Everything You Need To Know About the Ironman St. George Course
Two-time Ironman St. George winner Heather Wurtele shares expert race recon on the new IM World Championship course—from gear to strategy to where to eat post-race.
For the first time in the history of the race, the Ironman World Championships will take place outside of Hawaii. After multiple postponements and cancellations of the event in Kona, Ironman announced the 2021 world championship event would move to St. George, Utah on May 7, 2022.
This is a delightful, if surprising, turn of events for an Ironman race that was shortened to a 70.3 in 2013 because the full was “too hard.” As someone who won Ironman St. George twice and lived there for training from February to May for many years since, I can attest to the challenge of the course, even though it has been toned down significantly from the original. But I’ve also argued that a hard course is the very thing that makes it so great.
If you’re taking on the challenge, I hope you’ll come to love the race and the St. George region as much as I do. This guide to the Ironman St. George course will help any triathlete, whether a professional or age-grouper, prepare for what’s in store this May.Section divider
Ironman St. George Weather
St. George is situated in the extreme southwestern corner of Utah, at the northernmost extension of the Mojave Desert. The climate is characterized by low humidity, generally clear skies, relatively mild winters, and hot summers.
Monthly climate norms for May include average highs of 86 degrees F (30 degrees C), lows of 52 degrees F (11 degrees C) and average temps of 70 degrees F (21 degrees C), with 0.46 inches (1.17cm) of rain. Being spring in the desert, however, there is plenty of variation from year to year, and even within the day—as we’ve seen in the past, weather can turn on a dime.
If you are arriving in St. George early to prepare for the race, be aware of this variation. In my experience living and training in St. George, the month of April is particularly windy and unsettled, especially out in the town of Hurricane, where the swim is held. As the locals like to say: “They don’t call it Hurricane for nothin’.” There always seems to be a “surprise” cold front and rain storm in the last week of April (I once did my last long ride before Ironman St. George in an RV park shed because it was hailing), but then the weather tends to calm down.
Race day conditions
Historically, the full and 70.3 races in St. George have mostly seen predictably pleasant weather. However, when things get unpredictable, they get really unpredictable: One year had near-freezing temperatures, another edition featured powerful wind gusts, and one saw athletes running in over 100 degrees F. These extreme conditions should motivate athletes to prepare for a variety of conditions in training.
Typically, however, early May days in St. George start out cool in the morning, then warm up to a “perfect for racing” mid-70s F (20 degrees C). Sometimes, temperatures can creep into the low 90s; and afternoon winds can make it feel like you have a hot air dryer blowing in your face. Athletes fearing the greenhouse-like conditions of Kona will appreciate the low humidity of the St. George region, which allows sweat to evaporate off the skin.
Prepare for variation, and bring lots of clothing and race kit options to deal with both hot and cold weather.Section divider
Ironman St. George Swim
Expect a guaranteed wetsuit-legal, cold-water swim. Early May water temperature norms for Sand Hollow reservoir range from 56 to 64 degrees F (13-18 degrees C). Sand Hollow Reservoir is a beautiful swim venue with orange sand and clean, clear water that is usually calm in the early morning. But the cold can be a bit of a shock for athletes.
It is always smart to do an open-water swim before the race to get used to the conditions. (If you want to have some fun with it, there are a few small rock islands about 400 meters from the swim start that you can climb onto for photos and cannonball dives.)
On race morning, do a good dryland swim warm-up to get the blood flowing and your heart rate up. This way, the swim start isn’t such a shock to the system.
The swim course is the same as years past: a one-loop swim with a long, rectangular out-and-back towards the south of the lake, which turns into another rectangle towards the north and east. The swim exit will be a run up a boat launch ramp (the length of which will depend on water level, but is usually around 10-20 meters) to a large parking lot. With space on the pier not being a limiting factor like in Kona, there should be lots of room in transition.
With the sun rising over the lake, lightly tinted and polarized goggles are a good choice, especially for sighting in the latter half of the swim. The home stretch into T1 will be easy to see with the sun at your back!
You will likely want as much warmth as possible on the swim, which means a wetsuit with sleeves. If you are particularly sensitive to cold, consider wearing a swimsuit under your wetsuit and changing into dry clothes before going on the bike.
