Shortly before I left the US in November, I was poking around online and found the Epic Camp website and read about their 2008 NZ camp. It was going to be an 8-day triathlon camp based on huge training volumes that traversed the South Island and ended in Queenstown. The timing looked to be perfect as far as preparing for Ironman New Zealand, too. When I learned about the camp, I hadn’t raced Silverman yet and had no idea how that would go, and Epic Camp stated outright that they were selective in who they invited to the camp. I waited until a few days before Christmas to actually apply, and I was accepted (great!) and warned outright that I would be one of the slower campers (uh oh!).
I had idly looked at some other triathlon camps in the past and none of them seemed to be worth it, as they often looked like they did stuff I could just do on my own. Epic Camp, however, looked to be pretty over the top and hugely challenging, and that attracted me to it. The fact that it was put on by some living legends in the world of triathlon was attractive, too, as it would be a chance to get a glimpse into what the best of the best did to train.
A few days after I got accepted to the camp I came down with the first of three fierce illnesses that would keep me out of the game completely for nearly 3 weeks. The looming mystique of the camp had me more worried about being unfit for the camp than worried about being unfit come time for IMNZ! Fortunately, I was able to put in about 2 weeks of really good training before it was time to head off to Epic Camp and I actually felt pretty good.
I politely asked for 9 days off of work at Monty’s, packed a couple of bags, and dragged my gear and my bike down to the bus depot in Queenstown early on a Saturday morning for a 30NZD bus ride across the South Island to Christchurch. I didn’t even have to break down and pack my bike, which was really nice. The bus took the route that we would be taking on our bikes just a few days later coming back across the island. I slept, drifting off while thinking about how we’d been advised that we’d be burning 4000-9000 calories every day.
Upon arrival in Christchurch, I got picked up my one of the camp gurus and a couple of other campers who were from New York. Back at our lodge in Christchurch, I started meeting more campers and quickly noticed that I was by far the least accomplished athlete there. Everyone is super friendly. Not much later, Clive, another camper, comes in from a run as though we won’t be doing enough of that over the next 8 days. His thighs look like Christmas hams. This is gonna hurt.
We gather for our first meal together to kick off the camp. Gordo, Molina, and Newsom explain the points competition and the different jerseys that can be won, and give us a basic rundown on what we can expect every day. It appears that the first three days of camp will be particularly punishing. As questions get asked and answered and jokes get made, it’s apparent that there are many strong, positive personalities in the room. It’s a good vibe. I notice that no one looks at me funny as I’m wolfing down food like a bear getting ready to hibernate. I am among my people!
Before turning in that night, my roommates, Toby and Clive, ask me if I want to run before our swim in the morning. I laugh them off, and they smile knowingly.
We wake up, eat a light breakfast, and head to the QE2 pool in Christchurch. Our points competition starts with a 2km swim time trial. I put in a swim that’s actually a pretty good time for me, but I am 19th out of 20. Uh oh.
Getting ready for our first ride
We get back from our swim and eat our second and larger breakfast, then get ready for our first bike ride. We head out at a nice pace and everyone sticks together. The whole group riding thing is pretty new to me as I’m used to nearly 100% solo training, but it’s quite fun. After about 45 minutes, the pace picks up a bit but the group is still together. We’re making fantastic time. Finally, I can’t hold it any longer, so I stop to take a leak on the side of the road. It takes me 15 minutes of riding at 26+ mph to catch the group. We roll in to our first aid station in Little River, which is right before the first of our many hillclimb contests of the week. We have a trailer following us filled with energy gels (some with caffeine!), energy bars, cereal bars, these glorious things called Em’s Power Cookies, water, sports drink, and Coke. It’s a good rig to be friends with. After a few minutes of snacking and refilling drink bottles, we head back out.
A side competition to our main points competition is the King of the Mountain (KOM) contest. For designated climbs, our order of getting to the top of the climb determines our standing, and it’s cumulative over the course of the camp.
