World’s best triathlons: 31 to do before you die
So you want to go out in style? You want to say, yep, done that and, without doubt, got the T-shirt? But with so many races to choose from, how will your tri racing CV look when it’s time to shuffle off this mortal coil? Well, look no further! Here's our list of the world's best triathlons...
Hundreds of triathlons are held all over the world every year including short, local events and grand, challenging ones set in some of the world’s finest cities and landscapes.
Choosing which one can be a challenge, so to help you out we’ve scoured our archives and spoken to triathletes from all walks of life in search of the best triathlons in the world.
The result? This list of 31 amazing multisport races for you to aim for. This list is far from exhaustive, and there may be some races that we’ve missed that deserve inclusion, but what we can guarantee is that every one on this list is an absolute belter.
So, read on and start planning your next season!
Location: Tuscan Archipelago, Italy
A swim in the turquoise Tyrrhenian Sea, a rolling bike in the Tuscan Archipelago and a marathon run through the Italian resort of Marina di Campo. Small wonder this event is sold-out months in advance. Welcome to Elbaman, Italy’s most famous triathlon and greatest long-distance event, held since 2005.
Its setting is Elba, Italy’s third-largest Island (after Sicily and Sardinia), which lies 20km southwest of the mainland town of Piombino in the province of Livorno. With a 7am start, the swim features two 1.9km laps in the warm 20°C-plus waters of Marina di Campo Bay, with athletes exiting onto the bay’s golden sands and into T1 before three 60km loops around the island’s western end.
If the waters are almost always calm, the bike course makes a lumpy contrast; it has 2,500m of elevation gain and barely a flat section anywhere in its 180km. Mediterranean scrub, pine forests and views of the Corsican coast about 50km further west provide the eye candy, along with the gorgeous nineteenth-century fishing village of Marciana Marina on the north coast, which is traversed three times.
The 42.1km run (three 14km laps) takes athletes north from Marina di Campo and then back to a coastline finish. This section is fast and flat, with plenty of support en route, but athletes face the rising September heat here, with temperatures hitting the mid- to upper 20s, and the three-loop format is mentally exhausting.
Numbers are restricted to just 280 for the long-distance showpiece (a middle-distance attracts 430 racers and is held alongside the full Elbaman) to ensure clear road racing and a manageable mass swim start.
While many pro elites are absent, the start list has a huge international flavour, with athletes from over 20 nations regularly racing.
Location: Hutes-Alpes, France/Italy border
Proof that St Croix doesn’t have the exclusive right to call a bike climb ‘The Beast’ is Embrunman, a race that positively drips with French triathlon history and is infamous for its unforgiving climbs on both the bike and run courses.
The inaugural Embrunman was held in Embrun, in the Hautes-Alpes near the France/Italy border, on 19 August 1984. That event consisted of a 750m swim, 30km bike and 10km race walk, but already present in the bike section was the Cote de Chalvet climb, which is still tormenting triathletes today.
Just a year later the race became the standard distance championships of France, with the rare race distances of 1.5km swim/70km bike/21km run attracting 280 athletes and some 20,000 spectators to the small south-eastern commune (pop. 6,000). The event would go long in 1986, with a format of 4km swim in the sheltered lake, a 131.5km bike and a hilly 42.1km run punctuated with ferocious climbs introduced by the organisers with the claim that it would be tougher than Ironman Hawaii.
In 1990 the route was changed for a final time with the introduction of the ascent of the Col d’Izoard on the bike course. The new 186km route came with increased difficulty, contributing to a total of 3,600m of climbing on the course: over 1,000m more than the infamous Ironman Lanzarote.
Away from the long-distance event, in 1988 the organisers added an Olympic-distance triathlon to the schedule that would attract 520 competitors. The race hosted a quartet of ITU World Cup events throughout the nineties, drawing nearly 100,000 spectators to the 1991 edition, won by Mark Allen. Simon Lessing took the title a year later, and in 1993 a record 1,500 athletes would take on the various formats of the Embrunman, again in front of a crowd numbering 100,000 people.
Like the Alpe d’Huez Triathlon, the present incarnation of Embrunman is a multi-day affair, with a duathlon held over the weekend, and events for youth and beginner athletes. The event, however, will most likely remain infamous for its challenging slopes on the bike and run (not to mention the chance of extreme heat) that put it very near the top of the list of the world’s toughest triathlons. In fact 220 named it the 10th toughest Iron-distance triathlon in the world
29. London Triathlon
Location: ExCeL, Docklands, London
The biggy. And by biggy we mean over 13,000 triathletes competing across super sprint, sprint, Olympic and Olympic Plus distances – plus a myriad of relay options – over two days at the ExCeL Centre in London’s East End.
So big, in fact, that the race has now superseded the Chicago Triathlon as the world’s largest in terms of participation. And, with around a third of the annual influx of over 13,000 athletes being beginners to the sport, the London Triathlon has played host to thousands of debut triathlon races, becoming an important rite of passage for age-group athletes across the British Isles.
The swim begins with a deep-water start in front of the ExCeL Centre, before proceeding with an out-and-back route in the occasionally choppy yet current-free waters of the Royal Victoria Dock.
Then (if you can remember where to find your bike in the cavernous indoor transition area) the flat bike route takes place on closed roads with the sub-2:30hr athletes using a course that takes in Big Ben, Westminster and Embankment before returning to the ExCel via Canary Wharf. Fast, flat and perfect for a personal best, the multi-lap run route heads through the venue to Royal Albert Dock and returns to the indoor finish line gantry.
With 13,500 athletes bringing their support crews, the route is lined with cheering spectators and intrigued locals. Celebrity spotting also adds another element of fun, with Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, racing driver Jenson Button and Virgin founder Richard Branson the recent pick of famous participants, alongside a host of reality television stars and retired pop performers.
The event also offers the chance for spectators to see age-group athletes race on the same course as some of the world’s top triathletes, like Daniela Ryf, Jodie Stimpson, Courtney Atkinson and Helen Jenkins, to name some recent winners.
