The 2021 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships in St. George, Utah is one for the history books! A notoriously hard bike and run course was made even harder for the World Championships, and Mother Nature showed up as well. Here’s how it all went down for me.
In the days leading up to the race, we had typical desert weather - blazing sunshine, no shade, and temps well above 90F. For most of us athletes, exposure and heat were our biggest worries beyond what we expected on this challenging course.
What makes this course challenging? Not the swim - Sand Hollow Reservoir is a beautiful lake and the swim course was an easy-to-spot clockwise triangle. Once off the bike, you’re treated to 45 miles of “rolling hills”, which in actuality are some long and steeper sections that require some effort before hitting the 4 mile climb up Snow Canyon around mile 45. After Snow Canyon, it’s all downhill to the finish.
At that point, you’re greeted with a grueling run for the World Championships. This two loop course is basically broken up into 4 miles of climbing, then 2.5 miles of descending, and repeat. Ouch.
On race morning, I boarded the shuttle to the swim start at 7am. The sun was coming up and it was a comfortable temperature. As we got closer to Sand Hollow Reservoir, we saw the female pro leaders Lucy Charles-Barclay and Taylor Knibb heading out on the bike course. Arriving at transition about 7:30, I put my nutrition on my bike, pumped up my tires, used the bathroom, and basically chilled with other TriMarni teammates. Because we checked in our bike gear bags the day before, and because T1 and T2 were more like an IRONMAN with our bags hanging on racks instead of at our bikes, it didn’t take much time to get my bike ready. I was in wave 16, the 3rd female wave to start at 9:10am. The water temperature was 78F so no wetsuit needed. I used my Roka swimskin instead. I was calm and looking forward to a long training day in the desert.
The swim was set up as an age group rolling start so we seeded ourselves according to our expected times (faster swimmers up front, slower in the back) within our age groups, and they let around 6 swimmers start at a time with 15 seconds between each group. I ended up a bit closer to the front than expected - I was probably in the first 5 waves of F35-39 swimmers. That’s fine, though. I’d prefer being with the faster swimmers than seeding myself too far back, like I did at 70.3 Chattanooga in 2019.
The swim start wasn’t too bad. Sure, there were elbows everywhere and jostling for position, but these smaller rolling starts are really good for not making it too crazy. Throughout the swim, I had a few swimmers pass me, but I passed just as many, if not more. I didn’t have any issues sighting and staying on course. The sun was up high enough that it wasn’t in our eyes. Getting around slower swimmers wasn’t an issue until the final stretch coming into the finish. The finish chute was a bit hard to spot from a distance, but it made more sense once you got closer.
I swam until my fingers touched the boat ramp, and then pushed myself up to my feet. Looking at my photos afterwards, it looks like my first concern was clearing out my nose 😀 Once I had my senses about me, I ran up the ramp while stripping my swimskin down to my hips. The other ladies lined up ready to start were cheering us on as we made our way to the racks of bags for T1. The atmosphere was amazing!
I grabbed my bag and found a chair, stripped off my swimskin, pulled out my bike shoes, put on my wrist band, and fixed my helmet. I should’ve had my visor clipped into my helmet already but I didn’t - a rookie mistake since I’ve never done a transition like this before so a few extra seconds were lost there. I made sure to put all of my swim stuff - swim skin, goggles, swim cap - back into the bag and dropped it with a volunteer as I ran out of the seating area and to the bike racks. I chose to run barefoot to my bike with my shoes under my arm, then put my shoes on at my bike rack to run out to the mount line.
I jumped on my A2 Speed Phreak and headed out to the bike course. The roads are so smooth here so even though there was a long climb out of T1, the downhills and flats are oh-so-fast. I passed people, people passed me - I’m not worried so early into the ride. We hit the first out and back around mile 7 and I saw a few of my teammates on the road. During this time, the sun is disappearing behind clouds (one of the first times I’d seen clouds the entire trip!).
Once I made the U-turn to start my way back to SR-7, the clouds to the west, the direction I’m heading, are looking more and more ominous. We’re definitely going to get rained on. Just as I approach the right turn to get back on SR-7, the storm hits. I think I saw a flash of lightning, but what really hit me was the wind. Huge gusts started the minute I made the right turn and headed north. The wind was hitting me side on and it felt like it was going to rip the bike right out from under me. And then the rain started, or was it hail? Either way, it hurt like hell and made the going treacherous.
