St. Croix Triathlon: 24 Years of the Caribbean Gem

As triathlon becomes increasing commercialized, athletes often lament for grass root events where you feel like you have been integrated into the fabric of the local community. We can go to McDonalds and Wal-Mart or we can choose to go to the local café or corner store when visiting a new town. Both options might offer the same product but the user experience is largely different. Both the "corporate" experience and the local experience offer different attributes, each with its benefits. There was a time when triathlon was indeed a local experience. Small communities opened their doors to athletes, and invited us into their homes, stores, roads, beaches, picnic areas and restaurants. Often for a weekend, these communities would be overrun by skinny guys with shaved legs, riding funny bikes, and back in the day, probably wearing neon sporting Oakley factory pilots.

This happened in Kailua Kona long before it became our Long Distance World Championship. And the same took place in Penticton, Roth, a campground beside Lake San Antonio in California (Wildflower), and the tiny town of Christiansted in St. Croix in the US Virgin islands. As time moved on the road to Kona went through all types of towns spread across the world. There was a time where the road to Kona in the US was actually through a series of half Ironman distance qualifiers. St. Croix was one of them. So was Wildflower. So were many others.

Over time, races like Roth and Wildflower moved on from the group of races from which you could get to Kona and became their own organizations, starting their own respective series of events. But for a quarter century, St. Croix has offered a road to Kona and even today is part of WTC Ironman 70.3 series. Not only does it offer a rare path to Kona through the half Ironman, but is also a qualifier for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas. It is the only race from a quarter century ago, that is still based in the same town, on largely the same course that gets you to Kona. The other race is Ironman Canada, diagonally across the continent from St. Croix.

Over time, WTC has done a fabulous job in bringing the Kona experience to your local Ironman or 70.3 event. You get the Pro field, the M-dot logo and gear, the Ironman.com coverage back home, the hype, energy and show. When you go to any WTC event, you get a scaled down version of the Kona experience.

But what you can't package up and drop into Boulder or into Muskoka, or Wiesbaden is the character of an Island. St. Croix basically gives you everything you can get in Kona, without even having to qualify. Crystal blue waters for a wetsuit free swim, wind, hills, more hills, more wind, and the heat that anyone trapped in the winter of North America or Europe is craving after coming out of computrainer and treadmill driven triathlete hibernation. While being part of WTC international 70.3 series, the St. Croix triathlon really takes you back to 1988. The athlete is really a guest of the local community that opens up to us, and shares the beauty of their island with us. It is very rare in the entire WTC series of events that an athlete can get this type of grassroots experience that many athletes lament for. It's there and generally a two segment air trip from most US cities. Best of all, the race is not sold out.

The St. Croix half Ironman has been the road via which countless Kona champions have travelled. Through the quarter century, the names are a whose who of triathlon: Mark Allen, Tim deBoom, Greg Welch, Paula Newby Fraser, Michellie Jones, Scott Molina, Mirinda Carfrae, Faris Al Sultan, Craig Alexander…and the list goes on.

While you may not win Kona, if you race really fast, you could end up getting a slot to either Kona of the Ironman 70.3 World's in Vegas. St. Croix offers 30 slots to each, which is not too bad considering the field is always in the 500-700 athlete range. Bottom line, the slot allocation is actually better than most North American domestic events that have 30-50 slots for 2000-2800 athletes. Best case the athlete wins a slot to one of the championships. Worst case the athlete has a week in the sun in the Caribbean after being bolted to a computrainer all winter, manufacturing his own salt mine in darkness. This seems like a pretty decent worst case scenario. There are certainly worse options!

Of course, no discussion about St. Croix is complete without reference to the Beast. What is the Beast? Every race with some pedigree has some type of landmark or feature that makes it famous. The Beast is a single, short, "almost vertical climb" that takes the athletes from one side of the Island to the other. The grades range from 15-22% on this climb. A compact crank with 34 tooth small ring and 27 tooth large cog in the back is 'recommended' for the rank and file athlete. Many have been known to run out of gears and walk up the mountain.

While discussing any climb, there has to be some reference to records and record holders. While this is no Alpe d'Huez, it is no surprise that the informal record is held by non other than 3x Kona Champion and current 70.3 World Champion Craig Alexander. While his time of 5:20 might make the climb look short, most mere mortals, should probably plan for 7-10 minutes. On race day, the beast is not the "destination" and it is probably not something that is wise to "attack". Rather, everything up to the Beast is a warm-up for the day.

Cresting the Beast signifies the true start of the difficult racing. The far side of the island with high winds, heat and constant rolling hills serve to wear down the athlete even before the run starts. The constant undulations, the sauna like mid day heat and the hills through the Buccaneer resort while picturesque serve up a fairly difficult challenge in the early season. But that's what makes St. Croix special. Basically you get everything you can get in Kona, without even having to qualify. And if you are fast, and lucky, there are 30 slots to both Vegas and Kona for the taking.

Catriona Morrison is confirmed to be heading back to defend her wins from the last 3 years, but may have her hands full with Abu Dhabi winner Nikki Butterfield signed up and Angela Naeth hot off early season success in Panama and Abu Dhabi heading to St. Croix to do battle. The men's field is still firming up. Perhaps race director Tom Guthrie can lure back multiple time winner Craig Alexander, whose course record was broken by Tim O'Donnell to use his IM Melbourne fitness to put the men's mark at St. Croix under 4 hours, something that has yet to be done!

The St. Croix Ironman 70.3 is still open and taking registrations for this year's May 6th event. Visit them at http://www.stcroixtriathlon.com/ for more details.

About the Author: Devashish Paul is a regular contributor to xtri.com and has written for us previously about St. Croix and plans to head back for the 3rd time in 2012, after 4 years away from the island. Dev is excited to participate in triathlon again after 8 months of recovery and rehab after a bad crash at IM Switzerland 2011 that he wrote about here: http://www.xtri.com/features/detail/284-itemId.511712629.html

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