Photo: Graeme Murray

By Kent Gray/ in Taupo
It is easy to forget Saturday’s Nutri-Grain Ironman New Zealand is just Hannah Berry’s third race over the full 226km distance. Chances are it will be the toughest yet too.

The Tauranga 32-year-old is bubbling after a “super stress-free, like niggle free, just a really consistent build into this one” but knows her title defence will be a mammoth test courtesy of fellow Kiwi Rebecca Clarke, five-time champion Meredith Kessler, Dutchwoman Eels Visser and what shape as near perfect conditions in Taupō.

RELATED: Visser and Kessler set to test Kiwi hopes at Ironman New Zealand

Berry (nee Wells) won in 9:01:49 the last time the pros raced at IMNZ in March 2021, more than 18 minutes clear of Clarke. She finished 5th at Ironman Florida eight months later but has struggled with injuries and pandemic complications since and was beaten by Clarke in their most recent race, January’s Tauranga Half.

More pertinently, the presence of American Kessler and particularly Visser, second at both Ironman Western Australia in December and last month’s Challenge Wanaka Half, is set to up the ante significantly on 2021.

“It’s great to see the internationals back here in New Zealand. Obviously, last time we raced we didn’t have the internationals coming in because it was the Covid era but it’s got a good field, some people I haven’t raced before so really excited to have that opportunity and yeah, give it everything I have,” said the PTO No.63

“I don’t even know if you can out that into words really,” Berry continued when asked what defending her title would mean.

“I’ve been building towards this, everything has been focused on this for months now so it would mean so much to be able to defend my title and that is the aim tomorrow. Go out there and see what I can do.”

Berry admits she’s been up a steep learning curve since 2021.

“Obviously pacing and nutrition being such a huge part of the day is probably the two key factors when you go into an Ironman. When you go into a half you can kind of just go out there and go hard, you don’t really have to think about what you are doing too much, you are just red lining it.

“When it comes to a full, you kind of know what you are giving on race day before race day. You have your numbers dialled in and the race doesn’t start till the end. It’s quite a different mindset in a way, it gives a bit more control and you know what to do.”

That comment about the race not starting till the end is a pointer to the 42.2km marathon, an aspect of the Ironman distance Berry has been particularly focused on in the last year.

Like the old golf cliché, Ironman is swim and bike for show and run for dough.

“It’s been quite a slow build over the last year for me and this was kind of always the key race from early on so it’s been really consistent, I’ve ticked off every session in my Training Peaks. I haven’t done anything crazy but the training has been there and it had been done, so…”

For Clarke, Taupō is a chance to kick on from her 8th placing at the PTO U.S. Open and 17th on debut at the Ironman World Championships in Kona. It also allows her to quickly forget Challenge Wanaka where a wrong turn on the bike course cost her any chance of the title.

Clarke won the Tauranga Half in January. Photo: Hamish Collie

“I raced Eels a couple of weeks ago [Clarke finished 3rd at Challenge Wanaka to Visser’s 2nd] and Meredith, I remember going back to my first Ironman in 2019 here and I was just stoked to be riding with Meredith Kessler for, I don’t know, maybe I rode with her for 40km and being my first one I’m going, ‘am I going too hard, I dunno, I’ve still got a marathon to run, there’s all those questions in your head about going the distance. But I’ve done several now so I know I can do that distance…now it’s how fast and how hard can I push it,” Clarke said.

“At the end of the day it is your own race. You’re racing against your competitors but you’re also racing against yourself, you know what you’ve put in at training and what numbers you can hit.”

2023 Nutri-Grain IRONMAN New Zealand – Women’s Professional Start List

21 – Hannah Berry (New Zealand)
22 – Rebecca Clarke (New Zealand)
23 – Els Visser (Netherlands)
24 – Meredith Kessler (United States of America)
25 – Jennifer Fletcher (Canada)
26 – Laura Armstrong (New Zealand)
27 – Ai Ueda (Japan)
28 – Laura Wood (New Zealand)

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