Planning your first Ironman
So, you’ve decided you want to do an Ironman. Congratulations! Welcome to the swim-bike-run rabbit hole – feel free to don your favourite bike helmet and dive on in. But seriously, deciding to sign yourself up for an iron distance triathlon is the start of an epic adventure. From hitting the “submit” button on your race entry (au revoir, healthy bank balance) to getting on that start line, it’s an awesome journey. There’ll be sweat (gallons of it!), blisters and exhausting training sessions. There will be days where you feel strong and invincible, balanced out by the times you feel about as useful as a chocolate teapot. You’ll love the process one minute, and find yourself wondering why the hell you thought this was a good idea the next. But ultimately, when you cross that finish line it will all be worth it and you’ll be left with strength, confidence and achy legs like you’ve never known before.
But before any of that can happen, you’ve got to choose your poison – I mean race. And with so many options out there for going long, that can be a little bit overwhelming. For me it comes down to four things: your goals, your strengths and weaknesses, logistics and the post-race food offerings. Because after 140.6 miles of swim-bike-run the hanger is real.
Start by thinking about your goal for your first Ironman – compete, or complete? Consider how much time you can dedicate to training and think about what is realistic for you. If it’s the former – compete – it’s all about doing your research to find a course that suits your strengths and taking a look at the finish times from previous years to find a race where you’re likely to fare well. It might not necessarily be about winning your age group, but if you’ve got the time to train optimally you want to race somewhere that’s going to let you get every ounce out of yourself. Coach Cox is a great resource if you want to get nerdy with all the stats under one roof and I’ve found reading people’s race reports gives a better insight into what a race is actually like, away from the events company sales pitch.
If it’s the latter, to “just finish” (which is a huge achievement and should 100% not be underestimated, regardless of experience level) then it’s about considering which course is most likely to allow you to do this. And that’s where really knowing your personal strengths and weaknesses comes into play. I’m a firm believer that you can do whatever you set your mind to, but if you know you’re going to be tight on time to train and you’re likely to be close to the cut off times you want to set yourself up to have the best and most enjoyable experience possible. Whilst I don’t think there’s such a thing as an “easy” Ironman (because 140.6 miles is a long day out, regardless of where you’re doing it) there are definitely courses which are more beginner friendly. When I was deciding where to race my first Ironman, Copenhagen came up time and time again as being ideal for first-timers. It was such a positive experience and it gave me the confidence to sign up for a slightly more challenging course next year. Other races I’ve heard are great for first-timers include Hamburg, Maastricht and more locally, Outlaw Nottingham.
And of course the other thing to consider, which will help you to narrow down your choices, is logistics. This is where the cost and feasibility of destination racing comes into play. I’m lucky enough to be one half of a triathlon-obsessed couple so we’ve been able to race abroad a few times because we’re happy for that to be our holiday. But if you’ve got family and/or other commitments it’s well worth having a think about whether you want to book up a destination race, or go for something local. Ironman training can be a bit all encompassing so it’s important to consider the people around you! There’s some really great races in the UK – but at the risk of being the devil on your shoulder – racing abroad, whilst a bit spendy, certainly makes for an awesome adventure. What better way to take in the sights of a new city, than an Ironman marathon!?
I feel like my rambling is probably just adding to the confusion, so I’ve compiled some of my top choice Iron distance races – from the beginner-friendly courses, to the “hang on, you’re doing what?” challenges, to the best post-race food:
I want… a beginner-friendly course and environment:
– Ironman Copenhagen – Denmark
Well organised, with incredibly friendly volunteers – Ironman Copenhagen is really great for first-timers. Beginning with a rolling swim start that takes you out on one lap around the lagoon at the Amagerstrand beach park, Copenhagen is ideal if you’re looking for a course that’s interesting but beginner friendly. The bike course takes you out along the coast before heading into the rolling Danish countryside. The gentle hills break the course up and give you a chance to sit up and change position so you don’t end up running like a T-Rex later in the day. As you head into T2, volunteers take your bike from you so you don’t have to stress about finding somewhere to rack it. The flat run course loops around the city and you’re never short of spectator support. Throw in a free post-race beer from the Mikkeller bar and you’re onto a winner.
