What separates a good triathlon from a great triathlon and what separates the best triathlons from the great? Here we break down and list some of the most revered and respected triathlons in the world.
A good triathlon covers all the basics, from a clearly marked course to friendly volunteers. However, the best triathlons are so good that they distract you from the trials and tribulations of triathlon racing. For it to be considered the best, a triathlon must be a metamorphic experience. One that changes you so that the person who crosses the line on their last legs is not the same as the person who first dived into the swim. The following are bucket list triathlons, one’s you’ll never forget and shine brightest on any triathlete’s curriculum vitae.
Location: Roth, Germany
Distance: Ironman (3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42.2km run)
Difficulty: Medium – whilst an ironman in length, the course is fast and the crowds will give you an extra push.
What separates Challenge Roth from all others is the hype, support and energy that the whole town exudes even months before the starter pistol sounds. Whilst other races may have more prestige or history, the buzz of Roth is what separates it from the rest. For atmosphere, community and spectacle, Challenge Roth is unparalleled.
A quarter of a million fans descend on the Bavarian town and the whole community opens its doors to the media and the 5,000 athletes that compete from around the world. Roth also attracts the very best athletes due to its regard including greats such as Chrissie Wellington, Frederik Van Lierde and Jan Frodeno. Roth is where Ironman records get shattered. 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.
The course begins at dawn by making a splash in the Main-Donau-Canal. The bike has a couple of steep climbs to keep things interesting. The Solar Berg climb is the triathlon’s noisiest exhibition being lined with thousands of fans cheering on every competitor. The marathon first takes you out of town but then reels you back in with thumping dance music and into an odeum finishing section. Whilst the pros often come to Roth to break Ironman records, it is also relatively beginner-friendly with a swim in calm waters and a flat riverside run. Whilst the bike is not flat, it is rolling and the support is sure to give you an extra boost.
Location: Kohala Coast, Hawaii
Distance: Half Ironman (1.9km swim, 90km bike, 22.1km run)
Difficulty: Tough – whilst only half the distance of Challenge Roth, the humidity, hills and ocean swim are sure to push you to your limits.
Back to Ironman’s roots, the sacred ground of Hawaii is where Ironman triathlons all began. In 1977, U.S. Navy Commander John Collins debated who was the fitter, cyclists, runners or swimmers. To settle the debate, a race combining three existing long-distance competitions on the island – the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around-Oahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon – were to be combined. Of the 15 men who started in February 1978, 12 completed the race with Gordon Haller the winner and first to be crowned Ironman.
40-years later, just under 2,000 athletes get the pleasure of competing on this hallowed turf of the tens of thousands who apply every year. The 70.3 course allows you to get a taster of the full distance Ironman World Championship course, without needing to i) qualify and ii) go the full distance. The location and history of the Hawaiian course are what distinguish it from the rest. Hawaii boasts some of the most stunning scenery in the world. You start with a swim around Pauoa Bay, featuring not only beautiful beaches but turtles and dolphins are frequently spotted too. On dry land, the bike and run weave through stunning volcanic and rainforest terrain.
Whilst the course and its surroundings are beautiful, the course is tough. The bike is undulating with hills and the weather is hot, sticky and sweaty. However, this is the necessary price to pay for competing and completing the most beautiful and historic triathlon courses in the world.
Location: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay
Distance: 2.4 km swim, 29 km bike, 12.9km run)
Difficulty: Medium – the distances may not be the longest but the swim is gruelling due to the cold and the sand ladder drains your legs.
A truly unique event. No other event quite combines location, history and difficulty quite like the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. Whilst you do not literally have to escape from Alcatraz, you do have to take the plunge into the notoriously cold waters of San Francisco Bay with the former prison looming dauntingly in the background. Unlike previous escapes from Alcatraz, however, competitors in this triathlon all make it back safely to dry land.
The race was the brainchild of Joe Oakes after he returned from the second Ironman Hawaii race in 1979 with the first race occurring two years later for members of Oakes’ Dolphin Club. Now, however, the event is public although entry is arguably tougher than the event itself. This is due to the limited capacity of the old steamboat, the Belle, that transports competitors to the swim start, hence only around 2,000 athletes compete through a lottery process.
The long and freezing swim is undoubtedly the toughest part of the course. However, the run features a notorious section named the ‘sand ladder’ at mile five which involves a 400 uneven log and sand step climb from Baker Beach back up to the road. If you’re looking for a truly unique triathlon experience, the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon is the triathlon for you.
Location: Eidfjord, Norway
Distance: Ironman (3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42.2km run))
Difficulty: Toughest of the tough – this is a man breaker. Time becomes irrelevant, just finishing becomes the challenge.
This isn’t an event for the faint-hearted. It’s not even an event for the brave-hearted. The Norseman Xtreme Triathlon is a tug-of-war between mind and body. Paul Hårek Stranheim, the event’s founder, wanted to create a course that wasn’t centred around time, but instead on the mental fibre and will of competitors. The combination of spectacular scenery and the unforgiving course was intended to attract the world’s best endurance athletes to the ominous Norwegian backdrop.
This is a raw event, the lack of facilities adding to the daunt of the challenge. With no grandstand, spectators or aid stations it is simply you against the elements. The course starts at 4 am as competitors traipse to the gangplank of a car ferry where they then dive into the icy waters of the Hardangerfjord to the local town of Eidfjord. They then transition to the bike and immediately climb 1200m above sea level for the first 40km of the 180km ride. The run starts flat, until the 25th kilometre where the climb up local mountain ‘Gaustatoppen’ rises 1880m above sea level. The race is unsupported, so competitors must have their own support crews due to the inherent dangers of climbing a mountain when fatigued.
To put this challenge into perspective, in 2011 it took two-time Ironman World Champion, Tim DeBoom, 3-hours longer to complete the Norseman than he did the Hawaii Ironman World Championship course. Only roughly 300 competitors get to challenge themselves on the course with most receiving an invitation with 50 spots open through qualification.
Location: Alpe D’Huez, France
Distance: Varied (Long: 2.2km swim, 118 km bike, 20km run; Medium: 1.2km swim, 28 km bike, 6.7km run)
Difficulty: Depends – it is a relatively long course for a triathlon but difficulty largely depends on how well you can deal with altitude.
Once a year, the French energy board kindly turn off France’s largest hydroelectric power plant to allow triathletes access to Lac du Verney at 700m above sea level. This is the first of many aspects that make the Triathlon Alpe D’Huez truly iconic. This is backed up by the world’s highest transition area at 2,000m and a bike course that follows the trails of some of the most famous Tour de France routes.
Set in the backdrop of beautiful alpine terrain, the swim leg occurs in the calm and tranquil waters of Lac du Verney, opened specially for the event by EDF. The transition into the 115km cycle then follows roads shrouded in Tour de France history. This includes beginning with the Alpe du Grand Serre, then the Col d’Ornon, and finishing with the famous final ascent to Alpe d’Huez featuring no less than 21 hairpin bends as you wind your way up through lush mountain scenery. The 22 km long-course run is three laps of a mixture of the mountain path and asphalt road that take you through the august resort.
Other than the high-altitude course and alpine setting, what makes this course stand out is that it’s a celebration of sport. The four-day event not only features long and short course events but there is also a sprint too, children’s events, and if you don’t like swimming, a duathlon. The party also features a very well-organised race village and with entertainment provided throughout for some 2,500 competitors, families and friends.