Winning an Age Group National Title in the small chainring

One of the things I try to in still in my athletes is the importance of dealing with an adverse situation by keeping calm and not panicking.  When things happen it’s important to do a quick systems check, figure out what is going on, and what the options are for dealing with it.  My experience in the Challenge Wanaka Half (TriNZ Mid Distance Champs) was completely my fault, something that could have been simply avoided, but I am proud of how I accepted it, and coped through the day….younger Rob may have done something different.  For something that could have impacted the performance significantly, I don’t think I was at much of a disadvantage.

If you take one thing away from this blog let it be this….MAKE SURE YOUR Di2 BATTERY IS FULLY CHARGED, something my mother will now remind me of before every race.

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Challenge Wanaka (Full) in 2016 was one of those races that nearly finished me.  I wasn’t super motivated to return, despite it being set in one of the most scenic locations you could put a Triathlon.  For some reason the conditions on the day and the brutality of the course was such that I wasn’t really motivated to come back to race here again.  I had gone through a scary panic attack in the swim that morning and I never really got back to my happy place through the whole day.  Step forward 2 years and I seemed to have forgotten that feeling.  Sure, this time I wasn’t here to race the full, but instead the half.  But after this weekend’s racing I’m pretty sure I will be back to have another crack for many more years to come.

As soon as Triathlon NZ announced this was to be the National Mid-Distance Championships I was already looking forward to returning.  I had won the title for my Age Group in 2017 at the Port of Tauranga Half Ironman, and I liked the idea of defending it…that was the motivation I wanted to be able to finish my 2017/2018 season satisfied.  I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy task as uber-biker Shane Vincent had signed up, and he had won my Age Group at the Sprint Champs 1 week prior in Kinloch, where I finished 3rd a couple of minutes behind.  I knew I would beat him out of the water, and I expected him to gap me by a decent margin on the bike, but I had backed myself for a strong run, and had visualised running him down in the final few KM’s.

How did the day pan out??  Let’s just say, some Rookie errors by both Shane and Myself influenced the day significantly.

I had made a tactical, quite risky, and possibly foolish decision to only come down with a Disc rear wheel and a Trispoke for the front.  Race predictions with the www.bestbikesplit.com website suggested that this was the best wheel option for the forecasted weather, however the nature of sub-alpine climates such as in Wanaka is you just don’t know what you might get.  The race officials were talking about possibly banning disc wheels if the wind conditions were severe enough….that would have stuffed me right up. PI2L9QsgSmGo58hHMHqMPg

A morning swim the day before the race with Foot Traffic Pro Athlete Rebecca Clarke suggested it was going to be quite a difficult day.  I did a short ride on the course later that morning, to check the bike was working fine, and the disc wheel wasn’t behaving too bad so I was a bit less anxious.  My anxiety came back at me later that day when I had my bike checked and one of the officials remarked “You’re not using that wheel are you?”  I confidently bit back with “I’ve ridden it in much worse conditions before, besides its the front wheel depth people should be more concerned about and my trispoke is so narrow and has a very small profile that it will be sweet.”  Of course I knew I’d be fine, I just didn’t want to be questioned of my decision.  A quick phone call to my good mate and training partner Brodie Madgwick put my mind at ease when he said “Just set the spinnaker and hold on”.  That was perfect really, as it meant I had to be confident and aggressive all day, just how I wanted to race.

Funny how conditions can change though, the morning dawned fine and with a very light breeze across the lake, pretty much flattening it out and making it completely different to the day before.  My wheel decision was vindicated and I knew that this was going to be a great day.

I was determined not to have a repeat of my panic attack in 2016 (which I think was partly caused by an inadequate warm-up), so about 20 minutes before the start I dived into the cool lake and had a decent splash around.  Body felt good, nerves were low and I was ready.  As soon as the pro women took off I swam out to the start buoys as I wanted to be on the front left of the line, and didn’t want to be late to the party and have to work through the crowd.  I was surprised how casual everyone was getting out there, nothing like the high octane energy races I’d had early in the year, in particular Kona and Tauranga Half which are always quite crowded and aggressive.

Count down….BANG!

We were off.  Straight away a couple of fast swimmers took it out hard and I carried their wake for a bit until they pulled ahead, then I watched the right side of the course moving ahead of me.  I was still happy where I was as I knew I had the straightest line, and eventually I would meet them at the turn buoy.  A small group formed and I was with them for a bit, until the slowly pulled away, I recognised a few of the guys in that group and was a bit disappointed I couldn’t hold them.  Once I was about 2/3 of the way through I found I was at the front of a large group, and there was another good sized one about 50m ahead of me, so I decided to have a dig and swim across to them.  I managed to catch them about 200m from the finish and I was surprised to recognise the same guys from the group that had dropped me earlier…it seemed I just hadn’t warmed up quite enough.

I came out of the water in a sharp 29mins, which I was very happy wiht.  Thanks to my 2018 Blue Seventy Helix for some extra swim speed there.

