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World’s Best Races

From tough triathlons that are worth the hurt to scenic ones that are worth the trip, we’ve rounded up the top swim-bike-run races.

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From tough triathlons that are worth the hurt to scenic ones that are worth the trip, we’ve rounded up the top swim-bike-run races around the globe. This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Triathlete.

Best races for your first iron-distance event

Rev3 Cedar Point
Sandusky, Ohio, Sept. 9

Rev3 Cedar Point features a calm swim in Lake Erie and a relatively flat bike and run, making the race challenging yet doable for newbies. But more than that, Rev3 believes triathlon should include family, which is why race organizers selected Cedar Point—home to a huge amusement and water park—as the location for Rev3’s only iron-distance race.

PHOTOS: Rev3 Cedar Point

„Full Vineman Triathlon
Sonoma County, Calif., July 28

Set along rolling hills in breathtaking California wine country, the Full Vineman Triathlon features typically mild weather, a relatively small field of around 1,000 athletes, and a no-stress swim in the warm Russian River. Another big plus: Sonoma’s renowned wine—for the post-race celebration.

PHOTOS: Full Vineman Triathlon

„Ironman Arizona
Tempe, Ariz., Nov. 18

With its relatively flat course and typically mild temperatures in the late fall, Ironman Arizona is a go-to race for triathletes looking to do an Ironman for the first time. Its three-lap bike and run also make the distance more spectator-friendly and seem less daunting.

PHOTOS: 2011 Ironman Arizona

Best races for a unique experience

„Draft Legal Challenge at Clermont
Clermont, Fla., March 2013

The Draft Legal Challenge at Clermont provides racers with the rare opportunity to draft on the bike like the pros of the ITU. The four-lap bike course—which is entirely closed to traffic—and the two-lap run also make the race extremely spectator-friendly.

PHOTOS: Draft Legal Challenge

„S.O.S. Triathlon (Survival of the Shawangunks)
New Paltz, N.Y., Sept. 9

An eight-stage race in the breathtaking Shawangunk Mountain Range, the S.O.S. Triathlon is unlike any other. Racers cycle 30 miles before they begin a journey through lush forest and across several spring-fed lakes, making the best racers the ones who can swim quickest while still attached to their running shoes.

Races most worth the travel

„ITU World Triathlon Series Hamburg
Hamburg, Germany, July 21–22

Germans are triathlon-crazy, and nowhere is this more apparent than at the ITU World Triathlon Series race in Hamburg. With 10,000 age-groupers and an estimated 250,000 spectators, the race has a reputation for being wild, raucous and a whole lot of fun. Many ITU pros say it’s their favorite event.


Abu Dhabi International Triathlon
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 2013

While getting to the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon in the United Arab Emirates will require at least two long plane rides for most Americans, once you get off the plane and explore an enchanting land filled with mystique, as well as experience the satisfaction of completing one of the sport’s toughest races, you’ll know it was worth the journey.

PHOTOS: 2012 Abu Dhabi International Triathlon

Bucket list races (other than Kona)

Bradley, Calif., May of 2013

Once a year nearly 40,000 fun-loving triathletes camp (and party) around Lake San Antonio in California’s majestic Monterey County while they wait for either the half-iron, mountain bike or Olympic-distance race.

PHOTOS: 2011 Wildflower Long Course Triathlon

„Escape from Alcatraz
San Francisco, June 10

The legend of Escape from Alcatraz includes tales of athletes who’ve out-swum sharks and braved freezing waters and notorious currents. And while the legend of Alcatraz is part fiction—the water’s too brackish for large sharks—it’s a must-do race if you ever get the chance, especially since it sells out quickly and requires qualification or an invitation via lottery.

PHOTOS: The Swim At Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon

„Challenge Roth
Roth, Germany, July 8

Every year stories of streets packed with shouting fans creep out of a little town called Roth in Bavaria. It’s the event where athletes go to break iron-distance world records—which Chrissie Wellington (8:18:13) and Andreas Raelert (7:41:33) both accomplished last year—and a race that many triathletes believe must be experienced at least once.

PHOTOS: 2011 Challenge Roth Triathlon

Best atmosphere

„Pumpkinman Triathlon Festival
South Berwick, Maine, Sept. 8–9

A race famous for its obliging volunteers, beautiful course and enormous turkey dinner celebration, Pumpkinman received rabid support from its fans when Triathlete sister publication Inside Triathlon asked its readers and social media followers about their favorite events. Racers choose between a sprint and half-iron-distance event.

„Ultraman World Championships
Big Island, Hawaii, Nov. 23–25

Triathlon’s pioneers point to the Ultraman World Championships, held on Thanksgiving weekend on Hawaii’s Big Island, for the vibe that harkens back to triathlon’s early, grass-roots days. Indeed, finishers often claim that Ultraman’s 6.2 miles of swimming, 261.4 miles of biking and 52.4 miles of running is a life-altering experience.

Best off-road fun

„The Xterra East Championship
Richmond, Va., June 10

The Xterra East Championship is famous for its awesome single-track, technical swim and location right within the heart of a big city—a rare occurrence in the Xterra series. Indeed, Richmond boasts 1,500 acres of parkland as well as a revitalized downtown area and hipster scene.