It’s the first KOM, so everyone’s feeling frisky, but Doug, the ultra-skinny cardiologist on the ultra-light Cervelo road bike, makes an early charge. He is eventually reeled in. I roll over the top in the middle of the group. We descend and go through “kiwi rolling” terrain to our lunch stop at Akaroa (hint: “rolling” is a euphemism for “use that granny gear, tough guy,” and “kiwi flat” means “hills”). We have a great spread for lunch and head back for home the same way we came. We use the backside of the first KOM for our second KOM. I ride a little harder and come over the top a few places higher than the first one. We have another aid station at the bottom, eat some more (starting to recognize a theme here?), and get ready for a bike time trial, another points event. It’s flat and starts with the wind at our back but will shift to a headwind near the end. We are told it’s about 30km, but “between 25 and 40, definitely.” I go out hard and pass a few guys. At about the 25km mark, I pass a road sign that indicates we’ve got 18km to go (10km to Taitapu, 8km from Taitapu to Halswell, where we’ve been told it ends). I have been riding too hard and that road sign crushes me mentally. My pace drops way off and a few campers, including Molina, who I had passed earlier, pass me. He later tells me he could see the crater in the road where I had exploded. Thanks, Scott.
We step off the bike back in Christchurch after 104mi/170km. My legs hurt and I now understand the value of running in the morning. I run for 50 minutes with Bevan and Brandon and it actually feels pretty good. We cover 11 or 12 km and laugh and joke the whole way. We eat a big dinner and scatter. We’re the early crowd at our lodge; the rest of Christchurch is going bonkers for the Bon Jovi concert that night. Toby and Clive ask me again if I want to run with them in the morning. While I understand why they do it, I really want that extra hour of sleep and decline the offer. They chuckle again and we’re all asleep by 9:30 or 10.
We wake up, eat a light breakfast, and are at a different pool than the day before by 6am. After swimming on our own for a while, we all get out and get ready for a points event, the 400m individual medley. I haven’t done a 400IM for about 15 years. A couple guys admit to never having done more than a length of butterfly or breaststroke, and a couple more ask me what order the strokes go in an IM. Many triathletes only swim freestyle, and this event is designed to reward the true swimmers. I swam when I was a kid, but you wouldn’t know it by my lack of speed these days.
When I was a swimmer-kid, I was far better at butterfly and backstroke than breaststroke and freestyle, so my strategy for an IM was to go out absolutely as hard as possible and then survive the last half. This will be my strategy today. I can usually get through 50m of fly before things get ugly, but yesterday’s 8 hours of exercise have taken their toll and my fly turns ugly about 15m in. Fortunately, I keep it together, and I finish in 7:07, firmly between the actual swimmers and the freestyle-only guys. 47-year-old Molina is fastest at 5:50. I’m strangely happy with how I’ve done.
Mike and I acting tough while we can (photo courtesy of Epic Camp)
Back at our lodge, we pack our bags to leave Christchurch, load them into the vans, and eat our second breakfast. Today is a huge day on the bike, nearly 155mi/250km. Like the day before, we start out at an easy pace, and surprisingly, my legs aren’t toast. We ride as a group all the way until the first aid station in Rakaia. As we circulate throughout the pack, we get to spend a few minutes at a time talking to each other, and it’s quite fun. They’re bizarre conversations with no eye contact, but the kilometers fly by. After refueling and refilling in Rakaia, we head back out at a good clip, when 25mi/40km before lunch in Geraldine, with 85mi/140km left to go on the day, Brandon and Mark launch a massive attack that shatters the group and leaves us strung out over a few miles of road. I end up in a group of five near the back and we desperately trade pulls for an hour in hopes of getting to lunch before the fast guys leave. This attack is our first indication of just how strong some of these guys are on the bike. And from here on out, when I say “guys,” I mean “guys and gal.” We have a lone female camper, Tara, and she’s got nothing to prove to any of us. We pretty much spend the week sheepishly chasing Tara across the island.
We have a KOM between our lunch stop and the next aid station. It’s very hot out and a couple of the bigger guys don’t handle the heat well. The front group starts their charge about 20km before the actual climb and I have no chance of hanging with them, so I roll over somewhere in the middle. I cruise in to the next aid station in Fairlie just as the front group is leaving towards the second KOM of the day, Burkes Pass.
I leave the aid station with four other guys and tow them into a headwind for about 45 minutes before we reach the climb. Two guys drop off the back on the way to the KOM, so three of us start the climb, and one of those drops off about halfway up. After towing the group for 45 minutes and all the way up the climb, Brandon makes a charge at me with about 100m to go! We’re nowhere near the front group, but I draw on dignity and principle and gather just enough strength to shut him down. Once over the pass, the wind is absolutely howling in our faces, and our pace plummets. Brandon and I trade turns in front, but our progress is dismal. 141mi/225km in to the day, we find ourselves surrounded by a spectacular vista, find that we don’t care about covering ground at the moment, and find a nice spot to pull over and take some pictures.
