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Five Things Ironman Triathletes Can Learn from The Kentucky Derby - 52 Weeks to Mont Tremblant - Week 36

It’s the First Saturday in May and that can only mean two things: you’re neck deep in your race prep training block and it’s Kentucky Derby Day! For as long as I can remember, the Derby was always circled on the calendar, the schedule cleared, and party plans made. As I’ve grown into the sport of triathlon, I can say the same thing about my A-race each season. Circled, cleared, and scheduled.

Believe it or not, the similarities don’t stop at my personal priorities. Oh no, there’s plenty you too can learn from the Run for the Roses and how it also applies to your upcoming Ironman.

Here are five things Ironman triathletes can learn from the Kentucky Derby:

1. The distractions are endless. Ironman is a multi-day event. I know you only race over the course of a single day, but let’s be honest you’re there at least a day or two ahead of time. This provides ample time to get situated, check out the expo, athlete briefings, pro panels, spend far too much time on your feet, and lose sight of the reason you’re there: to perform well in the race.

The pomp and circumstance of Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day is I like anything I’ve ever experienced. Vendors, drunks, beautiful women, perfectly dressed men, infield shenanigans. You name it, it’s happening at Churchill Downs. It’s easy to get caught up in the crowd, miss a few races, drink far too many mint juleps, and forget that you ever walked through the gate. Trust me, I know.

I doubt many Ironman athletes are hitting the bottle hard around race day, but the point still stands. You’re there for a while, keep your focus.

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2. It’s (literally) a marathon, not a sprint. An Ironman will take anywhere from eight to 17 hours. The Kentucky Derby is only about two minutes for the horses, but it’s a full day worth of prep to make it to the starting gate. Pace yourself. You don’t want to blow up half way through the 112-mile bike ride because you didn’t execute your plan properly. It’s much like the horses needing to run their own race to be successful, otherwise they’ll end up cantering across the finish line with everyone else ahead of them. Which leads me into my third similarity between Ironman and the Derby.

3. Race tactics matter. You’ll hear a lot of horse commentators (yes, they exist) talking about early speed, or he’s a closer, or he has tactical speed. Those are all key things to understand when trying to figure out who’s going to win any horse race. It’s even more important in the Kentucky Derby because there’s 20 horses running at once.

If a horse is forced to run a style different than it is accustomed to, its chances of success are diminished. The same can be said for triathletes. If you’re an advanced cyclist, you should use that to your advantage and try to put as much distance between you and field as possible during the bike leg. Cam Wurf and Andrew Starykowicz are perfect examples of this. Not to take anything away from their running, but they’re prolific cyclists.


The converse is true for runners. Keep it close on the bike and run them down to close it out. If that’s bread and butter and someone forces you to take a different action, you’ll be challenged. The tactics of a triathlon are similar to that of a horse race in those regards.

4. Trust yourself. Race day isn’t the time to try anything new. No new bike, no new sneakers, no new nutrition. Trust what got you there in training and let it rip.

Also, don’t let the shirtless man leaning on a trash can talk you into the 50-1 shot you’ve never heard of. He may say he has a tip from some guy who works on the backstretch who heard from a friend, who knows the owner’s brother, who said the horse is a lock.

Trust your bets and trust your training.

5. Don’t forget to look around. This may seem contradictory to my first point, but remember to soak it all in. Ironman is an event that’s unmatched in the triathlon world. It’s a rewarding experience and you should take in as much of it as possible. The same is true for the Kentucky Derby, whether you’re there in person or watching it at home.

Look around at the scenery, take in the spectators, their signs, and comments. Eat all the post-race food, hang that medal around your neck, and smile for every camera.

At the Derby, check out the funny hats and gimmicky drinks. Listen to the bugler call the horses to the post, the race announcer rally them down the stretch, and the roar of the crowd when the field turns for home.

Here’s a bonus I thought of while writing. You’ll have trouble walking after both events. One will be because you just covered 140.6 miles and the other because you consumed too much alcohol. That‘a been my experience, at least.