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When discussing the Ironman St. George bike course, the conversation often centers around Snow Canyon. Just about everyone who has ridden it has advice for athletes taking on the four mile-long stretch of continuous elevation gain: shift early and often in response to the constantly changing grade, mentally prepare for the challenge of an uphill slog at mile 100 of your bike leg, and don’t forget – after this section, it’s all downhill to T2.
But hardly anyone remembers to share the most important advice: Look up.
Without a doubt, Snow Canyon State Park is the most beautiful segment of the Ironman St. George course. Just about every news story, promotional pamphlet, or blog about the full- or half-distance event features a photo of cyclists riding through the striated red-rock formations of the park. Snow Canyon is an otherworldly experience; if it weren’t for the presence of park rangers and sunburned hikers emerging from trail junctions at random intervals, one could easily be convinced they had landed on Mars—or perhaps the set of their favorite Western movie. (Snow Canyon is the backdrop for multiple Westerns shot in the 1950s and 1960s, including John Wayne’s The Conqueror and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.)
Due to its proximity to other, larger, national parks (Zion is a 45-minute drive away; Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Great Basin, and the Grand Canyon are just a few hours), Snow Canyon often gets overlooked by tourists in southern Utah. This means that those who do venture to the park, whether on a road trip or in the midst of a triathlon, feel like they’ve stumbled onto Utah’s best-kept secret. Those other parks have kitschy, overpriced souvenir booths and entire bus fleets of tourists taking selfies and blocking the view; on a run in Snow Canyon, you might not encounter another human until you get back to the trailhead.
The Ironman St. George course has seen multiple modifications since its inception in 2010. The course has been rerouted multiple times, both as a full and in the 70.3 format. These changes are often in response to criticism that the course is “too hard,” and those criticisms are not entirely unfounded. The inaugural Ironman St. George had over 7,000 feet of climbing on the bike and 2,400 feet on the run, making it the toughest Ironman in the brand’s lineup at the time. But no matter how many changes were made to the course, Snow Canyon was a constant. It would have been foolish to ride anywhere else—for many athletes, the race is Snow Canyon.
“Outside of Kona, these are the only race photos in which I purchased the full set,” said age-grouper Jennifer Garner, who raced the full Ironman St. George in both 2010 and 2012. “The background is just gorgeous. The race is hard, as it should be—Ironman is hard. But the scenery is beautiful.”
Pro triathlete Ben Hoffman, who has raced every iteration of Ironman St. George and won the 2012 event, says beauty is only one half of the role the Snow Canyon segment plays in the race. Though Snow Canyon is not the steepest portion of the ever-rolling bike course (that honor belongs to the Gunlock climb, a 12% grade also known as “The Wall”), it may well be the hardest for other reasons. Athletes accumulate plenty of elevation gain over the first 100 miles of the course, but they get relief in the form of descents and flat segments; in Snow Canyon, the climb is unyielding. If an athlete has burned up their matches on earlier parts of the course, this section can be physically and mentally grueling.
Hoffman suspects this may be where we see position changes and flame-outs during the Ironman World Championship race:
“We won’t know for certain until after the dust has settled this year, but I anticipate Snow Canyon will be critical. Considering how challenging it is and where it comes late in the ride, I suspect it will set up the gaps on the run that may be decisive for the top spots,” Hoffman said. “To save something for the climb will be tough with all the other hills on the course, but it will be important to put yourself near the front by the top of that climb if you want to win.”
But even in the midst of the hardest races in Snow Canyon, even Hoffman always takes a moment to look up. “It really is otherwordly, and an incredible spectacle to behold.”
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