So you’ve finally decided you have the courage to do an Ironman and now you need to choose a race. If it’s your first or your 10th long distance race then it’s well worth spending a bit of time choosing the right race for you. Ironman races are all very different with varying levels of difficulty which can be the difference between finishing with a smile and a DNF. Here are some things to help you choose.
What are your objectives for the race? To just finish the race, to get a fast time, have a holiday or something else? Being clearer on what you want from your race can help you to work out which race you want to do.
Does it need to be an Ironman branded race or will you be satisfied with a long distance race by a smaller company such as Outlaw or Challenge.
Think about what type of athlete you are, your strengths and weaknesses, what you like and dislike. Match this up with what the races are like. For example if you’re a slow cyclist and struggle with hills it might not make sense to do a hilly bike course like Ironman Wales for your first race. If you don’t cope with the heat then you might better off at Ironman Bolton than Lanzarote.
Are you a fast athlete or a just finisher? If you’re worried about cut off times then make sure you check the cut off times for the race. Although the standard time is 17hours lots of races are different due to local rules. For example France and Barcelona are only 16hours. It’s also important to check interim cut off times which can catch you out. For example the Barcelona bike course has an interim cut off time after the first lap which is 2hrs 20min and Ironman Bolton has one at 90miles which caught a few people out. If making the cut of times is a concern for you then it makes sense to choose a relatively fast and flat course that’s less challenging rather than say Ironman Bolton or Wales that are hilly and known for being challenging.
What will the temperature be like at the race? Of course you never know what the precise weather be like but you can get an idea of if the race is well known for being hot or wet or windy. If you don’t cope with the heat then it makes sense to try and go to a cooler race.
Ironman Vichy is often so hot it’s a non-wetsuit swim. But the year I went to spectate it was freezing and I had to go to the supermarket to buy some more clothes!
What is the potential for a non-wetsuit swim and how do you feel about that? Again you can never predict which races will be non-wetsuit so it’s a wise idea to practice both with and without a wetsuit. But if you’re swimming isn’t so fast and would struggle with a non-wetsuit swim it makes sense to try and look for a race that is less likely for that to happen.
Is it a lake or a sea swim and how do you cope swimming in the sea of with rough conditions? I have worked with some triathletes that get sea sick and just prefer to choose races that are in lakes. If you’re new to triathlon, aren’t a strong swimmer and live miles from the sea then it might make more sense to choose a lake swim.
What is the size of the race? Most Ironman branded events will have 2000 competitors and therefore lots of supporters. A bigger race will have a different energy and atmosphere to it which can really help when the going gets tough. When I started out as a back of the pack athlete I wanted to know that there would still be supporters and people out on the course to cheer me on after 16hours so would always choose a big race. A smaller non branded race with only a few competitors can feel very lonely towards the end of the race especially for those people at the back of the pack when there’s not many people around to support.
Where is the race located and how easy is it to get to? From Coventry getting to Nottingham for an Outlaw race is very simple compared to taking two planes to get to Ironman Florida. The travelling might all be part of the adventure for you or it might be a stress you could do without. You also need to consider how long it takes to travel to the race and include this in your planning.
Travelling with your bike. If you are going to a race abroad how will you transport your bike and how do you feel about this? These days there are several companies that will collect your bike from various locations in the UK and then take it to some of the bigger races in Europe. This is an amazing service and my preferred option. The other alternative is to pack your bike into a bike box and book it on to your flight. Packing up your bike is a big source of anxiety for lots of people but once you know how to do it can be relatively painless. If you belong to a triathlon club or a cycling club then there are usually people that will lend you a bike box to borrow. If you have a Time Trial bike then you might need a more specialist box which is one reason I tend to use the shipping service these days.
Cost: What is the cost of the race, travel expenses and accommodation and how much are you willing to spend on it. As well as the cost of travel the cost of accommodation and food can vary wildly across Europe.
Race Site and Expo: It’s worth checking the detail about the race expo, race start and transitions. Going to a race where everything is in one place with easy access creates a super atmosphere and is super simple. Examples are Ironman Switzerland and Ironman Austria. A race with split transitions in different places can be more complicated and dilute the energy of the race. I once supported some friends at Ironman Bolton and we spent all of Saturday in the car in a traffic jam going to registration, race briefings, dropping bikes and bags off all in different places. Copenhagen also has the expo and briefing in a different place to the swim start.
Do you want it to feel exciting, glamorous and a little different. Or are you OK travelling to Nottingham and staying in a Premier Inn on the A426. There’s nothing like arriving at Lake Zurich to see the lake, with the mountains in the background to feel excited about a race. Or to arrive at Callela for Ironman Barcelona with the long stretch of beach, blue sea and the expo and finishing shute in the distance.
Do you want to make it into a holiday or get it over with as quick as possible to cause least interruption to your life? I’ve been to lots of places I never would have been to if I hadn’t been doing a triathlon. Some races are in some amazing places with some fabulous things to see.
What time of year do you want to do it? Does it matter if it’s in or out of school holidays?
Do you want an early season race or a late season race. In 2021 spring was unusually cold so a lot of the open water venues took a long time to warm up which made early season races a challenge. With races early in the season it can also be hard to get enough bike miles in with through the winter. If you choose a late season race like Barcelona in October then you have all season to race and train. But equally it can be a long season! When everyone else is winding down and the weather has turned at the start of September it can be mentally exhausting to keep training.
What type of bike do you have? And how do you feel riding your time trial bike on a hilly course? What are the roads like? Depending on your riding style and strengths and weaknesses as an athlete you might not feel comfortable using your TT bike on a hilly course with rough, narrow country lanes of the type you get in the UK.
Is it important for you to have friends and family there to support or are you just happy to do a race on your own. I chose to race Outlaw in 2021 because of the challenges with travel in the UK. I hadn’t planned to have any friends or supporters there but some of them surprised me and bought the whole family! This was amazing and made such a difference to my race that it’s something I will always consider in the future. If you race abroad will any of your friends and family be able to come and cheer you on?
Are you going on your own or do you want the morale support of having a friend or supporter with you to go with you to the start and meet you at the finish? If you race abroad will there be someone who could go with you.
Food: What you eat in the days leading up to a big race like an Ironman can be really important. If you have particular allergies and dietary requirements how easy will it be to get the food that you need at your race – especially if you race abroad.
What is the reputation of the race? Is it well known for being fast, or tough? Or to have the best support and atmosphere? For example Ironman Austria is fast because the world record got broken when I raced there. Ironman Wales has a reputation for being tough! But also for being the one of the most friendly races with the whole town out to support.
Do you have a connection to the race? I may well one day go back to Ironman Austria on the 10 year anniversary of my besties first Ironman! I have a client who is desperate to do Ironman Wales because she worked in the area for many years and has an affinity with that part of the country. Another athlete I know is half Irish and has family that live in the same town as Ironman Ireland, so of course he’s going to race Ironman Ireland!
Finally how do you feel about the race? Does it make you feel excited? And if so then what are you waiting for? Get it booked!