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28. Hever Castle Triathlon, Kent, UK
Like the Slateman, the Hever Castle Triathlon has swiftly established itself as an essential fixture on the UK multisport circuit. And, like the Slateman’s power stations and quarries, the location has plenty of quirks for athletes and supporters, from searching for the ghost of Anne Boleyn to spotting filming locations used in the fantasy classic The Princess Bride.
Launched by former Marines helicopter pilot Brian Adcock, the Hever Castle Triathlon was established in 2009. Around 1,000 athletes headed to Kent in the south-east of England for that inaugural event, and the numbers have rapidly increased to 7,000 for 13 different race distances (including a 226km long-distance Bastion race held at Hever in July).
Key to that growth has been the focus on children’s triathlon, with numbers almost doubling each year and overtaking the Chicago Triathlon as the world’s largest children’s triathlon. Kid-friendly touches include allowing parents into transition to help with wetsuit removal and changing, a completely off-road children’s course and race distances starting with a manageable 100m swim before a 4km bike and a 1.3km run.
The races themselves begin with an early morning open-water swim in the misty and murky 38-acre Hever Castle Lake. After T1, the bike leg is deceptively tough, with barely a flat section on the route that takes athletes on a circuit through the quiet roads of the High Weald of Kent and, quite cruelly, past some of the county’s finest looking beer gardens.
The largely off-road light trail run circumnavigates the estate and leafy castle grounds, before making the dash to the tree-lined finishing chute beside the lake and adjacent to the castle. A man dressed as Henry VIII and plenty of cake await participants at the finish, and the festival fun includes live bands, an archery event and, naturally, bouncy castles.
27. Ironman Vitoria-Gasteiz
Location: Vitoria Gasteiz, Northern Spain
Set amidst Spain’s gorgeous wine country, Ironman Vitoria-Gasteiz celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2016 and regularly draws thousands of European triathletes to northern Spain for its full and half iron races. To explain why, it’s over to British pro Iron athlete, Yvette Grice:
“The swim takes place in the clean and beautiful Ullibarri-Gamboa lake outside the town. The bike is rolling with a good road surface and with wonderful views of the Alava Plains. The run is where the race really comes to life with three laps starting and finishing in the Medieval quarter of Vitoria-Gasteiz.
“It can get pretty hot on the run but the support from the enthusiastic crowd will spur you on. There’s a very special feel to this race, the organisation and friendly atmosphere are top notch and all who enter are bound to have a great experience. I cannot rate this event highly enough.”
26. National Triathlon Relays
Location: Holme Pierrepont, Nottingham, UK
A giant game of team tag, this is racing old-school style. Each team member does the swim, bike, run, and after each leg, each member has to tag the next before play ensues to the next sport. There’s only one word that really sums it up – fun. You can be as competitive as you want, but the name of the game is pure pleasure.
One by one, the four members of each team complete a 500m swim, before going onto the 15km bike. Only after all four are done with their individual rides can they embark on the first of their 5km runs, after which, the team with the fastest time is crowned national relays champion.
The National Triathlon Relays founder Iain Hamilton was just 18 years old when he launched the event back in 1991 as part of a college project. Since then it’s welcomed the likes of Tim Don, Richard Allen, Stuart Hayes, Chrissie Wellington, Spencer Smith and Jonny Brownlee.
25. Hamburg Wasser Triathlon
From Cape Town to Mooloolaba in Australia and Cozumel in Mexico, the International Triathlon Union’s World Series and the federation’s second-tier collection of World Cup races have plenty of jaw-dropping canvases for athletes to perform against. While it may lack the aforementioned trio’s mountains, golden sands or azure waters, the World Series regular race at Hamburg in northern Germany tops them all in the atmosphere stakes.
In a nation that also boasts Challenge Roth (220,000 spectators), the World Triathlon race in Hamburg completes the golden duo with a reported 300,000 competitors crammed into the old town of Germany’s second-biggest city.
The race has been an ever-present entry on the World Series since 2009 and has long hosted World Cup, World Championship, Mixed Relay and Paratriathlon events, with the ITU worlds champions Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, Gwen Jorgensen and Javier Gomez all breaking the tape to a crescendo of Germanic noise in recent times.
While some major city races stick around the outskirts with only brief forays into any central areas, part of the Hamburg race’s appeal is how it takes over the heart of the city. The swim is positioned in the man-made Inner Alster Lake within the city limits, with the swim’s famous dark tunnel to be negotiated by both the elite athletes and 10,000 international age-group triathletes over the weekend.
The bike course may be flat but it’s one of the ITU’s more technical routes, forcing athletes to weave around the streets of the old trading city and negotiate a number of switchbacks at the end of each of the multiple loops (the event offers both sprint and Olympic-distance races). The 5/10km run concludes at the Hamburg City Hall for one of triathlon’s most epic finales.
24. Ironman 70.3 Pucón
Pucón in southern Chile has long been a South American mecca for adrenaline junkies, an international outdoor sports playground akin to Queenstown in New Zealand. Ample snowboarding, skiing, canoeing, horseriding and hiking opportunities give hoards of backpackers their athletic fix each year, with endurance sport addicts firmly added to the list in 2008 as the M-Dot juggernaut rolled in for the debut of Ironman 70.3 Pucón.
With a backdrop of the smouldering, snowcapped Villarrica volcano (one of South America’s most restless), the race begins with a two-lap 1.9km swim in the calm waters of Lake Villarrica before athletes face a hilly two-lap 90km bike into the hills around the lake, along the highway leading to Argentina and up to the Palguín hot springs.
The half-marathon run leg takes competitors through Pucón town on a crowd-pleasing three-lap tour, with a pair of tough ascents on each lap before a raucous finish-line experience.
A strong contender for the most beautiful 70.3 race on the worldwide circuit, Pucón has become a popular stop for athletes keen to start their race season every January, and the event regularly sells out months in advance. The tall Brazilian, Reinaldo Colucci, is the undisputed King of Pucón, with four wins and a couple of second-place finishes in his six appearances at the race.
23. Monster Triathlon
Location: Scotland and England
Anyone that has a penchant for pain and suffering (we’re guessing that’s a lot of you) may well want to check out the Monster Triathlon.
