Tuesday, October 30, 2012

ITU Worlds: Post-Race Adventures in New Zealand

Nine of us left Auckland for three days of guided hiking in Tongariro National Park with the outstanding tour company Walking Legends. Below is the cast of "characters" (and I mean characters!!) who traveled together. I only knew Mike, Donna, and Marshall to start, but after three days of travel and adventure we had grown quite close as a group.
  • Mike (Accountant, 59) – Aquathalon, 3:5:3, sprint, volunteer paratriathlete handler; the lead organizer a.k.a “Mikapedia
  • Marshall (Retired radiologist, 71)– Aquathalon, 3:5:3, sprint, volunteer paratriathlete handler; co-logistical coordinator and van driver
  • Donna (Corporate accountant, 51) – Sprint and 3:5:3
  • Caroline (Graphic designer, 51) – Olympic
  • Suzanne - (Medical marketing) - Caroline’s sister (rehabbing an injury and not racing)
  • Dave (Retired IT Manager, 72) – Olympic
  • Mick (Physical Therapist, 56) – Sprint
  • Phil (Lawyer, 59)- Sprint
  • Cortney (Sports marketing, 45)– Olympic and 3:5:3

In the morning, we stored our bikes and the bulk of our luggage at the hotel then eight of us piled into one van for the trip (Dave drove separately for his travel plans).

All us "kids" in the back seats behind Marshall and Mike
Pig hunting is apparently quite popular here!!
We stopped in Rotorua along the way to visit the Te Puia Maori Arts and Crafts Institute  which included hot geysers, mud pools, and a show. We were impressed by the food in the cafĂ© there. Food was a central theme during our time together. It turns out we all like to eat heartily and often!

After Rotorua, we passed Lake Taupo, home to an Ironman race. It’s rather in the middle of nowhere, but absolutely beautiful set among those picturesque steep green New Zealand hills.

We stopped to eat in Turangi at a restaurant called the Bridge Fishing Lodge. It was a non-descript roadside motel with humble furnishings, but the quality, presentation, and deliciousness of our meals was incredible!

As we arrived at the mountainside lodge that was to be our home for three nights, we had our first adventure as the van got stuck on the steep gravel driveway. A bit of engineering and brute pushing took care of matters and we left the van at the bottom of the driveway, as was intended.

Here's our home-away-from-home, a.k.a. "the frathouse." We looked out on the mountain we would hike the following day. Did I mention that other than a few brief Internet "fixes" on Mickey's iPad, I was basically Internet-less for 3-1/2 days?!? That was big for me.


Wednesday’s weather looked to be ideal for the major hike of our trip – the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It is a 12.7 mile hike to the top of a volcanic mountain and back down again. We stopped to get outfitted for hiking boots and crampons if needed for an icy ascent. The area had recently had a lahar of ash and mud come down the mountain and the trail had just been reopened, but with a detour.

As we hiked along, we were shedding layers and confidently making progress.  I was liking my little walking sticks, they kept my hands from getting bored.

Veteran hiker Marshall was at the front of the group during a long uphill section and it was all I could do to keep up with him! As we neared the top and were above the snow line, all the clothing layers were replaced. The very top of the mountain was steep, cold, and very windy. Conversation ceased and steps were careful. We remarked afterward that such a trail would probably not be open to the public in the US. One wrong step and you'd slide a long way down the mountain. On the other side, we were rewarded with a view of Emerald Lake and a delicious lunch to fuel the second half of our walk.

Our guides, Kris and Rob, were sure to have plenty of giant chocolate bars packed to reward us as we reached various milestones. We ate a lot, we ate well, and we ate often. I'm pretty sure I am five pounds heavier than when I left the states.

The steep descent from the top
Best sandwich ever and a view of Emerald Lake

Marshall the super-hiker and I

At the one hut along the way!

We stopped at a hut to regroup and a brief conversation with another hiker led Phil and I to decide that we should RUN the next part of the trail and overtake this young guy, which we of course did ;-) Walking is great, but it felt good to open up a bit. We continued on at a good clip and were the first to the bottom of the trail where tea, beer, and food were waiting for us. Guided hikes are the way to go and we can’t say enough good things about Walking Legends!! We were spoiled :-)

Afterward we hit the thermal pools and soaked our trail-weary bodies in the warm water before being driven back to the lodge for a delicious salmon dinner.

We had the option of adding kayaking to the schedule for the following day and we jumped at the chance.


At National Park Adventures we were fitted for wetsuits, spray jackets, and booties then we proceeded to the Whakapapa River with inflatable 2-person kayaks. We descended a steep bank, hanging onto a rope to lower ourselves, and set off. We had the river nearly to ourselves and the unspoiled area was spectacular with waterfalls, floating pumice stones, vertical cliffs, and banks of round river stone.

One of many photos of Mike and Donna, stuck on a rock!!
On thing about NZ, there are practically no bugs, no predators, and no snakes. You don’t see a lot of animals aside from sheep, cows, horses, and birds.

After watching us through a few sets of whitewater, our guide Sara provided some constructive “coaching” to each pair. Mick and I were told we had trouble committing!! She was right! We’d pick a line, the water would reroute us, and rather than work at it, we’d settle for another. Needless to say, we got our act together!

After a stop at the lodge, we headed off to a cave to see the famous luminescent, ceiling-clinging glow-worms. We climbed down a steep ladder and slid through a small opening into a roomy set of chambers. With the lights out, we were treated to beautiful glow worm constellations! The ceiling also housed large weta bugs that I was much less excited about. Eww.

Cave entrance was to the left of the ladder -- very tight!

We finished up with another short walk, then back to the lodge for a feast of lamb!


We hiked another 3 or so hours Friday morning in Tongariro Holiday Park where it’s off-season for this ski resort. The streams were impressive, as was the 65’ Taranaki Falls. It was my first time venturing behind a waterfall!

We arrived back at the lodge at 12:10 and needed to shower, pack, eat, and load up by 1:00 to depart for Auckland for our 10:30 pm flights. We had 50 minutes for “transition” and only two showers, yet we made it! For a group of 8, we never missed a deadline. That’s triathletes for you.

Marshall drove us the 200+ miles back to Auckland to drop off four of the group and to pick up our stored luggage and bikes for four of us to head back to the airport. I got pretty nervous when I saw the sheer volume of STUFF that needed to go into the van. Mike and Marshall got it done, leaving exactly one seat for Donna and I to share. Good thing our butts are not big.

How to fit ten pounds of flour in a five pound sack

One seat left for Donna and I!

Four bikes

After a final group dinner, we said the first round of goodbyes with promises to meet up at Nationals and Worlds.


This tripped capped off the most amazing week. I was apprehensive about a post-race hiking/adventure trip, but as it turns out, I LOVED it. I discovered that this is MY kind of vacation!!

The best part was really getting to know this group of talented, funny, and experienced triathletes. Some of them have 200+ races and 20+ years of experience. Two have been to Olympic trials. We shared, teased (took turns in the “barrel”), and laughed. I was particularly inspired by Dave (gold medalist 70-74 Olympic Distance) and Marshall (silver medalist 70-74 Sprint) who train hard and are the top of the 70-74 age group. They were already talking about the work they plan to do in the off-season to prepare for next year. Hard work and the desire to be your best has no age limit.

On our layover in LA, Marshall, Mike, Donna and I headed out for dinner where I received this fortune cookie. I think it sums up what triathlon, and the New Zealand adventure, have meant to me. I'm finding out who I really am and I hope never to cease exploring and discovering.