Race Report: IMNZ Taupo 2017

Hi everyone! It’s been a while. I’m going to start by saying this; Ironman Taupo is a bucket list race. If the full distance race sounds daunting, there’s always the less macho option of doing the 70.3. It’s a beautiful town, awesome landscape, good food, hip cafes, friendly people with the much-lauded Kiwi hospitality and gorgeous weather… Not for the race on 4th Mar though, which I would definitely talk about as we go along.

2016 had been a barren year for me, and in fact a rather quiet year for most of us from IronProject. After my PB in Roth 2015, the body felt beaten up and I made the decision to just do half-distance races for the whole of 2016. A 4:26 at Mandurah Nov 2015 somehow gave me some boost going into 2016 and I did 4 races; 70.3 Dubai, Challenge Billund Half, 70.3 Cebu and 70.3 Phuket. Along the way I dabbled with many training methods and nutritional strategies but just couldn’t find the right formula, which clearly showed in my results. A 4:38 at Billund was my only highlight of the year while racing ill and I won’t consider my result in Dubai a legit one due to the reduced swim.

70.3 Cebu was the lowest point of my triathlon journey up to that point. I did a 5:02 after a series of nutritional cock-ups, cramps and heat exhaustion. It got seriously ugly. It became my personal worst result. Even my 1st 70.3 in Auckland 2014 was better at 4:47. But I knew I couldn’t use external factors as an excuse. Something must be done because it clearly showed that I can’t be banging out sessions senselessly and hoping that I could get off with a good result, race after race. Training had become stale, I’ve hit a plateau and it’s time that I needed some help.

I hooked up with Jurgen Zack, founder and coach of his own Z-Coaching company based in Phuket, with the help from our local darling champ and frequent flyer to Kona, Choo Ling Er, who is being coached by Jurgen as well. The plan was to start everything on a blank page and work from the ground up, with the primary goal of improving my full distance PB. I signed up for 70.3 Phuket as a tune up for a full distance race and to see how the training went. At that point I still wasn’t sure which full distance race to target for in 2017.

The screws started turning again in August and a lot of concentration was placed on base endurance. That was when I realised that I was severely lacking in this area, as I always thought I got it covered. The only way to explain this was a probability of me falling into a black hole for most parts of the year. So I did tons of aerobic work for a couple of months with minimal intensity. From there I felt a difference and some new-found confidence in my overall fitness. I was feeling healthier and less fatigued, though not necessarily faster, even with a slightly busier flying schedule. I had a short bout of food poisoning in late October, which hampered my prep for 70.3 Phuket but that race wasn’t the main focus. Anyway, the race went by without drama. My condition was probably at about 8o to 90 percent, and I can still feel the bugs in my stomach from the food poisoning, which did affect my nutrition intake during the bike and run. However, the weather wasn’t really hot by Phuket’s standards so that pretty evens out. I did a 4:51 for that unique race, but the main takeaway was, I didn’t feel hammered as before and I expected to finish at around that timing. I can see where I was in terms of fitness and treated the race as a validation that I’m ready to tackle a full-distance race again.

So, as Christmas approaches when almost everyone else had their feet up, binging on whatever they fancy, I was looking through Ironman.com to see which present, in the form of a race entry, should I buy for myself. No off-season for me or, like what the Z-Coaching squad in Phuket love to say: “This is not a honeymoon”. It all boiled down to 3 choices: IMNZ Taupo, IM Australia Port Mac, IM Austria Klagenfurt. I’ve always wanted to do IM Austria. In fact it was the race that I wanted to sign up in 2014. But it was sold out and I had to settle for IM Frankfurt instead, which incidentally I did a 9:46. However  for this year, the date for Austria was changed and it’ll be risky for me to sign up because I knew that I’ll be required to do a conversion course for a different aircraft type, and chances of getting called up would be anywhere from June to July. So that just leaves me with IMNZ and IM Aus. Between these 2, Taupo appeals to me more and I felt that a 3 month block post Phuket would work out well. Admittedly, the exchange rate for SGD to NZD was pretty favourable too… Taupo it is then.

Training went pretty smoothly for 2017 leading up to Taupo. There was only some missed or shortened sessions due to work and family commitments but the bulk of training was dealt with. I can truthfully say I had never felt any fitter and healthier. Not just the body but my overall well-being  because I managed to nail my recovery for the whole training block and established a solid nutrition plan for the race. Swimming was the only area where I still didn’t have a breakthrough but I was slightly better than before. I couldn’t wait to race.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Lake Taupo.

