by James Oswald
It’s not quite Dubai, Lanzarote or Kona, but Bolton offers and incredible Ironman race with plenty of atmosphere, great crowds, a picturesque bike route and challenging course.
It’s not been easy for any of us training and keeping motivated during this global pandemic, but with restrictions easing and the vaccines roll-out gathering pace there are finally green shoots of optimism that WE WILL be able to compete during 2021. As a result of this triathletes may be contemplating travelling to Bolton to train on the Ironman UK course, or just happy to leave it till race day before they see what the course has to offer. With this in mind I thought it might be handy to give a brief overview of what to expect and a few tips to help make race day go a little more smoothly.
Ironman UK Pre-race Preparation
If you can and restrictions allow I’d highly recommended to get to Bolton to recce the course and familiarise yourself with the surroundings and logistics of a split transition, not to mention a loop or two on the new bike course.
You can even arrange to take in a swim session at Pennington Flash with official swim times from the boat club offering changing facilities, showers and refreshments. These are great for picking out some sighting options on the bank and if you pick the morning sessions it will give you a rough idea of sunlight directions to aid your choice of swim goggles for the big day.
For the race itself get your kit together early and check it over, think it through and ensure you have what you need for your big day. Don’t leave it till the night before registration or racking to find out that your brakes are rubbing, or your goggle elastic has seen better days.
Ironman UK Bolton | Swim Course Tips
The swim start is a short walk from T1, so once you’ve finished setting up your bike you can make your way to the ‘Street Bag’ kit drop off lorries and then onto your starting pens where you can soak in the atmosphere and await the National Anthem. Remember to take a bottle of water with you to stay hydrated and clear your goggles. Then the hairs on your arms will tingle as AC/DC Thunderstruck booms out across the flash and it’s the moment you’ve all been training for.
You’re welcomed into the water by King Neptune holding aloft his mighty trident as you make your way to the starting pontoon in a rolling start. It’s pretty certain to be a wetsuit swim, although non-wetsuit has come close a couple of times.
2021 Ironman UK Swim Course
The two-loop 2.4 mile (3.8 km) swim course has a triangle layout and athletes will head out before turning left twice and making their way back to the start. There’s plenty of room to find your rhythm but the water can get a little choppy at parts due to the number of participants and also the weather can play a part. The buoys are easy to spot and the Aussie exit between the two laps breaks up the swim, gives you a little time to re-adjust your goggles and hat if required, and offers supporting friends and family the chance to see a little more of you than a hat in a mass of other hats in the distance.
Ironman UK Bolton | Bike Course Tips
After exiting the swim it’s a short distance to T1, allowing you to catch your breath, steady the sea legs, begin to peal off your wetsuit, and think about your transition.
Changes to the Ironman UK Bike course
The Ironman UK bike course has changed a number of times since it was moved to Bolton in 2009; the number of loops, iconic sections such as Hunters Hill being removed, the direction of travel, different T2 locations, and natural emergencies.
- 2018 saw a revised shorter 95 mile bike route due to the moorland fires on Winter Hill forcing the organisers to miss out Belmont and Rivington and instead go through Anglezarke.
- 2019 welcomed the most testing route to date that was altered and updated up till a couple of weeks before the race. Even with favourable weather the 2 loop course with elevation rivalling the iconic Ironman Wales, poor road surfaces, technical sections, and risky descents resulted in approximately 15% of starters not completing the bike course by the cut off time or not at all, compared to 1.8% the previous year. For those that conquered the route the average time taken increased by 30 minutes pro-rata.
- Following 2019 feedback the course was once again altered for the cancelled 2020 event and this new route will be ridden by the 2021 competitors.
2021 Ironman UK Bike Course
Once on your bike it’s a short distance to exit the Pennington Flash park area. Beware there are numerous speed bumps and the last thing you want to do at this stage is lose your nutrition/tools, get a flat or fall off! You then head north before joining ‘The Loops’ at Bolton where for some strange reason that I can never get my head around you will turn left and cycle for a couple of miles before turning back to the direction that you came and join in the loop heading back into Bolton Town Centre.
2021 will be a 3 loop course that varies in road surface and environments from fresh laid tarmac in urban neighbourhoods, the cobbles of Bolton Town Centre, to the poor surfaces and potholes of the Lancashire countryside. Gone are 3 long leg-sapping climbs from 2019, but it does mean that you do the ones that remain 3 times rather than twice. From riding both courses the end result is a slightly faster course and reduction of 650 feet of climbing compared to the 2019 course.
Bike course points to watch out for
Challenging parts of the course include:
- a couple of short climbs coming out of Bolton along Winchester Way and Bury Old Road,
- up Reading Brook and Harwood Road past Harwood Golf Club,
- from Turton Bottoms along Green Arms Road,
- and then the joy of Sheephouse Lane up Winter Hill.
Areas to catch your breath, ease the legs or push for speed are;
- coming down from Harwood Golf Club along Harwood Road, but be careful as this is a steep descent in parts with a few technical turns,
- Bolton Road coming out of Edgworth, which would be a good downhill if it wasn’t for the horrendous road surface so keep an eye out for your bottles and tools jumping ship at this point,
- along Blackburn Road when you can get some great speed in aero due to this part of the course being extended,
- coming down Sheephouse Lane, but again be careful as some of the bends near the top can take you by surprise at speed,
- and then the Chorely New Road back into Bolton where you can get back down into aero.
