St. George’s Shift From Ironman to 70.3

After three years of hosting what many believed to be the most difficult Ironman in North America, St. George is shifting gears for 2013. With fewer and fewer athletes signing up for the endurance event each year, Ironman announced in 2012 it would cut the race distance in half to a 70.3 for 2013 and beyond. The difficult (and somewhat controversial) move looks like it will pay off for Ironman and the Southern Utah community.

“The main reason behind the decision was the fact that registration numbers weren’t as high as they’d hoped,” explains Ironman 70.3 St. George race director Jeff Gardner. “St. George is a great partner and a great community for a race. They thought this would be a way to keep the race here, and it looks like, based on the response, that it appeals more to a broader base. It seems like it’s been well received.”

The combination of the reduction in distance and the race’s designation as the Ironman 70.3 U.S. Pro Championship means that more age-groupers and professionals will be headed to St. George for the race, set for this Saturday, May 4. As the U.S. championship, the race will hand out a prize purse of $75,000 and will give athletes the opportunity to earn a large number of points that will help them qualify for the 70.3 and Ironman World Championships. Only the 70.3 World Championship in Henderson, Nev., offers more points at this distance. Comparing the 2012 pro start list to the one for this weekend’s race gives an idea of the impact of those points and prize money. Only 24 professionals (male and female) started the full-distance race last year, while nearly 80, including several past and current world champions, are expected to make the start in 2013.

The race will also welcome approximately 1,000 more age-groupers than it did in 2012, and a big part of that is the appeal of the shorter distance to the surrounding community.

“There are a lot more local athletes that have signed up because it’s a half,” Gardner tells us. “More people that live here that have been training and that adds to the overall excitement of the race.”

The reduction in distance has brought increased attention and excitement, but Gardner emphasizes that this will one of the hardest 70.3s in the world. The swim and run courses (with the exception of the run course in 2012, which had to be changed due to construction) will be very similar to the Ironman course and have simply been reduced for the distance. The point-to-point bike course will see a dramatic change with 25 miles of uncharted territory for this event making up part of the 56-mile bike.

That bike course features 2,552 feet of elevation gain, while the half-marathon will send runners up 709 feet. The hills (many of which are fairly steep) aren’t the only factors that make this course difficult, though. Weather conditions in Southern Utah during this time of year can shift dramatically from day to day, and that lack of predictability has been evident over the past three years of the Ironman.

“I would say it’s going to be really nice weather this year,” Gardner says. “Every year we’ve had something different. The first year we had a cold front come through that week so we had cold water. The second year it was 95 degrees and it was really hot. Last year we had 30-40 mph winds. Because it’s in the spring you have that chance of weather changing and being unpredictable.”

Right now the weather forecast calls for a high of 85 degrees and winds at 10 miles per hour. But again, that can change quickly. The water temperature is also drastically improving each day. Just one week ago it sat at 50 degrees and it’s already climbed to 62 degrees. 

Regardless of conditions, St. George’s enthusiastic community will no doubt be out in full force on Saturday. Age-groupers and professionals have raved about the local support after each Ironman—last year’s champion Meredith Kessler event went as far as to call it “a magical place.” As a local to the area, Gardner says he is biased but believes there is nowhere else like it.

“I’ve worked at other Ironman races and I’ve raced,” he says. “I’m from St. George so I’m partial, but I think there isn’t a community that receives it better than St. George does. They come out and support us. This year we’ll have over 2,500 volunteers. They appreciate what it does for the community, the opportunity that it is for those that are here, the lifestyle and the economic impact.”

Remember to visit Dr. Tom Fletcher at the Ironman Expo at the ART tent in St George this coming weekend.