Ironman Louisville Course Overview & Tips for Racing It

Ironman Louisville
Louisville is the hometown of Muhammed Ali. Float like a butterfly, sting like a be, baby!

I raced Ironman Louisville in 2013 and 2014, when the race was held in August. What follows is my detailed overview of the course and conditions. Please note, however, that since the race date will be October for 2015, my notes about the heat may or may not be relevant. (If you would like to read the race reports about my experience racing IMLou, please click here for the 2013 IMLou report, or here for the 2014 IMLou report, when I qualified for Kona for the first time.)

Overall: I like this race and the city a lot – plenty of friendly people and good places to eat. And, it’s the hometown of Muhammed Ali – what better place to find your inner champion? The race features a warm-water swim, a rolling bike course, and a pancake flat run. The finish line at Fourth Street Live is everything you’d expect from an Ironman.

Want more details about the Ironman Louisville course? Okay, then read on.


All of the race prep and pick up is in the middle of the city, so logistically this can get a little tricky if you aren’t staying in the center of things. John and I stayed at the Hyatt on 4th Street, which was one block from the finish line, and about a half of a mile from the Galt House (where packet pickup was headquartered), and about a mile from the swim exit, which is also where the practice swim was the day before the race.

I found a great rate for the Hyatt using, booking only a few weeks before the race. Tip: when you book a room, be sure to ask if they have a refrigerator in the room. If there isn’t, ask if they can bring you one when you make the reservation.

Another option is to stay at the Galt House, but I’m glad we didn’t because it was Ironman-Central, and all of that activity makes me too anxious. I’ve learned that I have to remove myself from the hub-bub, keeping my arousal level at a 4 out of 10. I’m sure you could also use VRBO to find a house to rent a little ways out of the city. As long as you get into the city EARLY on race morning, you should be able to find parking. As we walked to transition about 4:30 a.m. on race morning, I could see that the parking lot was filling up, but there were still spots. If you are going to drive in race morning, be prepared to come EARLY or have your sherpas drop you off. Transition opens at 4:45 a.m.

For pre-race workouts, it’s easy enough to run along the river. But riding options are a little limited. River Road is okay, but it’s very busy by my standards, with almost no shoulder and crappy road conditions. A better option is to drive out to the loop section of the course (see bike route below) and ride part of that, as that is much less trafficked.

Ironman Louisville Course Overview
Dinner from Bistro 301 – salad and vegetable risotto. Delicious!

For swimming, you’ll be limited to the day before the race if you want an open water option. They hold a practice swim, and I strongly advise you to take advantage of it to get a feel for the river and the current. It also allows you to get a sense of sighting – at least for the last bit of the course. There is a great YMCA on south 2nd Street if you want to a pool option.

There are ample restaurants in the surrounding area, and we used Yelp to find most of the places we ate. The reviews are usually dead-on. John and I are vegetarians, so that influence our decision making for restaurants.

For lunches, there is Zoup or Panera, both of which are on Fourth Street and both of which have vegetarian options. Chipotle was right next to the hotel, but it was always packed to the gills every time we passed by, so we never ate there.

On race eve, we ate dinner at Dish on Market in 2013, which had a race-eve pasta special that was well-priced and tasted good. In 2014, we ate at the hotel, which had a pasta buffet. It was pricey, but I was going for convenience. We also ate at the hotel restaurant’s breakfast buffet, which I really love. All you can eat pancakes – how can you go wrong?

Other places we ate for dinner include:

  • Gordon Biersch Brewery. This was okay. It was close to the hotel and we ate there the night we got into town. They had flatbread pizzas and beer. Who can be sad about that?
  • Bistro 301, which was a very cool little place that had a good atmosphere, and vegetarian options, including a nightly vegetable special. They serve locally-brewed beers in cool glasses.
  • Hillbilly Tea, which has ample vegetarian options (and meat-eater options as well!). This is a restaurant with a hippie-meets-hipster-ambiance. We thought it was expensive for the portions, which are definitely not Ironman-sized. We left a little hungry :(. Taste-wise? Yeah, it was delicious.
  • Bluegrass Brewing Company (BBC) on Third Street. They had a surprising number of options for vegetarians, and the food tasted good. It was bar food, but with an upscale flair. And, the beer is good!

