IRONMAN UK Race Guide

First things first, this is not the official Ironman UK athlete’s guide with all the information you’ll need on the day itself. That all important document can be found on the Ironman website in the last couple of months before the event. This is a piece written by me, Simon Olney, professional triathlon coach and Ironman UK finisher, here to share some pragmatic advice with you ahead of race day. The information provided here is based on the knowledge I have acquired over the years of training athletes for this event and racing myself. The race changes every year in some respect, so always trust information from the race officials over anything you read here.

Secondly, I have written an in depth article on generic race day tips for Ironman events, which can be found here. For the purposes of this article I will assume you have read the other article, or already be familiar with other Ironman branded events, as combining the two would be unwieldily.

With all that taken care of, let’s dive in.

About The Race

A cyclist receiving a high five from a Mexican wrestler
Image credit Ironman

Ironman UK is one of the hardest Ironman races in the world. It may not have the brutal winds of Lanzarote, the humidity of Kona, or the mountain ascents of Nice; but the relentless steep climbs, unpredictable weather and hilly run course gave the race a DNF rate of over 20% in 2019. That means that for every five people who collect their number from registration, at least one will have gone home without a medal. 2019 was a particularly difficult year with 2500M of elevation gain on the bike, but the race traditionally has a high DNF rate.

The support from the locals is pretty outstanding, with the population of the local area taking to the roads with signs, banners and musical instruments to cheer athletes on. At a couple of points it can feel like you are riding up a mountain in the Tour de France, with spectators filling the road either side of you.

Ironman UK has a traditional 17 hour time cutoff. You have 2:20 to finish the swim, 10:30 to finish the bike and the swim, then 17 hours to cross the finish line. All times are taken from the time you cross the timing mat at the start of the swim, so don’t think you’re at a disadvantage by starting at the back.

Long Term Planning

You are best off booking accommodation in the centre of Bolton if you can. This is so your room is only a short hobbling distance from the finish line. A minibus service runs from the city centre to the Pennington Flash on race day, as well as parking being available in the nearby Leigh Sports Village. You’ll need to book well in advance to get a spot in the centre though, so don’t put off booking a room.

You may also want to check whether they’re serving breakfast early at the hotel you’re looking at. Many do, to ensure you can get some proper food ahead of the start.

I highly recommend travelling up on the Friday if at all possible, as registration closes midday on Saturday, and if you’re delayed on the Saturday morning you won’t be racing, or eligible for a refund. You also have a busy schedule on the Saturday, so need all the time you can get to avoid a panic.

On the Weekend

Once you arrive, the first thing you should do is register, as this is time sensitive. Once you have your race number and wristband, it’s time to head back to your hotel to pack your bags. This is covered in depth in our main article (link at the top of the page), but pay close attention to the forecast on the day, and pack anything you think you might need in your bike bag.

Once your bags are packed, it’s time to head to the Pennington Flash to rack your bike. Parking is available on the Saturday, but there is a one way stretch of road coming into the venue so it can be a bit sticky at busy times. Once you re-build your bike, take it for a quick ride around the car park, trying all the gears and brakes, to ensure everything is working as it should. If it isn’t, or you need some last minute spares, mechanics are available in T1 who can help you. Mechanical tweaks are normally free, but you will have to pay for any parts.

Once you rack your bike, it’s time to head into the marquee to collect your timing chip. Protect this like your firstborn child, as getting a replacement in the morning will not be easy, and you’ll be charged for a replacement. It’s a level of stress you can probably do without. In the marquee you’ll also be hanging your bike bag on a hook for collection once you exit the swim. Make sure your bag is hanging on the correct hook, as they will be numbered.

After everything is in place, take the time to walk down to the swim exit (the left most of the ramps as you look at the water), and walk to T1 tracing the steps you’ll take on race day. In previous years, this has always ran to the left of transition. From here head into the marquee, over to where your bag is, then outside to where your bike is waiting. This will help it become second nature on the day, and save you getting confused. It’s also a good way to check your bag is on the correct hook!

Once T1 is setup, it’s time to head to T2 which is a much simpler affair, simply hanging your bag up in the marquee, though a walk through is still a good idea. Take the time while you’re here to find where your bike racking spot is, so you have one less thing to think about on race day.

The most difficult part of preparing T2 is parking, as the traffic wardens will be out in force ticketing cars which are parked on pavements or left on double yellows, so it’s worth finding somewhere legitimate to park. Contrary to the demands of many, Ironman will not refund your parking fine.

At this point, you should be ready to go, all you need to do is turn up tomorrow in your wetsuit and perform one of the single greatest single day challenges in the world. You’ve got this.

