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How St. George Became the New Kona

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Written by Susan Lacke

Kona? Out. St. George? In. Instead of a big island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, triathlon’s Big Show will take place in southwestern Utah—the story behind what brought it there.

Like many triathletes, Julie Dunkle had big race goals for 2021. After early-season qualifying races for both the Ironman and 70.3 World Championships, she plotted out an ambitious plan to do both races, one month apart:

“My original idea was to have a solid day at 70.3 Worlds,” said the Encinitas, California native, “then go for a PR and podium at the Ironman World Championship in Kona.”

Dunkle trained with this goal in mind, only to have it all fall apart with an email from Ironman: Kona was postponed to February due to tightened COVID-19 restrictions in Hawaii. Suddenly, her plans changed. 70.3 Worlds was no longer a tune-up race, but the main event.

For the past two seasons, athletes have gotten used to pivoting in response to race cancellations and reorganizations. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has meant that every race registration is a gamble; athletes simply sign up and hope the host city doesn’t shut down the event due to an active or imminent outbreak, or that there are no travel restrictions imposed by the destination.

Athletes aren’t the only ones impacted by this uncertainty. After a hiatus in 2020, the Ironman organization fully expected to be able to put on its world championship events this year. In mid-July, race organizers traveled to Kona and the 70.3 Worlds host city of St. George, Utah to finalize plans with local officials:

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“At the time, COVID case numbers and hospitalizations in the area were at a manageable level and race details were moving forward as originally planned,” said Kevin Lewis, president of the Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office in St. George. “There were positive indicators that the travel restrictions for international visitors to the U.S. would be reduced. Two weeks later, the situation had changed significantly.” 

With the development of the Delta variant, COVID case numbers rose rapidly in Utah and Hawaii. In other parts of the world, they were even more pronounced. U.S. leaders announced they would not be making changes to international travel restrictions, which limited nearly half of all athletes who qualified for Ironman’s world championship events. It was a flurry of activity at the Ironman organization as they worked with local officials in Hawaii and Utah to find ways to still put on a world-class event. 

The two states have had vastly differing approaches to the pandemic. Hawaii has exercised extreme caution, requiring quarantines for non-vaccinated travelers and only accepting vaccination records from a small list of approved countries. With limited hospital beds and medical facilities, a surge of the COVID virus would overwhelm the tiny island community. Back in 2020, the Ironman World Championship was first postponed to February 2021, then canceled. It wasn’t surprising, then, when Ironman announced the 2021 World Championship would be postponed as well:

“The resurgence of the virus and new Delta strain has had significant impact on the island community of Hawaii,” Ironman CEO Andrew Messick said in a press statement on Aug. 19. “Combined with substantial border closures and travel restrictions for qualified athletes, there is not a viable pathway in October to host the Ironman World Championship.”

Utah, on the other hand, has adopted a “return to normal” approach, hosting large events throughout the year, including the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship race back in May.

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“This isn’t our first large format event during COVID. We’ve been hosting events with enhanced safety protocols for several months,” said commissioner Gil Almquist, chairman of the Washington County Commission in Utah. “We have stayed open in Washington County while exercising all precautions at large events. With the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship, we showed our health department, citizen volunteers, spectators, and participants that an outdoor race can be held with minimal health risk.”

The conversation in Utah was much different than in Hawaii. In addition to more relaxed rules surrounding COVID, St. George has access to more hospital beds and medical facilities than Kona. Instead of looking at if the race could be held, race organizers and local officials began discussing how to hold a world championship event with a reduced global turnout. As many as half of qualified athletes for the 70.3 World Championship race were from outside of the United States, and many would not be able to travel into the country. Instead of 5,000 athletes from around the world, the race would be less than 3,000 mostly Americans. (Ironman estimates 70% of the 2021 70.3 World Championship field will be from the United States). 

