Why St. George was the only choice to host the Ironman World Championship triathlon

For the first time in 40 years, premiere race won’t be held in Kona, Hawaii

(Courtesy Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office) Lionel Sanders wins the 2016 Ironman 70.3 St. George triathlon on May 7, 2016. Within 13 months, St. George will host two 70.3 World Championships and the first full-distance Ironman World Championship held outside of Hawaii.

The phone started ringing at Diana Bertsch’s office in Kona, Hawaii. Like racers stumbling across the finish line at one of the dozens of Ironman Triathlons worldwide that Bertsch oversees each year, there were just a few calls at first, but then they started to come in droves.

Rumor was that The Ironman Group, for which Bertsch is the vice president, was looking to relocate the 2021 Ironman World Championship someplace outside of the islands. The idea was as shocking as it was enticing. Ironman — which in its traditional format combines a 2.4-mile swim with a 112-mile bike ride topped off by a 26.2-mile run — is the most recognizable name in triathlon. And since its inception in 1978, its championships have been held only in Hawaii, despite an explosion in popularity around the globe. In fact, they have become synonymous with Kona, the town of 16,000 on the Big Island that for the past 40 years has hosted what many have considered the ultimate test of athlete endurance — and perhaps sanity.

But the COVID-19 pandemic cracked even the most reliable race plan. The Ironman World Championship, which happens to be held in the state with some of the strictest coronavirus protocols, proved to be no exception. They’d already been canceled once when Ironman Group president Andrew Messick announced in August 2021 that that year’s world championships, scheduled for October, would be postponed until at least February 2022. But even that timetable seemed dubious.

Recognizing a perhaps once-in-history opportunity, race organizers around the world began salivating. Then they began calling.

The effort was for naught, however. Bertsch already had the perfect site in mind, and it wasn’t the Gold Coast of Australia or the mountains of Mont-Tremblant, Canada, or even Florida’s balmy beaches.

“I basically was like there’s no other place that we could do it,” Bertsch said, “other than Utah.”

More specifically, St. George.

This Saturday, the capital of southwestern Utah will be at the center of the triathlon world as it hosts an international contingent of about 3,500 of the sport’s best pro and age-group athletes, most of whom had to qualify for their spot. The race, which is expected to last between eight and 17 hours, depending on each athlete’s fitness and fortitude, will be aired live on NBC’s Peacock network starting at 11:30 a.m. MT and streamed starting at 6:15 a.m. MT on Ironman.com/live.

Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office/contributed A female cyclists grinds out the miles of a 112-mile ride around Washington County during the first Ironman 70.3 World Championship triathlon held in St. George, on Sept. 18, 2021.In a span of 13 months, the city will host two 70.3 World Championships and the first full-distance Ironman World Championship held outside of Kona, Hawaii.

Hosting such an iconic event is a major coup for a state angling to host the 2030 or 2034 Winter Olympics. Just ask Jeff Robbins, the president of the Utah Sports Commission, which played a critical role in securing the race. He said it proves organizations trust Utah to produce a well-run, high-quality event that can stand up to the intense glare of international TV and media coverage.

”This is the biggest triathlon in the world. It’s the Jell-o and Kleenex of triathlons,” he said. “One of the biggest events in the world in terms of name and branding.”

So how did St. George, little known globally other than for its abundant golf courses and proximity to Zion National Park, come to host the Ironman World Championship? Truth be told, it’s something not even local organizers, who did not dial up Bertsch to pitch themselves, saw coming.

“Let’s do it”

The race was on in St. George.

Yes, thousands of athletes were splashing through Sand Hollow Reservoir’s clear waters, burning out their quads as they biked up to Snow Canyon State Park and doubting their life choices as they chugged uphill during the opening miles of the run during the Ironman 70.3 World Championship held around St. George last September. But the outcome of that race is not what had Robbins pacing through the finish area.

Roughly three days earlier, he and his wife had found themselves sitting next to Messick, Bertsch and Kevin Lewis of the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office at a welcome reception for the half-Ironman race. Messick leaned over and asked Robbins if they could all find a quieter table to talk. Then, he laid out what he saw as the writing on the wall: Hawaii’s COVID restrictions wouldn’t be lifted by February, and The Ironman Group couldn’t stomach canceling its marquee event for a second straight year. The full-distance Ironman World Championship needed a temporary safe harbor, and they wanted it to be in St. George.

“They looked at me and said, ‘What do you think?’” Robbins recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I have enough confidence in our ability here as a state sports commission and our partners down there that I thought we could figure that out.

“Then the hard part came in.”

Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office/contributed A pack of men gain elevation during the first Ironman 70.3 World Championship triathlon held in St. George, on Sept. 18, 2021. In a span of 13 months, the city will host two 70.3 World Championships and the first full-distance Ironman World Championship held outside of Kona, Hawaii.

Messick said they had three days to get the deal done. The day after the race he would be on a plane to visit some of the cities that had been calling, and he wanted to have an answer. In the world of sports event management, where it can take months to gather all the sign-offs from city, county and state officials and emergency agencies, as well as uncover sponsors, the deadline felt absurd.

