Note: This article is aimed at athletes who are entering official IRONMAN (M-dot) events, not those who are completing the distance at “unofficial” events. If you are completing the distance at an even with a different organiser (Outlaw, challenge, independent), this is the article you need: Triathlon Race Day Success
Hopefully by the time you’re reading this your training has gone well, you’re excited, and feel nervous, yet unstoppable. However, a few mistakes on race day can really put a spanner in the works and leave you disappointed or even result in you failing to finish. All of that fitness isn’t much use if you can’t apply it onto the course, so we’re going to walk you through the confusing and sometimes stressful world of race preparation and race execution, to reduce stress and confusion on the day itself.
The following points are based on my experience of Ironman triathlons, however as the races are run as franchises there may be small differences in how each event is run. Always read the race information and defer to it over the advice I give here.
Long Term Planning
While for some events you can put your bike in the back of the car, drive to the event, pay the entry fee and race, an Ironman event is one you need to put a lot of thought into, and will have likely signed up to many months in advance. You need a long term plan for race day, as at the very least you will need to be there the day before to register. Unless you live very locally, this involves finding accommodation in the area, and travelling down.
I highly recommend you travel down two days before to register. The reason for this is that if you get up at 7AM the day before the race for the 4 hour drive to the registration, and your car doesn’t start, there’s chaos on the railways or even just heavy traffic after an accident, that’s your race over before it’s begun. All that money on the entry, time invested in your training, all of it evaporates as registration closes at 12PM sharp the day before, no exceptions.
I recommend you pack your gear three to four days before you travel, even if means you’re training out of a suitcase for a few days. The reason is this gives you a chance to get the bike fixed if there’s a problem, to order a new trisuit if the zipper has broken, or new goggles if yours have completely fogged up. Finding these problems the day before the race is a level of stress we can all do without.
Here’s a recommended packing list:
- Running shoes
- Cycling shoes
- Spare goggles
- Second swim cap/neoprene cap (for cold swims)
- Race belt
- Tools for bike (tyre levers, spare inner tube, multi-tool)
- Running cap/visor
- Bicycle pump
- Photo ID (for registration, normally a passport/driving license)
- Plus anything that you specifically may want to take
During registration you will have indicated whether you wanted a special needs bag or not. I always encourage my athletes to say yes, so they can stick some expendables they may need in their bag. This could be a spare inner tube in case you’ve already used your spare, obscure nutrition you just might fancy on the marathon, and anything in-between. As yourself what you normally crave during a hard workout, and pack that.
Use this opportunity to read (or re-read) the athlete guide to familiarise yourself with the course and what you can expect.
Two Days Before
Your first port of call should be registration where you will receive the following:
Blue bag– This is for your bike kit, everything that won’t be on your bike in the morning, more details below
Red bag– This is for your running kit, which in most cases will simply be your running kit, more details below
Race number– This is essential to avoid a disqualification, in Europe you need to wear it on the bike, however this is not always a requirement in all territories, so check the race guide. Most athletes will run with a race belt which their number will be attached to, allowing them to spin it behind them on the bike, and round the front for the run as per the rules.
Swim Cap– Pretty self explanatory, this will be what you wear for the swim, and will be branded with the event name. It’s one way to ensure only registered athletes enter the water.
Rucksack– All events I’ve been to will give you a branded rucksack at registration. The quality can be variable, but they’re generally a good souvenir of the event.
Wristband– This will normally be attached by a volunteer, and you will be unable to remove it between now and the finish line. It’s proof that you are a registered athlete, and is your ticket into transition and other athlete only areas.
Become One Wristband– For first time athletes, they will receive a special wristband denoting them as a first timer. These are completely optional to wear, but might get you a few more cheers out on course.
Stickers– You will be provided with stickers that belong on your helmet, bike and transition bags. I recommend you apply these sooner rather than later as failure to do so could mean a disqualification or your equipment going missing.
Take the opportunity to give your bike the once over by riding it around for a bit, changing through all the gears. Your bike will likely need to be disassembled for transport, and in the rebuilding process mistakes can be made resulting in irritating imperfections such as a gear shift being slower than normal, all the way up to a race ending mechanical such as your aero bars coming loose or your brakes not working correctly. All Ironman races I’ve attended have mechanics on site in T1 who will be there to fix any major problems, so don’t panic if you find yourself with an issue you don’t know how to fix. This is why we’re looking into it now.
