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It’s Not About The Beast.
By Tom Demerly

Overlooking the course from The Buccaneer.

If it were just one hill it wouldn’t be a big deal.

Consider the case of a race run in paradise- but at a price. It is perhaps the most beautiful race on earth, on par with the Ford Ironman 70.3 Triathlon in Monaco, right up there with the idyllic Laguna Phuket Triathlon. But add to this pristine setting the fact that you will likely have your slowest ever 70.3 race time under the most difficult terrain and most challenging conditions.

Now you know the quandry of what is likely the toughest 1/2 Ironman on earth, The Ford Ironman 70.3 Triathlon in St. Croix. It's a race famous for one hill, but about so much more than just a big hill rising up frm paradise.

The St. Croix 70.3 Triathlon features “The Beast”. This is the hill notorious for being one of the most difficult climbs in the sport of triathlon. St. Croix isn’t just about “The Beast”, the hill with grades up to 27%. The Ford Ironman 70.3 St. Croix is a conspiracy of difficulties packed into a 1.2 mile swim, 56 miles on the bike and 13.1 mile run. The conspiracy creates a concentration of difficulties tough to find in any other five half Ironmans around the world making St. Croix arguably the hardest single 1/2 Ironman on earth. Take the toughest swim from any 70.3 race, the toughest bike course and the hottest, hardest run and put them together in paradise and you have St. Croix. It is so much more than just a hill called The Beast.

While the hype centers on the hill they call “The Beast” the real character of the course starts with a choppy swim against a noticeable current, an absolutely savage bike course and a grating run that uses heat and hills to slow competitors to a pace-killing grind. You won’t set a P.R. in St. Croix. You will test the limits of your tenacity, bike handling skills, determination and fitness.

The swim at St. Croix starts from a small island at The Hotel on the Cay 300 yards into Christiansted Harbor. We swim to the start on the island then wait for their wave start. When the gun goes off we swim north into a triangle shaped course around Christiansted Harbor with the long side of the triangle into the current. Throughout the swim submerged SCUBA divers monitor our progress and assure our safety. At the turn buoy swimmers pick up speed with the current at their backs and swim along the walls of historic Fort Christiansted back to the swim finish and T1.

"While the hype centers on the hill they call “The Beast” the real character of the course starts with a choppy swim against a noticeable current, an absolutely savage bike course and a grating run that uses heat and hills to slow competitors to a pace-killing grind. "

 

Before every race the bikes go together...

Riding to the race start at 4:00 A.M.

A secure transition area is assured.

Sunrise over the most challenging 70.3 race.

Running through the Buccaneer at mile 10.

A reconnaissance trip to The Beast.

Discussing race gear with St. Croix winner Mike Pigg.

From T1 the real character of the course is revealed: Relentless and unyielding. If you are looking for the easy part of this course you won’t find it. There isn’t an easy section. From the swim start to the finish the course is technical and challenging. Think of the factors that could make a bike course difficult: Heat, wind, hills, bad pavement, even speed bumps and wild animals. St. Croix has them all, sometimes all at once. First it was the wet pavement and slippery surfaces of roads recently paved specifically for the race combined with those they hadn't gotten to yet. Then comes the road debris from sand washed into the turns from erosion and leaves from overhanging tropical trees. Don't forget an island festooned with poultry running frantically about trying to avoid the frying pan but not worried about getting in a cyclist's way; the chickens are everywhere. They seem to congregate at the side of the road on technical descents. Then you have The Beast, which we all knew about. What we didn't count on was that water would be running down it so riding up it was like cycling up a slippery waterfall. Going down it is like a waterpark ride with no sides.

No worries though, once off The Beast you rode out onto a long expanse of wide road. And wind. The wind here is like the wind in Kona, hot, relentless and angry. It is like pushing a mattress into the wind. That low gearing you needed to get up The Beast gets another workout on the "Headwind Highway".

You do turn back at the opposite end of the Island around mile 40 on the bike. Don't expect a reprieve when the wind swings around to your back. It is another round of hills pummeling your legs and challenging your bike handling skills until you get back to town for T2. Oh, and I did forget to mention the "Hot Corner". Picture riding your bike at top speed through the aisle of a supermarket- a crowded supermarket. With a wet floor.

"That low gearing you needed to get up The Beast gets another workout on the 'Headwind Highway'."

We left T1 to begin the bike under a typical tropical downpour. Recently paved roads laden with oil turned to a skating rink. Competitors slid off the course like they were riding a greasy snake. The vicious combination of new and old pavement, winding turns and constant undulations soaked by rain meant you either rode with caution or you lost skin. The scenery at St. Croix is breathtaking but you better keep your eyes on the constantly changing road. The sinewy course undulates its way to the maw of The Beast at the 20 mile mark. You’ll turn left and see the gradient written on the pavement. You’re in the jaws of The Beast. The initial 13% grade of The Beast kicks up to over 15%, rears like a cobra ready to strike, and then delivers its real venom at a 27% wall section on the left side of the switchback three quarters of the way up the climb. It takes most competitors 7-8 minutes to ascend The Beast. Pro Triathlete and St. Croix multi-time winner Mike Pigg once made the ascent in 5:02 without an elevator. The legacy of his record is written on the pavement at the top of the climb- albeit incorrectly. The pavement reads “5:20” but Pigg actually climbed the Beast in 5:02 to win a now defunct hill climb prize for the pros.

"Competitors slid off the course like they were riding a greasy snake."

