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Tips For Taking On Ironman Arizona

Taking on Ironman Arizona this weekend? Or hope to one day? We've got course tips to help you feel prepared for race day.

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Sunday’s Ironman Arizona is known for its flat, fast course with lots of loops (three on the bike, three on the run) and the potential threat of wind on the exposed bike course. Since the race has moved from April to November as of a few years ago, heat has been less of an issue—this year’s forecast looks to be 78 degrees with no chance of rain, making for a picture-perfect day for competitors.

With the help of three-time IMAZ finisher Jessica Herschberg of FTP Coaching in Nashville, we have some tips for how to best navigate your race. Good luck to those tackling 140.6 this weekend!

Tips for the swim:

• Tempe Town Lake is not known for its crystal-clear waters. The murkiness means limited visibility—as in, you can’t really see your hand in front of you—so be prepared for flying arms or a foot in your face seemingly out of nowhere.

• The good news is that the one-loop course is very calm. The chaos of the mass start usually dissipates by the turnaround.

• Bring a couple goggle options and try them out in the practice swim the day before. In addition to the limited visibility, the swim starts due east, so the sun can be harsh for sighting as you go out. (Thankfully it follows a straight wall, which can help with sighting.)

• It’s a deep water start, so the earlier you enter the water, the longer you’re treading. “Be careful to not spend excess energy before you race,” advises Herschberg. On the flip side, waiting around too long could lead to a panicked last-minute 6:58 jump-in that won’t do much to calm your nerves.

PHOTOS: 2011 Ironman Arizona

Tips for the bike:

• Drive the course before the race. It’s only three loops (about 37 miles each), so it won’t be that much car time, and it will be good to check out the roads ahead of time. There’s not the endless lush scenery you might see at a course like Lake Placid (let’s just say it’s a lot of desert), but it makes a nice backdrop for a one long bike ride.

• Don’t think of the three-loop bike course as a challenge, see it as an opportunity to mentally break up your day and to physically manage pace and effort. “Rather than keeping an eye on your watch to decide when to bump up effort, you can break the course into loops and build effort on each loop,” Herschberg says. “Having defined loops makes it less tempting to change your race plan and gives you once less thing to think about on a day when you need to maintain strong mental focus.”

• Herschberg’s pacing suggestions: Take the first loop to settle into your Zone 2 pace, the second loop to build to a nice steady effort and the third to enjoy being almost done and maintaining your solid race pace. Also, the hill up Beeline is just enough to break monotony and pace lines but not enough to make you dread it on each lap. Take it easy on the way up and push effort on the way down. The span from McKellips Road after crossing under Pima Freeway back to transition on the last loop should be the only part of the bike course that requires you to change tactics mid-loop—maintain a high cadence and switch to water only to help your stomach settle for the run.

• With such a flat 112 miles, even the athletes with the most practice in their aero bars will start to get a little fidgety toward the end. Use inclines as an opportunity to get out of your saddle for just a second to stretch your back.

• Be prepared for wind. You may be flying on the way out of the main out-and-back on Beeline Highway and have a big wakeup call on the way back. Or vice versa. “If you know that the wind is going to be against you coming back into town, you can prepare mentally to face it,” she says. Also be aware that the winds can shift at any time, so a head wind out does not mean you’re guaranteed to have a tail wind on the way back into town. Each loop may feel windier, so prepare for a few long stretches into a headwind without exerting too much effort, but don’t go too easy if you have a tailwind either.

• One bike course highlight is the energetic crowd as you go through town every loop. (Just try not to smile as you speed through—it’ll be tough.)

Tips for the run:

• The three-loop run is good for the same reason the three-loop bike course is—you can break up the run into definite chunks, look forward to the best spots and know in advance where it’s going to get tough. One mental challenge will be seeing the signs that note which mile you’re at for all three loops. Try to ignore the “Mile 10” or “Mile 18” sign when you’re at Mile 2. Trust that you’ll get there eventually and think, “I am so glad I’m not at Mile 2 right now.”

• Tough spots on the course, according to Herschberg: Curry Rd. through Papago Park and up the hill before you descend into the aid station under the 202 overpass. This is a lonely spot and the hill will hurt. But after that section you head back toward transition and the crowd support grows.

• Look out for some rowdy and creative aid stations. Last year, my favorite was the music-blasting mock jail cell aid station put on by a local tri club.

• Don’t forget to wear a visor or hat, it’s sunny out there with hardly any shade!

• “Make sure to be mindful of other runners as the three-loop course makes things crowded in places. Stay to the right to avoid blocking faster runners that need to pass,” Herschberg recommends.

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Spectator tips:

• The swim features one of the most spectator-friendly venues on the Ironman circuit. One popular option is to stand on the Mill Avenue Bridge and look down on the race, but that can get crowded. Our suggestion is to walk on the dirt path that borders the south side of Tempe Town Lake. If you give your spectators a heads up as to where you’ll be starting, they may be able to spot you and walk alongside you all the way to the swim turnaround at Rural Road Bridge (we’re not making any promises here, it will look like a sea of wetsuits and swim caps.)

• The “hot corner” at Rio Salado and Mill Avenue is a popular option for the bike because the energy is kept high and it is the turn-around point for each lap, but it can be hard to see your spectators in the sea of people. We suggest telling your spectators to walk east on Rio Salado a few hundred yards. It is less crowded and they will be able to see you twice on each lap.

• Decide on a spot with your family/friends ahead of time so you have something to look forward to and you’re not worried about missing them.

• On the run, we suggest they find a spot along one of the sections where athletes are going in both directions. With a little strategic planning, you’ll be able to see your supporters six times during the marathon.

• On that same note, make sure your supporters also know the details of the course, especially on the run. The three-lap, figure eight shaped run means that by mid-afternoon there will be athletes coming and going from seemingly every direction. Knowing when and what direction to expect you from is key.

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