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Ironman 70.3 St. George course captures the spirit of the sport, participants say

Published: Friday, May 3 2013 2:46 p.m. MDT

The thing that makes Ironman 70.3 St. George too challenging for many triathletes is the very thing that makes it special.

At least that’s the way Salt Lake City’s Dave Ference sees it.

“I think it was too demanding a course,” said Ference, who will compete in the race as an age-division competitor while some of the world’s best triathletes will compete for the U.S. championship. “In my humble opinion, that’s what an Ironman needs to be. The spirit of the Ironman gets lost if it’s too easy. Having a course that’s an absolute mother of a course, that’s an Ironman.”

He understands, however, that for events to succeed, the masses need to sign up to suffer right alongside the pros — something that’s unique to participatory sports like triathlons.

The St. George course is both tough and beautiful, but it has never sold out. Organizers changed the event from a full Ironman to a half Ironman hoping to attract more people like Ference. While the numbers did increase, the race still didn't fill up like others.

The fact that the race didn’t sell out is the reason Ference signed up.

“I think the venue could leave in a few years, and I want to go do it before it’s gone,” he said. “ I think it was just too demanding for the average racer.”

Unless, of course, more people begin to see what Ference saw when he started to compete in triathlons when he was still in high school. The East High swimmer and soccer player saw an Ironman on television in 1984.

“I just couldn’t believe anyone would do that,” he said rattling off the requirements — a 2.4 mile open-water swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon (26.2 miles). “It was really intriguing.”

He found a local sprint distance triathlon and signed up.

That was it for me,” he said. “I completely caught the bug. … It was the coolest thing I had ever done.”

What hooked him wasn’t just his own accomplishment — it was the way the race became a victory for anyone who managed to cross the finish line.

“It was one of those things where they celebrated everybody finishing, instead of just the one really fast athlete,” Ference said. He was used to competitive sports being about the winner crossing the line and everyone else feeling like they’d lost.

At triathlons, the athletes who cross the finish line hours after the winners have accepted their medals are just as revered as the elite athletes.

“That really spoke to me,” he said. “It was just really attractive and that’s something I still really love. The finish line is sort of magical.”

This year, the Ironman 70.3 St. George will act as the U.S. championships, meaning the first U.S. athlete to finish will be crowned the U.S. champion. That’s something that makes this weekend’s event even more special.

And just like those age-group participants who are racing against their own goals and for their own reasons, the elite athletes hope to use the tough Southern Utah course to learn their own lessons.

Mathias Hecht, the 2011 Ironman St. George champion, looks forward to testing himself again in what is one of the world’s most unique Ironman courses.

"The Ironman 70.3 St. George U.S. pro championship has it all,” Hecht said. “You can't find a more scenic and challenging course. This is not just a normal race. It is an adventure in an amazing countryside."

Ben Hoffman, the 2012 Ironman St. George champ and a three time Ironman champion, agrees.

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