The short report…
I did an ironman distance triathlon called Challenge Wanaka in New Zealand. It was an amazing race. It was hard work. I think I did pretty well. The end.
The long report…
Before I get on with it I wrote a number of posts in the week leading up to the race which may (or may not) be of interest.
Race start was set for 6:30am and as we like to be well prepared in advance the alarm was set for 3:30am. As we woke the van was moving around with the breeze outside. Damn it. Today could just be a tough one. Just after 4am we arrived at the race site in the campervan and found a car parking space literally 3 minutes walk from the main race marquee.
Coffee, suncream, and half a bowl of porridge (I’d already eaten a bowful and was just ‘tidying up’)!!!
Breakfast consisted of a cup of coffee and a big bowl of porridge, although actually probably no bigger than I’d have at home on a normal day! Sharon and I headed off to the transition area where I made final preparations to the bike - this involved filling up the little ‘storage box’ on the top tube of the bike with energy gels and then filling up both drinks bottles with some Powerade drink that we bought in a supermarket a few days ago. Once the bike computer was turned on everything was ready.
The flags close to transition were blowing frantically in the wind and almost directly onshore. This meant that it would be a choppy swim when daylight arrived.
Shortly after 6am I put my wetsuit on, had a couple of Immodium tablets (to keep ‘things’ at bay!) and an energy gel. Then it was time to head off to the swim start.
The race starts on the beach where we run into the water and after about 30-40 metres in it is deep enough to start swimming.
Before the start most of the competitors (there were 238 finishers in the full ‘iron distance’ event myself included had a little swim to try and get acclimatised to the water temperature (16 degrees). A few minutes before the start a helicopter appeared overhead and we were all called back to shore. A few handshakes and ‘good luck’ messages and suddenly the race began. I rushed into the water, took a few leaping steps (handy when you’ve got long legs) and then got straight into front crawl.
I started near the far right of the field on the outside as I’m really not a big fan of a crazy swim melee that takes place and especially so with the water being rough. Although the water was rough it actually wasn’t as bad as it had been the last few days when I did practice swims (on Wednesday and Friday). It still was choppy but not horrifically so.
The first leg of each of the two swim laps was going to be the worst as we headed directly into the waves. It was very bumpy and being able to bi-lateral breath (breathe either side) whilst swimming was a great benefit as most of the out I had to breathe to the left to minimise the chance of getting a gallon of water in my mouth each breath.
The lake was cold but with my neoprene swim hat and the adrenaline of the race I didn’t feel the cold one bit. There wasn’t a great deal of contact between myself and other swimmers - the occasional contact of arms, legs and feet but nothing excessive. Everyone just seemed well behaved.
Although the lake was choppy the visibility underwater was still a few meters, which meant on much of the course you could see the sandy bottom of the lake. I saw a couple of other competitors swim caps on the bottom during the swim. One was an elite woman’s cap so perhaps whoever it was had got involved in some feisty action with someone else out there!
Sighting was nigh on impossible on parts of the course as you were heading directly into the sun, which was coming up over a clear blue sky. You just had to try your best and keep an eye out for the marker buoys every 50m apart.
I spent a fair bit of the swim very close to a female racer - she must had been tiny as her wetsuit didn’t stop half way down her legs (like mine) and she had these little neoprene booties on. I tried my best to stay close to get some sort of a draft but towards the end we drifted apart.
Coming to shore was a welcome relief - as soon as I stood up when the water was quite shallow I glanced at my watch which said 1 hour 11. That’ll do nicely all things considering.
Coming out of the water there was a good crowd of supporters on the beach (including Sharon) which was great and as I ran past her I said something like ‘that wasn’t too bad at all.’
Transition is actually quite big - I got my wetsuit unzipped to my waist (swim cap and goggles still on my head as there’s no point me holding them at this point), ran to collect my swim-to-bike bag and then you have to run about 100m or so across some grass, head up over a temporary bridge that crosses the main road, go back down and then run into the changing tent. Wetsuit off, socks and bike shoes on, arm warmers on (it’s pretty cold at 7:45am), sunglasses on and then run to my bike.
