Ironman Race Day: the swim

10 03 2017

I woke up on race morning to the sound of the wind howling through the trees outside the house.

My heart sank.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t trained in wind.

After all. I live in Wellington. It’s unavoidable.

But you always hope that the training in tough conditions will prepare you for a great race when it’s calm and clear.

No such luck for us.

It was going to be like any other training day over this summer. That meant hard work.

Any time goal dreams I had went out the window.

Coach always says that you shouldn’t set time goals because it’s such a long day and there are so many variables. Weather being a big one. But you can’t help yourself. But anyway, my time was the least of my worries as I got some breakfast and headed down to transition to do the last minute prep on my bike.

Heading down to the lakeside, I met up with most of my training crew who’d gathered in the usual spot by the scenic flights office. From here we could hear the Maori warriors from the Tuwharetoa iwi arriving on their waka to lay down their challenge to us.

A challenge that was like no other Ironman New Zealand event.

The true meaning of their haka was probably lost on most of us, as we watched in horror as the waka they’d just vacated got bashed about by the choppy lake. The waka was soon to be replaced by us.

I decided not to go into the lake for a warm up swim, as I’d have around 30 minutes of standing on the shore wet before my race started, so I chose to use the first part of my race as the warm up. The plan had it down as easy to get into some rhythm and survive the “washing machine” that is the mass start.

Once the pros had been sent on their merry way, it was time to line up with the 1200 other idiots who’d got up to brave the elements. We shuffled slowly towards the beach as we were all filtered inside a narrow barrier. I could see my hubby looking everywhere for me but he was on the other side. When he spotted me he beckoned me over. But with the tight formation of bodies I didn’t think I could get across. He pleaded so I made a few polite “excuse mes” and got across, getting a good luck hug in the process.

Then into the water we went. It looked nothing like the calmness we’d seen the previous two days. Why couldn’t it have been like that? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one asking that. But, it was what it was.

At least it was warm.

And it wasn’t sea water.

Heck we’d done enough training in those conditions in Wellington Harbour. We knew all too well how yucky it is to get bashed left and right by salty waves.

It didn’t look that bad from the shore. But being in it was a completely different ball game.

Copyright Jack McKenzie Photography

I swam out to the deepest start point in line with the course buoys. I was going to try and swim the shortest possible distance I could. But it did mean I put myself in the thick of the washing machine.
I was watching the flashing lights that count down the final three minutes before the start. But the waves were that big I was rolling around a lot and could only see the lights when I was at the top of a wave. When it got down to the last light, I gave up looking. I knew the cannon would go off at any moment and I was just focusing on trying to stop myself being swept into my fellow competitors.

Then it went off. Not as loud as I was expecting, but everyone started swimming.

1200 of us. All at once.

It’s a weird sensation swimming so close to so many people. I’ve done a fair few mass starts at smaller events, but nothing prepares you for that volume of people. Legs, arms and bodies are everywhere.

You get bashed from every direction. It’s really easy to take it personally and strike out at them. But in reality it’s not intentional. And it’s part of Ironman life.

After a few minutes (although it seems like longer) space starts to appear and you can get into a rhythm finally. I was finding a few people to draft off here and there. And the odd person who swam straight across in front of me too. But it started to go pretty well. I counted down the buoys to the turn (they’re numbered) and it felt like I was going at a great pace. The first turn buoy loomed and I felt great.

At that point I should have guessed what was in store for the return leg. In Taupo, the swim course is an out and back, keeping you closer to the shore at first, then heading deeper out into the lake for the return leg. At the first turn buoy you swim about 50m across before turning back towards the finish.

This meant swimming head on into the waves for 50m.

I remember thinking I was barely moving and the buoy wasn’t getting any closer. But I just kept plugging away. And plugging away.

Eventually the second buoy loomed and I thought it was going to get easier once we turned side on to the waves and it would be more like the outbound leg.

How wrong I was. It was just as hard.

Being out in deeper water the chop was twice as bad as the way out. Breathing became tricky because it often didn’t matter which side you were breathing on, you still got a face full of water. It reminded me of the rough Ocean Swim Series race we’d done a few weeks ago.

