Challenge Wanaka- Welcome to the Jungle
Who would have thought that a sleepy little town surrounded by ski fields, magnificent mountains and on the edge of a magical lake would explode into an epic Triathlon Jungle? Somewhere deep in the south island of New Zealand, lives the beautiful town of Wanaka. In 2018 I was there to tackle the Full Distance Challenge Wanaka Family Triathlon: 3.8km of swimming, 180km of riding and 42.2km of running.
However, true to all things New Zealand- I got tackled, rucked, mauled, punished, man handled and just flat out out-classed when trying to play on their turf (Is this how the wallabies feel….).
Two days before the race I set off with another member of Newcastle Tri Club & founder of Stroke No Limits Triathlon Training group, Benn Coubrough. It was a late touch down meaning dinner was the only place we could still find open at 10pm on Thursday night and getting to the hotel after 11pm. Not the usual rest and carefully planned meals usually called for this close to a major race. Tired, stiff and sore isn’t exactly how I’d hoped to feel waking up 24 hours BEFORE a race nor was watching the white caps fly across the top of the lake in the 50km/hr winds.
Welcome to Wanaka- we like it rough! Friday felt like a mad scramble- coffee, eating, buying food, checking in at registration, setting up bikes, getting bikes through the mechanical check, going for a spin, eating, going for a swim, coffee, eating again and finally sleeping. It was hectic but before we knew it, the bikes were racked, the lights were out and it was time to catch some much needed Z’s before waking to a huge day.
Race morning started with relatively little fan-fare. The wind had forgotten to die down over night and we could still hear it buffeting our hotel while trying to enjoy some coffee, muesli, yoghurt and Temple Nutrition before heading off to the race. The small entry field was a blessing as we were able to park almost on top of transition before going over the final bike check and gear setup. Stashing a vest and gloves into by bike Transition bag turned out to be a brilliant move. While setting up I heard the organisers announce “for those of you who don’t want to do the swim let us know, it’s ok, you don’t have too. We will still let you ride and run, but you will have a DNF next to your name.” That is the first triathlon in my history where there’s been given an option not to do the swim- the wind, waves and cold were already shaping an epic day. Checking in my special needs bags I was gifted two long sleeve shirts mandatory gear I’d forgotten, but were enforced due to the weather extremes forecast for both the bike and run.
Making what seemed like a very lonely march to the swim start I couldn’t help but face my demons. In 2014 I’d been here, to this exact place and exact race, Challenge Wanaka. The result then was hypothermia in the swim ending in the medical tent with my body completely shut down. I did not want to go back to that place… That morning I’d read a quote that said “don’t tie your happiness to a result.” That became my mantra for the entire day. I am more than this swim, ride or run; I am me, I choose to do this, I will give this race my best and this is what matters….
Challenge Wanaka: Swim
Minutes before the start I was struggling to clear my goggles, absolute zero visibility through the lens and given this race starts just before sunrise the nerves were creeping up. Boom! The gun goes off and I leap into the water, lo & behold- I still can’t see, goggles off I try clearing again & again nothing…. Tried swimming without the goggles and I still couldn’t see. The best I could do was breaststroke over to the first kayak hold on all the while trying not to panic just clear my goggles again & again…. Finally after 5 minutes with the entire race field a few hundred metres ahead they cleared. It was like nothing was wrong however, at least now I could see… Still completely clueless I didn’t care and let go of the kayak and did my best Dory impersonation “just keep swimming,” while not trying to worry about the front of the pack getting further and further away. The swell in Lake Wanaka made me glad I’d practiced breathing on my left or right. Breathing was only available on one side save for a mouthful of water (at least it’s fresh water). Swimming has never been my strong suit but I just kept on ticking over, through the first lap onto the second and was happy enough to be heading towards the shore at the end of my 2nd lap. I did start to feel the cold during the swim and my calves started to cramp on kicking, but that didn’t return to bite me for some time.
Challenge Wanaka: Bike
As always I’d broken down the race into a baseball game- the first innings was the swim, the next 4 innings were the ride and the final 4 innings were the run. So running across to transition I thought 1st inning done and no medical tent I’m already winning….. I was very cold though so I took my time in Transition and was stoked to find my cycling vest & gloves in my bag and donned them both without a seconds hesitation. Off on the bike for 180km of one of the toughest and most scenic bike courses in the world. First we headed out towards Mount Aspiring and as the rain kicked in I was very glad for my jacket. The winds were still up and I was still trying to warm up especially for the first 20km. This out and back section gave me a chance to see the leaders come back in the opposite direction – they already had about a 20’ break on me. Coming back through town I’d started to catch people and I really enjoyed some of the climbs and even survived my first of 4 rickety bridge passes. The area around Lake Hawea and Hawea flat is called Dougal Allen country and it is built to go fast on- this was fun!! I made it out to the full distance turn before the half distance pros shot through so I missed a chance to see the big guns in action, but on this out and back section again I had an opportunity to see how far the race leaders were ahead. The gap hadn’t grown that much but was getting a bit more strung out with a few guys gaining time at the pointy end.