Just over the pass, we had passed a couple on touring bikes loaded down with gear. As we’re stopped to take pictures, I see a bike approaching from the way we came and figure it’s the touring couple. We both decide we’re not letting them pass us, so we head back out into the brutal headwind. Half an hour and less than 10km later, Mark catches us and says that he saw us stopped on the side of the road. From a distance, Mark’s quarter-horse thighs looked like panniers on the touring bikes… Whoops.
141 mi. on the day so far. Helmet strap is a good indicator of the wind…
We roll into Tekapo after 151mi/242km. It’s my longest bike ride ever by a few miles, and Day 1 was huge, and it was time to run. I now exquisitely understand the value of running in the morning and vow to change my ways. Running is the absolute last thing I feel like doing, but I head out with Ron and Aussie Andrew and suffer through 50 minutes and barely 8km. I eat heavily after nearly 10 hours of exercise, gather some snacks for the night, and shuffle into bed in a room that overlooks gorgeous Lake Tekapo, halfway across the South Island from Christchurch. I take a short break from this to have a beer at the lodge’s bar with Molina and Dave, who’s part of the support crew and an accomplished athlete himself. The opportunity to hear some of Scott’s stories is stronger than the pull of sleep…for half an hour… I’ve ridden over 250mi/400km, had 2 hard swims and 2 “recovery” runs, and camp is one-quarter complete. I’m dreading the pain in my legs when I wake up.
Morning in Tekapo
The wind and cloud cover have broken and we wake up to a brilliant morning in Tekapo. We eat a huge breakfast, pack our bags, and throw our legs over our bikes. I’m expecting my legs to be complete Jello, but after a few minutes of warmup, I feel quite good. I am stunned. We ride onto a canal road that leads from Tekapo to Lake Pukaki, and it’s a surreal environment. I ride to the front and accidentally end up well ahead of the pack without even riding hard. Instead of slowing ‘til the pack catches me, I decide to enjoy a view for a while that doesn’t include someone else’s pulsating spandex. For about 20 minutes, I’m all alone on a breathless morning with fresh legs and the stunning isolation of the South Island. I come to a stop sign, rejoin the group, and we carry on to Lake Pukaki for our first aid station of the day.
After the aid station, a quicker pace develops and the whole group strings out a bit on the way in to lunch in Omarama. We eat and laugh and carry on until it’s time to roll. Our normal lunch spread is all the fixings for make-your-own sandwiches and wraps. And Coke. And coffee. And snacks galore. After our feed, we roll out towards Lindis Pass, the day’s KOM.
Hey look! We’re eating again! (photo courtesy of Epic Camp)
It took me until the first KOM on Day 2 to realize that being a strong climber was only half the battle. Since we weren’t regrouping at the bottom of the climbs, getting to the climb in a good position was just as important as the climb itself. The strong guys (and gal) know that they can easily drop any contenders for the climb itself by attacking while the climb is still many kilometers in the distance. I leave lunch in a group of 6 or 7 that ends up about two-thirds of the way back after the strong group takes off. Scott tells us that we’ve got about 6km until the top, and I decide to push on out and see what I can do. My legs have been feeling extraordinarily good all day, and I never mind having some fun while I’m feeling good.
I leave the safety of the group and pedal hard to catch Albert, who’s just in sight and wearing the green jersey. Nobody follows me out of the group. I catch Albert and sit on his wheel for just a couple of seconds to catch my breath. I can barely see two more bikes ahead, so I press on and work hard again to catch Mark and Brandon. I catch them just as the terrain allows me to see the lead group in the distance, so I throw caution to the wind and give ‘er everything I’ve got. I go way past a normal max effort for a few minutes but my goal is in sight. I set the throttle to Drool and actually catch the lead group! It’s Gordo, Paul, and Bevan. Gordo turns and says “Nice bridge.” Bevan looks back, gives his signature woot-woot, and drops the hammer. Gordo gives chase but can’t keep up with our homegrown Kiwi climbing machine. Paul trails behind Gordo, and I’m fourth. I’ve expended so much energy to catch them that I can’t respond to the new pace, but we’ve put enough ground on everyone else that I’m entirely safe in fourth. I roll over the top of Lindis Pass overjoyed and pedal hard down the other side to catch the other three who have now regrouped.
