A large iron and half iron race starting and finishing at the Thames and taking riders out on a very hilly ride through the Chilterns in between. Not a cheap race but it’s well-organised and in a lovely part of the world with good support.
When: September (since 2011). Reviewed in 2013
Where: Henley, southern England.
Distances: Iron (3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42km run) plus middle distance (half)
Size: Approx 350 iron and 650 half iron triathletes
- Read the instructions carefully as the bagging and racking system is complicated
- Train for fast downhill sections and long medium difficulty hills
- On the swim – use the tall trees along the Thames as markers to gauge distance swum
- Don’t attach your nutrition to the bike the day before as it might get soggy because of rain/due overnight.
- Study the bike course and make sure you are ready for the extra loops needed to complete the distance
- Use tri bars if you have them for extra aero on the downhill sections
- Don’t play chicken with any cars/ tractors!
- Take it easy coming down Howe Hill and get yourself prepared for the climb back up!
- Take advantage of the great feed station offerings and don’t overload your bike with heavy bottles that you can pick up during the race
- Make sure you look up and enjoy the lovely Chiltern scenery
- Get some nutrition on board on the first station on the run as the next one isn’t for a while (pretzels are a good shout)
- Look out for the church steeple on the run back and use it as a marvellous marker that’s close to the loop end!
Video of Challenge Henley and Henley Half
What’s the set up and organisation like?
Just Racing are experienced race organisers with a brilliant head in Alan Rose. This race is part of the Challenge series so has pretty much the same level of organisation as Ironman events and is around the same price – £300+.
You enter online and get regular info updates leading up to the race. A race pack is emailed out well in advance with all the information you need. There’s a good briefing the day before the race as well for last minute advice.
The race village and start were in different locations in 2013 which made for a more complicated racking than normal. Like many big races you are given different coloured bags and need to fill them with T1/ T2 clothing and equipment and hand them in to different tents in each location. The race start where the swim and T1 take place is at Henley Business School and T2 and the run take place about 2.5 miles up the river at Pyllis Court. This is a bit of a nuisance especially on the Saturday when everyone has to move between the two amid the congestion.
The morning and the race itself is very laid back and brilliantly organised. You are able to get into your bags again if needs be and can set your bike up in transition before your race. During the race there are tons of stewards directing triathletes around Henley and the surrounding areas where you go on the bike.
A special mention must go to the feed stations which are manned by lovely people and well stocked with bananas, USN drinks and gels, coke, sweets and flapjacks etc.
What’s the course like?
The swim is in the Thames downstream from Henley and it’s clean and cold. It’s an out and back loop of 3.8km for the iron with a 2km turning point for the middle distancers which is tree lined and rural.
The bike course is a lumpy stretch which takes riders away from Henley and out into about half a dozen small villages. It’s a brilliant course and a cyclists dream. Apart from the hills. The first one hits within a couple of miles and is the second hardest. It climbs up a dual carriageway for about half a mile.
The hardest hill is at the farthest point from Henley and it’s a killer. Howe Hill is 210ft of 13% gradient hell – a real lung buster!
The rest of the course is up and down so quick overall as you can get some impressive speeds – especially the last 2 miles heading back into Henley.
The run course takes you into the centre of town, over the bridge and along the river to a turning point about 5km away then back. It’s really nice with water running along, crowds cheering in town and nice quiet few kms of fields at the far end. A varied and picturesque 10km loop.
How difficult is Challenge Henley/ Henley Half?
As an iron distance or middle distance race it’s never going to be a walk in the park. The swim is hard on the way up stream but noticeably easier on the way back downstream so swim times can be pretty good.
The bike is what makes this race so special and it is not for the inexperienced. The hills are a constant drain of energy and the downhills are almost scary quick at times. But for experienced bikers, this course will be a brilliant challenge. Apart from Howe Hill – no one can say they enjoyed that! The run is as flat as a pancake which is very welcome.
So overall, this is probably a medium difficulty iron distance race as the bike is tough but the run is fairly easy.
How’s the atmosphere?
Having the race village in a different place to the start line makes it that little bit harder for spectators so the start is quite a sedate affair. There’s a PA system with music etc but crowds aren’t as big as at some other events.
The race village though is packed and there’s a great grandstand at the finish for family and friends to watch people finish. The run course means everyone comes through this area at least once before finishing so it makes for a good atmosphere with continuous cheering and support.
Out on the bike course, there isn’t much support but the stewards do a good job with encouragement. On the run there aren’t many groups supporting apart from the finish line as mentioned and a little part of town which is rowdy and supportive.
What is there to do Apres race?
Henley is a brilliant town and there are lots of nice pubs to visit. There’s also a great campsite very close to the race village – Swiss Farm. This could be a good shout for traveling triathletes. Apart from that, Henley has a small but nice high street and all the usual chains.
Henley tourism website here.
My Race Diary
By Joe Tidy
Race No. 10
Time: 6hrs 34mins (Henley Half)
This was my first middle distance and I didn’t train very well for it so I found it seriously hard. The swim was great – a PB for me over that distance. Then on the bike I felt good for about an hour but ran out of power in my legs. The next 2 and a half hours were a nightmare for me as I prayed the never ending 90km+ course would end. I enjoyed the downhills and really pushed on but as soon as the next hill popped up I was in a world of pain!
Then onto the half marathon which I tried to complete in less than 2 hrs but did it in 2:10 because I had to stop a few times and work myself back up to run. My wife, mum and sister came to watch so it was great to see them at the halfway point. My mum also brought her pug puppy so I planned to grab her and run across the line at the end- the thought of this kept me going!
Overall I’m really happy to have made it and I’m pleased with my time considering my lack of bike training. And I’ll never forget the moment me and Yvonne crossed the line together!
Other iron distance races reviewed
- Challenge Henley 2013 – 08.09.13 (phillip75uk.wordpress.com)
- 2013 Ironman Australia (visitnsw.com)
- An IM chat with an Iron Man (zulkey.com)