As many of you know, my compulsive list-ticking travels forced me to compete in New Zealand’s Coast to Coast in February. I really had no choice, it was on The List. And I had been taking it Very Seriously Indeed with a 4 day reconnaissance mission in January (6 word conclusion: it’s as hard as they say). I’d also intentionally not been properly employed for the best part of a year and become a pseudo-professional athlete, just without the same discipline, with neither sponsors nor prize money, no decent results and a pretty hefty deficiency in ability. Otherwise totally pro-level.
The Speight’s Coast to Coast World Multisport Championships (just “Coast” to us in the know) is held annually in February, traversing the middle of the South Island in a day from west to east. It’s normally a 54km draft legal bike in pitch blackness with a 3km balls-out uphill Le Mans run start, followed by a 30km unmarked run – up and down a couple of rivers crossing a mountain range, a link bike section of 15km, before a 1km run to the start of a 70km white water paddle, finishing with a 1km run out again and a 68km draft-free bike to finish on Sumner Beach in Christchurch. All in a day’s work, eh chaps?
It’s Raining Like It Used To
You remember when it used to rain in Melbourne? I can, albeit barely. Quite simply, the reason it doesn’t rain in Melbourne anymore is because it’s all falling on the west coast of New Zealand. And most of that was on race morning – an astonishing 150mm of rain was predicted over the first 3 hours of the race.
It was confirmed Friday afternoon by my spy Shay at Klondyke Corner that we were to be racing the alternate Coast to Coast course, which meant running the road (not the rivers), and then riding all the way to Christchurch (over the truly impressive Porters Pass) before a largely token paddle down the Avon River and out the estuary to finish at the normal spot. No Mingha-Deception route on the run, no Waimakariri on the paddle, but a lot more biking which should have suited the likes of Yours Truly. In theory.
I’d managed to have my longest continuously healthy streak since producing some germ ridden offspring. My training form was good and an early decision to become a naturally talented paddler was paying dividends too (I trained like a demon to prove it…) Sadly, it all went to pot with our hire car pickup (left at the airport) on arrival Tuesday night: they’d left the lights on and flattened the battery (thanks very much Apex Car Rental). I waited outside in the cold at 1am for help to arrive – and acquired a sore throat in the process.
Deteriorating slowly over the next four days, my health nadir was Saturday morning at about 1am (it’s a Saturday race, 6am start) when the germs decided to throw a frat party in the back of my throat. I also had a mild fever and soaked sheets (hey, it’s my story and I’m blaming the fever, all right?) So with 2 hours of interrupted sleep in total the night before the (equal) biggest race of my life, a bit of a temperature and horrific weather conditions, I decided not to even bother starting. I told my support crew and then went outside to have a little sook in peace and quiet – and wet, it was already coming down in buckets.
10 minutes later I thought, “Hey, why not do the first run leg? It’s only 3km and then I can check how I’m feeling and decide whether to bother continuing.” I decided to go with this, which was incredibly convenient because the car only had two seats, and Paul and Bo told me I’d have to hitch if I didn’t race.
Anyone got a torch?
So I started. And then the wind and rain were so heavy and strong I couldn’t actually tell whether I was healthy or not – I was just very, very wet and so was everyone else, so I kept on going. And in the end, who knows if it even made a difference? I don’t. There were certainly other factors that followed that had a bigger impact.
Who would have thought that the biggest mistake of the day could be so innocuous? I knew it was dark when you started, I knew that people sometime had trouble finding their bikes, and I knew how important it was to make the first pack on the bike if you want to be anywhere near the pointy end. None of which helps to explain how – after a “solid” (read: “balls-out”) first 3km at 3:45 pace up a steady gradient – I spent a minute or more looking for my bike. I was #61 and there were number plates every 20 bikes in the rack. I saw 40, then went ahead and saw (d’oh!) 80, so came back to (you guessed it) 40 again. Finally I walked back up the line so as to be sure not to miss my bike and duly found it (right next to the “60”), and the damage was done.
It cannot be understated how significant an error this was on my behalf. As it turned out, I missed the first two bunches, then spent about 2/3rd of the first 32km of the 55km draft-legal bike sitting on the front of my own new pack chasing down those in front.
My cold / fever thing was not the problem anymore. I was arguably missing a bit of top end, but I was still able to hit my TT groove and eventually caught the second pack, whose members were happily sitting up free-wheeling half the time as any sane person should. My friend Liam Drew was in the second bunch though and he normally goes pretty well, so all wasn’t lost. When asked politely how I was going, I answered in my best kiwi imitation accent, “I’m sick” which came out more like, “I suck”. In either case I was probably right.