The swim

The swim starts a little over a mile down from the transition area and swim exit. As you can see from the course map below, you will swim up-river for about one-third of the distance behind Towhead Island, which mostly protects you from the current (but not completely, especially once you pass the top of the island). You swim a few hundred yards past the top of Towhead, and then you turn and swim downriver for the remaining portion of the swim.

Screen shot 2014-06-19 at 9.19.14 AM
Image from:

The swim start is a time-trial start, and you will get in line on a first-come, first-served basis. I don’t think you need to be in line at 5 a.m., but you also don’t want to dawdle. The first year, we were advised that it didn’t really matter when you got in line. So, in 2013, we didn’t rush, and we were in line by 6:15 or 6:30 a.m. But, this turned out to be a mistake.

louisville start
Image of the Ironman Louisville swim start. Original available at

Now, to be clear: getting in line this late didn’t make much difference at all for the swim. In fact, Ironman Louisville was the least contact-intensive of any larger triathlon swim I’ve done–both years. That’s not to say there wasn’t any contact, but most of it was constrained to the opening section as we swam up behind the island.

But, for the bike, it absolutely matters how late you get in line. I spent most of the first 30 miles picking my way through hordes of people that first time. My recommendation: get in line earlier, rather than later.

For 2014, I was in line by 5:15 a.m., in the water 7 minutes later, and had the bike course to myself for the first 30 or so miles. It was awesome.

You can bring your morning clothes bag with you in line, and volunteers will grab it from you right before you get in the water. This was super convenient, as it allowed us to keep our water bottles, pre-race gel and other items with us until the start. The bag was safely waiting for us when we finished. Very helpful service! As with any Ironman, the volunteers make the race work.

To enter the water, you will simply step off the dock and your time starts as soon as you cross the timing lines along the dock. They advise you to jump feet first – NOT DIVE – and I have to agree. Diving will only cause a potential crash into the back of another athlete. That’s not cool. Be sure to hold your goggles to your face when you jump, so they don’t come flying off.

As you head out to the turnaround past Towhead island, there may be some sun glare depending on what time you enter the water. This may make it hard to sight some of the buoys, even with polarized, tinted goggles.

I recommend swimming close to the island and staying right on the buoy line. You will get the smallest impact from the current there. Some reporting debris when you swim close to the island, but I didn’t have a problem with that at all.

First several hundred yards of the swim, behind Towhead Island, right after you jump from the dock.
First several hundred yards of the swim, behind Towhead Island, right after you jump from the dock.

When you are behind the island, you won’t really feel the pull of the current that much (and this is dependent upon how the river is running in any given year), but as you clear the island, you will feel it – at least I did. There could be a little bit of chop, and sighting the turnaround buoy (about 400 yards past the top of the island) may be tricky depending on the glare, which is was in 2013, but not in 2014.

After the turnaround, you are now in the open river, and swimming with the current. Whhhhheeeeeeeee!!!. I swam right along the buoy line, and also found it very easy to sight off bridges and buildings in the distance. The big marker is the KFC Yum Center, which is right near the exit.

Ironman louisville
In a sea of similar looking bags, I couldn’t miss mine 🙂

If you read other reviews across the web, there is some talk about swimming further out in the river to reap the full benefit of the current. In my experience, I find it best to swim as close to the buoy line as possible. That is the most direct way to the exit. Given the nature of the swim, you can easily swim the buoy line without any contact from other swimmers. So, there aren’t many draft opportunities, as you might find in a lake swim, but you do have the current.

If you swim too far out from the buoy line, you do risk being whisked away in the channel and/or missing the swim exit.

I thought the water was fine as far as cleanliness. It’s not clear, but I didn’t find it dirty, despite some reports I had read that said it was. It’s not exactly snorkeling conditions, but it’s certainly not the grossest body of water I’ve ever swam in. (Low bar, I know.) The cleanliness factor may differ on a year-by-year basis, depending on weather, boat traffic, currents, etc.

