What does it mean to be “the best triathlon?” Sometimes it has to do with the crowd—the rowdy, enthusiastic spectators who show up to cheer, even if they don’t know you. Sometimes it’s the course—a clear, calm swim with a gorgeous rolling countryside ride, and a shaded run through tunnels of trees. For some, the best triathlon might have a rich history—decades of top pros and age groupers competing on the same hallowed ground for high stakes. For others, it might be swimming, biking, and running in a place they normally wouldn’t (or couldn’t). And for many triathletes, the best triathlon might be a destination, where they can vacation, see the sites, and, oh yeah, race too.
While our list of the best triathlons in the U.S. might not be all-encompassing, they are carefully chosen. Triathlete‘s editors come from a diverse mix of age-group and pro tri backgrounds, but we’ve all raced all over the world and have heard more air horns go off at dawn than probably any other group of people, anywhere.
We dug deep into our collective race and travel histories to carefully select three races from each of the five regions in the U.S. to help you plan your next season (or adventure). Read on for our list of the best triathlons in the U.S.Section divider
No, it’s not a misspelling, and no it has nothing to do with the (sometimes less-than) impressive muscles that triathletes like to claim they have. The “mussel” in Musselman comes from the invasive zebra mussels that have made their home in the beautiful upstate New York finger lakes region. But don’t worry, the mussels won’t bother you while you swim in the beautiful and typically calm waters of Seneca Lake that sit on the shore of Geneva—a town that basically defines “quaint.” And while you won’t get the wall-to-wall spectators that you’ll find on this list, 70.3 Musselman is all about the area.
The town of Geneva boasts a tiny little main street that looks lifted out of classic Americana with an opera house that’s been an institution for over 125 years and storefronts for antiquing, post-race brunching, and even wine-tasting. To the southwest of the small downtown area are the historic Hobart and William Smith colleges that basically define the “Northeast, manicured-lawn liberal arts college.” The race itself has rolling hills around two of the area’s famous finger lakes and a run that gives views of the area’s vineyards before finishing just a few blocks from that picture-perfect, Norman Rockwell-esque main street.
South Berwick, ME
If you’re the kind of triathlete who races to eat, then the Pumpkinman Triathlon is sure to be your finest day in tri. The race itself is a stunner – a sprint or Olympic through the pretty fall foliage in the backwoods of Maine, cheered on by happy locals who emerge from their homes with a coffee mug in one hand and a cowbell in the other. But the real beauty is at the finish line, where athletes are greeted with what is undeniably the best post-race food in the sport. It’s a full-on brunch, flush with breakfast burritos, pancakes, yogurt parfaits, and even desserts. And, of course, what would brunch be without Bloody Marys and mimosas? Yes, they have those, too.
Escape the Cape Triathlon
Lower Township, New Jersey
Just try to start this race without smiling – or cannonballing into the water. These sprint and Olympic distance events kick off with a ferry ride into the Delaware Bay, where athletes then jump off a 12-foot platform on the back of the boat. (If it sounds fun, that’s because it really is.) Once you exit the water, more adventures await in the form of a winding bike course through vineyards and a beachside run dotted with sand dunes. Escape the Cape has all the production value of a big-ticket race (like the more-famous Escape from Alcatraz) but with the small-race feel that makes every athlete feel special.
-Susan LackeSection divider
Augusta rolls out the red carpet for each and every athlete who comes to town for the 70.3 miles of swim, bike, and run in this gem of a city. With its warm Southern welcome and long-established sporting allure (the Masters Golf Tournament has been held here since the 1930s), Augusta knows how to host an event—and you really feel it. The race is centrally located in downtown Augusta (bonus points for convenience) and spectators are able to line most of the swim and run sections. The down-river swim in the Savannah makes for a great start to your day—a PR is almost guaranteed and you’ll likely hit T1 feeling fresher than ever. The bike course rolls through South Augusta, hitting a little bit of everything: some great flat TT sections as well as some scenic undulating rollers. But really it’s the run that athletes love the most when it comes to racing here. The three-lap course weaves its way around downtown Augusta, while the 19th-century buildings provide quite the backdrop for a race, and vocal volunteers and spectators lining the streets—along with the vibrant cafe and bar scene—provide quite the soundtrack. Ironman has recently signed a five-year contract with the race organizers here—and it’s no surprise to see why.
St. Anthony’s Triathlon
St. Petersburg, FL
There are only a few Olympic-distance races on this list because most people equate “epic” with “epic distance.” St. Anthony’s is special because of the town of St. Petersburg and the epic competitive tradition surrounding this event. For almost 40 years, pro athletes from around the world have raced in the often-unpredictable waters of Tampa Bay—back in 1994 the short-course event was so competitive, it served as a qualifier for Ironman World Championships! Since then, the event has hosted WTS (then ITU) World Cup events, one of a series of Olympic qualifiers, and has boasted a top-notch, short-course pro field unmatched in depth and consistency.
