2021 Ironman World Championships, St George Utah

I originally entered Ironman St George in May 2020 to be my first Ironman but that was derailed by Covid. The race isn’t held every year so I thought the opportunity had passed but I was in luck as the race was deferred to 2022, meaning I would get to race this epic 3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42.2km run course through the Utah mountains.

While it was no longer my first Ironman, Ironman Cozumel November ’21, or my first-time racing in St George, Ironman 70.3 World Championships September ’21, I was still seriously excited.

The cherry on top of an already exciting race was Ironman making it the 2021 Ironman World Championships. For most triathletes qualifying for the Ironman WC in Kona is a dream, but I would get to experience half of the dream and race the first IM WC outside the Island of Hawaii.

Hawaii is known for being a brutal course but the predictions were St George would be more challenging but in different ways. Both are hot and windy. Hawaii has humidity but StG has altitude and elevation. In particular the bike would finish with two climbs so anyone who paced it wrong would be in for a tough day…

While I might not have officially qualified, I felt confident I was no longer out of place racing the best in the world. Or at least I wouldn’t be out of my league which is a positive given all the years of hard training.

Unfortunately, I arrived in St George in pretty poor shape. A calf tear 5 weeks before meant I was happy to be starting at all. My longest run leading in was 30 minutes so all I could do was get to the marathon and hope for the best. In addition to this training related injury, I had suffered a freak alcohol/wedding/rugby tackle related rib injury 3 weeks before the race. As is always the case though I just had to focus on controlling the controllables.

Race Day

As always, the day began well before the crack of dawn with a 3 30 alarm. I triple checked I had everything and emerged to join my parents for the short drive to the race shuttle. Our forward planning was rewarded with easy parking and before you knew it, we were on a school bus driving off, somewhat disoreintatingly, into the night.

Arriving so early meant there was no rush. I started by checking the bike before trying to get some food down. I had been very relaxed all week as my race expectations were low but the nerves were starting to hit home, and my appetite disappeared with it. We had worked so hard to get chicken and rice for the race morning, but I couldn’t stomach it and stuck with a couple of bagels while we waited.

My race goals were to relax, enjoy it and see where I was towards the end. I knew I wasn’t going to have my best day and I didn’t want to blow up. I was never going to be at the front in a WC so actually what’s the difference between 30th and 80th? Not much to me. So, under 11hrs would be amazing. Sub 12 happy. Over 12 probably a bit disappointed. Most importantly though I wanted to cross the finish line injury free and preferably not a sunburnt lobster!!

My parents and I watched the professional’s start in the morning gloom (above) and then it was time to get my wetsuit on. Despite the help from my two trusty assistants there was an issue with the zip. I had to take it off, reset it and start again. This close to the start I don’t appreciate stress but, on this occasion, it actually removed my nerves as I had something else to focus on.

Each age group started in a wave, and I was glad to be in the 4th, so I wasn’t standing around too long. Very much luck of the draw to go so early.

By the time I lined up in the starting chute my nerves were gone, and I felt ready. I got my final high fives as I headed down to the water and we were off…

The Swim – 3.8km

There had been concerns the water would be cold (for Americans, not Canadians) or choppy, but the wind hadn’t picked up yet and the water was the perfect temperature. In fact, it was a couple of degrees warmer than a few days previously.

I fell into a nice steady rhythm and did everything I could to swim straight. The last thing I needed was extra meters!! There was a bit of physicality in the water, but it wasn’t aggressive like some races. Either someone was on the slightly wrong course, I was catching the age groups ahead or being caught from behind.

Just short of halfway I took a quick breather to clear my goggles and was in a good place even if the turn point was taking its time to arrive.

The return journey went smoothly until just before the final turn (600m to go) when I started to feel my right shoulder. This wasn’t surprising as due to the May race and the weather in Vancouver this was my first wetsuit swim of the year. The wetsuit adds resistance as your arm recovers forward. Not a major issue as I could finish but just had to hope it wouldn’t have knock on effects further down the road. An Ironman is a long day.

