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Andrew Connolly - Race Report - Coast to Coast 2013
CBD Cycles - 27/03/2013
Coast to Coast World Multisport Championships – New Zealand, February 2013

Coast to Coast does not, as it turns out, have a very imaginative name. It’s as literal as you can get, starting on the west coast of New Zealand’s south island in the sand at an otherwise unremarkable, deserted beach whose claim to fame is a permanent sign post indicating it as the start of C2C. It finishes in the sand on the other side with the odd hill to run, some white water to paddle, and some riding on roads clearly built by workmen in a hurry to get home to watch MasterChef. 248km according to the Garmin providing 5km of extra value at no extra charge. 6 legs – 3 rides, 2 runs and 1 paddle and only 120-odd competitors with the requisite technical skills, mental fortitude and leave passes from their better halves to take it on this year.

Leg 1: 3km run

It begins with a run off the beach at first light – and by first light I really mean pitch darkness. 3km of absurdly fast slightly uphill running due to the draught legal (yes, that’s the correct spelling, it doesn’t mean that beer is okay) bike that follows. The whippets did a tad under 10 minutes and the next I saw of them was at prize-giving the following day – a pack of 11 had snuck away. I did 11:14 and was quietly chuffed with myself at running well under 4:00 mi/km uphill – my techno-glow stick bike decorations worked a treat and found my bike immediately (a trap for young players) and I was away in good shape. Turns out this was to be my best executed leg of the day.

Leg 2: 55km bike

After 5-10km or so of pushing 400+ watts at start of the first bike, the second bunch had well and truly formed and we’d go on to absorb stragglers who’d had the misfortune to just miss the front of the field. My buddy Liam ran 10:20 and missed it. Reigning champion Richard Ussher did 10:09 and made it. How cruel those 11 seconds are because 55km later, those 11 seconds had turned into 11 minutes as the lead group worked with the efficiency and urgency of a group of, well, multisporters trying to win the race. Our group by contrast worked with the urgency of a group of multisporters jacked off with missing the break and determined to let some other sucker do the work.

With 5km to go and 2 intrepid souls dangling 100m off the front - and going away - the pace dropped even further so in an act of admirable bravado / idiocy (your choice), I decided to bridge gap and skipped off the front - accomplished easily enough. Now 3, We continued to dangle but apparently while 2 people aren’t a threat and are allowed to get away, 3 is a dangerous race deciding break that must be reeled in at all costs. We were caught by the rampaging horde as we unclipped our pedals in T2 and it was all for naught. No magic free space in transition, no sneaky break to allow me to pick whose feet to follow on the run (like I could do that anyway). Nada, except for maybe some increased fatigue in the quads.

Leg 3: 32km mountain run

The “main” run follows and (knowingly abusing the English language) it’s 32km of awesome. It’s a particularly large amount of awesome if, like me, you live in a country with only pretend mountains (see attached photos for what real mountains look like and a vague 3 piece, 3D map of the run course). Starting at 260m altitude and crossing Goat Pass at 1100m before descending to 650m again, the “run” is worth doing for the scenery alone, even if you aren’t in to Lord of the Rings. If you do find yourself there, perhaps you can explain to me how the f*&^ eventual winner Braden Currie ran 2:53 for it because I don’t get it - that’s 5:05 mi/km kiddies.

As usual, a plethora of whippets ran passed me early on the way up to Goat Pass. And then as we got closer to the pass, some old and less fleet footed types passed me by as my quads – in a protest response to me destroying them before the run – up and left the building. On the way down the remainder of the field (I assume) went past and I expected the tail end Charlie to tell me to hurry the f(*& up – reduced training volumes due to a shonky foot didn’t help, but the more accurate version of reality is that I’m no good at that stuff. Finally down in the valley on the other side, I could barely run. The “trails” – you need a good imagination / sense of humour here - and the endless vista of scree in front of me did my head in as I even stopped to walk for a few metres. I ended up running 4:45 – about 45 minutes outside my hindsight-enlightened unrealistic goal and any hopes of a decent overall finish well and truly dashed.

I hadn’t run well admittedly, even by my own very low standards, but no matter how badly you’re going, it’s impossible to be too upset when you’re surrounded by such a breathtaking course and remarkably I was still enjoying it. Take a look at the topography on the attachments and if that doesn’t get you excited, you have no pulse. Or you work at Google.