The Day Before
If you have the time it’s good to get these jobs done two days before (where possible), but many athletes will have only arrived later in the day to register and will want to head straight from registration to get something to eat, then check into their hotel. You have quite a lot of jobs to get done today, so get started early to avoid any unnecessary stress.
Pack up and Mark Your Bags
Once you’ve had time to have your breakfast, it’s time to pack your bags. You will have up to five bags to pack and label with your number.. Your bike bag, your run bag, your streetwear bag, bike special needs and run special needs.
Here you will need as bare minimum your helmet and race number (for European races at least, other regions do not require a number on the bike) attached to a race belt. The vast majority of athletes will put on socks here as well, and those not attempting a flying mount will have their shoes in this bag as well. If you are looking to add a cycling gilet for warmth, a cycle jersey for storage or any other extra clothing, they will need to be in this bag as well.
Here you mat simply have your shoes, but may will pack a fresh, thicker pair of socks to change into for the run. You may want a running cap/visor and some nutrition you’re expecting to take on at the start of the run.
These are comfortable clothes for you to change into at the end of the event. Depending on the race, they may be found in the finishing area or in transition. Pay attention to the forecast at the time you hope to finish and pack accordingly.
Special Needs Bags
This can be whatever you like, and if it’s your first event I suggest you put in some ‘fun’ nutrition you may need to pick you up at the end such as a bag of your favourite crisps, a soft drink or anything else you may feel you crave once gels and bars get a bit too much. If you plan to be on course for close to 17 hours this is especially important, as it’s far more likely you’ll encounter gastrointestinal issues.
Setting Up Transition
Now your bags are ready and your bike has been test ridden, it’s time to setup your transition area. If you are attending a race with split transitions I recommend you attend T1 first as it’s more complicated.
The first thing you’ll be doing is racking your bike. In smaller triathlons you may be used to placing your bike in the most advantageous position, but at Ironman events you will be designated a spot on the racking. Also, you will be unable to leave anything on the ground next to your bike, it will be a case of arriving at your bike with everything you need, grabbing it and running towards the “bike out” banner.
Once your bike has been racked (you are unable to cover it in any way I’m afraid), you will head to transition, which usually takes the form of a marquee. Here your first port of call should be to collect your timing chip. It is ESSENTIAL that you remember this tomorrow, so I would go so far as recommending putting it on your ankle straight away and not taking it off until you get back to the hotel. Nobody wants to be rifling through their bags trying to find where their timing chip is on the morning of the race.
Once you have your timing chip it’s time to rack your bags, which will be on hooks that may remind you of primary school. Once your bags are hung it’s time to walk outside to the transition area and find the point you will enter transition from the swim. If this isn’t clear ask a marshal. Imagine you are coming out of the water, and practice your journey through T1. You will be walking/running towards the marquee, once you’re inside, where do you go? Walk over to your bag (double check it’s on the right hook) and work out where you will get changed. Will you use the benches, or would you prefer to use the gendered changing areas? Open your bag, imagine which order you’ll be putting everything on in. Is there anything you’ve missed? Once you’ve repacked your bag, find where you will drop it (full of swim kit), then head to your bike. How many racks do you need to pass? Are there any landmarks you can use to help you spot it easier? Once you get to your bike, how are you removing it, and where are you running with your bike?
Once you have finished this, head to the “bike in” banner, or T2 if using split transitions. Repeat the same process here, heading to your racking spot, then to the marquee to locate your run bag and check it has everything you need, before identifying the way out to the run course. This will only take 10 minutes max, but can you time and stress on the day.
There will be a mandatory race briefing for you to attend, which may be in person or virtual. It’s important you attend to understand the course and any last minute changes. Attendance is mandatory, so make sure you factor this into your day.
Never Stand When you can Sit
You may have spent a few hours on your feet by now, in which case it’s important to take a load off. You don’t want to spend an hour browsing the merchandise tent when you could be resting your legs. I recommend most athletes go for a short, sharp run the day before to ensure they’re not stale for the race, then try to stay off their feet as much as they can.