Over the rickety red bridge was interesting, especially in a race and although I got through it unscathed minus a drink bottle & food on the second lap, my race mate from home Benn Coubrough took a tumble as his bike got snipered by the ridge and threw him over the handlebars. Luckily enough he was only cut and bruised while his bike was pretty banged up too. He was able to ride back to transition, but unfortunately his day was done. I had no idea that this had happened to Benn so I just continued to ride and chase as much as I could. Stopping for my special needs bag 105km into the bike was great as one bottle was filled with fuel the other with my rocket fuel! Coffee and a chocolate Up & Go mixed together during a bike race was absolutely delicious and I think a big reason I would have been close to negatively splitting the bike course. My jacket stayed on until around 145km when I finally warmed up enough to stuff it into a drink bottle while still riding. Losing my last nutrition bottle over the infamous bridge with about 25k to go meant the final stretch into town my fuel was getting a low however, I knew I’d make it to the final aid station.
Challenge Wanaka: Run
Sliding into transition my bike time was 5:36 which might sound slower than usual, but my happiness wasn’t tied to the result. I was truly aware of the ride conditions and the 1800m of climbing. I knew I’d made up some places on the bike and transition had quite an empty feeling to it. Not many bikes or people to be seen and I was the only one who jumped into the change tent. The plan for the run was to head out at an easy pace and walk every aid station & aim for a negative split. I’d never actually tried this but in speaking with my coach we will use this strategy in May at Ultraman so we wanted to give it a crack in a race. A spare pair of socks was a blessing and off I trotted. The first 5k was 25:16 and felt so easy I was looking forward to the rest of the day. With 75% of the run off road along a beautiful river I knew I was in for a treat.
The course still had a lot of the half distance racers on it which during the first lap was great as there were plenty of people on the course. Heading towards Gunn Rd I had to make my first emergency bathroom stop, but I was just over my goal 5’/km pace. Powering up here I still felt great, then the 7k long slow drag back to town begun and somewhere along here I’ve left my legs… I’m still not sure what happened all I know is the pace slowed incredibly. I’d tried having more coke at the aid stations & less electrolyte/gels or chews and I don’t know if that zapped my legs either way they were gone. Around 18km I was told I was around 8th place. Reaching the turn around and the end of lap one I was grateful of a few things- 7 innings of my game were down, I only had two to play and I was going to enjoy every mouthful of my banana before heading back out.
The running got a little less, the walking a little more especially when I was forced into another portaloo around the 30km mark. I soon found one of the few Ozzie’s, John, on the course to roll around with. We were both in struggle street and the trudge up Gunn Rd was made more enjoyable with a can of Red Bull. We were both determined and we would get there. For John, a 3 time Kona finisher, I believe it was his longest day of sport ever. For me, well I’ve had a few beauty’s that have outlasted it however, the end was nigh. The beauty of the course helps to mask the toughness of the race.
Challenge Wanaka: The Finish
Turning off the trail and onto the road it was impossible not to smile. Only the small stretch of cafes, hotels, spectators and onto the red carpet. Crossing the Challenge Wanaka finish line it was all smiles hiding a whole lot of pain and discomfort. My happiness had nothing to do with the time or the result 11:27 in total and 10th overall male. By far and away a much slower swim and run than I’d expected, but I gave it all and everything I had.
Challenge Wanaka was a massive training day for me in the lead up to Ultraman Australia May 2018. Lessons were learnt and challenges were set- some were met and others left wanting however, the mind stayed strong. As Marcus Aurelius so wonderfully said, “you have power over your mind, not outside events. Realise this and you will find your strength.”
Similar to the All Blacks, this course never lets up!! Whether it was the swim, bike or run, each leg had it’s own challenge and each leg was a beast. The attacks kept coming and the defence was virtually impenetrable. I hope that Challenge Wanaka keeps coming back- it truly is a beautiful race in an amazing place and if you truly want to explore new boundaries and challenge yourself this is the challenge for you…..