This is an event that takes ultra-triathlon to a whole new level. It starts with a 5km swim in Loch Ness. Once out of the water, entrants are then faced with five days and 1,000km of cycling as they cycle to Windsor, before running a cool 50km to Richmond, London.
Unlike most events, the Monster Triathlon won’t be timed, which is no surprise given its multi-day setup. To be honest, though, by the end you’ll probably just be battling to finish rather than focusing on a specific time.
The swim in Loch Ness takes place against a backdrop of dramatic scenery, while the bike route will take you through the iconic Glencoe Pass, past Loch Lomond, through the Scottish Borders, up and over the rolling Lancashire countryside, via the Shropshire Hills and the Chilterns.
To finish, the ultra-marathon will see you hug the banks of the Thames.
22. The Outlaw
Location: Nottingham, UK
Drawing on the mythology of Robin Hood, Nottingham’s Outlaw Triathlon has firmly established itself as an essential fixture on the UK’s long-distance calendar since its launch in 2010, scooping plenty of awards along the way and selling out in a handful of days.
With the sun rising over Holme Pierrepont, the race regularly starts under an orange sky with a 3.8km swim in the National Water Sports Centre lake. The bike leg takes in some pretty Nottinghamshire countryside before the run finds the 1,450 athletes cheered on by locals lining the River Trent path.
While the pro field is small, the event has provided plenty of memorable victories, from Paul Hawkins leading for the duration in 2010 to local dentist Eugene Grant taking 2013’s heat-wave edition. Perhaps the most impressive is Harry Wiltshire’s surprise win in July 2012, where the British pro athlete, after failing to source any relay team members, led throughout to take the title despite, ‘only putting my trainers on in T2 so I could jog back to the car.’
Location: Torridon Mountains, Scotland
If the thought of completing an Iron-distance race isn’t enough, the organisers of the long-course Celtman have thrown in a deeply cold 3.8km swim in the 400m Loch Shieldaig, an extended 202km bike course before a marathon run over two Munros. Plus the Scottish weather.
Calling it a Scottish Norseman wouldn’t be wide of the mark. Centred around the remote Torridon mountains (a five-hour drive north of Glasgow and Edinburgh), the Celtman was first run in 2012. “The Norseman was a big influence – Dag Oliver and his team were the first people we spoke to as most of the Celtman team had either raced or supported in Norway,” says Celtman organiser Paul McGreal. “We adopted many of the key features of Norseman – the ballot for entry, the need for a support crew, the small scale of the event and, of course, an extreme and testing route.”
The race would pick-up a British Triathlon Event of the Year award in its very first year, with the rare point-to-point course (“It’s a journey right from the beginning,” adds McGreal), 4,000m of total ascent and the UK’s most extreme run course finding favour with voters.
That run course is nearly all off-road, with McGreal filling in the grisly details. “After an easy first half, the run courses feature a climb of over 1,000m to the first of the Munro hills. The exposed and spectacular ridge run to the second hill, which involves another 300m of climbing, is essentially over trackless and rocky terrain. Then the route follows an exceptionally steep descent down a rock-filled scree chute to the corrie of Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair.”
20. Leeds Triathlon
Location: Leeds, England
Given its history, there’s no question that Leeds Triathlon has to be on this list. It’s been the scene of many incredible World Triathlon races over the years and has been the local stomping ground for much of the Jonny and Alistair Brownlee‘s illustrious careers.
Such is its status that there’s always a large, supportive crowd lining the course to cheer you and thousands of other competitors on.
It’s also beginner friendly with multiple distances to choose from. Whichever you opt for, you’ll get to enjoy a swim in Waterloo Lake and the tree-lined avenues of Roundhay Park.
As the home of some of Britain’s most successful triathletes, it’s simply one you’ve got to tick off at some point.
19. Helvellyn Triathlon
Location: Ullswater, Cumbria, England
Martin Cain, who set a course record in 2011, is a man with a strong claim to be called the UK’s hardest triathlete. This is what he thinks of Helvellyn Triathlon.
“Looking for a challenge? Then the Helvellyn Triathlon is it. Despite the blisters, blood and the fact that I walk around like John Wayne for days afterwards, I’ll keep going back for more. The swim is beautiful… but freezing; the bike is superb… as long as you enjoy 1:4 hills; and the run scenery is outstanding… if you can lift your head to look at it.”
A skull-crushingly cold swim, brutal climbs and hair-raising descents have forged the Helvellyn Triathlon’s reputation as the UK’s toughest multisport event.
Since its inception in 2004, snowballing word of mouth has seen 600 of the UK’s hardiest triathletes come to Cumbria each August/September armed with the mandatory survival blanket, map, compass and whistle.
In the stunning setting of England’s Lake District, the course features a 1.6km swim in the bitter-cold waters of mountain-ringed Ullswater. The 61.2km bike route is legendary for The Struggle climb over the Kirkstone Pass at 44km.
Rising 400m in 5km, it’s an absolute brute, loaded with 20% ascents that will force even the most experienced athletes to push their steeds skyward. Then, far from offering a relaxing route home, the descent from Kirkstone Pass is highly technical, with exposed upper slopes, tights turns that need to be negotiated at speed and drystone walls lurking ominously at the side of the roads.
TriHard Event’s 14.5km run route continues piling on the punishment, sending athletes to within touching distance of the 949m summit of Helvellyn, the third-highest peak in England (only 22m less than the highest).
“Accept that you won’t be able to run all the way to the top of Helvellyn. On the really steep sections it’s both faster and more energy-efficient to power walk, with the final stretch up Swirral Edge a rock scramble,” says 2013 winner Richard Anderson.
The descent, again, is no picnic either and will test athletes’ downhill running skills to the max. Cain labels it “hair-raising and brutal . . . and I almost always fall,” and the race organisers recommend all athletes cut their toenails, because they won’t have any left by the finish line.
18. The Brutal Triathlon
Location: Snowdonia, Wales
It’s got one of the most forbidding names in triathlon, for good reason. Extremely cruel or harsh. Very bad or unpleasant. Harsh, burdensome, cruel, excruciating, grim, hard, rugged. The Merriam-Webster dictionary pulls no punches in its definition of ‘Brutal’ and its synonyms. And neither do The Brutal Triathlon‘s race organisers…
Launched in 2012 by ultra athlete Claire Smith, the Brutal is known for its low-key feel and friendliness. And yet there’s nothing welcoming about the course, which submerges athletes in the chilly Lake Padarn for 3.8km before subjecting them to over 3,000m of climbing on the 180km Snowdonian bike leg. The 1,394m of climbing on the run keeps the pain a coming, and all of this without a support crew, with athletes isolated throughout.
