Athletes begin their day with a protected, saltwater swim, a 56-mile journey on a one-loop bike course along the Texas Gulf Coast and a spectator-friendly, three-loop run that is fast and flat.
With race day just around the corner, it’s crunch time – time to sneak in those final workouts, take a renewed look at the course, and organize yourself for the trip to Galveston.
pictured: Man during the running portion of the IRONMAN 70.3 in Galveston
Back in 2017, I was tasked with the quest of infiltrating the triathlete community for a book project (which ultimately became the irreverent narrative Swim Bike Bonk: Confessions of a Reluctant Triathlete), and through that experience, I learned just how stressful the days leading up to the race can be.
The whole thing was basically a blur. Packing for the race might have been more stressful than the race itself, and between registration, orientation, bike check, and practice swims, my awareness was maxed out. I had little time or energy to devote to trip planning beyond the race, even though I had invited my family to come to watch. When they showed up and asked what there was to do, I was embarrassed to tell them I had no idea.
Like a good little triathlete, I knew where I could get a bike tune-up, and I knew where I could buy my race rations. But as to what the destination had to offer outside the race, or where I would take them to dinner – that was completely on the back burner.
I know how hard you’ve trained for this race, and for some of you, it’s your first time. The best gift I can think to give you, as someone who has been there, is this: a small guide of things to see and do in Galveston, customized for the racer and their support crew.
Perhaps it will ease some anxiety and give you some ideas on how to relax before the race. And of course, where to celebrate after.
The days leading up to the race are busy. There are a number of administrative tasks (bike check, orientation, etc.) as well as physical maintenance – stretching, light exercise, and relaxation, no doubt. When you combine that with incoming family and friends, those two or three days before the race begin to loom large.
Balance here is key. You’ll want to block off certain times for body maintenance, and of course, plan nothing for Saturday night, the night before the race. But if you arrive a few days early, I recommend taking some time on Thursday and Friday to explore Galveston.
In his historic section of Galveston, majestic iron-front buildings house a variety of boutiques, restaurants, and museums, centered around its main street, “The Strand.” It’s a great place for a leisurely afternoon walk, with many window-shopping options for dining and several intriguing, low-impact/energy activities.
Take a walk out to Galveston’s Pier 21, where you can get a sense of its current and historic role as a seaport. Galveston was at its peak during the late 1800s/early 1900s; now it’s a cruise ship port and fishing hub.
You can check out the Texas Seaport Museum to learn more, or step aboard the 1877 Tall Ship ELISSA for some perspective. The Pier 21 Theater offers historical documentaries, including two of note: The Great Storm of 1900, which recaps the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, and The Pirate Island of Jean Laffite, which recounts the campaign of a Galveston-based pirate in the 1800s. Those who have always wondered about the oil industry might be into the opportunity to tour a retired rig at the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig & Museum.
For lunch, dinner, or take-home, it’s hard to go against local seafood, and I suggest checking out Katie’s Seafood Market there on the pier. It serves fresh-from-the-boat seafood from local fishermen to cook at home, or you can dine-in at its café. Another nice food option for carb-seekers is the Sunflower Bakery, a family-owned restaurant famous for its breads, soups, and fresh seafood platters. (See “After the Race” below for more options).On the way to or from the Seaport District, pop into Maceo Spice & Import Company. Open since 1944, it sells specialty spices from all around the world – and Texas. It’s a great spot to pick up some stocking stuffers that you can use all year round back home.
You probably won’t want to embark on a major outing, but Galveston is home to many natural and wildlife areas that would work well for a relaxing walk. There’s no better place than the bird-happy Galveston Island State Park, with its trails, kayak launches and fishing spots.
Alternatively, if you want to get out on the water, there are a couple of mellow opportunities. You can take a historic Harbor Tour and Dolphin Watch, or jump on an 1800s-era paddle wheeler.
