Chicago Triathlon 2018: Advice, Results Analysis, Stats

By Raymond Britt

More than 2 decades ago, I began my triathlon career at this race, the Chicago Triathlon, International Distance. My swim was dreadful, my bike split could have been worse, and the 10k run was actually somewhat fun, all things considered.

I returned to race the International Distance 6 more times, ultimately improving to the #2 finisher in my age group. And I've spent non-racing years analyzing results by age group, by split, by year, in order to help future competitors understand what to expect on the course, and how to have your best possible race.

Chicago Triathlon Advice
General Triathlon Advice
Chicago Triathlon 2016 Essentials: International and Sprint Distances
Chicago Triathlon International Distance
  • International Distance: Swim 1500 meters, Bike 40k, run 10k
  • Transition Area: 600 E Randolph St.
  • International Distance Transition Area Opens 4:00am, Closes 5:45am
  • Swim Start: Monroe Harbor, 7000 S Lake Shore Drive
  • International Race Starting Times: 6:00am First Wave 8:45am Last Wave
Chicago Triathlon Sprint Distance
Chicago Triathlon Benchmarks: Results Analysis What to Expect, Avg times by Age Group, 
What it's Like: Chicago 2011 Race Analysis
More than 3300 triathletes completed the 2011 international distance event in an average time of 3:15, compared to 3:06 in 2010. The 2011 race was a tough one, with a very choppy swim and strong winds.  If you did as well or better in at least one of these categories, consider your day a success. Congratulations.

Nearly 1900 triathletes competed in the Sprint division, finishing in an average time of 1:55. Sprint competitors faced the same challenges in the water and on the bike course, and should similarly be proud of their finish times.

Of note, the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, slipped into the sprint distance competition. How do his results compare? Look at our Rahm -- Triathlete Analysis.

What to Expect on Race Day by Raymond Britt

Each year, Chicago is host to several thousand triathletes from all over the world, participating in a weekend-long series of triathlons. If you’re racing or watching someone race, welcome to the world’s largest triathlon. 

By the time you pick up your race bib number, bike stickers, wrist-bands and t-shirt at the Chicago Triathlon Expo, it will begin to dawn on you: this is for real. The race is just around the corner.

You’re far from alone if you’re feeling a bit anxious about everything you’ll have to do on race day from before dawn until after you finish. Don’t worry about a thing. I’ve written it all down for you. Read on.

There are a variety of different events taking place on race weekend: Kids and Super Sprint races on Saturday, Sprint and Olympic Distance races (in a variety of formats: individual, relay, mountain bike, elite age group, and pro) on Sunday.

For simplicity, I’m writing about the Olympic Distance race here: 1500 meter swim, 40k bike, 10k run (Sprint Distance is one-half the distance, on the same course).

Before the race, you're wondering: what should my target splits and finish times be? See the table for average times by age group at the end of this article. Set your target, then get ready for race day.

Early Wake-Up Call

Set those alarm clocks early, because you’ll need to have entered the transition area, set-up your bike and everything else before dawn. Race organizers want everyone out of the transition area – no exceptions – by 6am.

I suggest you plan your commute to arrive downtown by 5am. There’s plenty of parking in the underground lots east of Michigan Ave and north of Monroe. The parking garage exits conveniently put you close to the transition area.

Transition Set-Up

Race organizers provide bike racks, organized by ‘Wave’, the number of the group you will be racing with. At the expo, you will learn your Wave Number, which also identifies what time you’ll start racing. If you’re in Wave 39, for example, that’s where your bike must go; it’s against the rules to put your bike with another group.

Sorry, but you won’t get that much room to set up your things under your bike; just enough to fit under the width of your handlebars. Actually, you won’t need that much space after all. Here’s what you do:
• Lay your bike shoes, socks, helmet, sunglasses, jersey, and bib number on a small towel to the left of your rear bike wheel. This will make a quick change easy after the swim
• To the right of your rear bike wheel, put your running shoes and hat, maybe an energy bar, for a quick bike-to-run transition
• On your bike, load one or two bike bottles and maybe an energy gel or two, for calories and hydration on the bike
• Place any extra things you might want during the race in your gear bag, under your bike; they’re out of the way, but available if needed

It’s a simple as that.

