Ironman St. George Race Report Amanda Barlow

For those with shorter attention spans the race can be summarized as cold (14 C) swim, hot (38 C) and windy ride and run and hills, hills and more hills.

The full version

After just missing out on a Hawaii slot in Penticton last year, I thought I would try my luck somewhere else. I looked at the qualifying times for other North American races and St. George caught my eye. 13 hours 15min – I can do that. The course looked challenging but I don’t mind hills.

Training over the winter had tested my resilience, but a week in Southern California and another in Maui with Alan cracking the whip had me in reasonably good shape by March.

I went to St. George a month before the race to see what I was in for and boy what a shock.  Over 120 k of the ride was uphill to a maximum elevation of almost 5000 ft. The downhill section was sweet, but way too short. And then there was the matter of the wind. The first day I rode 120k in 40 + kph head wind on the uphills with gusts up to 60. I got blown across the road once and when I was standing over my bike the front wheel was actually lifting off the ground! It took me over 5 hrs to finish the ride. Figured I would be riding well over 7 hours on race day even with a lighter wind.

And as for the run – the only flat section was the first block out of transition. The first 3 miles were a steady, not too steep climb, the next mile was up a set of switchbacks with an average grade of 8%. The hill continued for about another mile at a gentler grade and then the course went downhill to the turnaround. The average grade on this section was only about 7% .

There were a couple of small out and back sections on the return both going up to over 5% and then of course as it was a 2 loop run, you had to turn around and do it all again. By the time I got home, I thought if I could finish in 13 ½ hours I would be doing pretty well. The scenery throughout the whole course was beautiful, so I thought at least I would have time to enjoy it.

I arrived in St. George 6 days before the race to acclimatize to the elevation and the possible heat. Jumped into the water on day 1 and only managed 10 mins before I started shivering in my wetsuit. Swam back to shore as fast as possible and was still shivering almost an hour later after warm clothes, hot shower and Starbucks. The water was 56 F at most.

I sent an SOS to Alan who sent me back there twice a day until race day. I ended up swimming with arm and leg warmers on under my wetsuit, 3 caps including a neoprene one, and covered every bit of exposed skin with Vaseline/Lanoline combination. No wonder they had such a big drop out rate in the water last year – the water was another 4 degrees cooler. The water did warm up a bit over the week but was only 14 C on race day. The air temperature was another matter. It warmed up over the week from mid 20s  to mid 30s.

Race morning was cool with a light wind. They wouldn’t let us in the water until after the pros had started and the anthem sung, hence most of us were not in the water when the gun went off and the official start was 100m off shore.

I leapt into the water – no time to think about the cold temperature and my goggles immediately fogged up. I tried putting some cold water in them but they refused to clear. I eventually removed all 3 caps readjusted the goggles after filling them with cold water and got just enough visibility to see a pack of swimmers I thought I could catch, so I swam in their direction and eventually found a pair of feet to hang on to. I don’t think I saw a single buoy for the whole swim.

On the return leg, the goggles fogged up so much I couldn’t see other swimmers around me, so I stopped a couple of times to clear them again.  Got out of the water about 10 mins slower than I was hoping – I didn’t think I had lost that much time, but found out afterwards the course was probably long. One of the girls in my AG, a former Olympic swimmer, was 7 mins faster in Penticton. Swim time 1:24: 55.   Crap, not a good start. Went to the nearest strippers – they couldn’t get my suit over my feet. I was lying on my back like a turtle stuck on its shell while they tugged away. Eventually another guy came over and yanked it properly. Ran into transition, and got through fairly quickly but by the time I got on the bike it was already 1:30.

On to the bike. Got into a good rhythm on the bike pretty quickly and got a ton of road kill on the first major hill at the 6k mark. Made it through the first section to the loop at an average speed of 30 kph. So far so good. Picked up about 5 placings in my AG but figured I was still about 10th.  The heat really picked up on the road towards Gunlock and by the time I reached the top there were already a number of casualties on the side of the road. Bike computers were reading 90 – 105 F by then. Dealt with the wall, an 800m hill which gets steeper as you approach the top and peaks at 12% and then started back towards town.

At the bottom of the grind up the wall

The wind had picked up by then and we were riding the easier/downhill part of the course into a 30 kph head wind. I had noticed quite a few flats on the loop and became a victim of the road debris myself just before the start of the second loop. I came around the downhill corner and lost my rear wheel from underneath me. Crap again. Luckily there was a course volunteer there who held my bike while I changed the tyre. Fasted tyre change I had ever done on my Zipps. It had expanded nicely in the heat and popped back on much more easily than usual. Even the CO2 worked for a change.

Back out on the second loop, felt even hotter and the wind on the return was stronger. And just when you thought you were done, they took you back onto a tiny little bike trail (no passing allowed) before sending you back up yet another hill before going to the finish. Told us this was for safety to keep cyclists on loop 2 from running into cyclists from loop 1. Rolled into transition with a bike time of 6:52:34 – better than I expected even with the flat.

Didn’t waste too much time in T2. Our bags had been left in the sun and the small amount of food I was planning to eat had melted.  My husband came to support and the only time I saw him that day was as I left transition.

Plugged up the first 3 miles of the uphill and started on the 8% grade. I quickly realised I could walk it faster and save energy. I actually passed a few people running up it. It was hot even by my standards.  A couple of kids at one of the aid stations were handing out ice cold handkerchiefs, so I wrapped that around my neck and enhanced myself with a couple of sponges and added water at each aid station.Ran out to the turn around a bit slower than I wanted to, but got a lot of road and picked off another 4 women in my AG in the first 5 miles.  The return was a little slower as the headwind had picked up to about 35 kph. Finished the first loop in 2:10 – could be worse and I seemed to be moving faster than most. The only people who looked good were the first few pros. A lot of people were struggling and there were many just sitting on the side of the road.

Picked up a local girl on the start of the second loop and ran with her for most of the next 10 miles. It seemed like everyone at the aid stations knew her – their loud cheers kept us going, although we did walk more of the uphills. I passed the woman who beat me in Penticton before the turn around. She had thrown in the towel and walked the rest of the run. I finally ran out of gas with 4 miles to go and realized afterwards I had taken in way too few calories – I was too focused on hydration and staying cool.  Shuffled my way through the next few miles, but managed to find an extra leg for the last 500m. It doesn’t seem to matter how tired and sore you are, you can always find that extra leg. Run time 4:37:10

Finish time 13:03:40,    My 10th and slowest IM finish, but still good enough for 5th in my AG. Not quite good enough for Hawaii - there were 2 slots, but no roll down.  Over 300 starters didn’t make it to the finish line and almost ½ my category dnf’d. I definitely underestimated how tough this one would be and it has subsequently been labelled the hardest IM ever outside of Kona.

We spent the next couple of days being real tourists and like many other competitors went to Zion canyon.  It was spectacular and according to many locals better than Grand Canyon. Highly recommended if you are ever in the area.

The locals are great and embraced the race, much as the community of Penticton does, so if you ever want to challenge yourself in a well organized race with beautiful scenery,