Data Dive: The Fastest and Slowest Ironman and 70.3 Courses of 2021

Yes, some Ironman and 70.3 courses are simply faster (or slower) due to the course itself. But that's not the whole story. Take a deep dive into the data from 2021 Ironman and 70.3 races.

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In 2019, we compiled a list of the Ironman and 70.3 courses with the fastest and slowest average finishing times. Some athletes used this to make decisions about where they wanted to race, either using the average as a determinant of whether a course was “easy” or  “hard,” or to ascertain the depth of the competitive field.

What was surprising to many readers, however, was that the fastest races weren’t necessarily the ones they expected. Where many thought so-called flat and fast courses like Arizona or Florida would top the list, zero races from the U.S. made the list of fastest Ironman or 70.3 courses. Instead, the 2019 fastest Ironman course was Tallinn, with an average finishing time of 11:37:16.

What a difference a few years makes. Fast forward to 2021, and the Ironman Tallinn race has dropped to fifth on the list, with three races from Spain vying for the fastest Ironman race title.

Changes are also afoot for the slowest Ironman race. In 2019, Subic Bay in the Phillipines (average finishing time: 14:31:02) was the slowest average finishing time; that’s been replaced in 2021 by Ironman Waco, with an average finishing time of 14:00:58. In fact, with Latin America and Asia races still largely absent due to COVID-related restrictions in 2021, North American events have occupied four out of five of the slowest finishing times for Ironman, and three of five for 70.3.

So what does this all mean? When we look at the five fastest and five slowest Ironman and 70.3 events, in terms of average finishing time for age-groupers, we find a general pattern across regions.

The fastest Ironman courses of 2021

Race Region # Finishers Mean Time
Vitoria* Europe 569 10:14:47
Barcelona* Europe 1498 11:00:09
Mallorca Europe 695 11:20:12
Copenhagen Europe 1346 11:28:42
Tallinn Europe 1036 11:53:37

The slowest Ironman courses of 2021

RELATED: The Top 7 Easiest Ironman Courses

Race Region # Finishers Mean Time
Waco North America 645 14:00:58
Chattanooga North America 1852 13:28:18
UK Europe 1092 13:44:15
Lake Placid North America 1520 13:40:37
Coeur d'Alene North America 1541 13:52:06

The fastest 70.3 courses of 2021

Race Region # Finishers Mean Time
Des Moines* North America 2320 4:48:15
Warsaw Europe 551 5:17:33
Luxembourg* Europe 717 4:32:33
Venice Europe 1029 5:28:38
Sunshine Coast Oceania 1077 5:33:36

RELATED: The Top 7 Easiest Ironman 70.3 Courses

The slowest 70.3 courses of 2021

Race Region # Finishers Mean Time
Virginia North America 1337 6:43:15
Waco North America 1499 6:46:50
Andorra Europe 499 6:25:10
Memphis North America 1522 6:33:22
South Africa* Africa 388 5:50:02

From these two tables we can see a general divide along geographic lines: The fastest races generally tend to be in Europe, and the slowest races are in North America. 

*A quick explanatory note on these rankings, as some may feel that some of the races only rank as the fastest because their swims/bikes were shortened (Barcelona, Des Moines) or canceled (Luxembourg, Vitoria). For these races, even if we add a conservative amount to make up for these cancellations (e.g. if we were to add over an hour to Vitoria and Luxembourg) they would still rank in the top 5. While this fix makes many assumptions, the buffer is large enough that we can comfortably include them in this discussion.

How is this different from what we saw in 2019?

The 2012 Ironman races in Copenhagen, Tallinn, and Barcelona retained their top 5 ranking (albeit in different configurations as 2019), while Ironman Brazil and Ironman Mar del Plata (Argentina) dropped out, as they didn’t have any races this year. Those races were replaced by Vitoria (Spain) and Mallorca (Spain).

