Are these the toughest short-course triathlons in the world?

Ironman racing may grab most of the ‘toughest triathlon’ headlines but short-course racing still throws up plenty of challenges to triathletes across the globe...

Alpe d'Huez triathlon

From swims in a surfer’s paradise to iconic Alpine, here we’ve compiled a list of some of the toughest, craziest and memorable sprint- and Olympic-distance races on the planet.


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 bonus points for off-road triathlons and 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…

8. The Snowman Sprint Triathlon

Location: Plas y Brenin, Snowdonia
Distance: 750m swim, 27km bike, 6.1km run

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.

7. Alpe d’Huez Short Distance Triathlon

Location: Alpe d’Huez, France
Distance: 1,200m swim, 28km bike, 6.7km run

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.

6. Craggy Island Triathlon

Location: Oban, Scotland
Distance: 550m swim, 14km bike, 8km run

The Craggy Island Triathlon is unique in that it tasks athletes with swimming from the mainland to an island 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.

5. A Day In The Lakes

Location: Ullswater, Cumbria
Distance: 900m swim, 45km bike, 10.8km run

While their tough classic of Helvellyn is just too long to be included here, race organiser Trihard Events still make the list via their A 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.

4. Savageman 30.0

Location: Garrett County, Maryland, USA
Distance: 1,450m swim, 37km bike, 10km run

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.

Update (October 2022): As it stands, the Savageman triathlon does not have a date for 2023 after several cancellations in past years.

3. Croyde Ocean Triathlon

Location: Putsborough Beach, Devon, UK
Distance: 1,500m swim, 38km bike, 12km run

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.

2. June Lake Triathlon

Location: June Lake, California
Distance: 1,500m swim, 40.2km bike, 10km run

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.

1. XTERRA World Championships

Location: Maui, Hawaii
Distance: 1,500m swim, 32km bike, 10km run

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.

Update: In 2021 XTERRA announced that the world championships would take place in a different location each year, though they hope it will return to Maui again.


Top image credit: Cyrille Quintard