IRONMAN® Arizona, the Complete Race Breakdown, by Endurance Nation

150 150 Rich Strauss


After preparing all year for this late-season event, athletes competing at IRONMAN® Arizona can help themselves have a great race-day experience with these helpful tips.

Formerly an April event, IMAZ moved to November in 2008 because of the intense heat and challenges associated with racing at that time of year. The current race date, quite close to Thanksgiving, means a slightly lower chance of heat, but the day will not be any easier. In addition to an urban location, the race consists of two 3-loop bike and run courses, presenting a significant mental challenge for all of the competitors.

Here is a quick review of the top questions inside Endurance Nation about racing Ironman Arizona and we invite you to also attend our FREE Four Keys of Arizona Pre-Race Talk!


What Is the Swim Like?

The lake is really no more than 500 meters wide at any given point, and as such will be quite flat for your swim. You will have to contend with the sun being up early and directly in your line of sight on the way out. Athletes have had equal success with tinted goggles and using the lakefront landscape as a marker for forward progress.

What Do I Need to Know About the Transition Area?

How you exit Tempe Town Lake is actually the hardest part of your day. You’ll have to move quickly from swimming horizontally to climbing up and out of the lake on either stairs or a giant boat ramp. Either way, it’s up and it’s not easy.
Be sure to relax the last few meters of your swim and prepare for the quick changeover. Once you are on terra firma, it’s through the wetsuit strippers and off to find your bag. They are lined up in rows on the ground, and you would be well-served  distinguish your bag from the others. Colored tap, liberal marker usage, etc, is encouraged.

A Climb on the Bike Course? I Thought Tempe Was Supposed to Be Flat!

This is how nearly every Ironman bike course plays out on race day:

  • Miles 0-30: everyone rides too hard as they experience “internal and external disconnects.” Internally, if feels easy, your heart rate may say you’re riding easy, but you are in fact not riding easy enough. Externally, everyone else around is doing the same, riding much too hard, and therefore you’re surrounded by feedback saying that apparently the correct thing to do is hammer the first 30 miles of the bike. It’s not.
  • Miles 30-80: everyone continues to ride a bit less hard…but still too hard. But if you’ve screwed up your bike pacing you typically won’t feel it until about mile 70, or certainly by mile 80.
  • Mile 80-112: becomes a long ride back to transition, as you sit up and out of the aerobars and think about how the mistakes you’ve made on the bike now have 26 miles to express themselves.

So having said that, let’s now look at how the terrain and conditions of the course play against this dynamic:

  • After about 9 miles of admin through town, you turn left onto the Beeline Highway for a 9 mile out, which is actually at a 1-2% grade the entire way. It is very easy to work too hard on this first trip out on the Beeline, especially as everyone else around you is riding too hard.
  • Once you reach the end of the Beeline you flip and come back on what is now fast net downhill…but most people come off the gas a great deal, giving up easy speed.
  • This pattern is repeated on the 2nd lap of the bike.

However, the winds will pick up on the 2nd lap of the bike, the course will get more crowded with athletes, and you will become fatigued. And so the defining characteristic of the Ironman Arizona bike course is competitors sitting up in headwinds and crosswinds on the 2nd and 3rd laps of the bike, due to having ridden too hard on the first lap and a half of their ride. In short, pacing errors become riding position compromises which compound the effects of the wind, resulting in lost time.

The Solution: ride very, very easy, at a warmup effort, your trip up the Beeline. You’ll be passed by a lot of people…which is great! Then stay on the gas as you return to Tempe. You’ll pass a few people…which is great! Then dial in your correct Ironman bike effort (typically high Zone 1 to low Zone 2 heart rate) the for the remainder of the bike course and hold your aero position as much as possible in the winds. You will pass a lot of people in the last 30 miles of the bike…which is how it should be. Most importantly, continue to hydrate and fuel yourself, thinking happy, confident thoughts as you ride back to transition.

What Is the Run Like?

The run course consists of three loops around Tempe Town Lake, with multiple bridge crossings and some slight hills in and around Papago Park. The vast majority of your day will be spent running on the concrete sidewalk that encircles the lake. It’s not forgiving, and is somewhat rolling and even a bit twisty at times.

