Having spent the better part of my life living in the area (from 9 until I was 26), I thrilled when Ironman asked if I’d share my thoughts on the Ironman New York City venue. Keeping in mind that the New York City Marathon alone covers all five boroughs, it’s a remarkable testament to the gravitas of this race that we have such a spectacular 140.6 mile Ironman course through some of the most scenic areas of the lower Hudson Valley for Ironman New York City. I really learned to be a triathlete training just up the river from the race, and I have a lot of fond memories of many of the landmarks on this course – taking the George Washington Bridge or the Palisades Parkway on numerous trips between my parents house and Princeton, where I went to college; playing lacrosse matches during middle school and high school in Riverside Park; and swimming and fishing in the Hudson River during summer vacation.
Having endured training first for rowing and then for triathlon in New York in August, I thought that special mention ought to be paid to the weather. Typical weather will be 90F+ and 90%+ humidity. I’m obviously no prognosticator, but that’s the conditions that I will expect. Anything better than that will be a blessing. It could certainly be cooler than that, but it could also be hotter as well. One other thing to remember is that the River Valley traps the heat – and the river itself keeps things pretty warm – so expect it to stay pretty consistently around that temperature all day. At some races – like Ironman Arizona – in desert climates, you can expect a cool morning even if it ends up being a scorcher during the run. But this race will likely be hot from start to finish. Thankfully, the whole bike and run course is relatively sheltered, and the Hudson Valley tends not be too windy anyway – remember that Captain “Sully” landed a plane on the Hudson River – so I wouldn’t expect wind to be much of an issue. But this will also make the heat and humidity even more apparent as well, especially on the run.
Given that the big environmental factors will be heat and humidity, make sure to plan for that accordingly with clothing and also with regards to nutrition. Make sure that you adequately hydrate leading in to the race, by which I mean the obvious – fluids – but also special attention to that aspect of hydration which gets overlooked – electrolytes. Enough fluids that you are using the bathroom regularly – but not so often as to get on a first name basis with the janitorial staff – is important, but equally – if not more – important is to make sure you are getting some extra salt in (as well as potassium, magnesium, and calcium), especially in the couple of days before the race. Also make sure that you choose clothing for the run that wicks and dries quickly. A lighter fabric – even if it’s darker – will likely be a better choice than something that really soaks up the sweat.
With a wetsuit swim guaranteed due to race logistics, one of the big questions is already answered. At any race in the Hudson, tides and current are the next things to consider. With a point-to-point swim, current is less of a potential concern than it might be in a swim where you need to go out and around buoys and return to shore and will have to account for the current while sighting; on this course, you’re swimming in the exact same direction as the current for all 2.4mi (3.8km). And, of course, in the slow moving Hudson, current is almost always secondary to tidal influence. Veterans of the NYC Triathlon, who may have seen pro athletes completing the 1500m swim course there in just a shade over 10min – roughly 30% faster than the world record for the distance in the pool – might have held out hope that the tides would dramatically assist their swim performance, but I have to disappoint. Based on the tide charts, it’ll be a tide coming in until about 7:15, then slack tide until about 7:40, then the tide will start to go out. So you will start to feel the benefit of the tide during the later stages of the swim – a nice bonus for those of who have slacked a bit on your swim training, but overall I wouldn’t expect it to have a dramatic impact. The swim course is also a fair bit further upriver than the NYC swim, however, so expect less of a tidal influence than at that race, even when the tide really starts to head out into the bay.
Though I think it’s obvious after talking about tides, it’s worth mentioning specifically that the Hudson is an estuarial body of water this far south, so despite being a river, the water will be salty. That’s certainly not news to anyone from the area, but for out-of-towners expecting a fresh water swim in a river, it’s an important caveat.
Like every other athlete, I have never, ever ridden the bike course and won’t until I do so on race day. You can’t. But I’ve driven that section of the Palisades Parkway – and ridden my bike on 9W which parallels it – enough times to have a pretty good sense of what to expect. As a well trafficked roadway that doesn’t allow big trucks (the meaning of a “parkway” in this part of the world) in relatively prosperous areas of New York and New Jersey, the pavement is pretty good on the Palisades. It’s also a reasonably wide road, so expect to have plenty of room to pass, even with the two loop course.
Be aware, however, that the course is deceptively difficult. Like most areas in the Hudson Valley, there’s very little – if any – portion of the bike that is truly flat. You are always going slightly uphill or slightly downhill. While the elevation profile scaling makes the course seem more dramatic than it actually is – the highest point and lowest point of the main part of the course are only about 400vft apart – you traverse those 400vft numerous times during the 112mi (180km) ride. The total elevation gain is 3,900vft, but it’s very evenly dispersed throughout the ride. There’s no particularly difficult part of the course – no iconic mountain ascent – but there’s also no particularly easy part either. Pacing is an essential part – perhaps the most essential part – of any Ironman bike leg, but the rolling bike course along the Palisades will be especially unforgiving to folks who start out too fast. Combined with expected difficult temperatures, this is a course that will truly reward even pacing over the 112 miles. Those seemingly inconsequential rollers on the first lap will become grueling climbs on the second lap if you are not patient. With a two loop course, you can easily set a goal to really start your race on that second lap of the bike. Patient and consistency are always rewarded in Ironman, and the course in New York will be no different. Keep your effort in check on those gradual inclines and make sure to stay on top of the pedals when coming down the slight descents.
The longest climb of the day is the opening 12 miles of the bike course, when you climb up from Ross Docks to a high point of about 600ft of elevation, but that opening climb also gives you a chance to sit up and get started on your nutrition right away, always a good idea for setting yourself up for a successful race. And, of course, since there’s only a single transition area, you have that same descent over the last 12 miles back into Ross Docks to finish the bike; while that might initially seem like you get to cruise into T2, keep in mind that it’s 600 feet of elevation change over 12miles, which works out to an not particularly dramatic average grade of 1%. If you sit up and/or soft pedal from 100 miles onward, you’ll lose a lot of time. You can expect to finish fast, but don’t use that as an excuse to just take it easy those last 12 miles or you’ll miss out on a much better bike split.
Having been stuck in traffic on the George Washington Bridge many times, I’m certain that with a good run, I’ll make it over the bridge faster faster than I have on numerous occasions, giving some credibility to my own thoughts at the time that I’d probably have been better off getting out and walking! While the one mile run over the bridge will certainly be one of the most memorable parts of the race, it’s a pretty small chunk of the race as a whole. Like the bike, the run course starts with a stiff 0.7mi climb out of transition before heading out on to the rolling route through Palisades Park. And again, as with the bike course, there is almost no flat terrain, with the course always trending slightly up or slightly downhill. Focusing on an even effort – and not panicking if you race by GPS and see speeds swinging from faster than your goal pace to slower and back again – will be key.
After finishing a bit more than half of the run course, you’ll make your way over to the pedestrian walkway of the bridge, and you have a short but relatively steep ascent to get on the bridge, which you then descend from to make your way onto the Hudson River Greenway, where you’ll finally hit the first truly flat terrain of the whole day for the final nine miles of the marathon course. You run five miles south from the bridge to enter Riverside Park, where a series of switchbacks will allow you ample opportunity to cheer on other racers – or size up your competition – over the final miles of the race.
An Ironman finish line is always a welcome site, but expect New York City to do it right for the big finish on 93rd street. When you’re racing in the city that never sleeps, I am sure that the finish will be a spectacle from the very first finisher until the day closes at midnight. I look forward to seeing you all out there. Good luck with your training until then. Have fun, stay safe, and start counting the days until the inaugural Ironman US Championships in New York, NY!