The Last Supper
What you eat the day before has a large effect on your race, as it will help dictate how much energy is available to you at the start of the day. I recommend something simple and easily digestible. New potatoes, fish and vegetables is a personal favourite of mine, but listen to what your body wants, within reason! Next up, it’s time to head to bed, even if it’s just to lie down with the curtains drawn and your eyes closed, listening to a podcast or some music. Ideally you’d want to be drifting off by 9PM, but this is very difficult for some, so don’t stress yourself out too much, just drift off when you can.
The race will normally start around 6AM, and you’ll want to get to the site for at least an hour before the start to drop off your special needs and streetwear bags, which normally have a cutoff of around 30 minutes before the swim start. This is especially important if you don’t have friends/family supporting who can take items to the finish for you. If the swim start is a distance from the finish line Ironman will normally put on shuttle buses to take athletes from the town centre to the swim start from 3AM. If you are driving, make sure you’ve checked the athlete guide for information on the best area to park, don’t assume you’ll be able to roll up to the swim start and abandon your car next to transition.
Many big hotels close to races will provide a special early breakfast for athletes competing, but check this explicitly beforehand rather than assuming. Breakfast is a personal choice, but I’ve had more success with gastrointestinal issues since I cut down on the lactose on race morning. We’re all lactose intolerant to a greater or lesser extent, and the emotions of race day combined with the exertion of racing can cause that big bowl of porridge to sit very heavy on the stomach, or even make a reappearance in the swim if you’re very unlucky. If you struggle to eat anything that early it’s worth grabbing something to go that you can nibble on throughout the morning.
This is also a good time to put your trisuit, to prevent having to get changed in a portaloo at the race venue.
Now is the time to look at the details such as your tyre pressures as well as attach your shoes/computer to your bike. With regards to tyre pressure, it’s best you stick with what you know, but consider dropping them slightly if rain is forecast. Try not to obsessively check your pressure as you increase the risk of damaging the valve, which is a problem can do without.
Next up we need to get our wetsuit on. Leave plenty of time for this if you are new to the sport, as it can be very time consuming, and you don’t want to be panicking that you’ll miss the start. You can find a guide on how to put your wetsuit on here: Choosing a Triathlon Wetsuit
Just make sure you ask someone else to do your wetsuit up for you, as the last thing you want is for your zipper to break in your hands on race morning.
What happens next depends largely on the kind of swim start the event is using. Most Ironman events use a self seeded swim start, but there are some exceptions.
Deep Water Start
Only used for the World Championship in Kona as far as I’m aware, athletes will self seed themselves (faster swimmers at the front), wait for the gun to go then start swimming. As you are very unlikely to encounter this in an official Ironman event, I won’t dwell on this here.
Self Seeded Rolling Start
The most popular form of swim start at Ironman events, you will be placed in a queuing area denoted by placards showing predicted swim times. Slot yourself in where you think you’ll finish, but don’t get overly optimistic. Your time is taken from when you enter the water, not when the first swimmers starts. If you place yourself too far forward you may end up being half drowned by faster swimmers swimming over the top of you.
These are very rare, and rarely seen outside of Lanzarote. This involves a group of athletes lined up on a beach with a short run into the water. The athletes will wait for a starting klaxon which signals the start of the event, and a very technical, potentially dangerous entry into the water. When the first participants reach the shoreline they’ll be able to run a short distance, before it becomes too deep to run normally. From here many athletes will run and swing their legs our to the side to avoid the waves until the water gets too deep. At this point athletes will do one of two things, they will start with a slightly awkward front crawl in water that’s too shallow, or they’ll break into a dolphin kick, potentially with butterfly arms to match if they are proficient. This is the most effective way to move your body through shallow water, and is the choice of top swimmers. Once you are in deep water, it’s business as usual.
In the Water
If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re new to open water swimming. You will want to stay clear of other swimmers where you can, allowing you to focus on your own race without worrying about swimming close to others. However, you also need to be aware of slower swimmers you may be about to swim into, so you can’t afford to swim in your own little world without the risk of injury or going very off course.
You may be very new or unfamiliar with freestyle (front crawl), and after a matter of minutes or seconds, you may feel panicked and need to revert to breaststroke. This is fine, you can breaststroke your way around the entire course if you need to. You can also hold onto a kayak for a rest if you want, although it’s best to ask the kayaker where the best place to hold onto is, as you don’t want to capsize them. Not only is this unpleasant for all involved, this affects the level of safety cover they can provide, and may distract from a swimmer in trouble.
