With a 3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42.2km run, an Ironman triathlon is never going to be an easy experience. But some courses are more suited to Ironman newcomers than others, with two-lap lake swims, gently rolling bike courses, flat marathon runs and bumper crowds providing more 226km beginner-friendliness than the epic Norsemans, Brutals and Swissmans on the circuit.
And a temperate climate free from the winds of Ironman Lanzarote, the chills of the Celtman or the humidity of Hawaii will certainly help triathletes complete the epic journey.
In terms of housekeeping, races are given extra friendliness points for the size of the crowds, the ideal water temp is set at 21ºC (not too warm to make it a non-wetsuit swim but far from cold) and extra points are added for multiple swim laps (especially with an Aussie exit onto land and back into the water halfway through) for psychological and physical benefits.
Elsewhere, a gently rolling bike course is seen as optimum (too flat and you’ll be pedalling constantly for 180km) and races are docked points for having a total cut-off time shorter than the usual 17 hours.
So which is the most beginner-friendly iron course in Europe? Here we pick our top top 6 events to ease you into world of Ironman.
The run is flat, with just 90m of elevation gain over the 42.2km duration. And, given both Challenge and the Irish know a thing or two about putting on a cracking atmosphere, the support throughout the marathon is likely to be an unforgettable part of the day.
6 . THE MIDNIGHT MAN, Dartford, Kent: beginner score 71/100
With a warm lake swim combining with flat bike and run courses, the Midnight Man, on paper, is the ideal beginner iron-distance course.
The big twist is that, as the name suggests, the organisers have thrown a night event into the mix, which adds an added layer of difficulty to proceedings. On the plus side, it’s ideal for night owls, is the cheapest iron-distance around (just £160) and avoids a painfully early start, and athletes will escape any scorching sun and humidity…
So how do you race in the dark of Dartford? “Take kit for all temperatures,” states Dave Clamp, the UK ultra triathlon legend who finished second at the Midnight Man in 2012. “It can be hot in the evening, but that can change by 3am and you’ll feel it if you’re down to walking pace on the run.
“Doing the marathon at night can be pleasant, though, compared to suffering in the heat at many summer daytime Ironman races. One factor is that you’ll be swimming when the sun is getting low, so sighting is difficult.” The swim is two laps (but with no Aussie exit after lap one) in inviting and calm 21ºC waters.
“Cycling in the dark feels quite strange because you have the sensation of moving faster than you really are,” adds Clamp. “Use a powerful front lamp and make sure that it’s very firmly fastened on.
“Like the bike, the run is fairly flat so fast times can be recorded here. But be prepared for bigger potential changes in temperature than on a normal daytime Ironman. You can get quite cold in the night if you start walking.”
5. CHALLENGE ROTH, Roth, Germany: beginner score 72/100
Challenge Roth is the jewel in the Challenge crown and is, quite simply, unlike any other triathlon experience thanks to the raucous crowd of 250,000 hollering support from the 6am gun until the 11pm firework display.
It’s also a race course with plenty of beginner friendliness, with a one lap swim in the calm Main-Donau Kanal, a rolling (but far from flat) bike through northern Bavaria and a flat riverside marathon run. Like Ironman Austria, it’s a race where historic iron-distance world record times are often made, for example Jan Frodeno’s world-beating time in 2016. And all of this flanked with triathlon’s most legendary atmosphere.
The big issues for beginners are the 15hr cut-off time and how hot Roth can get in July, with 2014 just one date to experience a heatwave. There’s also just how darn hard it is to get a spot in the race, with the 6,000 spots usually selling out faster than the radlers on the race’s famous bier mile.
4. IRONMAN UK, Bolton, Greater Manchester: beginner score 73/100
If you’re looking for an official British Ironman event to start your long-course career, then the long-standing Ironman UK is far more manageable than the sea swim and epic bike course of Ironman Wales, which we named the 9th toughest iron-distance triathlon in the world.
“The locality and calm lake swim make it an ideal first-time choice,” says Janine Doggett, who finished 1,169th place out of 2,000 athletes in 2015 with a 14:34:27 finish time. “Pennington Flash offers swimming every Saturday morning so you can visit in the weeks leading up to the big day. And on race day getting to the start is straightforward.”
The two-lap swim, which offers the chance of a breather on land after the first lap, is another boon for iron beginners and weaker swimmers. But it’s the bike course that’ll truly challenge newbies and anyone whose bike leg is their weakest discipline.
