1 September 2011 9 Comments

How to choose an Ironman

For most people, deciding to undertake an Ironman is a major decision requiring much thought and planning. Choosing which race to do can be equally complex and confusing, so here are a few pointers:

1. Ironman versus Iron Distance

Ironman is a brand name owned by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) and only races franchised or owned by the WTC can rightfully be called “Ironman”. Amongst triathletes, such races are often called “M dot”, referring to the logo of the WTC. For many athletes, the acquisition of an “M dot” tattoo is the ultimate validation as a triathlete. All other races of a similar distance should be referred to as “Iron distance” triathlon (or sometimes “Long distance”, although this term can be misleading as it can encompass many other race distances). Ironman branded races are usually more expensive than other “Iron distance” races as they come along with an enormous infrastructure, marketing and PR effort. Ironman races also offer the opportunity to qualify for the Ironman World Championships held in Kona, Hawaii every October. Each Ironman races usually has around 40 or 50 places (“slots”) for Kona spread out across the different age groups, but qualification is extremely competitive and this article is not intended to go into the in depth analysis that will help you decide which races you should target if you have Kona qualification in mind – this article by Runtri should help.

In the UK we have 2 Ironman races (Ironman UK and Ironman Wales), and for 2012 it looks like there will be at least 6 non WTC Iron distance events. Here is a list with 2012 dates where published (note that quite a few UK races are shifting from their traditional dates because of the Olympic Games):

Forestman (New Forest) 24th June?2012

Ironman UK (Bolton) July 22nd 2012

The Outlaw (Nottingham) 1st July, 2012

Enduroman (Hampshire) ?(double & triple IM options) ?10th June 2012

The Big Woody (Forest of Dean) 25th August 2012

Ironman Wales (Tenby in Pembrokeshire) 16th September 2012

Challenge Henley (Henley-on-Thames) 16th Sepetmber 2012

The Brutal Triathlon (Llanberis) (double IM option)?22nd September?2012?

For a list of Ironman events worldwide?click here.

2. Location

Many people signing up for an Ironman don’t limit themselves to their home country and will travel to events. Sometimes it’s because an event has an international reputation, for instance, Ironman Lanzarote is very popular with UK athletes, not only for its reputation as a super tough course, but also because of the relative cheapness of travel and accommodation. Other popular foreign races include Challenge Roth and Ironman Austria, both of which feature fast courses. These really popular races, however, sell out really fast (often within hours of registration opening) and therefore you need to be ready well in advance to make sure you get in on time. A recently added race to the Ironman calendar is Ironman Asia Pacific in Melbourne; it completely sold out in 5 minutes! Once sold out, you’ll be restricted to purchasing travel and race packages from officially appointed travel agents. I recently did Ironman Regensburg and the combination of a fast course and superb organisation would make it an excellent choice for an Ironman first timer (my race guide here).

Another consideration when thinking about location is whether or not you consider training on the course as important. For some people aiming at their first Iron distance race, the ability to train on the course in advance can build confidence and increase economy (knowing when to push and when to hold back). For others, especially the fitter athletes, this is less of a consideration, but it’s still important to tailor training to the kind of conditions you can expect to find on the course. It might be obvious, but if you’re tackling a hilly Ironman, then including similar style hills in your training seems sensible.

Finally, cost has a big bearing on choice of location. For example, although Ironman UK is an expensive race to enter (?375 for 2012) it will still be cheaper for me to enter than, say, the Outlaw (?225 for 2012) simply because I can do it without accommodation costs for me and my family. In almost every case, your local race will be the most economical overall for you to enter. However, at ?130 Enduroman in Hampshire is probably the cheapest Iron Distance triathlon anywhere, and a lot cheaper than some half-ironman races.

3. Difficulty

Much is made of the varying difficulty of the Ironman courses around the world. It’s certainly true that some special Iron distance races such as the Norseman and the Embrunman are much harder than any of the Ironman races on the circuit. When I say, “Much harder,” I really mean it. The Norseman includes a fjord swim, a massive mountain climb on the bike and a full mountain marathon to finish. Embrunman includes cycling over the huge Col d’Izoard in the Freanch Alps feared by Tour de France cyclists the world over. Signing up for this kind of??ber triathlon shouldn’t be taken lightly and requires a great deal of research. Fortunately there is plenty of information available about all the popular Iron distance courses around the world. However, you need to think a little more sophisticatedly than just thinking about overall difficulty. For example, although Ironman South Africa has a reputation for having a fast bike and run course, the swim can be very challenging indeed and can cause real problems for all but the strongest swimmers. Unless swimming is your strong suit, then choosing a triathlon with a lake swim rather than a sea swim can help control one of the bigger variables. There is some useful analysis of the relative difficulties of the various different Ironman courses around the world, and I wrote a short blog post about it here. One interesting point to come out of this research is that Ironman UK has the second slowest average bike time compared with all courses making it a tough proposition. However, the ability to train on the course counts for a lot. Conversely, I found that not having ridden the relatively fast Regensburg bike course was much less of a disadvantage. The bottom line is that any Iron distance triathlon is going to present an extremely demanding challenge. Variables such as wind, rain, temperature and even altitude will make the same race very different year after year so how much you pay attention to the relative difficulty of each race is entirely up to you.

