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Comparing M-Dot Ironman races to Non-Dot races

If you’ve been around the triathlon block a few times, you probably already know that the official ‘Ironman’ name and race series is actually a trademarked asset of the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC).  As such, no other races may call themselves ‘Ironman’.  For example, if a local race director in DC were to decide to put on a race with a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run, they couldn’t call it ‘Ironman Washington DC’ – without it being run by/approved by WTC.  Instead, independent races tend to call themselves ‘Iron-distance’ races (or some variation thereof).  This same concept applies to the 70.3 series as well (Half-Iron).

So, when folks look to go for their first Ironman race, they have to decide whether or not to choose an official ‘Ironman’ race (commonly referred to as M-DOT, for the Ironman logo), or an independent race of the same distance.  There’s often a pretty huge difference between the two, so you’ll want to understand the options.

Based on my experience, here’s what I’ve done between the two types:

- 3 Ironman 70.3 races (all M-Dot) – Rhode Island twice, California once
- 2 Half-Iron races (local variants) – Big Kahuna, Wildflower
- 3 Ironman races (all M-Dot) – Canada twice, Florida once
- 1 Iron-distance race (local variant) – Chesapeake Man

Now, the last one- the local Iron-distance race, I did the Aqua-Velo.  But, after I was done with that, I immediately continued on as a training brick and ran a fair distance on the run course – so I have a pretty good grasp of the race (all positive I might add…).

Back in the fall when I did that local Iron-distance race (as part of the aqua-velo), a few people asked me to compare and contrast between M-Dot and Non-Dot (local/independent).  I’m going to span both the 70.3 and 140.6 distances a bit back and forth – just to cover everything.

Pre-Race Activities:

This category depends highly on the race, but in general you’re going to see more activities at an M-Dot Race than an independent race.  Virtually all races tend to offer some form of expo, and in general – these expo’s suck (M-Dot races and No-Dot races alike).  Sorry, they just do – Marathon Expo’s are where it’s at for the good stuff…

Most races offer some form of pre-race dinner banquet.  An M-Dot banquet is a pretty big affair with realistically 3,000-5,000 people (athletes + family), whereas a independent banquet can and usually is a big smaller and less extravagant.  The M-Dot banquet is pretty special the first time you’ve experienced it (they are basically the same year after year).

IMCDinner(Ironman Canada Dinner Banquet)

The ancillary differentiators tend to be things like Underwear Runs, fun 1-5K races, and kids races.  While virtually all M-Dot 140.6 races have these, the 70.3 races usually to have a slimmed down version.  But, independent races have similar events.  For example – the Wildflower Triathlon series has a TON of things that are sprinkled throughout the weekend, and also takes the cake on the communal spirit (with thousands of people camping out in the woods).

IronmanUWRun

In general though, the lead-up to an M-Dot race is going to be bigger than that of a smaller race – mostly just due to pure numbers.  In the case of Wildflower, the simple quantity of people helps to drive more ancillary pre-race events, whereas in the case of the Chesapeake Man (local 140.6), the smaller number of competitors and more local racers make it less desirable to try and stage big pre-race events.

The Swim:

Ok – let’s get this out of the way up front.  There.is.simply.no.comparison…period.

IronmanCanadaStart (Start of Ironman Canada 2008, photo taken by my brother)

With that tidbit mentioned – let me explain why.  There’s just no way to compare 2,500 folks all going out trampling each other, to a smaller field.  Again, it’s purely a numbers game.  In the independent 140.6 race I did, we all started at once – so not terribly different than an M-Dot race (just smaller).  When it comes to half-iron’s, virtually all of them use wave starts – including the M-Dot races.  Which means that it doesn’t really matter too much.

Depending on the race you’ll either have wetsuit strippers or have to self-strip.  All M-Dot 140.6’s have wetsuit strippers (people who assist you in instantly taking off your wetsuit), whereas it tends to be a mixed bag at the M-Dot 70.3’s (and Non-Dot).  At the Non-Dot 140.6 I did, folks were there to help you remove your wetsuit if you wanted the assistance.

LonghornStrippersIMG_3359[2] (Wetsuit Strippers at the Longhorn 70.3 in October 2009, from my spectator report)

From a kayak/jetski on-water support standpoint I find almost all races I’ve done have equal amounts of folks out there.  So that’s a wash (no pun intended).