On the final stretch I looked up and figured I was about 200m from the end. Feeling good I gave it a last push. However, a few minutes later there were still 2 buoys ahead of me, meaning I was still at least 200m from the finish. A slight miscalculation on my behalf but I still felt strong and was able to finish well.

I don’t record my swim so had no idea of my time, but it felt good. In Cozumel I had swum very fast due to the current but felt another 100m would have killed me. Here I felt I had paced it perfectly and was ready for the bike-run. During my injuries I have done so much swimming it was good to see that reflected in the heat of racing.

T1

In keeping with my plan of taking the day slightly easy I actively took my time through transition. I used the wetsuit strippers as why not :). I was quite speedy through the tent, so much so I put my helmet on backwards. Someone pointed this out to me, which was a little embarrassing, but I said thanks and ran away.

Most importantly I took sun cream from the volunteers and hit the main areas. I also had a second dose of SPF85 at my bike which I sprayed all over and even took the time to rub it in. Spring in Vancouver this year has been appalling, we literally haven’t seen the sun!! So, I was especially wary of getting burnt. I knew I would be sore and in pain at the end of the day and I had no desire to add sunburn to that!!

Finally ready I took my bike out on to the bike course…

The Bike – 180km, 2248m elevation

180km takes a while so I will try to be brief. The main take away is at this level I am a weak cyclist but also light. Normally there are groups to ride with or at least the odd person but I spent pretty much the entire ride alone. On hills I would overtake but on the flat/downhill I would get passed with no chance of keeping up.

The course started with a short downhill, and I successfully managed to wave at my parents which was a lovely start to a long ride.

Things continued smoothly till about 40km when I started to feel a twinge in my left (injured) calf. I tried to avoid them, but the thoughts started coming of what would be the point to call it a day, how far would I push it etc. Luckily that didn’t materialise, and it cleared up for the remainder of the ride.

At 45km there was an out and back where my parents were going to try and catch me. They did a great job getting there in time but less so spotting me as I went past twice without being seen. I will forgive them though as supporting/spotting during these races is really hard. Especially on the bike and I make it extra challenging with nothing distinctive or colourful.

I also didn’t see them despite being on the look out. Over the day I waved at a number of people who I thought might be them but, on each occasion, I was mistaken. People usually waved back and cheered which always helps.

At 60km the wind started picking up which I thought could be a concern for later but for now things were progressing smoothly. Coming back through StG I saw Billy, my coach, which was a morale boost as well as a reminder to stay focussed. At this point two people came flying past at a ridiculous speed and I was thinking who are they? It then dawned on me they were pro men on their second smaller loop. Was incredible to see how fast they were riding 155km in.

Soon after I got a second slightly scarier reminder to stay focussed. I had just gone through an aid station when the two bikes ahead stopped in a nearly catastrophic way. I think one had dropped something and stopped fast and the person behind very nearly went straight into them. As I passed, they were screaming at each other but a timely reminder to look ahead for hazards as your tire.

This incident also happened as I started the larger bike loop and coincidently was when things started to get tough for me. We were heading out of town (away from the support), into a head wind and along bumpy roads. My energy levels were low, and I still had a long hot day ahead of me. I had also barely started the climbing. First, we had 15 miles of rolling uphill followed by a later sharper climb up Snow Canyon. Together all these factors were putting me in a dark place.

This was a low point but, in an Ironman, you have to remember they come and go and in the down moments keep pushing as it will end. I upped my nutrition to make sure I wasn’t falling behind and before long I was back to the positive grind of the rolling incline up to ‘the wall’.

It was on this section I got passed by Batu, a friend from Victoria, who had just beaten me in the Vancouver Triathlon the year before. My age group had a decent head start on his, so I had hoped to stay ahead of him all day. I was a little concerned he had caught me halfway through the bike, but you can only race your own race. We chatted briefly and as he went off up the road there was no way I was staying with him and so it was back to my solitary grind. In hindsight lucky I didn’t worry about it as he smashed it, coming 45th/2800.

