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Best of the Best: Triathlons Worldwide

Take your body through the ultimate challenge, and enjoy the scenery along the way.

Want to push your body to the ultimate extreme -- and see the world at the same time?

Then take a tour of some of the best triathlons worldwide, and you'll discover that the joy of self-inflicted pain can be found on roads and waters in some of the most impressive corners of the globe.

There is no shortage of options, which might be based on how much blood and sweat you are willing to part with -- or maybe on what sort of idyllic or not-so-pleasant setting inspires you to better deal with the pain.

Care to climb mountains on your bike, swim in the open sea, run sand dunes after your escape from prison or finish to the roar of the crowd in a historic Olympic venue? Take your pick -- you can do them all.

Where to Go

Any discussion of triathlons has to start with Hawaii, where the

Ironman World Championship unravels in Kona (Oct. 13, 2007).

This competition includes a heart-wrenching -- and body-breaking -- 2.4-mile swim in the blue waters of the Kailua Bay; a 112-mile windy bike ride along the west coast of the island of Hawaii; and a flat, yet usually hot and humid, marathon on roads that seem to extend into unending waves of lava and black pavement.

Says six-time Ironman champion Mark Allen, "It is not just a physical course like many. It is a course that tests the truth of who you are as a person. If there is any weakness in your character, it will bring it out, which is certainly tough but is also a chance to change it and become a stronger person."

Only a select few qualify in each age group, so the pace is punishing; the pressure to be called an Ironman requires that each contestant finish before midnight, which marks the 17-hour time limit in the race. To participate and to finish just one minute later can render your entire struggle moot.

Still, despite the pressure among both the top professional and amateur triathletes to show well in Hawaii, Kona is not necessarily the be all and end all, even for the elite.

Former Olympian Joanna Zeiger, who has won Ironman events in France and Brazil, admits that she feels rather ambivalent about Hawaii. Her favorite course of any length is the

half Ironman on the Caribbean island of St. Croix (May 4, 2008).

The course here offers an extremely difficult swim in open, choppy water, and what Zeiger calls a "brutal and beastly climb" on a bike, with an average grade of 17% over 56 miles. The run, too, is a hilly one, and the tropical May sun supplies oppressive heat and humidity.

But for Zeiger, it's the people who make the race in St. Croix. The spectators offer unbridled encouragement and unparalleled hospitality, she says. On her first trip to St. Croix during a post-race swim, Zeiger remembers, a family of locals saw her exhausted and famished body floating almost listlessly in the water. They insisted that she join them for what became an unforgettable dinner.

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Of course, an encouraging audience can make the race in any setting. Chuck Prosser, who owns a physical therapy practice in a suburb of Syracuse, N.Y., and is a budding amateur triathlete, finished his first-ever

Ironman this past July in Lake Placid, N.Y., the oldest official Ironman in the continental U.S. (June 20, 2008). Accompanying him on the final lap around the old Olympic speed skating oval were his children.

And thanks to a computer chip that follows each entrant's progress on the course, Prosser also remembers hearing his name announced as he entered this fabled place where Eric Heiden took home five gold medals back in 1980. "You feel like a rock star," he says of his Lake Placid experience, which also included a bike ride alongside the Olympic ski-jump venue.

In the Bay Area in California, another imposing structure highlights the landscape of a major triathlon: the old Alcatraz Prison, where some of the most notorious criminals served time from the mid-'30s until 1963.

Race participants in the

Accenture Escape From Alcatraz (June 8, 2008) begin their frigid 1.5-mile swim -- water temperatures can plunge below 55 degrees -- from boats anchored just outside the imposing walls that once housed the likes of Al Capone and George "Machine Gun" Kelly. A grueling 18-mile bike ride follows, and the race culminates in a hilly 8-mile run through the trails of the Golden Gate Recreation Area, featuring the dreaded 400-step Sand Ladder on Baker Beach. The imposing beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge inspires the athletes on the push to the finish.

Indeed, physical splendor is the pervading theme among many of the great courses; race officials have chosen amazing places to host events.

Ironman France (June 22, 2008) features a swim in the crystal-clear blue Mediterranean waters off the coast of Nice; the

Wildflower Triathlon (May 2-4, 2008) unfolds in the wilderness in Monterey County, Calif., in a place so remote that athletes stay at the campgrounds along Lake San Antonio; the

Pucon Half Ironman (Jan. 20, 2008) in Chile features a swim in a lake at the base of the active Villarica volcano; and

Ironman Canada (Aug, 24, 2008) unfolds in quaint small towns of British Columbia and in water so clean, according to Zeiger, that "you feel like you don't need a shower afterwards."

It certainly can't hurt to swim, bike and run in an inspiring place, Zeiger adds. "If you're gonna suffer, it's nice to have something to look at."

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Nate Herpich is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has also written for the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor and Sports Illustrated.com.