Q&A with Heather Wurtele

Original IRONMAN St. George Champion Heather Wurtele reflects on the sport, Greater Zion and life after being a pro triathlete

In 2009, Heather Wurtele and her husband Trevor committed fulltime to the sport of long-course triathlon. They bought an R.V. and traveled North America to train and race, including long stints staying in the Greater Zion area. Until retiring in 2019, the Wurteles were a dominate force in the sport. Heather’s success includes securing the gold at the first-ever IRONMAN St. George in 2010 as well as being a seven-time IRONMAN champion, a 25-time IRONMAN 70.3 champion and securing spots on four World Championship podiums. Since 2020, the couple have been endurance coaches training triathletes through their venture, TeamWurtele.

Heather agreed to a written interview, sharing her impressions of Greater Zion and IRONMAN triathlons in the area. Please note that answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

As someone who has competed in the area a good bit, were you surprised to see Greater Zion host three IRONMAN world championship events in 13 months or did you see hints and possibilities of a world championship course from the start?

Heather Wurtele: That’s a lot of IRONMAN events in a short period of time, but if any community would be up for it, I feel like it’s Greater Zion! Honestly, the inaugural full IRONMAN back in 2010 was so well run, and had such amazing volunteer and community support, it felt like a championship venue even then. I always loved the vibe and the challenge of the course – I mean we do these things because they’re hard, right? – so I was really excited to see Greater Zion host the World Champs. I wish I would have had that opportunity before I retired in 2019!

What are some of your personal “bests” from St. George? You have a long list of accomplishments from the area, but are there any that you’re particularly proud of? 

HW: It’s hard enough to win an IRONMAN or an IRONMAN 70.3, but it’s even harder to repeat wins, so I’m probably most proud of defending my IRONMAN title in 2011 with challenging (hot! windy!) conditions and then winning the IRONMAN 70.3 North American Championship for the second year in a row in 2016 with challenging (cold! rainy!) conditions and super tough competition. 

Is there anything about Greater Zion that you think has helped you find success here?

HW: My husband and I lived full-time out of our R.V., for six years at the start of our triathlon careers, and Greater Zion initially appealed to us because there were lots of great, affordable, places to camp and really good training infrastructure – the bike paths, run trails, and swimming options seem to have improved every year! We also really like the terrain, landscape and climate. I’ve always preferred hard IRONMAN courses, and as a very tall athlete with a high sweat rate, desert environments, where my sweat actually evaporates to cool me down effectively, definitely gives me a performance advantage.

You’ve raced in the area quite a bit. Are there certain portions of the course in Greater Zion that are particularly memorable/legendary for you? If so, what are those portions and why? 

HW: The orange sand out at Sand Hollow and the sandstone formations in contrast with black lava flows throughout the area, notably on the climb through Snow Canyon, are so beautiful! I really find the desert terrain uniquely awe-inspiring and this seems to give me a boost both in training and on race day. 

ironman world championship 2022 bike 151

At times you’ve both noted that you like “hard” IRONMAN courses. What sets these courses apart for you? 

HW: I think that super-hot and humid courses are hard (i.e., Malaysia, Kona) but not in a way that I like! The kind of hard courses that appeal to me are ones with challenging terrain. That is [courses] where you are not limited by physiological factors and have to pace to avoid heat stroke, but rather where you can fully express your fitness by giving it all you’ve got, nose in the wind, all day! 

I also think that harder, hilly courses, especially on the bike, are also more fair from a drafting and officiating standpoint. You can’t simply tuck in at 12 meters* and hang on when courses are dynamic with lots of climbing so people get to the run with more equally tired legs. 

(*Per the IRONMAN Official Competition Rules, drafting during the race is prohibited. The bicycle draft zone is considered 12 meters and competitors must remain outside this zone, except when passing.)

Can you tell us what you think the top five hardest IRONMAN courses are? 

HW: IRONMAN Wales, IRONMAN Lanzarote, IRONMAN St. George, IRONMAN Canada Whistler and IRONMAN UK.

You’ve noted that you lived in St. George in your R.V. four months out of the year to train. How many years did you do that?

HW: Some years our coach had training camps in other places but we stayed in the area – Hurricane, Leeds, St. George – for extended periods from 2011 to 2019.