“The results say it all,” says the Lincolnshire Iron legend Anthony Gerundini who’s raced 108 Ironmans. “The Brutal winner’s time in 2015 was 12:22hrs with no support, 30mins slower than the Celtman’s supported winner. The full 3.8km swim has the potential to be damn cold and choppy, the bike stats tell you how hard it is and the run throws everything at you. Quite simply, it’s a true extreme triathlon.”
17. Chicago Triathlon
Location: Chicago, USA
If the London Triathlon has recently taken away its ‘World’s Biggest Race’ mantle, in terms of history and location the Chicago Triathlon still has the edge over its Transatlantic rival, plus an honours board full of triathlon greats and the city’s downtown skyscrapers looking over the Lake Michigan swim.
The Chicago Triathlon course is in the heart of Chicago, beginning at Monroe Harbor, with pro racers heading south along the sea wall. “The swim is simply amazing,” says 2008 winner and British Olympian Stuart Hayes. “The water is crystal clear and you can see the skyscrapers looming over you, which is a one-of-a-kind experience. Onto the bike and Chicago is nicknamed the Windy City for a reason, so have a deep-section rear wheel as a substitute for a disc wheel in case of adverse weather conditions.
“My other advice would be to wear compression wear if you’re flying to the event, as I ended up in hospital with a swollen knee the night before the race. Somehow it had settled down by race start and actually made me more relaxed, so that I ended up winning quite comfortably!”
The bike course also takes in the city landmarks, with elite athletes having a unique chance to ride underneath the city on the closed roads of Intermediate Wacker Drive. The next unparalleled experience sees athletes racing on the exclusive Lower Randolph Busway, the gated $43m road (labelled the Bat Cave or Magic Road) that’s closed to the public.
The run course begins just south of Randolph and heads south to the lake front path, taking in Waldron Drive, McCormick Place and the Shedd Aquarium, ending with the famous finish line on Columbus Drive, an unforgettable experience for today’s 10,000 sprint and Olympic-distance athletes.
16. Ironman South Africa
Location: Port Elizabeth, South Africa
With 75 qualifying slots for Ironman Hawaii, a prize purse of $150,000 and the Ironman African Championship on the line, Ironman South Africa is a major long-course attraction.
The 226km event is held in Nelson Mandela Bay, in the city of Port Elizabeth on South Africa’s southern coast. Hobie Beach is the setting for the one-lap swim, then a bike course that takes competitors along the coastline and through nature reserves before a three-lap run in front of 70,000 spectators on Marine Drive.
Natascha Badmann is a multiple South Africa champion, and four-time Ironman World Champ Chrissie Wellington also set the women’s Ironman record on the course in 2011, with the staggering time of 8:33hr. Who better then to talk us through the attraction of racing in the Rainbow Nation?
“There aren’t many races in the world where you can stand on a clear white beach, watching the sun rise over the ocean, and see a pod of dolphins playing in the waves. Ironman South Africa is a phenomenal race.
“The crowds on Marine Drive were huge, noisy and uplifting. They’d been lined up, five or six deep, since the crack of dawn, cheering, shouting, eating, drinking and creating the most amazing tunnel of energy . . . not to mention the delicious aroma from the traditional South African braai [barbecue]. The finish chute is one of the best in the world. I ran down the red carpet, a rainbow of confetti raining down and a beaming smile on my face.”
15. Royal Windsor Triathlon
Location: Windsor, England
Aside from Monaco, there aren’t many races that take place beneath the majestic splendour of a royal castle. When the sun’s beating down and the Union Jack is flying high, you’d be hard pushed not to feel patriotic at the Windsor Triathlon. A swim in the Thames, followed by a countryside bike, and run up and around the cobbled streets of the castle walls make this a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, race-day experience, whether it’s your first or 21st time.
Since its inception in 1991 the Windsor Triathlon has played a fundamental role in the development of swim, bike and run in Britain and beyond, hosting classic elite showdowns and providing the backdrop to thousands of age-grouper experiences.
The race started life in 1991 as part of the 220 Triathlon Series, a series of races organised by five stalwarts of the UK triathlon scene – Trevor Gunning, Robin Brew, Graham Matthews, 220’s founder John Lilley and John Lunt.
The race’s major draw has unquestionably become the 2,500 age-group athletes who do battle in the shadow of the Windsor Castle. The notoriously early start to an out-and-back swim in the River Thames leads on to the pretty, gently undulating Windsor Great Park bike route, and finally one of UK triathlon’s greatest run legs.
Backed by deep crowds, Olympic-distance athletes negotiate a circuit that takes them into Eton’s High Street before returning to face the infamous short, sharp hill on the approach to the castle – and there are three laps, so they have it all to do on three separate occasions. Like the climb, the memorable finish on Barry Avenue has become an iconic rite of passage for British triathletes.
14. Ironman Austria Klagenfurt
Location: Klagenfurt, Austria
The term chocolate-box perfection must have been coined by someone who’d visited the lakeside town of Klagenfurt. Located 300km south of Vienna, between Italy and Slovenia, the area has been called the ‘Copacabana of the Alps’; in short, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. Ironman Austria Klagenfurt is a race for the athlete who likes their sport to come with a view.
And what scenery it is. The swim takes place in the 22°C waters of Lake Wörthersee in Austria’s deep south, ringed by forested hills and snowcapped Alpine mountains standing majestically in the background.
After 3.8km in the turquoise, transparent waters, athletes embark on a two-loop course, which was co-designed by one Mark Allen, into the Alpine foothills around Carinthia for one of Ironman’s fastest bike routes. While mostly flat, the two steep gradients on each lap are crammed with spectators lining the route ten deep, producing a motivational din up there with Roth in the decibel stakes.