Finding your bike during the race might be the harder thing, so take a couple of minutes to note landmarks that can help pinpoint your bike when you are entering transition from the swim at one end or off the bike from the other end.

When you have your bearings, gather up your wetsuit, goggles, swim cap and sunscreen and exit transition to wait for your turn to race. Depending on your Wave start time, the wait could be as long as three hours. If you’re one of those late-starters, you may need a diversion or two such as the Sunday paper and a comfortable place in the shade. Your time will come.

Getting Started: The Swim

Steve Abbey has seen the swim venue change over the years. “Swim courses have ranged from Oak Street Beach to Olive Park, to one at the Aquarium and veered around the Planetarium, to the current course in Monroe Harbor, which has been in place for several years now,” he recalls.

The Monroe Harbor swim course is very straightforward, literally. For Sprint Racers, they will swim a straight line south to north for 750 meters. Olympic Distance racers will swim approximately 375 meters south toward the Aquarium, then make a U-turn for the northbound swim of 1125 meters to the finish.

Swim Waves, typically groups of 100 to 200 swimmers, will begin racing at 6:00am. For the next few hours, every few minutes the swim start air horn will blow, signaling the beginning of the race for the next wave. You need to know when your group is slated to start and plan to be near the swim entrance about 15 minutes before that.

About 10-minutes before your start, a volunteer will begin gathering your group into an organized procession to water’s entry. Start zipping up your wetsuit and getting comfortable with 5 minutes to go. Two minutes later, the Wave in front of you will hear the air horn, and their race will begin.

Sixty seconds after that, officials will let your Wave enter the water, a process that will only last two minutes before your Wave starts. Jumping into murky water with no bottom can be disorienting. Get in as soon as you can, then quickly move to one side for some space to get used to the water.

In any typical Wave you will have your fleet swimmers, the good swimmers and the dogpaddlers. Figure out which one you are, and seed yourself accordingly. I fit somewhere in the middle, so I tend to move to the outside middle of the group, so I don’t get stuck in the middle of too much activity.

The time passes faster than you think, and soon the air horn is for you. Time to race!

As everyone starts thrashing in the same general direction, it will feel chaotic, because it is. Tell yourself that it will all sort out soon as people find their space in the water. Let things settle as you find your own swim rhythm. Soon, you’ll just be swimming as you do in training, just with a few others around you.

The Monroe Harbor walls offer constant landmarks to see how for and fast you are swimming. My experience is that the distance always seems longer than I expect; in other words, the swim doesn’t end as fast as I wish it would.

Just keep going, the end is near, and so are the volunteers, ready to help pull you out of the water. Yes, you will need the assistance. Once on land, you’ve got a short trek of several hundred yards to the transition area. Many people set a pair of shoes at the swim exit to make this long jog a little more comfortable. I’ve tried it and found it to be more trouble than it’s worth, but the choice is up to you.

Get Rolling: The Bike

Once you find your bike in transition, take a second to make sure you put your helmet on correctly (like making sure the front is in front, buckled, etc.). With shoes, bib number, sunglasses and everything else in place, head to the north transition area, your bike at your side. When you exit, you can only mount the bike past a certain line, noted by officials. Be patient, soon you’ll be rolling.

Over the years, Steve Abbey has also seen the bike course change. “The bike course used to be one loop north to Hollywood then south to Pershing,” Abbey remembers. “The current loop course to Lawrence Ave – once for Sprint racers, twice for Olympic Distance racers – has been in place since the late 1990s.”