Numb extremities from 2.4 miles (3.8 km) in cold water can make changing your clothes in T1 awkward. Opting for things like a neoprene swim cap or double caps and booties can help, but only if you have trained with this gear and are comfortable wearing it in the swim.
The swim will be beautiful, but cold. Dress accordingly and acquaint yourself with the water prior to race day so it is not such a shock to the system.Section divider
Ironman St. George Bike
Expect a challenging, dynamic bike course with a mix of rolling TT sections, lots of climbing, and some fast, technical (by North American triathlon course standards) downhills.
Immediately after mounting your bike, you have a short downhill stretch to the Sand Hollow State Park exit followed by a flat stretch for a mile or so along Sand Hollow Road, which gives you time to do things like adjust your bike shoes and tweak your kit before settling into a rhythm.
This initial section in Hurricane has some short out-and-backs and a small climb. The first exciting part of the course comes with a fast downhill through “The Cut” on the Southern Parkway (Highway 7). The vertical orange cliffs can funnel the wind, so be prepared for squirrely and changeable wind direction.
As you gain speed and exit The Cut into a sweeping left turn (with a beautiful view of Long Valley and the Virgin River below) winds from the more-open desert plateau will hit. The bottom of the hill has a gradual right-hand turn with a long run out, so it is definitely possible to ride this section fast in the aero-bars. However, depending on the wind, your bike handling skills, and those of people around you, you may also need to sit up, feather your brakes, and play it safe.
The out-and-back section along the Southern Parkway is reminiscent of Kona with gradual, rolling false flats, and hills that you can grind up in your big ring. Also, like Kona, it can be smooth sailing and fast or it can be a struggle against the wind.
After the last uphill grind and the fast downhill exit off of Southern Parkway, the course starts to get more dynamic and interesting. The first more sustained bit of climbing comes as you ride up out of Washington Fields, then up Washington Parkway. These climbs can be a bit deceiving; it is definitely a place to watch that you don’t burn too many matches unless you really want to suffer later.
Red Hills Parkway and Snow Canyon
Those who have raced Ironman 70.3 St. George will be familiar with the next section of the bike course, which rolls along Red Hills Parkway to Snow Canyon. Expect some fast downhill and flat sections with a notable steep little dip into a left turn on Buena Vista Boulevard (by Rocky Mountain ATV) and a fast downhill into a right turn under the freeway on Red Hills parkway.
One of the highlights of the course in St. George is the climb through Snow Canyon (named after a settler family, not the precipitation that occasionally graces the upper reaches of the state park). The rock formations are as breathtaking as the climb itself. The popular Strava segment from the lower entrance gate to the upper end of the park has the distance at 3.9 miles (6.23 km), with an elevation gain of 866 feet (264 m) and an average grade of 4%.
Four percent seems pretty tame, until you realize that’s simply the average. There are flatter, big-ring, TT parts in between steeper 7-9% gradient sections, which make the climb uniquely challenging in terms of having to keep the pressure on and shift gears. You don’t really get to settle into a steady climbing rhythm. On Strava, the men’s KOM is 12:47, the women’s QOM is 14:09, and these times were most definitely not set during the bike leg of a triathlon. In-race best times for pros are closer to 13:30 for men and 16:00 for women. It’s also important to note athletes start climbing well before this segment, way back on Snow Canyon Parkway before making the right turn to climb up to the entrance gate. It’s also important to note that, unlike the 70.3, you keep climbing after you exit the park.
From the south entrance of Snow Canyon to Veyo, you climb a total of 1,750 feet over 14 miles. The steepest section is within the Snow Canyon, but 9 miles and 680 feet of elevation gain happen after you leave the park. This entire section is arguably the crux of the race.
Once you top out at Veyo, you roll briefly along a cool volcanic plateau with some cinder cones in the distance before dropping down. The route descends through the valley that takes you past Gunlock reservoir and up through Ivins to St. George. If you raced the original Ironman St. George, you’ll note this is actually the reverse direction of the course; instead of climbing up what athletes called “The Wall,” you descend down it, and around a 180-degree, left-hand hairpin. This is steep, can be affected by wind, and there will no doubt be a whole host of signs and course marshalls urging you to slow down. Remember to feather both brakes to shed speed before the turn. If you’ve really overcooked it and have to brake in the turn then favor that rear brake. The ride down through the canyon is fun, fast, engaging and—barring a headwind—should go by quickly.