The first year, I didn’t feel like I got much of an overall boost in swim time due to the current. But, in 2014, I did feel like the current was more advantageous for a fast swim. But, you need to be prepared to work into the current for the first part: quicker stroke rate is key. Long gliding strokes will have you swimming backwards. When you make the turn into the current, you can lengthen out your stroke a bit.


Transition bags are lined along the ground and you will run past them prior to getting to the changing tent. My advice: put a brightly colored bow on your bags so you can find them easily amid a lawn of similar looking bags. The bike and run bags are in the same location.


I really liked this bike course. It’s a lollipop-style course, with a 15 mile section out, then you do the lollilop-loop two times, and then you return on the 15 mile section back to transition (i.e., “the stick”), as you can see in the overview below. My Garmin puts the course at 3,000 feet of climbing, and the official Ironman elevation profile puts it at 5,375 feet of climbing – so that’s a bit of a discrepancy. I’m more apt to go with my Garmin, as I find most of the official IM elevation profiles over-shoot the gain I get on my Garmin.

In terms of wind, you will get a bit of everything: headwind, tailwind and crosswind. But, given the heat of the day, this wind is actually quite welcome. When you have a tailwind, you can notice the difference in terms of feeling warmer. So, don’t curse the wind – be grateful for it. It’s keeping you from catching on fire ;). There will be time enough for that on the run.

If you’ve read my previous course overviews, then you know I like to break the routes into manageable parts. So, here are the parts, as I see them, for IMLOU:

  • Part 1 – Riding Out of Town (~17 miles)
  • Part 2 – The out and back/to the loop (~14 miles)
  • Part 3 – The Loop: Part 1 to the turn onto route 42 (~19 miles)
  • Part 4 – The Loop: Part 2 (Route 42) (~11 miles)
  • Part 5 – Redo Part #3 (~19 miles)
  • Part 6 – Redo Part #4 (~11 miles)
  • Part 7 – Bring it home (~20 miles)
Ironman Louisville Bike Course
Image from:

Part 1: Riding Out of Town,  ~17 miles

This is the first segment of the ride along River Road/Route 42, just until you get to the turn onto KY-1694 for the out and back section, for a total of about 17 miles, and about 380 feet of climbing, most of which comes after the first 10 miles, which is flat.

If you get in the swim line late, this is where you are going to have to pick through hundreds of bikers, Holy congested!! There are a great deal of first-time cyclists at Ironman Louisville, so you need to be mindful of what you are doing and don’t expect others to follow the rules. They don’t – whether that is because of willful negligence or lack of knowledge, I can’t say.

Additionally, the road conditions along this stretch are terrible. There are lots of cracks in the road, just waiting for your wheels to get stuck. They do sweep the course, but even still, there is a lot of debris that you will want to look out for.

There is an aid station about 6 miles in, and I recommend topping off fluids, even though it’s unlikely that you will need much. This is a hot day on a hot course and you want your water supply at top levels at all times.

Part 2: The Out and Back, ~14 miles

In this section, I am including the out and back along KY-1694, as well as the return back to 42 which will take you to you start on the lollipop loop. All told, you are looking at about 14 miles.

The out and back section is 10 miles, with 470 feet of climbing. It features a road that is narrower than I would like with two-way bike traffic, with bikes taking up the totality of each lane. The turnaround is at then end of a fairly steep and winding downhill so be cautious! In fact, be cautious for this entire section. It’s tight and a wrong move can spell disaster, which was the case with at least one other racer that I passed on the way out in 2013. Let’s just say he was down and there was a lot of blood. Be smart – ride safe and look out for each other out there.

At the end of the out and back, you’ll turn right back on to 42 and head toward the lollipop, with gently rolling terrain.

Iconic image of the rolling hills and fields of the Ironman Louisville bike course. Photo from:

Part #3 & #5, The Loop, Part 1, ~19 miles per part

This section includes your journey along 393, 146, and 153 (to the 50 mile mark for the first loop, or the 81 mile mark the second loop). This section is roughly 19 miles, with a little over 800 feet of rolling hills. This section has the bulk of the climbing for the loop.

