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

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 1:13 a.m. MDT

Mathias Hecht crosses the finish line as the winner of the 2011 Ironman St. George. (Courtesy of Mathias Hecht) Mathias Hecht crosses the finish line as the winner of the 2011 Ironman St. George. (Courtesy of Mathias Hecht)

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.

Dave Ference competes in the Ironman Couere de Alene in 2010. (Courtesy Dave Ference) Dave Ference competes in the Ironman Couere de Alene in 2010. (Courtesy Dave Ference)

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.”

Dave Ference competes in Ironman Florida. (Courtesy Dave Ference) Dave Ference competes in Ironman Florida. (Courtesy Dave Ference)

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.

"St. George is such a unique course,” Hoffman said. “I am really excited to race the new 70.3 distance and expect it to be just as intense, if not more, than the full distance. We just finish in half the time."

He acknowledges the brutal course, but like Ference, believes that’s what epitomizes the spirit of the Ironman races.

"I think a lot of people are really worried about the bike ... as they should be, but the run course is going to sneak up on a lot of people,” Hoffman said. “It's tough. Challenge of the course aside — the scenery in St. George is absolutely incredible. Growing up in Colorado, natural beauty came pretty standard. I can honestly say St. George has it all. With stunning lava fields and the red rocks, there is no shortage of beauty. St. George is a strength course. Athletes specializing in all different backgrounds are going to really have to stick this one out. Look for the field to have some killer performances as well as some incredible blow-ups."

Ference feels fortunate to have such an incredible race so close to home. He will compete in the 45-49 division and looks forward to the energy that always accompanies a triathlon.

“For me, it’s more of a lifestyle thing than a sport,” he said. “I just enjoy doing the races. I’ve met a lot of people doing these. It’s a little bit of a family. Like my wife says, ‘Oh, you get to be with your people.’”

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