By Alyssa Kimber - May 19, 2022
By a happy pandemic accident, I was given the opportunity to compete in the 2021 Ironman World Championship in St. George, Utah for my first Ironman 140.6 race. Through a series of race deferrals due to COVID-19, I ended up registered in the 2022 Ironman St. George race. This venue then became the 2021 World Championship when Ironman moved the race outside of Hawaii for the first time ever. When Ironman upgraded the race to the World Championship, I was given the choice to switch to another race which I seriously contemplated. I was somewhat intimidated by the prospect of racing alongside elite athletes in St. George and I had heard the weather horror stories from the 2012 Ironman St. George race that gave me a healthy dose of trepidation. However, I had also heard how beautiful the St. George course was and I’m not one to back down from a good challenge. I decided to remain registered. I didn’t yet know they would be updating the course maps to make the course worthy of a “World Championship” event.
In the end, Ironman created a bike course which ranked third across Ironman’s world courses for the most elevation gain (2248 m), with the majority of the tough climbs in the second half of the course. Aside from the bike course, the swim presented its own challenges with temperatures that would likely be landing somewhere in the 14-16 degree Celsius range; a pretty cold swim especially at the lower end of the range. The run course would be hilly (431 m of elevation gain) with virtually no flat sections, which could be a quad killer depending on my state after the bike.
I dutifully put in my time on the indoor bike trainer, in the pool, and converted myself to an all-weather runner. I dialed in and practiced my nutrition plan (for any women who haven’t read “Roar” by Stacy Sims, I highly recommend it). I incorporated strength and mobility training and new mental preparation techniques adopted from my CIS-UP! performance coach Bill Halliwell and “The Brave Athlete” by Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson. In the final weeks before the race I was feeling “race-ready”. The only thing left to worry about was the weather which was forecast to be hot and windy.
I landed in Las Vegas the Thursday afternoon before the race. Our flight was delayed and I was anxious about making my athlete check-in time, which was the last available slot at 5:00 – 6:00 pm. I waited for my bags for over 30 minutes before leaving them for my dad to sort out; thankfully he was on my same flight. I picked up my rental car and made it to athlete check-in with 4 minutes to spare. Next time, I would give myself an extra day or two on the front-end of the race. The volunteers gave me some good-humored flack for cutting it so close, and made sure I understood the importance of hydrating in the super dry and hot climate.
That evening I met up with my friend Morgan, who was also racing, and we attended the welcome banquet. It was a pasta dinner with an interesting mix of Hawaiian and Utah themed entertainment as well as speeches from the race coordinators. When we returned to the condo around 10:00 pm, I finally had a chance to unpack my bike. Everything appeared to be in working order with the exception of the front derailleur. It was askew, causing my chain to rub in the three easiest gears; gears that I would most certainly need for Saturday’s hills. I adjusted the next morning’s plans to incorporate a stop at the athlete village to get it looked at and hopefully fixed up.
The next morning, I made breakfast and chatted for a few minutes with my CIS Training Systems Coach David Lipscomb, which put me in a great headspace to start the day. By 8:00 am I was on the road to Sand Hollow Reservoir for a short practice swim. It was a beautiful morning with no wind and a water temperature of about 15 degrees Celsius. My hands and feet were on their way to numbness by the end of the 500 m swim but just getting in the water helped ease my nerves. I then made my way to the bike services tent in the athlete village and was able to get my bike looked at straight away. Within 45 minutes my bike was fixed up and my worries were absolved. I picked up some “swag” from the Ironman store in the village before heading back to the condo. Next up was packing my T1 and T2 bags for drop off that afternoon.
Being this was my first Ironman race I wasn’t entirely sure what “extras” I should pack in my transition bags and I erred on the side of caution. My transition bags were fit to bursting and looked a little silly hanging next to the other athlete’s bags which were half-full at best. I even got a comment from one of the volunteers in T2 that I was definitely the “most prepared”. I included various nutrition options in each bag with ice packs to keep it all cool for the next 24 hours, extra sunscreen and chamois cream, a small towel for drying off, a full change of clothes, plus the usual bike and run accessories. In my T2 bag, I also included a headlamp and a toothbrush, neither of which I ended up using and would exclude next time around.