But at least it was fresh water this time.

Sighting was also an issue because it was difficult to see the buoys if you sighted at the bottom of a rolling wave. Not only were you trying to time your breaths, but you ended up having to feel the water and trying to sight at the top too.

So many times I just had to blindly follow those in front of me and trust they were heading in the right direction.

Each buoy took an age to arrive. I was counting them down. I knew the last one was 24 and couldn’t believe I was only by 16. I was hoping that they’d taken some buoys out so they weren’t all there in order. But they were.

One by one, I slowly reeled them in. I could feel my shoulders getting fatigued by the extra effort required just to generate some forward propulsion. But every stroke was taking me closer to the finish.

Then I finally passed the 24th buoy. It was just a case of rounding that last turn buoy and I’d be surfing back into the beach with waves.

I had no concept of how long I’d been out there but I guessed it was longer than I’d hoped for. When I finally stood up on the beach I couldn’t believe that my watch said 1 hour 29 minutes. I’d been hoping for more like 1 hour 10 or 15 so I was a bit gutted. But I knew that was behind me now and I had to focus on the next stage. At least I’d finished.



Ignore the time, that’s from the pro start 15 minutes ahead of us!

 My run along the famed green carpet, that 400m jog to transition, took me past my supporters and fellow squad mates. My coach yelled out something like “great work” to which I shook my head. I had no idea who from my squad was already out, nor about the troubles some of them were having behind me. But it’s fair to say none of us had a walk in the park.

All of us made it out though. And none of us took a trip on an IRB, as many others did.

I didn’t know it at the time but close to 100 people got pulled out of the lake by lifeguards. They had to delay the start of the half ironman race by 45 minutes because the lifeguards were so busy with Ironman competitors that there weren’t enough free to ensure the safety of the 70.3 athletes. I imagine that was quite hard to deal with from their perspective.

I ran up to transition and straight to the line where my bag was. I shouted my number three times but the volunteer hadn’t even moved. Luckily I’d put some decoration on my bag to make it easy to spot, so I just grabbed it on my way past and ran to an available volunteer in the changing tent.

As she tipped the contents of my bag onto the ground she told me to put the swim behind me as it was over now. I can only imagine what stories she’d already heard from other competitors! She handed me my towel while she fought with my wetsuit. Piece-by-piece we got me dressed and ready to tackle the bike.
She had the process down like a well oiled machine, helping me with shoes, putting clothes on and placing items in my jersey pocket for me. It felt like ages, but in reality it wasn’t a long transition, and I headed out to find my bike to start the biggest leg, and the one I was probably dreading the most.



Countdown to Ironman: 5 weeks to go

30 01 2017

Ironman is all about training the brain as well as the body.

You’ll often hear people refer to the mental battles on the day, so having a few of those in training is always good practice.

Take the bike ride when we were at training camp. When the wind picked up for lap two, creating a headwind on the way out to the turn at Reporoa, one of my squad mates said she had to give herself a good talking to. And boy did we all relate to that.

This week saw us needing another talking to with the NZ Ocean Swim Series event arriving in Wellington. Most of us were down to do the long course that takes you out to the lighthouse and back to Oriental Bay in a neat 3.3km triangle.

Only the weather Gods had other ideas.

A big northerly was forecast which meant the harbour was going to be choppy. Even by Wellington standards. So the organisers swiftly arranged a move to the south side of the city, hoping for more sheltered waters at Lyall Bay.

I wandered down for a recce on Saturday afternoon – ironically a magic Wellington day with no wind and a gorgeous flat calm harbour. Sod’s law right there.

The buoys were already up and one of the event team gave us a quick brief of the makeshift 2km ‘M’-shaped course. It was different but they figured it was the best they could do in the space they had.

Race morning dawned and the forecast wind didn’t disappoint. But the predicted chop was worse than expected. So the furthest points of the ‘M’ course were a bit too dangerous for more inexperienced swimmers.

So they decided to go to a two-lap loop. They lengthened the course and brought the far buoys in. But they didn’t really know how long it was and were estimating 2.6-2.8kms.