Through triathlon’s last major peak in the mid ‘00s, the race—held on the windy, but flat, streets of St. Petersburg—was so popular, it would sell out its 3,500 slots in less than a week. In 2006, St. Anthony’s sold out in five hours. As you’d expect, a race with such a long-lasting tradition has impeccable community support, from the cheering fans to the local clubs who organize homestays for the pros who race there. In terms of iconic Southern short-course races, nothing compares to the prestige of St. Anthony’s.
I’ll admit I have a soft spot for this race. I was there the inaugural year when it was still Challenge Daytona and was supposed to be just another regular middle-distance event. Then a storm blew in (people have heard this story), and as the pros sat around the green room all day waiting, snacking, and changing our minds about warming up on the treadmills, Andrew Starykowicz proposed a new course entirely inside the racetrack, campaigned among the athletes, and put it to a vote. And thus the racetrack-style “Daytona distance” was born. They’ve fine-tuned the race and style since, added lights and cameras, and expanded their series. While the age-groupers do leave the racetrack for much of the bike, there’s nothing like getting to race (and RV, if you want) inside a NASCAR stadium. It’s one of the more unique and odd triathlons you’ll do. Pro tip, though: I almost didn’t bring a wetsuit—a man-made pond inside a stadium in Florida will be warm, right?—but don’t be that stupid, you definitely want to bring a wetsuit.
-Kelly O’MaraSection divider
Hot take: #IMMoo is actually the best Ironman in North America. Sure, sure, everyone says the crowd support at their favorite race is “the best crowd support,” but Madison actually is. It might be partially the timing—the race is held on a fall weekend just after the college kids are back in town and in peak celebratory mode—but it’s also just the fact that the town is really, really into it. When I did the race, biking out around the rolling farms, somewhere in the middle of 112 miles, a spectator dressed fully as a clown with a balloon and sign stepped up out of an otherwise empty corn field. That takes dedication. Running from the lake up the Helix parking lot structure to T1, it was so loud and packed four or five people deep, that I started laughing. I’ve never laughed so many times during an Ironman, and that’s hard to do. The course is ideal—fair and rolling—and the run is designed so spectators can easily see you multiple times each loop. Or they can just post up at a bar on State Street and be a part of the best spectator crowd in Ironman.
Another one of the rare short-course events on this list, the Chicago triathlon is one of the best in the U.S. for its sheer size and scope. At its (recent) height the Chicago tri boasted nearly 9,000 participants across its short-course categories that include Olympic-distance, sprint, and super sprint. It would take a massive event to shut down the famous Lakeshore Drive, where cyclists take over the typically packed multi-lane highway after exiting Lake Michigan by Foster Beach.
Much like St. Anthony’s, the nearly 40-year-old event has its share of history, from WTS-level international Olympic-qualifying events to the prestigious Lifetime Series through the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. Though the pro field has dwindled in recent years, the event itself—that uses the iconic Chicago skyline as a backdrop—has continued to grow into a two-day event that hit that big 9,000-person number as recently as 2019.
Iron Girl Pleasant Prairie
Pleasant Prairie, WI
Whenever someone asks me to recommend a good triathlon for beginners, the IronGirl series – specifically, this beautiful race in southeastern Wisconsin – is always at the top of the list. Sure, Iron Girl is not the best name – I’ve never been a fan of the use of “girls” to refer to grown women – but this women-only series is legit. Triathlon can be intimidating for new athletes, and Iron Girl makes the mighty feel manageable. Race staff is quick answer any and all questions, there’s an ample (and enthusiastic) volunteer presence on the course, and athletes who finish stick around to cheer on every single participant to the finish line. Over the years, it’s become more than a beginner’s triathlon, as more and more athletes return each year for the positive, all-are-welcome atmosphere.
RELATED: The 8 Best Beginner TriathlonsSection divider
70.3 St. George
St. George, UT
If St. George wasn’t already on the map when it comes to for spectacular race destinations, it most definitely is now that it’s been named as the host of the Ironman World Champs next year. Long before it won this accolade, however, it had already earned its place in the upper echelons of tri race greatness with its punishing course, stunning scenery, and sometimes crazy weather. In short, it’s every Type A athlete’s idea of hell and fun all mixed into one. The swim takes place at the Sand Hollow Reservoir where the water doesn’t always give you the warmest welcome—60F to 64F is average—and conditions can be choppy when the wind picks up. Once you’re out on the bike this race really delivers the goods: The rolling hills in the opening miles help get you ready for the signature climb that is Snow Canyon (and it’s likely that most of the bike photos you’ve seen from 70.3 Worlds held here in September were taken here). A little like Hawi on the Kona bike course, Snow Canyon is one of those strategic and iconic climbs where athletes can make or break their races—in fact, two-time 70.3 world champ Gustav Iden made his move here and never relinquished the lead.