That afternoon we dropped off our transition bags and bikes and got the “lay of the land”. It was fun walking around T1 and checking out all the race bikes. According to Ironman’s published bike count, there were approximately 440 of us racing in our first Ironman ever (out of around 3500 registered athletes), and around 80 road bikes in the field (me being a proud owner of one of them!). When we returned to the condo we worked on getting our personal needs bags in order. I also had a visit from some of my family that afternoon which was a perfect distraction from the race prep. We made dinner which was pasta with a vegan cheese sauce, chicken breast, and green beans. I also pre-hydrated with a serving of Precision Hydration PH1500. I had a bath to relax, applied my race number tattoos, and finally laid down around 8:45 pm with some sleep meditation audio. Eventually I fell asleep and woke at 3:45 am to make the 5:00 am athlete shuttle out to Sand Hollow Reservoir.
I ate two pieces of white toast with peanut butter and jam and mixed up some electrolyte (Nuun Sport) to sip through the morning. We drove 10 minutes to the athlete village and dumped our personal needs bags before boarding the last athlete shuttle around 5:05 am. Again, my personal needs bags were bursting and they looked a bit silly next to the other bags. The majority of the bulk was nutrition and freezer packs to keep things cool during the hot day. The forecast was for a high of 33 degrees Celsius and it was already over 20 degrees at 5:00 am.
It took about 40 minutes to get to Sand Hollow. While on the bus I ate an Oikos sugar-free yogurt cup and listened to music to help me relax. Once we arrived at the reservoir we filled our bottles, pumped our bike tires, and made a final bathroom stop. Around 7:00 am I changed into my wetsuit (Orca Equip with a Zone 3 Neoprene cap), dropped my “morning clothes” bag off, ate a banana, and then met up with my family who had just arrived. We snapped a few photos and then I joined the other athletes in my age group in the starting corral. It was a beautiful morning, calm and warm, and I was feeling excited and not too nervous. I chatted a little bit with the athletes around me and estimated about 1/3 of my age group were first-time racers like myself.
We were scheduled to start at 8:04 am but they were running ahead of time and the beep sounded at 7:53 am. It was a wave start organized by gender and age group. My wave was second to last. Within our waves we could freely seed ourselves and I chose the front middle position. The water felt a lot warmer than it had on Friday morning and in fact it had warmed up to 17 degrees Celsius. Due to the wave start there wasn’t a lot of jostling in the beginning, but as I started to overtake earlier waves, it became quite busy in the water. Since I’m a good swimmer and started at the back of the pack, there weren’t many opportunities to draft; I was mostly passing people.
Not long into the swim I sighted a kayak in the middle of the throng of swimmers ahead. It was to my left so I made the decision to swim around the backside of it. Well a few moments later, SMACK, right into the side of the kayak. The kayaker had been attempting to back up and cut me off. They apologized and I shook it off and carried on. I continued to make my way, sighting lines between swimmers and maintaining a steady and comfortable pace. The halfway mark felt like a human zoo. I’m guessing a lot of people were stopping at that turn to rest and catch their breath but it was causing a bit of a traffic jam. For the next 10-15 minutes I really had to fight to keep my position in the water. I got smacked a few times and drank a bit of lake water. The wind also started picking up around this time and the water got a little choppy. I started getting really excited on the final stretch to shore and kicked it up a notch. I made it out of the water exactly on pace at 1:44/100 m. Wetsuit strippers helped me out of my wetsuit and I was off to the transition tent for a full change into my bike gear.
A few weeks prior to the race I had been chatting to my mom about the recent hot temperatures down in Utah. My plan up to that point had been to wear my regular short sleeved cycling kit and shorts and to apply sunscreen as needed. She suggested I look into some UPF 50 protective clothing instead. It not only protects you from the suns rays but also provides a cooling effect and can actually keep your body temperature a few degrees cooler. In addition, I wouldn’t have to worry about reapplying sunscreen through the ride. I invested in a UPF 50 long sleeved jersey from Machines For Freedom, and a pair of Pearl Izumi Sun Legs. I paired these with my favorite CIS Cycling bib shorts and HPL Cycling socks. I probably didn’t look very intimidating but at least I avoided the brutal sun burns acquired by many of the other athletes out there that day. While changing I ate some Swedish Berries to replenish my carbohydrates and made my way out to my bike.