A bit about IMNZ. The race has a rich history, being the longest running full distance race out of Kona. 2017 will be its 33rd edition, and the 18th time at Lake Taupo, a fresh water lake that’s bigger than Singapore. And only just this February, IMNZ was voted as the best Ironman race in the world. The race was also made famous by none other than 44 years young Cameron Brown. A 12 times champ of Taupo over 19 years and the oldest professional winner of an Ironman race. Last year, at ‘just’ 43 years old, he broke the course record. IMNZ is quite a tricky race with the rolling bike and run course but he made it look easy. And Taupo’s weather is known to be quite unpredictable and as proven in 2012, the race had to be reduced to a 70.3 because of extreme weather and the swim in 2006 had to cancelled due to huge swells in the lake. Yes, you read that right. So for anyone who signed up for this race, it’s always a gamble. This year, there was a decent amount of representation from Singapore, and our Kona regular Ling Er, will be duking it out at Taupo again to claim her 4th Kona spot, and it would be her first race in the female 30-34 age group (officially an auntie now).

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A zippy car for a 3 hour drive from Auckland to Taupo. Love it.

I arrived in Taupo 2 days before race day, having spent a night in Auckland first before driving over. The weather leading up to race day was awesome. It was sunny with some light morning breeze, and Lake Taupo looked calmer than a swimming pool. However, the weather forecast did showed stronger North-Westerly winds on race day, which will affect the bike course. I thought it was pretty normal for a temperate area with some hills and elevation, which I had experienced before in Frankfurt and Roth so I didn’t let that bother me too much at first. Jurgen gave me some advice as to how to tackle the bike course, taking the weather forecast into consideration and some pacing strategies for the run. The plan for the swim was pretty straight forward. Just place myself well along the start line and find some fast feet to follow. Unfortunately, the swim became an open water survival test but his advice for the bike and run turned out to be extremely valuable. So, what actually happened on race day? Read on.

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All that flex pose for my cameraman Alan Soh proved to be useless…

I woke up on race morning, with the sound of howling winds through the window of my room. “Today’s going to be interesting.” I thought, but still, I had to get my arse off the bed. As I slowly munched my toast and eggs, with the sound of trees rustling outside my motel, my mind was in the process of how to tackle the impending strong winds for the day. After my fill, I gingerly wore my wetsuit up to my waist first before proceeding to transition. It’s chilly outside anyway, so why not.

The sound of waves resonating along the waterfront of the lake wasn’t what I was familiar with days before. As dawn broke and with the help of the traditional Kiwi Haka performance drowning out the noise from the wind and waves, all of us were faced with the reality of the brutal day ahead. White caps and swells were all visible to us now and the thought of even entering the water seemed crazy. Actually, the energy of the waves wasn’t that strong near the start line, but what lay beyond was daunting for a 3.8km swim. 06:45am and the cannon fired off for the pros and it showed that even they had some difficulty navigating through the water. The field was dispersed shortly after the start due to the conditions. We, the age-groupers, are next. It was 1 minute to go and I’ve never seen a mass start line as scattered as before. Clearly, most of us were still trying to process the swim conditions. The mind simply wasn’t ready at all. At this point, I was just continuing to move around near the start continuing to keep warm and primed with some fast strokes. Moments after, the cannon was off…

The swim course was very straightforward. It’s 1 loop out and back and navigating on the outbound section was supposedly easy. The 1st turn buoy was pretty much in-line with the Kaimanawa Mountain, which was quite a high peak and we just had to head for it. However, it was a challenge for me because I breathe on the right and the waterfront was on my left. I was swallowing copious amounts of Lake Taupo, but luckily it was all fresh water. The 1st turn buoy approached and with a stomach full of water, the u-turn back felt like I was scooping air because this was when we were facing the waves head on. As I finally lined myself up for the return leg, another problem arose. The reference point I picked during swim practice was impossible to see due to the waves. All I could depend on was the red marker buoys which lead us all the way back. My plan for the swim was literally thrown out of the water. We were all so scattered. Keeping ourselves afloat and propelled forward in the correct direction was all it mattered. I was pretty much on my own throughout, simply with no one to follow. After what seemed like an endless line of red marker buoys, the swim exit was finally visible. Out of the water and my Garmin says 1:13. Enough of Lake Taupo.

T1 was a 600m shuffle with 2 short flights of stairs to climb. Nothing like a long swim to bike transition after a tough swim! However, the transition itself was still done very efficiently, thanks to the bloody awesome volunteers of Taupo. My wetsuit was stripped in record time and off to my bike I went. There was still a lot of bikes racked, so it was comforting to know that a majority of us weren’t having a good start to the day.

