Often new triathletes have learned about triathlons in the context of the Ironman brand of races: Ironman, Ironman 70.3 and now Ironman 5150. These races are great, plentiful and very visible.What some new triathletes don't know is that there are many other triathlons put on by professional racing companies that may be closer to home and easier to access. There are pros and cons to each, and we will address these here.
Ironman-brand triathlons have a certain flair, and you can count on the races to have consistency in quality and a flashy finish line with a big screen and a great announcer.Ironman has a great online registration experience and tons of swag and branded merchandise. If you are proud of your accomplishment and want to show it off, you'll have no trouble finding Ironman shirts, jackets, duffel bags and even tattoos.
You'll likely save money going with an off-brand. Looking around for non-Ironman brand races may reveal something very close to home, meaning you don't need to pay for an overnight stay. The entry fee is likely to be lower, too, although some full service competitors have registration fees on par with Ironman.Locally run or off-brand races tend to have more approachable race directors and less stringent policies on transfers and deferments. We know of a Rev3-brand iron distance race at Cedar Point where the race director attended a participant-organized course ride a couple months before the race, and even rode the course with the participants, answering their questions. A participant who had lost the use of his legs and competed with a handcycle was able to take extra time on the bike course, missing the cutoff, and make it up on the run course, where his racing wheelchair was much faster than the runners. He finished in about 14 hours, but wouldn't have finished at all in a race that stopped him at the bike cutoff.Smaller races tend to have more of a family feel, and that can be good and bad. At once half-iron race in Indiana, neighborhood children walked the course pulling a red wagon full of energy gels, and volunteers passed out and then dutifully collected towels that had been soaked in icy water. On the other hand, some smaller races, particularly those with multiple distances competing at the same time, don't have a great finish experience for the longest distance. For example, if a race has sprint, Olympic and half-iron distance options, the half-iron finishers may come back from their bike leg to find that half of the transition area has already been dismantled and they are being passed in the parking lot by sprint distance athletes on their way home in the car, and all the peanut butter sandwiches were eaten by the Olympic distance finishers.Smaller races require a closer reading of the Athlete Packet, because there won't be a motorcycle leading the way on the course. If you miss a turn, you likely won't realize it until you get suspicious of not seeing anyone else for awhile.Whatever you choose, make sure you know you have a choice.Race calendars such as TriFind.com, and the Race Reports here in the BeginnerTriathlete forums, may reveal some hidden gems near you, or near a vacation destinations you've been dreaming of visiting.