Your primary goal is to make it to the first buoy, which you should have scouted out at the start of the race, and which everyone else will be heading towards. This does create a pinch point however, as everyone wants the best (closest) line to the buoy. If you are surrounded by other swimmers, it may be more beneficial to add an extra 5M onto your swim by going wide rather than swimming close to the buoy itself and risking a kick to the chest or being swum over.
You will then swim to the next buoy, then the next, and so on until you reach the swim exit. Many Ironman races will use an “Australian exit” where you will exit the water, run about 50M, then get back in for your second lap, to help make the course more manageable from a safety perspective. Even if you are looking to qualify for a Kona slot, by the time you get towards the end of your fist lap the male pros (if racing) will probably be finishing their swim, and come through like a freight train. If you manage to catch a glimpse of them approaching, it’s best to swim slightly away from the racing line unless you want to risk a clout, as they’re not slowing down for anyone or anything, it’s their job to swim as fast as they can.
Once you reach the swim exit, which should be marked by an inflatable arch, you will need to stand up. This can be tricky if the ground is rocky, slimy or deep mud underfoot, especially after 3800M. Don’t rush this, and take your time to get out of the water, there will often be volunteers to help you.
Once you are out of the water you can either run to transition if you’re feeling ok and want to be competitive, or you can take it at more of a walk if you feel very disorientated coming out of the water. Better to take it slower and make it to T1 than to rush, fall over and potentially injure yourself. You’ve got a long day ahead of you.
The run to T1 can be long and uphill, so don’t let the adrenaline get the better of you and shred your legs before you even get on your bike. Now is a good time to remove your swim hat and your goggles. I like to unzip my wetsuit and roll it down to my waist so that by the time I get to my blue bag I have one less thing to worry about in the transition area itself.
After walking through transition yesterday this should be a breeze. Grab your bag and find a space to get changed where you won’t feel panicked. The first thing to do is remove the rest of your wetsuit and place it on the ground next to you. Put your bike gear on, stuff your wetsuit, goggles and hat in the blue bag, then drop it off on your way to the bike. Grab your bike off the rack and head straight to the “bike out” banner.
All Ironman races are held on closed roads (save for a few crossing points), so you generally don’t have to worry about cars, but you do have to worry about other competitors which can be just as dangerous, especially on multi lap courses where you run the risk of reaching the back markers or being lapped yourself. Keep to the left as much as you can, and always check over your shoulder when making a change in direction to ensure you’re not about to wipe someone out. If you are about to pass a slower athlete, take a wide line around them, especially when approaching a corner they may swing out to take the racing line around.
Ironman events all have a 12 meter drawing zone, which means it is illegal to ride less than 12 metres behind another rider, unless overtaking. If you are passed, it is your responsibility to allow the 12 metre gap to re-establish. Don’t draft because everyone else is doing it, as you risk a five minute penalty from a roaming marshal in the form of a blue card.
The bike will be the first time in the race that many of you will feel comfortable, but don’t make the mistake of using this as a chance to drop the hammer as adrenaline flows, you still have a very long day ahead of you. Stick to a pace which you perceive being able to sustain between now and when you cross the finish line.
There will be hills on the course, whether gentle or steep, and pacing these will make a huge difference to your bike split. If you are riding on the flats at a heart rate of 140BPM, then you sprint up a hill at 170BPM, that will be a huge effort and take several minutes to recover from. Make too many of these big efforts on the hills and you’ll be exhausted before you start the run. Instead, it’s smarter to use your gears to ride up them with the minimum effort required to get over the hill. This will still increase your heart rate, but allow you to get straight back to racing once you hit the bottom of the descent, rather than freewheeling with burning lungs for a few minutes.
Nutrition should be at the forefront of your mind on the bike, make sure you keep on top of your calorific intake. You may find it preferable to eat solids in the first half of the bike, then switch to liquids and gels in the second half. More information on race nutrition here
There will be several feed stations on course, and one area for you to access your special needs bag, often close to the transition area. For the feed stations volunteers will stand holding bottles and food out for you and calling out the contents such as “isotonic!” “gels!” or “water!” as you approach. They will be holding the nutrition between two fingers and out at a distance which means you should be able to catch them at speed. You can also ditch your empty bottles here by launching them into the designated littering zone.