From a fan perspective, it’s highly dependent on the course.  For example. Ironman Arizona is in a canal allowing folks to literally walk along and watch you swim, but most races tend to be triangles out in the lake/ocean.  Some races do multiple-loops, and some a single loop.  That tends to be driven mostly by logistics of the body of water.

The Bike:

Once you onto the bike, it’s where you start to notice the biggest differences – primarily from a fan-base perspective.  Again, it’s simply a discussion of numbers with respect to athletes and more importantly – the friends and families supporting their athletes.

IMGP1040 (The final push at Yellow Lake at Ironman Canada 2009, taken by The Girl)

The biggest difference you’ll notice is the sheer quantity of spectators on an M-Dot course.  This tends to be because the route is engrained in the local’s traditions of seeing racers come by – in some cases for decades.  The branding/marketing associated with an “Ironman” event further assists in driving home that mantra.  In my experience on both 70.3 and 140.6 courses which are Non-Dot, the number of fans out on the bike course tends to be pretty light (though that differs on the run…we’ll get to that in a minute).

CMCows(The bike spectators at Chesapeake Man 2009…cows)

When it comes to on-bike support the key item you’ll be looking at will be how often water/aide stops are provided.  In almost all cases, this is every 10 miles.  And in all cases, all events have water, plus usually one sports drink.  The exact drink/flavor varies by event (even within M-Dot races), so I don’t depend on it.  It’s there if all else fails – but for me I’m taking own nutrition with me on the bike.   The one exception being those items that I can pick-up at a mid-way point (common for all iron-distance events).   I usually stash some extras in there, but don’t always use them.

The Run:

The run is where you start to differentiate the races – probably because it may be where you spend the majority of your more painful moments.  Little details tend to matter here.

From an M-Dot standpoint, things are pretty standardized – and pretty deep.  On the liquids side you typically have Water, Coke (flat) and Gatorade (and then repeated again).  On the solids side, it varies a fair bit, but I’ve seen gels, pretzels, cookies, bananas, oranges, chips, and chicken broth.  (I’ll be honest, at this stage in the day, details get a bit fuzzy, so I’m sure there are more things out there that I haven’t seen).

On the independent side you generally tend to have many of the same core items (water/Coke/Gatorade), but you generally have a slightly lighter variation on the solid food side (outside of the core items like gel, oranges, pretzels).  But I’ve found in the Non-Dot races you sometimes get some foods that come completely out of left field – but hit the spot perfectly .  So, in many ways, this can be advantageous.

Let’s talk about the volunteers – in both cases, they ROCK!  At deeply established events like Ironman Canada you tend to have the same groups assisting year after year after year.  But, I also found the independent events can be just as much (if not more) fun.  You can’t beat the topless girls at Wildflower (sorry, just can’t), nor can you beat the enthusiasm of the folks out on the Chesapeake Man course.  These guys were offering me anything they could from their RV’s.  To them, it was one big tailgating party, and we were the guests of honor.  If I had wanted one of their hot-dogs or a beer – it was mine without hesitation.

The one difference I will note is the 70.3 races with respect to spacing of aid stations.  In the case of an Ironman and M-Dot races, the aid stations are virtually always every 1.0 miles (+/- maybe a tenth of a mile).  However, in some of the Non-Dot half-iron races, I’ve seen that vary a bit with respect to aid stations.  Not usually a huge deal – just something to plan for.

The Finish Line:

At the end of the day, what matters to most folks is finally crossing that finish line.  And in that category, it’s hard to top the classic M-Dot “You are an Ironman”.  You won’t hear that anywhere else other than an M-Dot race.  You also aren’t likely to see the massive crowds like you would at the end of an Ironman Race.  Remember this video I shot at the end of Ironman Florida last year?

(Ironman Florida 2009 at Midnight from Ray Maker on Vimeo.)

Well, I haven’t see anything like that at an independent race (70.3 or otherwise).  But, what you will see is a more down-low reasonable finish area with your friends and family easily accessible.  And, in the case of most independent races – you can even still bring those family and friends (like your kids) across the finish line.  Due to athlete abuse, M-Dot races now ban this practice (and will DQ you). :(

From a post-race standpoint you’ll generally find the same stuff across M-Dot and Non-Dot races.  Its just that in M-Dot races it tends to be more spread out to simply accommodate the large number of finishers, but generally speaking – it’s all still there in both race types.

