From the 80s and early 90s with Mike Pigg, Karen Smyers and Jimmy Riccotello to the more recent days of Mirinda Carfrae, Craig Alexander and Andy Potts, the Ironman 70.3 St. Croix, held in the U.S. Virgin Islands has always drawn a stellar pro field from all over the world.
“It’s an old race with a lot of history and prestige. All the best triathletes in the history of our sport have raced and won there,” says four-time St. Croix champion and three-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander.
“It’s one of my top three races in the world,” says 2010 Ironman world champ Carfrae, a two-time St. Croix Champion. “What’s not to love about it? There’s humid heat, a swim in the beautiful warm waters of the Caribbean Ocean, but, mostly, I love the people of the island.”
There is, indeed, a lot to love about this 25-year-old event, held annually the first weekend in May. The course is among the most challenging in the world over the half-Ironman distance. As Carfrae says, “It is a true test of fitness – you can’t come to this race and fake it.”
One thing you can’t fake, for sure, is riding up “The Beast.” A beautiful swim in warm saltwater is followed by one of the most famous bike courses in the sport. “The Beast” is found 34 km into the bike section and is a 200 m climb over one kilometre, with an average grade of 14 per cent and a maximum grade of 21 per cent. But, once The Beast is conquered, riders are rewarded with a Europeanstyle swift, twisting descent, followed by what is always a tough, windy ride on the “backside” of the course, including many challenging rolling hills.
Besides contending with the heat during the 21-km run, athletes must traverse a rolling and challenging golf course layout on the grounds of the majestic Buccaneer Hotel. It’s both picturesque and debilitating at the same time and has to be dealt with twice thanks to the two-loop course. It is all worth it, however, as the party-like finish line is packed with locals cheering and supporting every athlete.
What is special about this event and St. Croix, are the people of the island. “The race is our Super Bowl,” says long-time race director Tom Guthrie. “Everyone pitches in. The hospital staff all decamp to the site to help, Public works paves the roads, the boy scouts pick up litter, the police stop traffic on the whole course and most people go out and watch the race from their homes.”
Along with the support of the island and a very challenging course comes one of the best chances to qualify for Kona and Las Vegas on the Ironman circuit: 30 Ironman qualifying slots to the Ironman World Championship and 40 slots to the Ironman World Championship 70.3. With an average of 500 to 600 participants, those playing the percentage game see St. Croix as an extremely attractive way to qualify for Kona.
That said, the best part of Ironman 70.3 St. Croix may not be the race itself but, rather, the days preceding and following the event. Friday night’s “Jump Up” is the highlight of the pre-race festivities. Part street carnival, part Mardi Gras, it’s a celebration on the closed streets and boardwalk of Christiansted. Food, music and arts and craft vendors are everywhere, but the highlight of Jump Up is the presence of the “Mocko Jumbies” who walk and dance through the crowd on stilts.
Buck Island is another must see either before or after the race. After a short and enjoyable catamaran sail to the island you can snorkel through an amazing underwater trail of coral patch reefs, beautiful colourful fish and plenty of huge turtles. The island and its reef are actually a designated national park.
There are many, many other wonderful ways to spend your time in St. Croix, including kayaking, golfing (at the beautiful Buccaneer Hotel and Golf Course), horseback riding and scuba diving. Sport fishing is also quite popular on one of the many guided tour boats. Or you can just relax at the beach or pool, soaking in the warm weather and beautiful surroundings.
Yes, the Island of St. Croix offers something for everyone, but it is the allure of this classic, iconic triathlon that remains one of triathlon’s true classics that keeps people coming back.
For more information, visit stcroixtriathlon.com. Barry Siff is the vice president of USA Triathlon’s Board of Directors and a member of the Timex Multisport and PowerBar Elite Teams. He lives in Boulder, Colo.