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In 2019, few people imagined the Ironman World Championship could ever move out of Kona, much less to the site of a defunct Ironman. But in 2019, few people also imagined a global pandemic or two years of race cancellations. This set the stage for that former Ironman course—in the small southwestern Utah city of St. George—to become the must-race destination for triathletes. On May 7, 2022, the Ironman World Championship will be contested outside of Hawaii for the first time in the event’s history.
But it won’t be a Kona knockoff or a mini-version of the Hawaii race. It will be entirely its own thing, said Ironman St. George race director Judy Stowers. And it will be better for it.
“We’re not trying to be Kona,” Stowers said. “Kona is Kona. Everybody has this idea and expectation of what Kona is. What we’re doing is taking the elements of that experience and making the experience in St. George it’s own special thing. Not to take away from Kona in any way. But I think when people come and see what the world championship experience is in St. George, they’re going to want to come back here, just as they want to come back to Kona. When they’re here, I think they will be glad they made the choice to be here.”
How St. George became the Ironman World Championship destination
For a town that had its full Ironman event canceled because it was “too hard,” the spot is now hosting not one, but two, world championships this year: the Ironman World Championship in May and then the Ironman 70.3 World Championship (again) in October.
If the full Ironman couldn’t survive in St. George before, then how did this happen?
Since being canceled, the full Ironman St. George course has become the stuff of triathlon lore. The people who raced it in 2010, 2011, or 2012 all have a story or two about just how tough their day was and how epic the course is—and it’s hard to tell if or how much they’re exaggerating. The course really was that tough, and the weather really was that extreme. The DNF rate hovered around 20% each year; In 2012, 29% of athletes who started did not finish and Ben Hoffman’s winning time was 9:07:04 – much slower than what one would usually see on a flatter Ironman course. After closing out the full Ironman in 2012, a 70.3 event took its place, and the shorter race drew crowds and top pros. An attempt was made to revive the full Ironman distance at St. George in 2020, but that was thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a 70.3, St. George was still a “hard” race, but athletes didn’t seem to mind as much. Furthermore, the city rallied around their hometown event. St. George residents are mostly members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (more commonly known as Mormon), and volunteering at community events is a way of life. It was never difficult to find people willing to stuff goodie bags for the athletes or hand out water at aid stations.
“I’ve never seen a community embrace Ironman like this community does,” said Stowers. “That speaks volumes of the people that are here and their willingness to be out and to volunteer. They just want to be involved. We have volunteer captains who just love Ironman so much that it’s not even a question if they’re coming back. A lot of our volunteer captains have been here since year one.”
An enthusiastic host city, coupled with a ready-to-assemble team of volunteers, made St. George the most appealing prospect when New Zealand pulled out of hosting the 2020 and 2021 70.3 World Championship due to border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. St. George quickly mobilized to put on the race, which impressed Ironman enough to proceed with making a temporary World Championship move from Hawaii, where similar border closures canceled the race in 2020 and 2021. (As of this publication, the Kona race is slated to return in October of 2022.) Stowers, who has served as the race director of the Ironman and 70.3 events in Arizona for the past ten years, was tapped to take the helm at the St. George race.
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Not the same Ironman St. George as before
Ironman St. George may be returning in 2022, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same race as 2010-2012. A lot of changes have taken place to make this year’s event worthy of a world championship.
“Every Ironman event we do has a lot of professionalism,” Stowers said. “But as a world championship event, we have to take all of those elements to another level. Everybody’s effort to make this something special is extremely heightened.”
This started with the course layout. The first order of business for the Ironman St. George planning team was evaluating the course to create something that would be a world-class event without the DNF carnage of years past.
“Racing an Ironman is not just about the technical course, but the culture and the experience,” Stowers said. “Bringing in some of the cultural aspects of the event meant creating a big course. So not only are we in St. George, but we’re in [surrounding towns] Washington, Hurricane, Ivins, Gunlock, and Veyo. There’s no community in the Greater Zion area that is not touched by swim, bike, or run. We’re in all of these different communities that bring in different elements to the actual race itself, from different aid station locations and experiences to seeing the sights of Snow Canyon and climbing into Veyo. All of these different aspects of the course itself adds a layer of element to the experience.”
The course also changed from years past due to changes in the infrastructure of the host city. “When St. George first had an Ironman here 10 years ago, the roads that are here, the infrastructure that’s in this area, didn’t exist. So we are able to utilize new roadways and be able to maximize the efficiency of it being a world championship course, with the least amount of impact to the community.”
There is still climbing on the bike course, but it is no longer the hardest course in the Ironman portfolio; with 7,300 feet of total climbing it is now third on the list of elevation gain in Ironman bike courses. (France, with 8,100 feet, and Lanzarote, with 7,400, are first and second, respectively.) The biggest change to the race, though, comes on the run. The previous Ironman St. George marathon had close to 4,000 feet of total elevation gain. In 2022, the run course will have a comparatively flat 1,500 feet of total elevation gain.
“When we were designing the run course, I just kept saying, ‘don’t be mean,’ because we were looking at a lot of different options, and they all included these really intense climbs up to the top of somewhere,” Stowers said. “I was like, ‘we need to keep it down.’ I didn’t want to create such a hard run course that people didn’t want to be there.”
The most important change to the course, however, is an extreme effort to maximize the opportunities for supporters to be a part of the race. The world class event is expected to bring more than 20,000 spectators to St. George, plus 4,500 volunteers.
“With it being a world championship course, we wanted to invite the possibility of it being something that highlights the community and allows for really good spectator support,” Stowers said. “The community, the spectators, family and friends can all be part of that experience for these athletes. I think that that really is going to be a really nice thing for the athletes to just kind of rejuvenate.”
Whether the race returns to Kona permanently or makes a case for rotating the location of the world championship event each year, one thing is for certain: the story of Ironman St. George will gain another interesting chapter on May 7.
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