Challenge Wanaka 2011, Race Report

WanakaFinish

Time: 10:14:19
Swim: 54:15
T1: 2:48
Bike: 5:32:23
T2: 1:26
Run: 3:43:27

Race analysis here

This is a race I’ve wanted to do for a few years. Described as the most beautiful in the World and having spent nearly a week in the area ahead of the race I had no doubts it was likely to fit that description. My first Challenge event and it had just the friendly atmosphere I’d expected. The day before the race there’s a sprint triathlon including Elite racing in the evening. A very nice touch. Another nice touch is that on race day there is not only the Full Challenge event but a Half as well and relays in both. This allows a huge variety of people to be involved in the race which is great.

Race morning and already a strong wind was blowing. The wind predicted to arrive after most had finished the bike had arrived already and seeing as the winds tend to pick up in the afternoon this was likely to get tough. The good news was the wind was warm and the water was the warmest it’s been all week. I had the least nerves ever for a race and slept well the night before. I was looking forward to getting racing and was excited that finally in this last week I had started to feel recovered from Busselton. Not only recovered, I was feeling good.

The race plan was simple; be conservative on swim and bike then see how that affects my run. Since Busselton I’d been changing my run technique to forefoot running. This had involved initially just running a mile then a day off. Only in the last two weeks had I run over 20k and only once. The run felt like a journey into the unknown but I was looking forward to it. The other thing I was trying out was increased nutrition. Firstly I forced down at least 1,500 calories for breakfast: two bananas mashed with some peanut butter, 75g muesli added, big dollop of full fat strawberry and rhubarb yogurt covered in about 300ml of cream.

Stood on the beach for the start with Jo 10m ahead for the Pro start I had mixed feelings. It was seriously rough. This was great for me as a strong swimmer but it wasn’t the best for Jo. First goal was to bridge to the Pros and when the gun went off I raced in and within a minute was at the back of the Pro pack. I sat in there super comfortable. Suddenly we’re passing a swimmer, it looks like he stopped to take off his cap probably realising he was going to be too warm (the water had been very cold so many had neoprene caps on), I had two caps but would have been better with one. He then swam through, I tried to get on his feet but couldn’t. It looked like 2 or 3 got away and the rest of the Pros were accompanied by myself and another age grouper.

The sighting of the pack was terrible so I followed my own line. It’s a fact, I’m better than average at sighting ;o) .. I think it’s because I comfortable sight every stroke. At one point a pro tried to cut across me to get to the pack which was way off course I couldn’t believe it. I knew who it was – Belinda Harper who we’d met at the VIP drinks (yes we get to these things now Jo races pro !). It’s funny because I think my reaction was to shout something like “where the hell are you going” and talking to her after the race she heard !! At each buoy the pack came back together and swam over each other. It was ridiculous so after the 4th buoy I surged to the front managing to break up the pack and do the second lap with just a single swimmer on my feet. I relaxed into the massive chop. I reduced my sighting as it felt like you swam more easily through the waves with less head lift. I focussed on long powerful strokes making the most of every arm recovery. I really enjoy the rough conditions and kept reminding myself I was leading the age groupers and almost certainly my competition were suffering more than me. I wondered about the poor buggers that are already scared of the swim and struggling to make the cutoff, these conditions are likely to make it impossible for them. I came out of the swim and the guy on my feet ran by and thanked me. Daniel shouted that I was in 5th … it was quite motivational seeing how excited for me he seemed to be. I felt good, that had been a comfortable swim in very tough conditions.

Got my wetsuit stripped and was out on the bike in no time. Another part of my nutrition plan was to have a mars bar in my T1 bag and eat it in transition and at the start of the bike. Not only calories but also I felt it would force me to not get over excited at the start of the bike. I got the whole thing down and it kept me at an appropriate effort for the first few KM by when my excitement had reduced and my brain was engaged. There was the usual shake out at the start of the ride. I resisted the temptation of trying to go with the Pros’ who were hammering to try and bridge to the front group. A couple of age groupers came by but again it looked like early enthusiasm so I let them go. A third age grouper came by and I immediately wondered whether it was an over enthusiastic inexperienced Ironman as he belted by me on the hill but I closed on him on the downhills / flats. I decided I wouldn’t let him go. I also decided that I was really going to keep my efforts down for the first 100km or so. The reason being the wind was REALLY strong and the nature of the course was it started with 50-60km with decent pinches, then about 60km with this gale on your back but the final 60k would be almost all into the teeth of this gale. Anyone over cooking early on was going to seriously suffer.

Petr Vabrousek came by me during the pinches I remember noting how he passed on the flats but on each hill he didn’t pull away. It checked my efforts as it was clear even going easy I was going too hard up the hills.

The 60km with the tail wind was awesome increasing my average so I got through 110km in 3 hours (sub 5hr pace). The age group dude ahead was doing a good job and keeping my efforts down but he was showing signs of having overcooked it – he kept freewheeling, stretching. I spent a lot of time sat up as it seemed to make no difference being aero with such a strong wind on your back. I was also preparing mentally for the return and getting food in. getting ready. The guy ahead was getting quite annoying with how much he slowed for aid stations, at the final one before the turn he slowed ridiculously so I decided to start to up my effort, I gapped him and never saw him again.