I ran with my shoes (Lake Cycling CX241) in one hand and my Liv Langma in the other, crossed the mount line, then put on my shoes and started cycling. The first leg of the bike was an out and back so I got a good look at the cyclists around me. This leg of the course was very busy and there was a lot of passing or being passed. I kept a close eye on my watch and kept reminding myself to slow the pace and keep it in the boundaries I had planned on. I saw the most flats/mechanicals of the day on this stretch, and a lot of debris littering the road (CO2 canisters, bottles, used gels, etc.). The out was mostly downhill and on the way back we had to ascend one of the steeper climbs of the day called “The Gap”, a 2 km climb of 7% grade. I stuck to my plan and passed a number of cyclists on the climb; an advantage of being a lighter rider. At the top was the first aid station where I had to make a quick stop for a bathroom break and water. It was hot and I doused my entire body with the bottle so I was soaking wet. I hopped back on the bike and for a few glorious minutes I was experiencing the “air conditioning effect” as the water evaporated and chilled my skin. Sadly, within 5 minutes I was dry and warm again. I also noticed right away how dry the air was (it was about 12% humidity). I made a conscious effort through the entire bike course to breath through my nose. This would keep my mouth and lips from becoming too dried out and also help prevent excess water loss, which I would certainly benefit from on that hot day. One study found nostril breathing reduced water loss by 42% compared to oral breathing. Nostril breathing also has a calming effect on me and gave me something to focus my attention on.
Next up was the “Nemesis Hill” climb around the Sand Hollow reservoir. This was a 1.5 km climb with grades ranging from 5.5% to 9% with a great view of the reservoir to my left side and Hurricane Cliffs to my right. I first noticed the wind really picking up in this section. It was a gusty side wind that made me a little nervous to get down into my aero bars, so I rode on my hoods for some of this section and the next section out on the highway. I rode through Hurricane and Washington and then into St. George where I started the Red Hills Parkway climb. There, my family was waiting with signs to cheer me on as I passed and it put a big smile on my face. I was still feeling fresh and kicked it up just a little for their benefit. I continued grabbing waters at every aid station to douse myself. Around km 75 I ran out of my Skratch Hydration so I also grabbed an orange Gatorade endurance to get me through to the bike personal needs stop.
I stopped at km 90 for the bike personal needs station where I refilled bottles and had a PB and J sandwich. If you like to eat PB and J sandwiches and find yourself in the Unites States, you have to look for the Smuckers Uncrustables PB and J sandwiches in the frozen section of the grocery stores - highly recommend! I had also packed frosted strawberry Pop-Tarts in the personal needs bag but was crushed to find the water from the ice pack had made them soggy, so I had to leave them behind. Up to that point I had also eaten a homemade bar (you can find the recipe in “Roar”) and some Haribo Goldbears. I grabbed the flask of pure maple syrup I had stashed, re-applied sunscreen to my neck, face, and wrists, stuffed ice into my back jersey pockets, and was off for the second and tougher half of the bike course.
A long sustained climb began up Gunlock Road at the 100 km mark, rising 500 m over 25 km. I thought this section would be slow and boring but it was actually quite beautiful. In Gunlock, a few families were out spraying down passing cyclists with their water hoses – pure angels. At 115 km, the grade steepens to 13% for a short climb and not long after that is “The Wall”. This climb is a steep switchback of about 1.5 km and 6% to 12% grades. It was here I saw a lot of cyclists walking and pushing their bikes up the hill. There was also a number of athletes keeled over on the side of the road, clearly heat affected. Many of the athlete’s jerseys were salt-crusted and I passed a pile of vomit at the top of the hill. The scene immediately surrounding me was dire, but off to my right was a beautiful green valley with a large predatory bird circling over the treetops. I thought how lucky I was to be there and still feeling good on that brutal day. It is a scene I will remember for a long time. As I climbed I got a shout of “you go, lady!” from a female spectator as I passed cyclist after cyclist, never going above zone 3 heart rate.
I stopped at the aid station at the top of “The Wall”, doused myself with water, and re-filled my bottles for the last time. It was quite windy now and I had trouble aiming my Skratch powder into my bottles. I will have to find a different solution for that in the next race. After the aid station was a short descent, another climb, and then a long 12 km descent back towards town. The downhill was gusty at 40-50 kph. It was a headwind now and I actually had to pedal to maintain my momentum at times. I was concerned about the gusts but there wasn’t much I could do. I buckled down and held on, praying my wheel didn’t wobble too much. At the bottom of the hill, we turned right to start the climb up Snow Canyon.