The part that will feel longer than anticipated is the final section. When it feels like you’re back in town and almost done, that last climb up Red Hills parkway before descending down Diagonal Street to T2 can be tough, because you are in get-me-off-the-bike-already mode. Think about getting those last fluids and calories in just before this section, because you will likely be too focused on bike handling to take your hands off the bars on the final fast descent down Diagonal to transition. Check your speed on that last stretch past the round-about on Main and get ready to dismount and run into T2.
After exiting the swim, wearing toe covers on your bike shoes, arm warmers, or disposable layers, can be a good choice. Wearing a disposable kitchen garbage bag under your race kit to trap body heat/block the wind can be a handy trick – you can just rip it out and toss it at an aid station once you warm up. None of this may be needed, and it all depends on your personal cold tolerance, but it’s good to be prepared.
What is the optimal wheel set-up for the Ironman St. George course? Disc wheels are pretty much always faster. Yes, even in hilly and windy conditions. The airflow across the disc can actually stabilize your bike when it’s windy, and the slight weight penalty for climbing is more than offset with the aerodynamic and speed advantage gained on the downhills.
What really alters the feeling of safe bike handling is actually the rim depth of your front wheel. There is a reason why track athletes run double disc wheels in a perfectly controlled velodrome environment, but you never see solid front wheels outside. If you can only bring one set of race wheels to St. George, I would opt for a disc and a shallower front rim in the 50mm range. If you are not the proud owner of a disc, and have wheels like ENVE 7.8s or Zipp 808s, I wouldn’t stress too much, but I would work on my bike handling! If the wind is gusty, it’s natural to brace and stop pedaling, but you will be more stable if you keep those pedals turning over, decrease your cadence and try to stay as relaxed as possible.
As far as gearing goes, a 39-28, 53-11 would serve you well. Strong cyclists who really want to avoid spinning out on the fast downhills might opt for a 54-55 big ring and be fine with a 25 tooth cog on the rear. If climbing is not your jam, you might want to look at compact cranks.
Prepare your body and your bike for hills and wind. Work on staying relaxed in the aerobars and your bike handling skills, especially on fast downhill sections.Section divider
Ironman St. George Run
The run in St. George is either uphill or downhill. Sometimes more gradual than others, but rarely ever flat. If you were to divide all Ironman races into either “strength” or “speed” courses, this race falls firmly into the strength category. The only time you’ll have a truly flat section is the few hundred yards out of T2.
Almost immediately, a 2.5-mile (4km) uphill grind begins, with 320 feet (98m) elevation gain that takes you up Main Street, Diagonal, and Bluff. The original editions of IM St. George and the 70.3 race had athletes turning right to run up an even steeper hill above town on Red Hills Parkway. However, the current course maps for the 2022 race show a left-hand turn that heads down Snow Canyon Parkway to the Halfway Washington trail.
Halfway Washington Trail
This paved multi-use pathway is a nice, sheltered, green place to run, and will be a really pleasant change from an otherwise exposed course. The race winds gradually downhill on this path along Dixie Drive to the run turnaround loop in Mathis Park beside the Santa Clara River. You then retrace your steps back gradually, with the uphill culminating in a steeper grind up Snow Canyon Parkway before turning right to run back down Bluff into town.
Just as you get into a fast downhill groove, a nasty, steep out-and-back off of Bluff takes you up to the golf course. This is a good point to get eyes on your competition, and also to discover if you’ve pushed too hard early on. Eccentric loading from running downhill can trash your legs more than running uphill, so it’s a bit of an art to find the balance between holding back and letting it fly. You want to find that sweet spot to maximize speed and minimize agony. For that reason, it’s better to hold back until the final stretch of the last lap, when you run down from the golf course and all the way down Diagonal. On the first lap, focus on hydration, fueling, and psyching yourself up to turn around and do it all again.
