Ironman Florida Course Recap

This is a guest post by Sonic team member Sean Walsh.  Sean is an Ohio native and multiple time IRONMAN Florida finisher.  

IRONMAN Florida (IMFL) is by far my favorite event in North America. Seven times and counting to be exact. Lots of factors are at work that collectively result in my overall love for IMFL. To start, I am a native Floridian (Miami), and this race has a nostalgic attraction. Due to its location, Panama City Beach, family, and friends are willing and able to travel and provide race support and get a mini vacation. IMFL draws triathletes from all over the globe and provides the opportunity to meet and race with them. A unique characteristic is this race is like an annual reunion with the high number of triathletes that come back year after year to race IMFL.

Where to Stay

Panama City Beach, Florida is a vacation destination with plenty of places to stay. High rises with condos, homes for rent, etc. There is no shortage of places to stay with several being a short walk to Pier Park where the Ironman Village, transition and finish line are located. In my experience, Calypso is the most convenient option. Very close to Pier Park and Ironman (.1 of a mile), close to the swim course, .01 of a mile) and directly on the run course. You will find the right place for you through Air BnB, VRBO or any other online booking service.

Let’s Talk about the Course

The Florida panhandle is an ideal alternative to the weather in most of the US in early November. Emerald, green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, comfortable warm temperatures and an ironman course that offers a combination of speed, and leisure are usually on tap for all that race IMFL. This race offers one of the flattest bike and run courses and is the second longest consecutively running IRONMAN event in the continental United States (going strong since 1999). The breathtaking coastal views of the Florida Panhandle, and fast course can be ideal for PR Seekers and First-Timers. Beautiful beaches lead to your 2.4-mile Gulf swim around the Russel-Fields Pier. High speed through the beautiful Florida pines ideal for a personal best on a flat, fast bike course. Electricity from the crowd packed run course on Front Beach Road overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Finally, the best Finish Line, outside of Kona and Louisville.


IMFL is a Saturday race. If possible, get into town as early as Monday. Additional time will help you acclimate to the heat, humidity and calm your nerves with the beach vacation atmosphere. Also, keep your eyes up! IMFL has become favorite for professional triathletes (it’s the first opportunity to qualify for the world championships). Also, a favorite for other non-triathlon sports celebrities.

Morning Transition

Opens at 4:45 AM Central Time and closes at 6:30 AM Central Time. The transition area is a large, long, dimly lit rectangle. Unless you are AWA, you will most likely rack your bike on one of the longer racks in the middle of transition. It’s tight, crowded, and hard to move the first 45 minutes that transition is open. Around 5:45 AM, the crowd thins out and the area becomes much less frantic. Special needs for the run and bike are located just outside of transition on your way to swim start. Quick tip – Avoid the frantic crowds and get to transition around 5:45. But, drop off special needs first, then enter the transition area. Once done, you can enjoy the walk down to the beach for swim start.


You will have ample opportunities for practice swims the days before the race with access to the course right off the beach. Before you ask, no, I have never seen a shark/s while in the water during a practice swim or during the race. Race morning, it will be wetsuit legal. Ideal conditions for the swim start with winds coming out of the north that will flatten the water and reduce the size of swells / waves. Any other direction and you are in for a lot of wave action and challenging currents. Especially if the winds are coming from the east or south. This is a 2 lap swim, Ausie style. Meaning you exit the water and have a short run / walk across the beach and re-enter the water at swim start. Usually, your 2-lap swim is an opportunity to get prepped for the day with the usual Ironman swim “stuff.”  Quick tip: Get your strength work in. The currents and wind can be unpredictable. You will want the additional strength to combat the currents, waves, and wind.


Congratulations, you finished your 2-lap swim! Time to get up the beach, across the board walk, through the strippers (for the wetsuits, get your mind out of the gutter), cross the street, through Pier Park, into transition, and grab your Bike bag. Yes, it is as long as it sounds to get into T1. Everything is well organized with the best volunteers. Men and women have their own tents that are big changing areas for each with chairs along the perimeter available for use. Get your bike gear on, drop your bag, grab your bike, head over to bike out. All totaled, you just traveled a half mile for T1 to bike out. Quick Tip: Have a plan for T1, don’t sit down and make sure you know where your bike is racked.


Welcome to 112 miles of flat, fast, and fun. This is a great course to get into aero, get comfortable and churn out the miles. From my perspective (currently living in Ohio), there is only one hill that you go over twice and it’s a bridge. Having a flat course can be great but is not as “simple” as it sounds. You need a good plan to manage your effort (watts / heart rate) and allow you to maintain a strong consistent pace throughout all 112 miles. No hills mean you are pedaling non-stop, no down hills to coast. Often, this will cause the bike course to get crowded with riders packed together. Quick tip: Take it “easy” the first 45 minutes and let your legs come to you after the swim. This will help you get into a natural rhythm and then maximize the benefits of the tailwinds later in the race. Yes, I said tailwinds. Remember the ideal wind from the north on the swim? Those same winds are also huge assets on the bike. Much of the bike course has an east west orientation with trees to protect you from the cross winds. By mile 62 you hit the Route 79 out and back. By mile 71, you turn around and the that started at mile 62 becomes the best tailwind ever. With the tailwind, I’ve hit speeds in the high 20’s up to the mid 30 MPH with low watts. Even better, that tail wind stays with you for 27 miles. With the right plan, you can maximize the benefits from the tailwinds and set you up for a strong run and potential overall PR. Quick Tip: This is Florida, it will be humid. Stay on top of your nutrition and hydration plan.