JuliaAndMe(At Ironman Rhode Island 70.3, with my little cousin Julia checking to see if I’m still alive)

Remember, once you cross the finish line – no matter which race type you’ve done – you’re going to look like the above. :)

Summary:

So, you may be asking – which race should I do?

Well…it depends.  (See…that consultant in me coming through…)

If a close friend came up to me and asked the question – and they had never completed the iron-distance before, I’d simply recommend an M-Dot race.  After all, it’s the experience that 99% of people aim to have – they want someone at the finish line to announce “Rainmaker, YOU are an IRONMAN”.  That’s part of what keeps them training through long rides and runs.  Yes there are incredible independent races out there (and much cheaper than an M-Dot race), but in my opinion (and I know people believe the opposite), the experience of the M-Dot race is what you pay for.  You pay for 4-5 days of an experience you’ll remember for a lifetime.  Think of it like going to Disneyland for triathletes.

Now…

If you have raced an M-Dot Iron-distance race once, then I think some of the independent options are awesome.  For example, I would LOVE to go race the Silverman course at some point in the future.  I’ve trained on it, I’ve heard great things about it, and I think it would really suit my cycling and running strengths.

On the half-iron side, I think it matters a bit less.  My first half-iron was the Big Kahuna Half-Iron in California, an independent race.  It was very well put on, and I’d absolutely go race it again.   I also would LOVE to go back and race Wildflower again (half-iron or even Oly) – in my opinion it’s an event that at some point everyone should do – the Woodstock of Triathlon.  By the same token, I’ve also had great experiences with M-Dot races, like the California 70.3.

So when choosing a race, ask yourself what you want out of it.  Do you want a (typically) smaller local event with a dedicated race team, or do you want the experience that comes a larger M-Dot race?

For me, the answer is…it depends.

But, I’d love to hear from others – what are some of your favorite M-Dot or Non-Dot races?

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25 Comments

  1. I did the Silverman Half in 2007 and in 2008, and I loved it. Aid stations were great (and every mile on the run!), volunteers were great, beautiful course, etc etc.

    I have been to Wildflower twice as well, and I’m heading back again this year. I love that race.

    I’m doing Rev3′s half and full races as well.

    I have done two WTC races (Oceanside 70.3 and Eagleman 70.3), I liked both of them in certain ways but I will not be returning to any WTC events this year. I think Clearwater is a sham, drafting in many of their races just runs rampant (Florida? omg), I don’t like that they are on a path to corner the market on long-distance racing (5430 series, spirit of racine, lonestar, etc.), and in many ways I don’t feel like they care about the athletes (overselling races beyond what the course can handle, for example), they just care about making money and marketing their brand, which they clearly do well, but still.

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  2. An additional pro to non-M-dot races is that they often have other races going on at the same time or weekend – sprint, oly, kids tri, Tri-a-Tri, 10km, half marathon, all at the same time (I can only think of Vineman 70.3 which also does that, but don’t really know). Great if you’ve got friends/family that want to do one. Really crappy if the organize just jam everyone on the same course at the same time. ChelanMan in eastern washington is a great example of a full weekend experience with a ton of races on somewhat varied courses…

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  3. Anonymous

    Wow! I love your posts. They make for great bedtime reading. Keep up the great work and happy training.

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  4. Jen

    Great infomration for this current Tri-bug receiver.

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  5. My plan is to do at least one M-Dot (both full and half) as the first race of those distances. Then if I continue to race those distances, mix it up based on races available and what I want to do. Thanks for the comparison!

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  6. For me, the biggest issues are cost and hassle. I’ve raced in 3 IM brand races (one full, 2 halfs) and 8 independent ones (2 fulls, 6 halfs) and can’t think of a reason to do an IM brand race again unless I’m gunning for a Clearwater or Kona slot. Ironman brand races often cost about twice as much as non-Ironman brand races (full & half) and they sometimes want you there for 2-4 days in advance of race day for athlete meetings, pasta dinners, to meet minimum stay requirements at host hotels, etc, which I find ridiculous. I love independent races where you can pretty much just show up the day before the race and go. I also love that fewer participants means less crowded swim courses (although I swam so slow at IMFL that I had virtually no contact with others) and less drafting issues on bike courses, esp. on flat ones. I don’t care about titles, tattoos or being called an Ironman at the finish. I’m the type of person who would actually do an ironman with no one looking.

