Written by Susan Lacke
Kona? Out. St. George? In. Instead of a big island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, triathlon’s Big Show will take place in southwestern Utah—the story behind what brought it there.
Like many triathletes, Julie Dunkle had big race goals for 2021. After early-season qualifying races for both the Ironman and 70.3 World Championships, she plotted out an ambitious plan to do both races, one month apart:
“My original idea was to have a solid day at 70.3 Worlds,” said the Encinitas, California native, “then go for a PR and podium at the Ironman World Championship in Kona.”
Dunkle trained with this goal in mind, only to have it all fall apart with an email from Ironman: Kona was postponed to February due to tightened COVID-19 restrictions in Hawaii. Suddenly, her plans changed. 70.3 Worlds was no longer a tune-up race, but the main event.
For the past two seasons, athletes have gotten used to pivoting in response to race cancellations and reorganizations. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has meant that every race registration is a gamble; athletes simply sign up and hope the host city doesn’t shut down the event due to an active or imminent outbreak, or that there are no travel restrictions imposed by the destination.
Athletes aren’t the only ones impacted by this uncertainty. After a hiatus in 2020, the Ironman organization fully expected to be able to put on its world championship events this year. In mid-July, race organizers traveled to Kona and the 70.3 Worlds host city of St. George, Utah to finalize plans with local officials:
“At the time, COVID case numbers and hospitalizations in the area were at a manageable level and race details were moving forward as originally planned,” said Kevin Lewis, president of the Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office in St. George. “There were positive indicators that the travel restrictions for international visitors to the U.S. would be reduced. Two weeks later, the situation had changed significantly.”
With the development of the Delta variant, COVID case numbers rose rapidly in Utah and Hawaii. In other parts of the world, they were even more pronounced. U.S. leaders announced they would not be making changes to international travel restrictions, which limited nearly half of all athletes who qualified for Ironman’s world championship events. It was a flurry of activity at the Ironman organization as they worked with local officials in Hawaii and Utah to find ways to still put on a world-class event.
The two states have had vastly differing approaches to the pandemic. Hawaii has exercised extreme caution, requiring quarantines for non-vaccinated travelers and only accepting vaccination records from a small list of approved countries. With limited hospital beds and medical facilities, a surge of the COVID virus would overwhelm the tiny island community. Back in 2020, the Ironman World Championship was first postponed to February 2021, then canceled. It wasn’t surprising, then, when Ironman announced the 2021 World Championship would be postponed as well:
“The resurgence of the virus and new Delta strain has had significant impact on the island community of Hawaii,” Ironman CEO Andrew Messick said in a press statement on Aug. 19. “Combined with substantial border closures and travel restrictions for qualified athletes, there is not a viable pathway in October to host the Ironman World Championship.”
Utah, on the other hand, has adopted a “return to normal” approach, hosting large events throughout the year, including the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship race back in May.
“This isn’t our first large format event during COVID. We’ve been hosting events with enhanced safety protocols for several months,” said commissioner Gil Almquist, chairman of the Washington County Commission in Utah. “We have stayed open in Washington County while exercising all precautions at large events. With the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship, we showed our health department, citizen volunteers, spectators, and participants that an outdoor race can be held with minimal health risk.”
The conversation in Utah was much different than in Hawaii. In addition to more relaxed rules surrounding COVID, St. George has access to more hospital beds and medical facilities than Kona. Instead of looking at if the race could be held, race organizers and local officials began discussing how to hold a world championship event with a reduced global turnout. As many as half of qualified athletes for the 70.3 World Championship race were from outside of the United States, and many would not be able to travel into the country. Instead of 5,000 athletes from around the world, the race would be less than 3,000 mostly Americans. (Ironman estimates 70% of the 2021 70.3 World Championship field will be from the United States).
“In August, when it became increasingly clear that travel and border restrictions would not be relaxed in time for all athletes to attend the 70.3 World Championship event, we formulated an alternative plan,” said Ironman spokesman Dan Berglund. That plan included condensing the two-day race format, where men and women raced on separate days, into one day.
“With the smaller athlete field size, and bringing a two-day event back to St. George in 2022, we looked at how we could lessen the strain on the local community this year,” he said. “We collectively decided to move this to a one-day weekend event, removing the weekday component, which has the natural ability to cause increased impact on the local community.”
The one-day format also makes it easier to recruit volunteers for the event. “Even as a one-day event, the volunteer requirements of the World Championship are almost twice what we normally provide at our annual race,” explains Lewis. “To put on an event of this magnitude is a significant commitment.”
Changes to the race in St. George have not been completely without criticism. Athletes who made travel plans based on the original two-day format had to scramble to change their flights or lodging reservations, some at great cost. Others have noted that merging the men’s and women’s races puts women at a competitive disadvantage, as the women’s pro race has historically been hindered by interference from pro and elite age-group men. And, of course, there is the criticism that the 2021 Ironman 70.3 World Championship will not be a true world championship, but more of an American one. Still, athletes and race organizers alike are happy just to have a race.
“With all the obstacles in the world today, the fact that we are putting on an event like this, in a place like this, at a time like this is a testament to the Ironman mantra that ‘anything is possible,” Almquist said.
With Kona out of the picture for 2021, all eyes are now on St. George. The sole Ironman world championship race of the year has attracted deep fields in both the pro and age-group categories, looking to test their mettle against an elite group of athletes. And for the first time since 2019, new champions will be crowned.