From swims in muddy outback creeks to iconic Alpine mountain climbs and Himalayan trails, here we’ve compiled a list of some of the toughest, craziest and memorable sprint- and Olympic-distance races on Planet Tri.
In terms of qualifying criteria, we’ve capped the total race distances at 60km and have picked the optimum water temperature at 21C (warm, but not too warm to make it a non-wetsuit swim. And both road and trail events are eligible.
In a change from our usual toughest triathlons in the world series (Irons, middles, beginners), here we’ve added five bonus points for off-road triathlons and five points for any race that takes place 5,000ft (1,524m) above sea level.
Time, then, to let the short-course battle commence, starting with a gem in Snowdonia.
Plas y Brenin, Snowdonia
If snow is unlikely in July, even in the seeming microclimate that is Snowdonia, the Snowman delivers on its promise of being top race organisers Always Aim High’s toughest short-course race.
The swim quicks off in the shallow Llyn Mymbyr before a 30km bike through the heart of the Snowdonia National Park. The 5km run, meanwhile, takes athletes into the forests of Braich Bryn-engan.
Julia Creek, Australia
What it lacks in distances and duration, the Julia Creek Dirt ’n’ Dust makes up for in muddy water, inhospitable outback conditions and howling headwinds.
This bucketlist race was conceived in 1994, as all races should, after a discussion in a bar, and has been testing Aussie and international athletes for 25 years (including 220 hero Brad Beven, Loretta Harrop, Courtney Atkinson and Emma Jackson).
The swim is set in a creek (see image above) that’s filled with opaque muddy water, before athletes battle headwinds up to 30-40knots along the hot and barren highway. The run is mercifully flat, but temperatures in the town can get up to 40°C in April, which is even higher on the tarmac.
Alpe d’Huez, France
While its bigger brother, the Long Distance, hogs most of the headlines, the Short Distance Alpe d’Huez Triathlon still features plenty of skyward ascent over its 28km bike leg.
The race begins with a swim in the clear if biting waters of the Lac du Verney, located at an altitude of 700m and closed to swimmers 364 days a year. The 28km bike cuts almost instantly to the tough stuff, with the climbing starting after Bourg d’Oisans to the summit of Alpe d’Huez, one of road cycling’s most iconic climbs. The hills are very steep, with gradients ranging between 10 and 12% , and elevation gain is nearly 1,500m (more than many Ironman bike legs manage in their 180km duration).
The run course is a mixture of trail paths and roads, and athletes are tasked with battling the high altitude conditions.
The Craggy Island Triathlon is unique in that it tasks athletes with swimming to an island from the mainland to reach T1. The island is the unspoilt Isle of Kerrera, just off Scotland’s coastal town of Oban. The bike and run legs are entirely off-road (there aren’t any roads on the island, after all), and will take you from sea level to the highest point of the island.
While their tough classic of Helvellyn is just too long to be included here, race organiser Trihard Events still make the list via their Day in the Lakes event. The June Ullswater swim is both beautiful and bitingly cold, with teeth-chattering competitors happy it only extends to 1km. The bike course is gently undulating before a tougher run leg on low fell paths, complete with stunning views of the Lakes.
Garrett County, Maryland, USA
The brainchild of event founder and course architect, Kyle Yost, the Savageman began life in 2006 in Garrett County, located in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains in Western Maryland, USA. The 1.45km swim of the Savageman 30.0 takes place in the clear waters of Deep Creek Lake before the bike leg uses the first and last 20km of the infamous Savageman 60.0 course, including a long gradual ascent along the Savage River reservoir. The 8km run course is a mixture of gravel roads, walking trails and paved roads.
The Croyde Ocean Triathlon has only been going since 2015 but it’s swiftly established itself as an Olympic-distance toughie, with a sea swim in the surfer’s honeypot of Putsborough Beach kicking things off.
The hilly road bike heads towards Ilfracombe and ticks off the glorious sites of North Devon, before the 12km run hugs the coastline and takes things off road, including a leg-sapping beach run at Croyde.
While not as famous as its half iron sibling, the Auburn International Triathlon in California has plenty to offer multisporters. It commences with a swim in Folsom Lake at Rattlesnake Bar State Park before a hilly bike route on quiet roads and a run course boasting canyon views at every turn. As well as the undulating routes, athletes have to contend with the rising summertime Californian temperatures throughout.
June Lake, California
The June Lake Triathlon takes place at over 7,600ft above sea level, providing plenty of alpine beauty and majestic views in the process. What it also delivers is the taxing test of racing at high altitude, an added dimension to the tough course on offer.
After a one lap swim in the titular June Lake, the bike course heads north towards Grant Lake before returning to T2 for a trail run that’s described as ‘Wildflower at 8,000ft’. Face courses can match the beauty on offer at June Lake, but much will depend on an athlete’s ability to race at high altitude.
The Himalayan Rush Triathlon began life in 2012 and has since scooped awards and plaudits aplenty with its unparalleled Himalayan mountain backdrop. The race begins with a fresh water swim before tough and hilly off-road bike and run legs on the trails near Pokhara, and all at 650m above sea level.
And our clear winner is the Xterra World Championships, where 800 of the world’s best dirt-lovers have to bike and run over the mountains of Maui to complete the trail triathlon’s greatest challenge.
The race sees 800 competitors take to the Pacific waters of Honokahua Bay outside the Ritz-Carlton for a mass start (pros and age-groupers at the same time), non-wetsuit sea swim in water temperatures of around 25°C. After that comes a one loop 32km off-road bike leg, which top British Xterra pro Sam Gardner likens to “riding on marbles the size of your fist,” that goes up-and-down the lower slopes of the West Maui Mountains more than a dozen times and includes over 1,000m of elevation gain.
If there’s anyone left for the 10km run, they then have to pick a very cautious path over Lava rock and more, including a leg-sapping beach run.