Skip to main content
Add Me To Your Mailing List

News / Articles

2021 70.3 World Championships in St. George, Utah

Lea Rolfes | Published on 10/22/2021

A few years ago Ironman made a shift to the 70.3 (half Ironman) race circuit by rotating the location of the 70.3 World Championships in an effort to make it more of an international affair and to add a layer of allure similar to Ironman World Championships in Kona. Additionally, the 70.3 WC became a two-day race format with women and men racing on consecutive days. Smaller field, built-in spectators, no sharing of porta-potties with dudes on race day – pretty fabulous. The qualification system for 70.3 WC is the same as IMWC, slots are allocated by the number of racers in each age group. At each race, the top finishers in each AG are offered slots and if they don’t accept them they roll down to the next individual(s) in order of finish time. I was hoping to qualify for 70.3 WC in 2020, as the event was going to be in Taupo, New Zealand. Well, none of us are going to NZ any time soon; the event that was originally going to be in November 2020 has now been rescheduled for 2023.

Needless to say, when I qualified this spring to race 70.3 WC in St. George, Utah I was pleased but not as excited as I would have been for an international “race-cation.” I began training as I would for any other 70.3. This summer however, I joined the Facebook group. If you want to develop any anxiety about a race, join the Facebook group. The big climb on the bike route in Snow Canyon varied from an 8% grade for a mile, to six miles at 12%. People were likening the run course to a black diamond ski slope. And, the weather. Let’s talk about 110 degrees on race day and 80-degree water temps. Needless to say, despite having nearly 20 70.3 races under my belt, I started to get nervous reading the pre-race chatter.

A few weeks before the race, Ironman announced due to lower participation/registrants, difficulty staffing and recruiting volunteers, and the potential drain on St. George first-responders, they were combining men and women into one race. The starting lineup they created “out of an abundance of caution” was pretty startling. The men’s waves started between 7:30-9am, the women were all starting after them. My age group just happened to be the last one, our wave wouldn’t go in the water until 10am. This meant I would be starting my run around 2pm which really could be over 100 degrees in the desert heat. The women, especially on the Facebook page, were NOT happy.

Fast-forward to race week, I was much more excited about my camper van vacation post-race than the event itself due to nerves and annoyance over the blatantly sexist start list. But, course previews proved that St. George is an amazing town, the views and setting are absolutely STUNNING, and my many gaps rides and hilly Atlanta runs were more than enough to prepare for the challenging course. My biggest fear was still running in the heat but, strength in numbers, I knew I wouldn’t be alone with all of the other women out there.

Race day turned out to be a complete shocker for everyone. I jumped in flat, clear water at Sand Hollow Reservoir after sitting around in the sun for a few hours watching transition area empty of previous age groups. Halfway into my swim as I made my turn back to the finish, I began struggling. I felt like I was going backwards, my arms couldn’t propel me and waves began crashing in my face. It’s pretty disorienting to be in the water while a storm is going on, but I slowly realized we were in the middle of a torrential downpour as the support boats and kayaks began to move closer and closer to us. I finally made it out of the water and the carpeting covering the boat ramp up to the transition area was blowing off the ground like a giant snake. I couldn’t decide to run on top of it to help keep it down, or run to the side of it so it wouldn’t blow me off my feet. The transition area looked like a horror movie – the empty bike racks, fencing and banners had blown to the end of the fenced-in area and anything that hadn’t blown into the corner was flying in the air. All of us late starters tried to put on bike helmets and shoes while being pushed around by the wind and questioning if they were going to call the race. We kept going through the motions since no one seemed to be saying anything. I got my bike and ran out of T1. I had 808 deep dish race wheels on both front and back and began to question that decision as I started to ride. I was white knuckling my handlebars while my wheel jogged all over the road in the crazy wind. The sky was scary, the rain wouldn’t let up, but it was a race so I kept my head down and powered through it.

Thankfully at about mile 10 the rain let up and wind died down. The course was rolling and pretty fast, and we enjoyed 30 miles of smooth sailing on fantastic pavement, clear skies and gorgeous views. It was also great that we had two full lanes of road blocked for the course. As we entered Snow Canyon, the sun was out in full. Starting the big climb at mile 40 had me consider conserving energy for the run. The climb proved not to be as tough as Facebook had us thinking though, partially because it’s nowhere near the terrain of Appalachians in North Georgia. I had changed my 11/28 cassette to a 30 yet only spent about a mile in the large cog. While long and steep, it’s not curvy and you can see exactly what’s coming up because there aren’t any trees. It’s also stunning. Start struggling? Just look up and enjoy the incredible rock formations and desert landscape. I was able to hustle up without much of a fuss, but did see a few folks walking, and heard a few grumbles and general frustration of where the climb fell on the route.

Unfortunately for us late starters, as soon as I made the turn at the top of the climb, it started raining again. The pretty aggressive descent was terrifying with rain so hard it hurt when it hit you and wind gusts some folks estimated at 30+mph. I was able to hold it together, while not brave enough to go in aero for the descent I did feel safe having such great visibility as compared to the descents we have in Georgia mountains. Two wide lanes of highway gave riders plenty of room. I made it into T2 with only moderately painful hands from consistent tapping the brakes as the sun peaked back out for the start of the run.

Since we’re a cycling club, I won’t go into much detail on the run. We were fortunate that the crazy storms didn’t come back and they kept the temperature low so we didn’t hit the highs that had been in the area the week of the race. The run course was also insanely hilly but also insanely gorgeous which helped take my mind off the tough effort. I teared up at the finish after the crazy experience, proud of my effort on what I would truly consider a World Championship course.

My new Facebook group friends all had WILD stories about their race days. Depending on when athletes started, the storms hit at different times of the race. Some of them likened it to the single most challenging thing they’d ever done, came close to their death, vowed never to return to Utah, or never to race another 70.3. Others, myself included, are asking – when can we go back?!

The rest of my time in Utah was spent traveling to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I was so tempted to do some more riding, but I only had my tri bike with me which isn’t the most appropriate for unfamiliar roads. If you haven’t yet been to Utah, I highly recommend it for road, mountain, gravel, CX, and everything in between as well as hiking, water sports and skiing. I can’t wait to be back on another adventure. As far as Ironman goes, I love participating in triathlons, I love the variety in training and the race-cations I’ve done. But, the organization has a LOT of work to do if they want to continue to see more women participate in the sport and invest in their races.