After a few minutes of riding with Bevan, Paul, and Gordo on the backside of Lindis, Mark appears and blazes by, and Bevan gives chase. I’m able to hang with the two of them for about 3 minutes before my legs check out and I drop back. What I don’t know yet is that my legs will pretty much stay checked out for two or three days. Those hard efforts come at a price…
Paul and I cruise together into our last aid station at Tarras. I drink lots of Coke. We then ride into the outskirts of Wanaka after about 130mi/210km and find The Lookout Lodge, a cool retreat-style lodge perched atop a hill overlooking a valley and some mountain ranges. We have just enough time for a snack and a little relaxation before we load into the vans to go “compete” in an aquathon being held in Wanaka at 6pm. The aquathon is advertised as a 600m swim followed by a 4km run. A cursory visual inspection of the swim course reveals that 600m is a vast underestimation of the actual distance. The jokes about “kiwi 600m” start immediately.
The lake is choppy and whitecapped; this is not going to be an enjoyable swim. Legs shot from 385 miles of riding in three days, I get battered about in the surf for much much longer 600m should take. Halfway through the second lap, I feel fingertips on my feet. Some poor soul has decided to draft off of me! Finally finished, I lurch out of the water, pull my shoes on, and begin a rather pitiful run. I manage my best smile for everyone I see on the 2 out-and-back laps. We’ve been told that to get credit for our run for the day, we need to tack on another 4km after we’ve finished “racing,” so out we go for another 2 out-and-backs. In the meantime, Chris from the support crew has looked over the swim times and figured that the course was 1200m. It’s a quiet van ride back to the lodge. I eat a huge dinner and pass out after 8.5 hours of training. Tomorrow is going to be a relatively easy day.
Our view from The Lookout Lodge
It’s a beautiful morning on top of our little mountain, and we have our customary light first breakfast before we head in to Wanaka at 7am. The lake is calm, which is a great relief; we’re here for our 5km open water swim race. I’ve never swum 5km straight through, and I haven’t even put in a 5km total workout since swim team days. I’m flat-out exhausted from the first three days of camp and find myself almost zombie-like putting on my wetsuit. No jitters, no strategy, no stretching, just emotionless acceptance of this swim. When my arms are tired in open water, I pull hard to the left, and I find myself doing this within a few minutes of starting the swim. The sun is in an unfavorable place for me to use it for navigation, so I find myself frequently in the shallows on our out legs and frequently way out in the lake on our back legs. I really don’t care. I’m 16th or so to come out of the water.
We don’t even drive all the way back to the lodge, but instead stop along the rural road it’s on for our Time Prediction 10km Run. This is a double points event: points for placing in the run itself, and points for predicting our time for the run as closely as possible. No watches or other pacing aids are allowed. I figure that I ought to be able to slog through 7:00 miles no matter what my condition is, so I use that pace for a prediction of 43:24. Within 100m of starting, I think 53:24 is more like it, but keep chugging along. Tara and I are keeping exactly the same pace, so we run together and chat a bit. We’re shoulder to shoulder for the entire 10km, but she’s predicted something in the 45-minute range. Both of us are too tired to have any idea of our actual pace. The numbers come in, and some of the guys managed runs in the 35-37 minute range. Animals. Better, though, is that I was only 8 seconds off with my guess! This will be the only event I win during the camp. My new motto is “I may not be fast, but I know exactly how slow I am.”
Gratuitous display of skin (photo courtesy of Epic Camp)
The rest of the day is unstructured. We have to ride 60km to get our bike points for the day, but there’s no set route or departure time. I eat lunch and kick around until early afternoon. I leave with a Mike, John, Rob, and Aussie Andrew in the direction of Treble Cone, Wanaka’s closest ski field. We stop in town on the way out for an ice cream (hey, why not?) and some pharmacy supplies. The chipseal roads simply mount a constant vibrational assault on all that is tender and precious. The previous three days have taken an unbelievable toll on our undercarriages, and we don’t have the luxury of taking a day off the bike to heal our wounds. We discover a new friend in hydrocortisone cream. I’m dreaming up ways of getting a prescription for syringes of Novocain.
