During my 19 years of training for triathlons, I have done 13 Ironman events. My first was Kona in 1997. In 2000 I raced Ironman Canada; in 2001 I raced 5430 Sports Iron-Distance in Boulder; 2002 IM Lake Placid; 2003 Kona; 2007 Ironman Arizona and Kona; 2008 IM Coeur d'Alene/Kona; 2009 Kona/Arizona: 2010 Kona; 2011 IM Lake Placid.
My goal each year was always to qualify for Kona. I did not have a coach to tell me how to pick a race, or train for one, for that matter. My basis for choosing an event was to travel with my friends because they were also going there to race. Ironman Canada and Lake Placid are two courses that favor my weakest discipline, biking. The 5430 Sports event was held in Boulder, and I could not pass up a local full-distance race. Arizona is an “easy” flat run and bike course, not a destination. IM Coeur d'Alene is one my favorites, a destination and great course, but preparing for an IM in late June requires me to train hard at a time of year when that is not easy to do, based on my schedule.
As a coach and athlete, I have learned that everyone’s reasons for doing an Ironman vary, and which Ironman to do depends four key factors:
1. The time of year of the event (taking into account work and family schedules)
2. Destination/travel (if that is the primary motivator)
3. Your strengths and weaknesses (the difficulty of the run/bike courses)
4. Are you set on doing a WTC Ironman event, or will an Iron-distance race be good enough?
1. When is the event?
When choosing an Ironman, remember that the bulk of your training will start 12 weeks out from your race. If you pick an early springtime event such at Ironman St George or IM Coeur d'Alene, then your high-volume training will be in March and April. Living in Colorado, I prefer not to train much in the cooler outdoor temperatures, and March is typically our snowiest month. I also work more in late winter/early spring, coaching a high school swim team. That includes frequent travel to swim meets on the weekend, a schedule that makes it more difficult for me to prepare than it is during the summer months. Avoiding earlier races also keeps my season shorter, especially for the years where I am working toward performing well in Kona.
If you are a stay at home mother or father with kids in school, a springtime Ironman event may be perfect for you because you can train while your kids are in school. During the summer, when they are out of school, it may be more challenging for you to find the time to train.
If you pick a late fall Ironman like IM Cozumel or Arizona, the bulk of your training will be during the months of August and September, which may be a good time to train if you have kids who have gone back to school. It may not be an ideal time if you live in a place that has variable fall weather conditions.
Another thing to keep in mind, in part because of some of the factors just mentioned: early spring and late fall ironman do not sell out as quickly as destination Ironman events, so you may be able to get a spot in those races without having to commit so far in advance.
2. Are you picking a race locale because it is a destination you and your family want to visit?
If your goal/purpose for competing in an Ironman is to travel to an exotic location, then time of year does not matter as much. You will most likely have to register a year in advance, because destination Ironman races tend to sell out quickly. WTC hosts Ironman events all over the world, and a complete schedule of race locations can be found at www.ironmanlive.com.
3. What is your strongest discipline?
Your strength – cycling or running – may factor into which course you choose. Hilly bike courses cater to the cyclist, such as Ironman Lake Placid, St George, Coeur d'Alene, Canada. If you are a strong runner, consider picking a race that has a flat bike course.
4. Is Iron distance enough, or does it have to be Ironman?
WTC owns the Ironman name and brand, and the cost to enter an Ironman event is more than $600. There are companies that have Iron-distance events that are less expensive and will not fill up. The HITS series is new in 2012, and the Great Floridian, Vineman and other options offer great venues, support and experiences for spectators and race participants alike. If you are not dead-set on racing an Ironman, these events are worth looking into.
Whatever Ironman you decide to train for as a newbie, make sure you have prior triathlon racing experience (Olympic or Half Iron distance), and give yourself at least six months to focus on the event. Seek training and nutrition advice from a qualified coach, and follow a slow, steady progression. Enjoy the training experience leading up to race day; and be sure to keep in mind, since this is your first one, that your primary goal should be to finish with a smile.