During your time living in the area, did you develop any favorite activities? 

HW: Our activities were always training-focused! 

Favorites include:

  • Open water swimming in Sand Hollow or Quail Creek Reservoirs
  • Riding all the way up Kolob Road on the west edge of Zion National Park to the reservoir.
  • Doing big-gravel bike loops up Mesa and Smith Mesa Road and down Kolob Road; around Red Cliffs Desert reserve from St. George to Silver Reef and Leeds; and out west from Bearclaw Poppy through to Old US 91 via Apex Mine, West Mountain and Bulldog Pass roads. 
  • Running the upper JEM Trail and Hurricane Rim, Prospector Trail in Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and the West Canyon Trail in Snow Canyon. And, of course, all of the paved Virgin River trails and Mayor’s Loop in town. 
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River Rock Roasting Company

Do you have any favorite Great Zion area restaurants, coffee shops, hiking trails, etc.? 

HW: River Rock Roasting Company in La Verkin is a big favorite for coffee and baked goods then pizza, salad and beer. Black Bear Diner for “the Grizz” if we needed a massive breakfast after a big training weekend. IBB Cyclery and Multisport and the St. George Running Center were our go-to shops. Angels Landing is a must-do hike in Zion, but only if you’re not afraid of heights! 

What makes Greater Zion a good place to train for a triathlon? 

HW: For us, a big thing that makes Greater Zion a great training destination is the cycling infrastructure. When you spend as many hours on the bike as IRONMAN athletes need to, it’s critical to have a variety of roads where you feel safe cycling. The nice highways with big shoulders, quiet backroads and the many cycling/multi-use paths all around St. George are all awesome! 

The running and swimming options are fantastic too. The water fountains along the Virgin River Trail and around the Mayor’s Loop are lifesavers for long run days, and it is great to have so many indoor and outdoor pools to choose from. The climate in the area makes it a perfect training destination in early spring and late fall for people from colder, snowy places too.

Heather, you’ve noted that the West Canyon Trail in Snow Canyon is one of your all-time favorite training run locations. Can you tell us why? Any other local training favorites? 

HW: I have done SO MANY hard mile repeats and long runs up the West Canyon Trail and I never got sick of it! The surroundings with the huge sandstone cliffs are beautiful, the gravel surface is great for fast running (lower impact than asphalt), and you have a good long, gradual uphill/downhill which is great for hard efforts and strength. Washrooms and water at the trailhead come in handy too.

If a friend was visiting Greater Zion and asked you for tips/advice on the area, what would you recommend to them? 

HW: All of the above! Ha. I have definitely directed people HERE and to Trailforks to get a handle on all of the great trails in the area. The Utah Tech University Human Performance Center wasn’t built yet when we were in the area, but it looks amazing. 

Are there any particular ways you’ve been made to feel welcomed in the Greater Zion community over the years? 

HW: Honestly, just hearing “Hey, it’s the Wurteles!” and getting waved at by people while we were out training was always so nice. The whole community spirit around the race and people’s willingness to volunteer and get involved was always pretty special. 

What is your favorite Greater Zion memory? 

HW: Too many to choose from! I always loved the big posters of past winners in the expo every year.

What motivates (or motivated) you to participate in IRONMAN and triathlon events? How do you use that motivation in everyday life? 

HW: We were always motivated by the challenge to be the best we could be. There were so many different elements to master in triathlon and it was a continual learning process. It was always rewarding, but it took a lot of hard work! Knowing that “doing hard things” requires patience, but brings a lot of meaningful satisfaction, is a very useful life lesson.

Many people are familiar with your well-known racing results, but if we asked your friends and family what you’re legendary for beyond triathlon, what might they say?

HW: I have a forest genetics and plant physiology background and is famous for serving up all sorts of facts about trees, plants, and ecology while doing outdoor stuff.
What passions do you pursue beyond triathlon? 

HW: While we were professional triathletes, we were 100% invested in the sport and life revolved around swimming, biking, running, eating, sleeping … 

Now, we love mountain biking, riding dirt bikes, paddling surf skis, windsurfing, trail running, backpacking, and downhill/cross country/backcountry skiing. Gardening, knitting, woodworking and working on bikes are our relaxing hobbies.