If you’re looking to relax before the race, you’ve chosen a great location to do so. With an excellent climate (70-degree days in November) and more than 35-miles of beaches on the island, you’re never far from a beach day in Galveston. In that sense, you can grab a slice of sand anywhere that’s convenient. If you want to roam around, check out Stewart Beach and East Beach in the northeast corner. It’s a wonderful place to walk and let the wind carry any worries away leading up to the big day.
Obviously, you’ll be a bit busy during this time, but have mercy on your support crew – they may need a break!
The Galveston course is very spectator friendly – it all happens in and around Moody Gardens – and provides a number of opportunities to see racers along the way. But some segments are better than others. If friends and family ask you what they should do and where they should go, here’s what to tell them:
For most competitors, the swim will take somewhere between 30 minutes and one hour. This doesn’t leave much wiggle room, and besides, the race has just begun. Tell your family to pick up a coffee and plan to hang for the duration. They can see the start at Palm Beach, then enjoy a stroll along the coastal path before watching you come in and transition to the bike on the other end of the Moody Garden’s property.
Since most competitors will take about three hours on the bike, it’s the best opportunity to bounce out for a break. It’s enough time to grab breakfast in another part of the island (such as the Historic Seaport District or Sunflower Bakery), take a walk on the beach, or, depending on your interests, explore the host location of the race, Moody Gardens. It has environmental and scientific programming every day, including the Aquarium Pyramid that’s home to tuxedo-clad penguins.
The run is the best chance for your support crew to cheer you on because it consists of three laps that all take place right there in the Moody Garden’s complex. Because it’s the end of the race, and runners are able to be seen at least three times with ease, it’s best for your support crew to stay put. Advise them to check out an exhibit at Moody Gardens if they must; but otherwise, the job here is cheering and support each lap.
The best part of a 70.3 as compared to a full-length Ironman is that you finish with half the day still at your disposal.
Physically, my post-race experience was not so great. In fact, it wasn’t until the next day that I could really tie a bow on everything and celebrate. But, regardless of whether your celebration takes place that night or the next day, it’s sure to be a good one.
In theory, this section could be very short. It’s Galveston – simply grab a cooler and dig your toes into the sand somewhere. Case closed.
But, assuming you’ll want a beverage or two, and a hearty meal at some point, here are a couple of places to consider:
If you’re looking for a reasonably-priced seafood heaven, make a reservation at BLVD Seafood. Located on the corner of 28th and Seawall, the beachfront restaurant sources its seafood from local providers like Katie’s Seafood and Galveston Shrimp Company. Don’t miss the signature dish, the Gulf Coast Flat Fish Stack. A full bar and wine menu, as well as steak options, will keep everyone happy.Learn More
An island tradition for more than 110 years, Gaido’s specializes in Gulf Coast seafood along with homemade sauces, salad dressings, and desserts. Specifically, Gaido’s pecan pie has been named the best pecan pie in Texas by Texas Monthly for several years.Learn More
Boasting a gigantic palapa roof and direct views of the gulf, The Spot is an “island-style” casual hangout with everything you want in a post-race meal: Gigantic burgers and po’boys, fresh seafood, tacos, and other Texas favorites. I recommend going at sunset to experience the full beauty of the Galveston coast while enjoying a drink.Learn More
If you’re looking for fine dining, consider Rudy & Paco – seafood and steak with a South and Central American twist – or Number 13 – upscale seafood/steak with waterfront views in Pelican Rest Marina. For dessert, check out La King’s Confectionery, an old-school ice cream parlor in The Strand historic district.
Where the Texas Coast begins.
by Mary Beth Bassett
by Visit Galveston
by Kristine Rivers
by Clayton Kolavo
by Karla Klay
by Visit Galveston
Will McGough is an international travel writer, tour guide, and trekker. His book, Swim Bike Bonk, explores the cult and habits of the triathlete community. He enjoys being outside and splits his time between Hawaii and Colorado.