I’m a veteran of exactly two Ironman races, Ironman Wisconsin in 2013 and Ironman Lake Placid in 2016, and I loved them both. In my preparation for both of those races, I gained valuable information from many different sources, including the event websites, videos, triathlon websites, and race reports and recaps. I found that some opinions on the two races were clearly subjective mainly due to allegiance to the race they did, and I also had that question in the back of my mind – how could Lake Placid be as good as Madison? The two courses are often mentioned as being among the toughest of the courses in North America. So I thought it would be interesting to compare the two, based solely on my experiences at both events and list some pros (lots) and cons (few) of each one. I don’t think I could declare a winner, they both were awesome!
(Author’s note: I’ve now also completed Ironman Louisville! Someday I will update this post to include it as well.)
RACE RECAPS FROM BOTH RACES
Here are my race recaps/reports from both races to provide some background on how the races went for me. Both days were outstanding!
Ironman Wisconsin 2013: 2013 Ironman Wisconsin Race Report
Ironman Lake Placid 2016: 2016 Ironman Lake Placid Race Report
Ironman Wisconsin is held in and around the Madison area. Madison is the capital of Wisconsin and is the home to the University of Wisconsin. It is the second-largest city in Wisconsin behind Milwaukee. The swim is conducted in Lake Monona in downtown Madison. The bike course takes you through the communities of Madison, Fitchburg, Mt. Horeb, Cross Plains, and Verona on a two-loop course before heading back to Madison. The run course is downtown Madison and also through the campus of UW Madison. Overall, Madison is a modern, vibrant city with lots of entertainment options and things to do. Ironman Wisconsin has been around since 2002.
Ironman Lake Placid takes place in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, and Lake Placid was the host to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic games. Since 1999, it is the longest-running American Ironman other than the World Championship in Kona. Lake Placid is a small but awesome tourist town that seems like it would burst at the seams with all the athletes and attendees for the event, but it is more than accommodating. The swim is actually held in the smaller Mirror Lake and is known for calm water and an underwater cable that marks the course, making it easy to stay on the swim course. Biking is an exhilarating trip through the Adirondack Mountains, through the towns of Keene, Jay, and Wilmington. The run course is an out and back from downtown Lake Placid. If you can imagine the most picturesque lake and mountainous resort town, Lake Placid would fit the bill.
For both races, I was blessed to have a great travel coordinator on my side (my racing buddy’s wife) who is very savvy at securing great lodging for our races. At Wisconsin, our lodging was at the event host hotel, the Monona Hilton, which is ground zero for all things Ironman Wisconsin. Everything is right there, the expo, the transition area, the swim start, and the finish line are all right outside the doors of the Hilton. Being so close to everything was vital to me. I had a lake view from my window and it was amazing. There are many other local hotels nearby or within a short walking distance of the start and finish of the race, as well as options for renting rooms or local houses as well.
Lake Placid seems like such a small and quaint town that you wonder how they could have hosted such a huge event like the Winter Olympics, but there are plenty of options available here as well. Once again, my travel coordinator found us great lodging at the Mirror Lake Hampton Inn. This hotel was directly across the street from Mirror Lake, and the race viewing options for your crew is awesome, having a front-row view of the swim, the bike, and the run courses. My room faced away from the race, but if you have extra cash you can opt for a room that faces all the action with a balcony. The expo and transition area are within a quarter mile or so walking distance. Another nice option was the wrist strap door key, which allowed lodgers entry to the hotel and room without having to carry a plastic key card around. I even wore the strap during the race.
I couldn’t have been happier with the above lodging options. There is great lodging for both locations, but the key to getting what you want is to get it as early as possible.
There are plenty of options for eating at both locales. Madison has quite a few higher-end restaurant options than Lake Placid did, but you won’t have any issues finding places to eat at either location. In Wisconsin, we did eat at the athlete’s dinner, which really isn’t the best option for fine dining, but it fed us while we listened to Mike Reilly’s talk.
At Lake Placid, there is no athlete dinner, but in its place is a voucher for dining virtually anywhere you can find food in town. I think I prefer this method as you can choose what you want to eat and when you want to use your voucher.