The bike course, entirely on Lake Shore Drive, is a mainly flat course with some very gentle rolling over bridges at major East-West city streets such as Fullerton, Belmont and Fullerton. The city reserves two left lanes each way on The Drive for cyclists, while the right lanes will still contain Sunday morning auto traffic. The fun part: just watch, you will be riding faster than those cars sitting in occasional traffic jams.

The biggest climb of the bike race is the first 200 meters up a ramp to enter Lake Shore Drive. Take this climb at a relaxed pace; no need to needlessly blow energy this early. Once at the top, capitalize on a little gravity, letting a nice decline pull you past Navy Pier and toward Oak Street Beach.

Regular bike traffic, in this race, is to remain on the left side of the cycling area. At the beginning, move there, and let yourself get into a cycling groove. Find the pace that’s right for you -- one you can sustain for 25 miles that also will let you run 6.2 miles after that -- and just settle in.

You might begin that settling-in process about the time you pass the Drake Hotel, when the course heads directly north. From this point consider the race to be roughly four 10-mile segments: out to Lawrence, back to the turnaround for lap 2 (only for Olympic Distance), to Lawrence again, then back to transition.

I also like to consider the 10k segments as broken into smaller units, from overpass to overpass. After the Lincoln Park Zoo, you will gently roll over Belmont, Irving Park. Montrose, Wilson and Lawrence. They seem to be three to four minutes apart, maybe a mile or so between each one. Take them one at a time, use gravity coming down off one to help build momentum to the next one.

When you are ready to pass someone – and you will find this happens often – communicate. Call out: ‘passing on your right!’ I like to even add something personal so they know I’m talking to them, such as: ‘on your right, #2365’. And thank everyone when you get past them. It’s good karma to be nice out there.

Running Down A Dream

Coast back into transition after a good bike ride and you’re almost there. Just 6.2 miles to run, along one of the most beautiful cityfront 10k courses in America. A quick change into running shoes in transition, and you’re off, running along the edge of Monroe Harbor.

You may be feeling tired, but elements of the run may make things a little easier. First, you can look forward to regular aid stations with water and Gatorade on the run course. Then the Chicago Triathlon course lets you do some sightseeing on the way.

Running from transition to just before the Aquarium is the first mile. Run that first mile taking a glance or two at Monroe Harbor as your pass, smiling to yourself that earlier in the day you were swimming there. A left turn around the Aquarium and an east-bound trek to the Adler Planetarium will get you to mile 2. Next, heading south on a bike path, you’ll pass Soldier Field and cross the 3-mile point as you arrive at McCormick Place.

You’re halfway there. Just keep things steady, walk if you need to, get as much fluid as you need at aid stations. Say ‘hi’ to some runners coming toward you. Thank the volunteers. All you need to do is continue forward motion with a smile and you’re almost there.

Continue south on the bike path past a 5th aid station, make a U-turn, then pass the 4-mile point as you return toward McCormick Place. You’ll pass mile 5 before you reach Soldier Field, and from then to the finish line, it’s time to enjoy and savor your day. You’ll make a return trip around Shedd Aquarium, then head west, under Lake Shore Drive to the finish line.

What will your finish time be? These are average split and finish times from recent years. Good targets to shoot for. Be as fast as one or more splits on the day, and you've done well.

It’s a great feeling, turning the corner onto Columbus Street, knowing you’ve completed the Triathlon – Swim, Bike and Run. Some people talk about it, others dream about it. When you get to that finish line: You did it. You. Nice Job. See you Next Year.

How Much Time Does it Take to Finish an Ironman Triathlon? Average Ironman Finish Times

How long does it take to finish an Ironman Triathlon? The answer, based on our analysis of more than 41,000 finishers in 25 Ironman triathlons: about 12 hours and 35 minutes for the average triathlete.  Swim 2.4 miles in 1:16, Bike 112 miles in 6:25, and Run 26.2 miles in 4:54.

Of course, the time it takes to finish an Ironman will depend on your age. Here's the average time to finish an Ironman by age group.