Mike tending to his undercarriage at a cafe in Wanaka
We continue towards Treble Cone and violate Cardinal Rule Number One of destination-based riding by turning around at precisely 30km instead of our chosen landmark. It could have been around the next corner for all I know, but none of us were in the mood to ride even an extra meter. We stop on the way back through town for a Luxury Burger (hey, why not?) and a Coke. It’s fantastic, but I wolf mine down and ride home solo, as I’m on the verge of being late for my first massage of the trip. I’ve got a one-track mind at this point, ignoring screaming saddle sores and wooden quads while feverishly watching the time. I pull off what I believe to be the fastest T2 of my life on the dirt road to the lodge, stumble in, shower, and collapse onto the table at exactly my prescribed time. John Ellis does amazing work on my shattered legs, I positively stuff myself at dinner, and sleep comes easily. It’s amazing that 4.5 hours can feel like a rest day.
Our common area at The Lookout Lodge – with two massage tables! (photo courtesy of Epic Camp)
Since we haven’t brutalized ourselves too badly today, I have a little more energy to devote to keeping track of how much we’re actually eating. For the 24 hours between 11am on Day 4 and 11am on Day 5, here’s what I ate:
5-6 scrambled eggs
½ plate oatmeal with butter and honey
4 slices toast with butter and Nutella
2 Em’s Power Cookies
3 energy bars
6 energy gels
1 scoop ice cream
1 Luxury Burger with Cajun fries
assorted crackers and cookies
3 pieces chicken
2 lamb steaks
½ plate green veggies
½ plate sweet potatoes and carrots
½ plate rice
1 bowl custard
1 bowl fruit salad
2 cereal bars (midnight snacking!)
3 pieces toast with butter and honey
1 cereal bar
600 cal of sport drink
Estimates from the support crew put our intake at 8000-10000 calories per day. This is a glorious life.
It’s clear when I wake up that our easier Day 4 hasn’t completely rehabilitated me. Our swim and run on Day 4 were particularly taxing even though it wasn’t a big bike day. Today is a big bike day.
We are at the pool in Wanaka at 7am. I absolutely struggle through 3km, unable to swim more than 50m at a time without becoming exhausted. I finish my swim and feel like going to sleep, but I’ve learned my lesson about running before our bike rides and lace up those shoes. I step outside and it’s drizzling. I force myself to run, and the first km or so is pretty pitiful, but my legs actually warm up and I speed up a bit.
I go exploring and find a cool track that winds along the base of some hills near Albert Town. I catch a 66-year-old man who professes to be a triathlete, has done all the local races, and easily keeps pace with me. We part ways (he’s going to run up the mountain, and I’m obviously not), and I find my way back to the main road. I run along the road until the van from the pool comes by and I hop in. I hurt, but at least I don’t have to run after I step off the bike!
Our ride today is in from Wanaka to Cromwell, then up the Kawarau Gorge towards Queenstown. Before reaching Queenstown, though, we will head over the Crown Range for a stupidly-steep uphill time trial, and then back in to Wanaka.
The pace starts off very easy and we all stick together. I feel very fortunate for the easy pace. About halfway to Cromwell, though, I’m kinda zoning out, just focusing on the wheel in front of me, and I don’t notice the attack. The rest of the pack is only meters ahead, but I’m out of the draft, and I’ve got no acceleration left in my legs to bridge the gap. I’m off the back with a few other stragglers, and I suffer all the way into Cromwell. Within about a minute after I reach the aid station, most of the group heads back out. I spend a few minutes eating and roll out. Chris from the support crew is able to ride today, and he tows me up to a group of three before disappearing into the distance. I concurrently praise and rue his fresh legs. John Newsom, Paul, Clive, and I work together at a moderate pace along the gorgeous Kawarau River and through the idyllic wine country of Gibbston Valley before we reach our dreaded turnoff.
I had only ever ridden this side of the Crown Range when I was fresh, and even then, it wasn’t pretty. This climb starts with about 2.5km of heinous switchbacks and then levels out for some barely uphill and even flat sections through some farmland. It then turns sharply uphill for 3-4km of pure unadulterated pain. I knew what was in store after the flat section, so I wasn’t pushing too hard. From the easy uphill section, I Turn the Proverbial Corner. The road winds around a left-hand corner and I can see just how ridiculous the next section is, just in case I’d forgotten. I had warned a few people that the switchbacks were the easier of the two pitches. I hope they paid attention. After wobbling through the next few hundred meters, the road winds around another left-hand corner and the next section that’s visible is even worse than the last. Both of these sections are taken in the 39/27, out of the saddle, turning the pedals over at 40-50 rpm. It’s not pretty. Finally the pitch eases slightly (still in the 27), and some campervans about 1.5-2km up the road indicate the turnoff at the top. My time of 44:04 is a PR by about a minute, which is astounding, and it puts me right in the middle of the pack. Bevan turns in a 36:37, riding from the back through the entire field. At least I have something to shoot for, as this climb is right in my back yard here.