“In August, when it became increasingly clear that travel and border restrictions would not be relaxed in time for all athletes to attend the 70.3 World Championship event, we formulated an alternative plan,” said Ironman spokesman Dan Berglund. That plan included condensing the two-day race format, where men and women raced on separate days, into one day.

“With the smaller athlete field size, and bringing a two-day event back to St. George in 2022, we looked at how we could lessen the strain on the local community this year,” he said. “We collectively decided to move this to a one-day weekend event, removing the weekday component, which has the natural ability to cause increased impact on the local community.”

The one-day format also makes it easier to recruit volunteers for the event. “Even as a one-day event, the volunteer requirements of the World Championship are almost twice what we normally provide at our annual race,” explains Lewis. “To put on an event of this magnitude is a significant commitment.” 

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Changes to the race in St. George have not been completely without criticism. Athletes who made travel plans based on the original two-day format had to scramble to change their flights or lodging reservations, some at great cost. Others have noted that merging the men’s and women’s races puts women at a competitive disadvantage, as the women’s pro race has historically been hindered by interference from pro and elite age-group men. And, of course, there is the criticism that the 2021 Ironman 70.3 World Championship will not be a true world championship, but more of an American one. Still, athletes and race organizers alike are happy just to have a race.

“With all the obstacles in the world today, the fact that we are putting on an event like this, in a place like this, at a time like this is a testament to the Ironman mantra that ‘anything is possible,” Almquist said.

With Kona out of the picture for 2021, all eyes are now on St. George. The sole Ironman world championship race of the year has attracted deep fields in both the pro and age-group categories, looking to test their mettle against an elite group of athletes. And for the first time since 2019, new champions will be crowned.

Written by Heather Wurtele

Hosting the Ironman World Championships in Utah might threaten our triathlete sensibilities, but it’ll make for new, exciting, and better racing.

For the first time since my retirement from professional triathlon in 2019, I have a serious fear of missing out.

It began when I saw an Instagram image of Snow Canyon in St. George, Utah. In the photo, the beautiful red rock scenery had an Ironman brand race sign slapped on top. I scrolled right past, assuming it was a photo related to the recent 70.3 World Championship race. Only when I saw some pros posting about the change (and all the arguments in the comments) did I realize it was something new. Ironman had announced the 2021 Ironman World Championships will take place in St. George, Utah on May 7, 2022.

The full Ironman World Championships. Not in Kona, but St. George.

It took a moment to sink in. When it did, I felt a pang of heartache. This was the first real yearning for triathlon that I’ve had since I retired. St. George is one of my favorite hard, hilly courses. My husband, Trevor, and I loved it so much that we lived there in our RV for four months out of the year, simply because it was the ideal training environment. 

Just when I had zero longing for anything triathlon-related anymore, they had to go and taunt me like that. Man, I would have loved to race an Ironman World Championship in St. George. 

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The die-hard Kona crowd will argue that Hawaii is the spiritual home of Ironman. They claim the race history makes it the only place that athletes will ever want to go for the world championships, and they shake their head at the folly of this change.

Meanwhile, others think it would be great if the venue moved around the world. The world champion could be decided by different races in different conditions on different courses, allowing athletes to test their mettle in a variety of circumstances, not just the hot and windy one on Kona. When St. George was announced, these folks gave a cheer (but not too loud, so as not to offend Pele) for the silver linings of COVID cancellations. I’m cheering, too.

I get it: a race-vacation to Hawaii sounds more appealing than a trip to Utah. But once you get past the initial romantic idea of sandy beaches and poke bowls, you’ll soon realize Kona is a costly, difficult place to get to for many in the world. If we’re talking about ideal places to actually race a global triathlon event, Utah wins in my book.

No, there’s nothing quite like swimming in the ocean in Kona. The speedo-clad posturing and people-watching at Dig Me Beach during race week is pretty spectacular, but look away from the people in the water, and you’ll see understandably grumpy locals rolling their eyes as thousands of triathletes descend on their small community. At the single tiny local pool, triathletes can be found deck-changing, jumping in sweaty after running or riding, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. For pros, race week is often a special exercise in timing training sessions to avoid people—hard to do in a village of only 15,000.