At Wisconsin, it seemed like you had to hunt for a place to eat. At Lake Placid, all you had to do was walk down the main street for the many dining options.
Both IMWI and IMLP have a spectator guide that you can download from the race page or pick up a printed copy at the expo. But there are some key things about both races.
For the swim at IMWI, the best viewing is on top of the Monona Terrace or the car ramps (commonly referred to as the “helixes”) on either side. Both will get you a prime elevated spot for a great view of the swim. You can also walk along the adjacent bike path and watch from the lake level. At Lake Placid, there really isn’t an elevated area in which to watch unless you consider the VIP viewing point from the second floor of the beach house next to the beach. My wife chose to stay on the ground on the left-hand side in order to see the Swim In and Out.
As for the bike, Wisconsin has more options than Lake Placid. If you can find easy to get to parking you can drive your own car out of town to the best viewing spots, but a lot of the spectators opt for the free shuttle bus trip to Verona where you can see the cyclists come through the aid station. Mike Reilly will be there and there are plenty of food options going on.
Lake Placid is very tough to watch the bike portion of the race. Almost all stay in town and some will opt for walking to the Three Bears portion of the race, which is just northeast of Mirror Lake and close to the downtown event. There are other viewing options on the backside of Herb Brooks Arena where the cyclists will be finishing loops. This is where Mike Reilly and the other announcers will be if you need to be near “the Voice”.
The run course in Madison and Lake Placid takes the runners for an out and back, but if you like to see more than just the beginning, the half-marathon turn, and the finish, you can see quite a bit more at Madison by jogging a couple of blocks to see the runners around mile 6 before they turn around.
I found this webpage to be highly useful for spectating at Lake Placid. It’s worth your time to read it. http://triwivesclub.com/the-sport-of-spectating-ironman-lake-placid-2/
Here’s one for Madison: http://bobber.discoverwisconsin.com/ironman-wisconsin-spectate-the-right-way-on-race-day/
THE SWIM COURSES
Mirror Lake is the winner here for me hands down. I can’t believe that this little lake with its two-lap swim could handle that number of people in a mass start that was the norm prior to the change to a rolling start. Lake Monona can handle that amount of people okay, but it still is a washing machine of swimmers. Plus Mirror Lake has that cable running the entire course to guide you along. I feel like Mirror Lake is probably less prone to currents and rough water as well. IMLP feeds the athletes into the water to help spread out the field, and self-seeding helps keep the swimmers grouped with likeability swimmers. Of course, there are a few that should seed themselves more realistically, but I found we were flowing along pretty well.
IMWI struggled to get all the athletes into the water prior to the start of the race and even though there are many with their favorite starting locations, there isn’t really an advantage in my opinion to being wide or along the buoys at the start. Plus there seemed to be much more contact for me at Wisconsin than at Lake Placid. One tradition that IMWI has is that everyone “moos” like a cow going around the first turn buoy.
I liked getting out of the water after one loop at IMLP. It gave my mind a little rest and helped break up the swim for me. I had a much easier swim at IMLP than IMWI.
(Author’s note: IMWI has since changed from a mass swim start to a rolling seeded start. – Yay!)
I think Ironman Wisconsin wins this one by virtue of one fact – it’s inside the Monona Terrace. Being inside means that you don’t have to worry about the weather at all, and it’s air-conditioned and carpeted. The trip from the swim exit is sand-free and paved leading to a circular car ramp that everyone refers to as the “helix.” There are three trips on the helix, once from the swim to T1, and then during Bike Out heading down the other helix located on the other end and back up it when you return. Going down can be interesting, but coming up is a little bit of a last-minute adrenaline boosted climb into T2. The Run Out skips the helix and sends you on your way from another ramp to the street.
Lake Placid has all of the transition located conveniently in the Olympic oval. When you get to transition the gear bags are right there for you, and it’s a quick trip to the change tents. Cycling down the helix at IMWI can be tricky, but IMLP has a tough ride out of transition as well. Take caution leaving both transitions on your way out of T1.