Race Morning

In an ideal world you would have breakfast around 3 hours before the start, however this just isn’t practical for the most part. That being said, you ideally want to avoid eating within 90 minutes of the start, so try to get something down you early if you can. I recommend you change into what you plan to wear for the swim before you leave the hotel, as there are no changing facilities at Pennington Flash and you don’t really want to be changing in a portable toilet.

If you’re driving and parking in Leigh Sports Village, it’s a five minute walk. You will need to load special needs bags and your streetwear into the waiting trucks which normally close up around 45-60 minutes before the swim start. You will also want to pop into transition to check your bike and pump up your tyres before the start, so I recommend arriving 90 minutes before the start, as this time will disappear very quickly, and you don’t want to be stressed on the morning of your big day.

Once you are in your wetsuit with goggles at the ready, it’s time to take your place in the starting pen. This takes the form of a long line of barriers running from the swim start all the way back to transition. There will be boards placed at intervals along this, which designate estimated swim times, ranging from 50 minutes all the way up to 2:20.

It’s imperative you place yourself in the correct area of the swim start. Your time is taken from when you start the swim, not from when the gun goes, so there is nothing to be gained from starting further towards the front of the race. All that will happen is you’ll get swim over by faster swimmers coming from behind, vastly increasing the chances of you having a panic attack as you are pushed under the water.

Once the race starts, it may take up to 30 minutes for you to enter the water as the swimmers slowly shuffle forward. Once you get to the edge of the ramp you’ll hear two beeps in short succession as your timing chip registers on the mat. You are now on an Ironman race course.

Swim

The swim start of Ironman UK with spectators lining the shore
Image credit Ironman

Enter the water very carefully, as the water is shallow, and the entry point is wet. I’ve seen plenty of swimmers fall into the water here, so take it steady.

Once in the water, I recommend you swim slightly to the right, unless you are a confident swimmer. As the course is a series of left hand turns, those looking to put in a fast time will be staying as far left as possible, and if you’re a novice swimmer you don’t want to get caught up in the brawl. Swimming off line will add a bit of distance to your swim, but in my opinion it’s worth it to avoid being half drowned.

The first turn buoy will be just over 1KM away, which is the equivalent of 40 lengths of a 25M pool. It may look like a long way, but your training should have prepared you well for this. After a couple of hundred metres the adrenaline and fear should have receded and you’ll find yourself in the state of mind you’ll find yourself in all day, which should be a calm, controlled mindset.

At this point, check in on your pacing. Can you sustain this effort for the duration of the race? This isn’t an Olympic distance race where you want to find some fast feet and sit in, this is an all day adventure and your pacing strategy starts now.

Once you reach the far end of the course it’s a pair of left hand turns before you head back to shore. These turn buoys really are a pinch point, so give them a wide berth if you don’t want to risk getting dragged under. Once you have navigated these, it’s back to the shore to complete your first lap.

As you approach the swim exit, it’s worth sighting more regularly to ensure you’re on track for the arch. Kicking a bit more will help your legs wake up here, and make you less prone to dizziness when you come out of the water. You will run (or walk) a short, left hand loop back to the a jetty next to the swim entry ramp to start your second lap, but be aware of potentially feeling light headed as blood starts rushing around your body. Lap two will be largely the same as the first, but with more in the way of traffic in the water. Be prepared for some very slow swimmers you may not expect, so sight a bit more often. As there will be fewer swimmers around you by now, you should be able to swim slightly closer to the buoys without incident, should you wish.

T1

As you come out of the water, you’ll be making your way to the marquee, just like your walk through the day before. Grab your bike bag and don’t rush your transition like you might in shorter races. It’s worth taking the extra 15 seconds to get yourself in a good place, rather than rush out and realise you left some food in your bag. On your way you your bike, stick your blue bag into the big crate of bags to be delivered to T2 later.

As you make your way towards the bike mount line, give other athletes plenty of space. Some will be disorientated from the swim, others will not be in control of their bike, and you don’t want to be part of a clash of bikes before you’re even in the saddle. Mount your bike in your preferred method (nothing you haven’t practiced extensively) and get ready to take on the 180Km bike course.

Bike

I wish I could give you a blow by blow account of the bike course, but the course changes every year, so instead I’ll offer some general advice which is applicable every year.

There is no Flat
An image of the very hilly bike profile
Profile of the 2019 event

You may laugh, but I’m being serious. There is next to no flat on the bike course, the only the exception of the run back into town after Sheephouse Lane. You will spend the entirety of the race either going up or down, which plays havoc with your pacing. It’s easy to get carried away passing people on the hills early on, caught up in the atmosphere and generally having a great time. However you have a long way to go, over a lot of hills, and with a marathon waiting for you at the end. Keep the heart rate reasonable on the hills, and don’t go tearing up them like a road cyclist attacking on a mountain stage.

