‘I live for racing:’ A tale of 2 races defines Ironman’s winners in return to St. George

ST. GEORGE — A triumphant return of the St. George 70.3 Ironman triathlon brought more than 3,500 competitors to Southern Utah and saw two distinctly different results on the men’s and women’s side.

Updated May 1, 7 p.m. to indicate the race closed at 4:40 p.m., just after the last of 2,565 official finishers had crossed the finish line.

Lionel Sanders runs across the St. George skyline on Red Hills Parkway in the Ironman 70.3 St. George triathlon race, St. George, Utah, May 1, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

Athletes from more than 30 countries and 47 states took to the St. George area in the early hours of Saturday morning, embarking on a 70.3-mile adventure first by swimming in Hurricane, then by biking to Ivins and finally by running a 13.1-mile half marathon, culminating on Main Street in front of Town Square Park in St. George.

The 250 pro racers started the trek by diving into Sand Hollow Reservoir at 6:50 a.m., with the male victor, Lionel Sanders, crossing the finish line three hours, 42 minutes and 56 seconds later. Athletes continued to cross the finish line over the next several hours, until the race officially closed at 4:40 p.m..

“I live for this stuff,” Sanders, of Canada, said. “I actually love it. You can say you love it, but you find out if you actually love it with half a mile to go. And I do love it.”

Sanders was tested even more so than normal in that last half-mile. He won an exhilarating sprint to the finish line that saw him and second-place finisher Sam Long separated by a mere five seconds. Third and fourth-place finishers Magnus Ditlev and Rodolphe Von Berg — who won the race the last time it was run in 2019 — came in two minutes later, after having held the lead for the majority of the race.

By the 16.5 mile mark of the bike leg, Ditlev and Von Berg were separated by two seconds. Florian Angert was nearly a full minute behind, leading a pack of six separated by less than 10 seconds. At the time,  Sanders was in a distant 15th, more than two minutes behind the leader.

By mile 42.7, Sanders had ascended to third place but was still more than two minutes behind the two leaders. The gap pushed to 2:46 behind Ditlev at Transition 2, when the racers dismounted from their bikes and pressed on foot. That’s when Sanders made his move.

Within 2.5 miles of the leg, mostly uphill toward Red Hills Parkway, Sanders had closed the gap by a full minute. At run mile marker 5.8, it was 31 seconds. By marker 7.7, he was in the lead. At that point, he was edging Ditlev and Long by a second.

Daniela Ryf cycles in the Ironman 70.3 St. George triathlon race, St. George, Utah, May 1, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

There was still 5.4 miles to go, though, and Long wasn’t going away. During the final stretch, which the event called “Time To Fly,” the two were neck-and-neck, officially separated by .19 seconds. Sanders pulled away to six by the end of the stretch.

He carried that on to victory as he rounded the roundabout at Tabernacle and Main and headed for the banner. It was the third time he’s won this event, but it had to come via one of the hardest-fought victories of his racing career.

“This is probably the best battle I’ve ever taken part in,” Sanders said. “I’ve never went this close to the finish line. I’ve never had to sprint ever, really, in any of the races I’ve ever done in my whole life.”

Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf’s victory in the women’s race, however, was much less close. Ryf finished with a time of 4:05:27, which was 4:28 seconds faster than Jeanni Metzler of South Africa. Great Britain’s Emma Pallant finished in third with a time of 4:11:03.

Ryf took the lead between Transition 1 and bike marker 7.7, less than 10 miles total into the race. At that marker, she was leading Canada’s Paula Findlay by 35 seconds. By the next timer, the lead was nearly two minutes and just grew from there. In Transition 2, her lead was more than six minutes. It shrank over the running leg, but Ryf still left no doubt who the winner would be from very early on in the race.

Women’s winner Daniela Ryf crosses the finish line of the Ironman 70.3 St. George triathlon race, St. George, Utah, May 1, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

Ryf said it was a calculated decision to exert early and get ahead of the pack.

“I just wanted to push hard,” Ryf said. “I didn’t know if I could keep up the pace. It was never easy but I could push all the way.”

Both runners took the $15,000 first-place cash pool and earned bids to the world championships back in St. George this September.

But more than the money or the shot at glory they garnered, they were happy to be just running again.

The race itself was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19. Ryf just began competing again four months ago after pausing due to the pandemic. She said she was happy to prove not just to others but herself that she was in racing shape.

For Sanders, who has been living in the United States with a visa, it was even larger. The race gave him the opportunity to see his mother, Rebecca, who still lives in the Great White North, for the first time in more than six months due to the country’s stricter travel restrictions.

At the time of writing, Rebecca Sanders had just completed the bike leg and was estimated to finish the race at 2:45 p.m. Note: she finished at 2:50 p.m., for an overall time of 6:52:56.

“We hung out for the last three or four days,” Sanders said. “Things are getting back to normal, things are getting better here. It’s not the same in Canada, unfortunately. They’re going downhill, actually. I’m just very grateful that I have the opportunity to come here and enjoy.”

Sanders said he was glad to be back competing again after missing last year due to COVID.

“I’m just so grateful, man,” Lionel Sanders said. “I love racing. I live for racing. I’m in the prime of my racing career. It’s great just to be able to put this together, come back and do it again.”

The race, which started at Sand Hollow Reservoir, took competitors across Washington County, first eastbound toward Hurricane than back west. They traversed Red Hills Parkway, Snow Canyon Parkway and downtown St. George.

Full results from the race are available here.

St. George News reporter JEFF RICHARDS contributed to this story.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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