Total swim time was 1 hour 12 minutes and 3 seconds. This was 82nd fastest, 64th male and 26th in my age group (30-39).
Transition one time was 3 minutes 56. This was 39th fastest, 30th male and 9th in my age group.
I think the nature of the entire day was a case of JFDI (just f**king do it), or just get on with it, or HTFU (harden the f**k up). This theme continued all day…
Getting on the bike was a welcome relief. I had a plan which was just to push to a power output hopefully in the region of 230-235 watts. On the uphills I’d not get out the saddle and push like hell or anything like that. The idea is to put a constant and steady effort in throughout and not have any extreme ‘spikes’ of effort, as these will haunt me later!
Bike training has been reasonable lately although I’d not managed to get in all the rides I wanted to for a variety of reasons. I put in some good miles before Christmas but from 30 December to 17 January I didn’t ride a single mile on my road bike. Far from ideal but those were the facts and I had to deal with it. Maybe the ‘extended’ taper would help me feel fresh on the day.
Heading out of town I immediately overtook one of the female ‘pro’ racers. Perhaps she had a bad swim or is a great biker/runner (I don’t think I saw her again all day). I find that it’s so easy to get carried away early on in the bike (and run) and I really wanted to avoid this.
Bizarrely after about 40 minutes as I approached an incline I changed down from the big ring at the front to the small one and my chain came off. I cannot remember the last time my chain came off like this and typical it happens mid-race. Well, I tried about two of three times shifting back and forth to get it back on and it was having none of it. I was just about to slow down and get off the bike after one last attempt to re-engage the chain and lo and behold it clicked in place. Lovely. 30 seconds saved works for me.
When you get to about 70 miles you reach the town of Cromwell - which is where it has been said that this is where the race begins. This is often because of the headwind you normally face all the way back to Wanaka (oh, only 40 or so miles then!!). The wind on the first part coming back was mostly side-on so not too much of a problem but then later on from about 85 miles in you make a left turn heading back towards Wanaka and that’s when the headwind hit you. The wind had been increasing throughout the morning and oh my, it was howling at times. Everyone was in the same boat and you just get on with it but I have to say it wasn’t very pleasant!
One thing I like about this size of field is that it is pretty much a 112 mile solo time trial on the bike. There are no packs of riders like you get at a big Ironman event (which you can spend time and effort trying to avoid so you don’t get penalised for drafting). You just spend time on your own pushing the pace and doing what you can to stay fast and powerful. I didn’t see any drafting at all and everyone I went past dropped back out of the ‘draft zone’ that’s specified in the race handbook and likewise I dropped back whenever anyone overtook me. It was a fair race all round from what I could see.
As for myself, I started fast and powerful and then it got tougher. Early on in the ride I was comfortably pushing above 230 watts and then watched the number slowly decrease! I just found it difficult to keep the effort up. Perhaps I over-estimated what I would be able to do after a 2.4 mile swim and not the ideal taper (about three weeks!). Anyway, as the ride went on I think most people around me were in the same sort of position as my actual position in the field didn’t change much at all. After 34km I was 38th fastest on the bike, I then moved to 32nd, 28th, 29th and then 30th and by the end of the 180km bike (112 miles) I was 31st fastest rider.
I set my GPS to give me a bike split every 10 miles. Not for any real reason other than to get a feel for how the headwind/tailwinds were helping (or not!). The first 40 miles I was very close to 30 minutes for each 10 miles. Then I did a super fast 23:45, 26:39 and then 26:21. This was the lovely tailwind down towards Cromwell. The splits then ‘fell apart’ because of the headwind back to Wanaka. The splits then went 30:02, 33:08, 36:19 and 35:51. It just got tougher and tougher as we headed back to transition.
It was lovely to return to Wanaka and my bike computer had the distance down as 111.72 miles. Spot on I’d say.