Swim – Done! Bike – Done! T2 is shorter than T1, but not by much. Given the distance, come in with a solid plan for T2. Do not sit down, get your shoes on grab everything else and go.


Welcome to a 2 lap, flat, 26.2-mile party. How can an ironman marathon be a party you ask? Great question. You leave T2 and turn left onto Front Beach Drive surrounded by high rise condos, restaurants, bars, and very, very bad karaoke. More on the bars and karaoke later. It will be hot and humid while the sun is up and can get cool and windy after the sunsets. Every. Single. Spectator…. will be out on course, has been tail gating all day and ready to help make your miles as enjoyable as possible. Spectators on the run course are a special group but bring a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. To truly understand how special, Let’s break them up into 3 groups. Group 1: Pump up the Jam, Group 2: Hits from the Bong and Group 3: You Down with OPP. Bonus points if you can name the 3 artists for each of the afore-mentioned songs.

Group 1: Pump up the Jam: Think of these folks as a 4-mile college tail gate. High energy, cow bells everywhere, music pumping, people jumping. When the sun goes down, the costumes and lights come out. Sharks, T-Rex, the Avengers, will all be on display. They will be there until the very last finisher.

Group 2: Hits from the Bong: High rises, restaurants and bars from group 1 give way to beach front, 1 long parking lot, and a few gated / walled off communities. These folks are also extremely supportive with most content to kick back, hang out, grill out, have several beers and yes, smoke some weed. Fun people with great jokes. Remember, everything is “legal” in Florida. This is the only section of the race I find to be peaceful. Ironman races are long, loud days. With fewer people, less noise and low light after sunset, this is where you can take the opportunity to reset your mind and be grateful for what you are doing.

Group 3: You Down with OPP: This group is at the far end of the run course. Best description – Take the energy, enthusiasm from Group 1, throw in a few bars, karaoke and you have group 3. Almost every body part has been seen on this part of the course. During the 2020 race, there were socially distanced strippers (not for your wetsuit, get your mind off the swim). Might sound odd to say, but all of this occurs in a family friendly setting. Yes. I know that sounds odd. Thanks to the bars in this section, very bad karaoke is a key element for your run. It is so bad, so incredibly bad, you cannot help but forget you are running and at the same time feel good about all your life choices. True story, this year the karaoke was so incredibly bad, it helped to calm my stomach and kept me from getting sick. “Living on a Prayer” never sounded so bad.

Finish Line

Every Ironman finish line is special for everyone that has earned the opportunity to cross it. It’s magical, emotional, gratifying, etc. IMFL is no different. When you get there, regardless of if it’s your first or umpteenth finish… slow down when you hit the red carpet, look for family, friends, coaches, teammates etc… Try your very best to lock eyes and acknowledge the roll each of them played in your ability to finish. This is your finish, your moment, your accomplishment. When the announcer states your name followed by “You are an IRONMAN” ….. nothing can take that away. Good lord I’m tearing up just writing this thinking of how often the Sonic Family has been present at so many of my finishes.

Post Race

Any and everything you need is readily available at the finish line. The athlete food is good, usually burgers, fries, drinks. Medical attention is available as are post-race massages. One huge benefit of the finish line location in Pier Park, which is an open-air entertainment complex. You are steps away from just about anything you could want to eat or drink. New York style pizza, seafood, sandwiches, there is a store just for pies, candy store, ice cream, etc.

The Day After

You wake up the morning after…. Guess What? You are an IRONMAN! Also, you are very sore. Proof you are indeed an IRONMAN. And you probably slept in your finisher t shirt with your medal. First, Finisher Gear: This year (2023) finisher gear specific to IMFL was only available the day after and quickly sold out. If you think race entry is expensive, hang on tight. Speaking for a friend, you will walk onto the merchandise tent planning to only buy a finisher jacket, then you walk out with the jacket, set of dishes, glassware, car magnet, another car magnet, coffee mug, water bottle/s, towels… You will buy all this because it has Ironman on it. For what it’s worth, yes, I bought dishes. Let’s not talk about that in front of my wife. Second, Food. Of course, you are hungry. You’re an Ironman. No worries at all, every type of food, restaurant, bar, is only steps away.

And Now, A little something for our Spectators / Support Crew

Hopefully by now you have a better understanding of IMFL in terms of the course and characteristics that make this race special. Something often overlooked is what can your support team do while you are prepping for and then racing. Part of what makes Panama Beach an ideal location is there is literally something for everyone. For the days leading up to and then during the race, there are lots of options for all ages. For example, there is the beach, an aquarium, all kinds of attractions in Pier Park, shopping, and lots of restaurants. One unique attraction is the Fun Box. This is the world’s largest inflatable playground full of bounce houses, an obstacle course, a special area for the little ones and another for those of us still young at heart.

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