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Swimmers run into cold Pacific ocean for swimming section of Santa Barbara Triathlon, California, 2007


By Rob McGovern (@robguv)     13 Jan 2017

The heat of Malaysia’s Langkawi makes completing—and designing—an Ironman course an exceptional challenge. Race director Carl Smith explains how the route was crafted

The Malaysian island of Langkawi lures in more than 3.5 million tourists a year with its promise of white-sand beaches, marine life and watersports.

But every November, a different kind of traveler flocks to the island: Ironmen and Ironwomen.

The first Ironman event was held on the island back in 2000, and that sealed it in the minds of triathletes from all over the globe—with last year’s event attracting athletes from more than 60 countries.

‘The course was designed to give athletes something to talk about after the race was over’

Simply staging an Ironman event is a mammoth effort involving hundreds of people—and coming up with the route is a key factor.

Designing an Ironman course is always a challenge, but the heat and humidity on Langkawi adds to the headache.

Courses need to be challenging but doable, without athletes dropping out. Enjoyment of the route is also an important consideration, and so the course also needs to be interesting enough.

Race Director Carl Smith needed the route to be unique but also to highlight as much of the beauty of the island as possible.

‘The route took a lot of effort and many trips to discover,’ Smith explains.

‘The initial vision for the event was to incorporate Kuah town and the iconic eagle statue, but we quickly realised that there weren’t many places to hide from the unforgiving heat,’ he adds.

The lush green hills and valleys of Langkawi guarantee spectacular views on the triathlon route

Designed by a committee of race operations experts and locals, the course was designed to give athletes something to talk about after the race was over.

The cycling section circumnavigates the island and passes by tourist destinations like the Datai Bay waterfall, Langkawi Craft Complex (a cultural museum), and Makam Mahsuri—the tomb of a young woman who was accused of adultery in the 18th century before being executed by stabbing. Rolling hills follow and with them monkeys, local villages and paddy fields.

The run has predictably spectacular views, with the Mat Cincang mountain range serving as an impressive backdrop.

Pantai Cenang is the most popular of the island’s beaches and it is here that runners finish the race to rapturous applause.


‘Around Ulu Melaka after Makam Mahsuri has a beautiful backdrop of paddy fields and hills—but beware, it is challenging’


Ironman Langkawi was Hafiza Othman’s first.

Starting out as a novice runner to try to lose some extra weight, she gradually increased her distance until she found herself running marathons and then ultramarathons. Unsatisfied, duathlons followed, and somewhere along the way, an Ironman race became her target.

Targeting 15 hours, she crossed the finish line with 30 minutes to spare.

Othman recommends some spots in Langkawi for training. ‘[Pantai Kok] is clean and accessible and a great place to swim,’ she says, also endorsing key sections of the cycling route for amateurs.

‘From Pantai Kok along Teluk Yu road is beautiful, and around Ulu Melaka after Makam Mahsuri [tomb] has a beautiful backdrop of paddy fields and hills—but beware, it is challenging.’

But if the Ironman sounds too extreme altogether, beginner and intermediate runners who are looking to do some exercise and meet a few people along the way should consider the Langkawi Beach Hash House Harriers.

A running club that is as much about fun as it is fitness means that you can take it as seriously as you like—but no two runs are ever the same, enthuses Harrier Bob Gabriel.

‘It could be on a beach, in the jungle, or through kampongs (local villages), but it is never the same route as discovery is part of the adventure,’ he says. To add to the discovery element, the runs are ‘complicated and purposely remote and can only be followed with floor markings,’ he adds.

For those who prefer two wheels, 19-year-old Langkawi native and triathlete Lim Chee Yong recommends a 40km cycle from Kuah, the island’s district capital, to the cultural village of Ayer Hangat and back.

Lim’s route is fairly flat and starts, conveniently, at Kuah Jetty, the entry point for those coming from the mainland or Penang Island.

Cycling through town, the route continues north, skirting Gunung Raya Forest Reserve. The town soon gives way to thick forest before you reach Gunung Raya golf course around the halfway mark.

Continuing on through Belanga Pechah village, passing Langkawi Wildlife Park en route, you finally reach Ayer Hangat Village, a purpose-built hot springs complex.

Leisurely riders can stop here for a dip, or just head straight back to complete the route.

For more cycling options, the Tour de Friday is a group of expats and locals who explore the various villages on the island with different 25-30km rides every second Friday.

(Both the Langkawi Beach Hash House Harriers and the Tour de Friday riders choose Fridays as it’s a day off in Kedah State which generally means there are fewer vehicles on the road.)

What other races in Asia do you compete in? Share your favorites with us @momentumtravel.

Main photo: Alamy; body photo: Shutterstock 

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