Taupo is known for its rolling terrain along the countryside and rough road surfaces. There are some flat sections for the bike course but pacing was absolutely key here. The total elevation adds up to nearly 1100m over 180km. Quite a fair bit of climbing, comparatively speaking. I did a little bit of research and reading and found out that the best bike split for Taupo had never fell below 4:20 and it’s a sign that it’s clearly not a course for uber bikers here. Biking had been my strongest discipline ever since I took up triathlon, so I had to put my pride and ego aside and take a prudent approach for the bike leg. The course consisted of 2 loops heading east along Broadland Road to Reporoa, a small settlement near Taupo. That’s where we would u-turn twice back to Taupo centre. There’s a slight deviation that we have to make shortly after we start the 2nd loop, which consisted a long incline and fast decent, before joining the main road back to Reporoa. The ‘great’ news was, as I mentioned earlier, the winds forecasted were North-Westerly and it turned out to be mainly WNW throughout, reaching speeds of up to 40km/h. So this meant a speed-fest outbound, but a torturous drag through a mud pudding on the way back.

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A pretty straightforward bike course but the total elevation adds up to about 1100m

For the first time in a race, I decided to have special needs for the bike leg. This was kind of a last-minute decision made due to the impending conditions on race day. I predicted that with the strong winds, given the same amount of effort I had to put out, I’ll definitely spend more time on the bike. I also didn’t want to lug around an extra bottle and only to lose it due to the rough roads. With that, I prepared another bottle of concentrated electrolyte mix on standby if I need it on the 2nd loop. True enough, I lost my rear mounted bottle halfway out on the 1st loop during a fast decent. I was probably touching 60km/h when I heard my bottle ejected out from my saddle. Luckily, I pre-empted that and delibrately had that bottle in a less concentrated mix. Not much of a panic there because I had my concentrated mix in my BTA, the ‘Fuelselage’ and some more gels in my ‘Fuelcell’ (Nice work there Shiv) that can last me for 4 hours easily. So the rear bottle was a bonus if it manages to hang on for the ride.

As Reporoa approaches, I saw a familiar figure as I was passing a few people. It’s Ms Choo! Clearly she had a better swim and deservedly so, but I had to make the pass. Ms Choo, if you’re reading this; “:p Hahaha!”. After a moment of short-lived confidence boost, the dreaded headwind awaits, and what mother-effing of a headwind it was. Sorry kids.

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On my trusty Shiv. Still looking relaxed on my 55… Should be enjoying the tailwind at this point. 

Survival mode “ON” and almost immediately I went on the defensive, kept myself low and aero, with a lower gear and maintaining a good cadence to try to keep my effort controlled. However, the winds was just too much. For some sections we were hit by crosswinds, a guy almost sideswiped me as I was passing him and for some short climbs, we almost came to a standstill. It was quite harrowing to see my speed dropped to single digits. There were some flatter sections whereby I had to be on the small chainring to maintain my cadence! And its 2 loops! I had to keep easing the pressure off myself and keep my chin up simply because everyone was facing the same shit. There was no excuse. After some reprieve at the u-turn point and a quick pit stop for special needs, the 2nd loop awaits and it was mad dash to Reporoa again to keep the clock from ticking any longer. So needless to say, the 2nd time back to Taupo was as diabolical as before. For my previous 3 full distance races, the thought of running a marathon after biking 180km still scares me, but not for that day. I couldn’t wait to get off the bike and run away from it! The winds almost totally dried my eyes out and for the last 30km or so, I couldn’t really focus properly. I’m not joking when I say that I felt my right eye wasn’t pointing in the same direction as the one on my left.

I was almost smiling as T2 approaches and had my shoes loosened way before transition. As dreadful as it may sound from the description of the bike leg, my planned pacing was spot on. All the numbers that I trained for actually didn’t go to waste at that point. The legs didn’t feel hammered and felt that I had set myself up for a comfortable run. My Garmin read 5:26 for the bike, which so far seemed like very familiar numbers compared to my 1st Ironman at Cairns. The total elapsed time read 6:46 and though I felt good, another sub-10hr result seemed a bit far-fetched but that didn’t really mattered. Finishing strong for this race would be good enough, provided that I had some energy left for my run.

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Holding on to my precious energy gel.

Once again, the volunteers did an excellent job in the change tents and that was one of my fastest bike run transitions done. My helmet was kept aside and running shoes handed to me with socks nicely sticking out of the shoes like I’m being served by a butler. The run course is 3 loops along the lake’s waterfront and into some housing clusters, hence making it 14km per loop. I passed the timing mat out of T2 with several guys and followed them for about a kilometer to ease myself into the run. It seemed slow at first until I checked my pace, which I would do everytime only for the 1st km during all of my brick sessions because I tend to get too excited off the bike. The plan was to a 4:45-ish pace but my watch showed 4:33 for the 1st km. Bad habits die-hard! Jurgen stressed that it’s imperative to negative split the run so I backed off immediately, knowing also the run was also pretty undulating with some steep inclines and drops. I should also mention again that the wind was still blowing in the same direction which also affected the return leg for each loop. Hours and hours of free hair drying treatment!

