In his classic song “American Pie”, Don McLean sang about the death of three great musicians and the effect it had on the world of music. On May 7th, I ran the last iteration of the Ironman 70.3 St. Croix triathlon, formerly known only as the St. Croix Triathlon. The loss of this race may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but it is the end of a triathlon era.
Speedos and Pros – The Good Old Days
Twenty-nine years ago, the St. Croix Triathlon came into existence, and it was an instant classic. The course was, by nature, very difficult set on the backdrop of a picturesque Caribbean island.
The professional field grew. The small island and centralized location of many of lodging options allowed us mere mortal age-groupers the opportunity to rub elbows with the triathlon legends of the generation.
For many years, the top finishers were awarded coveted slots to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, HI. Racers flocked to the island to take on the feared climb, aptly nicknamed the Beast, only to be shocked at the difficulty of the bike course in its entirety as well as the extremely challenging run course.
The Winds of Change
In the late 2000s, something changed, and the race slowly began to die. Well, not the race. The enthusiasm for the race began to die off.
Maybe that’s not the right way to describe it.
Maybe the loss of the professional field caused a decrease in the interest.
Maybe the elimination of Kona slots led to a drastic decrease in the interest.
Maybe the enthusiasm of the average age-grouper to do a challenging course faded, as the number of 70.3-distance races has grown, most of which are on significantly easier courses.
Maybe the economic downturn both on the island and in the mainland US limited the ability of participants to travel. Ok, I doubt we can really call that a viable excuse, as the number of $6000 bikes well exceed the fingers and toes needed to count them.
I don’t think it is any one thing, or there is any one person to blame. Sometimes, events run their course and the lifecycle just comes full circle.
Some Things Never Change – Locals Count
Above all, my last two years of experience in St. Croix told me one thing, locals matter.
Despite the loss of the pro field, the locals supported the race.
Despite the loss of the Kona slots, the locals supported the race.
Despite the smaller participant field, the locals still supported the race.
I took the time to discuss the past 29 years with a number of the locals, both race staff and non-race locals. Not one person expressed anything but support for the race. Sure, some people had negative comments directed at one entity or another, laying blame at their feet. However, almost every person got lost in his or her own memories for a brief moment when reliving their experiences from the early years.
One man with whom I spoke almost got completely lost in the nostalgia of the moment. While I was recovering after my first practice run up the Beast, he commented how strong I looked finishing off the final bit of the climb, telling me he thought I would have a good ride. Then, his face changed, softened almost, and his eyes became a bit distant. He recounted his memories from the early years, smiling when he said that he got on television as a teenager, chasing Mike Pigg up the Beast. He laughed lightly, claiming that there was no way he could do that now. The wistful look faded, as he wished me luck and got back to work, patching the descent off of the Beast.
That’s right. He was doing road repair in the Caribbean heat, happily so, to support a race that he knew was ending. A race that had brought him such pleasure as a young man and one of the few things that brought a spotlight to his home each year would soon cease to exist.
Just before driving off, he asked me if I would return to St. Croix. I told him that I would love to return again. He asked if I would do the race again if it wasn’t under the same brand. I said that I did not really care about the brand. This race is about the challenge. The challenge of the course. The challenge of the weather. And, the challenge of returning home after a few recovery days on the beautiful beaches. He laughed out loud at that, and the slightly pained look returned. He wished me a good race again and said that he hoped I would be able to race here again soon.
I know that he meant that, and I could tell that the loss of the event meant something to him, too.
The Future Holds the Unknown
Will this be the end of the St. Croix Triathlon? Only time will tell. Tom Guthrie, the race director, did a remarkable job. The people of St. Croix are wildly supportive.
I have almost been hit by impatient drivers numerous times while training and racing, but I have never had the positive experiences on the road like I had during my training rides on St. Croix. Rather than honk like crazy people, passing too close and too fast while shouting and giving me the finger, the local drivers waited patiently for a good time to pass, shouting encouragement as they went by and giving a great deal of space.
Seriously, that’s how the locals are. One car passed me on the Beast, and the only things the driver offered me were praise and encouragement. How can this go away?
I don’t know if I will ever get to return to St. Croix. I don’t know if I will ever get to race there again. I am only certain that the disappearance of this race from the calendar feels wrong.
While May 7, 2017, will most certainly not be the day that triathlon died, any more than February 3, 1959, was the day that music died (that was the day that Justin Bieber first topped the music charts), the triathlon world has changed. The fact that we may not have this course filled with insane beauty and soul-crushing punishment for the smallest mistake is a loss for us all.
Even if I never return to St. Croix or never race there again, I am glad to say that I did it. I conquered the Beast. I helped a friend conquer the Beast. I got to experience the wonderful people on the beautiful island with my wife and good friends. Regardless of what happens, I have that.