After a hero’s welcome back in Klagenfurt, athletes embark on a largely flat and shady 42.1km run around the lake’s shoreline before heading into Klagenfurt for one of Ironman’s greatest finishes.
13. Noosa Triathlon Festival
Location: Queensland, Australia
Created in 1983, the Noosa Triathlon is intimately linked with the history and growth of triathlon in Australia. The lineage of Australian greats can be charted by reviewing its winners; Stephen Foster, Brad Beven, Miles Stewart, Emma Carney, Loretta Harrop, Craig Walton, Emma Snowsill, Chris McCormack, Courtney Atkinson and Emma Moffatt have all topped the podium at the Sunshine Coast event in Queensland.
Today 10,000 people come to the Noosa Triathlon weekend jamboree – thought to be the fourth largest Olympic-distance triathlon in the world, behind London, Chicago and Hamburg.
Generally taking place during the last week of October, the current Noosa Triathlon Multi Sport Festival (the largest of its type in the southern hemisphere) begins on a Wednesday with children and adult aquathlon races taking place on the pristine sands of Noosa’s main beach.
Charity golf events, organised bike rides around the Shire of Noosa and family fun runs keep things active until the Friday afternoon, when the 1,000m Ocean Swim sees things get competitive between the triathlete community and their namesakes/ rivals, the Ironman surf lifesaving athletes. Then Saturday brings the SuperKids children’s race and the Noosa Special Triathlon for athletes with a disability, before a women’s and men’s cycling criterium, a 5km run and the Legends Triathlon (complete with pro athletes and celebrities) take place in front of a crowd of 20,000 spectators.
The Olympic-distance Noosa Triathlon is held on the Sunday, and 2015 saw the pro field and 8,500 age-group athletes lining up at 6:15am on Noosa’s main beach for the first time.
The 40km closed-road bike course sets out from Noosa Heads and runs up to Noosa Sound on smooth, fast and flat roads, with some testing ascents and tricky descents to negotiate throughout, before heading back to Noosa Heads. The 10km run, also on closed roads, is fast and flat, with huge stands full of spectators welcoming home the athletes at the finish line.
Then comes the fun finale to the festival. Noosa, with its backdrop of sun, sand and sea, certainly knows how to have fun, and the Surf Club kicks the celebrations off before the Reef Hotel throws what’s been described as the best after-party in all of triathlon.
12. Laguna Phuket Triathlon
Location: Phuket, Thailand
It’s fair to say that the Laguna Phuket Triathlon is a race like no other. The multisport festival takes place over a full week in late November, with proceedings kicking off with an Olympic(ish)-distance race consisting of a 1.8km swim, 55km bike and 12km run, before a week of social and sporting shindigs build up to a middle-distance event on the following weekend.
The Asian event has been a triathlon-lovers’ paradise for over 20 years and is known as Asia’s first-ever triathlon, attracting scores of athletes to one of the most cherished spots in Thailand for a final triathlon fling before the season’s end.
What’s become known as the Race of Legends begins from the beach tops of the Andaman Sea before plunging into the azure waters of the Laguna Beach Resort for a 1.8km swim. Two-thirds of the way through the swim, the athletes then have to jump out of the ocean and sprint 100m to enter the lagoon before the final swim leg.
The bike leg takes in the northern part of Phuket, encompassing the steep challenging sections of the Naithon Hills. But rest assured, they’re short-lived and, for the most part, you’ll have flat, stunning rainforest scenery to enjoy before a two-lap loop around the beautifully well-maintained Laguna Resort. The weather is as hot and humid as a steam room, however. But you don’t have to overexert yourself; it’s the end of season, after all.
The classic distance run is flat and leads runners north through the Laguna Phuket resort complex before looping back past the Wedding Chapel and through the Canal Shopping Village. The race weekend culminates at the Laguna Grove, with the after party said to be up with the Xterra World Champs in Maui for its feel-good factor and free-flowing cocktails.
11. The Slateman
Location: Snowdonia National Park, Wales
A swim ringed by the mountains of Snowdonia. A bike course teleported from the Tour de France. A trail run past a power station and up a disused quarry; this has to be the UK’s best and most bonkers Olympic(ish)-distance triathlon.
Set in the pleasant tourist town of Llanberis in North Wales’ Snowdonia National Park, the Slateman started with 450 competitors in 2011 but has already expanded to 1,700 triathletes competing over the Slateman Full and Half courses.
For the Full athletes, the 63km Snowdonian adventure kicks off with a 1km swim in the 14°C waters of Llyn Padarn with the foreboding mountains of Snowdonia, soon to be tackled on the bike course, looming above.
After T1 the relentless, leg-sapping Llanberis Pass takes you up to the 360m-high Pen-y-Pass where the most welcome aid station is located. After that an exhilarating 60km/h (faster, if you have more nerve than us) descent to Capel Curig follows, with the waters of Lynnau Mymbyr adding to the epic scenery. If the bike route fails to scale these highs again (and what highs they are), the support is relentless, with enthusiastic cries from passing cars and families offering refreshments, and plenty of flag-waving, from outside their houses.
After the 51km route takes athletes back into transition via the western side of Llanberis, the incomparable, frankly bonkers 11km run/ power walk begins. The first kilometre passes the entrance to the Dinorwig Power Station and follows a circular bridge, but the real ‘fun’ starts with the ascent into the Dinorwig Slate Quarries.
Comically steep climbs lurk after each corner, with athletes choosing to succumb to the challenge and walk, or to power up the slopes with a view to taking the Quarryman title awarded for the fastest time up the infamous zig-zags of Dinorwig quarry.
After 330m of climbing, the course enters the Coed Dinorwig woodland for some classic single-track trail running of leaping logs and sliding on stones. A spell-binding view of the finish line some 300m below precedes a 2km descent to the finishing arch. Like the crowds and cowbells throughout the course, the race’s final throes are accompanied by a raucous atmosphere, akin to another Welsh wonder, Ironman Wales, with deep throngs lining the chute until the final athlete comes home after about five-and-a-half hours.
As for evidence of the race’s tough credentials, a quick scan of the results list shows even the top athletes don’t have it easy at the Slateman, with the full-distance winner home in 2:20hrs, with plenty of DNFs littered around the Welsh mountains (this author added an hour to his usual Olympic-distance time).
