Grafitti at local shop near where I stayed in Auckland
Whilst Americans were freezing in the depths of winter, and my Australian mates were battling record summer temperatures and savage bushfires, I found myself in Auckland New Zealand on a mild, damp and windy morning lined up to start NZ 70.3. My first race in my new M60-64 age group. I had high hopes for a good race, and a burning desire to get one of the 30 Kona slots on offer.
The day before the race, organisers had taken competitors on a bus tour of the “top end” of the bike course, that part which went north from the city, over the harbor/harbour bridge with spectacular views of the city, and around a hilly and technical course that made up the first 35km/20 miles of the ride.
Panorama of Auckland from the Harbour Bridge
Parts of the bike and run included sections from the original Ironman New Zealand course in 1984, the first Ironman event held outside the USA. Organisers had been negotiating with city officials for 2 years to get permission to ride “the bridge”, and other high use city and port areas. The event was a marvel of logistical planning.
The race started at what is called the “Viaduct”, a lavish port development left over from successful America’s Cup days, with mega-sailing boats and huge private motor yachts moored everywhere. Not to mention many hundreds of other smaller boats, including ancient square-rig sailing ships.
If you wanted to be in the centre of the NZ maritime universe, this was the place to be.
Handily the swim leg was started in 4 minute age/gender waves. This meant much smaller groups, less congestion and a clean swim. The zig-zag swim course was compact within the jetty area, minimising choppy water, and held at slack-water on low tide, so there were no currents. The swim was wetsuit legal with water temp at a pleasant 19/66.
Navigation was hard – the swim was “under-buoyed”, with a lot of background clutter making sighting of buoys tricky. More than usual “head-lifting” was necessary to find your way. But the smaller groups from the wave-starts made the swim pleasant. The navigation challenges worked to my advantage. As always I am a slow-starter and a lead group of 8 or 9 made a 50m/yard break on me. But then, inexplicably, (I guess playing “follow the leader”) they all swam a wide arc on the second last leg and I passed them swimming a direct tangent to the next buoy. I was the 4th swimmer out in the M50+ wave – two M50-54 swimmers got the jump on me, and I was second in my age.
By T1 the weather was drizzly, making the technical bike course slippery as well, not helped by the proliferation of large square polished-metal man-hole covers strategically located to cause maximum danger/difficulty/damage. Although I didn’t see any myself, I heard reports of lots of crashes, in particular 9 on one corner just near transition. There were also lots of racers getting punctures.
The wind came into its own on the ride. The organisers had thoughtfully briefed everyone on the Saturday bus tour that the course would not only be windy, but the wind would always be a headwind. It was a New Zealand thing, they said. They were not far wrong.
So, in short, the ride was challenging. I went out hard for me, but was conservative in the slippery/technical places. Following what I thought was a reasonable swim, I wasn’t sure if I was leading my age group. I did not need to ponder long, as coming off the Harbour Bridge a fellow competitor in my age group rode past me like I was standing still. This reinforced my long-standing doubt that I cannot ride! Notwithstanding, I went on to record one of my fastest 70.3 ride times, despite the course and conditions. Pleasing that you can still improve at 60 if you work long and hard enough in training.
So on through an uneventful T2 and on to the run, and we are at last liberated from the omnipresent fear of crash or mechanical failure. I sort a few admin details in my head of how the race is going, and how we are going to push through the final leg of the race to the finish.
I say “we”, because races to me are a partnership between my mind and my body; the mind makes unreasonable demands, and the body reluctantly complies. And in any case “we” were struggling to keep focus on the race because of the pace, and any debate or diversions in my head are a good distraction to take my thoughts away from the body’s reports of pain.
Well, was T2 in fact uneventful? My left shoe foot-liner had, in my transitional rush, doubled over and formed an uncomfortable lump under my foot. Momentarily I savored/savoured the unusual/novel texture, and reflected on how different it probably felt to my right foot. However, my right foot was largely numb coming off the bike. I fought the time-wasting temptation to stop and fix it, knowing that I would simply collapse in a mess of protesting muscles.
In my fatigue I had a surrealistic epiphany, and wondered whether I might “change” feet, ie swap my left and right feet, so that my numb foot could correspond with my crumpled foot-liner and not feel the lump, using one problem to solve another. A brief reflection on the daydreaming impracticalities of foot-changing brought me back to reality, and the mind instructed the body to get on with racing, and forget about the distraction of discomfort.
So on and into the run, and I started passing all kinds of people younger and older, many of whom had passed me on the bike, as I tried to relax, and generate maximum speed from minimum effort. Turn-arounds on the two-lap out and back course came and went, as did feed stations every 2kms. Hydration, nutrition, pace, focus.
I managed feeble waves to spectators who read my name on my race number and cheered me on. And I gave a Wellingtonesque-grimace that passed as a smile. The run was hard, and the bod slowly spiralled towards exhaustion.
But I was in the grip of a mild mania that spurred me ever onwards – I knew of at least one competitor ahead, that I wanted to catch, and I guessed there was an Aussie mate of mine that should not be far behind. I knew that he was a much better runner than me. Relentless push and pull factors; I drove my bod as hard as I could run.
I sniffed the finish – the crowds grew, the cheering became louder and louder, my watch said I should have finished; I pushed all thoughts of pain away, thought of good form and good speed, lifted my effort to max for one last frenzied dash to the end.
Everyone knows what that last 100 metres/yards down the finish chute is like. The crowds are fantastic, you take it all in, convert it to one last push, and cross the line.
Finish at last – the “smile” is a grimace!
At the instant of crossing my body/mind partnership, by prior arrangement, unravels. The mind reels inwardly, the tears well up in the eyes, the mind stops tormenting/demanding of the bod. In turn, the body rebels at the demands having been made of it. I slump on to my catcher, wracked with cramps, heaving for breath, feeling a tremendous lightness of spirit that the race is finally over and I can let the tension go.
The run was pretty much flat other than one small rise over a small bridge, but was roughly 1.6km/1mile too long, something sheepishly acknowledged with a big smile and an apology by race organisers at the presentation after dozens of GPS users queried similar “long” readings on their watches. Given the windy conditions, and on corrected time, the run was up with the best that I have ever done in a 70.3.
I placed third. My Aussie mate came in just 43 seconds behind me, doing the fastest age run split by over 5 minutes. The one Kona slot was accepted by my age-group’s winner, so no roll-down.
An honest course, a tough race. I left it all out there, plus a bit. Now I need to find an Ironman to try and qualify again for Kona.
Time 5:03:44 (corrected = 4:56:14)
Run 1:46:21 (corrected = 1:38:51)
Me and race organiser “Big Bird”
Big thanks to Jeanette Blyth (alias “Big Bird”) and her team for putting on a great inaugural 70.3 race, and to my home-stay hosts Janine (and Gareth) for both a very warm welcome and fantastic support. Thanks guys.
My host Janine, me, and Timex Wellington NZ rep Graeme Robertson