THE BIKE COURSES
Both IMWI and IMLP have bike courses that come with a solid reputation of being tough rides and I found them both to be challenging and exhilarating. The main difference between the two courses’ difficulty lies in the type of hilly terrain that defines the rides. IMWI is very hilly, with one roller after another, whereas IMLP is very hilly in a mountainous way! The climbing tends to be short and intense at Wisconsin, but at Lake Placid, you will be doing an uphill grind for large chunks of the course.
The course at IMWI is a two, 40-mile loop affair with a section leading from Madison to the loops that is referred to as “the Stick.” The Stick is 16 miles long and gets you out of town with a mixture of park bike path, arena parking lot, highway, and then more rural roads leading you to the town of Verona. The Stick is nothing heading out, as you are raring to go, but it will definitely get your attention coming back to Madison. Pace yourself and don’t burn out your legs for the run on the Stick coming back to T2. Overall, the course takes you through beautiful rural farmland of Wisconsin, with lots of changing scenery.
Both courses boast of a section of three hills that have garnered reputations as being miserable and difficult. At IMWI these three hills are referred to as the “Three Bitches.” The hills are tough but are easily tamed by just spinning up to the top. The hills come about halfway through the loop, around mile 42 and again around mile 85. After getting through the hills you will be treated to a nice descent back into Verona and onto the second loop or the trip back to Madison.
At IMLP the hills are cutely referred to as the “Three Bears.” They come at the very end of the first and second loops as you come back into Lake Placid. Truthfully, I did not find the Three Bears to be as difficult as the Three Bitches. Momma Bear comes first and isn’t a big deal at all. Baby Bear is very tame, and in my opinion barely qualifies as a hill. Papa Bear is the one that gets your attention. It climbs, then turns, then climbs some more. But it is short-lived. I didn’t find them to be as difficult as the climb from Wilmington back to Lake Placid, a section called “the Notch.” But if you are patient and can find a comfortable tempo to keep chugging along, you will get through this long climb.
Both courses have great fans along the route that many equate to a Tour de France feel. These stretches are a real boost emotionally and help you get through both the Three Bitches in Wisconsin and the Three Bears in Lake Placid.
The best part of biking IMWI – the fan support along the course, and the descents on Garfoot Road and Timber Lane. The parts to dread – the climb into Mt. Horeb, the Three Bitches, and the bumpy section on Stagecoach Drive. You’ll feel like you are on a stagecoach.
(Author’s note: Stagecoach Drive has since been repaved.)
You’ll love the scenery in Lake Placid and the Adirondacks on your ride. And the descent into Keene is exhilarating. It’s possible to hit 50 mph on that 6-mile ride, but it is scary as hell. You’ll loathe the long climbs that pretty much take up half the ride. Good luck with that.
THE RUN COURSES
Both of the run courses have great scenery, fan support, and awesome finishing chutes. You will do two loops at both locations, which is very typical in most Ironman races.
At IMWI you will pass the state capital building and get to run through some impressive areas of the campus of the University of Wisconsin. The highlight is heading into Camp Randall where the Badgers play for a loop around the football field. In Lake Placid, you pass the Olympic Ski Jumps as you head out and back.
As far as the courses, both are very similar. They are mostly flat, with a couple of big hills that a lot of athletes will walk up. I found that I never felt lost at Lake Placid like I did at Madison. There was several times in Madison when I wondered where I was. I went into a port-o-potty at one point and upon coming out I couldn’t remember which way I was going! Never had that issue at Lake Placid.
The main difference between the two is the scenery. Lake Placid takes you from downtown out to fields and trees, which is very nice. At Madison, you will be near buildings and people for most of the run.
I love the finishing chute at Wisconsin, with having the Capital in the background all lit up as you finish. But finishing on the Olympic Oval makes you feel like an Olympic champion. Both are cool.
The day after the race, Madison gets back to being a state capital and back to business like the race was held a month earlier. I kind of felt like I needed to get out of Madison’s way, as the town needed to get back to normalcy. At Lake Placid, it seemed like everyone wanted to stay and take some time to enjoy the wonderful town without all of the race anxiety.
As I mentioned before I can’t pick a favorite, I truly loved my experience at both locales. But I think I had my best race at Lake Placid only because I learned from what I experienced at Wisconsin.
In the end, you can’t go wrong with either race location, both are well run, beautiful and an experience of a lifetime! Do them both!