Doing a reconnaissance of the The Beast and the rest of the bike course is mandatory for new athletes. My wife Sarah and I enjoyed the kind hospitality of Lynda Neuman and Bill Truax, competitors in the Ford Ironman CEO Challenge, who were gracious enough to take us on a guided tour of the bike course prior to the race including a test ride up The Beast. Lynda and Bill are veterans of several St. Croix races and provided valuable insights into course conditions along with insights from St. Croix veterans on Slowtwitch’s excellent forum (thanks Cabana Boy!).

What we learned about the bike course- and all of St. Croix 70.3- is that even with the difficulty of The Beast the race is much more than just The Beast.

“The race doesn’t even begin until after The Beast” Said Bill Truax, 13th place finisher in the CEO Challenge event and returning St. Croix veteran.

"I'll always be back." Said Truax, "This course is about pushing your limits and looking for improvement every year. The more you know the course, the better you get. The first year here is a learning curve. Every year I've gotten faster."

Once you navigate the winding descent of The Beast (this year on wet, slick roads) you begin a tortured push against wet mattress headwinds that started over Mexico and gained momentum across a thousand miles of open ocean. The effect is humbling. Think you’re a strong cyclist? Mile after mile of riding at a full effort but only yielding 17 M.P.H. may change your concept of what “strength” means. The bike course at St. Croix is more a test of will, patience and tenacity than strength and fitness. It is also a test of bike handling skill that requires concentration so intense I entered T2 with a cornering migraine.

The bike course never relents until you clip out. It is simply one climb, one turn, one brutish headwind section after another in rapid succession. Sometimes you are climbing on wet, slippery, rough chip seal pavement into a headwind on a tricky uphill corner when a chicken runs into the road in front of you. Welcome to St. Croix- watch out for that chicken!

"It is simply one climb, one turn, one brutish headwind section after another in rapid succession. "

In one incident that typifies the challenge of St. Croix and the indomitable sprit of its competitors Bill Truax told us about CEO Challenge Winner Shayne Macherowski. Macherowski was passed on the course by an official motorcycle and surprised when the motorcycle slid out in a wet corner and crashed. The official on the motorcycle was unconscious. Macherowski stopped his bike, dismounted and rendered aid to the race official then ran back up the road to summon assistance for the official at a nearby home. Once he was certain the man was cared for he continued on to win his race category in 5:15:51, an impressive time on this course.

As the dramas unfolded on the course the Ford Ironman 70.3 St. Croix race continued to write another chapter into its own (in)famous history. Early morning rain segued into ferocious headwinds that were burned off before most athletes made it to T2 and pulled on their running shoes. As we started our 13.1 mile run over winding roads and rolling hills through the historic Buccaneer Resort the sun incinerated the wind and turned its attention to our backs. My shoulders burned crispy despite layers of sunscreen. Aid stations at every kilometer were a half city block long and served up cups of ice, cold water, Pepsi, Gatorade, gels, sponges and the good willed support of hundreds of volunteers.

If you are accustomed to your own set of splits at a 70.3 Half-Ironman distance race leave those at home before racing at St. Croix. Those rules don’t apply. I usually break 5 hours at the 70.3 distance but struggled to break 6 hours at St. Croix despite improving run conditioning and having the best bike I’ve ever ridden. The combination of heat, hills, rain, tough road conditions, rough water and strong currents with no wetsuits conspire to assassinate P.R. attempts. In the spirit of our sport where new and bigger challenges the Ford Ironman 70.3 St. Croix Triathlon is a graduation day, a classic, a must do on the list of really significant, world class events. If the date were later in the calendar St. Croix would be the most obvious choice at the 70.3 World Championship race.

Competing in St. Croix is more than just the race itself. Race week is a festival of meeting new and familiar athletes, enjoying the hospitality of a wonderful island and exploring luxurious surroundings at the Buccaneer Resort. The historic Buccaneer dates back to the 1940’s and has been continuously updated over the decades to earn a spot in the national registry of historic hotels. The amenities are modern but the landscape and views are steeped in ancient natural wonder. Day trips to Buck Island are a must do. Listed by National Geographic Traveler as one of the 10 most beautiful beaches on earth Buck Island is a quick 2 hour day sail from Christiansted. We snorkeled along the guided underwater trail next to the reef at Buck Island then broke away from the group to swim with five foot reef sharks as they tormented panicking schools of silver fish in shallow lagoons right off the beach.

"Competing in St. Croix is more than just the race itself. Race week is a festival of meeting new and familiar athletes, enjoying the hospitality of a wonderful island and exploring luxurious surroundings at the Buccaneer Resort."

At night islanders revel in a festive "Jump Up" celebration of wild drums and gyrating dances in the streets. The atmosphere is scored to a Calypso beat that harkens back to Ian Fleming's Caribbean in James Bond novels like Thunderball.

If you aspire to experience our sport at it most beautiful and most challenging no other race affords that opportunity like St. Croix. You simply have to do St. Croix to see why it’s not about The Beast.


Excellent visibility in the swim.



Running against a pastel backdrop.

Stopping the clock on the toughest day in 1/2 Ironman racing.

Athletes lounge after the race.

CEO Challenge winner Shayne Macherowski helped a race official who crashed on their motorcycle during the race.

Recovering in the medical tent as the temperature soars.

You either rode with caution or you lost skin. Some did both.

Most athletes who went down got up to finish despite scrapes and bruises.

White sand and emerald sea around Buck Island.

Sarah finds shells in a postcard world.

Reef sharks and lemon sharks chase schools of fish in the shallows oblivious to my camera.

The Terrace Restaurant at The Buccaneer.

Perhaps the finest view a hotel room can provide.

Christiansted sweats the Calypso beat to celebrate the race.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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