A view from the easier of the two pitches on the Crown Range TT (photo courtesy of Epic Camp)
Another shot from the “easy” pitch (photo courtesy of Epic Camp)
It’s 53km to our lodge, nearly all downhill, but we’re into the wind the whole way. Rob is not having his best day, so he, Mike, John, and I ride together and I stay at the front setting a pace that’s manageable for everyone. We stop in Wanaka for a snack and a drink and some feeble ornithology, and then head back to the lodge. We roll in at 100mi/160km. Several campers are riding back and forth on the rural road to get another 20km for a bonus point towards the yellow jersey. I could not care less about the point and step off my bike. And I don’t have to run! The day has held about 7.5 hours of training for me.
Molina raids the fridge (photo courtesy of Epic Camp)
John of Muscles, Inc. gives me another fantastic massage, continuing the repair work he started the day before. Bevan interviews me for his Ironman Talk podcast (available at http://ironmantalk.com/Epic_Camp.html. Mine is in the Day 5 podcast). We joke a lot and it’s clear that he enjoys interviewing all of us. Then it’s dinner, relaxing, some more food, and collapsing into bed for our last night in Wanaka.
Today starts exactly like the day before. Light breakfast, then we go to the pool in Wanaka for a slightly less miserable 3km, and then I force myself to run so I won’t have to after our ride. Again, the run is comically awkward, and again, the van stops to collect me on its trip back to the lodge.
Bodie the wonder dog guarding his frisbee
We pack our bags, eat our second and larger breakfast, and get on our bikes. The plan for today is Wanaka to Queenstown with a KOM over the Crown Range (at least it’s the easier side of the Crowns), then out and back to Glenorchy for a total of 112mi/180km. The 100k Glenorchy out-and-back is difficult kiwi rolling the whole way and I’m dreading it after climbing the Crowns again.
The first attack comes way too far away from the KOM for my liking, and my shattered legs couldn’t do anything about it anyway. The attack strings the group out over a few km, and I ride at max effort for about 20 minutes just to catch Doug and John. I shamelessly sit on their wheels until we get to the climb and they pull ahead. About halfway up the Crowns, just after Cardrona, the raindrops become a little more insistent. The steady drizzle only intensifies the higher I climb, and the road develops rivulets. I am finally forced to remove my sunglasses as I’m not getting enough airflow over them at 7mph to keep the fog away. By the time I reach the top, it’s pouring.
Descending in the mountains is one of my favorite aspects of biking. I find it exhilarating to develop some g-forces atop 16 pounds of carbon fiber and aluminum, and it’s simply good reward for the hard work of ascending the same bit of road. Descending is not supposed to be terrifying. Today, the road is covered in sheets of water, the painted lines are obvious frictionless death, and each crossing of the rivulets is preceded by a deep breath. We’re descending the steepest parts of what we climbed yesterday, and maximum available braking (which isn’t very much) is required nearly the whole time with how little grip there is. Coming into every downhill hairpin hard on the brakes, I force myself to visualize the miniscule contact patch my tires provide and to consciously think about the friction circle. It’s the only way I can convince myself to ease off on the brakes and turn the bike in. It’s 52ºF, pouring rain, and I’m shivering and soaked.
I reach the bottom, and our wondrous support crew grabs our bikes from us and we huddle under a tree while exchanging layers (update: that friendly tree has been cut down in the last two weeks, sadly). We’re supposed to go the back way into Queenstown before our lunch at the Pinewood Lodge, but an executive decision is made to follow the shortest path between points A and B. Still shivering, I mount my bike and hydroplane out into the ethereal fog. As soon as we pass Lake Hayes, we are exposed to the full force of the fierce southerly front that’s assaulting the landscape. It’s raining sideways, so I keep my head turned about 45 degrees to the right. I foolishly remove my right hand from the handlebars to change a gear and am instantly blown halfway into the highway. I decide that whatever gear I’m in will be suitable for the rest of the ride. I reach the Shotover Bridge, and the sheer sideways velocity of the rain visibly belies how strong the wind is across the bridge. I’ve got the bike tilted 30 degrees to the left, and I’m grinding the pedals over at about 8mph.
