Tips for Ironman Competitors: What to Do Before the Race Starts

By Raymond Britt

[Excerpt from the book Qualifying for Kona; Note: Part II is Everything You Need to Know . . . Race Day]

Before the start of a recent Ironman triathlon, the race announcer noted that around 900 athletes were about to compete in their first Ironman triathlon. My brother-in-law was one of them. I remembered the feeling of that first Ironman. All the questions, all the concerns: What should I expect? What do I need to carry? What might go wrong, and how do I deal with it?

With 29 Ironman finishes over the last nine years, I think I can pretty well answer many of those questions for iron rookies, and even some for those that have done more than one Ironman but are still looking for the right combination.

It can seem overwhelming. So much to do, so much to remember. Let me simplify it for you and let you focus on your race.

Do what you or your coach think is right to get you to the point where you’re ready to race, ready to cover the distance. I’ll help you with the rest - what to expect and what to do - from packing for your trip to crossing the finish line.

Getting Everything There: What to Take

There are so many things to pack or, put another way, so many things to potentially forget. And yes, I have forgotten many different things over the year. But I have learned not to panic, for a simple reason: even if you forgot everything, you still could buy just about all of it at the race merchandise area.

Just knowing you have that backstop should make your packing less worrisome. Because I’ll tell you right now: you will forget something, probably a few somethings. Don’t worry. You can get it at the race.

Wetsuits, bikes, components, nutrition, just about everything but running shoes (which you can buy at a sporting goods store) can typically be found on site.

But to remember to bring the right things, here’s the approach. Create five piles in the packing room. One each for Pre-race, Swim, Bike, Run, Nutrition. As you grab items from your closet, bags, car, wherever, lay them in the appropriate piles. My basics are:

1. Pre-race: clothes to wear to/from transition - jacket and sweatpants, and what I’ll wear during the entire race - bike shirt, tri-shorts, timing chip and strap
2. Swim: wetsuit, goggles, sunscreen, body glide, extra swim cap, swimsuit
3. Bike: helmet, sunglasses, bike shoes, gloves, race belt, socks, arm warmers
4. Run: hat, shoes, extra race belt, socks, and sunglasses if you need them
5. Nutrition/other: bring the essentials you are sure you won’t find on the race site. A favorite gel, certain salt tablets or pain reliever, perhaps. Have a small plastic container - I prefer a 35mm film holder - to hold salt and ibuprofen on the bike.

Place the contents into five bags, labeled accordingly, and drop them in your suitcase. For me, one of those bags is an athletic bag, which I later use to carry things to/from transition.

Packing the bike can be intimidating. After dialing in your perfect position, the last thing you want to do is disassemble your bike. To restore your bike to that perfect position later, use black electrical tape to mark measurements. Seat post, handlebars, anything that moves or is removed should have a tape mark. Do that, and your perfect dialed-in position will return when you reassemble your bike.

So you won’t be scrambling on race day, pack your saddle bag in advance with everything you’ll need. Replacement tube or tire, glue if necessary, co2 adapter (buy co2 on site), disc wheel air adapter (if necessary), hex tool, extra contact lenses (yes, you might need them).

Pressing bike pieces inside a tight transport case is a scary concept. To avoid friction in transit, wrap the frame and anything else that might have contact in bubble wrap or some other protective material. I use several Velcro straps to secure the protection in place. And knowing how bike cases can be tossed around behind airline counters, I’ve added Velcro on the outside of the case itself to further secure the contents.

Follow these steps, and you should have just about everything you need with you when you arrive at the race registration. And again, if you forget anything, you can get it there. Relax.


Unpack soon after arriving to make sure you brought everything or, more importantly, to find out whether you forgot anything. It’s especially important to get your bike assembled and tested. If a screw gets stripped or a tire won’t inflate, you want to know that as soon as possible.

After you get your race transition bags at registration, lay them out, and match the Swim, Bike, Run bags you had packed earlier. It’s as simple as transferring the contents - you’ve already pre-packed your transition bags. Again, if you forgot anything, you’ll find out at this time, and have the opportunity to buy what’s missing.

An important note about bib numbers and race belts. Bib numbers can be flimsy, can tear, and can fly off during the race. And losing your number can mean a penalty. My secret to avoiding all this: black electrical tape. Put black electrical tape over the top two holes of your bib number, front and back. This more than doubles the reinforcement. Then poke the pin on your race belt through the electrical tape to secure the bib number. The electrical tape holds perfectly. I’ve never lost a bib number on the course with this method.

Bike Check-In

In my early races, I remember being particularly worried that I’d forgotten something essential on the day of bike and transition bag check-in. I’d check and recheck the bags, and still be nervous. But there’s no reason for concern. At most races, you have access to your bags race morning, and if you forget anything, you can add it then. Again, relax.

At Ironman Arizona bike check-in, looking around, I saw what I guessed were bikes belonging to some of the Ironman rookies. How to spot them? Easy. Three water bottles already in cages on the bike, and nutrition already put in place. One athlete had PowerBar squares sticking to the top tube of his bike. Believe me, after exposure to a hot day and a cool night in Arizona, that stuff will not be appealing on race day. Keep your nutrition and bottles with you overnight, and put them in place on race morning.

After that, you’ll have nothing to do except relax and think about the nutrition and hydration you’ll carry the following day.

Planning Race Nutrition

Planning your hydration and nutrition needs for an Ironman can be tricky. Too much and you’ll feel sick, too little and you’ll bonk. It took me many races of trial and error to find the right mix. What I ended up with may be a formula that can be applied to your needs, though the specific ingredients might change.

After many races, I found that about 2500 to 3000 calories was my optimal calorie count on the bike. Simply, that translates to about 250 calories every 10 miles on the bike. This amount not only keeps me fueled for the bike, but also prepares me for the run. So that is my target. Practice caloric intake on your long training rides to find the level right for you.

In terms of how to get those calories, here’s what I came up with:

* 800 calories GU: eight packets, 100 calories each, Plain is the preferred flavor
* 920 calories PowerBars: four chocolate PowerBars
* 300 calories bananas: grab six bananas at aid stations
* 750 calories Gatorade: take at least five bottles of Gatorade, one every other aid station, 6 x 125 calories

Race Morning: Final Preparations

My race morning routine is simple and it took me less than 10 minutes before Ironman Arizona this year.

* Tape GU to aerobars, four on each side
* Place four PowerBars in Profile-Design velcro pouch on the top of my Softride beam
* Put the plastic (35mm film) container in the pouch
* Insert one water bottle in bottle cage (with regular aid stations, I see no reason to carry more)
* Check the tires
* Put White Lightning on the chain
* Set the bike computer distance and time setting to zero
* Go to transition area and make sure at least helmet, bike shoes, bib number and running shoes are in the bags. That’s the minimum you need, if you forgot anything.

After that, relax, breathe deep and look forward to a fun day of endurance. Now all you have to do is travel 140.6 miles. Again, don’t worry. Plenty of time - you’ve got 17 hours to do it.

[Continued in Tips for Ironman Rookies Part II: Race Day]