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  7. Fantastic food for thought for future race planning. And, they told us in law school that the correct answer is always “It depends….” :)

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  8. One of my favorite races is Mooseman, which has since become an M-dot branded race… phenominal set up. They actually had live cameras streaming to the internet. My mom saw me come out of the water, watched me climb devil’s hill, and cross the finish line from home. Pretty cool.

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  9. At least at the 70.3 distance, I have noticed no difference between the two types of races. I did Eagleman (M-Dot) and Patriots Half (independant) and had nearly identical logistical, fan support, aid station support, and experiences from both. Eagleman cost twice what Patriots did and since WTC has taken over control of M-Dot branding, their prices have gone up each year, while Patriots has not.

    IMO, I think people (and it seems like they are starting to) should support their local races more to give WTC some competition that will hopefully force them to respect their customer base and not gouge people just so they can say the word “Ironman” or wear their logo.

    I’d like to do a 140.6 M-Dot one day, but I do not believe their operations are in the best interest of their customer base.

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  10. I’m doing IMWI as my first iron-distance race, partly because of Brent’s sound recommendation (similar to your position, I think) that if one might only ever do ONE race at that distance, it would be a pity to be always qualifying it and having to explain that it wasn’t an M-dot! After that, I am looking forward to checking out some more local stuff (I have my eye on Chesapeake Man for sure).

    But I think at the 70.3 distance the difference is negligible – I don’t see the WTC successfuly branding that distance as they have the full. I have enjoyed the Florida 70.3, which I’ve done a few times (but the run course is DISASTROUSLY hot!); but I loved the Bassman Half in New Jersey, I definitely recommend that race, and I’m registered for the Harriman in May as well. These races in New Jersey state parks are lovely – not at all crowded, often timed at cooler points in the year, a very nice feel in terms of volunteers and support etc.

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  11. Vineman here in Northern CA is awesome, but it’s small, like you describe with non-dots. Second your thoughts on Kahuna and Wildflower – two of the best, as well as Escape from Alcatraz.

    I have to disagree on the recommendation of an M-dot race, though. It seems like too much of an all-around money grab to me, and I’m perfectly content not with not having a PA guy say “You are an Ironman” after my 140.6 were done. If a non-dot is a good event, and close to home, and cheaper, those are three tough considerations to beat.

    Very interesting post, though. I enjoyed the comparisons.

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  12. Bob

    Awesome video quality. I’ll have to check out the vimeo thing.

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  13. Cool post, Ray! I guess I never really thought about there being so many non M-Dot races out there.

    For me, I’m more interested in the course/location than whether or not it’s an M-Dot event or not. If I ever made it to a full Iron-distance race, I’d probably prefer the “Disneyland experience” just because you want to be a part of that whole spectacle. If I were going for a Clearwater or Kona slot (hah!) then I guess the M-Dot races would be much more important to me.

    Wildflower would be cool because of it’s woodstock-esque reputation, SavageMan would be cool b/c of its hardcore reputation, and so forth.

    Do you have a dream-race list?

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  14. My favourite race is a local half-Iron distance event. You get a carbo-load dinner and a post race dinner included, way more stuff in your swag bag, and phenomenal support on the course. You know that the guy organizing it really puts his entire heart and soul into the race. Compared to the Lake Stevens 70.3 it won hands down. Lake Stevens had less support on the course and post race food was just pizza. I had to get my dad to buy a bottle of Coke for me at a convenience store since none was on the course and I wasn’t able to tolerate anything they were giving out (nor anything that I was carrying). Lake Stevens was a beautiful course but I doubt I’d do it again, or really gun for another 70.3 race.

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  15. I should probably mention that my favourite race is the Great White North half Iron distance tri!

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  16. With the only experience i had being an independent race, I can say that the price point is appealing. It shouldn’t be about the money,but a 90 minute drive and almost a third the price was nice. That being said, I WILL finish an M-Dot 140.6. Why that is, i don’t know, maybe it really is “the experience” as you talk about it. At some level,an M-Dot is more REAL. This could be entirely in my head, by there ya have it.

    my psychosis won’t prevent me from racing independents though…gotta find those hidden gems ;-)

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  17. My favorite local race, The Lone Star triathlon festival with a sprint, Oly, and half just became a 70.3 race for this year and just last week had its name changed to the Memorial Hermann Ironman70.3 Texas.