We finally reached ‘the wall’, a climb people had made a big deal about, but these people don’t come from Vancouver as it barely qualifies as a hill. That being said with the temperature rising in to the 30’s and a tail wind it was very hot! I made up a few places climbing and then it was over the top to a flat stretch before the first of the two big descents!

As I rode along the top of the plateau, I started getting some numbness/pain in the middle toe on my left foot. Very niche I know. The situation deteriorated until I had to do something. First of all, I loosened my shoe, before taking the foot out completely and just placing it on top. This didn’t help.

We came to the top of the 10km descent back into town and I had to put my foot back in as I needed my wits about me. The majority of the decent is 60-70KM/hr which combined with the ever building crosswinds it was sure to be a sketchy experience. I was concerned.

To make matters worse as I crested the summit there was an athlete on a stretcher in a neck brace being put into an ambulance. The last thing I needed to see but you just have to put it out your mind and power on.

After the first section it levelled off briefly into an aid station before continuing down. The toe situation was now a code red, so I pulled over at the end of the aid station and took my foot out. A volunteer in her 50’s came running over and asked was everything OK and if I needed anything? I responded ‘fine, just some numbness in my foot’. Without hesitation she offered me a foot massage!!

While tempting I decided this was above the expectations of volunteers and passed but did take her up on her offer of water. While she was collecting two bottles another woman appeared with water.

Refreshed and with my foot feeling a little better I thanked her and returned to the descent.

I am always amazed by the volunteers at these events. For this race there were 4300 volunteers helping with traffic control, closing roads, aid stations, transition as well as picking us up off the floor as we went around. Their energy and support are incredible over a long day, and it wouldn’t be possible without them. Both my parents and I were amazed how patient, friendly and tolerant they all were. At the end of 3-4 long days of volunteering they were all still helpful and smiling!! It really made a massive difference to the enjoyment of the event.

Back to the race and I had survived the descent by holding on tight and moved on to the second smaller loop. By now most of the biking was done. One final 5km climb up the impressive Snow Canyon and then an even longer downhill into town. (Beginning of the Snow Canyon climb below)

My race plan had been if I could ride up the Canyon at 230watts I would have ridden well. I managed this more or less which felt good but boy was it hot!! (See below) There was absolutely no air and I could see/feel how this was going to cause carnage later in the day or for anyone that had pushed too hard!

Having survived the oven, it was a long downhill into town and time to start thinking about the run. I was a little behind on nutrition but nothing major and felt in pretty good shape. There were a few instances of cramp creeping in but controllable for now.

As I turned in to town I got a wave from Fenella, Billy’s pro girlfriend, which was impressive to catch me as she was busy with her own race.

Shortly after I passed my parents who did catch me this time and cheered me on. I waved back as by this point, I was mostly freewheeling and saving my energy for what was to come….

T2

I gingerly dismounted as was on the verge of cramping and handed my bike to a volunteer. Before she could run away with it, I stopped her so I could take all the nutrition left on my bike. I knew I was slightly behind on my nutrition so I needed every drop of energy and salt I could get my hands on.

In the tent I took my bag and started changing for the run. This was made a little challenging by some cramping as I put my trainers on. While I tried this, I was chatting with a Canadian volunteer who was telling me a lot of people had been struggling with cramp and had miscalculated their salt intake. I was probably in that camp but on the edge rather than full disaster.

Finally, I had my kit sorted and I was off on to the marathon…

The Run – 42.2km 431m elevation

I felt a bit disorientated exiting transition and starting out up the first hill my legs were already toast. At 1.5km I passed my parents and just said ‘this could be along afternoon’. I felt awful and still had 40.7km to go in the heat of the day. I started the marathon at 2PM in 30+ degrees.

