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The 2021 Ironman World Championship was not a typical world championship: First, it took place not in 2021, but in 2022, due to COVID-19 postponements. Additionally, instead of being held in Kona, the place where it has been held since 1978, the race took place in St. George, Utah.
But perhaps the biggest change in this year’s race was the makeup of athletes. Rather than only hosting age-groupers who had qualified for the world championship in local qualifying races the preceding year, this race originally welcomed any triathlete who wanted to sign up (before limiting registration). On top of that, many of these racers were coming out of post-pandemic situations, racing their world championship early in the year instead of in the usual October time slot.
How did all these factors affect the race? In what ways did St. George look like a Kona race, and in what ways was it something else entirely? A look at the data helps us find out.
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An American world championship
One interesting thing about the world championship race in St. George was the much-smaller international field compared to Kona. At Kona, the average percentage of athletes from the US is about 30%. At St. George, however, 63% of registered athletes were from the US This rate also holds for those who did not start (DNS), so it is not the case that international athletes were more or less likely to show up after registration. st. George was much less of an “international” world championship race than Kona.
RELATED: How Did the World Championship in St. George Stack Up to Kona?
DNS and DNF rates at Ironman St. | George
In the days leading up to the race in St. George, the big storyline was who wasn’t racing—multiple pros, including current 70.3 World Champion Gustav Iden, dropped from the race before it started. The same phenomenon occurred in the age-group fields. Out of the 3,650 athletes registered 16% were DNS, giving us a field of 2,668 who actually started the race.
In a previous article, we highlighted how the rate of completion at Kona was much higher (93%) than in qualifying races (80%). At St. George, the completion rate was 79%. While both genders were more or less likely to DNS, age group women (24%) were more likely to DNF than men (15%). This trend is the opposite of what happened with the pros, where all the women who raced were able to finish, as opposed to 29% of the participating pro men who landed a DNF.
Where did Ironman St. George athletes DNF?
Where did athletes throw the towel? Of the 578 athletes who recorded a DNF, 234 stopped at the swim, 306 on the bike leg, and only 40 on the run.
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Average finishing times: George vs. Kon
In terms of finishing times, we would expect the average age-grouper time to be slower at St. George than at Kona, since St. George initially welcomed all athletes, not just those who qualified. Sure enough, we see an average difference of almost 2 hours between the average time at St. George and the average time in the last five editions of Kona. That difference was bigger among the men (except the very senior males, and physically challenged divisions, who were actually faster in Utah), stretching as wide as 2:26 in the M30-34 division. The pros, on the other hand, were faster in St. George than in Kona, the women finishing on average 10 minutes earlier, while the men were 17 minutes faster than at Kona.
Average finishing times by division
|Division||st. George||Kona (Last 5 Years)||Difference|
Top 500 finishers: St. George vs. Kon
In order to make a more fair comparison among age-groupers, let us only look at the first 500 finishers at both Kona and St. George. This way, we are likely eliminating from the analysis those who did not qualify to the Ironman World Championship race. Yet even when we do this, we find that the times at St. George were still slower than Kona, by an average of 1 hour and 27 minutes, or 14%. Where does this difference arise from?
Average finishing times by division (top 500 finishers)
|Division||st. George||Kona (Last 5 Years)||Difference|
Comparing the courses
On paper, the course in St. George is tougher on the bike and the run, with an additional 1,500 feet and 400 feet to climb, respectively. The slightly-lower average temperature in Utah might have given racers a small boost, but in fact we see that average bike and run times were 14% and 16% slower, respectively, than in Kona. The swim was in a freshwater reservoir instead of the ocean, so the relative loss of buoyancy might have slowed times down, but the lower water temperature made the race wetsuit-legal, which would have had a positive impact on swim times. Overall, however, swim times were still slower than at Kona, if only by 6%.
|Water Temps||62* F||79* F|
|Total Ascent Bike (ft)||7374||5814|
|Total Ascent Run (ft)||1413||1009|
|Air Temps||85* F||82-95*F|
The differences in the courses were likely some of the biggest factors in the difference in times, but surely there are others. We have previously seen that many Kona racers repeat attendance at Kona: In 2019, 40% of Kona racers had been to the world championship at least once before. In St. George, only 545 of the 3360 athletes, just 15%, had been to Kona before. Even if we adjust the proportion to make it only in terms of the number of slots available for St George (2042), that is still only a 27% repeat rate, a far cry from 2019. In short, a lot of the fastest age -groupers in the world simply did not go to Utah.
Finally, we need to take into account the COVID factor. The last three years have not been ideal for training, and though we are (hopefully) near the end of the pandemic, surely this season has been atypical for most triathletes. We can see this in the fastest times in the qualifying races. While the trend in the last few years was an faster time, the fastest race times throughout the year were a little bit slower, as the graph shows.
RELATED: Data Dive: The Fastest and Slowest Ironman and 70.3 Courses of 2021
Ironman George was an official Ironman World Championship, but it was nothing like what we were used to seeing in Kona. Even when taking into account that many racers didn’t directly qualify for the race, average finishing times were much slower than in recent editions of the world championship race in Hawaii. No doubt the differences between the courses, especially with the added ascents on the run and the bike, contributed to that time difference, but also important is the absence of the faster triathletes in the scene, and the impact that the pandemic has had on training . With Kona 2022 a mere five months away, it will be interesting to see how the two world championships compare.
RELATED: Data Dive: 9 Takeaways on Qualifying for Kona