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Ironman: Can you race it on a £1,000 gear budget?

It’s the challenge of a lifetime, but can Ironman really be done on the cheap? Matt Baird enters the UK Ultimate armed with a gear budget of £1,000 to find out

Matt out on the bike leg before disaster hit. Credit: UK Ultimate

Twelve-grand bikes. Four-thousand pound wheels. A £700 wetsuit. And that’s before the £400+ race entry. Ironman, understandably, can boast the reputation of being the preserve of hedge fund managers.

Two recent surveys from Squawkfox and Active.com reinforce this, with their estimates suggesting a minimum outlay of £3,700 and a max of £29k for completing a debut Ironman.

But can you kit out an Ironman on less than a grand? As a perennially penny-pinching Somerset boy, I set myself the challenge of competing at my debut Iron race with a kit budget of less than £1,000. Before we kick off, though, a quick note… All prices listed here were correct at the time of publication (in August 2018).

All kit had to be new and available to buy in shops or online at the time of press, but obviously even more could’ve been saved by buying secondhand.

So it was a case of saying goodbye to most things carbon and techy, and bringing in kit from Wilkos, Argos and, erm, Ikea. In keeping with the budget theme, we’ve also opted for the UK Ultimate Triathlon (£199).

The low-key logistics

Having signed-up for (and DNS’d) the Iron-distance Vitoria Gasteiz Tri in Spain in 2017, the logistics of a homegrown iron become clear the day before the UK Ultimate. My bike is loaded into the back of the car for a leisurely journey, registration is all in one place and there’s a relaxed feel around the pretty Alderford Lake setting among the 75 full-distance Ultimate athletes.

The ability to sign up a couple of weeks before the race is another boon for injury-plagued athletes like myself. I register so late that I’m missing from the official t-shirt, which lists every Ultimate athletes’ name. It’s small touches like this that sum up the race.

There’s a genuine sense that the organisers want every athlete to make it to that 226km finish line, with supporters encouraged to join the athletes on the run for motivation. Friends are also allowed to hand athletes nutrition, and headphones are legal on the run. Where some race briefings leave me overwhelmed, the Ultimate’s does the opposite.

Cut to the Travelodge that night and my usual £69 Zone3 backpack has been replaced by a 40p Ikea bag and, while it’s an easy cost-saving measure, it soon becomes a black hole. I lose my timing chip in it so empty it all over the hotel carpet, which becomes some sort of tri waste zone. I go to bed later than planned, waking at 5am to consume my budget breakfast (see panel).

The swim leg

An Orca wetsuit and Aqua Sphere’s formidable Kayenne goggles? From the outside, there doesn’t seem to be much economising here. Yet I disagree with cost-cutting on goggles. Fit is imperative and once you find a pair that don’t leak or fog, they should be worth sticking with.

The Kayennes are £18 (down from an RRP of £24), not much more than the Lomo pair (£10) I’d been trying in the build-up to the race. While I’ve had to go for the cheaper clear-lensed Kayennes, there’s only one swim section where the rising sun makes sighting an issue.

Of all the kit during the race, the Orca S6 wetsuit is up there with the greatest find. From past experience, I know Orca’s suits fit me well, but what really stands out is the suppleness in their lowest-end suit. The added spend over the £89 wetsuit from Dhb I’d been trying was worth every penny.

Another key item for me – psychosomatic or not – are seasickness bands from Savers (£2), which have stopped me feeling sick after swim legs.

The course, meanwhile, plays into the hands of beginners and PB hunters. There are four laps of the clear 19°C Alderford Lake, with, crucially for me, an Aussie exit between each lap for a breather. I exit the final lap after 1:37hr feeling surprisingly fresh, yet aware I’ve an expected 14hrs of racing to go.

Ironman swim gear: the key kit Matt used for his 3.8km iron-distance swim

1. Aquasphere Kayenne

Found for £18 online, the clear versions of the regular award winners did their usual job of staying fog-free and offering a wide range of vision on the open-water swim.

2. Orca S6

Key features on the S6 include SCS coating and Yamamoto 39-cell neoprene. We’re struggling to see what more a mid/back-of-pack swimmer on a budget could want. RRP is £169 but we found it for £149 online at Wiggle. Added to this is £2 spent on seasickness bands and an Ikea bag (40p).

3. Morning fuel

Pre-race breakfast is a pot of Aldi porridge (35p), two long-life pan au chocolates (20p total) and a couple of bananas (40p), washed down with a freebie sachet of High5 energy drink.

