I wanted to write this while the details were still fresh in my mind. Some of them I am unlikely to forget any time soon…

 

I decided to race Ironman St George earlier this year after narrowly missing out on a Kona slot at IM Cozumel. A reasonably new race to the circuit, it has a challenging (i.e. very hilly) bike course based in the Snow Canyon region of Southern Utah, around 100 miles north of Las Vegas. I thought the course would suit me and as my first time racing in the 30-34 age group I was expecting strong competition but thought I would be in the mix. My preparation had been good and I was really looking forward to racing. Arriving a week before meant we had the opportunity to ride the bike course which lived up to expectations with stunningly beautiful scenery and some good climbs. Based on a steady pace in training I was expecting to ride around 5.45 for the bike and expected a finish time of around 10.20-10.30 to be pretty competitive. Preparation went well and our house in Washington was perfect – away from the bustle of the town and close to the swim start. Thanks to Tim and Lindsay for sorting that out and being a (mostly!) calming influence during race week. We swam in the reservoir several times during the week which ranged from glassy flat calms to quite choppy waves the day before the race and from very cold to just mildly toe-tingling, seemingly unconnected to any noticeable change in the weather, so I was prepared for most things, though not what actually transpired…

 

 

Race day dawned nice and calm and we were soon in town and on the buses to transition. Having a split transition can be awkward but it was was all very well organised with plenty of parking and buses to take athletes and later spectators to the swim start. Preamble went smoothly and soon we were heading down to the start. I was happy to see there was very little wind and the lake was much calmer than the day before. We had a nice group of travelling Brits this time and with Tim and Brett both also going for Kona slots it was good to have some friends out on the course. I found myself with Keavy and Katy treading water at the start alongside a load of other pink (ladies) caps and we were ready for the off.

 

 

Going out hard from the start I quickly found some space. I knew Katy would swim under the hour so my plan was to stay on her feet as long as I could and aim for a swim around 65mins. The first 1km out to the turn buoy passed quickly, way too quickly I was about to realise, but at the time I felt like a swimming goddess. All the swimming training was paying off! Finally!! The course is a rectangular anticlockwise loop, so you swim 1k out, around 300m across, then 1.8k straight back past a large island and past the start, before completing the loop by swimming across and then around 600m back. As I turned around the first buoy I was hit in the face by a large wave. And then another, and another. Waves that I had been merrily surfing along a few minutes earlier but were clearly increasing in size, and fast. What had been a neat pack was scattering quickly as unable to see the next turn buoy or the land over the waves it was difficult to keep any sense of direction. With the waves coming hard and fast from the left it was also pretty obvious that at the next turn buoy we were going to have to turn again and swim 1.8k straight into them. 

 

 

The next hour or so is a bit of a blur. I’ve heard the waves were anything between 3 and 5 feet high. It went a bit like this. Get smacked in the face. Look round angrily before realising it was a wave not a person. Get smacked in the face by the next one. Stop and tread water while trying to see the island from the top of a wave. Have several more waves break in your face. Try and swim for 100m or so without swallowing too much water. Seems impossible. Waves would disappear from under you so what would have been a stroke turned into grabbing at thin air. Stop. Reset. Look again. Think it may be calmer when we get to the shelter of the island. Wonder how on earth to get to the island which looks miles away. Start to feel seasick. Must keep swimming. Remember that 560 people in the field are first timers. Begin to worry they won’t get through the swim. Begin to worry I won’t get through the swim! Find myself completely unable to see a single other swimmer. And repeat. Eventually I passed the island. It seemed like an eternity. At the far turn buoy there were swimmers treading water and looking at where to go next. Wasn’t at all clear so I followed those closest to me. I learned later the marshalls were telling people to miss the last turn buoy and head straight to the exit. The safety boats couldn’t get anywhere near the last buoy. Didn’t save any distance for me as I still swam over 4k and frankly am amazed it wasn’t more. Having already revised my expectations massively lower during the melee I was still terribly disappointed to see 1.34 on the clock. Game over. Who qualifies for Kona with a 1.34 swim. That would be insane…

 

 

My wetsuit was stripped off by a helpful volunteer and I got to my bag which was in number order with those of my age group. Still tons of bags there. Ok. At least I’m not last. I felt very sick from swallowing so much water but tried to get through transition as quickly as possible. An excited volunteer said well done for making the swim cutoff. Not exactly the target I had in mind! The volunteers were very helpful but I did get irrationally annoyed that one put my left compressport sock on my right foot. Told myself to stop being such an idiot.

 

 

The first part of the bike is around 23 miles from Washington to St George where you join the loop where the main hills are (which you do twice). Within seconds I was hit by massive head / cross winds even on the access road to the lake. Not good. Shouldn’t have been surprised given the conditions in the swim but hadn’t really figured out what the hell was going on yet. My stomach was cramping from the lake water and I couldn’t put any pressure down. I was regretting each of the disc, 404 front wheel and 25 cassette at this point. And worried about Tim with his 808 front wheel. I was reminded that another racer said the wind would be northerly (and 5-6mph!!!) which meant a headwind all the way up the canyon and tailwind on the downhill stretch home. I realised any time goals for the days have been left crashing around in the lake. But I pressed on, trying desperately not to be blown into the path of any faster bikers who have managed to swim even slower than me. I still felt sick and could drink only water. Looked at my bottle containing 1500 cals of chocolate flavoured goo. Felt even more sick. I was overtaken by a girl in SOAS kit. This never happens. Attempted to chase but cannot push without stomach cramping. Resolve to see her again later when I feel better.

