There are about 120 people
in the group I traveled here with, all with Deepak Patel’s
Premium Plus Sports. This group includes almost every American
in the race, mostly from California but a few from the Midwest
and New York and Florida. I got on the plane in LAX by myself
and got off the tour bus in Taupo with 120 new friends. Most
of the way here, when we weren’t sleeping on the plane,
we were talking about the race, what races we’ve done,
how our training has gone, what music is on our I-Pods, where
we’re all staying. I think the other people on the airplane,
the non-athletes, felt a little left out of the party.
This morning at breakfast
here in Taupo I sat down at a table for four by myself but got
up from two tables of four people with a few people milling
about in addition to the group we had started mid way through
breakfast. I met Dana from Manhattan Beach, California. He is
a fit, animated man who sells mortgages and once turned down
a job offer because it would have interfered with doing Ironman.
His associates are a man with a British accent named Steve who
works for Cisco and a girl named Hillary who has just turned
pro. Her boyfriend can do Ironman in 9:11:00 but she confesses
a minor crush for the dashing German pro, Norman Stadler. Norman
is rumored to breakfast here on the Taupo lake shore so we are
in no hurry to leave the table, hopeful we may get a glimpse
of the top pros.
We’re breakfasting at
Burbury’s on Roberts Street at the Lakefront here in Taupo.
Jim and Di Burbury own the place. It is the morning hotspot for
triathletes from everywhere in the world. All around us conversations
about races around the world are taking place in different languages.
There are tri bikes leaned against every surface outside and athletes
are meeting to begin or end a training ride. More athletes with
wet hair are filtering in after their morning swim.
The man waiting our table is Robin. He is
an older gent, late 60’s I suppose. He rides a Softride
bicycle. Robin started a 160 km bike race around Lake Taupo some
9 years ago with 28 of his mates that have since grown to a group
of 9,000 riders. The ride Robin started is now the biggest cycling
event in New Zealand, and he is quite proud of that. Robin keeps
our water glasses full and is keen to find out what bikes we are
riding. He gives a thumbnail lecture on the geology and volcanology
of Lake Taupo, an expose’, I imagine, he delivers with some
From the outdoor dining patio here in front
of Burbury’s you look out on the lake. You look at the length
of the swim course and count rainbows arcing up from the green,
rolling misty morning hills of Middle Earth and the snow capped
New Zealand Alps that were the backdrop for Lord of the Rings.
I listen to Robin give us the lay of the land while I dig into
rolled up pancakes stuffed with fruit and slipping around my plate
in fresh syrup. Robin does not interrupt his lecture to refill
my coffee cup.
I told myself I wouldn’t drink coffee
the year before Ironman. Then it became the month, then the week.
Well, I won’t drink any the day before at least. But this
coffee is too good to miss, and it beats the misty chill away
after the morning swim.
We’re here a bit early in the week it
turns out. The bulk of the athletes arrive tomorrow. The Aussies,
athletes from Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, all over Europe, Brazil,
the U.S., Mexico and of course a lot of Kiwis will all roll into
town in the morning. I suspect it may not be so easy to get a
table for breakfast then. But Robin assures us he’ll look
While shopping around Taupo I notice an interesting
book store. One of those sort of out-of-the-way places you only
find off the beaten path. In it I meet a man who was a political
journalist and now owns this store in the quaint shopping district.
And what a store it is. If you’ve ever seen security camera
footage of what a bookstore looks like after an earthquake then
you have the visual. There are books strewn everywhere. Old, dusty
wooden bookshelves are the center support for mounds of books
piled willy-nilly and stacked precariously on top of one another.
God forbid you should want one near the bottom of any of the stacks.
There are books on the floor, books stacked inside the water closet,
books piled on what may be a counter- I can’t tell, too
many books. Books everywhere.
“Do you reckon he’ll do it again,
Mate?” The man asks me, leaning one arm high on a book shelf.
“What? Who? Ironman? Cameron Brown?”
I wonder if he is asking about the three time Ironman New Zealand
winner Cameron Brown.
“No, Mate, Georgie- Your man Bush. Do
you think he’ll get re-elected? What’s the buzz stateside?”