Total ride time was 5 hours 37 minutes and 23 seconds. This was the 31st fastest of the day, 25th male and 9th in my age group. Clearly I’m a better cyclist than swimmer!
After finishing the bike you run into the transition area and rack your bike. Cycle helmet comes off and then you pick up your run bag and head to the changing tent. I put clean socks on (my bike socks seemed to be a little, er, wet ;), running shoes, grabbed a bit of Vaseline to put on where I thought there may be rubbing, got my GPS turned on and away I went. Much like in Transition 1 you have to run up and over the little bridge that goes across the main road. Sharon was cheering me on and no doubt pleased to see that I was off the bike and onto what I enjoy the most.
Transition two time was 2 minutes 30. This was 35th fastest, 31st male and 8th in my age group.
Heading out onto the run I got my usual cheer from Sharon who’d been patiently hanging around the main race/transition area as this was the best chance to see me during the day. The run is two laps - of 13.1 miles…
Weather wise at this point it was quite warm (low to mid 20’s I believe), the sun was blazing but the wind was truly howling. It must have been getting close to gale force in the gusts - it really was that windy.
Before long the gravel turned into sand and you were running very close to a beach. I’ve no idea how the bikes that follow the race leaders got through that section at any speed. It was actually only sandy for about a minute or so but this pretty much marked the start of a whole new section of the run course… In addition to the ‘terrain’ it was hot, sunny and blowing a gale in exposed parts of the course. I had to pull my visor down slightly over my ears to try and stop it from being blown off of my head.
About 2/3rds along the outlet track the path narrowed (just wide enough for two people to pass - not run together side by side) and entered a densely wooded area. It went up, down, left, right, all of those together at the same time and was frequently covered with large tree roots (and trees) as obstacles. I wasn’t expected this at all!! It was tough. You couldn’t get any sort of steady pace going in this section. There was even a narrow wooden ‘bridge’ to run across (obviously without any sort of handrails). This was more like a cross-country running race than an iron-distance marathon!
On a couple of occasions during this segment of the course (seemingly in the middle of nowhere) you’d come round a corner and be ‘met’ by one of the official photographers! Bizarre.
There were aid stations dotted around the run course offering a selection of items - water, electrolyte drink, coke (for the caffeine and sugar), high-five gels, bananas and some little chewy sweets. Additionally at the ‘start’ of each aid station was someone with a dustbin full of water and big sponges.
At every aid station I took a sponge and squeezed it over the top of my head to try and get some cool water over me. I then took an energy gel and then water and electrolyte drink. After the first couple of aid stations I got into a more efficient system - when I saw an aid station approaching have a gel (as I’d try and keep at least one or two in the back pocket of my top) and then use the aid station liquids to wash it down and get a new gel.
Coming out of the wooded section at around seven miles you then reach a road called ‘Gunn Road’ - this is a nasty incline that gets steeper and steeper are you reach the summit.
It is about half a mile long and was guaranteed to sap every bit of your energy and slow you to walking pace no matter how prepared you were for it! At the top was a (very welcome) aid station and then you were back on more gravel for the return to Wanaka. On my first ‘ascent’ it took five minutes.
After a while you head into a residential area and are running either close to the edge of the road or pavements. There were a couple more hills (most unwelcome!) and then about 2.5 miles from the end of the lap you look over Wanaka from above. You see the race marquee. You see the main road. You see the finish line. You are so close (probably about half a mile direct) and then the bloody course makes you turn right and head away!
I’m not being negative in any way about the course - much of the scenery and surroundings were beautiful. It was just hard work to run and even harder to enjoy the view!
During this section I could hear a helicopter overhead meaning that the race leader was closing in on me (him of course on his second lap). A few minutes later I was overtaken by the eventual winner (who crossed the line in 8 hours 41 minutes and 53 seconds).
You eventually head back towards the start/finish/turnaround area and it’s slightly downhill. I passed Sharon who was about 500m from the turnaround point and I said something like ‘it’s f**king tough’ as I ran past her.
