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Commentary: Why St. George Trumps Kona

ZWP 6175

Written by Heather Wurtele

Hosting the Ironman World Championships in St. George, 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. 

IMWC Swim 4

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. 

IM 70.3 WC 2021 MCM21

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.