Total: £170

The bike

I once worked out that the Ironman bike was the equivalent of cycling from London to Bristol. The fear of it delayed my entry into Iron-distance racing for years. So there’s no getting away from the fact that Ironman is a darn long way. Happily, the UK Ultimate splits the bike course into four laps of 45km, and very rarely does the 180km figure cross my mind.

Where Ironman-branded races will often boast closed roads, a downside of the UK Ultimate is the opening and closing 5km of each loop being on busy bypasses. But once these are navigated, the course turns left into the lush Shropshire countryside and reveals a gently rolling route that ventures into Wales (I’ve done an international race, after all!) and through pretty villages. Bar the odd tractor, road traffic encounters are limited and the parade of pot holes keeps me focussed on all-things tarmac.

Endurance appeal

After toying around with various bike options, I’ve chosen the Scott Speedster 40 over a B-Twin Triban 500 SE (£350) I’d been borrowing, as the Scott is available on Evans Cycles’ Bike to Work Scheme for £475 (down from £699). It also features the reliable Shimano Claris groupset over the B-Twin’s lesser Microshift, plus, it just fits me better. But the impressive Triban is well worth a look if you’re ineligible for a bike-to-work scheme.

The all-aluminium fork of the Scott fails to dampen some of the worst road surfaces and the 10kg weight isn’t something I’d want to face Tenby or the Brutal on. Yet the handling is impressive and the geometry and saddle proves endurance and back-friendly.

I spec it with Selco KP58 tri-bars (£30, Planet X), but the minimal arm rests lack the comfort of my usual Profile Design pair. I struggle to stay in the aero tuck for long, using it more for breaking the routine of placing my hands on the hoods then drops. The Welgo R096b pedals (£27 at Tredz) are functional, but I have scary moments when I struggle to get my tired legs out at speed.

I opt for the Carnac Aero Road helmet (£15, Planet X) and it’s a sure-fire winner. The Aptonia Bento Box (£7, Decathlon) is easy to access but is too small for iron racing, and I struggle to fit more than a couple of gels and a bar in there. Yet the Lomo Elite eyewear are an outrageously good buy, providing unobstructed vision, zero fogging and three different lenses for their meagre £10 price tag.

I don’t have enough cash to use a bike computer or HRM, so I’m relying purely on feel and my £8 Casio digital watch for the time. And yet I find this form of racing liberating; I don’t become low about any average speed declines and the lapped format means I can plot my pacing according to the aid stations (where I load up on free gels from the brilliant volunteers). I up the pace on lap four and am looking at a sub-6:30hr split – an hour faster than expected – when racing disaster strikes.

Riding on the rim

The DHB Trinity Tri shoes (£45, Wiggle) are lightweight, provide a solid power transfer and the bumpers make them adequate for running in. Sadly I experience the latter after puncturing with 25km of the final lap to go. I have a spare inner tube but soon discover that the rear tyre has also split badly.

Ironically, the cheaper sturdy build of the alloy Syncros Race wheels means the bike stays semi-rideable on the flats (any carbon wheels would’ve been too expensive to risk), and I trundle on the rim home, dismounting to push on the bypasses and hills. The urge to quit is there, but I learn that stubbornness is key to completing an Iron and make it to T2 after 7:45hrs on the bike. I’ve waited a decade for this and I’m not going to let it slip.

The bike kit chosen for the 180km bike leg in Shropshire

1. Carnac Aero Road

Fifteen quid for a helmet?! And yet the Carnac is aero, comfy and breathable enough when the heat nudges over 20°C.

2. Scott Speedster 40

With a £224 discount on the Bike to Work Scheme, the Speedster 40 (£475) makes for a versatile training and racing bike. The brakes and forks are only average, but the geometry is endurance friendly and it surpassed expectations after the 90km point especially.

3. Bike leg extras

Specced on the bike are Welgo pedals (£27), an Aptonia Bento Box (£7), a Wilkos pump (£5) and Selco KP58 clip-on bars (£30). The Dhb Trinity Tri shoes (£45), Lomo glasses (£10), a spare tube (£2), repair kit (£1), Altura Airstream 2 Mitts (£10) and a peanut butter roll (20p) complete the spend.

