by Thomas Brackmann
When you read books about triathlon races that you have to finish once in your life there are races such as Challenge Roth in Germany for its great atmosphere and fast course. Or there is the dream destination of Hawaii for all those that are good enough to qualify to race at the World Championship. But then there are also smaller races with stunning landscape in combination with a challenging course such as the one at Wanaka on the South Island in New Zealand.
Race Dream comes true
Since I started Triathlon in 2015 I always wanted to go there to take on the fight with the nature and myself. In February 2017 I did the long trip from Saudi Arabia to the Pacific to combine a wedding participation at the beginning of the trip followed by visiting some countries before the race (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Cook Islands). Otherwise it would have been too expensive travelling such a long way. Disadvantage: Continuation of race preparation while travelling and using a rental bike on the race to travel more light.
Preparation with Swim – Run focus
I seriously started just 6 weeks before travelling to New Zealand with the focus on Swim and Run since I believed the choppy 15 degrees water will kill me (as a bad Triathlon swimmer). I trusted my running strength would bring through the Trail Run with 300 m ascent by training regularly 50 km in the Diplomatic quarters in Riyadh. For the bike I just pulled out some 300 km weeks at mostly flat terrain or on a gym bike since the ascent was described as just 1000m. I strongly believed I could handle it with mental and physical strength to make a personal best by finishing in sub 12. Go big or go home.
Just before the race – Shocking news
On Arrival in New Zealand just 2 weeks before the race I met a pro Triathlete that raced the course 6 times before and he predicted that it will take me around 3 hours longer than my personal best. In these days the temperature and the chilly heavy Kiwi winds would demand everything from the sportsmen and women. He gave the advice to get neoprene gloves and shoes and even a second neoprene cap. For the bike and running leg he recommended to have several layers that are wind and rain proof to stay warm and dry. “You have to eat more than ever, and you have to wear warmer than ever”, he said. He made a bet for a beer that I will finish in 15 hours. He was so sure about it that I lost my confidence at all and I regretted that I didn’t train more, harder, better. I felt like before my first ever Ironman: Unsecure, excited, and nervous.
Sharing the pain is half the pain
Luckily I could join my feelings about the race together with former Riyadh Triathlete Joanna Bolton that prepared the last 4 months for her first long Ironman distance. Together with the support of a nutritionist and coach she was very well prepared but still excited about her first long distance adventure – especially for this tough one. Usually first timers go for flatter courses such as Ironman Austria, or UK, or Challenge Roth by chance. But her debut would be a real killer. Of course the reward for all upcoming pain would be the stunning landscape with lakes, mountains covered with snow, and green Italian style trees.
Keep it small and simple
The Challenge Wanaka festival saw around 2000 participants for the kid’s races, the Half Iron Distance and the Full Distance. But for the full Ironman distance only 150ish people joined. That was a bit disappointing when waiting at the start line. Maybe the reason behind was that Ironman Taupo (on the northern Island was set up just 2 weeks later). Also the cheering audience alongside the course was quite small. Nevertheless they supported the triathletes with joy and happiness.
Good weather conditions on race day
For days Joanna and I were following the weather forecast. And we were really lucky. On race day morning there was nearly no wind and 9 Degrees Celsius Air temperature. That meant no waves in the freezing 15 degrees water. Neoprene wet suit was allowed – same as neoprene extra cap, hand gloves and shoes. We had only the extra cap on to minimize the heat loss. Imagine crystal clear, flat water surrounded by mountains where the peaks are covered by snow. Fabulous! Nevertheless the cold water felt like thousands needles in your hands and feet.
Surprisingly the swim went extremely well and I could pull out a personal best – side by side swimming with Joanna – per coincidence. Together we also mastered the T1 – Transition, put 2- 3 long sleeves on in expectation of the cold wind on the bike.
Rollercoaster on bumpy roads
Everyone was happy being out of the cold wet and was seeking to get quickly warm on the bike ride. Aside of the layers when riding the bike it was also an obligation to have a thermal layer in special needs bag since the weather conditions in New Zealand can change very quickly.
After a short while I realized the road conditions were not as great as they seemed by riding it by car. The surface was very bumpy. So the whole body shook up all the time. There were some peaks on the bike course but I felt ok. “Damn I should have made more hill training”, I shouted when it came to even more hilly terrain. Nevertheless the track was similar to the profile of the Humps course in Riyadh. But the beauty of the lakes surrounded by green hills and snowy mountains covered up all bad thoughts. Joanna was in a great shape and lost only around 20 minutes against me on her TT Bike. Always having a smile on when I saw her at turning points. That was the indicator for me that she has still resources left on the run and her anxiety before the race were obsolete.
Trail running as its best
I felt great prepared for the run course since I made several sessions in Diplomatic Quarters, made best times on short races in Riyadh. So what might happen? Coming from the bike I directly felt its not easy today. Legs felt not fresh as in my previous triathlons. But I started ok on the trail run with ups and downs but soft graveling surface – just like the material in the Riyadh DQ. Aid stations were around every 2 kilometer with banana, water, mineral drinks, and salty crackers. People were friendly and made a great job. Even I know when they shouted: “You look great” – I knew different being covered by salt and sweat.
Up and downs with big surprise
The first 7 km were pretty flat and I had a good pace. Personal best would be possible. But I got trouble with nutrition. Couldn’t eat the carbo gels anymore and tried banana instead. But it felt not the same. In addition the terrain changed and the next 10 km were a permanent up and down, full of roots and big stones. The run was not easy anymore. But this part was close to a river with fabulous blue color. In all the pain I thought – that’s the reason why I came here for. Great! I was so happy after this ups and downs. But the joy lasted only for 1000 Meter. After around 18 Kilometers there was a steep hill on a road. I thought: “Are you kidding me? That cannot be”. I remembered the Dirab Bike training from the past with such challenging hills. It was such a great effort to run this hill. After I mastered this piece it was a pleasure running downhill to see the lake again and finishing the loop on the trail. In the finish area lots of people were cheering the triathletes.
Beer will be waiting
Out of the blue the pro athlete that I made the beer bet with before the race called my name and was impressed by my performance. “I want that beer”, I shouted to him happily since I knew I will win the bet and even believed I could have a great second loop. On my turn I saw Joanna just 30 minutes after me performing in a great way – still with a smile on her face. It was her day!
The second 21 kilometers where too much and I was disappointed by my favorite discipline. While having 2.10 hours on first loop I lost 10 more minutes on second loop. Due to the challenging terrain and not enough carbo intakes I finished the marathon only in 4.30. Not acceptable! Nevertheless on finish line I got the beer, the medal and a bit of sunshine at Lake Wanaka. In the moment on finish line I am always happy that the pain is over.
Lessons learnt for future races
For future (not only Iron distance) races I need to check up the whole race details over and over to be better prepared – especially when trying to get hard and towards personal best times. In addition I strongly believe that before spending thousands of Dollars for a superb bike better spending couple of hundreds for a superb coach. That makes you faster, leaner and meaner on each race track. So I can start now for the next races in 2017. Highlight will be Double Ironman distance in June. Ambitious goal: Sub 24 hours.