The same pattern appears in the fastest 70.3s: Sunshine Coast and Luxembourg held their spots from 2019. Maceio (Brazil) and Punta del Este (Uruguay) were out due to COVID, and only Elsinore (Denmark) had a race but wasn’t top 5—in 2019, it was a regional championship event, which attracted a much faster field.

For the slowest races, that ranking was previously taken up by races in Asia (Phillipines, Vangsaen, Langkawi, and Davao Phillipines), but as these were all canceled/postponed this year due to the pandemic, that mantle is now taken up by mainly North American races.

What makes these Ironman and 70.3 races fast or slow? (It’s not what you think.)

The course

Naturally, the course itself will be a chief determining factor. One only needs to take a look at the Ironman UK or Andorra 70.3  bike courses, with a total elevation gain of over 8,000 feet and 6,500 feet respectively, to understand why they are some of the slowest around. However, Mallorca also has a 6,500-foot elevation gain, yet it still ranks as one of the fastest around, so there must be other factors affecting these rankings.

We need to understand not only where these races are happening, but we also need to understand who is racing them, and here is where we see the bigger differences between North America and Europe.

RELATED: Triathlon’s 7 Most Brutal Bike Courses

The competition

In North America, the proportion of older athletes (55+ for men, 50+ for women) is much higher than in Europe—often almost double. This has the effect of slowing the overall time down, and this is another reason, together with course design, that determines finishing times.

From the data we can see exceptions, of course. Andorra and UK have low turnouts from athletes over 50, and are still in the lowest ranking, but that’s more than likely due to the especially tough bike legs. The more interesting exception is Copenhagen, which had a very high proportion of triathletes in the latter age groups, not too far from a North American race. A closer look at the athlete profile shows that most of the fast racers in each category were primarily Danish. Perhaps it’s something in the water, or perhaps having both an Ironman and a 70.3 in such a small country creates a strong triathlon culture.

Overall—and while Asia, Latin America, and the rest of world continue their return to competition—there is a clear difference between those races held in Europe and those in North America. The former are faster on average, no doubt due to course design, but also due to a generally younger and less diverse pool of participating athletes. North American races may be slower, but at least this year they have been able to host a greater number of events than their European counterparts and are more likely to attract racers later in life. This diversity is likely to be very important in strengthening triathlon culture in the region, so perhaps we should look to replicate what is happening in Denmark, where you can expect to see the young and the young-at-heart zipping past you on race day.

RELATED: The Mature Athlete: Why Triathlon is the Best Sport for Aging Athletes

Demographics: 70.3

Race # of 55+ men % of total # of 50+ women % of total Total proportion
Des Moines* 236 10.17% 267 11.51% 21.68%
Warsaw 56 10.16% 22 1.27% 11.43%
Luxembourg* 63 8.79% 22 3.07% 11.85%
Venice 206 20.02% 19 1.85% 21.87%
Sunshine 185 17.18% 51 4.74% 21.91%
Race # of 55+ men % of total # of 50+ women % of total Total proportion
Virginia 285 21.32% 129 9.65% 30.96%
Waco 265 17.68% 77 5.14% 22.82%
Andorra 67 13.43% 4 0.80% 14.23%
Memphis 295 19.38% 129 8.48% 27.86%
South Africa* 53 13.66% 9 2.32% 15.98%

Demographics: Ironman

Race # of 55+ men % of total # of 50+ women % of total Total proportion
Vitoria* 42 7.38% 19 3.34% 10.72%
Barcelona* ND ND ND ND ND
Mallorca 54 7.77% 19 2.73% 10.5%
Copenhagen 142 10.55% 50 3.71% 14.26%
Tallinn 52 5.02% 24 2.32% 7.34%
Race # of 55+ men % of total # of 50+ women % of total Total proportion
Waco 62 9.61% 38 5.89% 15.50%
Coeur d'Alene 146 9.47% 96 6.23% 15.7%
UK 63 5.77% 17 1.56% 7.33%
Lake Placid 180 11.84% 104 6.84% 18.68%
Chattanooga 218 11.77% 193 10.42% 22.19%
Photo: Alfredo Molinas
Photo: Alfredo Molinas