10. Ironman Wales
Location: Pembrokeshire, Wales
Since its debut in 2011, Ironman Wales has established itself as one of the most atmospheric, noisy and beautiful 226km courses on the Ironman circuit. With over 2,000m of climbing on the bike course alone, it’s also nestled its way to the top of the toughest M-Dots in the world, with the climbs at Ludchurch and Heartbreak Hill in Saundersfoot already entering Ironman folklore.
Not one phase at Ironman Wales is straightforward. The swim is in the choppy bay around Tenby with a long run from the swim finish to T1, while the 180km bike leg is always either up or down with narrow roads and blind corners to contend. The total elevation is 2095 metres.
It’s an undulating run course with a total elevation of 350, so it is wise to adjust your pace on the climbs and descents to ensure you maintain a consistent effort. The whole of Tenby comes out to watch, so enjoy it and embrace the support!
“Once you finish Wales you know you can finish anything,” says Lucy Gossage.
We named Ironman Wales the among the toughest Iron-distance race in the world.
9. Alpe D’Huez Triathlon
Location: The French Alps
A 700m high swim in a mountain reservoir opened once a year; a bike course that’s played a central role in the Tour de France; the world’s highest transition area; and a run that takes place at 2,000m above sea level.
The race started in 2006 and in just over a decade, the Alpe d’Huez Triathlon has joined the select list of truly iconic triathlons, rubbing shoulders with Hawaii, Roth, Alcatraz and Lanzarote as one of the most unforgettable days in multisport.
Surrounded by lush mountain scenery, the swim leg takes place in the crystal clear, if decidedly chilly, 16°C waters of the Lac du Verney (700m above sea level), opened once a year by event partner and energy giant EDF just for the event.
The race then sends long-course athletes off on a 115km venture along roads etched in Tour de France history, beginning with the Alpe du Grand Serre (1,375m above sea level) before heading to the 1,371m high Col d’Ornon and the pièce de résistance, the 21 hairpin bends on the ascent up the Alpe d’hues. The race is far more than just a Tour de France tribute act, however, with all the mountain passes of the Écrins National Park and their varying altitudes throwing a further key obstacle into the triathletes’ path.
The 22km long-course run leg is a three-lap affair that takes place on a mixture of mountain paths and asphalted roads within the majestic setting of the resort of Alpe d’Huez.
Apart from the short- and long-course events, there’s also a children’s event and a duathlon (consisting of a 5km run in Bourg d’Oisans, a 15km bike course that goes straight up Alpe d’Huez and a 2.5km run around the ski resort), and the four-day carnival boasts a decent race village and plenty of entertainment for the 2,500-plus entrants and their support crews.
8. Ironman Lanzarote
Location: Lanzarote, Canary Islands
On paper and in the flesh, Ironman Lanzarote is world-renowned as quite possibly the hardest Ironman event in the world. The 226km journey, with over 2,500m of climbing on the bike alone, is reason enough for it to nestle at the top of the toughest Ironman bike courses. Then throw in a choppy sea swim, blistering heat and skin-burning winds, and you’ll see why this one annually chews up athletes and spits them back out again just for the fun of it.
But it’s a classic of triathlon, presenting onslaught after onslaught under a punishing sun, with many a competitor having to hook up to an IV drip on finishing. We named Ironman Lanzarote 8th toughest Ironman-distance triathlon in the world.
Ironman Lanzarote takes place on the island of Lanzarote, the fourth-largest of the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa. The event was created in 1992 by Kenneth Gasque and hosted at his ever-popular triathlon training venue, Club la Santa. A year later the race moved to its current home of Puerto del Carmen.
Ironman Lanzarote starts at Playa Grande on the south side of the island, with a two-lap swim in the sheltered Atlantic waters. The bike course is a one-loop tour of the island, with barely a flat straight; competitors face two mountain climbs and plenty of hills in between, as well as the El Jable desert for good measure. The three-lap marathon run is mercifully flat, yet entrants are still subjected to the island’s ever-present winds and the searing sun. Even better, Lanzarote’s on the same timeline as the UK, making it a favourite among the Brit long-distancers
Thankfully for age-group athletes, the sun-fuelled crowd keeps the party going until the very last competitor runs/crawls across the finishing line, regardless of loss of daylight and sleep deprivation. And there to greet them is the legendary race organiser Gasque, who shakes every finisher’s hand.
Read three-time European Ironman champion Timo Bracht’s tips for dealing with the cross winds in Ironman Lanzarote.
7. Challenge Wanaka
Location: Otago Region, South Island, New Zealand
From the Côte d’Azur to Mauritius, Hawaii and the beaches of Thailand, there is no lack of picture-postcard settings for triathletes’ multisport adventures. But all these and other far-flung locations are outshone by New Zealand’s Challenge Wanaka: the long-course race set inarguably the most beautiful region of possibly the world’s most beautiful country.
Instead of picking up an existing triathlon, the Challenge venture started from scratch with just 200 competitors in its debut year of 2007. The event starts at Roy’s Bay, with the athletes diving into crisp Lake Wanaka for an L-shaped 3.8km swim loop in water so clean you can drink it. A two-lap, gently undulating 180km bike route (total climbing of 1,684m) follows, with the course taking in both Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea before returning to Wanaka for the marathon run leg. Unusually for long-distance races, three-quarters of the 42.2km foot race takes place on off-road trails, with athletes doing two laps of a course that heads east to Albert Town and back.
The beauty of the scenery belies the challenge of the event, however, with athletes occasionally facing choppy and chilly waters in Lake Wanaka (the warmest lake in the Southern Island, yet thick neoprene swim hats are a common sight here), severe crosswinds on the bike course and uneven trails on the run.
From 200 competitors in 2007, the race now features 2,200 mostly age-group athletes over the weekend, with a half-distance race, relays, junior races, a charity fun run and stand-alone swim event all taking place in addition to the flagship 226km long-distance challenge.
We named Challenge Wanaka the 11th toughest Iron in the world and its bike leg one of the world’s most scenic.