The shallower waters didn’t look so bad, so after swallowing “a cup of hard” (a kiwi phrase for “harden up”), we hit the waters.

The initial swim out to the first buoy wasn’t so bad. The wind was behind us and the buoy was close, meaning sighting wasn’t an issue. Then we made a 90 degree turn and headed parallel to the beach to head towards the airport.

With the wind hitting us side on, and with the tide going out, it was easy to predict that we were going to get pounded from the left a little bit in this direction. The start wasn’t so bad and I was able to get into my rhythm quite quickly – it normally takes me at least a km to get going properly. But the closer we got to the airport end, the worse it seemed to get.


Even if I breathed away from the direction of the waves, the would frequently break on the back of my head, still giving me a mouthful of saltwater. So breathing was sometimes an issue.

And with the buoys being quite some distance away, and reasonably close together when looking at them from a distance, sighting was tricky. It was too easy to aim for the wrong buoy, sending you off course. I often just followed the crowd of swimmers in front of me in the vain hope that they were vaguely on track!

We’d been promised an “easier” ride back towards the start, and second turnaround. But that was a lie. It got harder as we were further out from shore in bigger chop. The waves were bigger and harder and there was no “tail wind” to speak of.

It took forever.

Or at least it felt like it.

Unlike the regular Splash and Dash series, there were no shorter options. If we pulled out early, that was it. It was a DNF. So that was the choice. Continue battling, or get no result.

But when the turn came, I had no intention of finishing early. While it might not have been the prettiest swim, I certainly wasn’t done. I wasn’t going to let it beat me. I’m way tougher than that.

Despite not being the strongest swimmer in the world, I don’t lack confidence in the water and have a steely determination to succeed. So out for a second lap I went. The second trip down towards the airport seemed even worse. I’m sure the surf lifesaving volunteers had their work cut out for them.

Back out in the chop for the final leg back down towards the start/finish area, I probably took on the most water of any of the legs. And not only that, the current was pushing you further with the tide. So sighting had to be more regular to stay on course – if you could see the buoys in the chop! I felt I’d been pushed out a couple of times so tried to correct my course, only to over-correct and start swimming further in. A quick sight check soon sorted that.

Even though the conditions were far from ideal, I can honestly say I never once felt like jacking it in. I felt strong and like I could keep going, even at the very end. Although swimming into the headwind for the final 75m (or so) stretch was pure hell. No matter how hard you swam, you didn’t feel like you were making any progress. But slowly and surely, the beach got closer.


I’d made it. And when I stopped my watch to see the time, I was really happy, given the conditions. But in reality, the time didn’t matter. I’d swum just under 3.1kms in 1h 8 minutes. And then the official word came back that they estimated the course was 3kms long, so I’d done pretty well, even in that chop and current.

What mattered was proving I could tough it out in those conditions. After all, you never know what it’s going to be like on race day.

So you need your mind, as well as your body, to be ready.


Train hard, race easy

4 12 2015

There’s a saying that springs to mind about training in Wellington:

train hard

The idea being if you train in conditions and on terrain than is harder than you’ll face in your race, you’ll be able to go faster and stronger on the day.

Ah Wellington. Known for it’s mammoth hills. And its delicate spring breezes. The perfect place to execute a tough training regime to make race day feel like a breeze (hopefully!).

Nothing epitomised this as much as the first Splash and Dash race of the season this week. The Boss had a 2km swim in the training plan. It seemed like a big step up in distance in the open water for some of us, so we double checked.

“Have you done the distance in the pool?”


“So you’ve got the fitness to do it then”

Oh. OK then.

The great thing about this series is that, no matter what you sign up for, you can change your mind, even mid-race. So a 2km swim was what I registered for.

On the day, well, let’s just say there was a bit of chop. That may or may not be an understatement. Not knowing any better, the less experienced of us set off taking it one lap at a time (of a three-lap swim). The Boss had given us permission to finish early if, after two laps, we’d really had enough and felt we’d been out there a long time.

The chop made it pretty hard going, but as we knew no different, we battled on. The course takes you round a couple of pontoons and the famed Oriental Bay Fountain, so it’s good practice for navigation, sighting and breaking the race up into chunks. So from that perspective it was great open water experience.