Spectator, community and volunteer support in St. George is second to none, and you can expect a lot of great energy out on the course. There is nothing quite like the noise of the finish line as you run the final downhill on Main. Soak it in and savor this special experience.
It’s going to be a hilly run. Don’t let the excitement of the crowds in town push you to charge uphill too fast early on. Resist the urge to “make up time” by blazing the downhills, unless you have prepared your legs for the thrashing.Section divider
Training Facilities in St. George
In addition to open-water swimming at both Sand Hollow and Quail Creek Reservoirs, there are four pools to choose from in the greater St. George area. The Aquatic Center at Dixie State University is the newest and fanciest with a 50-meter pool. There are also indoor 25-yard pools at Washington City Community Center and the Sand Hollow Aquatic Center, and an outdoor 25-meter pool at Summit Athletic Club.
St. George, Ivins, Washington City, and Santa Clara all have an impressive network of paved, multi-use pathways. You can ride or run all the way from the very south end of town by Bloomington almost all the way to Sand Hollow on a beautiful, paved trail that follows the Virgin River. Other arms of this trail connect north west to the Halfway Washington Trail portion of the run during the race. The “Mayor’s Loop” was a favorite spot of mine for tempo runs. As these are multi-use paths (think families with strollers) they are perfect spots for easy, safe, pre-race rides and runs, but are not appropriate places for max effort repeats in aerobars.
Often, the bike course at Ironman venues goes places that you’d not want to spend any time riding in training, but in St. George, this is not the case. In St. George, drivers are generally pretty courteous, and there are plenty of good parkways to choose from with big shoulders or separate bike lanes for extra safe riding. The course covers a lot of the most popular ride routes. The Southern Parkway is a great place to get in some flatter, pre-race TT time, and the Snow Canyon up to Veyo loop is where you go for more adventure and climbing. South Indian Hills Drive winding over to Stonebridge Drive and West County Lane to West Sunset Blvd. through Santa Clara is another nice route to avoid the busy downtown and get out to Old Hwy 91 and the latter sections of the bike course.
For a mix of asphalt and off-road, lower-impact running (and if you want to be extra efficient and combine workouts with race recon) run a loop of the lake out at Sand Hollow. The West Canyon trail is a great place to run in Snow Canyon.
The Human Performance Center at Dixie State University has both an indoor track and an outdoor rooftop track, connected by a track-surfaced, 40-degree incline hill for hill sprints (yes, it’s as cool as it sounds). The facility also has a dedicated spin room, and a big fitness facility with lots of cardio machines. You can also find good treadmills at Summit Athletic Club and the Washington City Community Center.Section divider
As a point-to-point course with two transition locations, St. George offers a few added logistical considerations. The swim venue and T1 is a 35-minute drive from T2 and the finish line in downtown St. George. As such, you’ll want a car (either your own or a rental) for getting around. The day before the race, you will be asked to drop off your bike in T1; allow for plenty of time and patience to accomplish this, as the park can get very crowded, very quickly.
Where to stay
The point-to-point nature of the course can make it tricky to know where best to book accommodations. I usually camped out at Sand Hollow, because we lived in an RV and it was nice to roll out of bed and walk to transition. It made bike-drop off in T1 the day before the race super easy, but made going to town for race meetings and T2 run drop-off off more of a hassle. If this is the route you want to go, book early – spots at the campground fill up early.
If you are concerned about placing things in your run bag on race morning (like frozen drink bottles if the weather is predicted to be hot), then it’s a better option to stay at a hotel or home rental in downtown St. George, then catch the race-morning shuttle out to the swim start. Temple View RV Park is a great urban camping option with close proximity to the finish line, Dixie State University, and run paths around the Mayor’s loop.
