When Lew Friedland became president of World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) in 1997 he immediately embarked on an ambitious expansion program for the brand. In just a couple of years Ironman races appeared across North America, Europe and Asia. Many in the business, including myself and Ironman Canada’s Graham Fraser, who would benefit most from Friedland’s plan, thought he was going to kill the sport by adding too many events.
A few years later, during an interview with Friedland, I got to admit that I had been 100 per cent wrong and he had been 100 per cent right – Ironman was obviously ready to grow. Friedland has been replaced at the helm of WTC by Ben Fertic, but the growth of the brand continues. Under Fertic WTC has developed the hugely successful Ironman 70.3 series and Ironman racing continues to gain in popularity. Later this year we’ll see one more event added to the already crowded Ironman calendar with the inaugural race in Cozumel, Mexico. Next year we’ll see another new Ironman race in St. George, Utah, which takes place in May and in Regensberg, Germany, in August.
With all the Ironman races to choose from, Triathlon Magazine Canada thought we’d provide our own Ironman guide, based for the most part on editor Kevin Mackinnon’s experiences gleaned from his event coverage for Ironman.com.
Figuring out which Ironman is the hardest isn’t as easy as you might think. Ironman Malaysia prides itself as being the “Toughest Show on Earth,” while Ironman Lanzarote is proud to use as its slogan, “Normal Limits do not Apply.”
What makes Malaysia such a challenge is the incredible heat and humidity. A few days before the 2006 race, a year in which temperatures were considered “mild” by the locals, the temperature was over 32 degrees Celsius … at 11 pm at night. In 2001 race consultant Graeme Hannen knew he was in trouble when volunteers from the aid stations at the event started to complain about the heat. That day the temperature reached 42 degrees. At that kind of temperature, just lifting up a frosty, cold beer would seem like too much effort. Can you imagine how much fun it would be to have run down the road and hand off a water bottle (a few hundred times no less) to some type A compulsive exercise addict who has decided to swim, bike and run for most of the day? There again, can you imagine being that type A compulsive exercise addict who has decided to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 and then run a marathon in those temperatures?
In the last two years Ironman China has experienced similar temperatures, with the thermometer getting into the 40s earlier this year as the field simply melted out on the run course. Things were so warm this year that A. Chandrakumanan, the race director of Ironman Malaysia, spent most of race day in his hotel room – “It was too hot to be outside today,” he said at the finish line that evening, once things had cooled off.
The China event isn’t likely to continue with that tradition, though, because the hot conditions have been well above the typical average temperatures for that time of year. One would think (and race organizers are hoping!) that conditions will be much more reasonable in future years, which should take Ironman China out of any talk of being in the toughest category.
The race in Lanzarote is likely to always remain at or near the top of the most challenging Ironman division, though. While conditions can get hot during the run, with temperatures reaching the low 30s Celsius, what makes the day on the Canary Island such a challenge is the bike course. In addition to the two Miradors or mountains, the course features a number of other difficult climbs. Add to that the intense winds that are the norm on Lanzarote and you have a bike course that is both spectacular and incredibly challenging. As in Kona, the bike course goes through a number of lava fields and features lots of open areas where the wind can literally stop you for a few seconds as you try to generate enough power to keep turning the pedals.
Talk of the toughest Ironman course would not be complete without mentioning the event that inspired it all in the first place, the Ironman World Championship. While the course on Hawaii’s Big Island isn’t as tough as Lanzarote’s and the temperature and humidity doesn’t typically get as high as it is in Malaysia, underestimating Kona’s challenges has undone more than a few athletes over the years.
The first time you arrive in Kona and walk off the plane, you’ll be shocked at how hard it is to take your first breath. The heat and humidity is stifling and it takes a few days for even the most seasoned Kona veterans to get used to it. Add to that the incredible muumuku winds that seem to pack more punch than anything even Lanzarote has to offer and you have the makings of an incredibly challenging day – one that’s deserving of being called the world’s most challenging one-day event.
Add to all that the fact that you have the world’s best multi-sport athletes to compete with and suddenly you have a pressure-packed day in that features both intense competition and gruelling conditions.
Notice we didn’t use the word “easiest” to describe this section? An Ironman is never easy. String together 2.4 miles of swimming along with 112-miles of cycling and a marathon run and you have a hard day. A very hard day. Even if the bike was downhill with a tailwind it would still be a challenge that would require lots of training.
So, now that we have that out of the way, which courses are most likely to produce a personal best time? We’ll start with two that aren’t official Ironman qualifiers.
The Esprit Triathlon in Montreal celebrated it’s 25th anniversary this year and remains a great choice for anyone who is looking for an end of the season race on a flat, fast course. After swimming in the Olympic rowing basin, the bike course consists of 41 laps of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve followed by a nine-lap run that includes lots of soft gravel trail. If you’re having a good day and hitting your splits this course is a dream come true – pacing is simple and the course is predominantly flat.
On a more international note, the world’s fastest Ironman distance times have all been articleed in Roth, Germany at the Quelle Challenge. Surprisingly, the course in Roth does feature some gentle climbs on the bike which do little to slow down the overall bike times. The run course is predominantly on gravel trails and is very flat, which seems to allow for some quick run times, too.
If you’re looking for an official Ironman race to article a personal best time you want to head to Klagenfurt, Austria for Karnten Ironman Austria. Despite a few steep climbs on the bike, the bike course in Austria is incredibly fast thanks to the long, gradual downhills that follow each of the climbs. The road conditions are perfect, which makes it easy to maintain a quick pace throughout the ride. The flat run course is both interesting and lively thanks to the thousands of spectators that line the route to cheer you on as you run your way to a personal best.