Leg 4: 15km bike, 1km run and 2m train dodge

On to the bike again thankfully and the middle ride – as scenic as you’re likely to get - passed by too quickly. I re-passed 7 or 8 people and fortunately for me my crew Rich survived Fast-and-the-Furious-style overtaking procedures to successfully leap frog me with the car with about 100m to go. Note to others – you will need either two crew members or one Richard to achieve this. On the run down to the start of the kayak, I heard the ringing of bells about 10m before the train level crossing. What I thought was only a theoretical threat and a footnote in the race programme turned out to be quite real as the Trans Alpine came whizzing by while I stood waiting. Beats getting run over I guess – that would make the paddle difficult.

Leg 5: 72km white water paddle

The paddle down the Waimakariri River was next and was awesome in its own way. We had reasonable flow – it is very rain dependent - this year. Broadly speaking it is made up of 3 sections – an upper flat section of 25km with the odd rapid but tons of braids to pick from, the 28km gorge and a 19km lower flat section of braids. Check the attached photo to understand the difficulty of selecting the right braid. Despite the good flow, I still portaged once early on as I beached my craft (yep, “beached as, bro’”) on a shingle bank. Other than this, the top section was quite uneventful. A pre-race trip down the river and a fantastic boat (Flow Kayaks Rockstar provided by Ruchard Ussher) meant that this was all old hat to me – or more correctly a brand new hat I’d worn once but at least fit. I continued to pick off a few people, and although two others did sneak past me I was slowly moving up the field, generally feeling pretty good about life and finding my inner zen, forgetting it was even a race.

The second section is the jewel of the Waimakariri River – the Waimak gorge - and is approximately 28km long. Only a week earlier on a recce trip, a massive skull crushing boulder had fallen off 10m or so behind my boat with the heavy rains. The cliffs rise straight out of the river’s edge and overhang in parts, you can’t get lost as there’s no braids and regular rapids keep you entertained. You do need to watch out for the weird water formations that occur as you get swept straight into the bluffs on every corner, but remarkably you and your boat continually defy Newton’s 3rd law of motion and magically change direction down-stream and onwards to the next physics-defying bluff. Having negotiated the gorge I was getting quite smug about it all, and thought, “hey, I’m going to have a clean (no swims) trip down the river.” Only the boat snappingly-dangerous “white rock” remained …

The rapids got a bit more spaced, and on the bluff before White Rock, I took a “chicken line” which suited my personality nicely. It involved avoiding the risk of smashing sideways into a cliff face by taking slower water on the inside. No-one with any river skill approaches the bluffs this way of course because of the powerful eddies that spin you around or tip you in in a heartbeat. Which is of course what happened to me. The front was ripped around and in the space of 3 seconds I was facing where I’d been, albeit still upright, with the boat floating upstream into a shingle bank.

I love hindsight – I’m so clever in hindsight. I should have just got out of the boat picked it up and turned it around to point the right way, but instead I tried what in river-speak is called “breaking in to the current”. What I actually achieved is called “tipping in to the current”. So in I went, upside down with barely enough oxygen to think (why didn’t I at least take a deep breath before attempting it ?) My eskimo rolling successes of a few days prior were fruitless as grabbed for the release strap on the spray deck. (Yes I can roll a kayak quite happily in a completely controlled environment much - unlike any situation where you might actually need to use it). My 11 kilogram boat was now 211 kilograms with the new internal water feature, and I tried desperately to swim it to the side where I could stand up and empty it. White Rock was approaching where I was sure my boat would be smashed to pieces with a not insignificant impact on its resale value. 200m, 150m, 100m … at about 50m I could feel the ground. At about 30m I stopped it finally and pulled it to the side, emptied it with the assistance of water safety and finally got back in and started paddling … for about 10m when the water got too shallow and I had to get out again - a fair dinkum complete waste of energy swimming one-armed with a 200 kilogram handicap for minutes only to stop the boat 10m before it would have stopped itself anyway.

Back in, and the remainder was uneventful. Fellow Aussie Rob Pomie passed me in my struggles but otherwise I saw no-one and you could easily forget you were racing. The only deadline I wanted to hit now was making the 6:00pm Waimak Gorge cut off for reflective vests and ankle straps. I didn’t have one organised and was worried about not being allowed to continue so I paddled like fury and got to the end of the paddle at 6:00pm precisely. 4 hours 58 minutes on the water – well, 4:47:50 on it, 10 minutes standing next to it and 10 seconds under it. Rich pulled me out of the boat as my legs were less than functional (see photo) and the trickery was done with, just a 70km ride into Christchurch.

Leg 6: 70km bike

The first thing that went wrong was that I had no reflective vest or ankle straps. With Richard running back to the car and me losing time running around like a headless chicken, it turned out that they had spares for the arrogant / slow / both (you choose) in transition. So off I went determined to at least have something to show for my day of underachievement – a decent final bike split. After the cruelly placed uphill 800m run after the paddle and faffing around in transition I figured I had 1:55 to do the last bike in to get in under 14 hours – my newly acquired Very Important Goal. (Hint for young players – if you can’t achieve your goal, just change it.)

