of the Ironman St. George, there are very few who would indicate that one part of the race is any less difficult than another.

In its inaugural year of 2010, the water temperature of 52 degrees was enough to force many to DNF, and the land portions of the race were deemed so difficult that the organizers actually changed the course in order to try to attract more participants.

The 2012 swim proved nearly fatal, and the experience was perhaps best summed up by the story headline and caption that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune:

“”High winds rock St. George Ironman’s morning swim, hundreds fail to finish. “I got out because I didn’t want to die.” “”

Amateur athletes set out fifteen minutes after the professionals in calm waters, but by the time most contestants reached the first buoy, the triathlon veterans among them realized that their times were faster than normal due to a rapidly increasing current pushing behind them.

The first turn left them broadside to the current, with many swimmers slowly being pushed farther out into the reservoir, and the second turn pushing them straight into the oncoming waves. Buoys began to be rendered meaningless as they were pushed out of position, waves reached four and five feet high and panic set in for many.

The waves forced swimmers to swallow water that would come back to haunt those who actually made it to the cycle and run events and had many treading water simply trying to get their bearings; they threw swimmers dangerously close to a landing platform and rocky bottom towards the end of the course.

In the aftermath, only 1,200 of the race’s original 1,800 participants would move on past the swim, and horror stories abounded.

“”Two kayaks overturned. In fact, one athlete found an empty kayak with a life jacket floating next to it. Another athlete saved a person from drowning and got them on a boat. One of the boats was completely filled with athletes and began taking on water. The driver’s 9 year old daughter was screaming in fear. Athletes in the water, unable to move forward, were calling for help and they were told they had to wait for the boat to come back for them.””

Interestingly, the decision to transition the Ironman St. George from a 140.6 to a 70.3 was announced long before this event; it is as though the triathlon gods were confirming to doubters that the correct decision had been made.

For those who survived the swim and were able to move on to the cycle, the transition was not an easy one. Faced with twenty to thirty mile headwinds right at the outset, many found themselves plagued with stomach cramps from having swallowed so much reservoir water during the swim, all while in the midst of a 6,000 foot, 25 mile long climb.

Gusts blew at forty to fifty miles an hour, and the course’s infamous wall actually offered a respite as the turn into its ascent put the wind at riders’ backs, if only for a mile or so. The reward for surviving the gusts on the way out was the fifty mile an hour speeds achieved with that same wind at the riders’ backs for the downhill return to town, which was then followed by Loop 2, the same as the first but a whole lot worse.

“”The crosswinds following the Veyo Wall are the worst part of the bike loop. You can see the turn into town that will free you from the snake’s grip, yet getting there seems almost impossible. The wind’s grip was too constricting. Everything around me became a mirage. Shade. The smell of the Veyo Pies shop. The next rest stop. Meanwhile, the winds are whipping me to the point that I’m riding across the road’s double yellow lines. If I was walking, I would have looked like Rocky Balboa in the 15th round of a fight. It wasn’t walking. It wasn’t pedaling. It was dragging and mashing. Willpower, not pedal power. Just. Pedal. A. Bit. More.””

Of those who made it from the swim to the cycle, another 170 participants dropped out without making it to the run.

Volunteers in the transition tent between the cycle and the third phase reported sickened participants retching and puking during the transition, then resolutely slathering on the sunscreen in preparation for the 26.2 mile marathon that awaited them.

The run course defeated many more, featuring never-ending cycles of uphills and quad-killing downs under a blazing sun that converted the 82 degree day to 87 degrees on the asphalt surface.

At the end of the day, the race winner, a two-time Ironman title holder who had been blown off of his bike during the cycle portion of the race, finished in just over nine hours, and was quoted as saying, “”that was hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

The decision to adjust the race to half the distance will do nothing to control the weather, and race officials will still have to deal with a 1.2 mile swim in water that can still be devastatingly cold, with wind gusts that can turn competing in both the swim and the cycle to a death-defying act, but it is hoped that the switch will bring more participants and less overall risk. As for those who managed to finish the 2012 Ironman St. George, they have the distinction of racing and completing the Ironman that will be recorded and remembered as the toughest ever.

“”It is remarkable that 2012 made the first two years seem easy! The toughness of the course, combined with the brutal weather conditions, made this a fitting end to what will go down in history as a legendary ironman. I started the day as only one of eighty people to have the opportunity to finish all three years. I don’t know the statistics yet, but I’m sure there were fewer than eighty who ultimately made the finish line in 2012. I’m proud that I was one of them.””

Even at 70.3, be prepared for anything and bring your A game to the competition. Your life may well depend on it.

Speak Your Mind