This fast, flat, spectator-friendly event takes place in the Arizona desert in November, attracting thousands of triathletes who've trained the entire season—and are ready to fly. Competitors start with a one-lap swim in Tempe Town Lake before mounting their bikes for a challenging three-loop course through the Sonoran Desert. The Ironman finishes with a run around the Tempe Town Lake and Papago Park, and the top 50 racers will qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. "Because it's so urban, it allows spectators to see their athletes several times throughout the day," says race director Judy Stowers. "When the athletes leave town on their bikes, they have the rare opportunity to ride on the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community land, which provides a beautiful landscape and backdrop for what is always a very fast bike course."
Xterra Lake Tahoe
Incline Village, Nevada
One of the classic Xterra courses, this off-road triathlon starts with a swim in the cold, clear waters of Lake Tahoe—one of the world's deepest alpine lakes. Next, competitors hop on their mountain bikes for a 22-mile ride beginning with a sandy climb that takes them all the way up to the region's famous Flume Trail. From there, it's a rocky, fast descent on the Tahoe Rim Trail. All told, prepare for about 4,000 feet of climbing. Luckily, the six-mile trail-run portion is relatively flat (and fast), meandering through aspen groves and over several creeks. On average, first-place finishers complete the course in about three hours. "Lake Tahoe is an amazing setting," says organizer Todd Jackson. "This is one of the more challenging races. Finishing times for this one are typically longer than for the Xterra World Championship—and that's for the same athletes. Over the years, it seems as if everyone who participates in this event truly has a sense of accomplishment."
Deuces Wild Triathlon Festival
Show Low, Arizona
Many races claim they offer something for everyone, but few live up to that promise as well as the Deuces Wild Triathlon Festival. Though the name sounds hardcore, tri-festivals aren't just for masochists. "We aim to provide the perfect balance between competitive multisport and a fun, relaxed atmosphere for the whole family," says race director Angie Kandalaft. With weekend events on offer that range from Olympic-distance to Xterra races, both Mom and Dad can race without having to leave the kids behind.
Mountain Man Sprint Triathlon
This is a beginner-friendly sprint that's worthwhile for the forest scenery alone. Or, as race director Eddie Carin puts it, the Mountain Man is "cool, clean, and green." The event is both one of the oldest triathlons west of the Mississippi and one of the most gorgeous—it starts when everything's in full bloom from the earlier rains. But it can also be punishing: if you opt for the Half-Iron or Olympic races, you'll be greeted by a 450-foot ascent only a mile out of T2, and by the thin air that comes from being nearly 7,000 feet above sea level.
Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon
San Francisco, California
Triathlons don't get much more picturesque that the Escape from Alcatraz—and this race has the prestige to match. Though it might sound like a tourist trap, the triathlon is far from that: in case a 1.5-mile swim, through freezing-cold bay water, from Alcatraz Island to the shores of San Francisco doesn't sound tough enough, organizers have tacked on an 18-mile bike ride through the Presidio and an 8-mile trail run through Golden Gate Park. But if you want to participate, you'd better start training—the race only allows for 2,000 competitors. Lots of other triathlons cut through gorgeous natural settings, but this one immerses participants in a great urban center at the same time.
Survival of the Shawangunks
New Paltz, New York
This USA Triathlon–sanctioned, eight-stage event is called the SOS for a reason. "What makes this race so unique is the 50.8-mile course featuring one scenic bike ride, three swims across pristine, glacially carved lakes, and four runs through two nature preserves loaded with spectacular vistas ending at the world-renowned Mohonk Mountain House Smiley Tower, which looks out over four states," says Joe Stern, its director. The race culminates with a monstrous climb to the finish—you gain a thousand feet of altitude in five miles.
Next Up: Triathletes Rebeccah and Laurel Wassner