Analyzing your IM Race Course
by Erin Stone, Soles Inspired
So this is the season. You will be an Ironman. Whether you are an Ironman virgin or an experienced veteran, finding an event that is best suited to you and doing some strategic pre-race reconnaissance are both critical success factors toward accomplishing your goals. Here are a few pointers to help you choose the right race, then make final preparations once your arrive on the scene.
Choosing the Right Race
As triathletes, we all have strengths and weaknesses, not to mention things that are important to us on race day. Consider the following factors when looking for an Ironman event that will play to your strengths and put you in an optimal position for your best possible performance.
Location, Location, Location
It goes without saying, but the first step is to consider where you want to race. You may have your eye on an exotic location like Malasia or St. Croix, or perhaps you want to race closer to home. Be sure to factor in the cost and risk of shipping your bike, putting it on an airplane, or renting a bike at your race destination. If it’s important to you that you have friends and family at your race to support you and cheer you on, you may want to look for an event closer to home that is within a reasonable driving distance. Another advantage to choosing a location close to home is the opportunity to preview the course and get in some training on it so you know what to expect on race day.
In keeping with the recommendation to train like you race, finding an event that is similar to the climate that you train in is another variable to consider. If you live in Seattle and are accustomed to training in cool, mild, wet weather, but have your heart set on racing Vineman in July where temperatures are often in the 90s, you may be in for a surprise. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t go for a race that is different from your home climate – just be sure to prepare accordingly and be ready to adjust your hydration, nutrition and clothing strategy.
That being said, anything can happen. After an uncharacteristically mild, warm and dry Pacific Northwest winter in 2015, imagine my surprise when race day at IM Canada ended up with temperatures in the 50’s and raining cats and dogs. Or at Leadman in 2013 when it was sunny and in the 70’s in downtown Bend on the run course, but cold and rainy with intermittent hail while riding around Mt. Bachelor on the bike course.
Take a good look at the course description. If you are unaccustomed to swimming in salt water, you may want to target events with fresh water swims. If you tend to be fearful in the water or are not a strong swimmer, you may want to avoid ocean swims like the Oceanside 70.3, which tend to be a little more turbulent. Know what the usual water temperature is during the time of year that the race is held as well.
Check out the profile on both the bike and run course. You may be screaming fast on the flats, but don’t perform well in the hills. If this is the case, IM Texas (Memorial Herman) may be for you! If flat courses are entirely too boring or if you love grinding out the climbs, look for an event that has an above average total elevation gain like at IM Canada. Make note to see if the event organizer has recommendations for a certain cassette size if your chosen event involves a lot of climbing.
Finally, know your preference for single-loop, multi-loop or out-and-back courses. For some athletes, repeating the same out and back course on the run, like at Coeur d’Alene or the same bike loop three times like at Arizona is a great way to stay focused and always know where you stand. For others it’s just another form of torture. Check it out and know in advance what you have in store.
You’ve arrived at your event. Hopefully at least two days in advance of race day. You’ve put in the time and the distance and you are ready to rock it. What can you possibly do between now and the air horn to make for a successful race?
Whether your event has a single transition area or a different location for T1 and T2, check out the area thoroughly. Grassy transition zones may be slick or muddy if wet, like T1 at IM Canada. They also make for an uneven surface to run on, which is even more complicated when you’re wearing your bike cleats and pushing a bike. T1 at Vineman is notoriously slick and muddy. Paved transition areas, common in T2, may be slippery even when dry.
Get out on the swim course the day before your race at about the same time as the race start. Pick out some landmarks on each segment of the swim that you can use to help sight and stay on a good line. Check out the position of the sun and be prepared for any segment of the swim where you’ll be heading directly into it, like at HITS Palm Springs. The glare will make it difficult to see the turn buoys or landmarks for sighting.
On-Course Nutrition & Hydration
Even if you plan to carry your own special formula for fueling and nutrition, get familiar with what is available at the aid stations along the way. In the event that something goes wrong and you need to depend upon the on-course offerings, be sure you know the caloric and nutritional value so that you can replace or supplement your nutrition plan in a pinch. This is especially critical in extreme heat or humidity, like at IM Lexington, where it isn’t uncommon to experience GI distress.
Just about every race sends out a newsletter the day or two before the event about “Conquering Pre-Race Jitters” or “Avoiding Race-Day Anxiety.” Delete it. If you REALLY want to know what it says, forward it to a friend or to your coach (without reading it yourself) and have them take a look. In all likelihood they will know if there is something that you haven’t thought about but would benefit from. There’s nothing like an article about tips for preventing a panic attack on race day to fuel your anxiety and erode your confidence.
Even the best laid plan and most strategically chosen event can throw you a curveball. The key is mastering the variables you can control and being prepared for those you can’t. Arm yourself with as much information as possible prior to your big day to position you for success and avoid unpleasant surprises.