    Kevin and his team put on a great race and many of their other races such as Longhorn, Mooseman, and Timberman have all been so popular that they have become part of the 70.3 serries.

    These races were great when they were independant races and have remained great races. Other than the entry fee going up, I have not seen any major changes yet.

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  18. Anonymous

    I’ve done IMFL, IMCDA, and IMAZ; as well as the Aqua Velo at the Great Floridian including 5 mile run after. I generally agree with your comments, but based on the Great Floridian believe the M dot races are worth the premium. Although the organizers did a great job, Brand X just had no mojo! There were so few racers or spectators that it wasn’t much more than a solo effort without anyone out there cheering you on. I truly felt bad for the people going the entire distance. Likewise, I’ve done 6 IM70.3s and 3 Brand X half-ironmans. Same thing there…no MOJO (but close parking was easy!) Except for truly big independents like Rev3 or Challenge series I’m done with the small guys. With few exceptions, you get what you pay for.

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  19. Anonymous

    Having done both a big consideration for me is entry fee which for WTC races is now 600 or more. You better really enjoy the course for that much. I would just as soon do a lower key race for less it’s still a great accomplishment and 10 years from now I’ll enjoy the memory just as much.

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  20. jonathan simpson

    I think as I have completed 38 ironman distance races I can say alot of this is not so. Biggest crowds in Roth,Almere a.d now Penticton. When I compare my finishes at these race to some m dot finishes I can say they where left for dead. Switzerland,Brazil ans evwn Lake Placid the crowd was dead when I came over thw finish line. Lineman is a distace. M-dot just a brand and a pretty boring symbol at the. Go the insependant races much more friendlier and the pasta and awards parties as good if not better.

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    • Rainmaker replied

      Races are different around the world, it’s as simple as that. While you get big crowds for non M-Dot races in Europe, you simply don’t in the US. Whether or not the crowds are big next year in Penticton will be an interesting thing to watch.

      Ultimately, friendliness and crowd interaction end up being driven more by the community than any race organizer…something Penticton may be proving.

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  21. I’m dabbling with the idea of doing a full distance next year…I’ve already made up my mind that it’s going to me a non-M dot race because I simply cannot afford an official one. I’ve actually never done any triathlons, but after getting used to the super cheap price tag of ultra marathons (usually less than $50), the thought of spending $1000+ on a race blows my mind. Sure, I’m probably going to be bummed that I don’t get announced as an “Ironman” at the finish line, but I’m still tackling the same distance and that’s still HUGE. I’m planning on doing Chesapeake Man 2014, so I appreciated your race report on that!

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    • Mike Devenney replied

      You’ll love Chesapeakeman. It was my first iron-distance and I’ll be back again this year. I had to drop at mile 6 of the run, but the race director dropped a medal around my neck anyway. That’s not going to happen at an M-Dot race. Have fun and good luck! BTW – train for a bit of wind on the bike. :)

      Reply
  22. robert

    I ran a marathon years ago and want to try tri. I’ve always enjoyed cycling and swimming so it should be a good fit for me, if my old heart and body can take it. Now for the race – I love motorcycles and history, so the Isle of Man would be as big a trophy to me as Kona. Unique locale and backstory of the course are enough to put it high on my list, although you are right about wanting to hear “YOU are Ironman!”
    Thanks for the article.

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  23. Stevo

    Have been in triathlon 29 years. I have not done an M-Dot race but have done Chesapeake Man 140.6 and Beach to Battleship full. Loved them both, don’t feel the need to do a brand name IM. Less $$, great support, great courses. I don’t need large crowds cheering me (if you do, these are not for you). As for the swim, I don’t feel guilty for not starting with 2,500 of my closest friends; I do the Chesapeake Bay Bridge swim (4.4 miles) every year and with 400-500 swimmers cramming between two bridge pilings at the start, I think I can relate. By the way, Chesapeake Man logistics are fantastic at finish. Get your medal, walk into the gym, have a shower, a message and a meal. And your car is right there. Nice.

    Reply

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