On Ballard School Road into Old Sligo Road, there are a few short but sharply steep rollers. At the end of Ballard there is a fast descent that goes into a very sharp right turn on to OId Sligo and right up a steep (but very short) hill. I went from 30mph to 9 mph in about 30 seconds. The most important thing here is to be proactive with your gearing or you will get stuck and risk overshooting your effort, dropping or worse yet popping your chain. Don’t fear the small ring 🙂

During this section, you’ll come into LaGrange, where they have spectator stands set up. It’s a great boost at about mile 39 for the first loop and mile 70 for the second go round. Other than that, you are mostly out in the country with little to no spectator support. I like that just fine, as I can get into a rhythm and work my effort. But, when you are feeling low, nothing beats the sounds and sights of other humans happily cheering on your lunatic mission.

Part 4 & 6, The Loop: Part 2, ~11 miles per part
The second half of the lollipop returns you to 42, and is about 11 miles in length, with about 232 feet of climbing. This section isn’t as hilly as the other part of the loop, and it’s overall a slight net decline, but that comes in the form of gently loping and sloping rolling hills. So, don’t expect any long, extended descents (or ascents) – there simply aren’t any hills like that on this course.

It’s very easy to sit in aero, in the big ring, and just cruise. Many of the rollers allow you to use momentum from the downhill to make it up the downhill. Look ahead so you can take full advantage of this as much as possible.

Part 7, Bring it home, ~20 miles
After you finish the lollipop for the second time, you’ll head back on the “stick” for the final 20 miles back to transition. You will NOT do the out and back on KY 1694 again – that’s only on the way out.

You’ve been on this terrain before, and the first 10 miles will roll, but with an overall net decline, and then the course will will flatten out. There’s about 150 feet of climbing to 428 feet of descending in this section.

If you’ve paced well, you should be able to stay steady and focused in this section. Stay aero – no matter how badly you want to sit up. You’ll start to see the carnage of people who hammered the rollers too hard – don’t be that person. Be smart in the first half, so you can bring it home strong in the second half.

General Notes

Overall, a key to your success on this course is working the rollers at a consistent effort – don’t over-power up the hills. Stay in your limits and stay consistent. I think a power meter is pretty helpful for this course to keep those efforts in check, since most of these hills are so short your HR won’t fully register how much work you are doing – until you hit the second half, that is.

Most of the hills are gradual enough that you won’t even need to come out of aero. If you work them correctly, you should also be able to take advantage of momentum of the downhill to get you up and over the uphill.

Be sure to stop up on fluids at every single aid station. Proper hydration on the bike is your key for a successful run. Be sure to drink the water with some type of electrolyte replacement. I like Nuun tabs, but whatever works for you should be part of the fueling plan. If you aren’t peeing within the first half, you are in trouble. Drink up!


Ironman Louisville Course Overview
Surface of the sun, people. Surface of the m’f’ing sun. As you can see in this picture from 2013, I’m soaked through from pouring water on my head and keeping ice in my bra. I’m also holding ice cubes in this picture, as you can see my cupped hands.

To sum up the run: hot.

I bet you never heard this one about Louisville, right? But, seriously, take what you think is hot, and then make it about two-times hotter, with humidity you can cut with a knife. Then, you’ve got the Ironman Louisville run.

In your training, be sure to acclimate as much as you can. Part of this acclimation is learning to hydrate properly on the bike, so you aren’t super low when you start the run.

As a southern NJ gal, I didn’t find the humidity of Louisville to be significantly more than what I am used to, but the temperature was definitely higher–about 90 degrees. In 2014, the heat index topped 100 degrees. It was awful. Comparing the two years, 2014 was definitely more carnage and slower going on that run course.

The combination of the heat, humidity and limited shade makes for a sweltering run. If you can train in humid conditions, do it. If that’s not an option, then train indoors with a long sleep t-shirt a few times.

The run is an out and back loop that you do twice. Part of it is through the city, but the bulk of it is in a residential area. I thought it was kinda boring, but not because of a lack of spectators. There is a fair amount of people lining the course. So, if you like spectators, I think there are plenty on this run – definitely more than there is along River Road in Lake Placid or on the trail sections in Mont Tremblant.