As there was a half-iron distance race taking place at the same time there were many runners of that event on the course and as you head to the finish area on Ardmore Street you head left if you’re finishing or right if you’re one your first lap of the marathon. Unfortunately I headed right as I had another lap to go. My first lap took me approximately 1 hour 48 minutes 32 seconds. An even split second half would mean a 3:37 marathon time. Hmn, quite unlikely as I’ve never even splitted in a marathon! Not least an ironman where it really gets tougher as the day goes on. Maybe I should try and even/negative split it one day…
Heading back out of town when I ran past Sharon she said to me ‘I know it’s shit but keep strong’ or something very similar. After running the first of two laps I knew exactly what I’d be up against for the next 13.1 miles and I knew it would be tough.
Every aid station on the second lap I walked (rather than ran) through (I started this practice towards the end of the first lap) and followed the same routine - have a gel, grab a sponge and squeeze it over me, take a cup of water, electrolyte and coke and briskly keep walking (with the three cups). Drink them all (in any old order!) and then discard the cups and continue running.
Three iron-distance races in and I firmly believe that (at least for myself) a nutrition strategy consisting of gels and no solid food seems to work and not cause me any real stomach problems. I’ve always tried to avoid coke on the course (although I do remember having I think one cup at Challenge Roth in 2010) but I had no problems with it at all this time and was happy mixing up coke/water/electrolyte drinks! Sharon does say that I have a ‘stomach of iron’ which I think is pretty handy. I’m of the opinion that if it’s good for me then I just have it and get on with it - no matter how it tastes.
About half way through the second lap I remember being overtaken by two men - I thought that it was likely that they were in my age group although the only way to tell is from their race number - which on the run is worn to the front.
From here on I tried to keep them in my sights. I had no plan to ‘race’ them as such but didn’t want to lose them. The run was very quiet (competitor wise) and it made a change to have someone close by running at a similar pace. Second time up ‘Gunn Road’ one of the guys walked it whilst I was about 20 metres behind I mentally didn’t want to walk so kept running/jogging. It wasn’t fast and was in fact pretty much the same speed as the chap walking ahead of me but I wanted to not walk the hill. I kept running. It took about 5 minutes 30 or so to get to the top.
Although there was not a great deal of support on the run course it was really good to receive. I got a few pirate related comments and ‘aaarrrgghhh’ sounds from people and it really provided a welcome boost. I recall seeing outside one house a family had put a sofa and a couple of chairs out in the road and were cheering runners along from a very comfortable setting! On two or three occasions during the run course local residents had put garden water sprinklers in the road to give us a spray. This was most welcome. I also recall a couple of children with binoculars who were looking at you from a distance to see your name (which is printed on your race number) when then personally cheering you on when you passed them.
I’d been doing all sorts of calculations about finishing times during the run and I remember hoping that a sub-11 hour race was my ‘public’ goal (to be honest, it was my only goal!). Well, it looked like I was safe for sub-11 hours and then I was thinking about the possibility of going sub 10:45. I was thinking things like, ‘If I can get my last three miles under 9 minute miling it’s on.’ For someone who’s run all their long runs normally under 7:30 milling this should be a ridiculously easy but I tell you, after 10 hours of constant exercise, the heat, the hills and the wind things are very very different. However, it seemed I could just do it…
Heading into the final 4k (the bit where you see the finish but are nowhere near it!) I decided it was time to make my move and dig really deep. It’s only 4k - less than a parkrun!
At the last aid station I took my usual cocktail of drinks but didn’t walk through - I ran through trying to balance three drinks at the same time! I just didn’t want to slow down at all - I was on a mission!
I didn’t take a gel at this point as it was so close to the finish (and quite frankly I’d had enough of them during the day already!). I’d say my gel count probably totalled around 25 for the day!
I dug in hard and slowly made progress against the men who’d previously overtaken me - and before long I slowly edged past each of them. I now just had to hope that they’d got nothing left in them and that my move was decisive.
Thankfully it was, and they were both in my age group.