The climbing continues on the run course, and if you’ve overcooked it on the bike you are really going to feel it here. It’s not uncommon for the first words you hear athletes mutter as they cross the finish line to be: “That’s the most fun I never want to have again.” But most people who race here, do keep coming back for more—which says it all.
Okay, maybe the name is a little misleading – there’s really not much (or any) ice in the Phoenix desert. But it does get chilly, especially during February mornings, when the Iceman is held. Then again, if you’re using the Iceman as a destination race to escape a polar vortex in the upper Midwest, 60 degrees F might feel outright balmy. That’s the beauty of this race – there’s a challenge for everyone, whether it’s the clear, cold-water swim (pack a wetsuit, neoprene cap, and maybe even booties) or the hilly bike course that winds through Lake Pleasant Regional Park. If you really want to push yourself, do the XTERRA race instead of the road triathlon – the run course is an undulating ride through some sweet singletrack, where you’ll swear the saguaro cacti are cheering you on.
Located a quick 45-minute drive from Salt Lake City, XTERRA Utah is the quintessential off-road tri event. Based around the Snowbasin Ski Resort near Ogden, the swim takes place in the surprisingly temperate Pineview Reservoir (though the swim was canceled this year due to algae). Riders then make their way up roughly 3,000 feet of climbing through double and singletrack trails that alternate between open, grassy highlands and a tunnel of trees turning in the fall. (It’s no surprise that this scenic combo also put XTERRA Utah on our “Most Scenic Tris” list this year.)
Much like the other shorter races on this list, the pro field is always stacked, as XTERRA Utah hosts the U.S. National Championships, so spectators get to watch the nation’s best XTERRA triathletes battle up to 7,000 feet of elevation over the 1.5K/28K/10K offroad distance. The best news? There’s unsurprisingly a host of extra-credit outdoor activities in the surrounding Ogden/Salt Lake City area to explore after you’re done racing through the mountains.
RELATED: The 8 Most Scenic TriathlonsSection divider
Escape from Alcatraz
San Francisco, CA
There aren’t many races that have been around basically as long as the sport, but Alcatraz—right in the heart of a major city—has survived various iterations and owners to last 40 years. It’s a bucket list event that also draws top pros, TV coverage, and returning athletes year after year. At a time when so many races have become fairly streamlined, it feels like a remnant of another era. Yes, the jump off the boat next to the famous former island prison is what the race is best known for, but as I like to tell people: It doesn’t get easier after that. You bike up and down (and up and down) through some of the nicest neighborhoods in San Francisco, before running all the way up to the Golden Gate Bridge, under a tunnel, across an old battery, down to Baker Beach, through the sand, and then back up more stairs—in the sand. (It’s OK, everyone walks.) I know it’s an expensive race and you have to win a lottery to get the privilege of paying that money, but let me put it this way: One time I convinced a team of collegiate athletes to find the money, crash at my house, and do it—and they all agreed afterwards: It’s going to be the race they never forget.
Los Angeles, CA
Big city tris are all about going and seeing things you couldn’t normally during the busy and crowded work week. Nothing typifies this “the city is mine” atmosphere more than the LA Triathlon. Though it’s seen some (unfortunate) course changes in recent history, the traditional Olympic-distance course finally returned in the last few years: Swimmers exit the sometimes-heavy surf near the iconic Venice Beach pier, grab their bikes, and fly down the super-fast course on Venice Blvd. through the usually jam-packed Olympic/La Brea/Wiltshire corridor, and run through the massive hills of downtown LA. While the closed course is fantastic on race day, trust us you wouldn’t want to ride or run it on busy streets.
The good news about the LA Triathlon is that it’s been taken back under the wing of on again-off again sponsor Herbalife, a brand that not only has the financial backing to ensure the super super costly road closures (and the political might to pull it off), but also provides some of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders with its independent sales reps. Pro tip: If you’re traveling to LA for the race, stay close to the beach unless you don’t want to ride in the days leading up to race morning.
Santa Cruz 70.3
Santa Cruz, CA
This race epitomizes all that’s cool about California in one very neat package: surf, sun, sand, and a very chill atmosphere. Many races simply try too hard to be this cool, but very few have the cool credentials that Santa Cruz has ready-made and built in. That said, the race itself is no easy stroll. The ocean swim (which starts on Main Beach next to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk) can be brutal and, in fact, the year I raced it, thick fog rolled in shortly before the start, prompting race officials to shorten it to just a 400-yard swim (which meant it was over shortly after the gun went, but also led to some fairly epic fist fights around the first buoy). In “normal” years, expect the swim to loop around the wharf, with swimmers exiting the water at Cowell’s Beach.
Out on the bike you’ll be treated to some of California’s finest coastal views, as the course passes some historic surf spots during the out-and-back along world-famous Highway 1. The run course is mostly fast and flat with some sections on coastal trails as you reach the turnaround at Wilder Ranch State Park. One word of warning for the finish: While a beach finish line is undoubtedly fun, no matter how great you’re feeling, there are very few people who can successfully run 100 yards across sand and still look OK.