The Road Surface is Terrible

In the UK, we are not known for the quality of our roads, and it’s especially bad north of the Watford Gap. While the local authority does make a point of repairing the worst offenders from the course in the runup to the event, you still need to keep an eye out. Ironman highlight most of the holes with spray paint in the runup to the race, but you need to keep your wits about you. There is also a lot of debris on the roads, so don’t carry 60KPH into the corners and expect to stay upright.

Lots of Corners Tighten

In the UK we have a habit of planting hedgerows along our roads. These act as a boundary for farmers and are great for wildlife, but terrible for visibility. What you may think is an innocent left hander may actually be a long, sweeping corner which then tightens. I’ve seen lots of bikes in hedges, and ambulances collecting riders from the other side of drystone walls on the course, so do yourself a favour and take it easy out there, especially if you haven’t driven or ridden the course before.

Dangerous Descents

I don’t use this word lightly, but some of the downhill sections in the past have been nothing short of dangerous. Steep gradient, poor road quality and restricted visibility combine to create some testing downhill sections. These sections are signed well by the organisers with instructions to slow down, but it’s worth developing your confidence riding downhill in the runup to the event if it’s something you struggle with.

Changing Conditions

In the past three editions the event has both had an edition where the bike was nearly shortened due to wildfires, and another edition where a rainstorm appeared out of nowhere, causing dozens of DNFs due to hypothermia and crashes. This isn’t a course you can prepare for by sitting on a turbo trainer all year round, you need good bike handling skills and resilience to the elements to succeed here.

The bike will be between two and three laps depending on the year, with a cutoff for each lap if you’re not moving at a pace fast enough to finish the course within the time limit. In recent years transition has moved into Bolton city centre where you will dismount your bike, rack it in your spot, and head into the marquee to don your running gear.

Run

A runner during the marathon
Yours truly at the halfway point

If you make it out of T2, you already have one hand on the finishers medal. Even if you power walk large sections of the course you should have enough time left to make it across the line within 17 hours.

To start with, you run through a rather uninspiring industrial area, before finding yourself in the pedestrianised area of Bolton City Centre. This is the spectating hot point, so be sure to lap up the support and keep an eye out for loved ones. The road will winds its way through the streets until it takes you past the finish line. You will have to run past the finish line no less than three times before you can finally turn right and run down the chute. Better get a wiggle on then.

Once you have passed the start/finish line you will find yourself in Queens Park, which is the steepest section of the course. It’s tempting at this point to run up the hill, but unless you’re confident in your ability to run the entire marathon nonstop, you’re probably better off walking this section to save your legs for later.

You will turn left onto Chorley New Road, somewhere you will become very familiar with for the next 3+ hours. The road is a long false flat (slight uphill) for 3KM, followed by a U-turn, and 3KM of a slight downhill. Once you finish the downhill, you will collect your marathon band. This will be green for your first lap, blue for your second lap, red for your third, and yellow for your fourth. It’s imperative you collect a band, and the right coloured one at that, to avoid having to get into any “discussions” with the race director after you finish.

Just like the bike course, the organisers will pull athletes with no chance of finishing off the course. If you’re worried about finishing within the cutoffs, but are collecting marathons bands at the end of each lap, you are on course to finish within the time limit. Keep your head down.

After this you will turn back into another section of Queens Park where you can admire the swans, and make your way back towards the town centre for another tantalising peek of the finish line.

The lap based nature of the course may mean that as you start your run, you will be seeing people finish, or at the very least with lots of bands on. Try not to think about this, and simply focus on your own race. Don’t be lulled into panic and increasing your pace, as this will almost certainly backfire.

Finish

An athlete running down the finishing chute
The finishing chute

After you collect your yellow band, you should feel unstoppable. It’s now a simple case of making your way back to the finish line, turning right, and down the red carpet. Make the most of the crowd and savour the moment.

Once you collect your medal and assume your new title of Ironman UK finisher, you will return your timing chip and make your way through to the finisher’s area. Here you will find massage, food and a finisher’s T-shirt for you to proudly wear in the gym. From here it’s time to make your way back to T2, collect all your belongings, and bask in your achievement. You are now one of the 1% of the world who has crossed an Ironman finish line, and not only that, you did it at one of the toughest events on the calendar.

Looking for some help to get you across the line? Check out our selection of Ironman training plans here: https://www.trainingpeaks.com/my-training-plans/Ironmanplans

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