Ironman 70.3 World Championships, St George. Utah

World Champs, St George

In 2018 I qualified for my first Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. On that occasion I qualified in the last available race which meant it was slightly a case of who was able to travel across the world at short notice. It was an amazing experience, but I didn’t really feel I belonged. 3 years on and I qualified again in Hawaii despite two punctures. This time I knew I deserved it and was there to race the best in the world!!

The venue this year was St George, Utah, one of the premier Ironman locations and I was looking forward to experiencing the scenery and a desert race. One downside of this event was the US travel restrictions for Europe meant the field might be slightly weaker than normal. That being said the US is the strongest nation, with the most races, so it wouldn’t be a walk in the park.

I flew to Las Vegas on Wednesday and got my first experience of the desert heat and Sin City. I took a wrong turn leaving and ended up driving the entire strip. Seeing all the famous sights and buildings was cool but I was relieved when I escaped and was on my way. The landscape in Nevada is boring, it’s flat and lifeless. However, as you move into the Northwest corner of Arizona and then in to Southwest Utah it changes dramatically. Utah is known for its spectacular landscapes and national parks which did not disappoint. The photos don’t even begin to do it justice.

Eventually I arrived at my hotel in St George. It took longer than planned which in turn made my evening a bit hectic. I squeezed in a run as the sun set before heading out for food. I think I ate Mexican for the entire trip. While not that exciting it is a balanced meal that hits all the food groups: rice, protein, carbs, veggies and salad.

Thursday morning was registration, event shopping, bike assembly and my prerace ride. Everything went smoothly and my lasting impression of St George was a friendly place that loves hosting Ironman events. In every shop and restaurant, I was asked if I was racing and wished good luck. One guy even pulled over in his car while I was riding to ask if I was racing and wished me luck.

My concern coming to St George was always going to be the heat. The daily weather is sun, no clouds and about 40 Celsius. This is fine on the swim, OK on the bike, but running hills in that heat is savage. A hard run suits me but little did any of us know we were in for a big surprise.

The final job for the day was meeting the two athletes I coach who were also racing. Super excited for them both and we went over the course and their race plans in detail.

Friday started with an early morning run before getting my Covid test to return to Canada. I have been lucky enough to travel quite a lot in the last 18 months, but the logistics are annoying. It can also be quite expensive, but fair play to Ironman as they had negotiated a discount on the local testing labs. It still wasn’t what I would call cheap though.

Next up was bike and run bag drop. The swim start is a 30 minute drive out of town, so you leave everything in transition overnight. In reality I don’t mind this, however, not having access to your bags on race morning does mean I spend 24hrs worrying I have forgotten something!!

At the bike drop I met up with Katie, an athlete from TriForce (the team I race for), who was also one of the very few athletes who had travelled from Europe. This was followed by a quick swim to test the water out and my new goggles. The water was 25 degrees which meant no wetsuit. In theory is bad for me as my legs have a tendency to sink but apart from that the lake conditions were perfect. Clear warm water and not a wave in sight.

After dropping my run kit, I returned to the hotel to relax, go through my race plan and await Lauren’s arrival.

This seems a good moment to touch on race expectations:

  • The swim – it would be a non-wetsuit swim which for me is bad but its the same for everyone. Being fresh water also made it worse so expected something around 35-37 minutes (my swim has really suffered during covid)
  • The bike – it’s a rolling fast course which to some extent suits me as I can push hard but recover on the downhills (I don’t have the constant power of some people). At 65km you climb the famous snow canyon for 10km and then its 15km back into town. I hadn’t recced the canyon but was excited to see it on race day
  • The run – St George is known as one of the hardest run courses. For worlds they made it even harder. 2 loops of 6km up hill 3km or rolling and then 1km steep down hill. My race strategy was get to the run in good shape as people will really suffer on the hills and it’s my strength.
  • The weather – all week it had been clear blue skies and 40 degrees. This was a concern for me, but I go OK in the heat as I showed in Hawaii. However, for one day and one day only the forecast changed to overcast, 25 degrees and a chance of scattered thunderstorms. With the exception of the last one perfect racing conditions.

Whatever happened I was feeling in great shape and ready to race. There were 350 in my age group and while I am always hesitant of having a position target as it is out of your control, I would be super happy with top 50, happy with top 100 and disappointed with below 150. As a benchmark to 3 years ago I was very happy with 171/213.

Lauren’s bus arrived in the late afternoon, and we spent the evening on final preparations and sign design (very important). I tried to get an early night and for once I actually slept pretty well prerace (only waking up every 90 minutes. I have done 15 half Ironman’s, but the nerves never go away knowing as I know what I am about to put my body through.

Race Day

As always it was an early start and Lauren, who is not an early bird, sportingly accompanied me on the 5 20 shuttle into town for a second shuttle to the start. The whole process ran like clockwork and we arrived in plenty of time. I checked my gear and was set to race. I have to say not needing to worry about a wetsuit makes life so much easier.

