May’s Ironman St. Croix features 30 qualifying spots to the Ironman World Championship 70.3 in Lake Las Vegas and 30 qualifying spots to Ironman World Championship in Kona. The race has yet to sell out. Learn more about St. Croix in the piece below, which originally appeared in Triathlete magazine.
I stood on the tarmac at the Christiansted Airport on the island of St. Croix, and as I handed the airline employee my green North Face backpack, my face started to turn the same color. A 10-passenger (including the pilot) Cessna was about to take us to Puerto Rico. I climbed in to the last row, and the pilot/sole flight attendant turned off the engine so we could hear his safety instructions while the airline employees shoved our bags into storage compartments in the wings and nose of the plane.
After takeoff, however, the small prop jet afforded us incredible views of the entire island—cerulean waters, shallow reefs and pastel-colored houses dotting lush landscape. Even though getting to the small island of St. Croix was quite a trek, it had been completely worth it.
St. Croix is one of four main isles in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the others being St. Thomas, St. John and Water Island. Each May, hundreds of triathletes converge in Christiansted for Ironman 70.3 St. Croix, one of the few half-Ironmans with Kona slots. These days, you’ll see names like Craig Alexander, Catriona Morrison and Mirinda Carfrae at the top of the results, but in the race’s early years, Mike Pigg, Paula Newby-Fraser and Mark Allen graced the start line at what was known as “America’s Paradise Triathlon.”
The event has been around since 1988 and still remains one of the most iconic races in the sport. The grass-roots feel and challenging course should keep it on every triathlete’s bucket list. “I love the laid-back island atmosphere and the fact that the conditions in St. Croix are so very similar to Kona,” said Ironman world champion Carfrae in a pre-race interview this year.
The course has been frequently called “The Beauty and the Beast”—for the beauty of the scenery and the beast of a climb at the 21-mile point in the bike course. You’ll climb 600 feet over almost a mile, at a grade as steep as 21 percent. Smaller hills continue for the remaining miles of the bike, and then the two-loop run takes you through the hills of The Buccaneer Hotel grounds.
The pros enjoy the challenge, however. After the race, runner-up Luke Bell said, “It’s funny because I’ve always argued with Crowie [Craig Alexander] which is tougher. … It’s one of those common arguments whether Wildflower or St. Croix is the tougher race—it’s been going on for years. … I think I’ve jumped sides of the fence.”
Yet athletes keep returning, which can partly be chalked up to the relaxed environment and the friendly people—you’ll notice that locals live on “island time.” On Friday of race weekend, you’ll get to experience Caribbean culture at the Jump Up street fair, when local merchants and musicians set up stands and stages in the streets of downtown. The popular mocko jumbies (stilt walkers) are the favorite entertainers, and you can buy some tasty treats—such as chicken leg, fried fish, Johnny cakes and shish kebabs—from local restaurants.
While walking the cobblestone streets of downtown Christiansted, you won’t come across big restaurant or retail chains—which makes for some great eating and shopping.
On race weekend, the restaurant Kendrick’s, located in a historic Cruzan cottage with a beautiful courtyard, is packed at dinnertime with triathletes. The food is French continental cuisine with a Caribbean twist (e.g. grilled salmon with saffron cream sauce and topped with sautéed leeks, oranges and honey).
You can also try dinner at Tavern 1844, a relatively new restaurant where you’ll find great seafood, burgers and beer. The restaurant’s “best burger,” made of a half-pound patty garnished with caramelized-onion-truffle aioli, topped with bacon, arugula, tomato and butter-poached Maine lobster, won first-place entrée at the annual Taste of St. Croix culinary competition.
For a healthy lunch, head to Lalita Juice Bar and Health Food restaurant. The open-air restaurant has a fountain in the courtyard and its kitchen in the middle of the restaurant, so you know the smoothies, soup, sandwiches, salads and wraps are all fresh (I witnessed one of the chefs hack up some fruit on the far side of the courtyard to add to a smoothie).
On your must-do list should be snorkeling in the turquoise Caribbean waters—off the coast of Christiansted are coral reefs and tropical fish in abundance. Take a half-day sail to nearby Buck Island, an underwater national monument. Big Beard’s Adventure Tours (Bigbeards.com) takes you on a catamaran first to the island’s western shore, Turtle Beach, named one of the top 10 beaches in the world by National Geographic, and then to the barrier reef full of tropical fish. The full-day sail includes a beach barbecue.
You can also access beautiful beaches on the property of The Buccaneer (if you’re not a guest of the hotel, you can pay a small fee at the gate). The resort features three beaches, an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts and restaurants with amazing views of the ocean. The elegant resort was founded in the 17th century and has been family-run for generations, and you’ll still find remnants of a sugar plantation scattered throughout the property.
Whether you’re looking to race or get in some open-water swim training with tropical fish, St. Croix makes an incredible destination for any triathlete.
St. Croix Shout-outs
If you want …
A filling sandwich
Along the waterfront in Frederiksted, Polly’s at the Pier’s grilled cheese sandwiches come with your choice of three different cheeses, plus toppings like avocado, onion and tomato. Polly’s has great smoothies and coffee as well.
A local brew
Visit Fort Christian Brew Pub on the boardwalk in Christiansted—the only microbrewery in the Virgin Islands. Fortchristianbrewpub.com
A unique beach experience
Take a two-minute ferry ride to Protestant Cay, the sandy islet where Hotel on the Cay is located as well as the Ironman 70.3 swim start. You’ll have great views of downtown Christiansted.
More affordable accommodations
Stay at Company House Hotel in downtown Christiansted—it was recently renovated and has rates starting at $80 a night. Companyhousehotel.com
To rent a car
Just remember that driving can be tricky at first—cars drive on the left side of the road.
Underwater views without getting wet
Paddle through the ocean in a fiberglass, clear kayak with Sea-Thru Kayak Adventures. There are even night tours, when you can see the bioluminescence in the inland waters. Seathrukayaksvi.com
An off-road experience
Ride an ATV along the island’s west end, through the hills and through the rainforest with Gecko’s Island Adventures. Geckosislandadventures.com