Auckland Ironman 70.3

One of the problems with a job like mine which entails frequent travel (206 days last year), is that it makes it exceedingly difficult to plan one’s triathlon season—even more so when I don’t race on Saturdays for religious reasons. I was therefore very excited when they announced the inaugural Auckland Ironman 70.3 race in late January as I was planning on having some downtime during summer and so the likelihood of travel was minimal. Of course having paid my non-refundable fee, circumstances worked against me which meant that I arrived in Auckland at 05:30 the day before the race after a 20h flight from Washington D.C. Note to self … one needs more time to recover than a day before a race. Especially when it consists of a 1.9 km swim, 90 km bike ride and 21 km run!

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I was with a friend Jen Fier who was moving to NZ from the USA. She is also a triathlete and was very enthusiastic about the race and was a great supporter. After collecting our bags at the airport we went to our accommodation where I put together both bikes and then we were out for an easy 30 km ride around Auckland to stretch the legs and clear the lungs. In the afternoon we went into town where I registered and dropped off my bike, as well as watching the race briefing video. The video was much more effective than many briefings I’ve been to, and it was quite convenient insofar as it ran every 30 minutes all day. Much better than trying to get to a single large briefing. 

Unfortunately, they did not dwell enough on the rules when it came to drafting as that was to be particularly problematic in the race. So much so that a headline in the Auckland Herald in Monday’s sports section read: “Drafting on cycle leg and ill wind in big race”. More on that later …

The expo was very small but Jen found it fascinating to see all the products that are not available in the USA. I had to explain that Manuka Honey does not come from Manuka bees but from Manuka which is what the bees gather from Smile  We tried all sorts of concoctions and Jen took photos of food—a tradition she shares with a friend back home. I met the owner of Leppin Sport which manufactures the best protein powder I’ve come across. My wife must have made a good impression on him as he recalled helping her recently with an order. Highly recommended as the tastiest around.

The race started Sunday morning at 06:30 with the professionals. I was in the 50-55 age group which was at 7:10. Jen and I left about 05:15 which gave me a lot of time to set up my gear in transition. I was pleased that it was a wet suit legal race as my swim training had been less than optimal. Two weeks before the race I swam 2 km three different days in one of Toronto’s pools and that was all the swimming I had done for six months. I wanted to make sure I remembered how to do it …   I had not planned to spend so little time in the water, but just before Christmas I got taken off my bike by a car and my shoulder took a really hard bang so I didn’t want to risk an infection with the road rash by swimming.

An advantage of being such a mediocre swimmer is that one has low expectations in a race. I told Jen that I would be about 45 minutes based on my three swims in the pool. I’ve a great wet suit and this helped me to a 41:31 time, so I wasn’t far off! Nor was I last in my wave. Jen got the photos below of the start.  Just in front of the boat you can see the white buoy with the swimmers from the previous wave going around it.

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The course consisted of rounding three buoys at 90 degrees to each other, then going diagonally towards the first buoy, before turning and heading back into land and transition. As regular readers of my blog know, I’m not a huge fan of the full body contact sport that is triathlon swimming, but at least with wave starts like this you have less chance of being elbowed, pulled under or kicked in the head compared to a full Ironman where there are 1500+ starting at the same time.

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As I expected, the first 5 minutes was hard work as my body tried to remember what it is like to swim, then I got into my rhythm and just worked my way forward. I do enjoy my Xterra wet suit. It’s fast and the extra buoyancy makes swimming a pleasure. The disadvantage to the wave start, for mediocre swimmers like me, is that as the race progresses you get swum over by the faster swimmers in later waves. The first ones from the next wave caught up at the second buoy and I was expecting this. The big surprise was in the form of a kick the to the head that rattled my teeth. Nothing personal—I’m sure he hardly noticed—but it definitely got my attention! No damage done I continued and was very satisfied with my final time. It was into Transition 1 (T1) as recorded by my personal  photographer.

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I’m not that fast at T1 as my wet suit is always really hard to get off. I missed having the helpers we had at Ironman Brazil who pulled our suits off for us. But eventually I got it off and was on the bike.  I must say that I view the swim as something to be endured so I can get on my bike.