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I was quick through transition as I wanted to gap the group I exited the water with, and was on the bike solo.  The rain had started falling but I didn’t really notice it.  Feet in shoes, Power Meter on and straight into my work.  As I hit a small climb out of town I dropped to my small chainring, crested it and then went to change back up again, only to be greeted with…..NOTHING!  No way, I knew exactly what had happened here, my Di2 battery was nearly empty.  How could this be, I had checked the battery light before I left home and had removed the battery for the flight so it didn’t drain, but clearly there wasn’t enough power in it.  Fortunately with Shimano Di2 it will stop the front derailleur  from changing, but still allows use of the rear gears, but I didn’t know how long that would last.  Could I get 90km out of it?  I will just have to find out.  I even stopped to ask a roadside mechanic if he had a spare battery with him, which he didn’t….carry on as I was.

There was no need to panic here, I played it cool, figured out a plan and stuck with it.  A quick check behind me revealed I had pulled away from a few guys I left transition with, and was catching some ahead, so I was still in good gears to ride the power I wanted.  The frustrating thing was that it meant I would spend a lot of the time in my 36×12 or 11, which puts the chain on an angle and rubs the cage of the front derailleur. Whilst I was pedalling at about 120RPM down a hill Shane Vincent came flying past me and gapped me within seconds, I couldn’t even react, I had no more gears and just watched him go off in the distance.  He must have thought I was such an idiot being in my small chainring down a hill.

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My biggest concern was that I had to ration my gear changes out as I didn’t know when the battery was really going to die on me.  I didn’t want to be left in too low a gear, so I spent most of the ride in my 3 smallest cogs on the back, being very conservative on gear changes, which meant I ended up riding the hills out of the saddle at a high power to get up them, I could really feel my quads loading up here and was a bit worried as to the consequences of this.  I knew this was going to use a lot more energy, so I increased my carb intake significantly, getting ready for the eventual explosion/hitting of wall.  I had a few guys around me but I would pull away up the climbs as I was in a stupid big gear, and they would fly by me on the descents as I was in a stupid low (but the same) gear!

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Once we hit the Hawea flats there was a slight cross tail wind, and I think this is where the disc wheel/trispoke combination really benefitted me, as I rode away from the guys I had been riding with!  I was pedalling well over 100RPM, and I feel great doing it, just being reminded of my stupidity by the terrible sound of my chain scraping on the derrailier.  I was now beginning to think that this super low gear situation may actually be not as bad for me as I expected it to be.  Could this be a blessing in disguise, sure I was missing out on extra speed not having access to a big chainring, but was I saving my legs by not over-gearing myself?

At about the 70km mark I decided to start using lower gears on the climb as I knew I was close enough to home that if the battery went dead I could still ride it out, and I wanted to save my legs a bit more as cramps in my quads were beginning to haunt me.  A quick check of my TSS showed I was already at 220 (about 30 points more than I had planned to be), so this was becoming an energy sapping ride – lucky I had decided to increase my carbs earlier in the race.  The last section through town went pretty quickly, and I was relieved to finally get off the bike without any further mechanical drama’s.  One thing I wasn’t aware of was by this time Shane Vincent had punctured, and didn’t have a spare tubular, so I was now in the lead of my Age Group, despite thinking I was still second.

I rode 2:33 and had a normalised power of 288, and average cadence of 88rpm.

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Starting the run my legs felt great and I was moving smoothly.  I started getting some very slight cramps in my quads, but a few Margarita Clif Bloks (extra sodium) soon dealt to the cramps and I was into my work.  I was following my run power closely, and wanted to hold 280-285w.  I don’t have pace visible on my watch, just power and time, although I have each KM split come up, so I have a fairly good idea of my run pace.  I was surprised to be ticking over quite comfortably between 4:00-4:10/km for the first few kms.  Following power output is a lot more reliable and useful than looking at pace, especially on a technical course such as along the Outlet Track as it has such varied terrain.  Power is an absolute measure of effort, where as pace is determined by many different factors that can’t be influenced by the runner.

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As I hit Gun Road Kellee was sideline telling me I was leading my AG, and that Shane didn’t finish the bike.  She told me I had a 6 minute lead, and just to keep running strong.  At this point I was beginning to feel a bit tired and noticing the effects of the hard ride.  My power was now dropping, and despite how hard I was trying I couldn’t get the target up to where I wanted it to be.  But that didn’t matter, I knew I wasn’t going to get caught from behind, so I just focused on my form and tried to catch my athlete Rebecca Clarke in front of me, who was currently 7th in the Elite Womens race….as it turned out, she was running well and I couldn’t catch her.  I managed to keep moving ahead of 2nd in my Age Group and finished with a 9 minute margin.

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The run took me 1:32, and ironically was the same average power as the bike, 278w.

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My overall time of 4:41 shows it isn’t a fast course, especially when Javier Gomez ‘only’ goes 3:57 to win it.  This is a tough honest race with amazing scenery and some testing wind conditions, the sort of course I love, and perfect for the NZ Championships.  I’d love to come back here next year to race again, and I can highly recommend it to anyone wanting to combine a race and a holiday at the same time, as there are so many things to do in the Wanaka region.

In terms of lessons learned, clearly charging my Di2 battery is a fairly important one, but equally so is knowing that just because something isn’t going as planned it isn’t the end of the race.  Problems can be dealt with quickly and easily, and don’t always end in a negative outcome.

I’m looking forward to watching Ironman New Zealand next weekend.  I’m sure some people will have things not quite go to plan, so I’m hopeful that my experience helps that person cope with it on race day.

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