 

 

The first glimmer of sunshine came when I caught Katy around 1h30 in who told me she swam a 1.22. As she is capable of swimming well under the hour this put my swim in a bit of context. Felt a little less depressed and decided I maybe only had say 20-30mins to make up on the fast girls instead of more like 45. I randomly decided I was 10th in my age group to give myself a target and starting counting through positions as I passed people. Still a long way to go.

 

 

The loop is around 20 miles undulating but basically uphill finishing with “the Wall” which is a not particularly scary climb with a switchback, followed by a flattish section before a 15 mile descent back into St George. The headwind was basically full on in your face on the climbs, with occasional cross sections where you wound your way up the canyon, such as the one where men’s winner Ben Hoffman got blown off his bike. Winds were 40-45mph at times I’m told. I was going at about 5mph. In my smallest gear. Going downhill. The only respite was when we finally made it to the switchback on the Wall the tailwind blew you straight over the steepest section! I got to halfway in around 3hrs 30. While the second half would be quicker as I would do the descent twice, for someone who usually bikes in the low 5′s these were scary numbers. I had also only drunk water for the first two hours and eaten very little since, which I thought likely to come back to bite me later. But… I was sticking to the plan which was to get to the start of the second loop feeling fresh. Average power just shy of 200w after lap 1 which was close to target. I told myself not to worry about the time. On a fast course that power would be equivalent to low 5hrs. There can’t be many girls going quicker than that. On the descent I was passed by a fast girl in some very flash black and green kit. Time to go. I chased her down and we had a great ride down the descent, riding legally and switching places a few times. This doesn’t often happen to me in races as I rarely ride with girls and I enjoyed it. A nod of recognition for some good biking at the end of the loop as we hit the flat section and I was off. 

 

 

The second loop was better, in the sense that I had got used to the wind a little. I stayed in my aerobars more. I ate more. I saw lots of marshalls who seemed to be being sensible by keeping the gaps but leaving some leniency on the climbs where with a lot of people going 5mph steeply uphill on tri bikes it is not feasible to keep a 7m gap. Later I had an idiot on my wheel who said to me “there are so many marshalls… Why can’t they give us a break… It’s really windy…!” I ignored him. Didn’t have the energy. The hilly section was from 70 to 90 miles so I counted them down, one mile at a time. An amusing aside was that my and a few other people’s numbers had “Professional Athlete” written on them due to some sort of printing error. I had forgotten this until when passing someone I was asked “how was the swim for the pros?” to which I irritably replied I had no idea. He must have been very confused (and thinking as a pro I was having a terrible day). I had passed quite a lot of people and from my random starting point of 10th I thought I had counted my way to 4th in my age group. I decided 10th was clearly too optimistic as a starting point so mentally added a few places on. Hoped I was in the top 10 at least. Laughed at myself for thinking I could possibly finish top 20 or even top 15 in the overall women’s race. What an idiot.

 

 

I turned up the wall into the blessed tailwind but was immediately hit by shooting cramps in my quads. Drinking only lake water and real water for the first few hours of the day not going down so well. Anticipating something not exactly like this I had some salt tablets in my pocket so I scoffed two which seemed to do the job. Finally I made  it over the wall and had only the descent to go. Reminded again of some good advice from Tim I planned to take the descent as easy as possible and eat as much as I could. At least I had plenty of food left. I had been sensible with the power and still reading low to mid 190s which was fine. Legs felt good. Stomach did not. The last few miles ticked by quickly and I noticed my bike time was going to be around 6.5hrs. I realised with a shock I would have to run well to even break 12 hours. A far cry from the sub-10 I have been talking up. Still a long way to go. A fairly quick transition (for me) of around 2.5mins with a loo stop and I was on my way. I see the girl in SOAS kit leaving transition. Aha! Not so far ahead after all. 

 

 

A quick explanation of the run course to give the next part some context – it’s 3 loops each of which have 4 out and back sections. The first 3 are basically an M shape (main, 200 and 400 streets) where you run downhill down the arms and uphill back. Each out and back section is about 3k. Then you have a longer out and back up Diagonal Street (it is actually diagonal) which is around 4k, with the remaining 1k coming from the joining sections. While it looks boring on paper it was actually a great course for knowing where your opposition is and for easy access to aid stations. The only flat sections are between the arms and at the end of each lap you have to run around 4k continuously uphill (back up 400 then up diagonal) before then running the same amount downhill (back down diagonal and then down Main street for the start of the next loop). 

