Any ‘hobbyist’ triathlete completing a full distance triathlon deserves kudos. Competing at this year's World Championships at St George, Utah would require ‘balls of steel’ (as they say). Even the male race winner, Kristian Blummenfelt would go on to describe the course as 'brutal'...
...So when Jamie Watt received the email from Ironman, explaining that his entry to the event that he had originally booked (in 2020), had been upgraded - and now he would be competing in the World Champs - he had the choice, to take the challenge head on - or back down. Over to Jamie:
Having signed up for the St George Ironman as soon as it opened back in 2020, I was very excited to experience the beautiful Utah scenery that it is so famous about. Then as we all know, Covid struck, ruining 99% of triathletes race plans. With Kona being hit particularly hard by the pandemic, up stepped St George to bid, and win themselves the Ironman World Championships race for 2021.
So what happens to those who signed up for the original race? About 400 of us got an email saying congratulations, “you’re going to the World Championships!” We were all upgraded, notably without even qualifying. We were given the option to defer or change race, but with St George not being confirmed for the following year (as it was in a North American tri state rotation), many of us continued and accepted the upgrade. Some of the 400 having never done an Ironman before had their first race as a World Championships race; I felt a bit better knowing I had done 3 full distances as some pseudo qualifying merit. With the race itself being upgraded, so had the course. With the organisers using the excuse ‘it’s a world championships race’, for throwing every single possible hill into the bike and run it certainly merited itself as a WC course.
The prep; having known the course with more than 6 months prior to the race, I had plenty of time to get myself ready for the elevation profile for the bike and run. Also knowing the lake temperature will in advance was extremely valuable to prep for. My biggest issue was trying to replicate, long hills on beautiful road surfaces, the UK isn’t the place to be… Whilst not being able to nip out for warm weather training I had to make the most of me and my turbo. I became best friends with Zwift and FulGaz to try and get dialled into to the aero position and some structured virtual hill training.
There is something to be said about the Norwegians being the first major pro team to go out to St George, I believe they were out in late March for an early May race. Looking back now, I can see why. The perilous conditions for St George are 3 fold. The heat, the humidity and the altitude, all 3 being the polar opposite of the UK. Luckily I had Vale (@fuellingendurance) to help guide me through it the best as possible. As you can imagine, high heat and being very dry, is a completely different hydration and salt plan compared to normal European races. Luckily the altitude wasn’t too much of a factor, but it certainly took the wind out of my legs on the higher climbs.
So, the race. What an atmosphere, with over 4000 volunteers coming out to put St George race on the map, the support from the crowds, the officials, everyone, was second to none. I usually poke fun at the Americans for their positivity but after the race, I take it all back. I am eternally grateful for every single word of support I absorbed throughout the day.
The swim located in a surprisingly chilly race, considering the week preceding the race was 33/34+ degrees with all day sunshine, was around 18 degrees. The lake itself was actually a reservoir, so water quality was superb, I probably started hallucinating mid way through thinking there was a surf, but there was! High winds all week had even made the swim lumpy! I suffered my usual crappy cramps, with the cramp sniper getting me 50m from the end. I remember doing the biggest eye roll in history as I hobbled out. 2 volunteers making sure I was ok, again amazing support. I then experienced something for the first time. Wetsuit strippers. We were told about this in the race briefing, I had assumed this meant unzipping our wetsuits, but no; We were asked to get on the floor, and some ‘bigger’ volunteers were in charge of yanking (pun intended) our wetsuits off. I was out of my wetsuit in about 5s, incredible.
The bike, finally onto what everyone had been worried about, including me. A cool breeze after a cool swim, ironically, I was absolutely freezing, but that was all about to change. None of the hills in St George were super steep, even at Snow Canyon that only peaked at 13%, which isn’t too scary. The issue with the hills, is that they went on forever. Relentless, up and down throughout the 180km. As conditions got hotter, I was alerted by my preprogrammed alert on my Garmin to ‘Drink’ and ‘eat’ every 5 and 15 minute intervals. Again in the UK, this is complete overkill, but in St George, it was just about enough. I was on for 1l of water an hour and a full gels worth of calories every 45 mins or so. Considering the bike took me just over 6.5 hours, I had consumed 6.5l of fluid - and not 1 toilet stop. I was still dehydrating, even with that level of drinking and eating.
At the aid stations, I had 1 hand on the bike, one bottle in my mouth, and 1 bottle in the other hand filling up my hydration. I was 1 bottle away from being a professional juggler. When I had emptied the bottle I desperately grabbed bananas and gels. Some say I was getting my moneys worth, but I knew I needed as much as possible. I cannot describe, how incredible it feels, to be super hot, to dunk a cold bottle of water in the cracks of your helmet and down the back of your neck. Honestly, was like having a shot of adrenaline and motivation all in 1 go. Life saver.
One thing that no one tells you about, is the descents, and the sheer length of them. Towards the end of the bike leg, the final hill is 14km away from T2 and it is all downhill. Bearing in mind the humidity is around 4%, I peaked at around 70/75kmph. My eyes were not best pleased with what was happening. Having spent 6 hours dealing with salty sweat, they now had to deal with speedy descent winds, plus a vicious cross wind for added fun. The perfect road surface meant my added bulk was being utilised to full effect, hardly having to pedal, I was finally overtaking a few people, again making it quite technical. Not only was I having to avoid other riders, I could barely see where I was going. Thankfully most of the descent is quite straight with very gradual corners on wide roads meant I had a lot of leeway incase I had a wobble, of which there were many.
By the time I got to T2, I was deaf due to the wind noise, could barely see and exhausted. Perfect prep to do a hilly marathon. By this point, I still didn’t need the toilet, which I was becoming quite concerned about. At this point I had inhaled 10 gels and 6.5 litres of fluid, which my stomach wasn’t very used to. This was what proved to be my downfall. Luckily knowing the symptoms early, I really had to slow down and think longer term. Survival was quickly becoming the primary strategy.
This decision paid dividends after seeing quite a number of athletes sprawled on the floor, or suffering at the aid stations being looked after by the volunteers. All I can say is thank god I was disciplined with my hydration, salt and nutrition plan. As it started to get dark, the support was still there, still loud, still positive and still incredible. I was in shock at the dedication of the locals desperate to get everyone over the line. 1 line that stuck with me was being shouted at by a classic stereotypical ‘Soccer mom’, saying “you’ve been going all day, you’ve been here all day, but so have we! You got this, you’re awesome”! She then drenched me with water, so very memorable. :-)
As I eventually trudged to the finish, they were handing out chicken soup, something I was craving, ‘anything but another sugary gel’. I felt loads better as was actually able to hit my race pace for the last 3k. Cooler conditions, still being encouraged, I was able to completely empty the taps and I was desperate for a lie down. To be honest the weight of the finishers medal was enough to pull me to the floor.
What a day. What an experience. Absolutely buzzing just to take part and very grateful to finish.
Huge thanks to Jamie for flying the flag for Team Huckson at Utah, for his time on this blog and also to Valentina @Fuellingendurance for the photos (and making sure that Jamie made the start line - and also coached over the line!).