The Ironman World Championship will be taking place outside of Hawaii for the first time when it rolls into St George, Utah, on 7 May, which means seasoned Kona competitors have a new challenge to go at.
But what will be lying in wait for those battling for the crown? With the help of race director Judy Stowers, here we preview the full 2021 Ironman World Championship course.
First off, we wanted to find out just how similar the course would be to the one used in the 70.3 world champs, won by Gustav Iden in 2021.
“Certainly a fraction of it [is similar],” explains Stowers. “We’ve taken some pieces out of the 70.3 course and added to it so it’s a better course from a standpoint of being able to navigate roadways, and so there’s not as many out-and-back sections.”
Some parts of the course are also similar to the full Ironman that was held in St George roughly a decade ago, which was won by the USA’s Ben Hoffman. As it happens, the 38-year-old will also be lining up at the start come race day.
How was the Ironman World Championship course route decided?
“Our top priority is always the athlete’s safety and athlete experience, so making sure it’s a safe course where we minimise the impact of having vehicles on the course [is key],” says Stowers.
The course planners have also looked at how easy it is to get volunteers around the course, making sure the athletes have aid and ensuring assistance can get to athletes quickly if needed.
But how much thought goes into creating a course that will also provide some close racing and put on a show for spectators? Stowers assures us the answer is a lot, as she explains below.
Ironman World Championship swim course
Taking place in Sand Hollow Reservoir, the swim will be one loop of 3.86km with four major turns. What kind of conditions can competitors expect? “It’ll depend on how things shake out with nature,” admits Stowers. “This wind, it goes in every direction. We’ve had perfectly calm waters in the reservoir and we’ve had not calm waters!”
Upon exiting the swim, athletes go through transition before heading out on the bike course with a gentle downhill, but as soon as they’re out of the park, they’ll start climbing.
“In that first 17 miles there’s a lot that can happen. And then it climbs, and then it climbs, and then it climbs.”
Ironman World Championship bike course
Upon exiting the swim, athletes will go through transition and head out on the bike course with a gentle downhill. As soon as they’re out of the park, they’ll start a gentle climb, followed by a steep downhill, which they’ll have to come back up shortly after reaching the turnaround. “In that first 17 miles there’s a lot that can happen. And then it climbs, and then it climbs, and then it climbs.”
“Once they get out past the halfway point it’ll be a gradual climb until they get to the wall, as it’s known,” adds Stowers. “It’s a short switchback section that’s maybe 7-8% gradient and lasts less than a mile. That’ll be a kicker.
“Once they get back down and get onto that second smaller loop going up Snow Canyon, I think that’s where we’ll see people be tested. You know, they’ve made it through the biggest part of the climb and then at mile 98 they’re going to hit Snow Canyon.
“It’s a gradual climb and just under four miles long, but it happens late enough in the race that if they haven’t done proper nutrition and hydration – because it will be hot and likely a little bit windy in pockets – then they’ll feel that when they get on the run.”
From there, it’s a fast downhill into T2. The first part of that descent is “pretty significant”, Stowers says, but then it’s more gradual. “When they make that turn on Main Street it’s a very rapid downhill with a sharp right-hand turn into transition.”
With a total elevation gain of 2,248m on the bike, the hills are the big topic of conversation, but that’s not where Stowers thinks people will falter most. “Because it’s hot and very dry here, if people don’t stay on top of their hydration and nutrition, that’s going to be where they struggle.
“Less so on the climbing, because I feel like people know there’s climbing and have been training for that. But it’s hard to train for dry heat.”
Ironman World Championship run course
After such a hilly bike, the organisers have tried to make the two-loop run course as flat as they can but, as Stowers admits, “there’s not really anything flat in St George”. That means a total elevation gain of 431m with four distinct inclines, the first of which comes at the very start.
“That slight downhill they came speeding down on the bike, they have to run back up,” explains Stowers. “It’s a little bit deceiving. The first part is a pretty good little incline to get out to what we call Diagonal. Diagonal is an uphill portion of the race. It’s gradual, but you’ll feel it.”
The course will take athletes on stretches in and out of the shade, with some more affected by wind than others, while the turnaround at Mathis Park is said to be beautiful. Not that athletes will have much time to soak up the views.
Stowers admits the hardest part is on the way in and out of transition, where they have a short steep climb and then it’s downhill back into town. But they have to do that a second time and the challenge, she says, will be getting back up that hill.
The course also provides a little extra spice to the competition at both the start of that second loop and the end of the race. “The nice thing about the way the run course is designed is, with the little out and back in town, it’ll create an environment in which the pros will know where the other pros are at,” Stowers says.
“That happens right before they either go out for the second lap or make a left turn to the finish line. So anything that’s been happening out on the course, in terms of battles, will really manifest itself on that last stretch right here in town.”
It’s an exciting prospect, and with 150m from that left turn to the finish line, “it’ll be pretty fast and furious”.
What will conditions be like at the 2021 Ironman World Championship?
“It’s always unpredictable,” says Stowers. “It’s guaranteed to be hot. We’re already seeing that upward trend of temperatures. We can expect nice cool temperatures in the morning – usually in the 60s (15-20°C). And then warming up to the hottest part of the day to the low to mid 90s (32-35°C).
“There’ll probably be some wind in the afternoon. It’ll depend on how things shake out with nature. This wind, it goes in every direction.”
A final word on the course
“This course is stunning,” says Stowers. “There’s nothing that is going to compare to the scenery that they experience on this course. There’s no part of this course that you don’t just look up and see something magical.”
Top image credit: Donald Miralle/Getty Images