This past weekend I had the pleasure of competing in the 4th annual Challenge Wanaka Event on the south island of New Zealand. I raced to a 4th place finish last year and I returned this year with hopes of improving on that performance. I did my preps for the 2009 edition in Australia, but this year I opted to stay at home in Boulder for my training. I had some interesting challenges with the weather, but I still felt good about my conditioning in the final lead up.
Wanaka had been experiencing some cold weather in the weeks before the race and when I showed up the lake was less than 13 degrees Celsius. We had nice race-week weather which likely moved the temperature up a couple degrees, but it was still one of the coldest swims I have done. Last year we had warmer water, but fairly rough conditions. This year the swim was dead flat and fairly uneventful for me. I ended up pulling the second pack of the swimmers around the course and I exited the water side-by-side with eventual winner, Richard Ussher (NZ).
After a mediocre T1 (but way better than T1 last year) I was off on the bike. A couple of riders, including Ussher, pulled away from me quickly during the opening 40K of the bike (which is very hilly); I tried to close the gap, but they proved to be too strong on this section of the course. As we headed out of town to tackle the meat of the bike course I was concerned that a group of three had formed up the road and I was left in no-man’s land. This was not how I had hoped for the first couple hours of the race to unfold.
Nevertheless, I felt good and I settled into a nice rhythm about two minutes off the group. I forgot how rough NZ chip roads can be, but I had plenty of alone time to take notice. The bike is a one-loop course with one short out-and-back at the 160K mark. As a result, I had to wait quite some time to see how my position on the bike was developing. At this point I could see that Ussher had ridden off the front, but 2nd and 3rd place were within about three minutes.
I was not in the position I had hoped for coming off the bike (4th), but I looked forward to seeing what I could do on the run. I settled into a nice rhythm after the first few Ks and around the 6K mark I heard that 3rd place was only 30 seconds up the road. This motivated me as I have never finished 3rd in an international race and within about ten minutes I had taken over the 3rd place position.
The first loop of the run continued fairly uneventfully and around the 17K mark I could see that 2nd place still had over 3 minutes on me. As we returned to town and headed back out for the second loop I got a split of about 2:40 to second place. The gap to second had not come down for 21K, but all of a sudden it dropped about 30 seconds.
I continued to tick along and I wasn’t sure whether or not anything had changed, but around the 28K mark I could actually see second place running on the trails. After exiting the trail section (10K to go) it looked as though the gap was now only a handful of seconds and by the top of Gunn Road (8K to go) I took over 2nd place.
In 2008, when I was racing Ironman Canada, I managed to run into 4th place with about 5 miles to go, only to be passed by the former 4th place runner in the last mile (and subsequently finished 5th). As a result of this, when I moved into 2nd place on Saturday I started running scared and I never slowed down until I crossed that finish line. Only then was I content that I wouldn’t be caught. This fear is likely what helped me post the fastest run split of the day as well as a new marathon PR.
Last year and I came off the bike in 2nd and finished 4th. This year the exact opposite occurred. Perhaps I can find a way to ride like last year and run like this year in the future, but for now I am quite pleased with how things turned out. Wanaka has been good to me for the past two years and I really enjoy racing there. The race is like no other. If you are looking for an honest course in a beautiful place, head to Wanaka next January.