Susan Haag has been racing triathlon since 1990, and in three decades, she’s completed more than 400 triathlons, 117 (and counting) of which have been iron-distance finishes. While she’s finished a lot of Ironman-branded races, she’s also completed her fair share of independently owned iron-distance races and has seen the benefits of racing outside the M-dot. “You are less a part of a cookie-cutter formula where everything works like clockwork,” she says. It’s something like always eating at a great chain restaurant like Cheesecake Factory, then venturing off to try something a bit more quirky and local.
“The swim is far less congested and not a slug-fest. Aid stations are less cluttered,” she mentions as perks of venturing off the M-Dot path. And there’s a different sense of camaraderie. “You can meet most of your competitors and see them throughout the day,” Haag says. “The race staff and volunteers might even recognize you.”
Those are the upsides to smaller crowds. On the flipside, certain stretches, especially on the bike course, can get lonely.
Pumped for a totally new experience? Presenting 11 uniquely challenging iron-distance races around the U.S. and the world.
Great Floridian Triathlon
Oct. 19, 2019
Haag will be running the Great Floridian iron-distance triathlon for the 13th time this year—it’s a local race for her, but she finds it “very challenging,” she says. This year will be the 29th running of this Central Florida Triathlon, which is the longest running independent full-distance tri in the country. The course, located 22 miles west of Orlando, starts with a three-lap freshwater swim in Lake Minneola (in the race’s history, the swim has never been cancelled due to adverse conditions). The three-lap bike course covers 112 miles of scenic rural roads with rolling hills and one steep, short climb up Sugarloaf Mountain. It finishes with a spectator-friendly, three-lap out-and-back run course on South Lake Trail before the finish in downtown Clermont adjacent to Suncreek Brewery. It makes for a perfect fall race-cation for the family—Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World are half an hour away, and beaches on either coast are an hour away.
Aug. 18, 2019
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Centered around Versluis Park, the only full-distance tri in Michigan features not only a spectator-friendly course, but Haag has also been impressed by the staff and volunteers. The full-distance course (also Olympic and half-iron options available) starts with two loops in the clean and clear Versluis Lake, a two-loop bike course and four laps on the out-and-back run course before a finish within the park. The 2019 edition will serve as the USAT Ultra-Distance (Full) National Championship, with qualification slots for the 2020 ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championship.
Sept. 22, 2019
Part of the Challenge series of races, Madrid makes for an amazing European race-cation. Athletes swim in a calm, clear reservoir at more than 3,000 feet of elevation followed by a ride on a mountainous, one-lap, closed-to-traffic cycling course. The marathon runs along the Madrid River before a finish in the Puerta del Sol public square in the heart of the city. The post-race food might be the best part—you’ll refuel with Spanish ham and manolitos. Other Challenge full-iron races include the famously fast Roth in Germany, Almere-Amsterdam in The Netherlands and Taiwan in the town of Taitung.
The Hardman Killarney
Aug. 31, 2019
Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland
This iron-distance triathlon in southwest Ireland is likely the most scenic on this list. The course starts with a swim in the Lakes of Killarney before cycling the full length of the famous scenic drive Ring of Kerry, with dramatic coastal views of the Wild Atlantic Way. The marathon takes place within the picturesque Killarney National Park, which has mountains, lakes, woodlands and waterfalls within its 26,000 acres.
Redman Full Triathlon
Sept. 21, 2019
Oklahoma City, Okla.
The Redman Tri, named after the English translation of the word Oklahoma, this race features both half- and full-iron distances. The full starts with a two-loop swim in Hefner Lake parallel to the shoreline (water temp is expected to be 71–77 degrees—it’s typically wetsuit-legal). The rolling but fast bike course passes through rural areas before the four-loop run course along the shores of Lake Hefner.
HITS Palm Springs
Oct. 26, 2019
La Quinta, Calif.
Considered the “crown jewel” of the four-race HITS Triathlon Series and the home of the 2019 HITS Championship, the Palm Springs race takes place in Southern California’s Coachella Valley. It serves as a fast course within a scenic desert venue in a dry and sunny climate. Each HITS race offers not only full-distance races, but also a half-iron, Olympic and sprint distance. Other HITS races are in Hudson Valley, N.Y. (July 13, 2019), Sarasota, Fla. (Jan. 5, 2020) and Napa Valley, Calif. (April 11-12, 2020).
Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon
June 29, 2019
Founded in 2017 by a triathlete after racing in the Norseman and Celtman Xtris in Europe, Alaskaman allows you to experience the Last Frontier over its 141.6 miles (the distances are slightly altered from a traditional iron triathlon). Athletes start with an invigorating 2.6-mile swim in Seward’s Resurrection Bay followed by big climbs and epic views on the 113-mile bike. The iron-distance triathlon ends with a 26-mile mountain run up Mount Alyeska. The grueling race caps out at 250 athletes.
Bear Lake Brawl Triathlon
Sept. 14, 2019
Bear Lake, Idaho
All four distances (called the Full 140 2/3, Half 70 1/3, Olympic and sprint) take place on the same day on the Idaho side of Bear Lake, and this race has gone 13 years without a cancellation or course leg cancellation. The swim is two laps in Bear Lake (expected water temp: 62–65 degrees) followed by a two-loop bike course around the massive lake, crossing into Utah at one point. The run is a two-lap out-and-back mostly straight course with views of the lake. After the race, athletes can enjoy the Bear Lake Hot Spring pools right by the finish.
Aug. 18, 2019
Penn Yan, N.Y.
The “steel distance” of the Peasantman race in New York’s Finger Lakes region totals 144.6 miles (the bike is 116 miles instead of 112). Starting from Indian Pines Park, athletes take on a two-lap swim in Keuka Lake then a four-lap bike ride, on which you’ll be sure to spot Amish buggies—there are several Amish settlements in the area. The flat four-loop run course follows the northwest shoreline of the lake. Afterward, explore the historic downtown of the small village of Penn Yan or New York’s nearby wine country.
Norseman Xtreme Triathlon
Aug. 3, 2019
The original extreme triathlon, the 140.4-mile Norseman starts with a 5 a.m. jump from a ferry into the freezing Hardangerfjord (Eidfjord is at the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, and the water is typically 55–59 degrees F). The point-to-point course then takes athletes along the water and into the mountains to Lake Tinnsjøen. The marathon takes athletes to the top of Mount Gaustatoppen—the first half of the run is relatively flat before 6,000 feet of climbing in the last 10 miles.
Wilderman Off-Road Triathlon
July 20-21, 2019
This iron-distance triathlon is a cross between an Ironman and an XTERRA—it has 140-plus miles of off-road racing, and the time cut-off is 28 hours after the start. While there are also half and relay options, you’ll cover approximately 2.4 miles of swimming in Mount Carmel recreation area reservoir then 113.4 miles of gravel grinding and mountain biking.