Lake Wanaka Challenge Half Race Report

Race Day Tips, March 12, 2015

First win at the Half Distance for Hannah Wells

On the 22nd of Feb I stepped onto the start line to begin only my second Half Ironman event.

Challenge Wanaka is regarded as NZ’s largest triathlon festival, encompassing full and half iron distance events and a series of smaller events to keep the field of over 2,000 athletes and 10,000 spectators entertained. It would also have to be one of the most scenic on-road triathlon courses in the world! Just stunning! The fantastic scenery, festival atmosphere, and the chilled out nature of the crew of athletes and friends I had been hanging out with, meant I was more excited than nervous this time around. 

Race morning, and I rolled out of bed at 6am and scoffed my bowl of weetbix. For the third day in a row, it was a beautiful (but crisp!) Wanaka morning. Being a couple of well acclimatised Aucklanders, Matt and I wrapped up in puffer jackets and trackies,and headed down to race HQ to set-up our gear in transition. 

As we were setting up our bikes, the sun began to appear from over the hills behind us, streaming down onto the lake. The atmosphere in transition was surprisingly relaxed and I found myself feeling incredibly lucky to be heading out to do something I love; with some amazing athletes along side me; in such a beautiful part of the world. It was going to be a stunner of day! 

Matt and I got everything ready to go in time to watch the full-distance pro athletes take-off; and take off they did! Some very impressive swim times (and later on, overall times!) were set out on the course, with conditions being near perfect.

Once the full-distance age-groupers had hit the water, it was our turn to get wet-suited up. I wished Matt, Graham and Dave good luck and watch them drift into the crowd of men lining up at the start. The mens half-distance field started 5 minutes in front of us, something we females are getting quite used to.

It was then my turn to make my way over to the start line, taking up a position in the middle of the start line, at the front (Brendan’s orders!). The gun went off and I quickly moved out in front with a group of 3 other swimmers. 

At the first buoy we could see the feet of some of the male swimmers ahead of us and I began picking my way through the field. Visibility was good, and I kept my eye on the other three females until we turned at the second bouy, from here the blinding sun made it difficult to see anything at all! For the remainder of the swim, I just followed the splashes until I emerged back on Roy’s Bay beach. I felt comfortable and strong throughout the swim; perhaps a reflection of consistent ocean swimming over the past few weeks (chasing Matt’s feet!). I was happy to emerge as fourth placed female. 

The transition set up for Challenge Wanaka is pretty long (not surprising with so many athletes) and includes a run up and over a foot bridge. Even though this makes for longer overall race times, it allowed me to settle down a bit before getting on the bike. I came out of transition not far behind the leading girls, and I was able to slip into the lead pretty early in the bike leg (thanks in part to having Uncle Bruce’s speedy TT machine!). As we headed out to Glendu Bay I was conscious of not going out too fast on the bike. I tried to concentrate on keeping consistent effort through the rolling hills, and took in some of the breath-taking scenery (how could you not?!).

The ride was pretty uneventful until we reached Hawea Flat. It was here I suddenly heard the voice of Jess Simson, giving me some encouragement as she approached. Looking VERY strong she cruised up beside me making casual conversation (too easy?!).
In between (the rather necessary) breathing, I managed to tell her (and reassure myself?) that getting passed by the Coast to Coast champ wasn’t really a bad thing (I was pretty stoked to be in that position really!), and she laughed before basically leaving me in the dust!

Into T2, and I was in 2nd place now, by 2 minutes. 

I took off on the run, but didn’t feel overly comfortable. Brendan had told me to time my first few km’s to check I was sticking to the right pace. However, in all the excitement, I didn’t (oops!).

Due to my form feeling more like I was running with duck feet; and the fact that lifting my arm to look at my watch seemed like too much effort; I just ran the first few km’s trying to concentrate on relaxing and finding my legs. I got to the fourth kilometre and heard someone yell out splits to a guy I had caught up to. According to those splits I had run the first 4km in under 16mins; a lot faster than my target. Instant regret!

I dropped my pace right back, hoping I hadn’t done too much damage. 

The track along the river was pretty hot, but absolutely stunning, and if I ignored my legs I was feeling pretty happy! I came to a group of supporters who told me that Jess was about 30 seconds ahead. To be honest, I didn’t believe them, I wasn’t expecting to catch Jess after seeing her go by on the bike!

It turns out, their estimate was pretty spot on, and taking back the lead gave me a new burst of energy. The duck feet and sore legs disappeared (woohoo, this is awesome?!).
Alas, my happy moment was soon interrupted by a common triathlon arch-enemy: cramp. Both hamstrings began to ‘bite’, threatening to go at any time. In desperation, I had my next gel early and hoped that would get me home. I plodded up the nasty little hill on Gunn Road feeling less than happy (one of those dark moments you mentioned Brendan?) and I told myself I had to try and get back into a better space….but maybe after the hill! ;-)

Fortunately, my hammies didn’t ‘bite’ and the new found positivity (and fear of who was likely lurking around the bend just behind me!) allowed me to hang in there and keep the lead for the rest of the race. In the end, ahead of the next finisher by 3 minutes. Absolutely stoked! 

I was blown away by the speed and power of Jess on the bike; and to get into the position she did, coming from a multi-sport background, and having cleaned up at the Coast to Coast the week before, was amazing! It was great to have an opportunity to chat to her, and a number of fantastic athletes over the course of the weekend. Congrats also to Sarah for her solid run and third place finish.

Being able to stand on the podium and spray champagne was great fun! But perhaps I’ve had too much practise at drinking what’s in the bottle, rather than spraying it??! 

Massive congrats to my ‘partner in crime’ Matt, who placed fourth overall in the Mens event. (And most importantly, was well ahead of getting ‘chicked' by his girlfriend).

Also big congrats to my buddies Graham, Dave, Gavin, Judy Kensington and Phillipa Friary for all having great races in the half, and to Liam Friary and Nick Kensington for smashing the full distance (you’re mental). It was a successful day for all, and I am SO keen to head back next year!