There’s room to spread out in Utah. In addition to the swim venue at Sand Hollow Reservoir (and Quail Creek, if you really want to avoid crowds) there are four pools to choose from in the St. George area, including a spectacular new 50m pool that’s part of the Human Performance Center at Utah Tech University. It really is nice to have so many options for so many athletes. 

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The same goes for biking and running. If endless hot laps of Ali’i Drive and the Queen K float your boat, that’s cool, but for pre-race training safety, St. George is going to be amazing. Since the first edition of Ironman St. George in 2010, the county has built an impressive network of paved trail systems, bike lanes, and parkways with big shoulders. If you prefer to run on dirt there are endless options in the state parks and BLM land all around. (The West Canyon Trail in Snow Canyon is one of my all-time favorite training run locations.)

And if a black lava background shot is a must for the ‘gram, you only need to cruise the Lava Flow Trail off of Pioneer Parkway through St. George and Ivins. In southern Utah, you get Kona-esque black lava rocks and orange sandstone.

One of the more frustrating things about racing the Ironman World Championship in Kona was the logistics. It’s hard for people to get out and spectate portions of the bike and run beyond Ali’i Drive and the Hot Corner in town. In St. George, there will be so many more chances for friends, family, supporters, sponsors, photographers, and your personal social media entourage to actually get to see the race and cheer you on. What’s more, the locals turn out to cheer, too. They love the race, and many volunteer to help athletes have the best race experience possible.

Of course, the main performance difference between Kona and St. George is the climate. To date, winning the Ironman World Championship has meant solving the very particular physiological problem of performing well in oppressive heat and humidity. I, for one, would have really liked the humid-heat element to be less of a deciding factor. Trying desperately to get enough fluids to survive that particular war of attrition keeps competitors from going out and racing as hard as they want to (or could under a different set of conditions). It’s kind of a bummer when you know that the World Championships is always going to be like that, and it simply doesn’t suit you. 

Rotating through multiple locations gives athletes a true world championship challenge in proving they can adapt to any environment, not just one particular corner of the globe. Dealing with terrain, climate and race conditions is all part of the game, and I think it’s good when those conditions change. Race dynamics change. Different athletes with different strengths can take different risks. It will be new and interesting. The cream will still rise to the top, it won’t just be curdled.

In 2013, Ironman announced it would shorten what had been a full distance race in St. George to a 70.3, because the full distance, with its challenging terrain, had gained a reputation for being “too hard.” I say the hard is what makes it so great. I’m excited to see the race return in 2021, and to see the world’s top triathletes take on a new and exciting and equally tough challenge.

And to answer the obvious question: No, I won’t be one of those athletes. Coming out of retirement is tempting, but it’s not going to happen. However, I will be cheering on the athletes who do take on what I feel is truly a world-class course for a world-class event.

In addition to the 2021 and 2022 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships, IRONMAN turns to Greater Zion to host their postponed Championship, bringing millions more in economic impact to Washington County

Read IRONMAN’s press release regarding the 2021 IRONMAN World Championship in St. George here.

St. George, Utah (September 23, 2021)– On the heels of the prestigious IRONMAN® 70.3® World Championship held in St. George last week, IRONMAN announced today that it is bringing its 2021 IRONMAN World Championship event, traditionally held in Kona, Hawaii, to St. George on May 7, 2022.

The IRONMAN World Championship is the longest running and most distinguished endurance event in the world, but due to Covid-19 restrictions in its home state, the culminating experience in IRONMAN’s full-distance triathlon (140.6-miles) circuit has not happened since 2019. The 2020 race was scrapped entirely and in early August, the 2021 event slated to happen on October 9, 2021, was postponed. As travel restrictions and accessibility in Hawaii continued, IRONMAN executives looked for solutions and found one in Greater Zion.