Ironman UK Bolton | Run Course Tips
2018 saw the run course change to the current route. T2 now sits on the edge of Queen’s Park and with two disciplines completed you’ll set off on your 4-lap run safe in the knowledge that the threat of possible bike mechanicals are a distant memory and it’s now just you and the course.
Initially the lap takes in the fairly flat route around Bolton town centre where crowds will gather to support you as you loop your way around the Town Hall (and the finish line) before heading back out and through the picturesque but undulating Queen’s Park, with more supporters and home of the steepest part of the run course that can drain the energy from your legs if you let it. Depending on your race expectations don’t be afraid to walk this part to lower your heartrate and save your legs for the gradual climb along the Chorley New Road past the usually quite intoxicated and boisterous crowds that cheer you on to the turnround point when you descend back down the road from where you came, through Queen’s Park and into the town centre once more.
On your fourth lap excitement will supersede the tiredness you feel as you make your way down the Chorley New Road for the last time. Entering Victoria Square emotions will build as you loop around the town hall for the last time before turning right to enter the finishing funnel and make your way down the magic red carpet. Savour this moment as it’s then and only then that will you hear the four words you’ve been longing to hear…”YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
10 Top Tips for Ironman UK Bolton Triathlon
1. Race-day nutrition plan
Train on your race-day nutrition to ensure you know how much you require to fuel your race and to allow your body to get used to digesting it. The last thing you want is an upset stomach in a one-piece trisuit! For 2021 Ironman have partnered with nutritional company Maurten to supply hydrogels which are available here.
2. Practice the bike course
Try and train on the bike course at least once if you can. If you do get on the course be careful of traffic!! Don’t just go out with the intention to smash your way around the course to look great on Strava. Use your time on the loops wisely to get to know the course, the road surfaces, familiarise yourself with the ascents and descents, the gradients, the length of sections, when to aero and when not to, when to brake and when to push it.
3. Check your bike set-up
Time on the loops will also give you time to evaluate your nutrition, gear ratio, equipment, wheel set up, which parts of your bike may move, rattle, literally fall off or be ejected once you hit the famous potholes.
4. Consider the weather
T1 is set up on a field. If the weather has been poor leading up to the race this can become very muddy and may influence your decision to leave your bike shoes in your T1 Bike Bag or strapped on your pedals.
5. Spare kit in special needs bags
Use the special needs bags on the bike route if the race allows. These can be picked up at registration. The course can be unforgiving with flat tyres, broken chains, dropped nutrition and ejected drinks bottles. These bags are great to pre-empt any emergency with some additional innertubes, gas bottles, specific nutrition requirements etc. Remember though you don’t get this bag back afterwards so only put in it what you're happy to lose.
6. Break it down
Three loops on the bike will be mentally as well as physically tough. I’d suggest to break down the route into their own laps.
- Lap 1: A familiarisation loop,
- Lap 2: You know this, you’ve got this.
- Lap 3: A final push for bike glory.
- Section 1: Start of the loop, around the town centre cobbles, onto the 1st Feedstation and the craziness of the IMUK Ooompa Loompa’s, a couple of climbs out of the town centre and up to Harwood Gold Club before descending down into Tottington.
- Section 2: From Tottington, past Wayoh and Entwistle reservoirs, and to the amazing support at the Black Dog Pub in Belmont that celebrates in Tour De France fashion the start of Sheephouse Lane.
- Section 3: Sheephouse Lane climb, over the top to soak up the atmosphere of the famous Wrestlers Sheephouse Party and the descent down to Rivington reservoir before heading back to the start of the loop.
7. Tailor your Training
Train with the course in mind. Bolton is definitely not a zone 2 flat endurance bike or run. Mix up your training and get used to pushing sat in the saddle, standing up and stomping, getting in and out of aero, spinning the legs and pushing the big gears. Take time to work on your bike handling skills on descents. Incorporate hill reps on the bike and during your run sets, maybe even both on your brick sessions.
8. Plan for the Unexpected
Plan for and expect the unexpected, this is Ironman UK after all. The weather can change in an instant. It can be windy with rain on the tops and still and sunny lower down, the course can change only weeks before AC/DC booms across Pennington Flash, your nutritional plan can literally go out of sight as you turn round to see your ejected bottle being run over by a fellow competitor before you’ve left Pennington Flash, and this year more than any other year your ability to be flexible could be tested as COVID restrictions could result in changes to requirements from you, registration, transitions, the course, start times and procedures, amenities, crowds and the event actually taking place. Remember you can only ‘control the controllables’ - for the rest you have to learn to adapt.
9. Enjoy the Day!
ENJOY THE DAY! You’ve trained for this during uncertain times, so use this as a celebration of all the hard work you’ve done in getting to the start line.
10. Appreciate your supporters
Don’t forget to thank your family and friends for their support. Lockdown has meant they’ve not been able to escape and have put up with you, your moods, your wobbles, your endless triathlon talk and your training for the past 12 months… it’s their day too!
About James Oswald
James completed his first triathlon at Ironman Vichy in his 40s, having been into sports and marathon running for most of his life. Triathlon is now his passion and he has competed in many races as a member of Warrington Tri Club. James also set up Oompa Loompa Alley to bring a little joy to Ironman races, which has gone viral with over 50 Oompa Loompas handing out refreshments and motivation at races across the UK and abroad.