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How Did the World Championship in St. George Stack Up to Kona?

"It was more of an in-between."

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After the midnight finishers crossed (at 1 a.m.) and the next-day awards banquet finished, Ironman staff packed up port-a-pottys and grandstands in St. George, Utah. Sunburned and tired athletes stumbled through the airport or loaded up their cars on Monday morning—some happy with their finishes, a few with awards tucked into luggage, and many having been broken by the heat and hills. And the Ironman World Championship quietly rolled out of its first-ever non-Hawaiian location.

So how did it stack up?

“It was more of an in-between,” said Taryn Spates—as in it was bigger than a regular Ironman, but not quite as big as the full-blown Kona experience. Spates had signed up before it was announced as a championship race—an element, she said, that did make the field and the vibe different than Kona.

“It felt world championship-like in the week, but I did think the finish line would be bigger,” said Matt Jackson, who chose this race over Kona after qualifying in Tulsa because of the timing of his vacation days at work.

For many of those age-group athletes, it was those little things that were missing. Where was the underpants run, asked Andrew Stasinos, who had been to Kona as a spectator and would be racing there this October. Unfortunately, running around without clothes appears to be a custom that the local community in Utah doesn’t support, but it was a theme that came up again and again: Where were all the race week parties and swag, the coffee boat, the flags lining the finish line chute? Where was the hoopla?

“It was lacking maybe the fanfare at check-in. When you check-in your bike at Kona, there’s like a red carpet,” Rory Duckworth said.

It wasn’t that the course or competitors were lacking. It was a world championship-worthy course, everyone agreed. And while there were many athletes who had just signed up like a regular Ironman (440 athletes were doing their first-ever Ironman), everyone also agreed: At the top end the competition level was high. “The competition was there,” said Marilyn Chychota, who was coaching six athletes racing and cheering on others out on course.

People were excited, she said, to have a big race and to size each other up again—and, for the most part, the pointy end of the field was battling it out on a tough course and day. It was more competitive, by comparison, than even a regional championship Ironman. But it was still hard to really be at peak form this early in the year, especially for athletes just coming out of winter—some of whom might have only had a couple of long rides outside, some of whom have a long season still ahead of them.

“In Kona,” Spates said, “everyone’s locked and loaded. This was more like ‘well, we’ll see.'”

What was missing, instead, seemed to be the level of organization and pageantry that you expect at a world championship race—especially among the age-group women’s fields.

With the women’s waves at the back of the larger race field, it meant that they were starting closer to 8 a.m. than 7 a.m. And on a course that’s already slightly slower, with 2,000 men to work your way through and wind that picked up as the day went on, athletes used to finishing around 4 or 5 p.m. were finishing closer to 6 or 7 p.m.

“It was just a long day,” Chychota said.

Athletes and volunteers also reported that about two dozen female athletes were mistakenly pulled off course on the run because volunteers mixed up the men’s and women’s cut-off times. (The last men started about an hour earlier than the last women.) With the wave starts pushed up to get women in the water faster, there was also confusion about their timing later in the day and some who thought they had made the cut-off did not.

Ironman has not yet responded to requests for comment.

Erin Trail, who volunteered in the T2 women’s transition tent, said the set-up appeared ill-prepared for what athletes needed.

“All we had were bag racks down the middle and chairs. Nothing else,” she said—no water or food, and no training or direction on what to do with people who needed medical attention. “And to add insult to injury, we had many women complete the bike by 6:38 p.m., only to be told they missed the cut-off because the start moved earlier. We had about 15-20 women seated in the tent processing when we were instructed to start breaking down transition and packing things up.”

Even at the finish line, where security is typically locked down tight in Kona and medical help is always close on hand, it looked like fans were at times able to just wander in and out, and athletes had to stumble about 100 yards before they could find water—a situation that did improve as the day went on.

Plus, while lots of races have moved to a rolling start, most championship-level age-groupers are still used to championship races being mass starts, at least within their age-group. But St. George featured a rolling start for each age-group and without calf numbers athletes said they had no idea where they stacked up out there on the sunbaked roads—an oddity for a world championship where athletes really really want to know how they’re stacking up while they’re battling for a championship bowl.

All of those little things added up for age-groupers: the lack of spectators on the little out-and-back right before the finish, the lack of history to the venue, the empty grandstands as the middle of the pro field came to the line, even the fact that so many pros dropped out. “As a fan of pro racing, I was kind of disappointed about that,” Spates said. “And the pros that did come and tough it out, I respect even more.”

Even the famous bowls you get for placing in your age group were a little bit different. One of Chychota’s athletes won the 55-59 world title—something she’d been dreaming about her whole triathlon career. She’d been working towards one of the famous wooden bowls you get in Kona and then when she got up there at the awards ceremony the bowl they gave her in St. George was glass. It’s not that glass is worse than wood; it’s just not what she’d been dreaming of.