26 September 2009 1 Comment

Choosing a race that suits

Updated May 2017

Once you have decided to do a triathlon, you’ve done your research and you’ve chosen your distance, what factors make for an enjoyable race, and a successful first triathlon experience?

This post will look at some of the characteristics that make up a triathlon race and some things you might consider when choosing a race for you. I will only talk about races that I’ve done, or had reports on from people whose opinions I trust, so if you’ve enjoyed a particular event, or found it was well organised, why not add a comment?

What type of swim?

The title “open water” can hide all manner of different characteristics and unless swimming is your real strong suit then it is worth paying attention to this aspect of a race above all others. Open water could mean:

  • A reservoir or lake, which usually means little or no current, but they can be quite choppy when windy (Llyn Tegid at Bala), and sometimes cold (Llyn Tegid again, and Wimbleball), especially if deep. Shallow lakes can have weed floating about (Boundary Breeze) and can be shallow enough to have the silt at the bottom disturbed by swimmers (Trentham Gardens). Shallow lakes can also potentially get warm enough to make the wearing of wetsuits illegal (happens extremely rarely).

    Llyn Tegid

    Llyn Tegid

  • A river, which may have some current and might require a bit of nouse to find the quietest route. (The only river based triathlon I’ve done is Windsor, at which point the Thames is so benign as to make current barely an issue, although this is not necessarily the case if there has been significant rainfall in the buildup). A good tip is to watch the faster swimmers ahead of you and see where they are swimming: they’ll often be hugging the banks to avoid any current.
  • A dock, such as Salford Quays or the London triathlon. These are usually the easiest of open water swims as they are very calm and still. Salford Quays is surprisingly clean, so just because it’s an urban venue, doesn’t necessarily make it a bad one from a swimming point of view.
  • A sea swim. Sea swims have the potential to be extremely challenging, but can also be the complete opposite. At Half Ironman Weymouth in 2014 the swells were mountainous and the Iron distance race had the swim shortened. Two years later at Ironman 70.3 Weymouth the English Channel was like a millpond. Some sea swims can be in the shelter of a harbour usually making them easier and some can be affected by other hazards such as jellyfish. Signing up for a triathlon with a sea swim can be daunting as it throws a big variable into the race, but, as with all aspects of sport, practice will help you overcome. If you sign up for a sea swim triathlon, get down to the beach and swim as often as you can.

Urban v Country

For some people, racing in the countryside is an important factor, for others, the crowds at an urban venue really help. I think the main difference between an urban and country based triathlon tends to be in the nature of the bike course. Most urban races tend to involve several laps of a circuit and each circuit will have roundabouts, lots of 90 degree corners and plenty of street furniture. This means lots of acceleration and braking, as well as putting a premium on your bike handling. You also need your wits about you as people can dive into corners much faster than you expect. Street circuits can also become extremely slippery in the wet due to oil and petrol on the road.

A country based circuit will often be faster because it will have far fewer sharp corners, but it will also usually be open road, meaning you will be sharing the carriageway with other road users. This has never led to any problems for me as most road users are pretty patient when it is obvious that a race is taking place. Some countryside based races, however can be very hilly, which makes them much tougher (the best example would be UK Ironman 70.3 on Exmoor whose bike leg is infamous- the Ironman legend, Chris McCormack described it as the toughest half-ironman race he’d ever done). Open bike courses are also prone to being affected by wind which can make a fairly straightforward course really hard. Reading the route description, I would suggest, is a great starting point!

My preference is for the open countryside every time. Hills are a good chance for me to show my (relative) climbing speed (lots of triathletes are hopeless climbers and worse descenders). I actively dislike the stop/start nature of urban courses as they break up your rhythm and the constant accelerations take their toll on your legs.

Local v Marquee

Putting the power down on Winter Hill

Putting the power down on Sheephouse

Some people love the idea of taking part in the London Marathon or the Great North Run along with countless thousands of others. Already, the London Triathlon has quickly built up into the world’s biggest triathlon, and the UK’s most prestigious race, the Windsor Triathlon, fills up very quickly as soon as entries go live. Some of the most popular European Ironman races such as Frankfurt and Austria sell out within 24 hours of entries going live. This means that if you want to enter a popular event, you need to be organised and keep an eye on the date when entries go live. These large scale triathlons also have a large scale logistical organisation behind them meaning that the build to race day itself will tend to be much more regimented. Almost certainly you won’t be able to register on the day, meaning that if the event isn’t local to you, you’ll have to organise accommodation etc. Some of the really popular events, such as Austria and Frankfurt will have inclusive accommodation packages available after entries close as tour operators will have bought some entries in order to sell package deals.