Shortly after, I came to the first aid station and knew I had to walk. Not a good sign. I took water – over the head, more water – drank some and then over the head, ice – down the tri suit, Gatorade – drank it, more water – over the head. This had a miraculous affect and all of a sudden, I felt good, and my legs had energy. I set off at a faster pace realising I must have overheated. It was instantly clear I needed look after myself and that meant walking aid stations and making sure I got enough water, Gatorade and ice. I wasn’t trying to break any records and my goal was to finish not injured so this seemed sensible.

The course was brutal. 5k up, 5k down and back, twice. Not a single section of flat to be found. My pace for the first loop was on track for a 3 30 marathon which is the lower end of my pace target on a good day. This pace was achieved despite walking at every aid station and walking up the steep section of hill on the return as the effort to pace difference didn’t seem to suggest running was worthwhile.

I crossed Batu looking seriously strong. I also passed Billy and Fenella at exactly the same moment. We literally lined up with Fenella and I going opposite directions. Weird. My parents had tried to move to a different section, but they were caught out due to a misunderstanding of the course and how fast I can run.

Overall things were still going well but by the end of the first loop everything was beginning to come together. I was behind on nutrition, it was very hot, I was 10 hrs in, I hadn’t run in 5 weeks, my knee started to hurt, calves were flirting with cramp, and I wasn’t looking to bury myself. All of these accumulated to the decision to ease back and walk run the second loop, especially making use of the downhills.

I was happy with this decision and knew I had raced well, sensibly and was looking after my body. In Cozumel, when I had to walk, I gave up, but I learned from that, and I was keeping a strict eye on my pace to maintain a fast walk.

The secret motivation was a bet with a colleague from work as to who would get the quicker marathon: his stand-alone marathon or my Ironman marathon. This kept me super focused and provided a constant distraction in the form of maths. Given the pace of my first lap though I was always fairly comfortable. The grand prize? A panini!

I passed Julie, a friend from Vancouver, who was looking great, and at the turnaround loop my parents caught up with me. What a great morale boost as I turned for the last 10km home. I figured they might have worried a little as I slowed but I think it had been more gradual than Cozumel when I went from fast to stop. I have no idea how I looked from the outside, but I felt like I had a smile on my face. It might have shown pain but inside I was 100% smiling and maybe even enjoying myself.

On the final return I started to see the effects of a long hard day racing. There were racers sat on the side of the course or needing help from volunteers. It drove home the cost of pushing too hard on this course and I was glad I had eased up/lacked fitness as it looked really painful and upsetting for the people breaking down. Planning carbohydrates for races is easy, salt way less so and the consequences of running out of salt significantly more severe both medically and performance wise.

I was happily walk running along when 2.5km from the end I felt a twinge in my injured calf, and this brought an end to my running. It wasn’t injured but I wasn’t going to risk it with nothing to be gained so just continued with a steady walk.

On the final hill down to town I found Billy on the side. I stopped for a quick chat, and we were both very happy with how it had gone. My swim had been awesome (for me), solid bike, run better than expected and I wasn’t injured! I left him and continued towards the finish as had to keep an eye on that panini!!

Whoever designed the course had an evil streak in them. You came down the final hill to a roundabout. The finish was 100m straight ahead but there was a sneaky out and back which meant there was still 1km left.

This detour delayed my arrival at the finish where there was a great crowd and party atmosphere. I felt a bit sad walking the whole way to the end especially as everyone was cheering me home but I just wasn’t risking it for a few seconds. Another boring sensible decision.

But finally, I was there. I had completed the Ironman World Championships.

Post Race:

It wasn’t the race I had wanted but I finished in 11:33:53 and I wasn’t injured. I was happy and achieved my goals. I also know I left well over an hour on the course: in transition, the tail of the bike and especially the run so plenty of room for improvement.

Upon crossing the line, you get a designated volunteer to make sure you survive. I had a nice girl, weirdly from BC, who was in StG as her friends’ mum was racing. Again, the volunteers come from all over but I seemed to find all the Canadian ones. She gave me a towel and checked I was OK. I joked I had walked the last 3km was absolutely fine. I got water, my medal, finishers t-shirt and was released into the post race area.

