Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ironman Wisconsin Course Overview and Racing Strategies

In 2002, I raced my first Ironman in Wisconsin. I was a year removed from a collegiate swimming and running career and overly confident about my Ironman prospects. I had an ok debut race, but in hindsight made many rookie mistakes.  Fast forward 5 years and 3 more Ironman finishes and I came back to Wisconsin a much more experienced triathlete.  This time around, I raced a very smart race, went sub-10, got on the podium and qualified for Kona. The strategies below also draw on my experiences as a USAT certified coach.

Bottom line is that after a good deal of trial and error, I learned how to race the Ironman distance. Ironman race strategy is quite similar for any course.  Many of the recommendations below could be successfully applied to any Ironman. I’ve tried to make note of a few things that are specific to Ironman Wisconsin. These notes and strategies are geared more towards first-timers than podium chasers. 


  • 7am start
  • Eat a solid breakfast bet. 4:30-5:30am 
  • Ballpark 500-800 calories (some solid, some liquid, some protein, some fat, little to no fiber). Ideas: bagel with PB and honey, oatmeal with PB, plain white rice and a scrambled egg
  • Speaking from experience: don’t forget your bike nutrition in the fridge!
  • Continue sipping on sports drink until you enter the water
  • Drop off special needs bags near capitol building on main street
  • Check over your bike
  • Sit down, relax, until time to head to water (about 20-30 minutes prior to start)
  • Transition closes at 6:30am. 
  • IM WI is an in-water start and it takes awhile to get everyone in.  Expect to be treading/floating for quite awhile prior to the start.


  • Googles: I keep both a clear and tinted pair for either cloudy or sunny conditions. Anti-fog sprays can help, but letting a little lake water into your goggles and keeping it there is the only sure-fire way to beat goggle fogging.
  • If you are a slower swimmer, start wide (to the right) and towards the back. 
  • Faster swimmers should consider swimming to the inside of the buoy line until hitting the first required turn buoy.
  • Don’t get carried away at the start.  It is a very long day.  Steady pace with even breathing.
  • Always draft off others and sight as little as possible.
  • There is a long straightaway before the first left turn.  The first turn will be congested.  Do not take the inside line, stay wide!
  • Beginning with 2012 IM WI will only be a 1 loop swim.
  • As you near the swim finish, increase your kicking for the last 5 minutes to get the blood moving in your legs again.

  • Soon after the swim exit there will be wetsuit strippers to help you get your wetsuit off. Try to have the top unzipped and then sit down in front of the volunteers and they will strip your suit for you.
  • Helix- jog up if you are trying to qualify for Kona.  Consider walking or a slow jog otherwise. This is not the place to try and make up time.
  • Inside the terrace for T1.   Don’t forget to have volunteers apply sunscreen before you get onto your bike!

  • Ride carefully down helix: not the place to pass.  You’ll have plenty of road for that.
  • If you use behind-the-saddle bottle cages make sure they won’t launch your carefully planned nutrition. Carbon cages may be light and pretty, but almost all will launch bottles- particularly if it rains. I highly recommend Elite Ciussi Gel Aluminum Cages as seen here on George Hincapie’s Paris Roubaix bike
  • The bike leg of an IM is all about proper pacing. Knowing and sticking to proper IM HR or Power zones is critical.
  • For those racing with a power meter your goal should be to average between 68-78% of your threshold power. Try to keep all hills at or under 100% of threshold.
  • Nutrition: nothing but fluids first 15-20 minutes out of water.  After that, begin race nutrition plan.  In general most athletes can take in 200-400 calories per hour.
  • Know what works for you and also what is on course.  Be willing to listen to your body and deviate from nutrition plan.
  • Weather: w/in last 5 years people have dropped out of IM WI for both dehydration/heat stroke and hypothermia!  Be prepared!
  • Gearing- you must be able to spin up most of the hills without standing.  This course is ideal for a compact crank.  A compact crank has 50 and 34 tooth chainrings as opposed to a traditional 53-39. Your rear cassette (using either crank) should ideally be: 11-26 or 11-28 (again referring to teeth on the smallest and largest cogs).

  • First 15 miles or so heading out of town are relatively flat and hopefully have low winds.  People always start out too fast in IM.  Maintain a steady pace, they will come back later!
  • After you pass through Verona the first time you begin some of the hillier sections.
  • First long climb is coming into town at Mount Horeb. There is an aid station at top.  For the majority of the hills you want to stay seated and spin up. It’s ok to stand to stretch out your legs and back, but not to mash the pedals.
  • Going down Garfoot is really the only slightly technical descent on the course.  If you’ve pre-ridden the course you know it is coming and how fast you can make the turns.
  • Old Sauk is the longest climb on the course and is shortly followed by one of the steepest climbs on Timber Lane. Spin up most of Old Sauk, then you will probably need to stand for some of the Timber Lane climb.
  • Midtown has the last (4th) significant hill.  After that, it is less than 10 miles before coming into Verona to complete the first loop.
  • Special needs will be after Fireman’s Park around the ½ way mark.
  • What goes in Special Needs?
    • Consider: 
    • rain jacket
    • spare tube
    • extra CO2 cartridges
    • spare tire?, extra nutrition
    • “reward” food like a Snickers bar.
    • Taking your special needs bag on race day is optional.
  • 2nd loop stick to your pacing and nutrition plan
  • If you are feeling good at mile 75, you probably paced it right and then you can ramp it up a little and start reeling people in!
  • Remember that a properly-paced IM bike leg should never be harder than your training long rides and in most cases would be a little easier.
  •  Heading back into town –hopefully without a headwind!  Taper off nutrition, (and definitely stop solid foods), and switch back to mostly water about 20-30 minutes from end of bike course.
  • Easy up the helix.  A volunteer will take your bike and you will head into the terrace for T2

  • Back inside the terrace
  • Can do a full clothes change if you want.
  • Don’t forget more sunscreen!

  • The run is –you guessed it- all about pacing and nutrition.
  • Give yourself two or three easy miles to settle in and get used to running.
  • Have a run-specific nutrition plan.  Generally about ½ the calories you take per hour on the bike.  
  • A structured walk/run strategy is very effective for many age groupers.
  • As IM run courses go, Wisconsin is not that difficult.  One big hill (Observatory Dr) each loop.  You should probably walk this unless you plan to run under 3:30. Even then you probably wouldn’t lose time walking the hill.
  • Heat is more of a concern on this course than hills.  Wear a hat.  Stay hydrated.  Dump ice and water everywhere.
  • Special needs is at the end of the first loop near the capitol.  What is in a run special needs bag?
    • More of your planned/favorite nutrition
    • Rain gear
    • Long sleeve shirt or arm warmers
    • Reward food?
    • Change of shoes/socks?
    • Something inspirational to get you through?
  • Steady pace through about mile 15-16.  Reassess at this point.  If you are feeling decent –congratulations on proper pacing- and now it is time to really ratchet up the suffering and pick up the last 8-10 miles.  People will come back to you in droves which is a nice mental boost.
  • Take your time and enjoy the finish line!

General Thoughts
  • Thank volunteers and spectators throughout the race. Draw on their energy.
  • Race your own race all day.
  • Don’t stay in a funk.  There will always be low points in every IM race.  Figure out how to deal with it and move forward.  Know and tap into your personal motivations for being out there.
  • Have fun!  You don’t have to do this, you get to do this!
  • Smile!
Smiling my way through IM WI in 2007!

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