Mechanical support is available on the bike, however they will not fix punctures, it is your responsibility to learn how to do this and practice in your own time. Mechanical support is reserved for more serious issues such as broken spokes, tyre blow outs or bent rear hangers. If you require assistance, inform a marshal and they’ll request support for you.
Above all, make sure you don’t let your ego get in the way on the bike. You may be passed by hundreds of athletes on the bike, but there’s every chance you’ll pass them on the run if they’ve gone too hard on the bike. More people regret going too hard on the bike than not going hard enough.
As you approach the end of the bike, it’s time to think about your dismount. There will be a dismount line in the same manner as the mount line, which both your feet must touch before you cross. Failure to do so would result in a penalty. For most athletes, this will be a case of pulling over a few feet from the line, dismounting as normal and running towards your rack where you’ll leave your bike before heading to the marquee.
Once inside the first port of call should be finding your bag and removing the contents, much as you did following the swim. You will then remove your cycling gear and switch into your running gear instead.
For many athletes T2 can be the lowest part of the race. You may have really struggled towards the end of the bike, and the prospect of running seems the least appealing thing currently. I recommend you take the time you need to get yourself into your kit without rushing, but don’t spend any longer sitting down that you absolutely have to as it will only make it harder to get going again.
You will either be placing your run bag back on the hook or placing it in a drop off point depending on the event, which you will then be able to collet the end of the event.
Now it’s a footrace to the finish line, and the simplest of disciplines in many ways, you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other until you reach the finish line.
The run at the end of such a long event is war of attrition more than anything, so if you’re used to running your way through the field at the end of a shorter race, it’s important not to get carried away in the opening kilometres. Unless you are a very accomplished runner there’s a good chance you will have to run/walk the marathon. This isn’t what you want, and it isn’t what I want either, but short walking breaks are preferable to walking the last 10KM, experiencing a race ending cramp or collapsing from exhaustion. This run/walk can be in the form of a regimented strategy such as run 10K, walk 1K, or it can simply be a case of walking the aid stations, which even professional athletes at the highest level will do sometimes.
There will usually be aid stations every mile with food, water and sometimes toilets. I recommend you take something from each aid station, even if it’s just a cup of water to pour over your head to cool yourself. Running past aid stations because you don’t need anything can set you up for a serious implosion later on.
As most Ironman marathons take place over four laps they need an easy way to see who has completed the requisite laps before finishing. This is done via marathon bands, which are coloured and sit on your wrist. You collect them towards the end of each lap, and once you have a full set allow you to enter the finishing chute. If you are flirting with the cutoffs, they will stop giving out the marathon bands for each lap when they consider anyone who is still at that point in the race would be unable to finish.
The Finish Line
This is it, what you’ve been training for, the finish chute experience. At Ironman races you are unable to take anybody down the chute with you, so while grabbing your child to run down the finishing chute with them would be a lovely gesture, it will result in a disqualification. They also have rules on outside assistance, so be careful what you take from the crowd. I don’t mean to be a killjoy, I just want you to end up being denied a medal on a technicality.
Once the MC has announced your new title as an Ironman you will be handed a medal. If you require any medical assistance you should inform one of the finish line marshals, otherwise don’t dramatically collapse over the line for dramatic effect to allow the medical crews can prioritise those who genuinely need help. A volunteer will remove your timing chip from your ankle From here you can make your way into the finishers area.
Here you will be presented with food, which can be anything from pizza to a full buffet depending on the event. There will also be masseurs, and this is where you can connect your finishers T-shirt. Some finishing areas will include your streetwear bags to take home, others will ask you to walk back to T2 to collect your clothes, where you’ll have to head anyway to pick up your gear and head home.
Whether you have completed your first Ironman 70.3 or your 20th Ironman you should be incredibly proud of what you have achieved. If you are in any doubt of your ability to drive home safely, it’s best you check into a nearby hotel, as you wouldn’t want a tired driver on the roads while you were out training on your bike.
Make sure you get plenty of photos of you with your medal and your bike to remember your accomplishment in years to come.