Not so many years ago, there was only one real holy grail in the sport for the IRONMAN triathlete, the Hawaii IRONMAN World Championships.
Nowadays, we are lucky to have two genuine world championship events annually, with the rising prominence of the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships which relocates annually around the globe.
This rotating format provides excitement and a fresh challenge to all races, but independent of IRONMAN host city, the quest to qualify and participant in this great event is a major goal for many of the sports participants. For the lucky few, qualification is simply about checking the box at an IRONMAN 70.3 event, as they tend to sit high on the podium in most races, but for the majority of athletes participating the prize can be years of patient progression and development.
The good news is that in support of your hard work and personal performance development, there are a few additional things that you can do to help increase your chances of securing a spot at the big show.
Later in the article, I outline some tactical approaches to set yourself up for qualifying success, but I think it is important to first establish your best mindset when it comes to increasing your odds of qualification. While it is a wonderful goal to pursue, and can be a great catalyst to get you out of bed for early morning swimming when feeling sleepy, it cannot be the central reason for doing the sport.
I love objective goals, but remember that the goal of qualification is ultimately dependent on your own performance (which you can control), but also performance of your competitors (which you cannot control).
I encourage you to retain the goal, but don’t obsess on this piece of the puzzle. Instead, obsess on self-improvement and development. Aim to become the very best athlete you can be over the long term and within context of your life.
This is something that is controllable and empowering. You should consider this development over the season as well as year to year. If you take the long-term approach and not set up a pass-fail scenario in every event that you do, it is much more likely that your overall performance will rise and results will begin to take care of themselves.
This mindset is going to be I promise one of the keys for you in training and race day performance. Patient progression, focus on the process and liberating yourself from being overly results or outcome driven will prove liberating and avoid the quest becoming like a monkey on your back.
Now that we have established the all important performance mindset, let’s set our lens on some tactical considerations around race choice and race day fun.
Horses for Courses
This is a saying in horse racing, basically outlining that certain horses perform best of particular terrain. Some horses race best on soft conditions, others on straighter courses and firm conditions. It is something for gamblers to consider when choosing their picks for the win.
The same can be applied to triathletes. When choosing your events, be sure to consider races that suits your strengths and don’t overly expose your potential weaknesses. Some obvious examples might be:
Swim set up: If you are a poor swimmer, then it is likely better to seek a race that doesn’t expose your weakness. Races with typically choppy or rough swim conditions will spread the gap from the strong swimmers to weak, as well as races which tend to be non wetsuit and fresh water.
Terrain: Do you live in Florida but choose to do a hilly race that will expose your lack of climbing ability and training opportunity? There is a chance your performance relative to peers may be muted.
Maximize your strengths: If you are a very strong cyclist, but a weaker runner, your chances to heading to a dead flat race that has a high propensity for bike groups forming due to course congestion or less differentiation between strong and weak riders won’t help your cause.
The fleet feted runners will run away from you no matter than what you will do. I will never forget the complaints from strong riding athletes who headed to Cozumel hoping to break apart the riding groups, then becoming frustrated when the heat-adapted fast runners flew by on the run. It is the wrong race choice for qualification for them.
Climate considerations: No one likes racing in extreme temperatures, whether high heat or freezing cold, but the key is how you tend to perform relative to your peers. If you thrive in cold temperatures then seek races that tend to be prone to chilly temperatures. If you buckle in heat then don’t make a July race your key qualifying focus race
Beyond the terrain and climate, there are a few other tactical considerations that can help your qualifying cause. Too many athletes simply choose local races or races they enjoy, but which limit qualifying opportunities.
Venture Geographically: Lesser known race, or some international races often provide easier passage for qualification. Making the investment to head to some of the smaller or lesser known races is often a great way to raise your chances. A prime example are the adventurous but costly journeys to China for some of the newer IRONMAN 70.3 races likely ‘easier’ passage to a spot.
Newer Races: Aligned with geography are those races that are new on the scene. This factor truly depends on immediate popularity, but there are often spots to be had in the early years of racing.
Timing of Races: A great time to snag a spot is just following the end of qualification for this year's actual IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships, as well as very late season races. Hitting key races in September to November can often heighten your chances, as many are either preparing for late season IRONMAN races, the 70.3 World Championships or already on a season break.
Spread Your Odds
A simple but important consideration is the number of races you choose to do. I always urge athletes to create a full season of racing, instead of simply baking on one race that they train towards, with hopes of qualification. Simply gunning for a single race will only place unnecessary do-or-die stress on the event itself, but it will also unlikely be the best set up for your best performance.
Fitness arrives with training, but toughness and resilience are only heightened with race fitness. Having a runway for small local events, then a collection of two to three IRONMAN 70.3 events will alleviate some mental stress but improve the odds of a breakout performance in one of those 70.3s. I encourage seasonal mindset and a catalog of racing to help overall performance development, but a simple byproduct of this is much better odds for the golden spot.
If you take the long lens of personal development, choose your terrain and race schedule carefully, and make sure you don’t obsess with outcomes you are doing all that you can to earn the spot, but there is one final and critical point to be made. While many athletes qualify via a direct earned spot, many are booking their flights to the World Champs following registration via a roll down spot.
At every race, there are formal awards, following which the championship spots are given out. No matter what place you have ended up in your age group, if you are serious about making the World Championships it is worth heading to the awards and staying to the bitter end.
I have seen athletes finishing 34th spot in their age group (that’s our record) who ended up receiving a spot, simply as so many roll down athletes were not present to claim there spot.
While it may seem unlikely, I have seen so many athletes lucky to punch their ticket through persistent presence at the awards.
Don’t let this most simple approach bypass you and if you do get lucky, be proud and joyous, as the championships themselves will still be a wonderful reward for your effort and a celebration of your sport.
I wish you best of luck and hope to see you at the World Champs.