But, there really just isn’t that much that is interesting to look at. I love the Ironman Lake Placid Course, as it runs along the babbling river, and then the lake. It’s naturally scenic. Same with Ironman Mont Tremblant and Ironman Coeur d’Alene. But, Louisville is just a run through a urban-suburban neighborhood. Eh. It’s just not my thing.

In the past, the race ran across a bridge over the river, and I was sad that part has been taken out. Without it, I felt like I was running through my neighborhood – or any neighborhood for that matter. Of course, any neighborhood that’s clearly on the surface of the sun. This run is every bit as hot as it is claimed to be. It’s like that the move to October for 2015 will fix this issue – but you never know. There can be some hot fall days for sure.

Take in ice, and pour cold water on yourself at EVERY aid station. Put the ice in every single place it will stay to get you to the next aid station. Hold it in your hands. Be nice to the ice. Love the ice. Let the ice love you.

Because the run is an out and back loop that you do twice, the easiest way to break it up is: first time out, first time back, second time out, second time back. When you come back to start your second loop, you will pass the finish line. This is a cruel trick played by every Ironman race I’ve done so far. It sucks, but let it fuel your fire and help you to get the job done.

The run is mostly flat, although on the way out of town, along the Southern Parkway section (which is the mostly residential section), it feels like a slight tug upward, and then a slight push downward when you head back toward town. But really, it’s almost imperceptible.

Crossing the finish line in 2014, on my way to my first ever Kona Qualification.
Crossing the finish line in 2014, on my way to my first ever Kona Qualification.

On the way back in, there is a little out and back section that takes near Churchhill Downs. I found this very short section infuriating when I was running, and it’s only saving grace was the fact that there was an aid station after the turnaround. Why did it bother me? I don’t know – I was hot, it was sunny, and it felt like a lot of effort to turn left, then make a u-turn, then turn left again.

At the end of the second loop, you will turn on to Fourth Street and select the magical chute that says: “To the Finish.” This is a long enough stretch that allows you to enjoy the glory of the finish, as the fans cheer you onward, and then you finish right under the roof of Fourth Street Live. It’s a pretty cool finish line. 🙂

Take the time to soak it in – don’t rush it (unless of course a time goal or a Kona slot is on the line!).

Post Race

After the race, you have to walk about two blocks to the Convention Center, which feels like an eternity away, but it’s a big space where your family and friends can meet up with you.

If you are doing Louisville this year, or plan to do it in the future, you are in for a great race. I definitely recommend it, as I felt it had a different feel from the mountain races I’m used to doing. The friendly people and the beautiful bike course make it a race worth doing!

If you have any questions, please contact me! If you have anything to add to what I’ve written here, please leave a comment! 


  1. Gregory Wiegand

    Maria, Thanks for the post it is very helpful in getting a feel for what to expect at Louisville. Out of curiosity would you say the swim is faster than your typical Ironman swim with the river current?

    1. Hi, Gregory – I think generally it depends on how fast the current is flowing. The first year I did it, it was a light current, so there was a little bump, but not much. The second time it was flowing pretty good, and yes, a good bump in time. You do have to swim about 1/3 of it upstream, but when you are behind the island, you are fairly protected. Once you pass the island, until you get to turn buoy, you have to fight current a bit – but again, the strength of it depends on how the river is flowing. Once you make the turn, you are with current for the remaining 2/3 of swim. I hope this helps 🙂

  2. Christine Burkey-Kelly

    Thanks so much for your review of the course. I am doing IMLOU with 3 friends this year and for 3 of us, it will be our first. Breaking it down the way you did was very helpful to all of us and make for great conversation during a long bike ride today. Can’t wait to experience this amazing event!