Total: £627

The marathon

For an Iron tri-suit I explored the Dhb Classic range and their new Hydron, as well as £50 suits from Decathlon and Aropec, but decided I wasn’t going to compromise. As I’m going to be spending up to 17hrs in it, I need a garment suitable for the demands of iron racing. And ever since I first wore the 2017 version of the Heart Sports Tri Suit (£115), I knew this was something I wanted to do 226km of racing in.

I stuff the ‘floating pockets’ with an inner tube, bars, gels and bananas, and not once do they sag or impact on my ride or run positions. The sizeable pad largely protects me from most of what the many potholes of Shropshire have to offer and, uniquely for a chamois of this size, it isn’t a hindrance on the run. The full-length zip means toilet stops are a breeze and breathability isn’t an issue as the midsummer sun refuses to fade in the late afternoon.

I keep the same socks on from the bike leg, the Dhb Classic Breton (£7), and bring in my trusty Saucony Kinvara run shoes (down from £110 to £66 thanks to the arrival of the latest versions). Like the Orca suit, I know these fit me well and my blisters only reveal themselves after the event.

I’ve gone for calf guards from Lomo (£5) and, while they feel less supportive than Compressport and CEP, my calves ache less than the rest of my limbs on Monday morning. A key omission is my Headsweats visor, so I opt for a £1 red headband that I’d used when dressing up as John McEnroe for a stag do. It keeps the sweat out of my face, but there’s no sun protection and I manage to burn my lips really badly. Plus, I look ridiculous.

The run kit used during the Iron marathon

1. Saucony Kinvara 6

Sticking to tried-and-tested trainers on race day is imperative, and we’ve spent years in the Saucony Kinvara 8 due to being superseded by the 9s. They offer the right mix of cushioning with a lean weight for the iron run.

2. Heart Sports 2017 tri-suit

At £115 it’s more than we wanted to spend, but the Heart Sports Tri-Suit from 2017 is comfy and well-crafted for the long-distance bike and run.

3. Running accessories

Added to our run spend are a pair of Lomo calf guards (£5), a headband (£1), Dhb Breton socks (£7) and the Casio F-91W (£8) .

Total: £202

Overall gear spend: £999

The race itself

In my only minor criticism of the race, the aid stations run out of coke during the run so I wish I’d put a bottle in my special needs bag. I also forget to give dad some Rennies and, by the halfway stage of the six-lap run, I’m struggling to keep down any fluids or gels.

Failing to fuel on the last 90mins of the bike is starting to impact me, but it’s here that the camaraderie of competitors comes to the fore. I run with Scott from Essex and the distracting music chat is worth more in the mental and physical stakes than any gear purchase, plus the words of support with the back-of-the-pack band of brothers and sisters still on the course is invaluable.

My knees feel close to snapping, so I let Scott push on as my dad joins me for the final 10km. I’m being outpaced by a 70-year-old who had a lunchtime pint, but he keeps me on track to the line, which I cross in 15:25:51 to finally become an ‘Iron’man!

Spirit of the race

So completing an Iron on a budget can be done, with the Orca wetsuit, Dhb bike shoes, Lomo eyewear and Carnac helmet especially good budget buys. But if you want to truly race Ironman, then spending more on a carbon bike, race wheels, a heart rate monitor and computer (plus a bike fit) will make your day a comfier and faster one. But worth more than any gear outlay for me is logging the training miles and the mind’s ability to overcome pain.

As an introduction to Iron racing, the UK Ultimate Tri is all I could’ve hoped for and more. What it lacks in crowds and closed roads on the bike leg, it makes up for in its intimate and supportive atmosphere. Seeing the race organiser Keith running with us final finishers captures the spirit of the event, and the rest of the crew are unrelenting in their positive energy.

Where I thought I’d be one and done with Irons, the Ultimate has whet my appetite for more 226km adventures, and I want to experience the crowds of Tenby, the roar of Roth and the lava fields of Lanza. And on a carbon bike, too. But my next 226km challenge is the Spirit of ’78 in October, a free race in Porto where you have to race in Speedos, a vest and on a 1970s steel bike. Ironman on £300, anyone?

Profile image of Matt Baird Matt Baird Editor of Cycling Plus magazine


Matt is a regular contributor to 220 Triathlon, having joined the magazine in 2008. He’s raced everything from super-sprint to Ironman, duathlons and off-road triathlons, and can regularly be seen on the roads and trails around Bristol. Matt is the author of Triathlon! from Aurum Press and is now the editor of Cycling Plus magazine.