“We are fortunate to have built such a strong and trusted relationship with our friends in the greater St. George region over the past 10-plus years,” said Andrew Messick, President & Chief Executive Officer for The IRONMAN Group. “St. George stepped up to ensure IRONMAN athletes will have a 2021 world championship, even if delayed into 2022. We all just witnessed why this special place has been dubbed the ‘Land of Endurance’ and we are confident that we will have an outstanding championship in May.”

“The honor to host the first IRONMAN World Championship outside of Hawaii is as humbling as it is glorious,” said Kevin Lewis, Director of the Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office. “There are few events that hold the prestige and respect of Kona. To be chosen as the destination with the capacity and character to host this event takes my breath away.”

“Hosting the IRONMAN World Championship is yet another example of the Utah Sports Commission’s sport and Olympic legacy efforts that showcase globally why Utah is known as the State of Sport,” said Utah Sports Commission President and CEO Jeff Robbins. “Together with our partners, we look forward to welcoming the world to Utah.”

The 2021 IRONMAN World Championship will replace the previously scheduled IRONMAN North American Championship on May 7, 2022. The 2022 World Championship is slated to return to Kona in October 2022.

“I think we understand the weight and responsibility we now have to carry forward the cherished significance of Kona and we don’t take that responsibility lightly,” said Lewis.  “We have the deepest respect for the IRONMAN legacy and all that has gone on before – the passion, the dreams, the gut-wrenching persistence and the human spirit of caring for one another, as we push forward to build something better. We now have the opportunity to truly honor that legacy in a place where the land holds a familiar spirit and the people comprehend what it all really means.”

With continuing uncertainty of travel around the world, officials felt confident in the opportunity in St. George. Moving the race to St. George in 2022 gives world-class international athletes another chance to race in the Land of Endurance, and it rewards the local efforts and the community’s commitment to success.

“It’s clear that IRONMAN officials respect and appreciate St. George and our surrounding communities,” Lewis said. “They have confidence in our ability to host a World Championship. They have witnessed the professionalism in our communities and the agencies that support the race. They’ve seen our capabilities, they’ve felt the spirit of our people and they’ve reveled in the beauty of our landscapes. In a time when many things in the world are unclear, IRONMAN officials are certain of our hosting abilities and our hospitality.”

With today’s announcement, St. George will now play host to three World Championship events over a 13-month period bringing millions of dollars in economic impact to the region. Last week’s IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship brought an estimated $18 million in economic impact to Washington County. The event featured over 3500 athletes and brought more than 12,000 visitors to the area. Next year, St. George will host two additional World Championship events. On May 7, the IRONMAN World Championship is slated to host 4,000 athletes, and up to 20,000 guests and spectators. An independent study for the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona estimated economic impact of more than $70 million to the island annually. Then on October 28 and 29, the 2022 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship will feature nearly 7,000 athletes in an expanded two-day race format. Economic impacts from that race are estimated at $20-$25 million. Since its first event here in 2010, IRONMAN has infused more than $118 million directly into the local economy. With the World Championship events in 2022, that number could easily rise to over $200 million. “We’re already seeing substantial benefits from the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship, not just economically, but in positive exposure throughout the world,” Lewis said. “Much like what the Winter Olympics did for northern Utah in 2002, hosting these three back-to-back world championships showcases the qualities of this area and strengthens the fundamental economic value of our communities in an unrivaled way. Through them we gain credibility and respect across the globe. The benefit to our overall economic development efforts from the media exposure we gain is unlike anything this area has ever seen.”

“This is an incredible privilege and we are grateful that we’ve earned the confidence and trust of the IRONMAN organization,” said Gil Almquist, Chairman of the Washington County Commission. “The positive characteristics symbolized by IRONMAN blend perfectly with the qualities of the people in our communities. The enduring effort of athletes and volunteers inspires us to be better people, to be more caring and to support each other through challenges and adversity. Throughout history, our communities, agencies and volunteers have accomplished remarkable feats by working together. Those who’ve been here understand what makes this place so special. Those who haven’t are about to find out.”

