Improvement keeps me excited. After 6x Coast to Coast races I had stopped seeing it, so it was time to move on. The plan for the 2014 summer was to chill a bit and enjoy a summer not spent training for Coast. That was when the seed was planted. Mike Jones from Clif Bar, SmartWool, Polar and Nuun gave me a call. He had an entry spot in Challenge Wanaka if I was interested. I was.
It began as a playful experiment at something different. But I finished 3rd pro and was instantly excited by the potential to experience more of that addictive feeling: Improvement. So I skipped Coast again in 2015 and raced to 2nd in Challenge Wanaka. It sure felt good, but I knew I could still make significant gains. So the 2016 race was again top of the agenda.
Saturday was my 4th Iron-distance race. I was a little more experienced, a little more prepared and a little more hungry. I was also confident and relaxed. The confidence came mostly from the improvements I had seen in my swimming. Jeremy Duncan from H2O Dreams in Invercargill had made a huge difference to my swim and I was still benefiting from the squad swims here in Wanaka twice a week. I figured that with less pressure to make up time out of the water, I would be able to execute a more consistent and measured race on the bike and run.
The lake was rough. Exactly what I had been told to expect all summer by Jeremy. Prepare for a rough lake, anything less will just feel easier. Sound advice. I don’t seem to mind rough water. Ironman Sweden was even more rough and I remember enjoying my swim that day.
We were delayed 15 minutes as the swim course staff did an amazing job to reset the swim buoys in the high winds. Then we were off. I swam most of the stage with plenty of company. That had to be a good thing. I kept a process-focus and 55-odd minutes later I was exiting the lake and running a gauntlet of home-town cheers on my way through to transition. I heard the distinctive voice of Amy amongst the noise yelling a time split to the front: 10 minutes.
I had a sleek transition and was quickly aboard my new Trinity and Enve SES 7.8 wheels. When I ride in these events I spend a lot of time focused on my own thing. I had noticed Joe Skipper riding behind me (we exited the swim together) but I was really only interested in following my heart rate and power on my Polar M450. The turnaround at Hospital Flat offers a chance to get some splits and I calculated I had taken almost 2 minutes out of leader Dylan by this stage.
By the Maungawera Hill I had moved past Per Bittner and Graham O’Grady into 3rd (behind Dylan and Maik Twelsiek). It was windy out there and I was trying to find a balance between worthwhile and unnecessary risks on the aero bars. I had a bit of a low patch for the middle third of the bike stage, but the nutrition I had packed for the special needs station at 98km helped bring me back to 100% and I was feeling good again by the second time up the Maungawera Hill, although still in 3rd.
The last split to Dylan and Maik had been around 5-6 minutes so I was surprised to spot the bright orange colour of Dylan’s bike just ahead as we neared Hawea Flat (at around 130km). I passed him going up a hill and said gidday but realised from his low key response that he was probably on struggle street for the time being. I was into second place but beating Dylan was not going to be as easy as that. There was still a lot of racing ahead.
By the end of the bike I was 3.40 down on Maik and running scared from Dylan. I set into the marathon and was happily holding sub-4min/km pace instantly. After 10km at this pace and still feeling good I began to realise I was in with a good shot at passing Maik soon. I spotted him on Gunn Rd and passed him at the Outlet Rd approximately 13km into the run. He looked to be running quite nicely, but I was still worried about Dylan so kept the heat on and moved away from him soon after going by.
I turned in town at the 21km mark in 1.25 and kept a close eye on my watch to make sure I had an accurate idea of what was happening behind me. Maik was around 3min down by this stage, Dylan around 11min and a fast charging Matt Russell not far behind him. I now turned my focus towards keeping composure and form. The last 21km were going to decide the outcome and for the first time in my Challenge Wanaka career, I was in the driver’s seat.
Apart from a small amount of cramp in the final 6km, I felt ok and tried to enjoy the final moments of my race before I hit Ardmore St and emotions would no doubt take over. It had started to rain and I was impressed as I neared the finish line to see so many people braving the weather and cheering me home. I soaked up the support and was guilty of a few tears as I looked around to see so many familiar faces of people that I consider very good friends throwing there hands in the air for me. Crossing the line was one big fat emotional blur.
It takes quite a team to make a dream like this come true and I am very lucky to have the team that I do. There are so many to thank but I really want to mention Amy and Flynn, Val Burke, Jeremy Duncan, Will and Joy Harvey and Mike and Rhoda Mountz. I want to thank my sponsors especially Torpedo 7 for 10 years of support. I want to thank the community here in Wanaka for such heart warming support before, during and after my race on Saturday. Finally I want to make mention of my DNF at Ironman Canada back in August. That was the pits. But if Saturday’s victory taught me anything, it is that by not giving up and by maintaining your belief and trust in what you are aiming to achieve, you will get there some day. Between the Coast to Coast and Challenge Wanaka, I have been trying to win ‘the big one’ since 2009. A more talented athlete will have achieved it sooner. But I have worked hard, kept a good attitude and kept coming back. So I have to say, it feels bloody good.
Will I be back in 2017? I guess the answer lies in the question of improvement. Can I still go faster? Can I get better? Absolutely, I believe so. But so can others. For now, I will enjoy the feeling and share it with those around me. Next year will come around soon enough so now is the time to just smile and be happy. Nothing in life is guaranteed, so I choose to enjoy the good moments for what they are. Challenge Wanaka 2016 was full of many good moments, so I plan to enjoy the feeling for a bit longer yet.