Taupo Half Ironman

From - "Stepping Up", by Stu Downs.

Chapter 20 – "Taupo Half Ironman"
"We all agree that your theory is crazy, but is it crazy enough?"
Niels Bohr (1885-1962)

The Taupo Half Ironman was a refreshing experience. To know that once again the day ahead of me would be remembered for the rest of my life brought back memories of darkened Taupo evenings on the bike, and reminded me that being a part of the larger experience is the most important aspect to 'get right' on the day. This was just as well because on this milestone towards the Ironman I experienced the narrow path once again.

Any positive thoughts were almost overshadowed before the event even arrived however. My sister-in-law announced that her wedding would happen on the same day as the Half IM. I also made an announcement about where I would be...and shortly thereafter so did my Wife. Solo trips to Taupo, and sleeping on the couch, were averted however with the wedding pushed out 24 hours to accommodate plans for the reception. I mentioned to several people that I dodged a bullet and one commented that I actually dodged an entire magazine from a semiautomatic. Things worked out, as they tend to on journeys.

The Taupo Half Ironman starts at the northern end of the lake, at the Taupo Yacht Club, with 324 men participating in the event (as individuals), and including females (and teams) there were over 850 competitors. The course follows the exact circuit as the Taupo Ironman event, with all disciplines simply half the distance, so a two km swim, 90km bike, and then 21km run. The ideal build-up for the Ironman.

The morning of the event was a blur of getting my gear ready, putting on my wetsuit on, adjusting the goggles, and feeling the water for the first time in the day. There was time for a chat with random people though, and as always there was at least one character to make the day more interesting. A guy two bike slots from mine setting up his gear as I put on my wetsuit. His bike was exactly like my road bike, and we exchanged thoughts about the merits of the mighty Avanti Corsa. We would cross paths throughout the day.

‘Cold' is a relative term, but it would be fair to say that the water was not warm. As the cool water found its way through the wetsuits zipper I submerged my face and tried to get used to the water. I also noted that the lakes bottom was not just sand and rocks. There seemed in fact to be almost a festival of items beneath us all, with tyres, railroad tracks, and random pieces of manmade debris. I don't know why, but I found this slightly unnerving.

The lasting memory of those final moments was the realisation that the buoys would never be seen in a row, as the start was a deep water start. From the foreshore you see the buoys parallel to the waterfront, but in the water you never really get a feel for the line of markers. Along with this, the start was a slow wait, with "five minutes" called, then a countdown in 30 second intervals. There was a collective tension that exploded when the hooter went off.

The transition area – Organised chaos once the athletes arrived.

My breathing was rubbish for the first ten minutes of the swim, with much coughing under the water and spitting of mucus etc. This was the least of my problems though, as the start saw the entire group head in a 45 degree angle at the start. So often I couldn't even see the first buoy and played followed the leader, with people bumping into me from all directions. It seemed like there was only calmness beneath me in the water though, so that is where I focused, as I recalled the words, "Keep the water below you", and started my count "1, 2, 3", for the strokes. The swim, and day, had begun.

Midway through the swim someone swam over the top of me, with the first I knew of this being my arm colliding with them. Before any apologies could be made we were swimming in differing direction once again, and before long I had the water to myself again. This happened several weeks earlier at the Scorching Bay tri, when some clown tried to climb over me by pulling down on my shoulders at a buoy. I didn’t let either incident phase me though. In a sport where your face is submerged in water most of the time, it is best to simply focus on those things that will get you to the finish...like breathing!!

Exiting the water I heard "good swim!!" from Lynely. It seemed a little odd that 80% of the bikes were still racked, and apparently my swim was completed in 41 minutes, with the transition taking 3 minutes. Up until the previous weekend I had estimated a minimum of 60 minutes for the 2km swim. I felt good and within 200 meters on the bike I felt relatively fresh.

The road to Reporoa is perfect. 2009 had already seen two training rides along this stretch of road, and I now know the course well. With drizzle and a side wind my focus was finding a rhythm, staying in my prescribed heart rate zone, and if possible staying above 30kms per hour. I estimate that between Taupo and Reporoa I passed 50 to 60 cyclists. Pacing was key, with it critical not to push too hard. Thus occasional chats were started up, with my buddy from the start in good form, exchanging thoughts about the race (and life in general). I left him beaming when we turned at Reporoa, and seeing the long line of cyclists yet to reach the turnaround I announced, "well we know we're not last".

You know Taupo is getting close when the road heads skywards, so after two hills, and then a fast descent, the township of Taupo is finally reached. As I turned onto the lake front I was passed by a cyclist who meant business. He took off at speed and was 50 metres ahead by the transition area. I passed him before I raked my bike however as he was now hobbling. I commented, "The fun is still ahead of us". The bike section (including transition) took 2:59, so a tad over 30kms an hour for 90kms while pacing myself. I ran out of the transition area, past two walking competitors, and also past my family. Ruth called out hello and I gave her a cheeky smack on the bum. If she didn't like it she'd have to catch me!!

