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HomeNewsArchivesWHAT'S THE BIG DEAL: A TRIATHLON PRIMER

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL: A TRIATHLON PRIMER

May 4, 2002 – Let's say you've been vaguely wondering about those hundreds of fit-looking folks who've been wandering around Christiansted in the last few days, and that you have little or no idea what the St. Croix Half Ironman is.
Here's your guide to become an instant expert by the start at 6:30 a.m. Sunday of what is far and away the largest sporting event in the Virgin Islands — and one that has over the course of 14 years put the territory squarely on the world triathlon map.
Statistically speaking
Swimming 1.24 miles (2 km), bicycling another 56 miles (90 km) and then running 13.1 miles (21 km) more in the hot tropical sun is not most people's idea of a great way to spend your day on St. Croix. But for more than 900 athletes — most of them from off island and dozens of them professionals competing for a fair amount of money and positions that will qualify them for more-demanding events — the St. Croix Half Ironman is a must stop on the world circuit.
The event got its start back in 1988 as the America's Paradise Triathlon, the brainchild of promoter Renny Roker, a Crucian who had been working in show biz in California. The flamboyant Roker, who today is the chief executive of Teens on the Green, a Miami-based program to support promising minority youth golfers, managed to get embroiled in assorted controversies and departed the scene a couple of years later, but the event continued as the St. Croix International Triathlon.
Last year, for the first time, the St. Croix triathlon became an official qualifying event for the Ironman World Championships held each October in Kona, Hawaii. The Virgin Islands event is one of 17 races worldwide with that designation. This year, the 30 top finishers from St. Croix will qualify for the Hawaii Ironman. The race also offers 10 slots for Ironman USA Lake Placid and 10 more for Subaru Ironman Canada.
(Yes, a full Ironman doubles the lengths of the Half Ironman events — to 2.4 miles in the water, 112 miles on wheels and 26.2 miles — that's a marathon — on foot. Triathletes training for full Ironman competition typically spend 18 to 24 hours a week working out — say, with seven miles of swimming, 225 miles of biking and 48 miles of running. Many competitors also cross-train with weights, stretching, yoga and more. It doesn't leave a lot of time for a day job.)
With the new Ironman qualifying designation, last year's St. Croix triathlon attracted about 700 participants — double the number of the year before. With registration exceeding 900 this year, it still has growth potential. For the island's hospitality-oriented businesses, it's a lot like having a cruise ship in port for a whole week, with the passengers checked into hotels.
"It's grown to where now it really makes a big impact," Don Siener, co-president of the Christiansted Restaurant and Retail Association, says. This year's event has more than a hundred corporate and business sponsors.
From the start, through its various incarnations, the triathlon has been hosted by Project St. Croix, a not-for-profit organization founded by the late Betty Sperber, owner of the King Christian Hotel and a tireless booster of St. Croix as a visitor destination. Her sons, Miles and Mark, are actively involved in the triathlon today.
Also from the start, the triathlon has had its "other" name — "Beauty and the Beast." On this emerald isle (assuming adequate rain) set in a sapphire sea, the "Beauty" part is a no-brainer. The "Beast" is the high-rising 0.7-mile stretch of road the triathletes come up against on the North Shore 21 miles into the biking route. The cyclists must ascend 600 feet on sheer pedal power on the hill, which has an average grade of 14 percent and a maximum grade of 18 percent.
Race director Tom Guthrie has, not entirely in jest, told visiting reporters that this is akin to climbing the Washington Monument on a bike.
Any triathlon is a test of speed, strength, endurance and mettle. The St. Croix Half Ironman has the reputation of being one of the toughest — its demands approaching those of a full Ironman in more forgiving climes. New Zealand's Cameron Brown, who qualified last year for Hawaii's big kahuna Ironman by placing third on St. Croix, told Triathlete magazine that the V.I. event is "probably the hardest Half Ironman around."
And then there's the Sprint
A separate, less grueling competition that's part of the St. Croix triathlon is the St. Croix Sprint. In this event, the swim is 750 meters, the biking event is 12.5 miles, and the run is 3.1 miles. The Sprint aquatic segment doesn't start until the last wave of Half Ironman swimmers is into the water, but because of the shorter distances involved, the Sprint athletes overlap the Half Ironman competitors throughout the events.
Could this get confusing? You bet. That's why there are arrows painted along the race-route roads in two colors. The red ones mark the course for the Half Ironman competitors, and yellow ones are for the Sprint contestants. Adding to the potential confusion, bikers and runners at some points will be covering the same ground in Christiansted.
What's it worth?
The total prize purse is $50,000, "one of the largest in the sport," according to the St. Croix triathlon web site. The men's and women's top 10 Half Ironman finishers get the biggest prizes. Awards also will be given to the top three male and female finishers in 11 age-group divisions and a military division. The youngest age group is 18-24; the oldest is 70-plus. There also are prizes for top overall male and female finishers from the Virgin Islands and from elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Sprint awards will go to the top five finishing males and females. Awards will be presented at a banquet Sunday evening back where it all began — at Hotel on the Cay.
Last year's top winners, Ryan Bolten and Joanna Zeigler, collected $7,000 apiece for their four-plus hours' work.
Ironman icons and locals of note
Guthrie calls this year's professional field the strongest ever — in numbers and in capabilities. "The race at the front of this field is going to be incredible," he predicts.
