Your First Ironman: A How-To Guide

author : dara
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A guide that takes you from check-in to the finish line for your first Ironman triathlon.

Here it is, the event you have been waiting and training for. The last 6 months have all been geared to this day; your training has been perfectly orchestrated and planned so that you can be as ready as possible for the Ironman. But what exactly happens on race day?  The following will be a guide using Ironman Florida as an example.

While you can go to the Ironman website and read all the rules and schedules, I wanted to give you a broad picture of what to expect and highlight some key points.
(To read the IM rules and schedules, go to  then click on 'rules' on the page that comes up - an Acrobat file will give you lots of details and you should read it!)

The race actually starts two days prior, as you must arrive and check in/register two days before the event - Ironman rules.

Bring with you:
An official photo ID
USAT card
Confirmation number (if you signed up on the Net).

At registration you will:

  • Confirm your athlete number

  • Show your USAT card

  • Weigh in (just tell them what you weigh- this is for medical reasons, as they may weigh you during the race to check your hydration status)

  • Pick up your registration packet that contains your race numbers (one for each of the following: the front of your helmet, your bike frame , the back of your bike shirt, and the front of your run shirt), your swim cap, your timing chip, safety pins, bike ties for the bike number, and stickers for your gear bags.

  • Get your gear bags and other goody bags.

The day before the race there will be a mandatory Pre-race meeting. This is very informative, and as I stated, is mandatory!

This is also the day that you drop off your bike and gear bags (not special needs or dry clothes bags—those you drop on race day).

What are these “Gear bags?”
You are not allowed to leave anything by your bike, so all your gear is in bags that you will pick up when you need them at each transition. The bags are stored in boxes.

You get 5 bags for the following:

  • Swim to bike transition:

    Put everything in here you need for T1 helmet, glasses, shoes and socks, gloves, food, and anything else you need for the bike section. Are you wearing your biking gear under your wetsuit? If not, put it in the T1 bag.

  • Bike to run transition:
    Put everything in here you need for T2: hat, glasses (if different from your biking glasses), shoes and socks, different shirt if necessary, food, etc.

  • Bike special needs:

    Nutrients and anything else you think you might need during the ride—Vaseline, frozen sports drink bottle, gel flask just in case, etc. You pisk this up about midway through the ride.

  • Run special needs:

    Maybe a change of socks, Vaseline, salt tabs, pain killers (but not NSAIDS), special food, a long sleeved sweater in case it is cold when you run in the dark (tie it around your waist, so you have it). This will be available about half way through the run.

  • Dry clothes bag:

    For what you can change into after you finish.

Do not put anything you ever want to see again in these bags as it is highly unlikely you will get them back.

On race day, if the gear collection area is not congested, a volunteer will actually hand you your gear bags, but if it is busy you will have to get them yourself, so know where your bag is!

The day before the race.

  1. Affix all your stickers and tags to everything. Figure out where your gear bag is located, where your bike is and where you should leave your special needs and dry gear bags on race day.

  2. You need to have reflective tape on your run gear (you can get it at Inside Out Sports): a piece on the toe and heel of each shoe, a piece on the right and left of both front and back of shirt and shorts! Do this before you even leave home!

  3. Lastly, label all your gear, including shoes before you leave home.

What are you wearing for each portion of the race? Some people actually wear two pairs of shorts for the bike: one compression pair (that double as running shorts-Sugoi and DeSoto have some) and one bike pair. Both can be worn under the wetsuit, or you can add the biking pair in the change tent. Make sure that the compression shorts have no seams in the crotch! Once in T2, you can just remove the bike shorts.

The day before the race, it is a good idea to do a pre-race brick: 30 minute bike ride and 15 minute run - all at race pace. A good idea would be to ride some of the run course.

I would also take advantage of the open water swims in the mornings leading up to race day.

Race Day

NOTE: absolutely no assistance of any kind is allowed from spectators and friends and family - this includes running, biking or driving with you, giving technical support, and/or handing you any food or anything else. You will be disqualified.

Remember to race within yourself and follow your pacing plan. Do not be tempted to run anyone else’s race. Use your HR to guide you, if you have been training with a monitor. Whatever happens, use your mind as well as your body to deal with it, as a race this long is not won, or finished, by just being fit enough. Mental training should be as much a part of race prep and race execution as all your other training.

Get up in plenty of time to eat the breakfast you always eat before your long training sessions, and do whatever mental preparation you have been training with. Remember, you are trained and ready for this event!

Gates to the transition area are open at 5:30 and close at 6:30 am

  • Bring your swim cap, wetsuit, special needs and dry gear bags, timing chip. If you have a friend there, you can bring your pump too and give it to them after you have finished pumping your tires. Please note, there will be bike assistance people there to pump up your tires, so it is not necessary for you to bring yours.

  • Stow your special needs and dry clothes bags, go to the body marking area and then go and put on your wetsuit. If you pumped your own tires, hand off your pump to your friends.

