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St. George • Many say the St. George Ironman is the most difficult triathlon in the country, if not the world.

It certainly lived up to that reputation Saturday morning as 1,432 endurance freaks jumped into the chilly water around 7 a.m. at Sand Hollow Reservoir for the first leg, a 2.4-mile swim.

Winds were so ferocious — with gusts up to 40 miles-per-hour — and the water so choppy that dozens of athletes had to be pulled out before they reached the 1-mile marker. Hundreds did not finish under the 2-hour, 20-minute time limit, although officials took the unusual step of allowing those who didn't finish to move on to the 112-mile bike ride without their timing chips.

There were reports of 4- and 5-foot waves and swells so high that many swimmers veered off course because they could not see the buoys marking the course.

"It was like swimming in molasses," said John Anderson, 50, of Highland, who dropped out after swimming about 3/4 of a mile.

Boatload after boatload of weary swimmers arrived at the dock less than an hour into the race, including Linda Walters, 51, of San Diego.

"I got out because I didn't want to die," she said. "Is it unsafe? Omigosh, yes ... It was like being in the middle of the ocean. The whitecaps were so bad I thought it was raining."

In June 2002, a 53-year-old California man died in Utah Lake at the Provo Ironman when winds were similar to what they were Saturday morning in Washington County. Dozens of safety boats, kayaks and other flotation devices were out on the course as officials kept eyes on the athletes.

At least three athletes who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune said they were erroneously told in the water that the swimming portion had been cancelled, and they were extremely upset to learn the race was still on after being brought to shore by boat.

"I didn't spend the last year training to see this happen," said 32-year-old Brandon Whitney of St. George. "I didn't pay $600 for somebody to tell me the race was over when it really wasn't."

Whitney and Steve Letcher, 45, of Mesa, Ariz. said a man claiming to be a safety director with an Australian accent told them the race was over and to climb aboard a pontoon boat.

"This was for Kona," Letcher said, referring to his bid to qualify in his age group for the world championship in Hawaii.

Patrick Alberts, coordinator of public relations for the World Triathlon Corporation, said race officials were investigating the claims that Whitney, Letcher and one other man made about false stoppage and would answer questions after the race.

It was Anderson's third Ironman, and far and away the most difficult swimming conditions, he said, noting that when the course turned East, directly into the wind, "It took all I had just to keep from going [backwards]."

In the professional race (pros started 15 minutes before the age-group swimmers) Orem's Heath Thurston was the first out of the water, followed by Maik Twelsiek of Germany, Axel Zeebroek of Belgium and Ben Hoffman of Tucson, Ariz.

The first woman out of the water, fifth overall, was San Francisco's Meredith Kesler. Another woman, Mackenzie Madison of Eugene, Ore., was about 30 seconds behind Kesler.

After the bike ride, the athletes will embark on a marathon run (26.2 miles) before finishing in downtown St. George sometime after 3 p.m.

Twitter: @drewjay