There is no parking available for athletes or spectators at Sand Hollow on race morning. However, St. George has the busing system down to a science. On race morning, athletes and spectators not staying at Sand Hollow are required to park at the multi-level parkade near the finish line in Downtown St. George, then board a bus to Sand Hollow. After the athletes exit the swim, the shuttles will return spectators to the town square, where they can easily watch the bike and run from various points on the course.Section divider
Local Bike Shops and Running Stores
The race expo will have vendors, but you can also stock up at local bike shops and running stores. IBB Cyclery and Multisport out in Ivins is the local store that specializes in TT bikes and triathlon gear most specifically. Red Rock Bicycle Co., Bicycles Unlimited, and Rapid Cycling are all good local shops closer to the town center. They have more mountain and road bike gear than triathlon, but will definitely have capable mechanics, spare tubes, and things like CO2 cartridges and gels.
For a great selection of run gear, race nutrition and things like hydration belts, check out the St. George Running Center.Section divider
Friends and family can track their athletes using the Ironman Athlete Tracker App.
The Greater Zion Convention and Tourism website recommends the following spots for Ironman St. George spectators:
Hurricane: Intersection of state Route 7 and state Route 9 (Bike)
Ivins: Snow Canyon Drive (Bike)
St. George: Main Street from 400 North to 100 South (Bike and Run)
Mathis Park should also be a great spectator spot on the new run course, where friends and family can hang out in a shaded park as a home base while running around and cheering athletes on at several different spots.Section divider
Contrary to what you may have heard, you can get a post-race beer in Utah. In 2020, the state repealed its infamous “near-beer” law that required breweries to keep their ABV at 3.2 or lower. Most restaurants serve a variety of mainstream and craft beers. Go for the latter – Uinta, Epic, Proper, and Wasatch breweries are all great made-in-Utah options.
River Rock Roasting Company has excellent roasted in-house coffee and home-made baked goods, as well as a great lunch and dinner menu. I recommend the beet salad and the Monkey Wrench pizza. If it’s a nice day, take your food onto their big deck to enjoy a spectacular view of the Virgin River. It’s a must-visit if you’re out checking out the swim course, or on your way through La Verkin to head to Zion.
For the mandatory, massive, post-race American breakfast, hit the Black Bear Diner and order “the Grizz.” The Bear Paw Cafe is another solid choice (bears seem to be a solid indicator of big portions). I also recommend hitting Alfredo A’s Mexican Food (in St. George and Hurricane) for a breakfast burrito the size of your head.
For quick, healthy lunch options, you can’t really go wrong with Kneaders (soup and the turkey cranberry sunflower salad) or Viva Chicken (The Naked Peruvian wrap, sweet potato fries, and herbal limeade). If you’re out in Ivins doing some race recon it’s worth a trip to the Xetava Gardens Cafe in Kayenta (try the Cajun Brussels Sprouts) and you can wander around the Kayenta Art Village while you’re there.
For dinner, Royal Thai Cuisine, Benja’s Thai and Sushi, and Red Fort Cuisine of India have all of the delicious favorites. If expense is no concern, and you want a fine dining experience, make reservations at The Painted Pony.
For local hikes and post-race sightseeing, explore the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve from several trailheads close to town. There is also a lot more to Snow Canyon than the road you ride in the race. Taking the Snow Canyon Overlook trail from Dammeron Valley is a great way to see a spectacular view of the whole canyon. Pop up to Veyo for a stop at their famous pie shop afterwards.
Don’t leave Utah without at least going to Zion National Park. Only a 55-minute drive from St. George, this park is full of some of the most breathtaking scenery you’ll ever see. There are plenty of hiking trails to loosen up your post-race legs, and if you need an ice bath, take the park shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava, where you can soak between soaring sandstone cliffs.
A bit further out is Bryce Canyon National Park, a little over two hours away from St. George. The hoodoos (thousands of rock spires that jut out from the ground) are something you just have to see to believe.
If you plan to visit the Grand Canyon, know that the North Rim, which is closest to St. George, is usually closed until May 15. The drive to the South Rim (the Arizona side, near Flagstaff) is approximately 5 hours from St. George and open year-round. You can also arrange for bus or helicopter tours to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas (a two-hour drive from St. George).
Heather Wurtele is a many-time Ironman and 70.3 Champion, who abandoned the jet-setting lifestyle of professional triathlon by retiring in 2019 to move to the wilderness of the West Kootenays of British Columbia. She lives in a cabin by a lake somewhere with her ex-professional triathlete husband Trevor, and their exceptionally fantastic cat.