Which is tougher – an Ironman triathlon or an ultra marathon?

The history of sport is littered with fierce rivalries but none more so than triathletes vs runners. Brunt has the answer…

Credit: Daniel Seex

Disagreements about which is harder – an Ironman or an ultra –have raged for years, with ultra runners claiming that an Ironman must be a doddle because of the high finisher rate, while triathletes claim it’s because you have to train your external body parts off just to get to the start line when all ultras need to do is turn up with a flapjack and a fiver.


This isn’t an argument I’ve ever felt qualified to participate in because I’ve never done an ultra – until now. Yes, as I write this my feet resemble a pair of napalmed rats, thanks to having just completed the 40-mile ‘Coventry Way’ run, which takes place on footpaths all the way around the outside of my home town.

There are some similarities between irons and ultras – both sets of athletes enjoy weeing outdoors and tend to finish without a care in the world, which is one of the side effects of being semi-comatosed – but these are far outweighed by their differences, which I thought I would highlight for you before reaching my conclusion about which is hardest:

01 In iron events you always feel like you’re still in the same race as the leaders even though you might be miles behind. At Ironman Lanzarote I remember running past the winner receiving their prize on the podium while I still had two laps to go. Meanwhile, at the ultra I wasn’t even in the same postcode as the winner when they finished.

02 Both events take you to some spectacular places with amazing scenery, however at ultras you actually get to see the views whereas in iron races all you see is the four feet of tarmac just ahead of your front wheel.

03 There’s a lot more faffing about in an Ironman. Not only do you have to register, attach highly adhesive stickers to yourself and everything you own, pack your kit bags, unpack them, repack them, unpack them again, repack them again, make unnecessary adjustments to your bike, rack your bike, prepare your drinks, fight your way into your wetsuit and then suddenly have to find a toilet, but you have to get there too, with the journey often involving bike boxes, reassembling your bike with mini Allen keys, and trying to borrow someone’s track pump because you’ve forgotten yours. At the ultra, I wandered into the start tent and they said, “Do you want to go now?” I said “Okay”. And they said, “Right, off you go.”

04 In an Ironman, there’s a lot of support out there for you; in an ultra, you’re mostly on your own. There are checkpoints masquerading as food and drink stations, but their real purpose is to make you stress out about cut-off times, and I was handed a printed booklet of the course with maps that had evidently been drawn on an Etch A Sketch. But if you get lost, run out of drink, cop an injury or need to answer the call of nature, the general consensus is that you should sort yourself out.

05 In ultras, you get a more varied diet. On my run I enjoyed soup, tea and sandwiches in addition to the usual fare of bananas, jelly babies and gels, and my slower speed meant I was able to get most of this into my mouth as opposed to all over my chin, hands, skinsuit and handlebar tape. This variety was much appreciated by my fellow competitors because too much sweet stuff tends to unsettle my stomach.


I enjoyed running the ultra but I’m not sure I’ll make a habit of it, as I’m acutely aware that the only time I’ll ever shine at running is if I crash into a radioactive truck. So this brings us to the crunch – which is harder? Well, given this is the world’s leading tri magazine you might think I’d inevitably lean towards Ironman lest I end up offending everyone and have to go into hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy, now there’s a spare room. But judging by the multitude of Ironman T-shirts on show, half of the people doing the ultra were triathletes anyway, so I’m going to say that the hardest is… swimming.