“Ironman Lanzarote” is Europe’s most traditional Ironman race. The bike course, which encompasses the entire island, is particularly notorious. As well as the actual race, Lanzarote is also a popular choice for training. Athletes, like Jan van Berkel from Switzerland, come to the island regularly to prepare for their various competitions.

The “Ironman Lanzarote” race has been held every year (in May) since 1992 and consists of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.2 km) bicycle ride and a 26.219-mile (42.195 km) marathon run. The start and the finish of the triathlon are in Puerto del Carmen, Lanzarote’s most important tourist resort. What started with 131 participants in 1992, soared to a record number of over 2250 triathletes in 2014! As the oldest European triathlon under the Ironman brand, “Ironman Lanzarote” is also the most traditional one in Europe. With Christoph Mauch and Karin Thürig reaching the top of the podium in 2001 and 2006 respectively, Switzerland has already had two “Ironman Lanzarote” winners.

The Lanzarote bike course is especially notorious: as well as a cumulative elevation gain of approximately 8200 feet (2500 m), the triathletes also have to cope with the feared trade winds. The professionals compete for a prize money of 25,000 US dollars – and to also potentially qualify for the world’s most famous Ironman race, the “Ironman Hawaii”. Triathletes appreciate competing on Lanzarote for the contrasts it offers, which include swimming in the sea as well as cycling and running across mountainous terrains and the sand desert “El Jable” between Tinajo, Famara and Teguise. The bike route takes the competitors all around the island, and largely across lava landscapes. The highest point of the route is in the Famara mountain range in the north, at the pilgrimage chapel “Ermita de las Nieves”.

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“You are more sensitised to everything – the feeling, the smell“

Much to his regret, former Swiss junior and youth state champion Jan van Berkel has never yet competed in the “Ironman Lanzarote”: “The timing is such that it always overlaps with my ‘Ironman Zurich’ training, which is a real shame.“ By contrast, Jan from Zurich trains regularly on Lanzarote. “The infrastructure and the climate are ideal. Training is possible all year round thanks to the stable weather conditions.” The landscape is also perfect triathlon terrain offering flat stretches that alternate with ascents and rocky, sandy and paved routes.

When training on the island, Jan van Berkel feels the cumulative elevation gain and the wind: “They make running harder and slower; the same distance takes you a good forty minutes longer here than in other competitions.“ And that is precisely why the triathlete appreciates Lanzarote so much as a training ground: “You are more sensitised to everything, the feeling under your feet or your bicycle wheels, the smell, and at some point you know the roads and the trails like the back of your hand. Thanks also to the volcanic rock, the landscape is never monotonous and very different from tropical Hawaii, for instance. This intense encounter with nature is unique.”

“I associate many places on the island with emotions“

As well as training the ironman distance, Jan van Berkel performs other training units: “It isn’t like skiing where you have to stick to a given piste. I can cross whichever landscape I choose,” the top athlete explains. When Jan trains on the island with a group of fellow athletes and a trainer, he completes two to four training sessions a day. His main focus is on cycling, but of course he also does some running and swimming. Sometimes this can add up to forty hours of training a week. “When I am on Lanzarote, I have to make the most of my time. My mind and focus are on the triathlon.”

Rest days are rare, and Jan usually spends them reading at the beach. What with all the intense physical training, he hardly ever feels like sightseeing. “But I have seen more of Lanzarote than anyone who travels in a motor vehicle. I know so many of its nooks and crannies. And I associate many of the places and landscapes with experiences and emotions, which makes everything even more intense.”

“Fun with surfing“

One of Jan van Berkel‘s favourite places is Mirador del Río, a viewing point in the north of Lanzarote. Situated on an escarpment at 1560 feet (475 m) above sea level, it offers breathtaking views over the cliffs, the strait of Río, the Chinijo Archipelago and the uninhabited “Roque del Este” rock island.

Jan van Berkel’s favourite beach is called “Famara Beach” in the nature reserve of the Chinijo Archipelago. Although this almost two-mile long sandy beach has developed into something of a hotspot for surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing, it is still less touristy than many places in the south of Lanzarote. “I occasionally come here to surf, or to have fun,” Jan van Berkel explains. “But, above all, I like the beach because of the relaxed atmosphere.”

“I eat loads of garlic. After all, I am here without my girlfriend“

The Swiss triathletes stay in apartments in the “Club La Santa” hotel in Tinajo. They can cook there if they want, but restaurant visits are more likely. Jan’s preferred dish: “Papas arrugadas”, typical Canarian wrinkly potatoes served with a green or red sauce. The authentic way to make the dish is to boil the potatoes in seawater, strain off the water and then place the potatoes back on the stove in a covered saucepan. This is how the potatoes get their white salt crust and their typically “wrinkly” look. “I also enjoy eating plenty of garlic,” triathlete Jan van Berkel adds with a grin. “I can do that here because when I am training my girlfriend isn’t with me.” And, besides, garlic purifies the blood, which, with all the physical exertion, cannot be bad.

As early preparation for the “Ironman Zurich” race, Lanzarote has proved to be something of a lucky charm for Jan van Berkel – who has won two second places and one third place at that competition. And, who knows, perhaps he will manage to squeeze in the “Ironman Lanzarote” one day. Considering he knows the routes like the back of his hand, a good result definitely seems within reach for him!

Three tips for the island of Lanzarote

Mirador del Río: The Mirador del Río viewing point in the north of Lanzarote offers breathtaking vistas and is a popular tourist spot. (35500 Lanzarote, Provinz Las Palmas, Spanien)

Famara Beach: Situated in the nature reserve of the Chinijo Archipelago, the beach by the coastal village of Caleta de Famara is a popular location for surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing. (www.lanzasurf.com/lanzarote-canaries/famara-beach/)

Hotel Club La Santa: The sports resort in Tinajo provides ideal training conditions for triathletes. It is also suitable for guests who want to enjoy a beach holiday and explore the island starting from Club La Santa. (Avenida Krogager, s/n, 35560 Tinajo, Las Palmas, Spanien, www.clublasanta.com/en)

Text: Sandra Casalini