On the other hand, a local race might only have a few hundred athletes taking part. You can register on race morning and setting up at transition is a far more relaxed affair.

Entering a marquee event will inevitably have a more stressful build up than a local or regional race, and while these big races may be your ultimate goal, for many people, using smaller low key races can be the best way to learn how to handle all aspects of ?your race craft from pre-race organisation to executing your race plan. It will also help you get over the nerves of your first open water swim and maximise your chances of performing well when you get to your big race.

My favourite races

These are my favourite triathlons. Most of them I’ve done more than once, and you’ll notice that they are all lake or reservoir swims (except Windsor). They also all have countryside based bike legs. These might be a starting point for you, but there ask local triathletes about quality events in your area, or check out the British Triathlon events database.


The Boundary Breeze is run by Manchester Tri Club and is a very fast course, the bike and run could hardly be flatter, and the swim is very sheltered, in a lovely lake, so it’s a great event for beginners. It’s a popular race, too, so you need to get your entry in early.?9th July 2017

The Royal Windsor. I’ve done the sprint at Windsor twice, including my first ever race. Windsor is a fantastic race to do. The bike leg is very fast through some lovely lanes and the return through Windsor Great Park is fabulous (although the bike leg is much longer than the standard 20km. The run through the town attracts loads of spectators and has a great atmosphere, although 3rd time up the castle hill will be a real stamina test. Very popular, so enter as soon as it goes live. 18th June 2017

Olympic distance

The Royal Windsor. As per the sprint, this is a great race to do. I did this on the hottest day of that particular year and found the run very demanding indeed. Very popular, keep an eye on the date when entries go live. Mid-June. 18th June 2017

Bala standard distance. Llyn Tegid is cold, and can be quite choppy so the swim can be pretty hard. The bike course is very fast, although far from completely flat. It’s also unusual in that it now takes place on closed roads. The old run route was very tough, but now it’s a lot easier (and faster). You can register on race day, but Bala is a lovely place for a weekend away. This year the Olympic distance race ran in September. 3rd September 2017

The Dambuster. This race is based on Rutland Water in Leicestershire. The bike route is quite open and has a number of rolling hills on it. It’s mostly on A roads but they are smooth and wide making it ideal for strong bike riders. The run is fast and flat around the lake itself. ?17 June 2017

Southport. This event is rapidly growing in popularity as it is well organised and the bike takes place on closed roads. The course is also as flat as a pancake. The main problem potentially is the wind than can blow fiercely off the Irish Sea. Enter early as it has sold out quickly over the last couple of seasons. ?21st May?2017 sold out


UK Ironman 70.3. This race takes place at Wimbleball Lake on Exmoor. It’s a beautiful venue but far from population centres, so quite a trek. It’s also not great for spectators. The bike course is legendary (2 15% hills per lap and many other tough hills) and the run is pretty hard too. Finishing Wimbleball is a real achievement on any triathlete’s palmares. The race has sold out for the last few years so don’t leave entry too late. Like all Ironman branded races, it’s expensive. ?25 June 2017

The Vitruvian. This is a popular race that sells out every year and has won several awards. It’s run over the same course as the Dambuster making it demanding, but nothing like as hard as Wimbleball. The run is pretty flat: a good one to set your half-marathon PB on (assuming you’ve got enough left in your legs). Early September – a great season finisher. 09 September 2017

Bala Middle Distance. The sting is most definitely in the tail in this race. While there is a fair amount of climbing on the bike leg, none of it is too steep and there are some very fast downhills to compensate. The run, on the other hand, is a bit of a beast, with a very tough climb at half distance. The only downside of this great race is that it’s not brilliant for spectators. The race is traditionally run in mid-June.?04 June 2017


Ironman UK.?Based in Bolton, Ironman UK features?a tough bike route including the double ascent of Sheephouse Lane up Winter Hill (long, but never steep). The run is also hard with some steep inclines to test the will. ?Ironman races are expensive to enter: ?400 in 2016, so you won’t be tackling this one on a whim. I’ve written quite a few posts about UK Ironman, which will help you make your mind up about Bolton, or whether to take your Ironman ambitions overseas. The race takes place in July. 17?July 2017
Ironman Wales.?Reckoned to be one of the hardest Ironman courses in the world, the race is based in Tenby down in Pembrokeshire. The sea swim can be really tough, but the course is best known for the bike leg with 2000m of relentless up and down climbing. The marathon is far from flat, too! But what makes this race stand out is the atmosphere. The crowds around the course are fantastic and the locals are keen to party throughout the lengthening evening as the stragglers close in to the finish. 10 September 2017

Entering these races won’t guarantee success, but they were all well organised and I think will give you a good idea of the demands that triathlon makes at each distance.



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