Among the biggest names in this year's St. Croix race are defending Ironman World Champion Natascha Badmann of Switzerland, who has held that title for three of the last four years; two-time World Championships short course winner Spencer Smith of Great Britain; 2001 St. Croix triathlon defending champions Zeigler and Bolten of the United States (both 2000 Olympians); two-time Ironman World Champion Luc Van Lierde of Germany, who finished first on St. Croix in 2000; and former Ironman World Champion Karen Smyers, a five-time St. Croix winner.
On the local scene, triathletes from St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas are taking part. Those to watch include:
– Kent Bradbury, 36, of St. Croix, who placed in the top 20 in his age group last year and last month won the West is Best Triathlon.
– Maurice Kurg 42, of St. Thomas, making his St. Croix Half Ironman debut after placing second behind Bradbury in the West is Best and winning the Endurance Sports East End Sprint in March.
– Roger Hatfield of St. Croix, who has participated in nearly every St. Croix triathlon and consistently finishes among the top local athletes. (Hatfield says he's gratified to see more people out walking these days. "I certainly hope this race has influenced people to get healthy," he says. "Anyone who is going to break six hours has to put in an immense amount of preparation.")
The world is watching
Television viewers nationwide will get a good look at St. Croix later this year when a half-hour segment on the St. Croix Half Ironman airs during prime time on the Outdoor Life Network, which reaches 60 million homes across the nation. ESPN International, seen in 125 countries, will air an hour-long segment, as it
has done in the past. "This event has an incredible positive impact on the Virgin Islands, not only economically but also through worldwide television exposure," race organizer Miles Sperber says.
The courses
The triathlon begins Sunday at 6:30 a.m. at Hotel on the Cay. The Half Ironman swim event follows a triangular course that loops through the Christiansted harbor to finish at the town wharf. Swimmers will enter the water from a running start in assigned "waves" that are announced.
Double click on the map illustrating this story for maps showing all of the routes.
According to the triathlon planners, the direction of the last 20 miles of the bike course was changed this year "to take advantage of newly paved roads."
Rain don't stop de Carnival, but it could stop de triathlon. Last year, it was a close call. Race day was overcast but dry, contributing to better times than would have been recorded under a searing sun. The next day, it poured.
What's allowed and what's not
Unlike, say, Olympic competition, it's okay in the triathlon to take whatever medications you need. The instructions to competitors note: "If you are taking medication or have special medical considerations that may affect your performance or treatment in the event of an emergency, please inform the medical staff prior to the start of the race or notify our staff at check-in on Friday or Saturday. Please ask for medical help at the first indication that you may need assistance. You will not be penalized for receiving medical treatment, and you will not be required to withdraw from the competition unless you require transportation, IV fluids or if medical personnel determine that continued participation compromises your safety."
In the swim segment, all competitors are required to wear a swimcap — which is to be waved in the air as a signal in case of trouble. Among the official onlookers for the aquatic portion of the event are sailboarders stationed every 100 meters along the course.
Naturally the athletes, who don't wear much in the way of clothing, are urged to use sunscreen with a high sun-protection factor — but only after being body-marked with their entry number.
Ways to get disqualified include entering the water in the wrong "wave" and failing to stay in the left lane at all times on the bike segment.
According to the rules and regs, "All disqualifications will be in regard to safety. All other infractions will be penalized at one-minute increments per call except drafting, which is a three minute penalty per call." Drafting has to do with staying a specified minimum distance away from other riders, both in front (7 meters) and to the sides (3 meters), except when in the process of passing or being passed.
The countdown
Registration was on Friday and Saturday at the Scale House on the Christiansted Wharf There was an optional but recommended "course talk" at 1 p.m. Saturday at the bandstand, and a meeting for professional triathletes was set for 4 p.m. at Fort Christiansvaern.
Race day gets under way Sunday at 5 a.m. with race check-in and number marking at the Christiansted wharf. At 6 a.m. the lineup for the swim begins on the beach at Hotel on the Cay, and at 6:30 a.m. the event officially gets under was as the first wave of swimmers enters the water at a running start.
Last year's best time was 4:07. Depending on which wave he's in, this year's men's winner could be crossing the finish line by shortly after 10:30 a.m.
Road notes
A complex schedule is in place for the closing and reopening of the roads over which the biking and running segments of the race will proceed. There are points along the routes where motorists will be allowed to cross the course at given times. Drivers are urged to use alternative routes, if possible, to get to their destinations.
As of midnight Saturday, there will be no parking allowed in Christiansted along the race course, and as of 5 a.m. Sunday, no motor vehicles will be allowed into the downtown area except for those with passes, which will be allowed to proceed to designated parking areas.
Roads that have been closed will be reopened between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. as they become free of triathlon competitors.
For more information, visit the St. Croix triathlon web site. For a look at the wide, wild world of Ironman competitions, check out the Ironman Live web page.

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