Travel and Accommodations
You can access Panama City Beach through the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, located about 20 minutes outside the city limits. Flights can sometimes get pretty expensive and/or limited. Alternative airports include Pensacola and Tallahassee which are both within a two-hour drive of Panama City Beach. You will likely need a rental car for the race so plan accordingly.
Accommodations are wide and varied. While there are a lot of people in town for the race, the town itself is in a low season and has the capacity for a crowd. Chances are the room rates will decrease significantly the farther away from the race venue you get.
Swim: The ocean can be easily accessed at the race venue itself or anywhere along the beach. However, when the winds are out of the south it can become very rough, in which case I suggest using their Aquatic Center. It is fantastic 50-meter facility (likely set to 25-yard) and it even had Ironman participant rates when I was there.
Bike: The bike course can be easily accessed for training prior to race day. It is generally safe with bike lanes along much of the course, but be careful when approaching the congested areas near the race.
Run: Run training can be done easily anywhere in town and along course.
The weather at IMFL can have a wide range of variability, though most years it has ideal conditions. When the winds are out of the north and east you can expect flat water, lower humidity and calm seas. If the opposite winds are present, you can expect the opposite scenario. The swim has been cancelled before, but only once. Even though it’s Florida, it can be rather cool in the morning and the race starts just as daylight breaks. Additionally, if you will be racing past sunset (about 6:00 p.m.) then plan to expect some cooler temps in the closing hours.
Plan to have something warm to wear in the morning as you set up in transition. Also, if it says “Tow-Away Zone” they will definitely tow your car. Park elsewhere. There is nothing worse than finishing an Ironman and finding out that your car has been impounded.
IMFL has a two-loop ocean swim with a beach start and a run-out in between laps. I would strongly suggest checking the areas where you will be running in and out to see how the water has shaped the sand bars. I can remember one year where we had to actually run across a sandbar and dive back in before actually getting to shore. While it is most likely to be smooth, it’s best to know for sure. Water clarity is excellent and water temperatures are typically in the lower 70s (though it is highly dependent on race week conditions).
The IMFL is known for being fast and it has only gotten faster over the years thanks to continued road condition improvements as well as ideal racing conditions. It is a one loop course that initially takes you along the boardwalk before entering more rural areas to the north and east. When the winds are out of the N/NE/E you can expect fast conditions on the back half of the course. Additionally, the winds build throughout the day so the faster you ride the early miles, the faster your overall day is going to be. As you make your way back onto the boardwalk area for about the last 7 miles of the course you will be riding along the coast next to many high rise condo buildings. These inevitably cause some awkward wind gusts that can hit you at in opportune times. Be heads up in this area.
The run course is two “loop” out-and-back that turnarounds in the national park on the far end of the island. If there’s any elevation change, you can probably measure it in inches instead of feet. Temperatures on the run are typically ideal in the 70s, but there is still a pretty big standard deviation from the average. Warmer and humid run conditions are possible, though less common.
Hitting Club La Vela is always recommended. Spring Break ‘99 is alive and well there. While it is a bit cooler, the beaches in Panama City Beach really are very nice and are not crowded at all at that time of year. One restaurant I recommend is Dee’s Hang Out. It’s an assuming spot, but has good food.