IRONMAN triathlons aren’t supposed to be easy. Athletes train for months, even years, for the honor of proving themselves as they swim, bike and run for a grueling 70.3 or 140.6 miles, depending on the format. The events take place on a global scale, and finishing, or even stepping up to compete in an IRONMAN anywhere is an honor to be relished.
As with any event though, over the years some IRONMAN courses, like the one in Greater Zion, have developed a certain mystique and have taken on an almost legendary status among the competitors. The course is celebrated both for its beauty and its ability to truly test the competitor’s mettle. With a number of championship-level events, including three IRONMAN World Championships in 13 months between 2021 and 2022, the region is also developing a status as a destination where champions are made.
To determine how this IRONMAN course began to develop this status, who better to speak to than some of the early competitors and champions to get their impressions on how the legend grew, what makes the area special and what it takes to win.
In 2010, St. George hosted the area’s first-ever IRONMAN. The event truly lived up to the IRONMAN moniker, by presenting a tough challenge in the form of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run. Canadian Heather Wurtele, claimed the gold for women that day, a feat she repeated the next year. A few years later, she followed that up as a two-time champion of IRONMAN 70.3 St. George.
Heather says she wasn’t surprised to see the area host so many championship-level events recently because the course always felt like it belonged on an international stage. “The inaugural IRONMAN back in 2010 was so well run, and had such amazing volunteer and community support, it felt like a championship venue even then,” she said.
“I always loved the vibe and the challenge of the course,” said Wurtele. “I mean we do these things because they’re hard, right?” Wurtele considers the Greater Zion course one of the five hardest IRONMAN courses in the world, and the only course in the United States that she offers this honor to.
“The kind of hard courses that appeal to me are ones with challenging terrain,” said Wurtele. “[I like courses] where you are not limited by physiological factors and have to pace to avoid heat stroke, but rather where you can fully express your fitness by giving it all you’ve got, nose in the wind, all day.”
Beyond the challenge of the course, there are a few specific portions that Wurtele noted as granting the area legendary status. “The orange sand out at Sand Hollow and the sandstone formations in contrast with black lava flows throughout the area, notably on the climb through Snow Canyon, are so beautiful!” exclaimed Wurtele. “I really find the desert terrain uniquely awe-inspiring and this seems to give me a boost both in training and on race day.”
Now retired from triathlon, Wurtele and her husband, Trevor, who was also a professional triathlete, spent six years living full-time and travelling to train in their RV, dubbed “The Regal.” She noted that they choose to spend a large portion of that time living in Greater Zion, that due in no small part to the weather, road conditions and the stunning landscape.
“For us, a big thing that makes Greater Zion a great training destination is the cycling infrastructure,” she said. “When you spend as many hours on the bike as IRONMAN athletes need to, it’s critical to have a variety of roads where you feel safe cycling. The nice highways with big shoulders, quiet backroads, and the many cycling/multi-use paths all around St. George are all awesome! The running and swimming options are fantastic too. The water fountains along the Virgin River Trail and around the Mayor’s Loop are lifesavers for long-run days, and it is great to have so many indoor and outdoor pools to choose from. The climate in the area makes it a perfect training destination in early spring and late fall for people from colder, snowy places too.”
In 2012, the St. George area hosted another full-distance IRONMAN, and this time American Meredith Kessler took the top spot for women. Kessler continues to race with success and to date holds five consecutive titles at IRONMAN New Zealand, eleven IRONMAN Championships and 11 IRONMAN 70.3 Championships. With all that triumph and travel, it is obvious that the destination holds a storied and special place in Kessler’s heart though.
“Some of my most fond memories in the 20 plus years that I have been IRONMAN racing on the circuit is our time in St. George, Utah,” she said. Perhaps her affection for the destination keeps leading her back, since she noted she has competed in every IRONMAN in Greater Zion with one exception.
Similar to Wurtele, Kessler singles out the Greater Zion course for the beauty and challenge presented and also notes the diverse, cultural, friendly, beautiful and enriching nature of the events. “The eclectic town is so welcoming, inviting and the race alone is one of the best, if not the best, in North America in my opinion! It is a true champion’s course and it epitomizes the meaning of “Beauty and the Beast.”
For Kessler, the legendary nature of the region is about more than just the quality of the course, but also extends to the caliber of the people who inhabit the area. Kessler, who is noted by her friends and family for her desire to live in a world that values gratitude and awareness of others, also pointed to the spirit of hospitality as reason a she enjoys racing here.
“Greater Zion’s uniqueness and exquisite nature is one of a kind and is not something that can be completely found in other triathlon destinations, strictly because it truly has everything within its surroundings! Not only do you have a welcoming culture and town that invites you into their community with positivity and grace, yet you also have so many conventional and authentic conveniences at your fingertips. The outdoor activities alone make you want to visit Greater Zion to enjoy the absolute beauty of the outdoors whether it is running, mountain biking or hiking through Zion National Park – there is so many inviting things to make you want to keep coming back!”
American Ben Hoffman, was also on the winner’s podium in 2012 after taking first place in the men’s division. Hoffman, known to many as “the Hoff,” placed second at the 2014 IRONMAN World Championship and was the 2019 IRONMAN Africa Champion. When asked about his personal “bests” and favorite memories from Greater Zion though, his list extends well beyond the course.
“Winning the IRONMAN in 2012 was a big accomplishment, as well as placing in the top 10 at the IRONMAN World Championship event this year,” said Hoffman. “One of my favorite memories is the beginning of a weeklong camping trip after the race in 2017, starting in Zion National Park. My wife and I brought a small group of family along and we were married a week after the race in a canyon in Utah.”
Hoffman, who began training in the St. George area in college, due to the favorable weather conditions, said a combination of factors sets it apart and grants the area a legendary status. “St. George is first and foremost an incredibly unique and beautiful natural environment, with stunning landscapes and vistas around every turn. Additionally, St. George is a community of active and passionate people who are truly invested in the event and experience for all the athletes. When you combine these elements, it creates a memorable and rewarding experience for everyone who participates and contributes to the success of the race.”
For Hoffman, there are a few spots on the Greater Zion course that challenge competitors and lend to the area’s legendary status. “Definitely the climb up towards Gunlock Reservoir where I was blown off the road by a massive gust of wind in 2012,” he said. “Of course, ‘The Wall’ climb that leads into Veyo is always incredibly challenging and memorable, and then riding through Snow Canyon is pure magic. It’s impossible to describe just how special that section of the course is, and it seems like a dream every time.”
According to The Hoff, competitors are missing out on a vital part of the legend of the area if they limit their experience just to the race course though. “Make sure to give yourself a few days post-race to explore some of the landscape that you whizzed by on race day,” he advised. “Snow Canyon is easily accessible and completely awe-inspiring. You could also take it easy in town and take your kids to one of the fantastic parks around town. My kids could spend an entire day splashing in the play creek in Town Square Park. Obviously, a trip to Zion is a bucket list, but even that is not necessary to enjoy the immense beauty of the area.”
This fall, the communities of Greater Zion will once again add to the legend when the area hosts the Intermountain Healthcare IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship presented by Utah Sports Commission. Catch the action in person and online, Oct. 28-29 as thousands of triathletes from around the globe compete on this legendary stage for glory.
Learn more about the 2022 Intermountain Healthcare IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship presented by Utah Sports Commission and read other inspirational stories over on our Greater Zion IRONMAN blog.