I was having positive vibes during the run with my pace and my energy levels were in check. The run course wasn’t easy but the aid stations were all well spaced with tons of helpful volunteers. There’s even a dedicated Red Bull station! Perfect for an Ironman run leg because it really gave me wings. And they placed it at the top of the longest incline as a form of motivation. In fact the sight of it already gave me wings to fly up the hill. Good job Red Bull! I tried not to check my pace as much as possible and went by feel. As I could recall, I probably only checked my pace about 5 to 6 times over those 42km. This was all down to rehearsing race paced brick and long runs over and over, which proved that going fast during training wasn’t always the correct thing to do. We can clock a fast timing and probably feel gratified, session after session but what really mattered was race day. The whole idea was to peak at the right time, but not every time. By the 30th km, which is the proverbial wall for most average joes including myself, I’m still on pace and that’s when I knew I can finish strongly. Another 1st was, I didn’t feel any cramps at all. I had done marathon races and never failed to miss a twitch or tingle in the muscles. But this time, everything felt alright.

The last return stretch, with 7km remaining was when I really started to dig deep. The pace felt harder to maintain, my forefeet feeling slightly numb and I’m ducking people who were still doing their 1st or 2nd loops. Like anyone doing a full distance race, knowing that we were going to finish will always give us a huge turbo boost in the final kilometers. Stride after stride and with the numbers on the distance markers increasing, I’m finally on the finish chute. Stopped my watch and it read 10:08. A mix of thoughts and feelings rushed in. I’m happy to finish in one piece after a brutal day, slightly bummed that I couldn’t do another sub-10 but knew I had done one of my best marathons ever. That will do Arthur. That will do.

If anyone here followed my post of my result in Instagram or Facebook, it’s pretty much a summary of what we experienced at IMNZ. This blog post is a more detailed account of my preparation and how race day unfolded. Again, big ups to Ms Choo for another KQ. She made Taupo her main Kona slot hunting ground yet again, and congrats again to all Singaporean finishers on what was one of the toughest days in Taupo. This was further vindicated during the post-race interview, when Cameron Brown said it was his toughest swim in 19 years, and he even thought that the swim would be cancelled or reduced in distance. Anyway, he came in second for the race and he’s a beast for doing so at 44 years old. Nothing but respect. His run split was also the fastest for the day! Mental…

Jurgen did point out that on a good day, I should be able to slash at least 30min off my timing and get a PB. However that day just wasn’t it. Till now I still couldn’t really quell my disappointment for not getting a result that I’m capable of but that’s the beauty of the sport. It’s so unpredictable, so many variables, so many other races and countries that we can to race in and it makes us want to go back for more. Then again it would come a time when you think that enough is enough and it’s time to take a step back. Having aspirations and ambitions can be good but they come at a price. Something’s gotta give. It can be injury, illness, family, studies, etc. And for age groupers on a pay cheque, job or career advancement can be on the line as well. So, finding a good balance is key.

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Z-Coaching represent yo! Another KQ coin for Ling Er’s piggy bank!

I would have to admit, my balance was somewhat tipped over these few years. I’m someone driven by results, especially when it comes to sports activities that I embrace. There’s no race that I would toe the line knowing that I won’t do well. I’ll be so totally immersed in what I set to achieve and always made sure I put in the training required. But I have a family and a job, so in order to put in many hours of training per week, there was a lot of juggling to do and turned out that a lot of things was only centred around me. Having to work with Jurgen somehow got the situation in control because training became more structured and more specific. No extra garbage miles or self gratifying workouts just to make up the volume. I told myself IMNZ would be the race that I would leave it all out there, regardless of result. Unfortunately, amongst my friends, I’m somewhat a magnet for adverse weather, so it’s only appropriate that I use a famous Aussie rock group’s number “Weather with You” to describe my Taupo experience. Damn those winds…

It’s not like I’m totally saying bye bye to triathlon. I still love the sport, no doubt. It’s just that I won’t be spending as much time and energy as before. Right now, I’m enjoying a break from training and maybe I would pick up another sport or, since I’m still able to run reasonably well, I may concentrate more on improving my run and chase a target of doing a sub-3hr marathon. There’s still a lot of ways for me to release my endorphins. Furthermore, say if I continue to ‘tri’, I would fall into the 40-44 age group next year. Yeah yeah, the joke’s on me now…

Lastly, though this was done before, I would love to do so again because these are the people whom I couldn’t thank enough; Jurgen Zack, Nicholas Chia with his team at T3 Bicycles, Robert Choy, Yosh Nakahara, Alan Soh, Choo Ling Er, Brandem Liew and finally, my very loving and understanding support team consisting of my wife, Linda, and my daughter, Denise. Till next time, train hard, race easy, keep it fun, keep it real. Cheers.

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