After crossing the Shotover, I survive another 10km that seems like a death march and roll into Queenstown. This is not the homecoming I had envisioned. I lead a few campers to the Pinewood, the support crew takes our bikes, and, shivering, I strip down and wait for the showers. Hot water has never felt so good. I eat lunch and am immensely relieved when it’s announced that we’re not riding to Glenorchy. It’s not an easy ride, and with today’s wind, it would take about 1.5 hours to get there and 3.5 hours to get back. Our ride is officially complete at 56mi/90km, and I’ve already run. Day 6 is done after 5 hours! A few of us walk into town for a pint at Monty’s before our dinner back at the Pinewood. Albert, who’s in the yellow jersey by now, fills his afternoon with a 2 hour run to cement his standing as points leader. After dinner, it’s another massage and then glorious sleep.
Albert rocking the yellow… (photo courtesy of Epic Camp)
…and paying the price for the yellow… (photo courtesy of Epic Camp)
The evil southerly front has passed through, and Saturday morning is crisp and clear. We have our customary snack and are out the door at 7am for a trail run. I lead the way through town to the Fernhill roundabout, and we turn uphill onto One Mile Track. This is a steep climb up the hill that the gondola services. We run/jog/power-hike up the thing, and we finally get out of the forest above the gondola and joint the track to Ben Lomond Saddle. This is a moderately strenuous hiking track, and running up it is not easy. I team up with Tara again and we quickly make it to the saddle.
Rockstar Tara on the way up to Ben Lomond Saddle
Molina brings the heat on Ben Lomond
Instead of summiting Ben Lomond, we head around the backside of Bowen Peak along the Moonlight Track, which at times is more like a goat trail. The torrential rain of the prior day has left parts of the track delightfully soggy, and my shoes are soon soaking. On the north side of Bowen Peak, we somehow miss a fork in the track and find ourselves chasing fake tracks here and there. Mike, Tara, Albert, Doug, John, Newsom, Gordo, and I are all in the same boat here. Somebody yells that they’ve found the real track and we press on. Unfortunately, we’re wrong.
Mike and Tara and our stomping grounds. Before we get lost.
Ten minutes later, we’re hopelessly lost in dense underbrush. A few minutes after that, we’re thigh-deep in gorse, a British import that took over in the wilds of New Zealand. It’s quite possibly the thorniest organism on the planet. Porcupines cower in fear at the mention of gorse.
After much bushwhacking, cursing, and skin-shredding, Albert leads us back to the track. We are ecstatic and run to the end of the track, down into Arthur’s Point, and along the road into Queenstown. It’s a 3 hour 50 minute combination run, adventure race, and survival school. My legs and arms are bleeding and tender, but I’m not as exhausted as I should be. I eat breakfast and walk 500m to my home pool for a relaxed 3km. Then it’s time for lunch and our ride.
Today’s ride is a preview of tomorrow’s race course. We ride up Gorge Road and through Arthur’s Point to the road up Coronet Peak for our final KOM. This is yet another heinous climb with sustained grades over 13%. I PR the 8km climb by a minute (41 minutes total) and place well in the KOM. Again, I’m not too tired, and I realize that my body has started to absorb some fitness from earlier in the week. I’ve also recovered, finally, from my huge effort on the bike on Day 3. We ride the glorious descent, and I make up for the missed fun coming down the Crown Range the day before, the wind playing its tantalizing melody of whistling death in my ears. I am thoroughly adrenalized by the time I reach the bottom. It’s fantastic.
We then ride along Malaghans Road out to Arrowtown and Lake Hayes, where we’ll be swimming tomorrow. I ride with Gordo for a while and he talks me through some recovery and training strategies for the time between camp and IMNZ. He eventually rides away and I cruise back into Queenstown with Toby. We roll back to the Pinewood at 37mi/60km, and yet another day is in the books. Somehow, 7.5 hours seems like an easy day.
I walk into town with Rob, Toby, and Tara, and we visit Patagonia for a sweet snack and some free Wi-Fi. Then it’s dinner and bed. The end is in sight!
We eat breakfast, load our gear bags into the vans, and ride our bikes 15km out to Lake Hayes for our race, the Epic Camp Uphill Even Though You Can’t Get Out Of Your Own Way Triathlon. Some clouds are starting to roll in, so we bump our race start from 9am to Right Now-ish. Gordo, Scott, and John gaze out over the lake like Lewis and Clark and declare the swim to be “across the lake, touch land, and then back across.” It looks far. I don’t care.