But not all races are created equal, and the time it takes to complete an ironman will also depend on the course. See our Finish Times by Age Group in 25 Ironman Triathlons analysis.

But what if you're not average? What will your Ironman finish time be?

Two ways to arrive at the answer. First, if you've raced a half ironman, multiply that time by 2.1 for a ballpark estimate (see our Predicting Your Ironman Time Based on Your Half Ironman Time).

If you haven't completed a recent half ironman, your estimated bike split is the next best indicator, as it represents 50% of expected total finish time (see our 50% Rule), on average.

Planning on a 6 hour bike split? Then a 12 hour finish time is a realistic target, for example. Just make sure you don't go out too hard on the bike, with too little energy left for the run. For example, see our Ironman Coeur d'Alene Bike/Run Correlation Analysis. You don't want to end up in the 'Left it on the Bike Course' quadrant.

Want even more detail about specific races? Dig into our archive of more than 100 Triathlon Stats, Charts and Analyses.

Raymond Britt

Hardest Ironman Course? Easiest? RunTri's 30 Toughest Ironman Races

By Raymond Britt -- There is no such thing as an Easy Ironman. Covering 140.6 miles on any course, any day, in any variety of conditions, is a monumental challenge. Everyone who crosses the finish line knows how hard an Ironman triathlon is. But we were curious . . .

The RunTri Challenge Index.  We had long been interested in a quantitative comparison, but found none, so we created the list -- the RunTri Challenge Index. RunTri analyzed results of more than 150,000 finishers (each year sees about 65,000 finishers) competing in 30 Ironman distance triathlons (including Lake Tahoe, Sweden, and Mont-Tremblant, which still need to be added) to answer the question: which Ironman triathlon is hardest? Easiest? We've completed this analysis twice, and both are presented here.

RunTri's Toughest/Easiest Ironman Races: Edition

Our rankings, portions of which have been published in Triathlete Magazine issues, have taken our original analysis into a deeper, more comprehensive direction, ranking races by discipline -- swim, bike or run -- to help athletes more accurately assess which races are easiest or toughest, depending on which elements of their triathlon skills are best or weakest. (we know you'll have many questions; see FAQs further down in this post)

RunTri's Original Top 25 Toughest/Easiest Ironman Races

Next, our original analysis, the Top 25 Toughest/Easiest Ironman Races and related analysis. Our original analytics in response to key questions about comparing the races still hold true for the new rankings.

We expect there will be much discussion about this list, and we are pleased to start the conversation. Is it perfect? No, and it doesn't pretend to be. But we've gone to great lengths to verify and validate as much as possible.

We've finished 29 Ironman triathlons (as documented in the book Qualifying for Kona: The Road to the Ironman World Championship), including nearly half the races in this analysis, some multiple times, and are more than familiar with the difficulty of many others. In addition, we've also conducted in-depth results analysis for most ranked races. The ranking is more than numbers, as we have taken care to test available qualitative factors where possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

Discussions and threads on chat boards from to,, to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have been animated and active for quite some time. Each contains thoughtful observations and questions, including the following:
See notes below to understand how the list was generated, how we reconciled some non-quantitative factors, and discussion of some suggested alternative approaches. To start, dive into our results analysis by race or more detail behind our Toughest/Easiest Ironman Triathlon Rankings.

Europe / South Africa

Central/South America

How many athletes were analyzed? The initial data were compiled for one or more years for each race, involving more than 50,000 athletes across races.  This number included 41,000+ finishers, plus several thousand who raced in half ironman 70.3 events that offered slots. As of 2012, new races have been added and more than 65,000 athletes are registered to compete in 30 Ironman events.

Data. We cut and pivot-tabled the data several ways, modes, medians, standard deviations, etc., and the results are similar enough that we are using average finish times. The data are updated as needed (e.g., Louisville), if new results change the ranking, and are based on new race data availability. For example, the Inaugural Ironman Texas earned a spot among the toughest overall at 13:17. We'll be revising the rankings to reflect recent results, shortly.

