Ironman St George – the bike

The Ironman St George bike course has a reputation of being the most difficult bike course of any of the North American Ironman events. The reputation was not undeserved.

Normally I like to ride portions of the bike course and preview the whole thing from the car, but for this race, I decided to skip my usual course recon. When I got out on the course on Saturday, I wasn’t sure if that had been the right decision. On the other hand, if I had driven it beforehand, I’m not sure I would have had the nerve to show up on race morning. I would have been too intimidated because the course was hard. After leaving the reservoir and heading back towards town through some rollers, we started the loop that we would repeat twice. The loop was a non-stop, steady uphill climb from mile 25 to mile 50. The climb was broken up by some portions that were actually much steeper than a steady climb. My Garmin says the elevation change was 5404 feet, but I assure you it felt like more than that. It’s fair to say I was in over my head.

We live in the mountains and I have to ride a steep 2.5 mile hill if I want to ride anywhere from my house, but I don’t actually enjoy a lot of climbing. I’m not particularly good at it, although I have been working to get better. I do my share of hilly rides, but I think Sonja would wholeheartedly agree with me when I say that I was not really prepared for this ride.

And I haven’t even mentioned the wind yet.

On Friday afternoon, when it had been so windy, I started to become concerned about the bike. I really was not all that concerned before then because I was planning to race by heart rate and I felt like I could tackle the hills, even if I had to ride them slowly. But the wind was a new, unwelcome variable. I know everyone hates wind, but I really hate wind. When I saw the wind on Friday, I announced to Audra that night, “if it is windy like this tomorrow, I am going to bike 7 hours.” She assured me that was ridiculous and I was not going to ride 7 hours, and besides, it was supposed to be much calmer on Saturday. The wind was going to be a non-factor.

At some point towards the end of the first loop, I began to calculate my pace and the distance we had ridden and it occurred to me that I had been right – I was on track to ride over 7 hours. I was riding within my target heart rate and felt like I was doing a decent job with the course – I was passing lots of people and not getting passed too much – but it was still an ego blow to realize I was going to have a 7-hour bike split. As I’ve mentioned, I hadn’t really prepared for that.

Most of the course is a blur to me now of headwinds, refueling, and gorgeous scenery, but there is one amusing moment that stands out. As we rode past the aid station in Gunlock, I saw a sign that said, “4 miles until the Wall!” “I wonder what that means?” I said to myself. Then about a mile later I saw it – a stretch of road that was much steeper than anything we had ridden so far. I had heard there was a gnarly, steep climb, but I had assumed we had already ridden it because there had been so much climbing. At mile 50-something in the first loop, the Wall was not such a big deal. But by mile 90, it had grown steeper and longer. I think I was riding less than 6 mph and was at definite risk of toppling over because I was moving so slowly. A guy in front of me was riding zig-zag across the road, paper boy style. I’m sure behind me, some people probably dismounted their bikes and walked. But not too long after the Wall, we reached Veyo and then we were treated to a screaming fast 15-mile descent back into town. Many people coasted this descent, but I peddled as fast as my legs could spin, trying to keep my heart rate high and hoping to make up some time.

I actually enjoyed the bike course. Sure it was windy and had a lot of climbing, but it was beautiful and I mostly stuck to my plan and road comfortably hard the whole time. My splits for the loops were almost exactly even. I have a lot of work left to do with my bike training, but I feel like I am getting stronger.

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