The two-lap 180km course goes through some beautiful Lancashire countryside, but the 1,641m of total ascent puts it at the higher end of official Ironman bike legs, with the 3km Sheep House Lane climb the star of the show.
“Some sections are spookily quiet,” adds Doggett, “but there’s some sensational sporadic support en route; be prepared to see locals sporting some outrageous outfits!
“The run finds a 10km point-to-point route before you begin the lapped 8km course, which you have to complete four times to make it up to the full marathon. It’s mostly flat but the laps are mentally challenging and, as it’s in a built-up area, there aren’t many nice views. The aid stations every 4km offer banana halves, sugary drinks and a bucketload of cheers before the finisher funnel will feel like an old inflatable friend by the time you eventually run through!”
3. IRONMAN COPENHAGEN, Copenhagen, Denmark: beginner score 79/100
Ironman took over the running of Copenhagen from the Challenge Family in 2013 and the race has become one of the most cherished M-Dots on the circuit, with the Danish capital truly embracing the experience.
The swim is a 3.8 km one-lap course in the lagoon at Amager Beach Park. The gently rolling 180km bike finds competitors winding through the city before two loops alongside bucolic farmlands.
The four-lap run course stretches along the city’s harbour, with the course flanked by a purported 150,000 spectators.
With a temperature climate, bumper support throughout and an agreeable course (calm swim, flat bike and run), Copenhagen seemingly ticks every box for the iron newbie. The problem for some beginners, however, will be the 15:45hr cut-off time, meaning participants have to complete the swim and bike within the 9:30hr mark and the marathon in 6:45hr. The upshot is the relatively luxurious 7:30am start…
2. IRONMAN AUSTRIA, Klagenfurt, Austria: beginner score 80/100
“Without doubt it’s one of the top five Ironman races in the world for its organisation and beautiful scenery,” says Mark Kleanthous. Which is high praise indeed from a man with 40+ worldwide Ironman finishes to his name.
The swim takes place in the 24°C waters of Lake Wörthersee in Austria’s south, ringed by forested hills and snow-capped Alpine mountains. After the 3.8km in the turquoise, transparent waters, athletes embark on a two-loop course into the Alpine foothills around Carinthia for one of Ironman’s fastest bike routes.
Mostly flat (and on what Kleanthous calls “some of the smoothest roads in the world,”), the course features two steep gradients on each lap crammed with spectators lining the route ten deep, producing a motivational din up there with Challenge Roth in the decibel stakes.
After a hero’s welcome back in Klagenfurt, the largely flat and shady 42.2km run goes around the lake’s shoreline before heading into Klagenfurt for one of Ironman’s greatest finishes.
“When you run along the Magic Carpet to the finish line in Klagenfurt, you cannot fail to be overcome with emotion,” continues Kleanthous. “There are even more loud, cheering spectators, with some of the biggest crowds lining up just before midnight to see the last competitors finish.”
1. THE OUTLAW, National Watersports Centre, Nottinghamshire: beginner score 83/100
And the winner is… (drumroll please) The Outlaw in Nottinghamshire. This regular 220 Triathlon Award-winner offers arguably the friendliest atmosphere of all UK Irons, yet often in unfriendly British summertime weather.
“I chose The Outlaw because I’d heard it’s known for being considerably flatter than Ironman UK,” says Jason Stott, who finished in 302nd place in 2015 (11:47:19). “Registration is a breeze the day before, and you can get set-up quickly with no hassle.
“The Outlaw swim is a proper Iron start and can be a mass underwater wrestle! If you’ve positioned yourself correctly according to your predicted time, though, you should be fine; it soon thins out.
“It’s one large lap, which is in the rowing lake right to the end and back. If it’s a sunny early morning, sighting can be quite difficult as the sun is low, but follow the few hundred people in front of you unless you’re flying off the front!
“The bike course is a flat-ish 180km. It’s more rolling tarmac than anything else and a good average speed can be met quite easily. The course is three laps (one and three are the same), making it easy to mentally divide up. The feed stations are long that makes it easier to grab nutrition en route, and the support is excellent even though the weather has been very wet (2015) or very hot (2014) in recent times.
“The run is a flat and well-supported route, which starts off with a lap of the lake and then continues along the River Trent. This is done twice before a final loop of the lake to finish off.”