5 tips on choosing your first IRONMAN® race

There are dozens and dozens of Ironman® races that take place in countries all over the world.

Some are in small towns, other in big cities. Some on flat land, others on ski resorts.

Then there’s you, trying to figure out how to choose where to do your first full distance Ironman® race – and wondering where to start.

Here are some of the top considerations when figuring out where you’d like to exercise for 17 hours race.

1.) Timing

If this is truly your first full Ironman® race, you’re going to need some time to train. Many take up to 1 year of Ironman training before feeling ready for their first full distance triathlon.

That said, you can either A.) figure out what’s roughly a year from “now” and check the Ironman® schedule, or B.) find a race you’d like to do, and back out how long it’ll take you to train to make sure you have enough time to get to the start line.

2.) Location & travel required

The Ironman® race itself is tough enough, so consider how difficult the start line will be to get to in the first place.

There are some races in exotic locations, but if they require 10 hour plane rides, shipping a bike for the first time, and stressful hotel bookings, those might not be right for your first time.

Find something you can drive to in 1 sitting (~5-7 hours max). Take as much control over the days leading up to your race as you can – trust me, you’ll want it.

Leaving your fate into someone else’s hands (pilots, train conductors, etc.) can add unnecessary stress to an already stressful weekend.

3.) Terrain

If you live and train in the flattest part of the world, maybe don’t pick your first race to be up and down a mountain.

Find a race with terrain similar to what you’re reasonably going to be able to train on so that your comfort level can be at it’s highest potential point.

It’s also worth noting that if you live in a place like Colorado, a race like Ironman® Florida isn’t by default an ‘easier’ option.


Consider the bike course. Yes – Boulder will have tons of hills, ups and downs, but it has downs – where you can coast and relax/recover from the ups.

Florida (and Maryland, and others that are really flat) require 112 miles of constant pedaling. So yes, there are no hills, but there might actually be more work.

Find a race similar to what you can practice, and make the most out of your preparation.

4.) Wetsuit legal potential

One of the most common questions asked in an Ironman® facebook group or race specific forum is “what’s the water temperature?”.

Why does that matter?

Well, Ironman® decides when you’re able to wear a wetsuit ‘legally’ (i.e. be eligible for all awards, etc.) based solely on water temperature.

The swim is “Wetsuit legal” when the temperature is at or below 76.1F/24.5C.

Any hotter than that, and you ‘can’ wear a wetsuit – but typically you’d forfeit your ability to qualify for Kona or 70.3® World Championships, place awards, etc.

People become obsessed with wetsuit conditions simply because swimming in a wetsuit is faster than swimming without one.

You’re more buoyant, hydrodynamic, and slippery in the water. On a full 2.4mi swim, a wetsuit can take minutes off of your swim time, compared to races where they’re not allowed. If you’re a strong swimmer, you may not care, but if you’re like most first time Ironman® athletes and the swim is your source of anxiety, check previous years temperatures to see what you might be dealing with.

5.) Weather

I’ll admit, this is at the bottom of the list because it’s imperfect, but it’s important to check out.

Inclement weather can impact your race, more often than not, the swim.

If you’ve just spent the last 12 months training for your first Ironman®, the last thing you want is for the course to be altered.

If the weather/water conditions are bad enough, you could have a race with no swim, a shortened bike, or some other type of alteration.

You want the full 140.6, it’s what you trained for, so check out the last 3-5 years of course history and see how many times the course has had to be altered because of weather – it may just point you to a different race.

Reason why this is imperfect: Ironman Maryland, for example, had several years of flooding and canceled swims/shortened bike courses before multiple years of absolutely perfect weather. It should be considered – but not the only determining factor.

Embrace your choice

Whether you choose a course that’s flat, hilly, fast, slow, hard, easy, windy, hot, cold, or any other adjective, embrace it.

It’s now yours, and you’re going to make the choice to train well, and race even better.

Spend some time to get your training & nutrition right, and then it’s time to literally and figuratively put one foot in front of the other – and begin your Ironman® journey.