The Race I Love to Hate … And Hate To Love
I hit up IM 70.3 St George in 2015 and 2016, and at this point have settled into a kind of love-hate relationship with the event. I simultaneously never want to do the race again and am considering it for 2018. If you can figure that one out, feel free to explain it to me.
Maybe it’s because the race course perfectly mimics my overall feelings about each leg of any triathlon: I actually really like the swim; I don’t think I like the bike until I start riding, and then I enjoy it; in contrast, the run is more painful than I even imagined. More likely, I’m drawn to the “beauty and the beast” aspect of the course, which is as challenging as it is breathtaking.
I don’t really know what to tell you here. In 2015, we had blazing blue skies and 90-degree temps. In 2016, we had wind rain and hail and maybe it was finally 50 degrees by the time I started the run.
According to Accuweather.com, the average high in St George in early May is in the low 80s, average low is in the mid 50s - but clearly, I would be prepared for anything. Do plan for a cool morning and a potentially hot run. St George has also seen high winds on race day, so don’t rule that out either.
IM 70.3 St George is a two-transition race. On race morning, you’ll drop your stuff in T1 and then board shuttles for T2. Ironman provides plenty of shuttles and the loading process is expedient, so you don’t need to budget for a long wait there. The ride to T1 is 25-30 minutes, though, so you do want to allow for that in your race day timeline.
The swim is a single, counter-clockwise loop in Sand Hollow Reservoir. Average water temps are in the low 60s, so bring your full-sleeve wetsuit for sure, and add a neoprene cap if you’re averse to cold water. It’s an in-water wave start, which is helpful in terms of acclimating to the cooler water temp - bob your head in and out of the water and blow bubbles while you’re treading water and waiting for your wave to start.
Personally, I loved this swim. Sand Hollow State Park, which houses the Reservoir, is absolutely gorgeous. The water was cool but manageable, visibility was decent, and because you are swimming around a rock formation in the middle of the Reservoir, you actually feel like it’s a “course” rather than a bunch of buoys in the middle of a lake. Also, the swim was the only part of the race that was flat.
T1 is short and sweet - my Garmin clocked it at less than 0.2 miles from water exit to bike mount. You’ll run up a paved boat ramp out of the Reservoir, find an open wetsuit-stripper, go straight to your bike and be on your way. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, as my kids would say.
The bike is a point-to-point course, stretching from Sand Hollow State Park around to Snow Canyon State Park and back to downtown St George and T2. Over the the 56 miles, you’ll have some long hills, some long descents, some flat stretches, and of course the Snow Canyon climb. And if you lift your head for a moment, you can dull the pain by soaking in the dramatic red cliffs visible throughout much of the course.
Over the past two years they’ve made a few slight changes to the bike course, which are a definite improvement over the 2015 course. Most importantly for 2017, the initial 8-mile stretch of chip seal hell has been repaved, so you can look forward to more speed and fewer flats over that first stretch of road.
The first hill is early in that initial stretch and is likely to be a good wake up call for the day ahead. It’s not the longest of the hills you’ll face, but outside of Snow Canyon it’s the steepest. Watch your effort level and enjoy the incredible views back toward Sand Hollow State Park. From there you’ll get a nice moderate stretch to settle into your pace, followed by a series of long descents and long climbs. Be mindful on the descents - you’ll have plenty of road to work with, but the bike course can be crowded. As for the climbs: yes, they are long, but they are manageable. Pacing is key along this course, as you’ve still got the Snow Canyon climb to come.
After poring over updated course maps, Google maps, and my Garmin files from 2016, here’s what I believe you can anticipate for your final climb (but don’t come yelling if my mileage is off - it’s just a guesstimate):
- The fun will begin at approximately mile 35.
- You’ll have a moderate 1.5 miles up Snow Canyon Parkway.
- Then you’ll turn left to a flat and fast 2 miles out and 2 miles back on Center St.
- You’ll then turn left up Snow Canyon Drive - 1 mile gradual climb to the park entrance.
- 4.5 miles of climb within the park: the first 2 miles are gradual to moderate, but don’t let them fool you - the final 2.5 are a long grind.
You should reach the top of Snow Canyon Drive and the right turn back toward St George around mile 46. And here’s the good news: the final 10 miles of the bike course is a screaming descent. Plenty of time to rest your legs for the run.*
*For those that rode this course prior to 2015, there is now an overpass coming down State Route 18 over Red Hills Parkway, so there is no interruption in your descent to downtown St George.
If you thought T1 was short and sweet, you will love T2. My Garmin clocked the total distance at a tenth of a mile. That means you’ll be able to take the extra few seconds and let the volunteers at run out slather you with sunblock. I’m not kidding here - do not skip the sunblock!
I will try to be neutral and unbiased, but you should know that I really don’t like hills, and since this run is essentially hills followed by more hills, I was a little traumatized by it. Maybe others would have a more balanced take on it, or maybe it really is as bad as I remember. Either way, here are the facts:
You come out of T2 onto a flat road, turn left, and go up a short but steep hill, take a second left to a long 2.5 miles of gradual climb, then turn right for a half-mile beast of a climb. (If you’ve run continuously to mile 3, pat yourself on the back because you’re one of the few.) You then hit a mile of rollers - including one biggie - and then a long descent. You’ve got a little climb in Pioneer Park, then a continued descent to the turnaround.
Sadly, what comes down must then go up. After the turnaround you’ve got a gradual climb to a flat-ish out and back, which does have great views of downtown St George if you’re cognizant enough to look around.* In 2016, this out and back was extended from the short stretch they debuted in 2015 - and by extended, I mean that it went almost as far as the initial turnaround point, so prepared to hang out on that portion of the course for a while.
Once the out and back is done, you hit the long descent that you really liked coming down, and will really, really dislike going back up. It lasts possibly forever - three-quarters of a mile? - and it’s steep, and it will end you if you let it. On the other hand, if you put your head down and manage your effort level and will yourself up that final beast, all that’s left to do is fall downhill for four miles. Granted, by then your legs don’t even want to run downhill, but it’s easier to convince yourself to keep going when you know gravity is doing at least part of the work.
Aside from the hills, another important aspect to understand about the course is how totally unprotected it is. There are stocked aid stations with great volunteers approximately every mile, but there is barely an ounce of shade to be found on the course, and that’s only in the few miles coming into and out of downtown. Be prepared for relentlessly hot and sunny conditions and plan accordingly.
*For those that ran this course prior to 2015, the second loop of Pioneer Park was removed and the out and back was added in it’s place. That saves you just a little bit of elevation gain.
Your course strategy likely comes down to a single word: Pacing. You’re going to have to be smart about managing the 3500 feet of elevation gain on the bike so that you are ready and able to tackle the 1200 feet of elevation gain on the run.
Not surprisingly, your training strategy comes down to a single focus: hill work. I would mix in some hill repeats mid-week (and by hill repeats, I mean repeats of 5-minute hills on the run and 10-minute hills on the bike). I’d also make sure to get A LOT of elevation gain in on your long bikes and runs - as much or more than you will see on race day.
Finally, unless you have prior experience on this course, throw away your time goals and focus on the process. Your #1 goal should be to pace the bike correctly so that you can be one of the few who is actually running up the hills. If you can do that, you will without a doubt be proud of your results.