Heather Wurtele has kicked her 2016 season off with a bang with an impressive two wins in two starts. She’s looking to make that three in a row as she toes the line at IRONMAN 70.3 St George this weekend in attempt to defend her 2015 title. With St. George being the North American Championship there will be no shortage of competition for Wurtele with a start list that rivals Kona.

We caught up with Heather ahead of race day to see what she has to say about this infamously tough course and how she’s feeling going into this championship race.

LAVA: You’re off to a pretty hot start in 2016 with wins at IRONMAN 70.3 Monterrey and IRONMAN 70.3 Oceanside. How does this momentum play into your mental game going into the North American Championship as the defending champion? Is it added pressure or extra confidence?

Heather Wurtele: Thanks! I love competing and it is always satisfying to win races. Being able to perform on race day definitely gives you confidence in your training and execution, but I try not to place too much stock in past results, either as added pressure or extra confidence.  Each event is a new race with different competitors, different dynamics and different challenges. Believing that you can win is important to the mental side of racing, but knowing that it’s never guaranteed is a pretty important motivator for all the hard work that needs to get done in training.

L: You have some pretty serious accolades when it comes to racing in St. George. Does your experience and success on this course change your race plan year after year? Or is it more of a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach? 

H: It is always interesting racing on a course that you’re very familiar with. Knowing all the climbs, the twists and turns, the variations in weather etc. can be a real advantage, but you also know how hard the conditions or certain parts of the course can be so there is some danger of over-thinking things. I feel like I know what to do to race well here, and my coach and I have a pretty consistent training approach. There is a lot of doing what we know works, but also not being afraid to change things up to keep improving. The course is tough and so is the competition, so it brings out your best!

L: St. George is known to be one of the toughest races in the U.S. series. Talk about the course a little.

H: The swim is usually calm, clear and cold. Fingers crossed for no epic winds which are fairly common around here). The hills start pretty much right away with a solid ~1km climb around the back of Sand Hollow and from then on you’re either climbing or descending for most of the day. The crux of the bike course is the 6 mi climb up through Snow Canyon starting around mile  39, but there are lots of tough bits before that too, like Washington Parkway and Red Hills Parkway. The elevation gain on the bike course is 3,563 ft. On the run you start with 2 solid miles uphill that get steeper as you go, then a brief flat/downhill bit, followed by more climbing. The first 4 miles have around 500 ft elevation gain, and what goes up must come down! The total run elevation gain is 1267ft and there are a couple quad- smashing final downhill miles to finish off.

L: Is there a particular part of the course that really stands out as being especially grueling?

H: People often talk about the climb through Snow Canyon, which is definitely a tough part of the bike course, especially in the late stages of the ride, but I think that the most grueling part is the little 13% grade kicker on the run course, followed immediately by the long climb back to the Red Hills Parkway summit around Mile 8.

L: What advice would you give to first time racers to prepare for a course of this caliber?

H: Ride and run lots of hills! You are either going up or down for most of this course, so it’s important to make climbs your friend. Definitely make sure you have the right gearing on your bike for the steep sections in Snow Canyon and remember that you have a hard hilly run to finish off so being patient and conserving your effort early on is important.

L: Best place for a post-race beer (or drink or meal… anything that comes to mind).

H: Southern Utah is not generally known for it’s good beer and coffee, but one of our favorite places is River Rock Roasting Company, out in La Verkin, and they have both! They roast their coffee right there, and they have an awesome patio over looking the Virgin River canyon. Art from local artists decorates the walls, they have super delicious baking and sandwiches (all made in house), and craft beer too. It’s just a cool place. Definitey hit them up on your way to/from Zion National Park, which is also must see if you’re in town for the race.