But one of the reasons The Ironman Group picked St. George out of the crowd of suitors was that experience indicated organizers could gather the community and financial support they needed quickly and with few road bumps. Utah’s consistently lax, relatively, coronavirus regulations also were a boon to their cause. And there was no denying that the rugged and dramatic red hills that surrounded the area, especially in Snow Park, made for a captivating backdrop.

Robbins, meanwhile, recognized what a boon the race could be to the region and the state. He estimates the championships will have an economic impact of $40 million to $50 million and will generate another $50 million to $60 million in media rights and exposure.

Some 7 million people tuned into live coverage of the 70.3 championships in September via Ironman’s Facebook page alone. That viewership is expected to at least triple for the full-distance world championship and doesn’t include the approximately 5 million who have traditionally watched NBC’s broadcasts of the race. (To put that in perspective, the first round of the NBA Playoffs in April has averaged 3.6 million viewers per game across ESPN, ABC and TNT — a 23% increase over last year. ) Neither does it factor in an expected bump in interest in the St. George race due to its novelty and the long drought since the last champions were crowned.

If southern Utah was a secret to some, it won’t be anymore.

“It will forever change the landscape of St. George,” Robbins said, “in a very, very positive way.”

So, he embraced the Ironman motto, “Anything is possible,” and went to work. He waited in the finish area Saturday morning for his final clearances. And by the time the first sinewy racers stepped across the line, Robbins had enough information to walk up to Messick and shake his hand.

“We have a deal,” he said.

Hawaii is home, but …

The news came as a relief to Bertsch. She had, after all, been the one of the strongest advocates of bringing the World Championship to St. George — an act that, combined with last fall’s Ironman 70.3 World Championship and the 2022 70.3 World Championship scheduled for October, will give the city three Ironman World Championship in 13 months. That’s a boast not even Kona can make.

Bertsch has been the VP at Ironman Group for nine years and was an event director for the organization for 10 years before that. She has been working with Robbins and Lewis since 2007, when Ironman went to Las Vegas looking for a place to stage a series but, finding nothing suitable, took a flier on St. George.

At that time, triathlon was basically a foreign concept in the region. Still, the sports commission and the community’s ability to make a race work impressed Bertsch. So did their lofty aspirations: They made it clear they wanted to host a championship. They had in mind a half-Ironman, aka a 70.3, which unlike the Kona race has been staged in a new locale every year since 2014. They would have even settled for a full- or half-distance North American title race.

“We had big visions then,” Lewis said, “but we had no idea.”

But last year, Lewis and the city of St. George did the Ironman Group a couple of solids. Utah hosted the 70.3 World Championship in September despite rising COVID cases and restrictions worldwide and was generally considered a success. In addition, they agreed to take over the 2022 70.3 Worlds this October from New Zealand after that country’s strict coronavirus regulations put the event in jeopardy.

So, St. George was capable and, most likely, willing. And when it came down to making perhaps the biggest decision in the Ironman brand’s history, Bertsch trusted her gut.

“When you go into a community and you’ve been working with them and you have a rhythm, which we did, but then you see, I mean, there’s just some things that are right in front of you: the beauty of Utah and the kindness of the people,” she said. “And, you know, it’s one of those things for me. There is nowhere that I can’t go or that I haven’t been during my time in Utah where I haven’t felt genuine aloha.”

(Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office) Swimmers hit the water in Sand Hollow Reservoir at the start of the 2018 Ironman 70.3 St. George triathlon on May 5, 2018. Within 13 months, St. George will host two 70.3 World Championships and the first full-distance Ironman World Championship held outside of Hawaii.

That term in this situation carries particular weight. Organizers want to give racers, who have been qualifying for these championships since 2019, a welcoming experience similar to what they’ve cultivated in Kona (though those who want a true Kona experience can defer their entry until October, when the 2022 Ironman World Championship are expected to return to Hawaii). Yet of equal importance was to select a host that wouldn’t give the impression it was trying to permanently wrest the event away from the islands. The site needed to have an “aloha spirit,” one of gratitude and appreciation in addition to competence.

St. George has managed to thread that needle, so much so that Bertsch said a few Hawaiian dignitaries are expected to attend.

Still, organizers at all levels have emphasized they have made every effort to make this the best Ironman World Championship ever held. If they succeed, will that be enough to convince The Ironman Group to consider bringing its premier event to Utah again?

Hawaii is “home,” Bertsch said, “but … you can never say anything is permanent.”

One thing is clear: St. George has found a way to get its message through, even when the phones at Ironman Group headquarters are ringing nonstop.

“We would have never expected this. We didn’t think about it. We weren’t trying to take it from Hawaii, right?” Lewis said. “But the opportunity came and now, having put in the work to put it together, it’ll be great to see what the reaction is. Who knows, maybe people will say, ‘This was pretty good. Why don’t we do it again?’”