All that was left was to patiently wait my turn as the pros and then 4 other age groups went off. Finally, it was my turn so after a good luck kiss, I made my way down the waiting chute. In the process and managed to catch my foot on an uncovered barrier which led to a rather nasty, bloody cut. Not a great start to the day but just had to put it out of my mind.

I reached the start and then my second World Championships was underway.

I instantly fell into a smooth rhythm which is rare for me as I am usually fighting the water. The course also wasn’t too busy which meant I could swim in clean water or tucked next to people drafting them. Before long I had done two legs and was on my way home.

This was when things started to get a little more hectic. I was beginning to get tired and really focussing on kicking to keep my legs from dropping. I was also catching the age groups in front which meant I had to swim around people. In the swim you are always going to bump people and have some contact. That is normal. What is not normal or ok is when someone, in my age group, I had been swimming next to for a bit fell back and then actually grabbed my calf. This annoyed me so I gave 3 or 4 very big kicks and a little more effort to get rid of him. It’s just so unnecessary!

Regardless, with that behind me I was pushing towards the finish feeling the swim had gone as well as I could have hoped but I was feeling my legs which is unusual. Normally with a wetsuit my legs just dangle behind me but without one you really have to kick. As I exited the water, I just hoped this extra effort wouldn’t fatigue the legs on the bike or run.

As I ran through transition I was happy. I don’t time my swim so didn’t know but I swam a 34:15 which was awesome. My swim has suffered so badly during Covid so to break 35 mins without a wetsuit was a great start to my day.

On to the bike and straight away I was on the attack. My bike is still very weak compared to the top guys but compared to most it is now respectable to strong. The course was great and so fast. Before I had settled and registered what was happening, I was through 10 miles. After this point things calmed down and I was mostly riding with the same people.

One massive improvement has been the aerodynamics and position on my bike. This, combined with being as brave as I dared, really showed on the downhills. There were people stronger than me on the flat and up who I would pass on the downhills keeping me in touch. If anything, I need a bigger crank set for more downhill power.

At the halfway stage I was feeling great. The wind began to pick up and I could spot a few ominous clouds on the horizon, but the conditions were perfect.

For a while I had been riding with two other guys. To start with I struggled to keep pace but mostly no one was able to pull away as even at 6 bike lengths there is a good drafting effect. We were pushing/dragging each other along nicely as we felt the first few drops of rain.

It’s pretty hard to explain in words what happened next. The few drops of rain turned in to one of the most severe storms I have experienced. The heavens opened with stinging rain and the wind came howling across the course. Luckily at this point I was mostly going up hill so not travelling too fast as I had very little control of my bike. The best comparison I have thought of is trying to hold on to a live fish. It was wriggling and sliding all over the place. I was holding on for dear life to the extend that after the race I had a shoulder injury just keeping the bike upright. I nervously joked with the two guys it was lucky we weren’t going down Snow Canyon.

Away from my race some of women were still swimming and had to be pulled out of the water only to find their bikes had blown over and many had suffered damage. After the race I heard reports of people all over the course stopping and waiting it out.

Despite the Challenges there were still fun moments

The storm probably lasted 15 minutes and I made it through unscathed if a little terrified. The adrenaline was pumping and figured I had survived it well and through luck had been on the best part of the course. One of the guys had dropped off and I was just settling back in to race mode when my back wheel went flat.

This was instantly deflating (for both the wheel and myself) but no benefit in getting angry so stopped and took the wheel off. A mechanic arrived at this moment and took over. Unfortunately, my tube malfunctioned so he had to do it twice but way quicker than if I had to do it alone. I was so appreciative as it gave me a chance to regroup, and I thanked him as I got going again.

I lost 8 minutes 42 seconds (I found out after the race) which I knew meant I wasn’t going to have my best race. But more than that I was now cold, and I just couldn’t get my legs going again. There is never a good moment for this, but it was the start of the long climb up Snow Canyon, and I just had no power. I tried to give it everything as I knew once at the top it was downhill from there, but my legs just wouldn’t play ball.

I was struggling and wasn’t able to enjoy the scenery as it was shrouded in clouds! Once over the top and the gradient leveled out, my legs returned. I pushed as hard as I dared down the back of the canyon. Descending is not my strength, as I’m a scaredy cat, but my top speed was 84.3 km/hr which meant I wasn’t holding back. I caught loads of people on the run in to town but frustratingly they were all people I had already overtaken once. I knew I was chasing my race following the delay (it was the same in Hawaii) and I was going to leave everything out on the course.

I came through transition feeling good and was quickly out on to the run with a positive mindset and confident I would get the positions back.