The honeymoon was over within two kms. My target heart rate zone for the run couldn't be reached without a cramp starting up on my hamstring and inner thigh. It was slow going thereafter, with a 58 minute pace for the first 10.5kms. Near the end of lap one I was even passed by a guy in a pink tutu. He was a full lap ahead of me, and probably in the top ten finishers...but you'd have to be to get away with an outfit like that.

The run was a test of my resolve to finish.

My previous longest run was 14.5kms, so by 15kms I was feeling the pinch. I took heart in passing a number of walkers. My focus turned to not walking unless I was walking through the drinks stations, which became a focus point for the second half of the run. I also looked at the wrists of those approaching me, with a blue wristband indicating that they were on lap two, and the absence of said band meaning they were well behind me. The finish was getting closer.

In the last 5kms that I began to think about next March. The reasons for finishing Ironman need to be considered before the event arrives, as the legs started to say "no" in the last 5kms. In fact, if the last 5kms were swimming I would have initially enjoyed the break for the sake of my lower limbs. I still recall how I felt in those moments, with fatigue setting in, my legs seizing up, and my mind starting to consider the sanity of running 21kms after a 90km bike, and a 2km swim. For a little while it all seemed slightly mad.

A second wind arrived two kms before the finish, with Lynley appearing out of nowhere. Slacking off and feeling sorry for myself were now not an option, so I exchanged thoughts about the events while giving high fives for anyone I knew heading towards me. My family were also coming into sight, so the finish was almost reached.

With just 500 meters to go Alex asked if he could finish the run with me. I thought we were going a decent pace, but he later commented, "I thought you could have been going faster". We crossed the line together, and the finishers medal that had seemed a tad tacky when I saw one on a competitor 15 minutes earlier, now was gratefully received. My initial thoughts were of relief finishing, but also of doing double this distance in scorching heat next March.

My time for the event was 5:48, and after a brief chat at the finish I managed to find the only section of sharp stones along the beach front and stood waist deep in the water for five minutes. If I had been told before the event that I would do 2:02 for the 21kms of running, then I would have taken it, so despite looking back and considering the time I lost here and there I need to be satisfied with my efforts. The following Wednesday the fatigued hit me, and I now know that my efforts that day were genuine.

Evidence that I beat Alex across the finish line - A rematch is planned for the Ironman.

Next up is the Taupo 5km swim (16 January), then two Scorching Tri's (January and February), and finally the Ironman. I am yet to enter the Graperide Ultimate (20 days after the Ironman), and this may yet be added to the equation. My focus is the Ironman though…and frankly little else.

The weekend taught me that I have much to learn about triathlon. My breathing must improve while swimming all out, with the legs needing to stay strong on the bike, and a requirement on the run is my mind mastering the task at hand. In cycling the time trial is called, “The race of truth”, but I have found the run in a triathlon to be truth itself. You quickly discover how much you want to finish. A truth of the Ironman is that I will run myself into the ground on 6 March. Any less will mean a marathon of five to six hours. This scenario would be a bitterly disappointing way to finish the season.

So much ground has been covered in the last six months. I have literally learnt to swim, and started running again for the first time in 12 years. This is not the time to be complacent though. Life is short, and we may never know if opportunities to participate in events like the Ironman will arise again. Thus, I look forward to the next few months of intensive Ironman training and then completing the Ironman being 38 years young. Life is good.

The Taupo Half Ironman marked the halfway point in my season. I haven’t done it all alone, so a special "Thank you" to...
Lynley Brown - Coach extraordinaire, former professional Ironman athlete, and age group world champion. I couldn't swim in May and via Lynley has patiently gotten me through the basics and onto endurance swims in no time at all. My amazement at progress has only been surpassed by the admiration for Lynley's willingness to answer endless questions about all things Ironman.

Hammer Nutrition - For continuing to sell the best endurance fuel on the market. Rachael Button has also provided key information about how (and when) to use Hammer products. This has meant that I have gone from feeling sick in every event to having complete peace of mind about my fuelling.

On Yer Bike - Not only the best bike shop on the Kapiti Coast, but they have a superb team to back up the range of all things cycling. A huge thanks to Nigel, Matt, Simon, and the rest of the team on Rimu Road.

My Wife Ruth – You are appreciated. I love the fact that you have no sporting interest at all, but follow what I do because you love me. You are difference between existing through life and living it.


Jacky James said...

Memo to self - don't read Stu's posts at work when I am likely to get very emotional! What an incredible journey - for both you and everyone around you. Congratulations on the road travelled so far - and all the best wishes and good luck that I can send for the stretch ahead. Can't wait to see you hit the water - and cross the finish line. All the best, Jacky

Torin said...

Wow nice story m8 good luck