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Use Race Reconnaissance to Master Your Next Ironman

By Ingrid Loos Miller

When you are facing an Ironman, information about the race course and venue is critical to your choice of race, training, mental preparation and planning. This information should be discovered early. Race reconnaissance starts with a basic course map. Using the Internet, you can add multiple layers of information to create a detailed paper and mental image of your race. But to scout effectively, you need to know what you are looking for and how to use the information.

Here is a list of information you can glean from scouting:

  1. Picking the right race – Time of year, weather, and course characteristics are the three most important factors in deciding which Ironman to do. Consider various options based on your goals (a new PR, scenery, family destination) your abilities (flat vs. hilly, hot vs. cold, humidity), and your schedule.
  2. Accommodations around the course – You will have to book your hotel as soon as you enter your race. Finding the right hotel is important. Should it be near the start or finish or the expo? Will it be along the race course? Will there be restaurants and stores nearby? Will there be transportation to the start line on race day for you and the family?
  3. Training should be tailored to the course. Total elevation gains, hill grades, road conditions and surfaces, temperature, humidity, wind and altitude will impact how you train.
  4. Mental preparation is as important as physical conditioning. You need detailed information to create effective mental strategies and to be able to mentally rehearse your race. Knowing the course before race day will also keep your stress level down once you arrive at the venue.
  5. Equipment and clothing should be suited to the race you choose. Knowing the course will help you decide what to put in your special needs bags. Road surfaces will help you choose the right tires and tools to bring. Wind will help you decide if you need disc wheels or not. Heat and humidity will guide your electrolyte needs.

Start with multiple copies of an enlarged course map (from the race website) and mark the map with details as you learn them. If miles are not indicated, go to mapmytri.com (or mapmyrun.com, mapmyride.com), Motionbased.com or GarminConnect.com to find a detailed map of the race course. Sometimes the maps are listed by discipline (run/bike) rather than as a triathlon. These maps have mile marks and elevations.

Use the course description (text, turn-by-turn route information) from the race website to reconcile with the mile marks, aid stations and street names. Include elevation information (and % grade) as well.

Check out the topography using Google earth’s 3D tour and satellite photos. On your map, note areas that seem desolate, crowded with buildings, etc.  Look also for landmarks and indicate those on your map. Your master map should be marked with the streets, aid stations, approximate mile marks, landmarks and hills.

Next, go to YouTube and search for videos of your event, or other races in the same location or town. Get an idea of the lay of the land and the comments made by athletes. The images will create detail that the paper map can't provide.

Read as many race reports as you can get your hands on. You can Google the event name or go to Ironplanner.net, which has race planning information and reports from most iron-distance events. Although the personal stories are interesting, you goal is not to get mired in the drama of the athlete writing the report. Look for information about the course that you can use. It also helps to read hotel and restaurant reviews from travel websites before you book your accommodations.

Message boards/forums like those at are loaded with accounts of various races. Contact other athletes who have done the race. You can contact other triathletes in the area and ask a race-local tri club to make a video of the race course and post it on YouTube if you can’t find one.

Keep your master map posted somewhere and add to it as you gather new information. Use it to design your training plan. By race day you will know the course like the back of your hand and will be prepared for every turn, every hill and you will know where the all the aid stations will be.

Next, use the map to literally divide the race into manageable slices. Slices are a mental tools that allow you to focus on small, manageable segments of the race so you don’t get overwhelmed with the enormity of the entire event. It is easy to slice the event by swim, bike and run, but those slices are too large. Use loops or turn-around points on the bike leg. As the day wears on, the slices should become smaller and smaller as you fatigue. By the time you are in the middle of the run, you should be down to slices of a mile at a time. Marking the slices on your master race map breaks the race into opportunities to apply appropriate nutrition and mental strategies to different stages of the race.

Your master map also will help you designate meeting places for your spectators and to pencil in estimated arrival times at various locations. The larger your map, the more detail you can add. Mark restaurants and your hotel on the map as well. 

Keep your master map posted somewhere and add to it as you gather new information. By race day, you will have all the ingredients to a successful race. You will be well prepared, less stressed, and will know the race course like the back of your hand.

Ingrid Loos Miller is the author of Ironplanner: Iron-distance Organizer For Triathletes and a Level 1 USAT coach. Go to Ironplanner.net for more race planning information.

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