Photos: Xterra East Championship

„Xterra Southeast Championship
Pelham, Ala., May 19

A favorite of reigning Xterra world champion Lesley Paterson, the Xterra Southeast Championship offers racers woodland single-track and a welcoming town filled with people who love to party, which is what Xterra is all about.

Photos: ITU World Cross Championships

Best races for beginners

„TriRock San Diego
San Diego, Sept. 9

Part of a national race series that is extra-focused on welcoming beginners, TriRock San Diego provides athletes with an inviting, first-class experience, which includes numerous swim buddies, live bands along the course (including during the swim), free finish-line beer and a post-race concert.

„PHOTOS: TriRock San Diego

Leon’s Triathlon
Hammond, Ind., June 3

Leon’s Triathlon in Hammond, Ind., (only 40 minutes south of Chicago) is flat and fast and offers triathletes a welcoming atmosphere, a 40K bike course almost entirely closed to traffic, and a hug from race director Leon Wolek once it’s all over.

Nation’s Triathlon
Washington, D.C., Sept. 9

Dig into the triathlon age-group ranks and you’ll find that a lot of athletes got their start with the help of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training. The Nation’s Triathlon, which meanders through the capital’s monument corridor, is a Team in Training partner and the only triathlon in the U.S. dedicated to raising awareness and money for blood cancer research.

RELATED: Competitor Group Acquires The Nation’s Triathlon

Olympic-distance races you can’t miss

„Chicago Triathlon
Chicago, Aug. 24–26

The Chicago Triathlon is a race that must be done at least once in your life to experience its sheer enormity. With 10,000 triathletes running through the streets of Chicago over the two-day event, the race is one of the biggest in the world.

PHOTOS: Life Time Chicago Triathlon

„USAT Age Group National Championships
Burlington, Vt., Aug. 18

Race the USAT Age Group National Championships and you get to test your mettle against some of the country’s fastest age-groupers, as well as chase a national title—a rare opportunity for any athlete who isn’t in college or a professional. But even if a national title isn’t on your bucket list, the championships are traditionally held in stunning locales fit for family vacations. This year it’s in picturesque college town Burlington, Vt.

RELATED: Williams, Kahsar Take Age-Group Titles In Vermont

Triathlons worth the hurt

„Ironman 70.3 St. Croix
St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands,
May 6

With dizzying hills and hot weather, St. Croix has a reputation for being one of the most difficult races in the sport. But it’s also one of the most popular, thanks to the island’s lush vegetation and white sand beaches. Plus it’s one of the few remaining 70.3 races that offers Kona slots.

RELATED: Destination St. Croix

Triathlon Alpe d’Huez
Oisans, France, July 22, 25, 26

France’s L’Alpe d’Huez Triathlon features short-course, long-course, children’s and duathlon events. Long-course racers start in the pristine waters of Lac du Verney and climb the Alpe du Grand Serre, the Col d’Ornon and 21 bends of the Alpe d’Huez. While the mountains are going to put you into the hurt locker, finish and you’ll always get to say you followed in the footsteps of Tour de France legends.

„PHOTOS: 2011 Alpe d’Huez Triathlon

TriStar Monaco
Monaco, Sept. 2

TriStar Monaco consists of a 1K swim, a 100K bike leg through the brutal hills of southern France and a 10K run. And while 100K of climbing will likely wipe you out, the bewitching charm of Monaco will make it all worth it. Lounge on the Mediterranean sand for a few days post-race and you’ll wish you never had to leave.

Best races for families

„Musselman Triathlon
Geneva, N.Y., July 13–15

Featuring a half-iron, sprint, super-sprint and kids race, the Musselman Triathlon offers plenty of opportunities for family members to get a taste of swim, bike, run. Dubbed “MusselFest,” the race also includes family activities, such as an orchard tour, mural painting, a dance and musical performance, a kite-flying festival and a post-race celebration.

St. Anthony’s Triathlon
St. Petersburg, Fla., April 29

Featuring a Meek and Mighty Triathlon and a youth triathlon clinic, St. Anthony’s Triathlon is an event where kids can catch the triathlon bug, too. Host city St. Petersburg is a major tourist destination boasting multiple entertainment options for family members not racing.

PHOTOS: 2012 St. Anthony’s Triathlon

Play Your Strengths

Looking for your next iron-distance race? Take these rankings into account to find the best one for you.

Using 2011 bike and run split data from the major iron-distance events—including all Ironmans, Challenge Roth, Vineman and Rev3 Cedar Point—Raymond Britt of compared the races side-by-side in the graph below. If you’re a talented cyclist but lack run speed, one of the races in the blue quadrant may be for you. If you’re looking for a Kona qualification and can handle hills or unpredictable weather, opt for a red quadrant race. Green-colored races are fl at for PRs but competition can be stiff , and blue races have fast bike times but slow marathons. Keep in mind that results could be affected by course difficulty, quality of the field and weather conditions.