By Will Murray
If the Ironman races in St. George, UT are getting a reputation for tough days, perhaps it’s because they earned it. When it was a full Ironman, up until 2012, weather conditions varied from shrieking winds that sank the kayaks and blew the course buoys away, to 90 degree heat and yes, again, those gusty winds.
At the 70.3 race on Saturday, May 7, the weather turned again. Three days before the race the weather was identical to the 2011 event—91 degrees with west winds 20-35 mph.
Then the weather changed.
A vigorous cold front blew through 36 hours before the race, kicking up strong winds and dropping the day’s high temperature by 25 degrees.
But wait–good news from the forecasters: Race day would be cool and dry, with only a slight chance of a shower or two around 11 am and light winds less than 10 mph.
As our friend Marcello Miglietta, a PhD meteorologist, likes to say, “But that is just the forecast, and the forecast is not the weather.” On race day, indeed, it was not.
The male pro wave went into the water, itself a crisp 63 degrees, at 7am. The next 20 waves (yes, there were 21 waves) went into the water over the course of the next hour, the last wave dipping in at 8 am. By that time, the wind had picked up from the south, straight down the fetch of scenic Sand Hollow Reservoir, whipping up a vexing little chop. The rains began around 8:30, well ahead of schedule and more determined than the forecasters had predicted.
One of the volunteers who did swim support from his paddleboard explained that he had to get off the board and into the water several times to try to warm up. Trying to warm up became the goal of most of the athletes for the rest of the race.
The bike leg unfolded during intermittent showers, upper 40s temperature and gusty winds. One athlete decided to ride the course while still wearing her wetsuit. Anything was worth a try.
The long climbs that would usually help a cyclist were nullified by stinging rain. The booming descents, where an athlete plans to make up some average miles per hour, were cancelled by wracking shivers of both athlete and bike.
Longmont’s Diana Hassell, who collected a third place finish in her age group recounts, “I just couldn’t get warm. There was no way to generate any warmth.”
Steve Nabity, a D3 Multisport athlete also finishing third in his age group, said, “I thought my bike might slip out from underneath me, I was shivering so much.”
The long climb up Snow Canyon State Park, amazingly scenic, was one of the coldest parts of the day. With a horizontal, manic rain driven by swirling winds and misty shrouds draping the canyon walls, it took a very aware athlete indeed to appreciate the amazing scenery. In the post-race video, Ironman World Champion Mirinda Carfrae explained how stunningly beautiful she thought the canyon looked. Most athletes were just stunned by the cold and incessantly seeping hypothermia.
Ironman Boulder Race Director Dave Christen was on hand at the turnaround at the top of Snow Canyon, dressed as though he were sledging with penguins in Antarctica. At the turnaround, Dave was heard to say, “Well this is indeed a real treat.” Which part? The frigid rain, the jostling winds or the numbing temperature? We’ll have to ask him. Some athletes would have given Dave $500,000 for his jacket, but he probably wouldn’t have taken it.
Not everyone, however, noticed the same experience.
Boulder’s Joe Gambles, four-time Boulder 70.3 champion and course record holder, picked up third overall for the day. “Was I cold on the bike? I don’t know, I don’t think so. I was racing on the edge, just focusing on riding hard, so wasn’t thinking about being cold. But when I couldn’t unbuckle my helmet in transition, then I realized, ‘My thumbs won’t work. Hey, maybe my hands are cold.’ I’m from Tasmania anyway, so cold isn’t an issue for me.”
The bike to run transition was interesting. Volunteers gave out mylar blankets to athletes as they started their run leg, and not just at the race finish. Many athletes did indeed start the run swaddled like space aliens in their personal metal tents.
Overall winner Lionel Sanders, in his award ceremony speech, declared that he couldn’t feel his feet for the first three miles of the run. Perhaps that lack of sensation helped him to a race-best 1:13 run split, on the notoriously hilly course. We all could try it—who knows, running on frozen blocks might be the next speed innovation.
D3Multisport Head Coach Mike Ricci said, “You must do everything you can before the race to stay warm, and everything you can to stay warm on the bike. Your skin is the largest organ of your body, and when you are cold your skin is taking a lot of blood flow from your muscles to try to warm up. It’s hard to put out power on the bike when you are just too cold.”
There were casualties. Nearly half the female pro field didn’t cross the finish line. In the august, courageous and robust Wave 21 (Males 60 and over), only 40 of 57 crossed the finish.
To all those who toughed out the day and crossed the finish line: congratulations for your heart and determination. For all those who didn’t, hats off for being smart enough to know when you are dangerously cold and deciding to live to race another day.