For further details and links to data for each race, see Detailed Comparisons between races.

For similar comparative charts, see our Toughest/Easiest SwimBikeRun analyses.

Wondering if the list differs by Age Group? See our AG Analysis table, below.

Another alternative view: look at Kona Qualifying times by Age Group.

Kona: For most triathletes, Kona would rank in the top 5, if not toughest overall. World-class Kona qualifiers are, of course, very skilled, and their average finish times are deceptively fast: average finish time is 11:37. This time would rank Kona among the 'easiest' Ironman events, and it's misleading in that respect. We've put Kona at the top of the chart, without finish time data to account for Kona's universally acknowledged difficulty.

Splits for 2002 to 2010 are shown in the chart, above. Comparative splits for 2010 vs other races are available in our detailed comparisons. See Kona Qualifying Times for an alternative view.  

DNFs. We've concluded that the impact of DNFs is effectively captured in the average times. Harder courses, harsher conditions lead to higher DNF but also higher average times. Kona is a perfect example; as our analysis of DNFs and Average finish times 2002 to 2010 clearly shows.

In another example, at St. George, DNFs were higher than usual, but so is the average time of those who finished. One goes with the other. IM Louisville in 2010 is another  example, due to difficult conditions, and we adjusted as appropriate.  See our North American Ironman DNF analysis and Ironman Wisconsin 2002-2010 DNS and DNF Analysis.

Kona Qualifiers vs Lottery Winners: DNS and DNF. Another look at DNFs: Kona lottery slot winners had a much lower DNF rate than Kona qualifiers, on the Kona course itself. Does that mean lottery winners are better triathletes than qualifiers? Certainly not. But those who did show up -- after a 9% DNS rate -- did apparently fight harder to cross the finish line.

More Athletes per Race = Weaker Triathletes? Most Ironman races reach 'Sold Out' status quickly, though the maximum number of athletes per race differs. Not only that, but the cap on many races increases annually, especially in North America where several races feature close to 3000 entrants.

Do races that allow upwards of 3,000 entrants end up having a weaker field overall, resulting in a tougher rating? It could be the case, except by the time race day arrives, as many as 500 entrants choose not to race. Those that show up, for the most part, have trained hard and are prepared to race. And generally, lower DNF rates confirm the point (except, as noted often, when extraordinary conditions present)

Weather. Course conditions do vary from year to year, but overall results tend to be less impacted than you may expect. Personal experiences on races courses more than 5 times, through sun, heat, humidity,  wind, rain, hail, fog and almost snow, bear this out.

However, in the cases where conditions do, in fact, lead to drastically different times in a race from one year to the next, e.g., Wisconsin (weather-affected DNF rates; chart below) and Louisville 2009 vs. 2010, we make adjustments depending on data availability. 

Speedsters -- Average vs Top x%. For those who might believe a top 100 or top 10% per age group might sway the analysis, the answer is generally no, it won't. Our analysis of 17 races -- Top 100 results vs All Finishers -- still ranks St. George, Louisville and UK among the toughest, Lanzarote and Lake Placid next tier, and Austria, Regensburg and Western Australia still are among the fastest. Others like Wisconsin, Cozumel, Canada and France vary somewhat, and we've factored that in to the overall results.

For another way to test this hypothesis, see our Kona Qualifying Times by race and age group.

Europe. Others might say faster times in Europe indicate better athletes. I'd say there is a small degree of truth, based on personal experience racing in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. But the difference is less than you would think; see above 'Speedsters' analysis.

Further, the courses in Europe have been modified to reduce some of the challenge. Switzerland in particular; those of us who raced there a decade ago faced a daunting, steep, technical 3-loop course. That's long gone now.

The Austria time strikes us as too good to be true, so did the 5:46 average bike split, for example (and it's even faster in 2011). Same is true on some other courses. Here's the evidence: bike splits examples across the board.

