Scale the dizzy heights of triathlon with our guide to the world’s most stunning mountain races

Triathlon Races - Mountain TriathlonsEmbrunman Triathlon

Where Embrun, Haute-Alpes, France

When August 2011

If you suffer from a weak heart, then look away now, as the mere mention of Embrunman will strike fear into the toughest of triathletes. Following a boat with a flashing light in the early morning, this monster of a race begins with a 3.8km lake swim. As you emerge from the water sunrays illuminate the mountaintops, making the thought of cycling 188km through the Alps a little more bearable. With a total of 3,100m of climbing, the longest ascent of the day is 2,361m up the Col d’Izoard (part of the 2006 Tour de France route). British competitor Tom Phillips raced last year and appreciated the the stunning location: “Anyone even daring to attempt this race is hugely respected by the locals, many of them offering watering cans, sponges or a hosedown with some cool water,” he says. The final 42km hilly run ensures every last drop of energy is sapped from your legs.

Triathlon Races - Mountain TriathlonDextro Energy ITU World Championship Series

Where Kitzbühel, Austria

When July 2011

The legendary city of sports, Kitzbühel, hosted its first ITU World Championship Series race last year. Despite being set in midst of the beautiful Alps, the first year’s course was not particularly hilly, but the difficulty has increased along with the beauty. After two laps of 750m in the Schwarzsee Lake, competitors jump on to their bikes for the six-lap course, now with sharp bends, fast narrow descents and a stretch through the picturesque centre of Kitzbühel. The virtually flat run course is all on a smooth Tarmac track, allowing for some fast run splits. Good crowd support will spur you on to the finish line.

Triathlon Races - Mountain TriathlonsConiston/Grizedale Mountain Bike Triathlon

Where Coniston Water, Cumbria, UK

When June 2011

Set in the stunning Lake District, the second triathlon in the UK Mountain Bike Triathlon Series is a tasty option, if you fancy a paddle in Coniston Water and a scramble along the North Face trail at Grizedale. As you exit the water, sling on a pair of running shoes, as T1 is a 400m run away. The bike course starts off gently, taking you through Coniston village and around the head of the lake, before ascending into Grizedale Forest where you hit the dirt. The next km involves some off-road climbing, before you join a challenging loop on the North Face trail for a mix of forest roads and purpose-built single track. The run involves more climbs and descents, taking you up the slopes of The Old Man of Coniston and along Walna Scar Road – an old quarry route.

Triathlon Races - Mountain TriathlonsDuesouth XTERRA Triathlon

Where Grabouw, Western Cape, South Africa

When 26 February, 2011

In A land far far away, the Duesouth XTERRA Triathlon in Grabouw, South Africa celebrated its seventh birthday, with around 1,300 competitors taking part. An extremely testing race, the swim is one flat-out 1.5km lap, giving serious swimmers a head start. This year’s winner of the men’s race, South African Dan Hugo, lives just 50km from the race course and knows it intimately. Hugo describes the mountain bike route as “an awesome combination of cross country and marathon racing”, with some hefty climbing over loose rutted sand rock. “Fantastic views are afforded those able to lift their gaze,” says Hugo. With one hike-a-bike section, some cyclists are forced to dismount a few times through the spectacular boulder rock garden. Extreme heat can make the course even more challenging.

Triathlon Races - Mountain TriathlonTrollveggen Triathlon

Where Romsdal, Norway

When July 2011

Nestled in the beautiful Norwegian mountains of Romsdal, the Trollveggen Triathlon starts with a three-lap swim in Isfjord (‘Ice Fjord’ – although water temperature is around 18°C). The first 12km of the bike leg lets you find your legs and gather speed, as you race along the flats of the Isterdal Valley… but the next 9km are a hard slog up the narrow, steep and winding Trollstigen (the ‘troll ladder’), and the spray from the waterfalls are very welcome. At 750m altitude, contestants begin their run over rocky trails, scree and snow to the dizzy height of 1,450m. With a sheer 1,000m drop (Europe`s highest vertical rock wall) at the finish line, contestants are encouraged to make a hasty stop after crossing the finish line.

Triathlon Races - Mountain TriathlonsXTERRA Saipan Championship

Where Northern Mariana Islands, Saipan

When March 2011

A seriously stunning but rather challenging race, the XTERRA Saipan Triathlon will test even the best of the best. After a 1.5km swim in azure water, the gruelling bike leg takes you on a series of climbs – the highest of the day being 500 metres up Mount Tapochao. This year temperatures reached a scorching 30?C and early morning rain made the already technically challenging run even more treacherous. Four kilometres of climbing and four kilometres descending through dense jungle, short bamboo forest, coral road, a Second World War cave, and two kilometres along a sandy beach are enough to make even two-time winner Sam Gardner grimace. But it’s not all work, work, work, says Gardner, whose highlights are “the afterparty, the hospitality of the locals and the final twisty jungle descent on the bike course”.