Many of today’s triathletes were not even born or perhaps they were in elementary school when the first edition of the St. Croix Triathlon was held back in 1988 and triathlon has grown substantially since then. St. Croix was first held before Mark Allen or Paula Newby Fraser had even won the first of their record setting Ironman Hawaii wins. Mike Pigg, was the man taming the Beast in many early editions and Jimmy Riccitello, the man who is today head referee at the WTC, was the guy winning St. Croix. In fact, some of the strengths that allowed Riccitello to dominate in St. Croix are the very reasons why he stepped up as head referee at WTC. The St. Croix bike course favors very strong bikers who can escape their rivals because of the constant hills, wind and heat - something that is not always there are other races.
But the event is not just a race for strong bikers, even though its marquee feature the Beast gets all the airtime. St. Croix has its unique character. Every aspect of the race is a challenge. The swim is not taking place in flat water - it is in the sea in open water with major swells and no wetsuit. The bike features a constant sequence of hills and technical terrain that keeps coming at you and includes the Beast we already mentioned. Finally, the St. Croix run is not to be underestimated, held in the heat of the day that can be like a tropical sauna and with constant hills and some cross country running in the Buccaneer resort.
On the first weekend of May that features the famed Wildflower triathlon and the new Ironman 70.3 US Pro Championships in St. George, St. Croix holds its own as a marquee event amongst triathlon’s classics. We talked with long time race director Tom Guthrie so he could share some insight into the 25th edition that takes place on May 6th 2013.
Slowtwitch: This is the 25th anniversary of St. Croix. The event literally shuts down the entire island using every major road, the harbor and a major resort. How did it start? Whose idea was it?
Tom Guthrie: The event started in 1988. Initially it was short-term thing and was run by a group that did not have long term stability in mind. In 1992 Project St. Croix, a local tourism based group took over the race to make it a permanent fixture and grow the event and we have nurtured it ever since.
ST: What were the original distances and when and why did you transition to a half Ironman?
Tom: When we took over the race was unique 1.2 mile / 34 mile / 7 mile. When it became clear that we could draw more participants by becoming a 70.3 race, we hopped on board, and doubled the entries in the first year. It has been a great change
ST: St. Croix features one of the most picturesque swims in the sport. Tell our readers a bit more about the swim venue and the practice swims. You close down the entire harbor, right?
Tom: We actually start the race on a small island, called a cay (pronounced "key") located in Christiansted Harbor. The athletes swim over to the start on race morning. I always tell everyone, if you can't make the 200 yard swim to the start, you are in the wrong race. Since open water swimming in a non-wetsuit race is rare for most triathletes, we host three practice swims on the course, where we close down the working channel for the swimmers.
ST: Moving over to the bike, the Beast might be the signature part of the race, but the New Beast may be more benign than the original thing. Can you share some details about the original Beast climb?
Tom: We actually use the original Beast, but for one year an even harder climb was used - still called the New Beast 20 years later. Crazy hard, averaged 18% on a really bad surface. The climb is too steep for vehicles, so it has become overgrown. Only Indiana Jones could find it.
ST: That’s funny, perhaps Andy Potts should be forced to take a detour up the New Beast and that might just neutralize him. Coming back to the group running the event having a tourism focus, how much does the Island of St. Croix invest into putting this race on every year?
Tom: This is the island's biggest special event of the year, and the local government invests heavily in its support. We get advertising, medical, police, garbage pick up, etc. Basically whatever it takes to host an event of this magnitude.
ST: From the perspective of the participants, this investment does not go unnoticed. It is apparent that the entire island gets behind it, which makes it more special than many events in the mainland where athletes feel like they are inconveniencing the hosting community. The opposite is felt in St. Croix. What is the economic impact of this event on the island and also on the local triathlon community?
Tom: St. Croix took a hit when the oil refinery closed down last year. Having a 1000 visitors coming down for a week will help our businesses get through the summer. Even though we are a small island, I would guess we have more endurance events that any other community in the world. On any given weekend, we have open water swims, running races, bike races and triathlons. It is a great place to be an athlete.
ST: OK, how about the critical thing that triathletes are always worries about, the weather. What should the athletes know to prepare?
Tom: We have the same weather every day of the year - hot, windy and did I mention hot.
ST: I suppose with that answer the weather girl on St. Croix TV has an easy job. How many volunteers do you round up for this event and from where do they come?
Tom: Our volunteers are the best. We use around 600 on race day. Without exception, the athletes always comment on how great the volunteers were during the race. For instance, we have more aid stations on the run than any other race in the sport - every kilometer, which means our folks have to hustle to make sure we have enough water, ice, sponges, etc.
ST: So you’re telling the athletes to expect a 13.1 mile buffet on the run course? Maybe they should wait till they cross the finish line. What most visitors do not know is how much the island puts into the race every year to fix up the roads. T he main issue seems to be the torrential rains through the year that turn every corner of the island literally into a flowing river washing away tarmac. The roads have improved substantially over the last 5 years. Is that the impact of the race or other infrastructure investments?
Tom:: I call paving black gold. Without it, we are Paris Roubaix with a swim. The local government spends a great deal of time, and a whole lot of money, just on the race course. People always ask me to change the course so it can go by their houses, so they can get smoother roads. And yes...it goes by my house.
ST: What are the main highlights you look forward to for the 25th year. Any major changes planned? Who do you expect in the pro field. You are competing as usual with Wildflower, but you are also competing with the new WTC 70.3 US Pro Championship in St. George on the same weekend.
Tom: After 25 years, I think we have a good product, so no major changes are planned. Our next goal is to get to 50. We have a number of fairly high profile athletes planning to race in St. Croix again. Angela Naeth is returning to defend and we also have course record holder Tim O’Donnell on our pro list on the men’s side as well as 2011 winner Max Kriatt coming back. Also on our prize list are 30 Kona slots and an expanded offering of 40 Vegas slots. With the depth of competition at this race, we try to reward our athletes.
ST: Finally let’s get to the important stuff. You have a new sponsorship with Captain Morgan's. Can you tell the readers more and what athletes should expect? Sounds like they could be in line for a great post race party that is already one of the best in the sport at the Divi Carina Bay resort.
Tom: The worldwide supply of Captain Morgan is distilled on St. Croix, so it is natural for us to partner up. Let's just say we will have the best goodie bag in history.
ST: Thanks Tom, for your time. Hopefully everything works out smoothly for the 25th round of St. Croix and the weather is kind to the athletes. Oh yes, you already told us that it will be hot and windy. Thanks for your time and hopefully we are all around for round number 50 in St. Croix.. For those still on the fence more information can be found at stcroixtriathlon.com. One of the hardest half Ironman distance events in triathlon awaits.