The ride took us over the harbour bridge and then through industrial estates on the North Shore of Auckland, before going along Tamaki Drive next to Auckland harbour for two laps. It was a really fast course with excellent pavement condition.  Unfortunately we had light misting rain which made the road slick so I tried to be careful less I crash. There were also very strong winds, with gusts over 30 km/h. I was very glad I didn’t have my disc cover as I’m not a good enough cyclist to control it under such windy conditions.

I was very disappointed at the behaviour of many of the competitors. In non-drafting triathlons you are supposed to leave 7 m between you and the rider in front (or 12 m in full Ironman).  This was abstract to many of the races and at one point I was passed by a pace line of five riders who thought nothing of cheating by drafting off each other. More than once I had someone sucking off my rear wheel and I told them (politely) to back off.

One fellow was a very serious offender, and I had the misfortune to be travelling at around his speed. At one point I passed him and rather than drop back out of the zone as the rules require, he sped up and kept his front wheel in line with my rear wheel. After 30 seconds I asked him to obey the rules and drop back out of the draft zone.  Later on I passed him again and knew he was sucking my rear wheel. Then I heard the cry ‘Penalty’. The referee had caught him! This meant that had to go to the penalty box and wait three minutes before continuing. Some justice after all … but they need more referees.

Had a quick time through T2 (at least for me) and then it was out on the run. I would be surprised if there is a faster course anywhere as there is only one minor rise so the only thing to slow you down are the twists and turns as you run through the Viaduct Basin apartment area.  This is the home of very expensive apartments overlooking even more expensive boats. In one I saw a woman on her enclosed balcony sitting on her stationary trainer having a ride … I suspect a continuous stream of runners was more entertaining than her usual panorama.

The biggest challenge when one gets off the bike, at least for me, is to not go out too fast on the run. I tried to hold back and after a couple of km fell into a comfortable 5:30 min/km pace. There were a lot of spectators about at the start of the run close to the Viaduct Basin and Jen snapped the photo below as I passed the Auckland ferry building.

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The run went along the harbour so we were rewarded with the lovely views across the water to Rangitoto. This became extra nice once the sun came out. This is one of my regular running routes when I’m in Auckland so I know it well. In fact I won my only half marathon here a lifetime ago. It’s not as impressive as it sounds: there were only a few runners! I was able to keep up my pace for the first half of the two loop course and felt pretty good. It was disconcerting to note that—according to my Garmin GPS watch—I had run over 11 km on the first lap. Supposed to be 10.5 km. I do wonder if they mis-measured the course as the watch was spot on for the 90 km bike ride.

About 2 km into the second lap I very unexpectedly hit a wall of fatigue and my pace fell off dramatically. I had kept my nutrition up on the ride so I don’t think that was the cause, most likely the jet lag or overdoing it on the bike. Either way it was a drag. One of the things I’m grateful for is that I have been here before—Ironman South Africa being the worst example—so I knew it was now a case of playing the right mental game and just keeping running, even at a disgracefully slow pace. Once you cave in and walk, you are toast. I did indulge myself by walking the aid stations and even took some Coke which helped to settle my system.

About two km from the finish I picked up again and went back to my 5:30 pace. Go figure. I was really pleased to come to the end of the race and take my 5:50. I had told Jen that if things went well I’d have a 5:30; badly a 6:00 – 6:15 and 5;45 was my likely time, so she was impressed by the accuracy of my estimate. I guess that is another advantage of experience … one knows one’s limitations and abilities.

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I grabbed a quick drink after finishing and then collected my gear. This is Jen and I on the way out.

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My final stats were:

  • Swim – 41:31
  • T1 – 2:31
  • Bike – 2:55:42
  • T2 – 1:12
  • Run – 2:09:02
  • Total – 5:50:07  36/60 in my age group;   556/819 men

I’m disappointed by the meltdown on the run but given my travel and lack of training pleased with the overall result.  And thanks to Jen for all her support. Especially as I staggered back to the car after the race!

I’d highly recommend the Auckland 70.3 race. It was very well organized, with excellent support and a very fast course. This is probably a race where someone with proper training would get a PR. The only thing they need to do is to get more referees!

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