On a few occasions I looked up to sight and could see myself slightly off course. Not wanting to have life guards redirecting me again (like in the last Scorcher!), I kept my eye on my nav points a bit more frequently.

But at times it felt like every stroke took you nowhere. It felt like you weren’t even moving. And it felt like I was out there forever. As I embarked on my second lap towards the fountain, I was thinking that I’d been out there ages and probably wouldn’t make the third lap. But that was OK. The Boss had said as much.

The second lap felt like it took even longer than the first. It probably did in fact. But I was surprised at my determination and motivation to keep going.

As I approached the end of the second lap, I started thinking about what I wanted to do. What was my body saying? And my head?

My body wasn’t done. I wasn’t spent. I felt I had another lap in me.

My head was up for the challenge. I was here. I’d got this far. F*ck it! I’m going for that final lap and I don’t care about the time.

Except the weather gods had other ideas.

The race officials decided the chop had become a safety issue and sent us tail end Charlies back to shore.

I was a tad disappointed having got myself mentally prepared. But I could understand their concern. My disappointment was short-lived once I got out and stopped my watch. According to my Garmin, I’d swum 1444m (I hadn’t swum that far off course compared to my last outing!) in a time of 35 minutes (although my official time was 34:20). It did feel like a lot longer, but who cares! It was the furthest I’d ever swum in the sea.

When the rest of my squad mates starting talking about the conditions being the worst they’d ever swum in, the accomplishment felt even greater. If we’ve swum in the worst and lived to tell the tale, anything from here should be plain sailing (so to speak). Even though we didn’t quite get the distance, the rationale for getting out there was justified. It was a huge confidence boost exactly when we needed it.

Those of us who are new to this triathlon/half ironman game took great heart from our efforts.

Taupo should be a breeze. Right?

PS the photos REALLY don’t do the chop justice!

Race recap: Scorching tri – 15 November 2015

24 11 2015

With less than four weeks (yes, of course I’m counting!) to go until my Taupo 70.3 half ironman, the boss (Coach Gerrard) decided he’d make the most of the timing of the first Scorching Tri of the season.

My training plan featured the Medium Distance triathlon. This would mean my longest ever open water swim. So far. The majority of my training squad appeared to be registered for the Long Distance. When I went to pick up my race pack the day before, a few of my squad mates asked why I was in the medium queue.

“It’s the one that’s in my training plan”

“Well you’re on the wrong plan!”

I’ll take that as a compliment! But in reality I was glad I stuck with the shorter swim. Luckily I wasn’t alone and about four of my squad mates lined up next to me in the shorter race.

I’ve been working really hard, and I mean REALLY hard on getting my swimming right. I decided to join the boss’s Monday night “technique” swim squad with just six weeks remaining. I had to reorganise my life to do this. I usually teach a Group Power class at the gym on Mondays which had prevented me joining before. But with my confidence not improving, I felt that drastic times called for drastic measures. I got cover for all the remaining classes in 2015 and devoted Monday nights to the pool.

The Long Distance tri contained a full 1kms in Scorching Bay. It’s a great swimming bay, nice and sheltered from the prevailing Northerly wind. But I just didn’t feel ready for that. I’ve done way more in the pool. 2.2kms to be precise. But the sea is a different kettle of fish.

My previous PB in the harbour was about 350m doing a few laps to a buoy and back as part of one of our squad training sessions. So jumping to a full km might have been a bit much. The Medium tri gave me a solid 500m and I saw it as a confidence builder rather than replicating the big event.

Like any good athlete(!?) I had a race plan. In my previous tris, my plan was to make it in one piece out of the water and back onto dry land. This time around I wasn’t nervous of the swim at all. I’ve put in the time and distance over recent months. I’ve got in the open water a couple of times. It wasn’t new any more.

But I knew that I have a tendency to rush off at the start to try and keep up with everyone else. Including those that could pass for mermaids if you didn’t notice they had legs. This always left me gasping for breath and desperately clawing at the water as I tried to reel myself in.

