Winning an Ironman on debut is not something I expected to happen four years ago. But that win is what set the trajectory for my professional career in Ironman. Since then, I have been returning to the start line of Ironman New Zealand each year, hoping I can pull off a solid performance again and reclaim that top position on the podium. But it has not gone to plan.
All images credit to Graeme Murray unless specified
This year, on my fifth attempt to get that monkey off my back, I pulled off the race I’d been hoping for all those years and the long battle in between times has made the victory all the more rewarding. What was different about this year? I asked myself the same question…
Pre-pandemic, Ironman New Zealand has always been a difficult race for me to peak for. With the World Championships in Kona being at the end of the year, I’ve always needed to take a solid recovery block afterwards which made it challenging to get back to optimum race fitness by early March. I’ve also always found it hard to say no to my local race, Challenge Wanaka, which normally sits two weeks before Ironman New Zealand. However, over the last twelve months I’ve had no choice but to take nine full months off racing and this set me up for a great summer of racing in New Zealand. I feel lucky to have had Ironman New Zealand to focus on as my pinnacle event.
Changes in New Zealand’s Covid-19 alert levels just prior to the original date of Ironman New Zealand gifted me a few extra weeks of recovery and training after Challenge Wanaka, which for me worked out to be a bit of a bonus. My team and I decided that the most important thing was that I turned up in Taupo feeling refreshed and recovered. It had been four years since arriving in Taupo feeling this way and this was a big lesson learned. I’ve always been an athlete that needs more time to recover, taper and ensure I’m feeling good during race week rather than battling to come back to life and this is something I’ll make sure is part of my preparation from now on. I’m grateful to have absorbed this lesson pre-Kona.
Nine months off racing has also allowed me to hone in on different areas of performance and recovery that I wouldn’t of previously have given the time of day. I was able to let my body and heart come back to full health after nine years of intense racing and travelling. This re-set my body and mind and got me into the right head space to start and see the bigger picture again, giving me the push to put my full focus on what I needed to but could never find the space to do in the past.
My 2020 training focus became about patiently building my volume on the bike, ensuring I ticked off every workout on training peaks, and evolving my riding position on the new bike (the Felt IA). During that process I was able to build and bring together a really solid network to support me in the areas I needed to work on. Justin Ralph from Cycling New Zealand has dedicated his time towards helping me find an efficient aero-position that is comfortable and significantly faster than my previous position. I had to spend many months working towards this position as this is not something you can change instantly. I also found the right saddle for me (the Gebiomized Stride) which has helped me gain stability through my hips and therefore more consistency in my pedal stroke. I also had custom foot beds made through Justin and Gebiomized, which has also improved the efficiency in my pedal stroke.
In addition to the refinement on my bike position, Val (my coach) also spent many hours working with me one on one in the gym, helping me advance in my overall strength and power on the bike. She has also helped resolve muscle imbalances, which has enabled me to achieve more consistent run volume due to less loading on my joints.
Maintaining a high level of consistency in training is always something to aim for, and the circumstances since March 2020 have made this all the more achievable. I haven’t been doing huge volumes but I’ve been consistent with quality run and bike sessions and that showed on race day where I was able to bring a really solid performance together across all three disciplines with ease.
Expanding on the term ‘quality or key session’, this is a session that really challenges me, and one that I want to nail. It’s executed well, with much thought into simple factors such as ensuring I’m fueled correctly and it takes place when I have a recovered body at a certain time of the day where I perform at my best. Back in the day, I’d simply tick off everything on my training program, but now that I have ‘quality or key sessions’ to work towards, I approach them with a heightened mindset and build into them differently; similar to how I would build into a race but on a micro scale. I’m more prepared for them and the goal within them pushes me to my limit and that is where the transformation occurs in training and why these sessions are so incredibly important. It’s a simple thing, but one that I do not think I was fully mindful of previously.
Photo credit: Sean Beale
Mindset is always something I keep in check. It’s also a subject I’m incredibly passionate about, and I always take the time to reflect on how my mind performed during a race. During Ironman New Zealand, I noticed I’ve become more comfortable with racing since Covid-19 as it’s given me the opportunity to reset and remind myself of how much I love it. I was just as excited as I was nervous to be back on the start line and being given the opportunity to go as hard as I could for eight hours. The thrill of the challenge and the competitive environment is why I fell in love with endurance sport and on race day, I thrived on the feeling of pushing my body hard again. I also came into the race with a higher level of belief. Sometimes I know I’ve pretended to feel confident, but I haven’t truly raced with the confidence I did at Ironman New Zealand before.
It’s been a huge twelve months since the pandemic changed everything. It’s been a great twelve months and I’m not sure I would have been able to keep thrashing my body like I was without something happening to slow me down. I’m grateful for the time I’ve had and the learnings. I feel in a position now to perform at my best and am looking forward to my future in racing. I’m lucky enough to have a new partner (Felt Bicycles) who I know is 100% behind me and my goals for the future. I cannot emphasise what a difference this makes to me.
Moving forward, major events include the Collins Cup, scheduled for the 31st of August 2021. I’m super excited to be ranked high enough in the world to solidify my position on the international team and be given the opportunity to race head-to-head with the world’s best. Thanks to the PTO for giving myself and other professional athletes this opportunity.
Shortly after the Collins Cup, the Ironman World Championship in Kona is set to go ahead and this remains as my pinnacle event and will take all of my commitment to make possible. Logistically, there is still a lot of unknown and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds but for now having a performance I’m proud of in Kona is the goal. I can only hope that this performance gives me the result I’m looking for.
There’s a lot of work to do yet, and a lot of sacrifice to come. I expect I’ll need to spend three months away from my family this year due to the travel restrictions and quarantine requirements for Kiwi’s when they return to New Zealand. But as a family we are prepared for this challenge and I accept that this is now part of racing on the world stage.
I simply hope I can race.