The 2021 Ironman World Championship is set to take place Saturday morning in St. George, Utah. There’s a lot to unpack in that strange sentence, because just about everything going on with this event, which usually takes place in October in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, is a little out of sync.
So let’s try to get some of the basics covered here:
When is the Ironman World Championship?
The 2021 Ironman World Championship (yes, 2021) is Saturday, May 7.
The 2022 Ironman World Championship is properly scheduled for Hawaii in early October.
How can I watch this weekend’s race?
The race will broadcast live on the IronmanNow Facebook page beginning at 7:30 a.m. Eastern. It will also stream live on Peacock starting at 8 a.m. Eastern.
How long is an Ironman?
The Ironman triathlon is a beast: a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile cycling segment, and a standard 26.2-mile marathon.
Wait a minute. Why is the 2021 event taking place now? Isn’t it 2022?
The pandemic, which wreaked all kinds of havoc with sports schedules, was a special challenge for Ironman.
The organization, which holds triathlons of varying distances all over the world throughout the year, had to put global racing on hold for months. The 2020 world championships had to be canceled as well.
That is no small matter, since athletes dedicate years of their lives to trying to qualify for Kona, where the race has been for years. Ironman had hoped to hold its 2021 world championship last October, but Covid-19 surges dashed those plans. Fortunately, St. George, the site of the popular half-Ironman World Championship in September, offered to host a postponed 2021 full Ironman championship this weekend. In addition to the elites, the race will include some triathletes who qualified for the event way back in 2019, with some 3,000 athletes from 80 countries, regions and territories expected to start.
“This was a unique opportunity to do something different and make certain we provided a race for athletes who were put on hold and then told to get ready and then put on hold again,” said Diana Bertsch, the senior vice president for world championship events at Ironman.
Has the Ironman World Championship ever happened outside of Hawaii?
No. The event has taken place in Hawaii since 1978 and in Kailua-Kona since 1981.
So how is this race different from all other Ironman World Championships?
The distance is the same as always, but the similarities pretty much end there.
The Kona race starts in the buoyant salt water of the ocean, which is about 79 degrees in October. The St. George swim will take place in Sand Hollow Reservoir. The fresh water was a chilly 59 degrees this week. Bertsch said she expects the athletes to be allowed to wear wet suits, which is not the case in Kona.
The iconic challenges of the Kona course include the intense humidity, which averages 86 percent, and gusts of hot wind up to 60 m.p.h. whipping across the lava fields.
The signature feature of the Utah course is a bike ride that includes some brutal climbs through Snow Canyon. It’s a breathtaking section of the course for the athletes, but as Bertsch put it, “I’m not sure how many of them will be looking around and taking in the scenery at that point.”
The cycling segment includes 7,300 feet of climbing, about 1,500 feet more than the Kona course, according to Ironman. The marathon has 1,400 feet of elevation gain, compared with about 900 in Kona.
Will it be nice and cool in the Utah mountains compared with the Hawaii lava fields?
Not so much. The forecast can change quickly in that part of Utah, but right now it’s supposed to be about 90 and windy. It will be a dry heat, though. The average humidity is 26 percent this time of year, which can be less enervating during a 140.6-mile race than smothering humidity.
Who are the favorites to win?
This could be anyone’s race with many top triathletes having pulled out.
Jan Frodeno of Germany, the reigning world champion who is considered among the sport’s greats, withdrew last month with what he described as a small partial tear of his Achilles’ tendon.
“For now it’s time to play it a little bit safe,” Frodeno wrote on Instagram. “My dream is still to get to the big island of Hawaii and have a really, really great race there.”
With Frodeno out, the spotlight will shift to two Norwegians, Kristian Blummenfelt, the Olympic champion, and Gustav Iden, a two-time half-Ironman world champion.
On the women’s side, Anne Haug, the 2019 world champion, will attempt to defend her title. Daniela Ryf of Switzerland, a four time back-to-back world champion from 2015 to 2018, will be on the starting line as well. Lucy Charles-Barclay of Britain was an early favorite as the reigning half-Ironman world champion, an event she won in St. George last September. But she pulled out with a broken hip in March.
On Monday, Laura Philipp, the 2021 Ironman European Champion, pulled out after testing positive for Covid-19. “It is a nightmare!” she wrote on Instagram. “After 2.5 years of waiting for a big race to happen I’m now stopped by the virus.”
All that said, the race should have plenty of surprises. Since there has not been a full Ironman in St. George in a decade, there is no clear strategy for managing the race the way there is in Kona. This world championship may go to an athlete with specific strengths.
And then they get to do it all over again in October in Kona.