Forging back across Lake Hayes (photo courtesy of Epic Camp)
We set off, and the group quickly drops me but heads off at an angle towards a beach. I opt for the straight line across towards the white spot on the hill and save a minute or two. My arms have recovered and I’m swimming straight, and this is a heartening realization. I come out of the water back at the start and see a few swim caps still on the home stretch. I lumber up the steep hill to transition, peel off my wetsuit, and set off towards Coronet Peak. Any competitive spirit is long gone, so I ride side-by-side with Paul for a while before we reach the climb. Since I was slow on the swim, I catch a few guys shortly after starting up the climb. Most of the guys I catch skipped the ride the day before, so this is their first look at the climb, and they are not amused.
Not more than a few minutes later, I hear a pitter-patter behind me and look back to see a lanky bloke running up the road and passing us on our bikes. He’s taking longer strides uphill than I take on flat ground. I push a little harder just so I can talk to him for a bit. He’s a marathoner training for the national championships in May, and he runs up this road frequently. I’m impressed.
I ride hard and don’t get passed on the climb. I’m a couple minutes slower than the day before, but I don’t care all that much. I reach the top of the road where our T2 is set up, and I reluctantly pull my running shoes on. I start to run up the service road that goes to the top of the Coronet Peak Ski Field. I have no choice but to walk on the steeper portions. This run will take us up about 450 vertical meters in about 4km. I run whenever I’m able to, but I’m in no danger of passing or getting passed, so I don’t worry about my pace too much. Reaching the top, we’re greeted with absolutely ridiculous views into the rugged wilderness. We walk down the top bit of trail to the top of the operating chairlift (mountain bike season) and ride down. I’m not sure our quads could have handled anything else.
I ride back into Queenstown with Brandon and Tara and eat a light lunch. It’s still a couple hours until dinner, so Brandon, Mike, Kevin, Anthony, Tara, and I shuffle into town for a “snack” at Fergburger, Queenstown’s finest burger joint. They head off for ice cream and I head back to our lodge for my final massage of the camp. I’m too tired to pack my gear and take it across town so I can sleep in my own bed that night, so I relax instead and chill until dinner.
We have a fantastic feed at Lone Star. My lamb shanks are amazing, we’re all in a great mood, and Epic Camp comes to a close. After dinner, we wobble off to Monty’s for a couple of pints, laughing and joking out on the patio until the sun goes down, followed by a quick trip to Minibar. By 11pm, I’m thoroughly ready for bed and pass out quickly.
So I rode 660mi/1060km, swam 15mi/24km, and ran 52mi/83km. It’s a 53.5 hour week of training. My biggest week ever prior to Epic Camp was 27 hours, which we reached on Day 3. My biggest week ever of biking was about 300 miles. We had ridden 385 miles by the end of Day 3. I’m proud to be able to say that I completed every single session of the camp. Scott Molina, Gordo Byrn, and John Newsom have created a truly unique opportunity for long-distance triathletes to come shatter themselves among stunning scenery without having to focus on anything but swim, bike, run, food, and sleep.
I’ve spent the week after camp resting and swimming along with an easy hike. Every day, I can feel more strength in my legs as they recover. While I’m not fast in the pool, I’m simply not getting tired. After a couple more days, I will feel superhuman. I’ll get in a couple hard weeks before I start tapering for Ironman New Zealand, and I fully expect a strong day when that race rolls around.
I offer my sincere thanks to Scott, Gordo, and John for conceiving Epic Camp. I’m ultra-appreciative of the entire support crew for their non-stop efforts to keep everything operating smoothly. And for cooking 10-12 dozen eggs every morning. Last, I extend my best wishes for the success of each and every Epic Camper in his or her ventures, racing and otherwise.
Epic Camp was many things to me. It was a chance to mingle with kindred spirits. It was an opportunity to see how the best of the best have gotten to where they are in this sport. It was an environment in which I could push myself harder than I ever have before and find out what I’m capable of. I know that while I didn’t come in to the camp as strong as most of the other campers, I came in with the right attitude. Of huge and lasting benefit, it allowed for the unique alignment of the limits of our mental and physical abilities that we are lucky to experience a handful of times throughout our lives. More than anything, though, it was…fun!
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