Turning into the wind was unreal. Down on the aero bars pushing 240 watts or so and at times not even managing 15km/h. If you are ever in this position remember what I am about to tell you – my perception of how slow I was going was way worse than how slow I was going which i found out in hindsight. The reason is the tendency to look at your figures during the extremes. So it was when I was pushing hardest and going slowest I’d think “I wonder how bad this is” and look at my speed and see 13.x km/h. I felt for the weaker riders behind me and how they’d cope (I heard later some ended up pushing on sections) and how many marginal Ironman completions would be scuppered by making the bike cut off in these condition. I went by Luke Dragsta like he was standing still, he was clearly having a bad day. I was now on my own trying to gauge my own efforts, no one in sight ahead or behind. It was so hard mentally, just kept reminding myself this was the same for everyone and because I’d beens conservative early on I felt really strong and I convinced myself I would be coping better than my competition. At around the 140k mark a friend Paulie came by. He was riding strong. I’d ridden with him on the Five Passes and felt he’d be good to pace off. We exchanged a few words and said “Not much more of this” and despite I really should have known this was a fib (there was about 30km in total more of it) it really perked me up. I couldn’t match his pace but held him in sight for the next 20k and it really motivated me. Every so often there would be a lull and I urged myself to ramp up the pace as quick as possible to make the most of it. The final decent hill up to the airport was a welcome relief – it was nice not to be fighting a headwind. There were also the slower Half competitors to real in which added interest. Before I knew it was flying down the hill into town.

T2 was pretty quick. My Vibram Fivefinger Treks are a little easier to get on. I was racing in them because a lot of the run is off road. I was looking forward to this run. I was out on the run course before another cyclist had come in. i could just see Paulie ahead and wondered whether I could catch him. Almost immediately running with my new technique felt good. In fact, it felt like a revelation as it seemed I was using different muscles to those used on the bike. With my old technique it felt like I was using the same ones. Very quickly I felt like I was running fresh. I was running easy and knocking out 4:50 km/h. I stayed relaxed and didn’t push it. The outlet track along the river was gorgeous. Rough, up and down and seriously fun. It wasn’t till 9km that I hit a split above 5 min and hit 10k in 49 mins. I then climbed the first major hill – I relaxed and thought about my fell running, maintain the cadence, reduce the stride length. In fact, it felt nice running up it. In the past such a hill would have robbed my pace for after but I relaxed and found myself at 5 min /k again. I felt as comfortable as in the early KMs. The final part of the lap is cruel – some steep downhills which are slow and painful and you get with clear view of the finish but have 4k to go and have to turn away. I’d run the whole lap without seeing another soul that was on my lap. As I ran the turnaround I felt I was starting to suffer but was still at 5:10 pace …it wasn’t falling apart. Now was my only chance to check out the competition. Only 4 minutes or so back out on my lap and I saw the first guy in my age group. He looked determined and running well. It’s funny how whenever you see someone chasing you you feel they’re looking good and running better than you. Also you assume they’re not going to crack. The first 6 kms that 2nd lap took 32 minutes. I was battling in my mind. I felt if I ran like that he would have to run well but not great to catch me. I then hit the really nice trail and never before has this happened but I was able to really push the pace and my heart rate up. Normally at about this stage my legs start failing and I’m unable to raise my HR above 130. This time however I got through the next 5km in under 25 mins at an average HR of 145. I was now thinking if the guy behind catches me he deserves it, every KM I did in 5 mins meant he’d have to do one close to 4:30. I started thinking this was mine to lose. Up the big hill an then hit the next 4 km in 20 mins. 6 k to go and I’m still feeling strong. As I approached the last aid station with 4k to go I was starting to struggle with the pace. I decided to walk through and get 4 cups of coke down me ! I felt I was struggling but still got through those final 4k in 21 minutes. It seemed that with this new technique even when my legs are aching I can relax and still tick along easily. The other great thing was not even the slightest hint of cramp in my calf – the first time in probably 3 years or more.

Coming in to the long finish chute I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The atmosphere was superb and I was experiencing that rare but amazing feeling of knowing you’ve executed an excellent race. I ran strong throughout, even splitting so perhaps I could have gone a little quicker but the way my legs felt as I came towards the finish I reckoned i’d measured it just right. I also knew I’d won my age group … two of my years goals achieved in the first race. Not bad.

The race organiser Victoria was there and congratulated me – she seemed genuinely pleased for me. I was given my medal by Richard Ussher; you don’t have to be long in New Zealand to view this guy as a legend. He looked at my shoes and said “Look at those bad boys” and asked to see the sole. I lifted my foot up bending the knee and cramped my hamstring briefly. Never had cramp there before I took as a sign of my good technique ! We chatted for a while, there was no rushing you from the finish line, all super friendly just like the whole race had been.

Entering the recovery area I was weighed and sent to medical as I’d lost 4kg! Thats service but I felt great and after 10 minutes in there was let out for massage and food … though it took a good hour before I could face anything other than soup.

I want to race this again. It’s a beautiful course which makes the most of the wonderful surroundings, it’s efficiently organised and super friendly. It’s a pretty big race which feels like a local race. Well worth the trip out to New Zealand to avoid the northern hemisphere winter. Certainly if I could afford it it would become an annual trip for the next few years.

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