My legs were a wee bit shot already to be honest and I knew I had done too much. We rolled into T2 7 minutes behind the lead group of 19 – which as it turned out contained 14 of the eventual top 17. Paul and Bo were there dutifully pretending (very convincingly) that I was doing better than I actually was, and sent me on my way.
Oh dear, running
I suppose running is a necessary part of triathlon and multisport, but I wish it weren’t. I’ve worked on it though and I’m not normally totally horrible anymore, and have even learnt how to run downhill a bit (after having been embarrassed by the “locals” on the recce mission in January). With overworked legs though, I just never got going and basically went backwards up the hill as others gracefully levitated themselves from 250m to 920m altitude over the first 18.5km. The last 350m altitude gain occurred in a single 2.5km section (yes kids, it averaged over 14%).
I walked the super steep stuff as most people near me did, and finally got it going a bit when it turned downwards. I was probably in 60th position though and it’s only of small consolation to me that from here until the end of the race, no-one passed me. I reeled in 15 or so running downhill in the last 12km – there was quite some suffering out there on this run (there’s nothing like a bit of impact to wreck your legs, eh?) and eked out an acceptable 2:55 – the fastest time was a very slick 2:17.
The Worst Decision In The History Of Multisport Race Direction
I exaggerate for effect (I’m sure there have been worse, I just don’t know of any), but one seemingly throw-away rule change on the start line dramatically altered this event (for the worse imho).
I need to vent here, so bear with me. According to the rules, it was supposed to be draft-free on the bike from Klondyke corner to Christchurch, a brilliant 50km cycling romp through some stunningly beautiful scenery (and serious hills) before a really flat grind over the last 90km which would sort the spindly runner types out from those who could actually time trial a bike.
But it didn’t happen that way. 30 seconds before race start, race director Robin Judkins announced that, “Ohhh, and you can draft the whole way,” which tipped the balance drastically in favour of the runners in a single grammatically incorrect sentence. Now we had a course with 204km of riding, ALL of which was draft legal. If you could run well you had probably already made the first pack on the bike, and could sit back and save yourself for the big run. Then on that, you would go as hard as you could, then wait for the bikers to pick you up and tow you into Christchurch on the bike leg that followed.
What it really did was make it pot luck. If you happened to end up at Klondyke Corner (start of the long bike) with a group of people who could ride, you were in business – even if you couldn’t. If you ended up alone but you could ride, you were condemned to a very, very long unassisted time trial. Woe is me: I was in the second category. Ironic, eh? I got exactly what I wanted (the long solo time trial), but the only problem was that there were groups in front of me riding legally together the whole way. Bummer.
Blatant Cheating and The Best Bike Course Yet
What’s more, I thought this was supposed to be unassisted barring transitions? Quite rightly, my brilliant support crew (thanks again guys) had nicked off up the road to the next transition point to refill my bottles and the like. Others though were being given bottles during the leg itself. And not just one or two riders, either – probably half the people I saw. Why not just hang on to their cars up the hill next time guys ? And here I was thinking ironman triathlon was the domain of the cheats.
Predictably in the heat (not a single cloud once we got over the range), I ran out of fluid and suffered a bit. This leg was supposed to be a pair of 70km sections, which in fact turned out to be 86km and 53km (which even more confusingly were supposed to add up to 135km). Had I known what they really were, riding the last 16km before the mid-leg aid station without any fluid would have been avoidable.
I desperately need to give this report some balance. The bike ride from Klondyke Corner to Christchurch was far and away the best road bike I have done in all of triathlon and multisport – and not just because it actually went somewhere for once. The scenery was utterly breathtaking, the hills were severe (a 15% “pinch” for over 1km at one point) but manageable and the descents exhilarating. The upside of the changed course was that I got to do this ride, so thank-you.
To rub salt into my fragile and battered ego, I got a slow leak (I think on the gravel descent at the bottom of the last hill) in my front tyre, which didn’t go totally flat until about 40km later. A sloppy change (I should have realised and changed it earlier anyway) blew another 5-10 minutes but I no longer cared too much. Staggeringly, none of those I’d passed (maybe another 10 or so – I think I was up to about 35th by then) caught me on the side of the road and I limped into Christchurch quite keen to hop off my bike and get a drink. I rode 4:24 for 139km – considering the flat and that some climbs were down to about 6kph, this was okay. Fastest times were by the lead pair riding a very sensible two person time trial in a scorching 3:45.
Gondola ride, anyone?
OK, here’s a task for you all to try at home.
Get out your garden hose and point it down the street (the flatter the street, the better). Then get your neighbour’s hose and their neighbour’s hose and point them too in the same direction. Now, turn all three taps on at once so the street is veritably flooded with water trickling gently down it. If possible, dig some potholes and fill with weeds. Lots of them.