I grabbed some food and had a seat, but cramp and a lack of appetite meant I gave up on this. So, I collected my bags and exited to meet up with my parents. Mentally I was with it (I think), but my body was pretty broken. I was struggling to move into any positions without cramping and eventually found hands and knees was the most neutral position. This was after taking it ‘easy’. I am a little worried what would have happened if I had pushed to the max.

I tried to get food in, but I just wasn’t hungry, the only thing going down well was grapes. We decided to retreat to the hotel via picking up my bike and run bag. Bike pickup went smoothly but my run bag was missing. This caused a bit of stress but was slightly my fault. In my delirium in transition rather than just hanging it back on my peg I had set off on the run with it. A volunteer had kindly taken it from me but got the number slightly wrong. No harm though as we found it later that evening.

Back at the hotel I had a shower and collapsed while my parents had dinner. I managed to force down some food but still wasn’t hungry.

I took the opportunity to look at the results and see how I, and my friends, had done.

Finish time 11:33:53

63/175 finishers in my age group, 435/1832 men, 499/2294 finishers.

Swim – 1:06:40 (65th in age group)

Bike – 5:51:29 (62nd in age group)

Run – 4:22:51 (64th in age group) (First half 1:45:38)

The fact that I came 63 with a 65th, 62nd and 64th split amused me. I was absolutely stoked with my swim, a great result for me. My bike probably should have been a little faster and my run should be sub 3:30 but we will get there. As I looked at the results I realised even when I had been running really well, I didn’t break the top 50. So, I was slightly racing in no mans land. There were 50 awesome athletes out of my league and then I came about 13th of the best of the rest. Or at least that was my positive spin on the results. It comes with a lot of asterisks but 63rd in the world is quite cool.

Fenella had overcome some challenges in the pro race to finish 7th and qualified for Kona. Batu came 45th overall which was insane and qualified for Kona. Julie had been smashing it out the park but in the last 10km struggled with the heat but still finished in a strong time.

I am always amazed by the people that take 17hrs as they have to fight as hard if not harder than the wining athletes. Everyone has the same course and conditions, but they also have the stress of the time cut offs. I wanted to go back to the finish and cheer some of them home and my mum joined me. It was great fun, but it was now after 11 and it and been an early start to a long day and was finally time to sleep.

Other Points:

Was this race too hard?

21.9% of people didn’t finish. Normally this ranges from 4-10% on easy-hard races. While there were a lot of general entries this was also a World Championship so in theory the field should have been stronger and more experienced than normal. Or maybe this counted against it and on a challenging course/day people pushed themselves too hard. The combination of the wind, heat and course made this brutal and everyone knew it was going to be beforehand. Whatever the reason it left a lot of people disappointed.

Does Ironman treat athletes equally?

I was very lucky to go off in one of the earliest waves and unfortunately as in the 70.3 World Champs in September 2021 the girls got a rough deal. Triathlon actually does pretty well with equality but here they failed. This post below was from a girl I follow who missed the bike cut off and I 100% agree with everything she says:

Is this a suitable race venue?

The course/conditions are challenging but fair I guess as the same for everyone. However, of the 6 days we were in St George there were definitely 2 days we wouldn’t have been able to race due to wind. Two would have been even more challenging due to more wind and heat. I think the race happened on the second-best day available. That seems like too much of a lottery to me when you consider it’s a World Championships and the money people pay to be there and travel etc.

Less to do with the racing but I also think the venue struggles. The town and area themselves are fine but lack the restaurants and supporting activities required for a major event. Lastly it is a huge race venue which means travelling around and supporting is difficult. Ironman do their best to help but without a car it would be near impossible.

To finish:

It’s always important to finish on a positive note. I feel I executed my plan perfectly and given everything couldn’t have had a better race. I left with a great feeling knowing I have a lot more to give over this distance. It won’t be long until I get another chance as it’s under 4 months till I close out a busy summer of racing at Ironman Penticton.

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