The Challenge Wanaka triathlon races (full and half distances) are renowned for being the most scenic triathlons anywhere. How can this be disputed when you swim in the lake above and ride around such breath taking beauty (my wife Lis took that photo the morning of the race from a hill next to the course). I was really pleased to be participating not only because of the venue, but as this marked my first triathlon after being side lined with a running injury since October 2013. With Lis and I using it as an opportunity to celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary it was extra special.
Preparation: In October 2013 while running in Tonga I injured my soleus muscle in my left leg. This was a debilitating injury which meant that if I ran even a short distance, my ankle would lock up and I’d be almost unable to walk, sometimes for days. I visited several physiotherapists—one of whose advice was that my running days were over. I tried all the stretches, strengthening exercises, etc. but nothing seemed to work. I could ride my bike with relatively little pain, but running? Forget it. Since my 2014 ‘A’ race was the 3,400 km Transcontinental bicycle race I decided to just forget about running until after the race less I exacerbate the injury so I couldn’t ride.
I was very keen to return to triathlon and so put my name down for the Wanaka half distance (1.9 km swim, 90 km bike ride, 21 km run). I figured this was more sensible than a full distance race (twice those distances above) as with a moderately good level of fitness, and the ability to suffer a bit, one can always make it through a half.
Unfortunately, as soon as I started the running my ankle flared up so badly that I couldn’t walk again. Fortunately, I was able to finally get help from three masters in the art of healing: Anne Macann (Physiotherapist and Acupuncturist-Richmond NZ), Art Sansone (Physical Therapist-Washington D.C.) and Lisa Polak (Massage Therapist-Mapua NZ). They each helped in a different way and soon I was able to run short distances. Just to be ‘safe’ I decided to limit myself to a maximum of 1-2 runs a week of no more than 45 minutes, most of them being the ‘Sufferfest Steamroller’ interval workout on a treadmill. I was eventually able to complete them with only a 3/10 pain in my leg, but more importantly, no legacy stiffness afterwards.
Swimming is always my worst discipline, and I did some 30 minute sessions in our pool and then a single open water swim for 1.5 km to Tata Island in Golden Bay to try out the wet suit. Reminded me of how much I like swimming open water and in my wet suit!.
For my bike training, I rode the 1150 km Kiwi Brevet mountain bike race which finished two weeks before the triathlon. That was fine, except as soon as I hopped on my time trial bike I realized how my body was so *not* dialled in for time trial racing. I was reminded of hamstring muscles that I didn’t know I had. So besides the Brevet, I did about five time trial rides of up to two hours. Oh, and on the day before the race Lis and I went on a six hour mountain bike ride exploring the Wanaka area. Yes, I’m really into tapering…
The Race. The half swim started at the very civilized hour of 8:15 a.m. For those sharp eyed with good memories, I wore my old ‘Capital Area Triathlon Club’ (Tricats) race suit. Long gone, but not forgotten, I have a lot of good memories of training and racing with my Tricat friends from Washington D.C. area.
Last year the water was about 14 C and I was expecting the worst. I was pleasantly surprised to find the temperature to be 17 C and it was not cold at all. We did an open water start and I followed the advice of the race organizer not to ‘confuse aspiration with ability’. In other words, I lined up at the back. Lis got the photo below of us taking off, with the women waiting to start 5 minutes later.
I swim with what I call ‘terminal mediocracy’—especially when I am as under trained as at present. So I just get into the rhythm of one-two-three-breathe-four-look-five-breathe etc. Slow and steady. Emphasis on slow. At least starting at the back I was not swum over, but I did have a few scary encounters with the weaker swimmers. One fellow had a kick like a canon: THUMP, THUMP, THUMP and I had visions of getting knocked out—so I gave him a wide berth. At the second to last buoy one fellow decided not to turn and so whacked me in the head. A few ladies were also not very lady like when they swam over me. But compared to some full body contact races I’ve done, it was quite civilized. I ended up with a 39:03 time for my swim—the third slowest in my age group (and 9 minutes slower than the fastest)—but at least I finished! What was especially sobering was that the winner of the full distance race did swam twice my distance (i.e. 3.8 km compared to my 1.9 km) in 45:33!
There was along transition to the bike and I fumbled getting off my wet suit but was soon on my bike heading out of town. Lis had decided to hike up a mountain while I was racing and grabbed the photos below of me passing her just before her climb.
The ride was absolutely stunning. I’ve never been on such a beautiful course. The mountains around you, the lakes, the golden hills. Just amazing.
I got into my rhythm and the ride felt really good. The only draw back was all the cheating going on with lots of people drafting (we are supposed to be 10 m back). One fellow was so bad I flagged down a race Marshall and gave him the fellow’s number with a request they pull him up. I’ve not done that before but it was really bad. Interestingly, the greatest offenders were not the triathletes, but the cyclists on relay teams. Most of the triathletes actually appeared to abide by the rules. I had a great ride and averaged 30.8 km/h for a 2:56 ride which was third fastest in my age group. Always nice to break 3 h in a race like this. Also nice to pass some of the women who blew past me in the water!
Had a really fast T2 of 2:49 then was on the run—which was my big question mark for the race. Would my leg hold up? The run followed the lake to the NE towards the Clutha River , and then along the river, which is where Lis and I had been cycling. Like the ride, a thoroughly beautiful place to run. A lot of it was on gravel/trail, which I’m always a bit concerned about because my four knee operations don’t give me a lot of torsional strength, but I took it easy on those challenging parts and the knee—and leg—held up fine.
It’s always depressing to be run down when you are working really hard and sure enough I had people come up from behind and blast past me like I was standing still. I soon realized that they were almost all from the relay teams which explained their energy: they hadn’t cycled 90 km (and swim 1.9 km!). I managed to pass a number of triathletes, and only about three or four passed me which wasn’t too bad considering my lack of running fitness.
I knew it would not go smoothly so I broke the course into three sections of 7 km each. The first would not be bad as the adrenalin would be rushing after the ride. The second would be tough as it would take me beyond what I had trained and that was where I expected my leg to give in, and the third? You always suffer in the third … just stay focused on your running form, don’t walk, and count down the distance. About 3 km from the end I was passed by two triathletes, and then they both stopped at the aid station 2 km from the end for water! You NEVER should do this so I passed both of them and, although one passed me again, managed to just beat the other one to the finish for a 2:01:05 and 5:36 pace—again third fastest in my age group.
My final time was 5:47:30 and I was fourth in the 55-59 age group, and 125th overall. I lost my podium place in the swim and the first transition. Still, I was most delighted with the fact that my leg did not act up and I could actually walk after the race. Or should I say stagger. Having very little distance under my legs for running my feet hurt more than they ever had and my quads/hamstrings were totally trashed. But I was a happy camper as this has shown that I thanks to the hard work of my medical practitioners, and LOTS of soleus exercises, I can start thinking about running again.
Wanaka definitely ranks as my #1 favourite place to do a triathlon. Amazing scenery, a good race course, excellent organization, and support from a town like I’ve never seen—they had 600 volunteers which was about 1/10th the town’s population! A lot of the others seemed to be racing. It really is a great race and I cannot recommend it highly enough.