“In spite of challenging conditions in the world, we’re honored to be able to host these elite and prestigious events,” said Lewis. “We live in a ruggedly beautiful place. It’s a place where hearts beat with passion, sweat weeps for the good of others, and blood flows with determination. I think we understand the weight and responsibility we now have to carry forward the cherished significance of Kona and we don’t take that responsibility lightly. We have an enduring legacy of success here, and once again, we will rise to it.”

Upcoming IRONMAN events in St. George

2021 IRONMAN World Championship – May 7, 2022

2022 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship: – October 28 and 29, 2022 (Women’s Race Friday; Men’s Saturday)

IRONMAN 70.3 North American Championships: 2023, 2025

IRONMAN North American Championships (140.6): 2024

About Greater Zion

Located in the southwest corner of Utah, Greater Zion is a destination that offers more than 2,400 square miles of adventure and inspiration. Zion National Park, the fourth most visited National Park in the United States, is the premier attraction, but Zion is only the beginning. Four state parks and a multitude of year-round recreational lands set the stage for a burgeoning mountain biking scene, some of the best off-highway vehicle riding in the country, scenic and challenging play at 13 top-rated golf courses, world-class cultural performances at Tuacahn Center for the Arts and so much more. The vibrant communities of St. George, Springdale, Hurricane, Ivins and towns in between offer a wide range of lodging options, dining experiences and access to outdoor pursuits through local outfitters and tour companies. Home to the 2021 and 2022 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship, and the 2021 IRONMAN World Championship, Greater Zion also is a world-class destination for sporting events, conferences and meetings. The Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office is a transient-room-tax-funded entity of Washington County, Utah. For more information, please visit

The roundabout at Tabernacle and Main Street received a new art installment Saturday, one that pays tribute to the spirit of sport, the optimism of art and the legacy of the Ironman triathlon competition in Southern Utah.


The 10-year history of IRONMAN races in St. George, Utah.

If you’re training for an endurance event, chances are you’ve spent a lot of time planning for every contingency: what you’ll wear, what you’ll eat, how long each leg of your race will take, and so forth. All those things are important, but when you’re competing in an endurance event in the high desert—whether it’s the True Grit Epic, the St. George Marathon, a half-IRONMAN, or a challenge of your own design—you’ve got a few added elements to consider.

Racing in the desert is incredibly rewarding, in part because the environment is so unlike any other. But this landscape comes with its own set of possibilities for which to prepare. The climate is, of course, hotter and drier, and weather changes quickly. Navigation can be challenging, and there’s the unpleasant feeling of sand in your shoes to contend with. If you’re considering signing on for an endurance event in St. George, plan ahead for these desert-specific concerns.

Hydrate Early and Often

Conventional wisdom has it that if you’re exerting yourself in the desert in the more moderate temperatures of spring and fall, you’ll need to consume three to five quarts of water per day. That’s if you’re hiking or backpacking—if you’re running a marathon or otherwise pushing your body to its limits, you’ll need more water.

“One element that often gets overlooked in the desert is the wind,” says Tiffany Gust of Utah-based TG Triathlon and Fitness Coaching. Gust holds a master’s degree in Applied Exercise Science/Sports Nutrition. “Gusting up to 30-plus miles per hour isn’t uncommon during the spring and summer months.”

That’s part of the reason you’ll need to carry more water than you might think. Consider using a bladder and hose, which make it easier to drink frequently than stopping to pull out a water bottle.

Most organized endurance events have aid stations where you can refill and refuel, but don’t count on those to be the only time you’re eating and drinking. Arrive a few days before your event to give your body time to acclimate to the dry climate, and spend those days drinking enough fluids so you’re hydrated well in advance (no need to overdo it, however, as you can go too far with this strategy where it actually hurts you). On race day, carry enough water to get you from one aid station to the next without bonking.

