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5 reasons Ironman races in Lanzarote are the hardest in the world

There are simply no races like this anywhere on the planet

Photo by: Club La Santa/ James Mitchell

It’s hard to believe that this will be the 10th anniversary edition of Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote. (Even harder to believe that it will be the 30th anniversary of the full-distance race on the Canary Island in May, but we’ll save that for another story.) I’m here to announce at the event this weekend and, as you can see from the photo above, where I am asking Olympic gold medalist Jessica Learmonth what on earth she is doing here, I am having lots of fun.

For those who aren’t familiar with Lanzarote, it is the most north and east of the Canary Islands, situated about 125 km off the north coast of Africa. The Ironman events on the island are backed by Club La Santa, a sports Mecca that has been going since the early 80s. Kenneth Gasque, who worked at Club La Santa, did the Ironman World Championship in 1985 and was amazed at how similar Lanzarote was to the Big Island in Hawaii. He worked tirelessly for years and eventually was able to get an Ironman license to host a full-distance qualifier on the island in 1992. Renowned for the tough biking conditions, Lanzarote has long been a go-to destination for many of Europe’s top professional triathletes over the years. Ironman world champion Anne Haug has spent so much time here that she described her win at the 70.3 here last fall as a “hometown victory,” and last year’s 70.3 world champ and three-time Kona runner up, Lucy Charles-Barclay, is amongst numerous European pros who regularly train at Club La Santa, too.

This weekend’s race promises to be a barnburner. There’s a stacked field of almost 80 pros, including Haug, who is back to try to defend her title, but most importantly, is here to test things out as she gears up to try and defend her Ironman world title at St. George in May. The similarity of the course was something that came up again and again at yesterday’s press conference – of the five athletes who were there, four are gearing up for the race in St. George.

As serious as all that was, though, there were definitely some light-hearted moments, especially when it came to talking about the brutal conditions that make Lanzarote so unique and a bucket-list event for the world’s most dedicated (and pain-loving) triathletes. Multiple Ironman champion Florian Angert said that he’d never dreamed of racing here in Lanzarote because of all the training he’d done. And pretty much everyone in the room was wondering, like me, why gold-medalist Learmonth chose this to be her first long-distance race. As I told her – if she likes this one, she’ll be hooked on longer races for sure.

Here’s a few reasons why “normal limits do not apply” (the race’s slogan) at Ironman races in Lanzarote. All of which will make you want to do this race … if you’re up for a challenge.

It’s windy. Really, really windy

When the American team was getting ready for the America’s Cup sailing competition a few years ago, they decided to do their training here in Lanzarote because of all the wind. Athletes who train here will tell you that the thing about the wind is that it’s just relentless. After a few weeks of riding (if you’re lucky enough to be here that long), you’re just desperate for a day when you don’t feel like you’re pushing hard and not going anywhere. Today, for example, has been the least-windy day all week. At one point I was pushing over 220 watts going down a hill … and hit a whopping 24 km/h.

The famous climb up Mirador Del Rio at Ironman Lanzarote. Photo: James Mitchell for Ironman

There’s lots of climbing. A lot of climbing

They’ve “toned down” the amount of climbing on the 70.3 course over the last couple of editions – now there’s “only” a shade under 1,300 m of elevation gain. (The old course took the athletes down the steepest climb on the island – over 20% – but that’s been removed now.) The Ironman race includes climbs up two mountains and another brutal climb up to the Fire Mountains. (The 70.3 race goes part way up the climb to the Fire Mountains.)

When I interviewed American pro football player Darryl Haley about his attempt to do the Ironman race here in Lanzarote in 1998, he told me about trying to get up the first of the two mountains.

“I tried to ride my bike,” he said. “Then I got off and walked my bike. Then I had to pick up my bike and try to carry it to the top.”

There are Calimas

Sharon Mackinnon on the bike during a Calima in Lanzarote two years ago.

The last two days here the air quality has been considered hazardous. Not because of pollution from cars or industry – it’s because of the desert dust that has settled on the island. Basically a sand storm has descended on the island for a few days, bringing hot air, extremely high winds, along with sand and dust over from the Sahara desert. (Remember, we’re 125 km away.) A couple of years ago my wife, Sharon, and I tried to ride during the beginning of a Calima. We made it through the first 10 km of riding in 49 minutes and decided we better get home.

Read more about “Calima craziness”

It’s crazy competitive

The list of podium finishers here in Lanzarote is like a who’s who of the sport. I say podium finishers, because even the likes of Jan Frodeno have competed here, but even the man many see as the G.O.A.T. didn’t come away with the win the year he was here. (In his defence, Frodeno was coming back from an injury and was doing the race to ratify his Kona slot. A few months later he set a new world best time at Challenge Roth.) While it’s not as well known in North America, in Europe a win at Ironman Lanzarote is a big deal. Even being able to say that you’ve done the race – either the Ironman or the 70.3 – will put you in a different category compared to the rest of the people in your club.

Ironman Lanzarote

You really get to brag for the rest of your life

Remember Commander John Collins describing the Ironman World Championship?

“Swim 2.4 miles. Bike 112 miles. Run a 26.2-mile marathon. Brag for the rest of your life.”

Whether its a half- or full-distance Ironman event here in Lanzarote, when you’ve done one of these suckers, you truly get to brag for the rest of your life. When the rest of the gang are complaining about wind during a training ride back home, you’ll just laugh. Someone groans part way up a climb? You’ll just be sniggering.

Normal limits do not apply. And you overcame them.