6. Ironman France
Location: Nice, France
Ironman France, the Nice Triathlon, the Nice Long-Distance Triathlon, whatever you call it, this is a race that’s drenched in triathlon history.
From the early years, when Mark Allen made it his own, to the latter days of 80,000 spectators lining the course of what Allen calls ‘the best outside of the granddaddy itself in Kona,’ the Cote d’Azur event has played a major part in the evolution of triathlon in Europe.
Given that many, including Scott Tinley, believe that triathlon began life in 1920s France, it’s apt that modern triathlon’s development should also be tied to the country, with Nice hosting what many believe is the first major modern-day triathlon in Europe.
Details about the debut race are scarce, but the overriding consensus is that early Ironman athlete Scott Tinley had been commissioned to devise a race for Barry Frank, the powerful Vice President of IMG’s television sports programming, in Monaco. Tinley’s Tri-Country Triathlon would find athletes leaping from a boat in Monte Carlo, riding to Italy and finishing back on the Cote d’Azur. At a time when Ironman Hawaii offered no race winnings, a $50,000 prize purse was touted and television exposure promised.
The Tinley/Frank Tri-Country dream ended when the Princess of Monaco, otherwise known as American actress Grace Kelly, died in a car accident on the Corniche in September 1982, and sporting events were cancelled as the Principality mourned.
An adapted event moved along the coast to Nice and was first held on a chilly November morning in 1982 with the unique 4km swim, 120km bike and 30km run distance (compared to the Ironman distance of 3.8km/180km/42.2km).
Mark Allen soon embarked on a winning streak that would see him take 10 consecutive titles at a time when the Nice Triathlon, along with Hawaii andPowerman Zofingen, was one of the big three to win – a feat Allen rates as highly as his Hawaii achievements.
“I raced the event 10 times. I won it 10 times. In many ways that’s more amazing to me than winning six times in Hawaii,’ says Allen. ‘I had some really tough races there.”
The switch to an Ironman branded event took place in 2005, with Ironman France being moved south from its previous location of Gerardmer. While the course may not serve up any sub-8hr action (Van Lierde’s course record is 8:08:59) yet, the lure of the event to pro athletes and age-groupers is clear to see.
Triathlon truly takes over the Promenade des Anglais during Ironman France weekend, with M-Dot-tattooed triathletes and their support crews outnumbering the tanned European holiday-makers on Nice’s sweeping pebble beaches and in the warm, azure waters of France’s fifth biggest city.
Much of the acclaim and demand for entry spots at the event is down to the unparalleled 180km bike course. Following much of the original Nice Triathlon route, the course passes through villages and features 5,000ft of climbing in the hills of the Alpes Maritimes.
The marathon run provides a counterbalance to the vertical ascents of the bike, with four flat and fast loops along Nice’s promenade in front of 80,000 spectators providing the finale to one of triathlon’s truly iconic events.
This year’s race has been pushed back to 23 July, in respect of the city’s year-long moratorium following 2016’s terror attack along the Promenade des Anglais.
5. Xterra World Championships
Location: Maui, Hawaii
The off-roading world’s Kona. And like its island neighbour, Maui is volcano country. Unlike the Ironman World Champs, however, 800 of the world’s best dirt-lovers who show up actually have to bike and run over them.
The first-ever Xterra was born on Maui in 1996, and the Xterra Series expanded rapidly, with worldwide events launched in 2000, 50 races organised in 2003, a full-blown European Tour by 2004 and in 2016 44 Maui qualifying races in 35 countries.
The heartbeat of Xterra will always be Maui, however, with the event holding its 20th race in November 2015 and inviting all its winners back to compete.
Today’s race sees 800 competitors take to the Pacific waters of Honokahua Bay in the north-west of Maui for a truly rough-water, 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 – there’s a high attrition rate in Maui due to dehydration, crashes and punctures – they then have to pick a cautious path over Lava rock. Nico Lebrun demonstrated just how lethal the run can be, and also what this race actually means to an athlete, when in 2006 he tripped and broke his arm, but still crossed the line as Champion. Epic, but not advised.
A truly global affair, camaraderie reins supreme in Maui, with athletes from more than 45 countries and 40 US states putting the day’s rivalry behind them at one of triathlon’s greatest after-parties, with, according to Gardner, “some of the best food you’ll ever get at a triathlon”.
Unfortunately, in early 2022 Xterra announced the world championship race would no longer take place in Hawaii and would instead move around to different locations. However, they have vowed to return to the Big Island, so watch this space.
4. Escape from Alcatraz
Location: San Francisco, USA
Started in 1981, Escape from Alcatraz has to be seen to be believed. As the name suggests this one is a leap of faith just off the coast from the infamous former-prison island of Alcatraz. But unlike its unlucky inmates, competitors at the triathlon have always made it to dry land safely.
In fact, each year over 2,000 athletes make the jump off an old steamboat, the Belle, into the freezing cold waters of San Francisco Bay for a 2.4km swim to shore. A 28.9km bike leg follows before a 12.8km run separates the men from the boys, and the women from the girls, as they hit the sandy trails of the Golden Gate Recreation Area, home to the formidable Sand Ladder – 400 nigh-on vertical steps up a cliff face. This is pure punishment from start to finish
Held in the shadow of the ‘Rock’ and Golden Gate Bridge, the race has become an essential component of the triathlon story, with previous winners including past and present royalty such as Mike Pigg, Greg Welch, Paula Newby-Fraser, Simon Lessing, Chris McCormack, Leanda Cave and Javier Gómez.
The conception for Escape from Alcatraz came to Joe Oakes soon after he returned from participating at the second Ironman Hawaii race in 1979.
A two-year development period followed before his idea bore fruit in the summer of 1981, when the first Escape from Alcatraz race was held as a private club event for Oakes’ Dolphin Club inaugural event started with a swim in San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Island, where the notorious federal prison was situated from 1933 to 1963, to San Francisco city, then a bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge to the mountain biking stronghold of Marin County, before a run course over Mount Tamalpais to Stinson Beach and back.
Sadly, due to the San Francisco Belle’s limited capacity and strict time limits placed on the organisers, entry for the Escape from Alcatraz is almost as tough as the race itself. The majority of the slots are chosen by a lottery process, with the remainder through qualification via a decent rank in the previous Escape from Alcatraz event or in qualification races held during the preceding year.
