Many of the key players behind the scenes of an IRONMAN event, in particular an IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship, are somewhat familiar faces in the community. They serve Greater Zion as part of the police department or hospital or local park staffs on a daily basis, but they step up when IRONMAN comes to town. Each of them find inspiration in the jobs they do, the stellar IRONMAN athletes and their performance, as well as our gorgeous surroundings. And we marvel as these Legends Among Us … both daily and in producing these worldwide events.
Snow Canyon State Park is renowned for its stunning red-rock scenery and undoubtedly most, if not all, local residents are acquainted with many of the park’s popular stop-offs and hikes. Beyond the familiar rock faces throughout Snow Canyon, there is a human face associated with the park that may be just as familiar to many. Snow Canyon State Park Manager Kristen Comella has lived in Greater Zion for 28 years and manages day-to-day operations at the well-loved local landmark.
As park manager, Comella works to deliver on the Utah State Parks’ mission to provide a quality recreation experience to the public and keep the park clean, safe and inviting for the approximately 800,000 visitors who enjoy Snow Canyon annually. This year a few of those many visitors will include the competitors in the Intermountain Healthcare IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship presented by Utah Sports Commission. Although these guests are unique, their needs are familiar to Comella who, along with her team has played an integral role in readying the park for each IRONMAN event in the area.
Part of the original IRONMAN 70.3 route, Snow Canyon has been coined the “Crown Jewel” of the St. George course. With its striated red-rock formations, the four-mile stretch of continuous elevation gain has been called a “slog” at near Mile 44 of the 56-mile bike leg.
According to Triathlete magazine, “Snow Canyon is an otherworldly experience; if it weren’t for the presence of park rangers and sunburned hikers emerging from trail junctions at random intervals, one could easily be convinced they had landed on Mars — or perhaps the set of their favorite Western movie.”
For each IRONMAN event, Comella and her team start preparation up to 11 months before the race. More than 20 business partners guide hiking, biking and climbing tours in the canyon and the race also impacts campers making reservations. Efforts start by reaching out to all of these important stakeholders to make sure businesses book clients in other locations on race day. And, as the race approaches, her team sweeps roadways of debris and ensures the course is safe for riders. On race day, Comella and her team watch their efforts pay off by roaming the canyon to cheer on cyclists, provide race assistance and finally, help clean up after the event.
Comella takes pride in Utah State Parks’ role in IRONMAN races and other community events. “When we can accommodate special events and races, this not only strengthens our community bonds, but the recreation value of the park as well,” said Comella. “At the end of the day, we are getting paid to work in a beautiful location, teach visitors about the amazing resources of the park, and provide/maintain recreation resources for campers, hikers, bikers, climbers, nature lovers and world-class athletes!”
Seeing how much cyclists enjoy the canyon motivates her to go the extra mile for these races. She said, “it’s amazing to see first-time visitors who are truly blown away by the park. Also, the fact it is an international event that not only exposes new people to Snow Canyon State Park, but has such a significant economic benefit to Washington County.”
As Comella sees it, the most gratifying part of these races is the athletes. “It’s amazing to see how tough IRONMAN athletes are – particularly as they grind their way up through the canyon,” she added. “However, the best part is seeing athletes from across the country and world, and their awe and appreciation of Snow Canyon.”
When she isn’t welcoming guests to Snow Canyon State Park, Comella also enjoys recreating on the public lands across Greater Zion. She takes advantage of all the area has to offer, including standup paddleboarding and kayaking, biking, swimming, hiking and rollerblading. She also enjoys learning about the plants and animals found in Greater Zion.
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.