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Destination Race: Challenge Wanaka

— By Tania Haas

A gnarly glacial swim, climbs in New Zealand’s Southern Alps and an alpine-lake run that’s 75 percent off road. This tough and scenic course is perfect for those who want to race and vacation in one of the world’s most magical mountain towns.

WANAKA, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 20: Competitors start the swim leg during 2016 Challenge Wanaka on February 20, 2016 in Wanaka, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
WANAKA, NEW ZEALAND – FEBRUARY 20: Competitors start the swim leg during 2016 Challenge Wanaka on February 20, 2016 in Wanaka, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

 

It’s 8 a.m. and the race has been delayed by heavy wind gusts. There’s an anxious but excited atmosphere at the beachfront. A fierce, burned orange sky creeps above the Crown Range mountains. Elite athletes, age-groupers, teams and families crowd the alpine lake as the 10th edition of Challenge Wanaka, New Zealand’s largest triathlon festival, gets ready to launch.

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With over 2,500 age-group athletes and a world-class pro field, this kiwi Challenge rewards the destination racer with not just the world’s most scenic triathlon. There are full distance, half distance and children’s races. It’s well-run and many triathletes return to year after year.

WANAKA, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 19: Young triathlon athletes take part in the 2016 Junior Challenge Wanaka on February 19, 2016 in Wanaka, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
WANAKA, NEW ZEALAND – FEBRUARY 19: Young triathlon athletes take part in the 2016 Junior Challenge Wanaka on February 19, 2016 in Wanaka, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

As organizers stabilize buoys in the water, I lie on the sand and stretch my hamstrings. A group of jokester Aussies accuse me of sneaking glances up their wetsuits. They’ve traveled as a group and rented a place together. One of them is returning for a 10th straight race attempt and a special wedding anniversary.

WANAKA, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 20: A competitor looks on prior to the start during 2016 Challenge Wanaka on February 20, 2016 in Wanaka, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“The magic of Wanaka has always been the natural raw beauty of the course, the genuine friendliness of the local people and the professionalism of the organizers,” says Mark ‘Sharky’ Smoothy of Brisbane who competed in the 50 to 59 age category. “But it’s the welcoming nature and casualness of the race itself that is most appealing. I have completed 47 iron distant events across 24 countries and Wanaka was always going to be our place of choice to marry.”

Smoothy got married lakeside in the run portion of the 2015 Challenge Wanaka. He arranged it beforehand with Challenge Wanaka organizers — the couple and their bridal party wore coordinated running singlets and exchanged vows with a celebrant and witnesses. They ran the second lap of the 42.2K run as husband and wife finishing together along the trademark red finish chute, where family finishes are always encouraged.

Challenge Wanaka, Mark Smoothy and Alyssa Coe during their wedding ceremony half way through the marathon. Pic Mogens Johansen/The West Australian
Challenge Wanaka, Mark Smoothy and Alyssa Coe during their wedding ceremony half way through the marathon.
Pic Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

David Hynan of San Diego was a first timer at the 2016 Challenge Wanaka Half, using it as training for the upcoming Ironman on March 6 in Taupo, New Zealand’s North Island.

“It’s a relaxed race where the focus is on your enjoyment of the course. Having just competed in dry and unforgiving conditions in Dubai, the setting here is quite spectacular. I’m looking forward to returning again next year.”

The 2015 winner Dylan McNeice of Christchurch, New Zealand, placed fourth this year. McNeice had some advice for seasoned and newbies alike.

“It’s not a boring course, it’s always changing. The bike might be quite slow time wise but it always flies past,” said McNeice. “Most courses you have climbs that as a pro you can just roll over in your big chain ring but here there is a lot of actual climbing when you’re in a small chain ring, you’re out of your saddle and you’re attacking the climb.”

Mountain winds from every direction were constant throughout the race. Gusts transformed the lake’s placid surface into a brooding blue with white caps. For many swimmers, the wavy course ended with the rising sun blinding the exit area.

The winding bike course covers two alpine lakes, several rivers, narrow and wide bridges alike.

Over 700 volunteers supported the race from snacks to volunteer medics. I benefited from the sophisticated crisis management on race day. I suffered an extreme case of hyponatremia during the half and sought help from medics with 10K to go in the bike ride. The medical response was swift and effective – and included an air ambulance to a neighbouring hospital.  The focused race day response and compassion in action helped me recover quickly.

While I didn’t experience the run leg on race day, I did run the course later in the week and appreciated the 75 percent gravel surface, as would many urban runners.

(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

I get the impression that competition is always an undercurrent at Challenge Wanaka but it’s the endearing, good-humoured Kiwiness ethos that dominates at this mountain venue.

Getting there

For Canadians, it makes the most sense to fly from Vancouver overnight into Auckland for a same day, early morning connection to Queenstown. The always-impressive Air New Zealand (even their inflight safety videos get rave reviews) offers roomy options in premium economy and business premier to facilitate good sleeps.

Arrange a pickup or rental in Queenstown for the hour drive through the Crown Range to Lake Wanaka (car rental is recommended for day trips and more freedom). Be sure to watch the Drive Safe NZ videos to ensure you don’t become a tourist traffic hazard – driving undistracted by amazing scenery on the other side of the road does take some discipline.

Traveling with bikes and other equipment is familiar to this adventure town and your rental company should be able to accommodate. If you’re planning on bringing a team or family, it’s worth considering renting an RV, van and trailer for the adventure.

Where to stay

Wanaka has a handful of hotels, B&Bs, budget options and rental units that accommodate racers and sell out quickly. I stayed at Edgewater, a classic resort hotel with a Catskills flavour, large room options, exceptional lake views and a 20-minute stroll to the race marquee. All around Wanaka, service staff displayed an authentic concern for client comfort and well-being.

What to do

Lake Wanaka is a Kiwi adventure town with international appeal – less congested and more laidback than neighbouring Queenstown.

Arrive well in advance of the race to get acclimatized. There are a number of beautiful bike rides and trail runs around town to get you warmed up. If you plan on sticking around, there is a wide spectrum of activities to help you decompress and enjoy this magical region of the world.

Glacial pool hunting, river journeys and 4WD adventures are just a few great activities to take advantage of in Wanaka.

Food & Drink

The food and wine opportunities in Wanaka are world-class.

Start with a flat white, long black and your choice of decadent breakfasts at Kai-Whaka-Pai on the main strip, or pick up some pastries or mince pies at the affiliated bakery a few doors down. You can get your carb load at the Challenge Wanaka race dinner or book a table at one of the restaurants in town, all within walking distance of each other.