 

 

Within the first mile I was in trouble. Stomach cramps were back. I kept passing people and then having to double over and stop. After the second time a nice girl in pink calf guards asked if I was ok. I grimaced and said I hope so. Straight onto the water and coke at the first aid station. Things can only get better. And to my surprise… they did. Coming back up the first out and back section I started to feel good. My legs were fresh, I was running around mid 8min mile pace up the hill and I felt mentally focused and ready to run the marathon. Enough negativity. I didn’t come this far to just be miserable. Brett passed me around this point with some kind words. He was only a lap ahead of me. Interesting. Then I saw Tim just under a lap ahead of me. Also interesting. Around the gap I would have expected. I started catching more people. I passed two girls in my age group quite quickly including SOAS. Saw Lindsay who tells me I was 5th in my age group off the bike, which means I’m now 3rd with around 20 miles to go. I’m still in this. Game on. 

 

 

I followed the same routine for the next few miles. Aid station every mile, water, coke, ice down top. Gel every half hour. Keep some ice in mouth between stations. Good move to try the orange segments. Definitely avoiding the cookies! Lots of kids helping at aid stations which was great. I passed another girl in my age group, and then another. Am I leading? Brain not able to process this. Randomly decide I have miscounted and must be second. Maybe 2 slots, maybe not. Been burned before. Keep pushing. Still holding mid 7 min miles downhill, slipping slightly to high 8′s uphill. On the second lap I notice I have gained a minute or two on Tim and hope he is ok. At some point Tim tells me it’s a slow day and not to worry about the time. Chat to Jack who is injured and planning to DNF at 15 miles. Forget to hit him for the 5-6mph wind forecast. See Katy who also looks miserable and says she may DNF. Don’t blame anyone who does that today. Next turnaround, gap to chasing girls extended to around 90-120secs. Keep pushing it out. Waiting for the bad patch to come. It doesn’t. Nod to Brett and Tim as I pass them. See the leaders again. Seem to have made up a bit of time on Meredith Kessler that lap. Think I must be imagining it.

 

 

Last lap and I have around a 4 minute lead to the girls behind. Feel if I can hold this until 4 miles to go I’m not going to lose a minute per mile. Then I see another girl in my age group around two minutes ahead. Newton kit. Where did she come from? No idea if we are even on the same lap but she looks good. Really good. I knew I couldn’t be leading. I firmly decide there is one Kona slot and that is it up the road. Here we go again. Think I can maybe go a little harder. Feet and ankles struggling now, arms hurting from the swim. Onto 200 street and I’ve gained about 30 seconds. Then 400 street, maybe another 20 seconds. No longer worried about the girls behind. I had 4k left uphill to bridge the gap and then it was 2k downhill to the finish. I noticed the pace has slipped from low 3.30s marathon pace to more like 3.40 but I don’t really care. One foot in front of the other. Managed to get pace into the 8-minute range on the uphill which felt like a small victory. I turned onto the uphill leg of diagonal street and I’m into the last few kms. About 15 metres from the turnaround I see Newton girl in front walking. I shoot past, eyes forward. Don’t look back. Too much effort, hamstrings go into spasm. Hobble around the turnaround. Fingers crossed she didn’t notice. Look up and she’s running again. Great. 

 

 

Only one thing for it. I sprint the last 2k as fast as I can. Ignore the last aid station. Try and lean forward and let gravity do the work. If I’m running 6 min miles nobody is going to catch me. Other athletes are commenting on how fast I am finishing. I don’t acknowledge. Can’t acknowledge. The roundabout at the bottom of the diagonal is my first chance to see behind. Not a single girl in sight. Just keep running. Look behind as I enter the finishing chute and still no-one. Made it. Stop the clock on 11.55. 1st in 30-34. 15th female.

 

 

A few comments to wrap up. This was the 3rd and last running of Ironman St George as from next year it will be a 70.3. Personally I think this is a great loss to the calendar. These races are not meant to be easy and in other conditions this would be a challenging but fair and honest course. In these conditions for any first timer or inexperienced athlete it was near impassable. The fact that only 5 pro men went under 10 hours shows that even the best athletes there were going around 90 mins slower that usual and this would be extended the further you went down the field. I don’t know yet the percentage dropout rate but I know 100s of people failed to complete the swim and at least 100 more were unable to finish the bike. Thrilled for my compadres Brett and Tim who also both qualified for Kona. We earned every inch of it.

4 Responses to “Ironman St George – signing off in style”

  1. Anita Smith says:

    Great report Laura, wowza that sounds like one pretty tough day. Well done on your Kona qualification, not sure many people will have qualified under such horrendous conditions but it’s testament to your strength that you came 15th overall and got that much deserved slot . If you’re on the Steve Trew tri camp again in January I’ll look forward to hearing how your day in Kona went :) Have a great rest of the season and best of luck in Kona.

  2. Kendra (Kgo) says:

    Great race and great report. I liked your report so much that I linked it to my St. George race report. I think that my blog friends will like your perspective as much as I did. :)
    –Kendra

  3. Laura says:

    Hey Kendra, thanks! Was a crazy day. I enjoyed your race report too and you have a great blog – I have no doubt we’ll be seeing you in Kona soon!