Now, get some faux gondolas. You know the type? They are the sort you have in cities that are not Venice but think they are. Put a smattering of those in the middle of your street at randomly placed intervals. If you can get some very confused looking tourists to sit in them, then bonus realism points go to you.
Lastly, get out your boat and paddle as fast as you can down the street for 19.2km.
That was the final leg – a kayak down Christchurch’s quaint-but-not-altogether-high-volume Avon River. It’s not particularly fair of me to criticise this as a route selection since it sure beats dying of hypothermia in the Waimak Gorge when you come out of your boat and there are no banks left to get out on. And it even beats not paddling at all (here’s looking at you, 1992 so – despite the fact that the first half of the field could probably have got down the Waimak fine before the winds blew up – it was unquestionably the right decision. But it wasn’t exactly rugged. Or exciting. Or fast. Nor was it accurately measured – we were told 15km …
I started horribly. 4 hours of being in the time trial position had rendered my shoulders useless and I had a searing pain through both deltoids whenever I tried actually using any force. I was caught and passed by someone here, and it wasn’t until about 10km in that the pain went away. Sure enough, I caught the guy again and then dropped him before putting 10 minutes into him in the final 8km. Along with an hour or so on the bike (just before I ran out of fluid and my tyre deflated), this was the best part of my day. I caught another 5 or so one-day’ers and about 20-30 two-day’ers in this last section but it was too little, too late.
Because of severe chop in the estuary (a pretty nasty wind had blown up during the paddle), it was cut short by about 7km (for the record, it would have been 26km I think) and instead there was another bike ride – this time only 10km (they told us 7km …) – to the finish. I rode quite well again and was bizarrely a little annoyed to be finishing given how good I felt. Contrast this with ironman where I really struggle in the last hour of a shorter race. My split for the paddle/ride was 2:27 (fastest 1:57) but with a really strong last hour or so that hid just how badly I started out.
I finished in 11:37 – 30th overall, second Australian (that is its own story) and on the first page of the results sheet. Honestly though I am disappointed with the result and I don’t think – sadly for my ego – that the cold/fever/whatever you call it had much of an impact. It’s the first time in a while where I’ve had so many what-if’s in the one race, and where I have felt that my result didn’t reflect the training I had put in or my current fitness levels. I’ll try not to make a habit of underachieving in future since it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
The Bitter End?
What is best about this race is not the fact that you get beer as you cross the finish line, nor even the bragging rights (“hey, I just crossed the island in a day”), it’s the fact that – despite the seemingly arbitrary sequence and length of legs – it is the utterly logical way of crossing the country. There is absolutely nothing convoluted or contrived about the “real” course. Let me try to get you a little excited …
The run over Goat’s Pass is as necessary as it is beautiful as the only other way over is via the main (and only) road. It is the next easiest, the safest and is in fact a fraction shorter than the bitumen route. The paddle is also more direct too than the road, taking a shortcut through the gorge and avoiding Porters Pass (the easterly of the two main ranges) completely. It couldn’t start earlier without having to carry your boat in parts, and all the fun is over with by the time you get out so you wouldn’t want it to go any further. Put simply, it starts and ends in the right places. The remainder is of course road bike riding which makes total sense as the easiest human-powered way of getting from A to B. Even the finish line – right next to the ostentatious Cave Rock in Christchurch – is the obvious place to end the thing (“Hey guys, we’re going to do a race across the country, let’s finish at that massive rock with a hole in it in Christchurch.”) For a sport where the course is king, this one is the planetary overlord. Think of this guys, next time you are getting dizzy on a triathlon course …
All of which makes it more disappointing for me not to have done the “proper” course. Yeah, sure, some guys thought the alternate course was a bit harder on the body than the standard course (I maintain it was significantly easier than an ironman) but that wasn’t what I was there for. It’s the skill and adventure component that appeals to me and that was taken away by a whopping 140mm of rain in 6 hours on the west coast on race morning. C’est la vie.
So yeah, if I ever recover from my rage at the decision to make the long bike draft-legal, I’ll try to get back over there and tick it off properly.
So long and thanks for all the fish
Massive thanks to my support crew Bo and Paul who definitely went top 10 in crewing; to Ruch Ussher for doing all the boat stuff, the last minute change of gearing for the bike and stacks of advice (that I either forgot or became irrelevant with the course change); and Antho and Dave back at CBD cycles. But the biggest thanks goes to Lisa for putting up with me (and my compulsive pursuits) for longer than anyone should.
For full results and/or to add it to your to-do list go to http://www.coasttocoast.co.nz/.