Another European race that prides itself on producing a number of personal bests is Ironman Switzerland. As in Austria there are a few steep climbs on the course, but after those climbs there are some screaming-fast descents where you can make up quite a bit of time. The rest of the course is dead flat as it follows the shoreline of Lake Zurich.
North America Events
It’s hard to imagine that before Friedland’s expansion of Ironman events in 1998 there were only two official Ironman races in North America: Subaru Ironman Canada and the Ford Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. The first addition was Lake Placid, followed later that year by Florida. Now the list includes the new event in St. George, Coeur d’Alene, Louisville, Wisconsin, Arizona and Cozumel.
Getting into one of the events here in North America has become almost as much of a challenge as competing in the race. The only sure way to gain a spot in Lake Placid or Canada is to volunteer or race one year and sign up on-site for the next year. Most of the other races fill up equally as quickly.
Ford Ironman St. George
This first time event marks a return to Utah for Ironman racing. The picturesque race site promises to provide some spectacular racing.
Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene
Just 30 minutes drive from Seattle airport, the race takes place at the spectacular Coeur d’Alene Resort. Everything about this race is scenic.
Ford Ironman Lake Placid
Set in the beautiful Adirondacks, this race has quickly become one of the most popular races in North America. It’s especially popular for Canadians from Ottawa, Toronto and Quebec, who can easily drive to the race site.
Subaru Ironman Canada
One of the original Ironman qualifying events, Ironnman Canada’s storied history and incredible community support make this a must-do race for any Ironman competitor.
Ford Ironman Louisville
They don’t do anything half-way in the city that hosts the world’s most prestigious horse race. A down-river swim is followed by a surprisingly challenging bike course through beautiful horse country and a run that takes in many of Louisville’s tourist attractions.
Ford Ironman Wisconsin
Set in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin, possibly North America’s most bike-friendly city, Ironman Wisconsin offers an incredible bike ride and the support of thousands of University of Wisconsin students who cheer as the athletes run through their campus.
Ford Ironman Florida
Another incredibly popular race because families love to accompany their Ironman athlete down to Panama City Beach. Don’t get it in your head that just because the course is flat it’s going to be fast, though – staying on the aero bars that long can be tough, as can the winds that tend to make the bike more challenging.
Ford Ironman Arizona
Set in the heart of Tempe, and in close proximity to the University of Arizona campus, you’re almost guaranteed near-perfect race conditions in Arizona. It’s another race site that’s easy to get to – Phoenix airport is about 10 minutes drive.
Best post-race facilities: Ironman Switzerland. Thanks to the sponsorship from Hansgrohe, the post-race athlete area in Zurich is second-to-none when it comes to athlete comfort. Showers and hot-tubs galore make this a popular post-race spot for competitors, who are quite happy to spend an hour or two recovering in style after their race.
Best expo: The athlete village in Klagenfurt is jam-packed all week long thanks to the many booths and tents that offer everything from training plans to discounted tri-wear. There’s also a huge cafe area that makes this a popular pre-race hangout for athletes and their friends before the race.
Best family trip: There’s a reason Ironman Florida is one of the most popular Ironman races in North America – the beautiful white sandy beaches in Panama City Beach make this a popular place for the rest of the family. Accommodations can be found at hugely discounted rates, too, because the race takes place in November, a down-time for area.
Best wildlife opportunities: If you make a trip to South Africa, you must make sure to take in some of the game-viewing opportunities close to Port Elizabeth. A one day trip to Addo Elephant Park or Shamwari Game Reserve is an unforgettable experience, but those are just two of the many game parks that are within close proximity to the race site. You don’t have to even find a game park to see lots of wildlife on the course in Malaysia – there are always lots of water buffalo and monkeys along the course and there’s even been a King Cobra siting on the course in years past.
Planning your Ironman trip
There are a few companies that offer Ironman tours which offer packages to many events.
Endurance Sports Travel, owned by former pro triathlete Ken Glah, offers trips to Ironman races around the world including Brazil, China, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, Arizona, Cozumel and many more. Packages include race entry and many tour opportunities for athletes and their families.
Premium Plus Sports also offers trips and packages to a number of Ironman races, including Lanzarote, New Zealand, Austria, Cozumel and Coeur d’Alene. Like Glah, owner Deepak Patel has been in the business for years and has lots of great insights on how to keep athletes and their families entertained at various races.
Anthony Travel is the official travel agency for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. With a full complement of hotel and condominium options and a huge list of pre- and post-race trips and tours (snorkeling, anyone?) it’s worth giving them a call if you’re making the trip to Kona.
Ironman Executive Challenge
Geared for “top-level executives” the Ironman Executive Challenge, or Ironman XC offers privileges such as guaranteed entry to select Ironman events, VIP treatment for athletes and their family, first-class accommodations, personalized coaching, interaction with Ironman icons and much more. Members of Ironman XC also have the opportunity to win slots to the Ford Ironman World Championship.
Ironman XC events include:
- Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene
- Frankfurter Sparkasse Ironman Germany
- Ford Ironman USA Lake Placid
- Ford Ironman Louisville
- Ford Ironman World Championship (by qualification only)
- Ford Ironman Arizona
Frankfurter Sparkasse Ironman European Championship
July 4, 2010
Ford Ironman World Championship