Like the three-loop bike, the longer you are running the more people there are sharing the course with you. It can become quite crowded at times, so do your best to be considerate of your fellow competitors. There is minimal shade and the run course is entirely exposed to the wind—particularly the bridge sections.

While the run course is small at only 8.8 miles per loop, it is spread out just enough such that few spectators venture out of the transition area to support the runners. Plan on some quality solo time, as well as dealing with passing the finishing area twice before actually earning the right to enter it yourself.

Finally, this is our quick pacing guidance for you:

  • Miles 0-6: run at a very solid, go all day, do no harm heart rate, observing your pace. This should truly be the heart rate you’d expect on an easy job. Get a head start on fueling and hydration, while your body is as good as it’s likely to be on the run.
  • Miles 0-X: dial your heart rate up to the level you’ve seen on your long runs. However, you’re playing defense here, getting what you need from the course, and not trying to make anything happen.
  • Mile X to the Finish: a mile X, some point on the course where you decide to push your chips in (usually between 21 and 23), begin using heart rate as a whip rather than a governor, push the effort againts the most difficult part of your day.

What Can My Family Do on Race Day?

There is a very small retail and restaurant area on Mill Street, a short walk from the transition area, with several places to eat and shop while you are suffering. Most don’t however, as the three loops on the bike and run combine to put you through the race area very frequently.

Instead of trying to see you at every opportunity, it’s worthwhile for your family to take a mental break at some point, doing a proper sit-down meal before returning to push you to the finish line. Just like you, they’ll need to be prepared for the heat, the sun and the early evening (it can get chilly). That said, the downtown turnaround on the bike course is a fun area to spectate and watch the athletes. And for the run, lots of spectating opportunities on the transition side of the lake.

What’s the Biggest Mistake I Could Make?

Without a doubt, handling the winds on the bike and monitoring your effort on the 10-mile false flat on the Beeline are crucial to your day. Riding “just a little too hard” up a 10.5-mile false flat three times can ruin your day, not to mention that the winds pick up on each lap as well.

The net is that the Beeline is full of athletes sitting up in the bars, and into the wind, on the second and third laps, having overcooked themselves on this false flat. Our advice: Ignore the people flying by you on the first and second lap, and do your best to remain in the aerobars when the winds pick up.

Four Keys of Arizona Pre-Race Talk

Interested in learning more? Please register below to attend our FREE Four Keys of Arizona Pre-Race Talk. Coach Rich will share with you tips and tricks specific to the Arizona course! Over the years, thousands of athletes have attended these talks and over 15,000 more have viewed the Four Keys DVD!


Endurance Nation Arizona race reports here

1 comment
  • Michael Kichler

    There has been an update to the IMAZ run. On the official website an article titled, “Race your best in the desert with these insider tips” by Ryan Riell describes it like this:

    The IRONMAN Arizona run course has changed this year from a three-loop run to a two-loop run. The first mile of the run will have some moderately challenging rollers to contend with from the Mill Avenue bridge until just short of the Scottsdale Road bridge. From there it’s relatively flat until the backside of the run course. Once the runners make the left hand turn onto Curry, they have a decent climb that lasts around a half mile. From there, it’s about a half-mile downhill back to the lakefront and the flat run course.

    With the new run course, we do not have any real race data to examine in TrainingPeaks. The best piece of advice I can give you for the new run course is to be patient and tick off the miles on the relatively flat course. One way to remain patient is to mentally “chunk” the course into manageable portions.

    For athletes looking to set a new PR or qualify for Kona, we’ve “chunked” the course into quarters based on terrain on the map below. The quarters approach takes terrain changes into account first, then location on the course. In the first segment, be prepared for the rolling terrain from T2 to Scottsdale Rd, then a rather desolate portion of the course out to McClintock and back to T2. Segment #2 is mostly flat and will have a fair number of spectators present, as well as being within eyesight of transition—try to keep your pacing steady despite the excitement of the crowds. Segment #3 is where most athletes will struggle mentally. That last out-and-back finger will not have as many spectators, which rolls immediately into the toughest terrain challenge on the course—running up the hill on Curry. Stay strong here! The last segment is flat with some slight downhill portions that will aid the runners as they come to the end of loop #1 and again into the finish. (there is a map that goes along with this, but I couldn’t post it.

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