  • Go down to the water to wait for the race to start.
    Note: I do not think there are any porta-potties on the bike course, but there are toilets available for the run. Of course, there are plenty of porta-potties at the transition area.


  • Out on the swim course, there will be race crew to help you with directions.

  • The swim course for IM Florida is actually 2 laps, in the middle of which you get out and back on the beach. At this point, some people eat a Gel pack that was stowed in the sleeve of their wetsuit. You should be offered some water here too.  Practice with this before hand so you know you won’t choke!

  • The swim course closes after 2 hours and 20 minutes. If you are still out there after this time, you will be DQ’d and not allowed to continue.


  • Once out of the water, you will be directed through timing chutes that lead you up and through the wetsuit strip area and showers. There are special wet suit strippers there to help you get out of your suit—let them do the work!

  • Then head up to the gear racks and into the change tents. There are volunteers in there who will give you anything you ask for: Vaseline, sunblock, etc. Do not be afraid to ask for assistance—use the volunteers!

  • Make sure you are fully clothed and ready to get on your bike before you head out to the bike storage racks. Get on your bike and go!


  • You must have your race numbers on. You can wear it on your race belt - in the back for the bike and in the front for the run.

  • When you first get on the bike, take in some plain water and, as soon as you feel able, start taking in nutrients. Follow your pre-designed and well practice hydration and nutrition plan to the letter through out the ride. Set your watch alarms for every 20 minutes, and eat and drink as you have done in practice.

  • Initially, try to keep your HR in Z1-2 so you can settle into the bike. No matter how good you feel, do not let your HR out of Z2 for the first 30 miles!

Keep the intensity/ HR and cadence you have been training with. During the middle of the bike, it would be OK if your HR crept up to the low end of Z3, but preferably you will stay in Z2 for the duration. It will be hard at times to resist the urge to go faster. But remember, you have to conserve energy and try to use fats for energy, and this is only possible if you are totally aerobic. Go faster and you start using up your glycogen stores, you build up lactic acid, and bonking becomes much more of a possibility. Today is about finishing, not speed. So, do NOT be concerned with your speed on the bike—just HR and cadence, just like in training.

  • Bike aid stations are every 10 miles or so. They will have: water (in white bottles), Gatorade (in Gatorade bottles), Twinlab IM bars, Gu, fruit and cookies. Call out what you want and slow appropriately to safely get it.

  • There will be technical vans out on the course to assist you. BUT, you should know how to deal with minor problems-flats, etc. So maybe take a beginner course in bike maintenance? Ensure you have had your bike thoroughly checked over before you leave home.

  • There will also be medical vans out on the course and at aid stations. Getting medical assistance does not automatically mean your race is over.

  • Bike course closes 10:30 hours after the race start and if you are still on the course you will be DQ’d.

Again, there will be volunteers to assist you in the change tents.  Full medical facilities are available there.


  • You must have your run number and reflective tape. You can wear your number on your race belt—in the back for the bike and in the front for the run.

  • Aid stations are located about every mile and will have the following: water, Gatorade, Cola, Twinlab IM bars, Gu, fruit and cookies and chicken broth.

  • Once again, follow your hydration and nutrition plan to the letter!

  • The special needs bag will be available about half way through the run - take out your long-sleeved sweater and tie it around you waist so you have it just in case.

  • Self-illuminating light sticks are available at the aid stations, and after dusk you are required to have one.

  • The run course closes at midnight, but you may finish if you want. If you do not want to continue, you will be brought back to the transition area.

Post race

  • Finisher t-shirts and medals will be awarded at the finish line!

  • Drink up! But not plain water—some form of carb drink is best. And eat what you can. Remember, to assist in recovery, a 4-1 ratio of carbs to protein in best within 30 minutes of finishing.

  • Keep walking so that you do not cramp up, change into some dry clothes and then go and get a massage!

For your support crew (friends and family) there is an “Ironmates” designated area where they can get info about how you are doing on the course and track your progress.

There is a medical information board here too, which they should check periodically to see if their athlete’s name is posted. If it is, check with a volunteer and they will provide more info.  Personal messages can be posted here, and this is the best place to meet up once the race is over. Ironmates are not allowed in the finish chutes.

Created for T3Coaching  by Dara Wittenberg and Denny DePriest, coaches and triathletes.


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date: March 13, 2005


I have been a personal trainer for eight years and a tri/endurance coach for five years. During that time I have trained several athletes for whom sports must fit into very busy lives. My clientele are full time mothers, office workers, schoolteachers, and entrepreneurs whose working and personal lives come before their sports.


I have been a personal trainer for eight years and a tri/endurance coach for five years. During that time I have trained several athletes for whom sports must fit into very busy lives. My clientele are full time mothers, office workers, schoolteachers, and entrepreneurs whose working and personal lives come before their sports.

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