And we've looked at the 'better athlete' question a different way, comparing Kona qualifiers from 13 top countries, competing head-to-head by age group at Kona 2010. the results are inconclusive overall; country dominance varies by age group, as illustrated in the chart below. For more, see Which Countries Have the Fastest Triathletes?

What about Challenge Roth? Performance there raises skepticism about course measurement; we've raced Roth, we agree. So it's not included.

Lanzarote. Yes, the bike course at Ironman Lanzarote is a monster, with a roughly 7-hour average time. Yes, your friend says Lanzarote is as tough as Kona, and on the bike course, that's probably true. But, surprisingly, the average marathon times in Lanzarote are quite fast, in the mid 4-hour range.

Combined, Lanzarote's average finish time is a brisk 12:30 or so. It's been that way for the last 2 years. One factor behind these fast times is self-selection; a younger group of triathletes race Lanzarote. Taking that into consideration, we rank Lanzarote at the 13-hour level, a more likely time if the field's demographic was consistent with most other races.

Cut-off Time Adjustments. Some European races have shorter overall cutoff times. France and Switzerland ends in 16 hours, not 17. Germany ends in 15 hours.  We've done the analysis to adjust for the difference using Ironman Canada results and calculating average 15 and 16 hour cutoff times. The answer: add 26 minutes to Germany's time, and 11 minutes to Switzerland's time to make all three comparable to all other 17 hour cutoff races.

The 50% Rule. Another benchmark we look at is what we call The 50% Rule. In race after race, the bike split is approximately 50% of overall time.

Even for races with 15 or 16 hour cutoff times, this test holds true. If the bike split was 60% in these races, reflecting faster marathons to beat the cutoff, we'd be more concerned.

Flat Bike Courses = Easier? Many assume: Ironman Florida and Arizona should be considered 'easy' because the bike course is so flat. Flat does not always = faster. Ask any pro who expected a PR bike split on either course, and left disappointed: flat is deceptively hard. Note: no Ironman bike split record has been set on either course; not even close.

Same muscles used 112 miles, no variation, it takes a surprising toll. Race Florida and you'll actually wish for hills and descents, anything for the chance to use different leg muscles. In Arizona, expect brisk desert winds to hinder your progress; see how speeds drop sharply by lap 3 on the bike course.

Correlation between Bike and Run Splits. We've cut the data to show the correlation between bike and run splits for several races, including Kona, Wisconsin, Canada, Louisville and others. Click on the bike or run split link for the respective races above. Below, the Ironman Wisconsin 2010 chart.

Other Toughest Lists. For perspective, we've done similar analysis for top 25 marathons and 35 half ironman 70.3 races. Take a look.

So. Reading the data literally Ironman Switzerland and Ironman Austria appear to have the fastest average time, while Ironman St. George is clearly the hardest, followed by Ironman Malaysia and Ironman Wisconsin. But you have to dig deeper, into the race splits, to see what makes these races stand out. See links above.

New ZealandArizonaFloridaLake PlacidCanada and Wisconsin times seem spot-on, based on our experience racing there. Malaysia triathletes clearly suffer in the heat and humidity, perhaps the same was true in Cozumel.

Finale. After all the charts, tables, debates, and comments, one thing remains definitive: there is no such thing as an easy Ironman triathlon. Swim 2.4 miles, ride 112 miles, run a marathon, and you've done what you once -- be honest -- considered impossible.

All of us, at one time or another, felt the same way. But we committed, we trained, we started and we finished the toughest triathlon there is: an Ironman triathlon.

No matter where in the world you race, getting to the Ironman finish line is special. We've shared the experience, we've conquered it. Nothing was easy, it was often tougher than expected, and without question, it was worth it to be a proud member of an triathlon's most exclusive club: Ironman finisher.

Feel free tContact us with questions or comments.

-- Raymond Britt, 29-time Ironman finisher.