My plan this time revolved around me. And my own race.

I know from my pool experience that if I relax and keep a steady, even pace, I can go the distance without gasping for air. So that was my goal. To finish the swim well, without gasping for air, and able to breathe bilaterally, every three strokes, all the way to the end. And just focus on the stroke. Efficiency and good form would probably get me to the end faster than trying too hard.

I let the mermaids race off the start line and gently made my way into the water. At my own pace. One of my fellow squad mates commented afterwards that she’d got really flustered and looked up to see me sailing past and thought to herself “that’s what I should be doing.” Not bad for someone who professes “I’m not a swimmer” (i.e. me).

The swim went exactly to plan. If you use my objective as the plan. If you add in the objective of navigating the course well so I could swim as close to 500m as possible, I failed. But that wasn’t an objective. I’d estimated 500m would have taken me about 15 minutes, but I ticked my watch over to T1 (transition 1) at just under 14 minutes.

At the end of the race, I saw I’d actually swum 644m! Even when the lifeguard pointed over my head and said “that way mate” I didn’t think I was that far off course.

I was stoked. Imagine what time I could do if I swam straight!

Out of T1 and I zoomed past another one of my squad mates who had racked his bike near me and got on the road. I haven’t even tried that thing of leaving your shoes on the bike and trying to put them on as you ride. For someone as clumsy as me it sounds like a recipe for disaster. And in the grand scheme of a long distance half ironman, it won’t save me that much time.

So from a standing start I headed out with the tailwind, knowing a headwind was coming. We benefitted from both head and tailwinds as we wound our way around the south coast, keeping you keenly focused on the road ahead and not really able to take in the rugged beauty of this coastline.

My squad mate who’d struggled in the swim is a strong cyclist and managed to grind past me on the way back, but again, I had to concentrate on my own race and leaving myself enough in the legs to get through a 5km run.

20kms later and back in T2 (transition 2) I had a secret weapon! Conversations had been held at our previous event about the benefits of elastic laces on the run and I decided to give them a go. It meant no tying shoe laces and no fears of laces coming undone. How quick was I in T2?! I was on the road in no time, beating my swim and cycling buddy out of transition in the process.

A solid run and I finished about 15 minutes ahead of the time I expected. I couldn’t believe it when I got my phone to text hubby and it was only 9.30am!

So what did I learn from the experience as I count down towards Taupo?

  • Have a clear plan in place and execute it well. We’ve been briefed on having a plan for the main event so I need to spend some time thinking about and working on that. I have some ideas but I want to spend some time thinking about it
  • If you concentrate on your own race it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. You can’t compare your own performance to those around you as you don’t know what their plan is nor how well they’re executing it. You hear stories of people who hammer it straight out on the bike course at long distance events only to be overtaken as they fade (the tortoise and the hare anyone?)
  • Listen to the advice of more experienced people and try new things out in practice. Figure out if they’re going to work for you in the real event. The elastic laces were a winner but I’d hate to have tried them for the first time at the big one
  • Be the best you can be on the day and no one can beat you. It doesn’t matter what their clock says, it’s only your clock that counts
  • Even if other people think you should be doing more, only push yourself out of your comfort zone so far. For me the swim was enough of a stretch. I could have done the long bike and run but I wasn’t mentally prepared for the longer time in the water. I followed the plan my coach laid out, and his is the main opinion that counts
  • I still look crap in a tri suit! I won’t post the proof!

Scorcher Nov 2015

Being outsourced

20 06 2011

Today has been the first day of a new job. But not in the usual sense that you might expect. Today I have been “outsourced” to a government department/project for a period of time that we’re not quite certain of. It’s led me to reflect on something that seems to be a distinctly kiwi trait.

Since moving here, I’ve noticed that goalposts are most definitely moveable. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes people use them as an excuse. Sometimes things get lost in translation. But for us, this is definitely a part of kiwi culture that is hard to come to terms with.

For me, I like to know where I stand. I don’t like things to chop and change depending on which way the wind’s blowing. It creates a culture of uncertainty where you begin to lose the perspective of where you might stand.