    1. Hi, Christine! Thanks for visiting and the kind words. I’m really happy this course overview was helpful. It’s my goal when I write them to make them as specific as I can because I’m always looking for details when I comb the web for new courses that I do. I’m excited for you to do this race – it’s great! And, your first time finish line – well, it’s just MAGICAL!! Enjoy the race – be smart in your effort – be on point with your nutrition – and you’ll have an awesome day!! Please let me know how it goes 🙂

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  4. caroline wilson

    Thank you for your informative race report! I am racing Louisville next week. I have raced Arizona, Vineman, Mt Tremblant and Los Cabos. I am trying to get a feel for the bike course. I was surprised to see the elevation gain at 5400 per the web site. It sounds like there are no long grinds? Short rollers? Are you able to use your momentum with the hills? I would truly appreciate any further tid bits you have on the bike course! Again, thank you!!

    1. Hi, Caroline! Good luck at IMLou! The elevation gain for the bike course on the official IM website is about 2,000 feet HIGHER than my Garmin, which puts IMLou at about 3,000 feet of climbing. Generally speaking, I find that the official IM elevation estimates are always MUCH higher than what my Garmin registers. Which one is right? I don’t know. But, I go with my Garmin as that gives me a point of comparison between my training and racing.

      I’ve also done Mont Tremblant, and that course is hillier than IMLou to give you a point of comparison–not by a ton, but it is, and the nature of the climbing is different. There are only two really steep grinders in IMLou at Ballard Road and Old Sligo. They are very short – but steep. Make sure you are geared properly. Small chain for sure on them. At least for me…

      There are no long grinds at Louisville – it rolls continuously after the opening section, which is flat (see breakdown above). For some of the hills you can definitely use your momentum.

      You have a net climb during the first half of the loop (and course) and a net decline during the second half of the loop (and course). It’s not a huge difference, but it’s there. The first and last 10 miles of the course are flat, but you could have some wind coming back.

      I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to set yourself up during the bike for a good run. Hydrate and fuel properly. I actually wore a regular helmet instead of my aero helmet to keep from overheating. It was the right move for me. Something to think about…

      1. caroline wilson

        Thank you for the reply! I hadn’t thought about my aero helmut. I had issues with my nutrition and hydration in Los Cabos. I can’t make that mistake in Louisville!! The details regarding the biek course are very helpful!! Wishing you safe training and racing!! 🙂

    1. Hi, Kelly! I’m a minimalist when it comes to special needs bags, so I might not be the best person to ask this question.

      For the bike, I put an extra tube and some CO2’s–just in case I use up the ones I have on my bike for the first part. For the run, I put in a 5 hour energy. I’ve haven’t needed anything that I didn’t pack, but in the past, I have lost things that I packed and didn’t need. So, I much prefer the minimal approach.

      I know others will put nutrition in their special needs for the second half, so they don’t have to carry it. I prefer to be as self-sufficient as possible. So, I carry my nutrition. I take water from the course on the bike, and I take water and coke from the course on the run. And, ice of course!

      I volunteered at run special needs at IMLP a few years ago, and saw a lot of different things that people put in their run special needs – socks, extra shirt, mosquito spray, ham sandwiches (ew!), pickle juice, extra nutrition, vasoline/aquaphor/bodyglide, etc. I think it depends on how long you expect to be out on the run course and what is practical to carry with you.

      I hope this helps!

  5. Derek

    Great write up Maria!
    thanks for the report and breakdown

    if someone like being “off the front” in IM for less congestion on the bike route….in this swim format and with people starting the line way too early….would it be wise to fill tires up night before to around 115psi….then the next morning just load water bottles and any nutrition right when transition opens so can get in line right away? and not mess around with standing in line to have the IM tech fill with air (since I wouldn’t have a pump with me) What about tires sitting overnight at full pressure?

    or just not worry about it do my thing right when transition opens get right to the line and let the chips fall where they may. Its kind of a hack to have a crowded swim course in an IM! I might pull trigger tonight. Great great race and effort this wknd at IMCdA. nice showing!

    1. Hi, Derek! I wouldn’t recommend pumping your tires the day before. It’s pretty hot and I wouldn’t want to risk them popping. Just get to transition as early as you can, do your business and go. We just got in line much too late – we dawdled too much in transition. You could also try to fly with your bike pump – that’s what we did. I just put it in my suitcase.

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