“Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!”

— Commander John Collins, USN (1978)

A client asked me recently about choosing which Ironman distance race (2.4-mile swim / 112-mile bike / 26.2-mile run) to compete in:

“Just thought I’d reach out and get your input for choosing your first Ironman and how to go about registering. I’ve decided I’m going to try to tackle an Ironman next year. I’ve heard of the great difficulty in registering for Ironman events because registration is mostly open to the athletes competing in that years race or volunteering. Do all the events typically sell out the day of?”

First off, Ironman® and Ironman Triathlon® are registered trademarks of the World Triathlon Corporation. “Official” Ironman races are either owned by WTC (Ironman Arizona, Ironman Lake Placid) or pay money to have the Ironman® brand affiliation with the race (e.g. Ironman Canada) and each offers qualifying spots to the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in October each year.  The complete list of Ironman races can be found at ironman.com.

“Iron distance” or “full distance” refers to an event with a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run – the distances of the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon, which were combined to create the first Ironman in Hawaii in 1978.

True, some of the Ironman distance races sell out for the following year on the day registration opens – typically, the day after the current year’s race. In my observations, the races that have been around for a few years like Ironman Lake Placid and Ironman Arizona sell out immediately while the newer races like Ironman Louisville will eventually sell out but not the same day registration opens.

The good news is that there are many more “iron distance” triathlons that are just as good as the Ironman-branded events and in many cases offer a more personal and intimate race experience with smaller fields of athletes. Some of the other iron distance races that I’ve competed in include:

There are a number of other factors to consider when choosing an iron distance race:

  • Time of year: Will you do the majority of your Ironman-specific training in the winter or in the summer? For example, if you sign up for a May race, you’ll be doing long rides in February and March, which may not be bad if you live in Florida or California but may be a challenge if you live up north.
  • Swim Start: Are you comfortable with a mass swim start with 2,000+ athletes, which are typical for the Ironman-branded events? If not, find a race with a wave start.
  • Race Size: Do you want to race on a crowded course or would prefer to race within yourself without worrying about packs of other athletes?
  • Course: Does the course play to your strengths? If you’re a strong climber consider a hilly course like Ironman Lake Placid rather than the flat Ironman Florida.
  • The Locale: What else is near the race site? If bringing friends or family, are there other activities that they can enjoy while you’re doing registration, swim practice, etc?
  • Training Partners: Do you have friends who are training for the same race or another race around the same period of time? It can be lonely doing all of your long rides and runs alone.
  • Weather: What is the weather typically like where and when you will train versus where you will race? Ideally, they should be similar. If not, avoid extremes.
  • Budget: How far are you willing / able to travel? The more time zones you travel, the more time you should allow for adjustment.

Websites with race calendars and links to individual races: xtri.com, IRONMAN.com, TriFind.com

Need help picking races and developing an annual training plan? I offer consulting.

Live life boldly and richly!


David B. Glover, MS, CSCS
ENDURANCEWORKS Triathlon Coaching and Training
Author of Full Time and Sub-Nine: Fitting Iron Distance Training into Everyday Life

…beyond what you knew you could do….

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