Remarkably I felt great and I was confident of smashing out a good bike time, riding comfortably at or over 40kph for much of the early going. My cause wasn’t helped by missing a turn early on – the course marshals just assumed every knew the course I think or maybe signalling to turn was in their job description, I dunno. So I passed a couple of people twice which was a wee bit frustrating but the next 50km went well, passing maybe 10 or so more people whose body language suggested they couldn’t give a stuff whether they went under 14 hours or not. Finally I caught a man mountain who I assumed must be Mahe Drysdale – Olympic gold medallist rower from 2012 – who should be a monster on the bike. Sadly for me I woke the monster and he rode along behind me (legally) for the next 20km or so as we picked off more and more people. I note with great irony that the 108 kilogram 6 foot 6 gold medallist rower out-runs me, yet I out-paddle and out-bike him ?? Bizarre. Rowing is my next sport.

Into Christchurch and sadly the roads were no longer closed. Which means traffic lights. Here I was, 13:30 into the “World Championships”, racing like fury to beat my brand newly-important goal of 14 hours and I was doing track-stands at traffic lights. Absurd: let’s be clear – in the scheme of things, Mahe’s and my times don’t really matter, but if I were an elite female facing the same circumstances – and we passed a bunch of them so it is a factor for them - it could be race affecting. We were stopped by about 6-7 sets of lights for various amounts of time all up and ended up riding two-up for most of the remaining 20km, chatting away. I’d given up on a fast final bike split by now – too many things had gone wrong – and with about 5km to go I “let” Mahe go, which is to say that he just rode away from me. He crossed the line in 39th.

I finished 40th overall – miles outside my pre-race goal of top-20 - with a finish time of 14 hours, 9 minutes and 51 seconds. Like 2010, I was the 2nd Aussie which is an indictment on both Coast to Coast and Aussies. My final bike was 2:05, good enough for 11th overall although with 10 minutes-ish of stuff going wrong, it could easily have been in the top 5. I know what I can do well, and running ain’t it (nor writing short race reports). I placed 6th of 28 in the veterans’ category (40-49) but unlike Hawai’i, I wasn’t the World “Andrew” Champion (damn you “Andrew Bevins”).

A note on organisation and the race …

Coast to Coast should be the greatest, most prestigious, well attended, biggest prize-money multisport race on the planet. It sort of is, or at least it certainly was, but with dozens of event organisers lining up with their own array of events, its identity is under threat. Prize money is of course ridiculously low for a world championship with 30 years of history – especially when compared with the entry fee (over $1,000 NZD) and significant private sector support. Unlike (say) the Hawaii Ironman, it doesn’t feel like a huge event when you are there - despite the fact that the whole country knows about it. And while issues like waiting for a train in the middle of the race are unavoidable, others are not. Road closures / manned traffic lights until the end of the race, a proper transition set up in T1, (and marshals who’ll tell me when to turn) are a must. Better international athlete support services are also key if it is to truly be regarded as a world championship rather than an oddity that the kiwi’s are unreasonably good at. (Taking out the exceptional years and imports, there’s still really be only one international winner – Aussie John Jacoby in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Compare that with Hawaii, where the yanks can’t even get close …)

The race itself has one redeeming feature that will never change: it is – I believe - the most spectacular race course in the world. It’s roughly even in time, too – if you are elite, well rounded and do 12 hours, chances are you’ve done approximately 4 hours running, 4 hours kayaking and 4 hours cycling. But this is also where another change needs to be made: the first bike for the World Championship – i.e. the one day competitors - must be draught-free. As it stands now, the best runners get a 10 minute head start … for the run ! Let’s hope that race management can address some of these issues so more people get to experience what I have just done because the course alone warrants it. Truly a lifetime bucket-list event for any who can contemplate it.

A note on support crew …

C2C is impossible without a support crew. (Your other option would be to swim the 72km Waimak and run the 2nd and 3rd bike legs (85km) I guess, so maybe I’ve exaggerated and it would merely be “a fair bit trickier without a support crew”.) I had good friend Richard Rossiter crewing for me which essentially equated to him giving up a week of his life to watch his buddy struggle vainly (in spite of bold pre-race predictions) in the face of faultless. For that, maybe even more than the experience of crossing a stunning island in a day, I am eternally grateful.

Thanks to Lisa for looking after the kids for a week, and graciously tolerating my obsessive training beforehand – it’s utterly impossible any other way; and thanks also to CBD cycles for race food, a kick-ar$e bike setup and me not having to race naked – no-one wants that.