Location: Eidfjord, Norway
If an Ironman race forces athletes to find out what they’re really made of, this one-day 140.6-mile challenge peels back the layers to reveal their very soul.
Every August, 250 of the world’s toughest athletes descend upon Eidfjord, a small village nestled in the dramatic terrain of Norway’s west fjordland region to take on Norseman, a raw, no frills iron-distance event. A freezing swim in a Norwegian fjord, enormous climbs to conquer on the bike and a mountain top finish for the run – all in treacherous weather conditions – make this a defining event in extreme triathlon.
In 2000, Paal Hårek Stranheim had a vision to create an event so unique, so spectacular and so unforgiving that it would lure triathletes and thrill-seekers around the world to the daunting landscape of western Norway. The event was designed to focus on the journey rather than clocking a swift finishing time and would tell more about an athlete’s grit and determination than any other endurance triathlon on the planet.
Twenty-one men took part in the inaugural event, on 19 July 2003. Christian Houge-Thiis was the first athlete over the line in 12 hours 48 minutes, but the digits on the clock mattered little – it was the frisson of fear, the course’s enormity and the extreme environment along the way that created an instant classic.
It’s not just age-group athletes who see the value in conquering this unique race, 2011 saw two-time Ironman World Champion Tim DeBoom place first. His finishing time of 11:18:52 was nearly three hours longer than his winning Ironman World Championship times in Hawaii.
As tough as it is on the body, the event is equally challenging for the mind. The mental games begin at 4am on race morning as the Norseman’s 250 wetsuit-clad victims tread through the village in the pitch dark and up the gangplank of the ferry that will cast off into the Hardangerfjord.
There’s no grandstand, no finisher’s chute and little in the way of fanfare to welcome them to the finish. Plus, they win nothing more than a black t-shirt, and that’s only for the first 160 athletes who reach 32.5km before 2:30pm and go on to summit Gaustatoppen.
For everyone else, it’s a white t-shirt. But as they take the final few steps, bodies wracked with pain and on the very brink of collapse, their journey is complete. Elation and incredible satisfaction relieves aching muscles and tired minds – they’ve measured their bodies and souls against the biggest challenge in triathlon and found themselves equal to the adventure of a lifetime.
2. Ironman World Championship
Location: Kona, Hawaii
Words really can’t do this one justice. Hawaii is the pinnacle of every triathlete’s dreams, or at least it should be. It’s the Big One on Big Island. You do an Ironman, you’re a hero; you do Hawaii, you’re worshipped. After all, this is where Ironman began.
Back in 1977, US Navy Commander John Collins decided to put an end to the debate among friends about who was the fitter – swimmers, cyclists or runners. So he combined three of Hawaii’s biggest endurance races – the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (3.8km), the Around-Oahu Cycle Race (180km) and the Honolulu Marathon (42.2km) – to form the Hawaii Ironman.
On 18 February 1978, the first race took place in Honolulu, with 15 athletes starting and 12 crossing the finish line, each receiving a handmade trophy and a place in history. The first official champion was one Gordon Haller, in a time of 11:46:58.
Fast forward almost 40 years and almost two thousand athletes from all over the world make the annual trip to the island in the Pacific, having either hit the jackpot through a lottery scheme or having qualified at one of a number of full or half Ironmans across the globe. Tens-of-thousands of triathletes vie for these spots every year. Only 1,800 succeed.
Kona is a place of world-beating feats of endurance; each event adding a new name to the events’ roll-call of honours. Hawaii has seen some of the greatest battles and moments in the sport’s history: the Iron war of ’89 between two of Hawaii’s legends – Mark Allen and Dave Scott; Paula Newby-Fraser taking her eighth title in 1996; Chrissie Wellington winning her first world title at only her second-ever Ironman. Because if it’s happened in Ironman, chances are it happened in Hawaii. Kona finisher Joe Beer sums it up perfectly: “If you haven’t done it, you haven’t lived.”
- How to qualify for Kona
- The best Ironman World Championship moments ever
- The top 15 Kona greats of all time
1. Challenge Roth
And the winner is… Challenge Roth, the race where records are broken and speed legends made. Yes, Kona has more history and prestige, but for its atmosphere, crowds in excess of 200,000, community involvement and spectacle Roth is a triathlon like no other.
The race is the talk of the Bavarian town for months ahead of the race and, come race week, doors (and fridges) are opened and beds are made by local homestays to athletes and media across the area. But it’s on race day where Roth truly astonishes.
The fun begins at daybreak at the Main-Donau Kanal, where spectators flank the canal banks and bridge over the swim start. Onto the bike and the truly iconic Solarer Berg climb comes quickly. It’s triathlon’s noisiest, most raucous and greatest spectacle, with tens of thousands supporters cheering from the first athlete to the last.
Bier Mile follows on the 180km bike before the marathon run takes athletes out of town and, to a pumping Euro-pop soundtrack, back into the huge amphitheatre-come-finishing chute.The final athlete before the 15hr cut-off is welcomed as loudly as the first, with a huge fireworks display to follow.
It’s also a race course with plenty of beginner friendliness, with the one-lap swim in calm waters, a rolling (but far from flat) bike through northern Bavaria and a flat riverside marathon run.
Once under the Ironman banner, Roth now sits comfortably at the head of the ever-increasing Challenge Family. Triathlon’s superstars – the McCormacks, Van Lierdes, the Wellingtons and the Frodenos of the world – come to do justice to the pancake flat, super-quick, small-town course.
Knowing that the hallowed eight-hour (for the men) and nine-hour (for the women) Ironman-distance record can be broken here (In 2016 Jan Frodeno broke the men’s record with a time of 7:35:39; while Chrissie Wellington broke the women’s in 2011 with a time of 8:18:13), they flock to Bavaria to beat the clock and soak up the energy of the perma-happy crowd. Not even rain can drown out their cheers, tire their foam-finger waving or quieten their clacker twirling. Quite simply, there ain’t no party like a Challenge Roth party.
Much of this copy comes from Triathlon! by 220‘s Matt Baird, available here, and was first published in 2016.