– Outlaw Nottingham – UK
If you’re looking for something a little closer to home, the Outlaw offers up a more first-time friendly race compared to its hillier Ironman branded UK counterparts. A 1 lap swim in a rowing lake, a fairly flat, fast bike, a flat run course around the lake and a friendly environment makes the Outlaw a popular race with first-timers.
I want… amazing scenery (because you’ll need something to distract you from those achey quads):
– Ironman Zurich – Switzerland
Okay, so I may be a little biased here because I’m racing Zurich next year – but seriously those Swiss views! The swim takes place in the clear waters of Lake Zurich before you head out on the bike through the rolling countryside, with a mountainous backdrop for company. The run winds through the historic streets of Zurich, down the famous Bahnhofstrasse for a bit of window shopping and back along the shores of Lake Zurich. I’ve never been before but it looks like a pretty amazing city and I can’t wait to get out there.
– Ironman Whistler – Canada
Lakes, mountains, the real chance of a bear sighting on the bike course and post-race poutine: Whistler is an incredible place to do a triathlon. Featuring a rolling swim start in Alta Lake, a hilly bike up through the Whistler Valley and a run along the valley trail passing Lost Lake and Green Lake – Ironman Whistler is at the very top of my Ironman to do list.
I want… a challenge:
– Isklar Norseman Xtreme – Norway
How to make 140.6 miles of swim-bike-run even tougher? Do it on a course that takes you from fjord to mountain peak. Starting with a 4-metre leap of faith off the back of a ferry into the icy fjords, the Norseman features a bike course with five mountain passes and a marathon that finishes at the top of Mount Gaustatoppen. You’ll go from sea level to 1850m above it and there’s a real possibility that you’ll experience a whole year’s worth of weather in one day. Throw in the fact that only the first 160 competitors are allowed to finish (the rest being turned away 5km from the finish) and you’ve got a brutal, but epic, challenge.
– Ironman Wales – Tenby
I spectated at IM Wales in 2015 and doing so gave that little voice in my head that kept telling me I should probably take up triathlon and do an Ironman a big old megaphone. I’m definitely going to have to slay the dragon in Tenby at some point. From the crashing waves on the swim course, to the hilly bike and the run course which seems to be mainly uphill, Ironman Wales will push you. What makes this race special – aside from the amazing scenery, is the people of Tenby. They really, really know how to throw a marathon party and you’ll experience crowd support like no other.
I want… the best post-race food offerings…:
– Ironman Emilia Romagna – Italy
If there’s one thing I can tell you for sure, it’s that Ironman triathlon training will turn you into a carb-obsessed fiend. “Will pedal for pizza” is my training mantra – and Italy is the ultimate destination for those glorious post-race carbs. The Emilia Romagna region is as famous for its foodie delights as it is for its national parks and cultural offerings. The race itself offers fast times and a bike course that takes you through the Salt Pens of Cervia – home to hundreds of flamingos! I really like flamingos.
– Challenge Roth – Germany
Honestly? I’ve had to resist the temptation to put Roth in every single one of these categories because it’s such a legendary race, where records have been broken. It’s been on my bucket list since reading Chrissie Wellington’s autobiography, before I’d even done my first sprint triathlon. Aside from the fast course and the spectacle of 260,000 people out on the streets supporting the athletes, any Bavarian Ironman has my vote because when it comes to food they’ve got it down. There’s nothing like beer, bratwurst and a really good pretzel to replenish your energy after a long course triathlon.
So there we have it – just a snippet of my ever-growing Ironman to do list. I’m going to be giving the Iron Nun a run for her money at this rate if I’m going to fit it all in. Wherever you choose to race, just remember that the best adventures start with something that scares and excites you in equal measures. Watch a few race videos, read some race reports – you’ll get this gut feeling and you’ll be grabbing that credit card before you know it. Don’t forget to check out the NEW SG Triathlon range too – new challenges = an excellent excuse for new gear.
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