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Choosing an Ultra-Distance Triathlon

By David Glover

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

— Commander John Collins, USN (1978)

A coaching client recently asked me about choosing an ultra distance race to compete in:

Just thought I’d reach out and get your input for choosing your first ultra distance triathlon and how to go about registering. I’ve decided 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?

multisport lab photo“Ultra distance” and “full distance” are also terms for Ironman distance events with their customary 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.

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

However, there are more triathlons to choose from that offer the same 140.6-mile distance, and in many cases, a more personal and intimate race experience with a smaller field of athletes. The list of other ultra-distance races includes:

True, some of the ultra-distance triathlons like Ironman Canada or Ironman Lake Placid may sell out a year in advance, but many do not. Still, if you’re planning on doing one, the training commitment is many months so signing up in advance to put an event date on the calendar is not necessarily a bad idea for training motivation.

When choosing your ultra-distance triathlon, here are other important factors to consider:

  • Time of year: Will you do the majority of your 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 long rides outside in the winter may be a challenge if you live in Montana or Pennsylvania.
  • Swim Start: Are you comfortable with a mass swim start with 2,000+ athletes, which are typical for the Ironman events? If not, consider a race with a wave start like Vineman or a time trial (one at a time) start like Ironman Louisville.
  • Race Size: Do you want to race on a crowded course or would prefer to race within yourself without having to worry 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. If you’re strong time trialist in the flats, you may want to consider Beach2Battleship.
  • Locale: What else is near the race site? If bringing friends or family, are there other activities that they can enjoy while you’re checking into registration, doing the practice swim, etc?
  • Available Training Partners: Do you have friends who are training for the same race or another race around the same period of time? Doing all of your long rides and runs alone can be lonely.
  • Weather: What is the weather typically like where you live and train versus where you will race? Ideally, they should be similar. If not, avoid extreme differences from what you’ll be training in.
  • Budget: How far are you willing and able to travel? The more time zones you travel, the more time you should allow for your body to adjust.

Keep in mind that there are lots of races out there so pick the one or two that best suit your interests, abilities and schedule.

Good luck and happy training!

David Glover, MS, CSCS is the author of Full Time & Sub-Nine: Fitting Iron Distance Training into Everyday Life and has completed twenty-eight Ironman® distance races. His Iron-distance accomplishments include qualifying for Ironman Hawaii multiples times, achieving a personal best time of 8:51, winning five races overall and being inducted into the Vineman Hall of Fame (2007). Certified as a coach by USA Triathlon and USA Cycling, David coaches a full range of Iron-distance triathletes from first-timers to experienced veterans qualifying for Hawaii. Please visit to learn how he can help you achieve your triathlon goals.