May 2, 2003 – Athletes from around the globe have been arriving on St. Croix all this week to get ready to take part in the island's 15th annual triathlon, now known as the St. Croix Half-Ironman, on Sunday.
With about 800 participants registered as of Friday afternoon, the event is shaping up as the biggest St. Croix triathlon ever, according to Ian Sweet, media coordinator for Project St. Croix, which organizes the event. He said registration will continue through Saturday.
The emphasis has changed a bit for this year's event, Sweet said, because the Professional Division competition was cut almost in half with American Airlines' closing of its St. Croix office. "They used to give us a lot of free tickets, so we had the budget to bring in professionals," he explained. But he said the amateur competition will still be tight, as the event is a qualifier for the most famous Ironman competition, in Hawaii.
The St. Croix triathlon offers challenges that make it comparable to an Ironman competition, video producer Greg McFadden said. McFadden is on St. Croix filming the event for airing internationally late this summer on ESPN, Outdoor Life in the United States, and Roger's Sportsnet in Canada.
This is McFadden's sixth visit to the island for the event, and he said there is always a diverse field of international stars competing. "St. Croix plays more like an Ironman with the heat and The Beast [the triathlon's official name for the steep North Shore hill the athletes must climb on bicycle] and because it's so early in the season," he said. "There are so many factors that make it a different race."
He added: "The person who wins is truly the best athlete. There's no cheating this course."
Professional racers are competing for a $50,000 purse. "Since the early days, the professional side of this race has always been important for race publicity," Sweet said. But, he added, "although there is still a significant prize purse of $50,000, the emphasis is airing towards the age groupers who make up the bulk of the entrants."
He said people ages 18 to 63 are registered this year, and all are competing for the 30 qualifying spots for the Oct. 18 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
The St. Croix course consists of a 2-kilometer swim, a 90-kilometer bike race and a 21-kilometer marathon run. Concurrently, there's also a less-grueling, abbreviated event, called The Short Course, or The Sprint. It comprises a 750-meter swim, a 20-kilometer bike race and a 5-kilometer run.
U.S. Olympian Joanna Zieger will be looking for a record fourth-consecutive victory on Sunday. Last year, Zieger equaled Karen Smyers' three straight wins in 1992-94, Sweet said. But even if Zieger pulls off a victory this time, she will still be one short overall of Smyers, who has won the St. Croix event five times.
"Triathletes have come and gone, but the challenge still remains: St Croix is that paradise we all dream of visiting, especially after those long, cold winter months, and The Beast is still just that," Sweet said.
The St. Croix Half Ironman is expected to attract some 1,600 people to the island, coordinators say. That's a welcome change for hospitality industry businesses that have just experienced one of the most difficult seasons ever on St. Croix.
For background, updates and maps of the Half Ironman and Sprint race courses, visit the St. Croix Half Ironman Web site.
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