This didn’t last long. For the first two miles I was feeling rough and knowing my race had been ruined (10 minutes is a lot of places). I was struggling mentally as my legs felt like lead dragging me up the hill.

As we hit the hardest section of the climb things improved and my legs were starting to feel better. It may have been mental as this is where people were coming to a standstill, but I felt I was flying. The only issue was my calves felt like they were going to explode. When things don’t go to plan you have to find other goals. My race wasn’t going to be perfect but that didn’t mean I couldn’t post a solid run time. The question was would I get to the end before my legs gave up or calves exploded?

On the steep downhill my legs got a slight break and as I reached the end of the first lap, I was feeling great and ready for the second. Lauren was there with her sign, but she needs to work on her shouting as I didn’t hear her. She admitted after that I was running too fast and kept appearing ahead of schedule which made it difficult!

I was struggling to stay on top of my nutrition as any water felt like it would give me a stitch but the gels without water is pretty tough going. But not eating enough would end in disaster. I managed it just about right and as it was below 20 degrees, I got away with not drinking that much. So glad it wasn’t 40 degrees.

Lap two and again the first two miles were a killer. Really not sure why as they weren’t that steep but just mentally, I had to dig deep to get through them. On the steep hill I came across an American in a younger age group on his first lap and this gave me a shoulder to sit on up the hill and across the rolling terrain. I dropped him as we started the descent as I was now in a downhill sprint to the finish.

I was giving it everything whilst trying to stay in control, I can’t emphasise how steep the downhill was, lost toenail territory. I think they need to rethink the route.

As I came up into final roundabout, 150m from the finish, a guy on my shoulder asked if we were having a sprint finish and I murmured yes but I had been at max for about 1km. As I tried to speed up another guy came flying past and we were in a 3-way sprint which I would usually back myself in. However, this is a World Championships and I had pushed myself to the very limit. 4 strides in and I had felt both calf’s start to cramp. With 100m to go it was vital to avoid cramping so I had to let them go. Not that I could have done much else but as you can see from the times, I beat them both overall.

My second World Championships was complete. I had given everything and was very happy with my race. I was confident I had swum well; I knew I had given everything on the run and the bike I don’t think I could have done more. The puncture was out of my control and the 30 mins after where I struggled, I don’t think I could have done anything different.

I came 66th in my age group which meets the happy criteria. It’s hard though not to look at the results and think what could have been. If I had got 10 minutes back which I think is conservative without the puncture I would have finished 38th. Even just the exact stationary time would have put me 40th.

On reflection I am conflicted as don’t know whether to be happy or annoyed. Regardless being around the top 50 in the world is awesome and shows how far I have come since South Africa, and I am going in the right direction!

After collecting my stuff, I found Lauren and tried to eat but apart from ice cream nothing was going down. I was also completely dead. My back and shoulders where killing me from the bike, my legs were cramping from the effort on the run. Plus, what was meant to be a finish line party in the sun turned to seeking shelter under the few tents available from the short bursts of torrential rain!

Lauren was a superstar on her triathlon debut. She hates mornings and was there at 5am. She spent the day alone trying to dodge thunderstorms with only one person to support. She was there at the end to pick up the pieces of my broken body.

One of the funniest takeaways from this race is I have done triathlon for 7 years now and haven’t raced in rain. It took for me to go to a desert and expecting 40 degrees to get a wet race!! In fact, the wind was the issue not the rain but at least it wasn’t cold!

Once I recovered slightly, I cycled back to the hotel to grab the car. With us, the bike and bags loaded we made a run for it as an evening celebrating in Las Vegas awaited us!

Las Vegas

Vegas has always been somewhere I wanted to visit but also not a place I was desperate to visit. So, one night being shown around by Lauren was a perfect introduction. My impression is it looks better than it is. The skyline and experience are very impressive but the experience actually on the ground is less fun. It is so hectic and it’s impossible to find anything or escape from the gigantic hotels/casinos.

We took a walk for dinner, the most expensive pizza in the world but the cheapest option we could find, before heading out on the town. After getting horribly lost in the MGM we just about made it to the Chris Angel magic show at Planet Hollywood. I love magic and the show was good but could have done with more magic and less talk!

After starting at 4 30 in the morning we were beginning to flag but made time to see the fountains in front of the Bellagio (oceans 11) and took a quick look around Caesars.

Exhausted, we retreated to our hotel for a drink and a couple of hands of blackjack. I don’t play often but I enjoy it and I wanted to teach Lauren. I may not have had the luck in the race, but the cards were in my favour. We walked away after 10 mins and as I handed our $100 profit to a slightly dazed Lauren the response I got was ‘what just happened, is it always like that?’ Of course, the answer is no but it was nice to have some luck after 5 punctures in two races this year!

Next up is my first full Ironman in Cozumel, Mexico, in November. This will be another hot windy race but first some recovery as the Utah hills have ruined my legs!

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