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6 Takeaways from the Ironman World Championship St. George

Observations from yesterday's pro racing in Utah

Photo by: Kevin Mackinnon

It turned out to be quite a day. While this definitely wasn’t Hawaii, it was certainly quite a race. After going two years and seven months without an Ironman World Championship, the event in St. George, Utah yesterday delivered more than a little bit of excitement. A look at some of the defining moments of the race:

She’s back!

Yes, we know she never really left, but we haven’t seen a performance like the one we saw from Daniela Ryf yesterday since Kona, 2018. Now, to be fair, she considers that to be possibly her best race ever – she took the title in Kona despite being stung by a jelly fish during the swim – but, heading into yesterday’s race, Ryf had seemed beatable to her competition. She’d had a number of disappointing days at some big races, which left us all wondering which Daniela Ryf would arrive in St. George – the unbeatable version we had seen so many years, or the less daunting version we saw at the 70.3 worlds held here in St. George last year.

Despite a sub-par swim, it was evident from the first pedal strokes of the bike that the it was Daniela Ryf 1.0 that was on the course here in Utah, and her dominating performance was reminiscent of so many of her impressive Kona races in years past. Her emotional finish said it all – an outpouring of energy that signalled she was thrilled to have proven she still has what it takes to be the best in the world. She now has an even five Ironman World Championship titles and five Ironman 70.3 World Championship wins. Add to that her U23 world title and you have 11 world championships. And, based on her race yesterday, more seem to be in the cards.

Blummenfelt’s incredible year just keeps going

Last year Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt set the auspicious goal of winning the Olympics, the World Triathlon World Championship and the Ironman World Championship all in the same year. The cancellation of the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii curtailed that plan, but he settled nicely with a 7:21 performance at Ironman Cozumel. Even though he didn’t achieve the goal in the same calendar year, officially he did it, winning the 2021 Ironman World Championship St. George to go along with the world title and Olympic win.

Here’s the scary thing – Blummenfelt had been sick a few weeks before the race and still seemed to be dealing with a bit of a chest cold on race day. And he still won, running a 2:38 marathon on a tough run course after an incredibly tough bike.

Kat Matthews is the real deal

Not that anyone who saw her impressive race at Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote in March didn’t know that before, but what was most impressive about the Brit’s performance yesterday was the way she handled the pressure of being a race favourite. Matthews took all the predictions that she was a potential world champ in stride, using them to build her confidence rather than increase her nerves. She then put together an incredible performance that saw her keep even an on-form Daniela Ryf honest throughout the day. The fact that Matthews was able to hold off the spirited charge of Anne Haug for the second time this year (Haug was second to Matthews in Lanzarote) proves that Matthews isn’t just doing well when others aren’t in form – she more than competes with the best in the world. This was Matthews’ first Ironman World Championship, and if she can continue to handle the pressure as well as she has, she is going to continue to be one to watch on the sport’s biggest stages.

Lionel Sanders is figuring all this out

After his runner-up finish in Kona in 2017, Sanders’ full-distance racing seemed to hit a brick wall. After walking a number of marathons at Ironman events, last year Sanders started to get things figured out. While he didn’t come away with an Ironman win in 2021, he finished second at a bunch of them (Tri Battle Royale, Ironman Copenhagen, Ironman Chattanooga, Ironman Florida) and added another runner-up finish at the Ironman World Championship St. George.

Sanders is one of the most popular figures in the sport because he lays it all out on the line every time he races. His incredible final few kilometres on the run yesterday saw him surge past Braden Currie with just a few hundred metres to go.

Related: Lionel Sanders – there is nothing to be nervous about

Out on the course yesterday Sanders’ close friend and videographer Talbot Cox was worried that Sanders was giving up too much time to the front runners. Sanders, though, seemed to be in perfect control. He dialled in a perfectly paced performance – as he himself pointed out, he came off the bike with Kristian Blummenfelt and ran a 2:42 marathon. That wasn’t enough to win (Blummenfelt blasted a 2:38), but it was the best he could do on the day. You can’t ask for more than that.

Add Ruth Astle to the “real deal” list

In 2019 Ruth Astle won her age group at the Ironman World Championship. (She was the top age-grouper overall in Kona.) She turned pro the following year, but didn’t really have a chance to compete at the pro level until 2021. Last year she took two Ironman titles in Mallorca and South Africa. Yesterday she proved that she can compete with the best with an impressive fifth-place performance.

Cam Wurf is somehow managing to combine pro cycling and triathlon careers

After helping his teammate Dylan van Baarle from the Ineos Grenadiers win the prestigious Paris-Roubaix cycling race a few weeks ago, Australia’s Cam Wurf wasn’t sure he’d be able to compete here in St. George because he might have been named to the team’s Giro d’Italia squad. Despite all the World Tour cycling he’s been doing, Wurf was very much a factor in yesterday’s race, driving the “train” that helped keep Blummenfelt within striking distance of the lead group on the bike. Wurf posted the day’s fastest bike split – 4:15 – which is hardly a surprise. It’s one thing to be a former pro cyclist and finish in the top 20 at the Ironman World Championship (Wurf was 18th), its another thing entirely to do that while continuing a pro cycling career. If Wurf can get some free time away from the bike heading into Kona later this year, look for him to post another top-five finish on the Big Island.