Snow Canyon is an 8 km climb with a gain of 300 m and 4% to 9% grades. The red cliff backdrop is stunning and I counted myself lucky that I was able to enjoy the experience of this beautiful climb on race day. Again I saw many racers perishing in this section. Athletes were walking their bikes uphill, calling for water, sitting on the side of the road with their heads between their knees, or receiving medical attention from the ambulance and medical staff parked there. I paced myself with another female rider and we leap-frogged up the climb together. I was still feeling good but continued to keep myself in check knowing I had a full marathon ahead of me. Instead of enjoying the descent back to town, I held on a bit terrified as I was blown around the course for a second time. I was mentally tired and ready to get off the bike. I was happy when I made it back to T2 in one piece and saw my family waiting for me and cheering me on.
I did a full change once again into a Coolibar UPF 50 long sleeve running top, Lululemon Swift Speed shorts, and a Salomon hat with a neck shade. I wore a Salomon running vest and carried my own hydration and nutrition, however I continued to stop at every aid station to soak myself with water and put ice down my top and under my hat. I had eaten a handful of sweet potatoes and another PB and J sandwich in T2, and it was not entirely agreeing with my stomach. For the next 1.5 hours I ignored a gurgling stomach and took in minimal nutrition, sticking mainly to water. I made a bathroom stop around km 5 which helped a little.
The run course was approximately a 4 km uphill section followed by a 6 km downhill out and back for a total of 21.1 km. That route was then repeated for a total of 42.2 km. At the 10 km mark, the turn-around point for the first lap, my sister and her husband were there cheering me on and playing my favorite pump up song “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen. At km 21, the rest of my family was there with high-fives and more shouts of encouragement. At the run personal needs station I ate one golden Oreo (they were too dry) and made another bathroom stop. I was now on the second and final lap of the run and I was right on pace at 2.5 hours. I started up Diagonal Street again with more encouragement from my family. I was surprised how many athletes were walking the marathon and I passed a lot of racers on the uphills. I’m not sure if this is usual or if the heat really got to everyone that day. I saw more sick athletes, including one woman lying on the sidewalk retching into the gutter. If anything, it was a good reminder to continue pacing myself and to keep myself cool with water and ice.
I was breathing too hard for strictly nostril breathing on the run and the dry air made me very thirsty. However, I didn’t want to overload my upset stomach with sugary drinks so I took in more water than planned at the aid stations and less from my hydration bottles. I managed to take in some maple syrup but cut my planned nutrition in half for the marathon portion due to the upset stomach. At km 30 I once again visited the porta-potty and was definitely starting to feel the stiffness in my hamstrings creeping in. My sister was there once again to play my second favorite pump up song, First Date by Blink-182. She ran beside me for 3 blocks carrying her bluetooth speaker. It was a really sweet moment I won’t forget. After that, I was on my own to the finish line. I kept my pace and made it to the final stretch around 5 hours into the marathon. The supporters from the Endurance Journey team were there and cheered me on as I passed, shouting “Go YQR!”. Down the final stretch of carpet, I slowed down a bit to enjoy the final moments, slapping hands with spectators lining the side of the runway. I was looking for my family and found them lined up right before the finish line. It was such a glorious moment. I pumped my hands in the air with a big smile on my face. I had done it. My first full Ironman, on an extremely tough course, on a brutally hot and windy day. Not only had I finished, but I had beat my goal time of 15 hours, finishing in 14:27:35.
After crossing the finish line, I grabbed my finisher’s “swag”, some food, and met up with my family in the athlete village. There were hugs all around and stories from the day being shared. I had a cold beer and I stayed to greet my friend who also finished her first Ironman race that day. In the end, the DNF rate for this race was 22%, extremely high for an Ironman event, especially a World Championship event. I was proud to have come through the other side. Next time, if the conditions are more favorable, I would love to push it a little harder on the bike leg. But for the conditions that day, I know I made the right choice in pacing the bike a little easier. Leading up to the race I said I wouldn’t do another Ironman. The training was hard and had honestly burned me out. But the feeling that came from finishing the race that day was so addictive, I’m certain I’ll sign up for another one.
Thank you so much to all the race volunteers, my friend and fellow racer, Morgan, my family of supporters there that day (9 strong!), my coaches Bill Halliwell and David Lipscomb of CIS Training Systems, and TrainingPeaks Coach Lesley Mettler. Thank you to HPL Cycling for supporting me and encouraging me through this milestone event. I am already looking forward to the next one!