4. Time of Year

The time of year in which a race is held is an important consideration. Most people find training in midwinter pretty difficult and thus going out for long bike rides in the depths of December and January with low temperatures, poor weather and limited daylight can be a big challenge. Indeed, for the last two winters January has been a time of indoor training such has been the amount of snow and ice in the UK. Since the triathlon season in Britain doesn’t really get going until May, it’s almost impossible to find decent warm-up events for the big race except perhaps for some duathlons. This makes peaking for Ironman South Africa (April) or Ironman Lanzarote (May) challenging. It’s also true that the late season far flung events like Ironman Florida and Ironman Arizona (both November) present their own challenge as most people don’t keep their season going that long (start racing later?).

5. Organisation

All races running under the WTC banner race using the same format: they use a bag system in transition (blue for swim to bike and red for bike to run). This means that you pretty much know what to expect when you sign up for a WTC race. This is a big advantage for Ironman regulars as you can just turn up and race without getting too stressed about the organisation as it will all be pretty familiar. Smaller races may well use different systems in transition and doing a bit of research might help. Some of the more specialist triathlons such as the aforementioned Norseman and the Brutal require you to provide your own back up crew as they don’t have manned feed zones on mountains! Perhaps of greater importance is the reputation of the race organisers and whether or not the race is an established one. As a rule of thumb, a well established race will have a well established organisation behind it. They will have already encountered most of the problems that their particular location presents and have in place the necessary contingencies. So, signing up for a brand new event presents a relative risk. This might be fine for a seasoned athlete, less so for an Iron distance newbie. That said, the market is a very competitive one, so if a particular race gets a reputation for poor organisation it doesn’t tend to last terribly long. Similarly, well known brands such as Ironman and the Challenge series have a reputation to maintain, so startups under their banner may well present less of a risk.

6. “You are an Ironman”

If I had to choose a race for my 1st Ironman (out of the 2 I have done), I’d have to say that Ironman Regensburg with its exemplary organisation, warm lake swim, smooth fast roads and big crowds would be my number 1 choice. Other popular races with first timers are Ironman Austria and Ironman Switzerland (both not as hilly as you might think). In the UK, the Outlaw is rapidly gaining a reputation as a fast course with excellent organisation backing it up, and at ?225 for 2012 is a fair bit cheaper than the M dot franchises.

Like most people I know I find it difficult to do any meaningful training without a target. And like many, I suffer from target inflation: start off with sprint distance, move up to Olympic and so on. Ironman is the logical conclusion to the triathlon stepladder (I am in total awe of the absolute fitness loonies who compete in Norseman, Embrunman and other crazy extreme triathlons). “You are an Ironman.” These are the words of the announcer when I crossed the finish line at Ironman UK in 2009. It’s an achievement that no-one can take away. Lots of people seem to think you need to be some kind of freak to undertake an Ironman, but that’s far from the truth. Most Ironman finishers are ordinary people who have just had the ambition and drive to get to the finish line. I’m convinced that anyone who wants to do an Ironman can do so, it just takes the commitment to do so.

You are an Ironman - Priceless!




9 Responses to “How to choose an Ironman”

  1. K, like in caKe 3 September 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    Great advice, thanks.
    I have the Challenge Vichy page open with finger hovering over the entry button….. go for it?????


  2. John Sutton 3 September 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    Looks like a fast course http://www.challengevichy.com/lang1/bike_course.html and will be well organised. The only possible downside is the potential for it to be really hot. Mid Go for it! Get a blog going to tell your story!


  3. John Sutton 3 September 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    A good point of info on the bike course at Vichy is not to over inflate your tyres in transition if it’s really sunny. They’ll go POP!


  4. K, like in caKe 3 September 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    Thanks, I’ve entered!

    My running ramblings and assorted musings have been going a little while over at http://cakeofgoodhope.blogspot.com so I’ll continue the story over there!


  5. John Sutton 3 September 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    Best of luck!


  6. Linda 10 November 2011 at 1:13 am #

    John, Just attempted my 1st ironman – Panama City Beach, Florida. Unfortunately I got a staph infection Sunday before the event Didn’t realize what it was. It started with 1 bump and then I had six bumps on both quads. Finally went to hospital on Wednesday and was put on IV with antibiotics and then a prescription for antibiotics. Felt better by Friday but Saturday after swimming about 1.5 miles I burned and crashed. Temp 93 shivering all over – I was so disappointed. Trying to figure out next step. LH


  7. John Sutton 11 November 2011 at 11:01 pm #

    Hi Linda, that’s really terrible luck! Any idea how you picked up the infection? Having put all that effort in, you know that once you’ve recovered you’ll be back for more! Best of Luck.


  8. Martin 10 April 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    I’m doing my first ironman in June training is going well how many days before the event should I stop training


  9. John Sutton 10 April 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    Tapering is a bit of a dark art but you should be winding down your training from at least 3 weeks out without stopping completely. So 3 weeks before the race you should drop the total hours training by around half with another drop 2 weeks before. I’d probably still do a 50 mile or so bike ride 2 weeks out at race pace. I tend to keep the swimming relatively high and drop the running right off as this tends to batter your legs more than anything. The last week before should just be short “turnover sessions” Maybe 40 mins on the bike, a steady swim etc. Last year before Regensburg I did 2 short bike rides (40 mins each), a short run (25 mins) and 4 swims (30 mins each) in the 9 days before the race (completely resting for the the 2 days before). So the idea is not to stop training but to reduce the amount you are doing. The idea is to get to raceday firing on all cylinders. You need to accept that from 4 weeks before the event you aren’t going to get any fitter and the last period is all about active recovery. Good luck with your race, which one are you doing?

    Lots of people have different views on tapering, so read around a bit. Hardened athletes who’ve done years of training will tend to taper for shorter periods.


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