Drink More Than Just Water

In order to stay hydrated, Gust says, you’ll need more than plain old H2O to stay hydrated. The amount of salt your body loses over the course of a day in a hot, dry climate means it’s essential to replace electrolytes as you exercise, too. There are a number of ways to replenish electrolytes, which are essential to some of your body’s most basic automatic processes.

“Monitor urine color and aim for a light yellow color, similar to a yellow post-it note,” she suggests. “Pay attention to thirst and realize that when you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated.”

Salty foods like chips and pretzels, which are frequent long-distance aid-station fare, are great for replacing those salts. There are also tons of mixes, powders, and tablets on the market—each have qualities to recommend them, but the most important thing is making sure a specific supplement works for you. Play around with timing and amounts before you arrive for your event, and know that you may need to increase frequency when you’re actually in the desert. Bring your chosen electrolyte replacement with you so you’re guaranteed to have what you need out on the course, even if aid stations aren’t stocked with your preferred brand or flavor.

Be Sun-Savvy

When you spend as much time outside as it takes to train for a long-distance or multi-day event, it’s more important than ever to take care of your skin. Even a short day out without high-enough SPF can have brutal consequences, and that phenomenon only increases in the desert, where the sun will likely be beating down on you all day with little shade for cover.

For an 8-plus-hour day in the desert, sunscreen alone simply won’t cut it. You should reapply often, especially vulnerable areas like your face, the back of your neck, and your hands as often as is feasible (at every aid station, if you can) and use SPF-50 or greater.

You should also cover as much of your skin as possible, says Gust. “UPF clothing and sunscreen is a must when dealing with the heat in the desert,” she explains, adding that “arm sleeves that can be dipped in cool water can be very beneficial.” A hat with a wide brim will keep your eyes and face from bearing the brunt of harmful UV rays.

Take Care of Your Feet

You may not think you have particularly sweaty feet, but when they’ve been carrying you through the desert all day, things may look a little different. When sun bounces off sand, it can easily heat up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter during the warmest parts of the day, not to mention that it’ll likely make an appearance in your shoes.

With this in mind, you may want to consider running gaiters or something similar to keep sand out of your shoes and be prepared to deal with blisters early and often. Think about carrying a pared-down blister-repair kit (even if it’s just some duct tape on your trekking poles) and stop to fix address hotspots as soon as you notice them. Problems with your feet can escalate quickly in the heat.

Expect Unexpected Weather

Weather in the desert often changes quickly and without much prior warning, and it doesn’t help matters that you’re unlikely to find anywhere safe to take shelter in the event of a storm. With that in mind, check the weather forecast carefully not only for possible storm events in the immediate vicinity, but also in the area surrounding your destination, since a storm upstream can easily cause flash flooding miles downstream. Always avoid camping in washes, and if you’ll be traveling in narrow canyons or washes are unavoidable, plan your escape route well in advance.

Learn to Deal with Sand

It won’t take much time in the desert to discover one of its universal truths: Sand gets in everything. It finds its way through the mesh in your shoes, under your hat, into your teeth. Some of this is preventable, like using running gaiters to prevent tons of sand from seeping into your shoes, wearing shoes with more Gore-tex material and less mesh, and choosing sunglasses that wrap around your face rather than leaving the sides open to blowing sand.

But some blowing sand is simply a reality of desert travel. There’s not much to do in terms of preventing it from happening, but you can head in prepared by mimicking conditions during training as much as possible. That goes for training in the heat, too, says Gust. “Athletes enjoy training early in the morning to escape the excessive heat,” she says. “But if they plan on racing in the heat, some of their training needs to be in the heat—so they’ll be able to tolerate it, both physically and mentally.”

Yes, an endurance event in the desert adds another layer of complexity. But that’s also what makes the challenge fun. With a little preparation, that medal hanging around your neck at the finish line will feel all the sweeter.