This leaves you unsure of your position and you’re never quite sure if people are going to come good on their promises. But it seems perfectly normal to them.

Some advice I was given recently was to decide what I wanted for myself and make a statement. For the particular situation in question, this is probably sound advice. However, the little I know of kiwis makes me suspect that if I started to apply this to all aspects of my life, and every situation with flexible goalposts, I might find myself getting a reputation.

And in a small town like Wellington, at isn’t a good thing.

This trait possibly stems from the notorious “she’ll be right” attitude favored country wide. A mush more lassez faire approach to life that simply takes it as it comes. And maybe that’s the learning point for us. To become true kiwis we just have to roll with the punches. But is that really us? I’m not so sure.

Becoming “Wellingtonian”

12 05 2011

So, we’ve been here nearly eight months, so how close are we to becoming true Wellingtonians?

Wellington is known as the culture capital of NZ. I can probably count on one hand the number of times we’ve been to the theatre in the past 10 years. Yet in less than eight months in Wellington, we’ve started to frequent the theatre quite regularly. Between us we’ve seen the Rocky Horror Show, I ❤ Camping, the Spy Who Wouldn’t Die Again and the Wellington International Ukelele Orchestra. We’ve got tickets to see Danny Bhoy at the NZ Comedy Festival, and the Reduced Shakespeare Company doing Completely Hollywood (Abridged). We’re also going to try and see CSI:Wainuiu – a spoof of the TV series based in a town outside Wellington. Not bad for a few months!

And we’ve done things like attended free concerts and films in the Botanical Gardens, joined the ritual fun at the NZI Sevens Rugby. I think that last one alone qualifies us as true Wellingtonians!

We also appear to have become coffee snobs! Coffee is intravenous in Wellington and we have sampled our fair share. But it seems fair to say that we’re a little bit partial to Mojo coffee. Especially a lovely, milky, trim flat white. Yum. We noticed our snobbery when we went out for dinner and debated whether to pick up a coffee to go at the restaurant or on the way home.

Hubby hadn’t filled up on the light restaurant meal so fancied stopping at McDonald’s (heathen!). He suggested we pick up a coffee at McCafe instead. By the time we got to the said fast food joint, the McCafe was shut so it was a latte from a machine for us. And boy was it rank! And yet it didn’t cost us much less (if anything) than it would have done to get restaurant take out.

So yes. We’re coffee snobs, and proud of it. Surely that qualifies us as Wellingtonians?

Is it getting closer?

4 03 2011

After last week’s tragic event in Christchurch, everyone seems on heightened alert. No matter where you are in the country.

It was always expected that Wellington would receive The Big One, not Christchurch. So imagine the panic when the capital finally fell a tremor of its own. It was just after 10pm on Tuesday 1s March. One week after the Christchurch quake.

We didn’t feel a thing. We were in the car returning home from a lovely dinner out with our visiting friends. The first we knew about it was when we had to knock on our landlord’s door because our garage door had broken (again) and he asked if we’d felt it.

I’m not sure if we were relieved or disappointed. It was 4.7 and only 20kms up the coast. Thankfully it was deep though – which, as we’re all quickly learning, is important.

Then last night, the city was woken at 2.19am by a 4.5 quake. A bit further away this time. Again, didn’t feel a thing!

We’re probably lucky not to have experienced these rattlers. Who knows what our nerves would be like if we had. Coming from a country (or two) where earthquakes are really completely unknown, we seem to have taken this last week in our stride, compared to many NZers who have felt the pain of Christchurch themselves. We’ve been here less than six months. I can only think that our emotional attachment has not yet deepened enough to attach us to the country like so many of our fellow countrymen.

Don’t get me wrong, we care. A lot. We’re extremely saddened by what happened. I wish I could do more on a practical level to help out my stricken NZ family, but I feel quite powerless. I also feel a strong need for the rest of the country to carry on as normal (or as normal as it can be) to keep NZ going. The rest of us need to work at ensuring that NZ as a whole can pull through and avoid the tragedy defining us as a nation by plunging our economy through the floor. If that happens, the resurrection of Christchurch – because it will be reborn – will be a long, hard and painful process.