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When the Ironman 70.3 World Championships first emerged on the triathlon scene in 2006, it was held on a pancake flat course in Clearwater, Florida, some 20 miles away from the Ironman headquarters in Tampa. While the venue delivered almost otherworldly results (in 2010, British pro Julie Dibens became the the first woman to crack the four-hour barrier there, clocking 3:59:33 to win), it was also ripe for drafting. Because there wasn’t enough undulation to string out the cyclists on Clearwater’s straight, smooth stretches of road, there was a major issue of large—and perhaps unavoidable—packs on the bike course. As one athlete put it, “in Clearwater, it’s not a real true test of the athlete.”
So, for the 2011 race, Ironman sought out a spot that would provide a fair, balanced—and yes, tougher race. They landed in Henderson, Nevada, not too far off the glittering Las Vegas strip. The location promised a far more challenging course, including with a 1.2-mile swim in Lake Las Vegas, followed by a 56-mile hilly bike ride through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and ending with a 13.1-mile run. The event was also moved from November to early September, making it an ideal prep race for the Ironman World Champs in Kona, Hawaii four weeks later. As a result, the pro field was packed with superstars from around the world (along with some 1,800 age-groupers sharing the course).
While temperatures would soar to near 90 degrees that afternoon, the morning of Sept. 11, 2011 began relatively comfy, at least by desert standards. Still, there was plenty of heat in the pro races. For the men, 38-year-old Aussie ace Craig “Crowie” Alexander literally ran away with the win with a 1:11:50 run split, decimating American Chris Lieto’s four-minute lead off the bike. (Lieto would finish second, three minutes behind Alexander, with Canada’s Jeff Symonds running his way into a surprise third.) Proving his finish was no fluke, Alexander would go on to win in Kona 27 days later, becoming the first person to win both 70.3 and Ironman titles in the same year.
In the women’s race, a relatively unknown 28-year-old triathlete named Melissa Rollison of Australia—a track star who had made the switch from the track to triathlon just a year prior—pulled off a convincing victory, crossing the line in 4:20:55, nearly six minutes ahead of Switzerland’s Karin Theurig and some eight minutes before third-place American Linsey Corbin. That 2011 race was a harbinger of Rollinson’s success and talent: Now married and known as Melissa Hauschildt, she would win 70.3 worlds again and grab the ITU Long Distance Triathlon world title in 2013, and set a record for the fastest finish at an Ironman-branded race (8:31:05) in 2018.
The 2011 race, by most accounts, went off without a hitch. Which was a good thing, considering Ironman had signed a five-year contract with the city of Henderson. But what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas, and in 2014, Ironman packed up and took the world champs to Mont Tremblant, Canada, as part of the company’s “global rotation” plan. (Ironman did continue to host a non-championship 70.3 race in Henderson, known as Silverman, until its contract ran up in 2015.) Meanwhile, the World Championship event hopped from North America to Europe to the Asia-Pacific regions in subsequent years. Next week’s race in St. George, Utah marks just the second time the event has been held in the United States since leaving Las Vegas.