I was certain they were going to pull us off the course. My lasting memory is looking up and seeing a couple of ladies up in front of me. All of us were up on our base bars (impossible to ride in the aero bars at this point) and leaning our bikes into the wind so instead of being straight up and down, we were all leaned over like we were turning. About mile 13, we make a left turn to get onto route 9. We were up on a bridge/overpass and made a sweeping turn onto an entrance ramp to the highway. Sheeze, that was scary, navigating the wind and the rain that made the road surface so slick.
I hear that the route 9 portion of the course is pretty fast - the roads are so smooth and there are no major elevation changes. Well, everyone around me was in survival mode for the next few miles. I tried to go aero a time or two but quickly found myself back up in the base bars in an abundance of caution. I kept telling myself that I’ll be faster being safe and staying upright on my bike than if I did something silly and crashed out. The ferocity of the storm was dying down a bit but I still thought the entire race might be like this. By the time I got to the Telegraph Street climb, we had made our way through the worst of it and were just dealing with wet roads and a drizzle.
It took me a while to get my head straight, though, and I felt the strain in my body, especially in my core, from fighting with the wind to stay upright. Just for reference, in the segments leading up to the storm, I was averaging around 19mph. My average dropped down to 15.1mph during the storm, and then made its way back up to 18mph until hitting the Snow Canyon climb.
But little by little, the weather improved and I could start riding aero again. I started to notice something that smelled like burning sage or mugwort. Just a hint as I rode through the towns and out to Snow Canyon. Were the plant relatives cheering me on? That’s what I took it as 😀 (Later when I went to Snow Canyon after the race, it turns out the road is lined with white sagebrush, a member of the mugwort (Artemisia) genus <3)
Snow Canyon was a steady, 4 mile climb and after that, it was a 6 mile descent back to town and T2. I was really looking forward to that descent, but it seemed to be the only bumpy road on the entire course so my seat wasn’t feeling so good at that point. An easy dismount at the line and a short wait for a volunteer to grab my bike, I was through the bag racks in no time and sitting on a chair putting on my shoes, Naked Run belt, hat, sunglasses, and grabbing my bottles of nutrition.
Coming out of transition, the climb was a little harder than I expected going through the 2 roundabouts, but the crowds were immense and putting out good energy so I concentrated on keeping it controlled and steady.
Making the left turn and heading out on Diagonal Street, the climbing was much more gradual and manageable, very similar to the type of climbing I do in my neighborhood so that felt good and more like a flat than a hill. Then we turn right heading towards the climb up to the Red Hills Parkway.
Then the right turn on to the Parkway. Wow, what a climb! I remember seeing this one on the coverage of the North American Championships in May and it’s as brutal as it looks. But I had two things going my way on the first attempt - 1. A friend from Columbia was there cheering me on and, 2. The rain started again in full force so it was cold rather than hot. The rain was practically a river running down the parkway. I remember saying to a teammate a few days before that at least we won’t have to worry about having wet feet (because everything dries so quickly) and here I am running through a river with the wettest feet I’ve ever had in a race.
Cresting this massive hill, I was looking forward to the next couple of miles of rollers. I was not ready for the beautiful view at the top and that made the experience even better. I was really enjoying myself out there. A little out and back and then we were sent down the steep (like 13% or something like that) Skyline Drive. Ooft! I’d been running with a side stitch from the start, I think because of the extra effort battling the storm, and it did not feel good running down that hill. First, you can’t really run it - it’s more like controlled falling. And all of my ab muscles were cramping and screaming as I went down it the first time. I had a whole other loop to do so I kept this very controlled in an effort to quell the cramps and save my quads.
On the second loop, I felt like I walked more. I usually walk every aid station, every mile for 30 seconds to take in hydration, and any time my heart rate gets up above 185bpm. I stuck to that plan but the sun came out, which jumps up my heart rate, so there was a bit more walking. But don’t knock walking - I even passed a few athletes who were “jogging” as I was walking up a hill. At the start of the big climb, I saw two friends from Columbia so that was a great boost. Then, I went back and forth with a few ladies as I did my run/walk and they jogged throughout.
Cresting the hill seeing that view was even better the second time - I kinda didn’t want it to end. Little out and back and then right before the big downhill, Erin Carson of ECFit (my virtual strength coach) saw me and started yelling for TriMarni. I was starstruck and said something stupid like “I love you!” as she gave me a high five before I made the turn down the hill.
This was the last run into the finish and I could open it up, but really, still controlled falling because that hill was steep! It eases up a bit for the last half mile and what fun it was to run in and raise my hands in the air in celebration. What an EPIC day for my first 70.3 World Championships. Thanks to my coaches Marni and Karel for keeping me fit mentally and physically, to my tri buddies for cheering each other on, and to the volunteers who make the whole thing possible!