Heading towards the finish on Ardmore Street was fantastic. The hard work was done and all I had to do was try and savour the moment. My watch was on 10 hours 39 minutes and I knew I wouldn’t get to the finish before it hit 10:40 but that wasn’t a problem - I was well inside of 10:45.
Seconds later I crossed the line. What a f***ing relief! That was tough. My GPS has recorded the run as 26.19 miles and everyone of them being tough. My run time was 3 hours 44 minutes and 22 seconds. I’m really happy with that seeing as though my time on the much flatter course at Challenge Roth two years ago was 3 hours 35 (and I didn’t measure 26.2 miles there either although you should never fully trust these GPS devices). In Switzerland in 2009 I ran 3:47:26 on a very very flat course. For info my second half split was 1:55:50 (1st half was 1:48:32).
So… overall my time was 10 hours 40 minutes and 15 seconds. I was 30th overall, 23rd male and 7th in my age group. These numbers (overall and male) include all the ‘pro’ athletes who raced as well. Had I not have got past those two other chaps in the last few km’s I would have been 32nd (and 9th in my age group). Digging in that bit extra was in my opinion well worth the effort. If I could have swim, biked or run 15 minutes faster that would have made an even bigger difference and put me 3rd in my age group!
Straight after the finish you are presented with your medal (ah, lovely) and then you head to the ‘recovery tent’ - what this means is you get weighed, get fed, get massaged and get a finishers t-shirt.
First stop… the weigh in. I’ve not had this at a race before and they promptly told me that I’d lost about 7kg during the race. I think it must have been slightly less as when I was weighed at race registration a couple of days before I’d just eaten lunch and had more clothes on. Either way, around a 5kg weight loss it not ideal! I sat down, drunk a few cups of electrolyte drink and then headed back out of the tent to see Sharon who I knew would be waiting for me. After meeting up and trying to describe the day in about 30 seconds I decided to lie on the ground to rest my legs. Sharon suggested that I was looking a little pale and should probably head back to the recovery tent for more drink and some food.
We headed back and spent about 30 minutes near the St. John Ambulance staff who kept an eye on me and told me to keep drinking. Sharon fed me with hot soup and plenty of other drinks and before long I was feeling much better. The post race food was sponsored by Subway, so it was sandwiches all round!
A few minutes later we saw ‘Coach John Newsom’ from the wonderful New Zealand based IM Talk podcast which I’ve been listening to for a few years now. He’d run the marathon as part of a relay team and I just had to introduce myself. He sat down with us and had a chat about my race and his (which didn’t, er, quite go to plan). A lovely chap, and compared to me, a rather short chap! Meeting him was a highlight of the day and in the podcast they (he records the show with a chap called Bevan) recorded a few days later Sharon and I got a nice mention.
I then moved from the food/drink area for a massage, and really it was just an excuse to lie down for 20 minutes and have some lass rub oil on your legs and back. Lovely!
After leaving the recovery area Sharon and I watched a few finishers come in, had a little walk and then headed the whole two minutes stroll to the van and I had a shower. It really was great to have the van right by the finish. After cleaning myself up we had a takeaway pizza and then headed back to the finish line area to watch and cheer the rest of the finishers in. If you’re able to walk and talk after a race like this then I think it’s only fair to go back to the finish and support and celebrate those who finish after you. We had a great time at the finish area chatting to locals and other racers and also joking around with the two MC’s who were great at getting the crowd going - especially in a small race like this where there aren’t many finishers coming in later on in the day. The last ‘official’ finisher (before the 17 hour cut-off) was greeted by a great fireworks display. The end of an Ironman (or ‘iron-distance’ race) is really enjoyable and well worth staying around for and getting involved.
After leaving our campervan site at about 4am we returned back shortly after midnight. Long day! The following day we were back at the race marquee at 10:30am for the prize giving and breakfast buffet - which was superb. I ate like a horse and had two huge platefuls of breakfast. It was lovely! Easily pleased I am… especially when it comes to food.
In summary…. Challenge Wanaka - a fantastic race, a fantastic venue, well organised and far from easy. What a day.