As I swam through a bright orange wave of vomit, I thought “This is quite different to any race I’ve done before!”
We were half-way through the roughest swim in a New Zealand Ironman for 20 years and a fellow competitor had just thrown up over me. I’ve no idea whether he made it back to shore.
More than 120 people had to be rescued from the waves, battered by the storm which broke over Taupo, the normally placid lake town in New Zealand’s North Island early on Saturday morning, as we prepared for action.
Some of the time it was scary, sometimes frustrating and slow, other times I just thought “Wow this is exciting! It’s really adventure sport!” as another massive wave smashed over me. And as we met the full force of the storm at the turnaround point I thought “This is like Deadliest Catch!” (the TV show about crab-fishing trawlers in Alaska).
There were swimmers fighting one another, others treading water and looking lost and afraid. Certainly very little of the calm, clear, clean waters which the organisers had promised.
Ironman racing is about dealing with the unexpected. So we 1,270 triathletes duly re-set our expectations amid this wave-tossed 3,800 metres and ran up the hill to transition. My swim time was 1 hour 29 minutes.
Out on the bike course, the plus side of the storm emerged: we had the wind at our back for the 45km mainly downhill ride to Reporoa. What fun!
I completed this bit in 1 hour 13 minutes, so if I could ride this fast for the rest of the bike leg, my split time would be under 5 hours.
No chance. Getting back up the hill against the fierce wind took much longer. But I passed other competitors consistently throughout the ride.
In fact having finished the swim in 636th place overall (exactly half way through the field) I rose 249 places to 387th by the end of the bike. It’s always encouraging to overtake people, especially tough-looking younger guys in aero helmets…
There were some gruesome sights out here too. People grinding slowly and noisily up hills in the wrong gear. Others standing around at the side of the road, pale and exhausted. Larger riders hauling themselves up the road, pain distorting their faces.
In the absence of war, Ironman races provide some of the most extraordinary scenes of human suffering.
Flush with energy gels, coke, coffee, Powerade and Ensure Plus (a liquid food designed for terminally ill people - works miracles in these races), I plugged away for 180km in 6 hours 12 minutes and made it back to transition.
The race had been going for just under 8 hours, so I was an hour behind my hoped-for schedule. The goal of beating my previous time of 13 hours 1 minute (Ironman Austria 2016) was looking very distant. It would mean setting a new Ironman marathon PB by at least 20 minutes.
With the remarkably efficient and cheerful help of the Taupo volunteers, sorting out my kit, lathering on sunscreen and generally doing everything to make me feel great, I ran out of T2 in excellent spirits, so full of caffeine, sugar and energy-producing chemicals that I was bounding like a springbok.
Much to my pleasure, the first couple of kilometres of the run were downhill, next to the lake, which by this time was a bright, luminous blue, with sun glistening off its gentle waves, now the wind had subsided.
And for the next 4 and a half hours I had the most delightful time, running at a brisk 5 minutes 30 seconds per km, then 6 per km, then 6.30 but never quite 7. And then speeding up for the final few kilometres to the line.
Along the way were men in grass skirts, women in pink and purple tee shirts, men with a giant stack of beer cans, families with children, women with garden hoses, picnickers, walkers, cyclists and crowds of well-wishers, all shouting and whooping and calling my name and saying “awesome running!” and “great pace David, keep it up!” and “you’ve got this!”
There are always crowds at Ironman events but I really felt that here in Taupo they meant it more. They just love this event. The man in the butchers asked me about it, the physiotherapist told me her husband had done it, the waitress in the restaurant wished me good luck.
The event’s been held in New Zealand since 1985 (in Taupo since 1999), longer than anywhere except Kona in Hawaii (1978). And the love affair is mutual. Ironman competitors voted this their favourite event of 2016, above 39 rivals.
We met Meredith Kessler, the woman’s winner for five straight years from 2012 to 2016, training at a local pool before the event. She was incredibly friendly and just bubbled over about how much she loved the town and the event. “It’s my favourite place in the world,” she told us.
Then, during the run, Clare spotted her and cheered. “How’s David getting on?” asked Meredith as she went past. That kind of sums up the warmth of the atmosphere. Multiple Ironman champion concerned about an age grouper’s progress!
Never before have I contemplated a run and thought “can’t wait to go down that stretch again, it’s so beautiful.” The combination of elation and enthusiasm from the crowd and the stunning scenery definitely help to overcome pain and exhaustion.
Whereas in Austria I faded quite badly halfway through the run, I kept up the pace this time. Training in Portugal a month ago with Embrace Sports certainly helped, with coach Graeme Buscke competing here and finishing in an incredible 9 hours 41 minutes. Coaching from Rafal Medak at Trisutto was absolutely crucial, teaching me how to conserve strength and energy through the swim and bike and how to fuel throughout, along with countless lessons on mental strength and resilience.
And having wife Clare on the course, cheering every lap, knowing that this race means as much to her as it does to me, that she is willing me onwards through each turn of the wheel, each step, was an amazing feeling.
Great to be part of such a team.
Finished the run in 4 hours 45 minutes, a new personal best for an Ironman marathon by 39 minutes. New overall IM personal best time by 20 minutes (12 hours 41 minutes) and a top third finish for both my age group and the race.