“Well,” I tell him, slightly concerned
over being sucked into a protracted political diatribe. I’m
here to race, not banter politics with a foreign national.
“It’s tough to say.” I tell
him, “My inclination is to say that he will. Once they catch
Bin Ladin I think there will be little reason to vote against
him. Americans vote their pocket books too, and right now the
economy is on a tear.”
“Right,” He switches arms, glancing
out the front window toward Lake Taupo. “Your man Kerry
seems like a right type feller. I reckon he’ll give your
Georgie a fair bit of a race for it, what ya say mate?”
We spend the next thirty minutes discussing
the interim government in Iraq, the government in Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Malaysia. He shows me the headline from the Haitian
revolution. He is amazingly astute and his views refreshingly
balanced. I could have listened to him all morning. He must have
been a fine analyst in his day.
I buy a book from him on Sir Edmund Hillary
and give him a stack of Kiwi dollar coins for it. It was one of
the books at the top of the piles.
After the morning swim I have a massage appointment.
The massage tent before Ironman is where you learn what is really
going on in the race. You find out who is here to race for the
win, and who is here just for appearances or to fly their sponsors’
flag. Karen is my massage therapist for the week. I have booked
appointments with her each day I am here. One of the great luxuries
of our sport is that massage is almost a necessity, especially
after 21 hours in an airplane seat. That’s good because
my feet have been really sore this week for some reason. Maybe
because I ran 50 miles last week. Karen is from Auckland and made
the trip down to Taupo for Ironman week to work on the athletes.
“You’re all crackers if you ask me, the lot of ya.”
That’s what she says to each athlete as they describe a
shopping list of aches and pains from their training.
Next door to the massage tent the Nike Ironman
souvenir tent is doing a brisk business selling just about every
manner of Nike Apparel emblazoned with The Ironman New Zealand
logo. I’m in there buying T-shirts for the guys back at
Inside the expo event sponsors are hawking
everything from Bonita Bananas- the official race sponsor, to
creamed rice, which was an awful looking concoction with the consistency
of snot. Apparently the Kiwis this concoction. The Bonita Banana
crew are excited to demonstrate the various varieties of bananas,
especially after I explain we really only have one type back in
The States. I’m pressed to a taste test of each type. Biomechanical
technicians from Nike put a selection of different shoes on my
feet and make me run on a treadmill while a high speed video camera
analyzes my gait. They show me which shoes will and won’t
work for my running style.
I stop in and visit my friends at the Orca
wetsuit shop on main street, right on the bike course in Taupo.
We talk business for a while and I try on some wetsuits and talk
with some customers about wetsuits and how to wear them. The Orca
guys and girls are doing a fine job here and the store is packed
with people buying suits and Orca race clothing. I leave with
an awesome new Orca P-Flex wetsuit to test in the frigid waters
of Lake Taupo along with my other wetsuits.
It seems like the week before Ironman all
one does is eat and get massages and do too minimal physical activity.
This is tough for people used to training for Ironman. When your
body is used to the volume of exercise required to do even an
average Ironman performance a five-mile run is barely a warm up.
So you have a lot of time on your hands the week before. That
time here in Taupo is usually spent sitting in front of a sidewalk
café with a bunch of triathletes discussing your conditioning
(or lack thereof), your expectations for the race and what the
weather will be like.
Every meal is a social event in Taupo. For
every athlete here there is a story. Steve says he has a cold,
so he is doing no training at all this week. Dana says his training
has been minimal but he is confident nonetheless. Hillary is here
to avenge what she says was a marginal performance in Kona last
October. Athlete after athlete steps up to our table to contribute
something to the conversation. It is an improvisational congress
of triathletes. This is a meeting of people from many countries
who form one nation: The nation of Ironmen.
The thing that strikes me about this week
is how small this community is. Spread all over the world the
group that makes up this nation holds congress several times a
year for the ten or so days wrapped around Ironman. It is remarkable
that people from so far apart can have so much in common. While
we may come from different locations we all come from the same
place- the place where common experience and ambition unite us
as one nation this week in Taupo, New Zealand. Next month in will
be Australia, then another country after that. Whatever country
it is, it is only one nation: The Nation of Ironmen.