By Kent Gray/Triathlon.kiwi in Taupō
When Mike Phillips won Ironman New Zealand in 2019 in 8:05:08, he was convinced he’d cracked the code to sustained sub-eight-hour success and couldn’t wait to get back to Taupō the following year to put his theory into practice.
Instead, Joe Skipper (2020), Braden Currie (2021), a pandemic (2022 pro cancellation) and his own body all took turns over the next three years to remind Phillips who was boss. The 32-year-old Cantabrian rattled off times of 8:01:27 and 8:06:39 in 2020 and 2021 respectively but was still fractionally off the pace, frustrated by being unable to string together a prep quite like he had in 2019.
That was until Saturday when all the pre-event and race day stars aligned for Phillips to become a two-time IMNZ champion in, wait for it, 7:56:05.
The shock 3min 12sec victory over Currie tipped their recent IMNZ ledger back in Phillips’ favour: 1st, 2nd, 2nd and 1st places since 2019 versus the Wanaka man’s 3rd, 3rd, 1st and 2nd.
“We’ve always had a bit of banter throughout our years, I won in 2019 and then he’s had the better of me the last couple of times so it’s nice to get one back,” Phillips said.
“I think it just raises the level of the racing here in New Zealand when you have a few guys going hammer and tong with each other, it was an awesome day.”
Conventional wisdom had the 39th edition of IMNZ being Currie’s day, especially after his record-shattering Tauranga Half warmup in January. But Phillips plugged away after his runner-up finish in Tauranga with another silver medal behind Jack Moody at the Challenge Wanaka half last month and arrived in Taupo as Currie’s biggest threat once again.
When Currie cramped so badly it brought him to a standstill just after he’d overtaken Phillips on the final lap (of four) on the marathon, Phillips didn’t need a second invitation to streak away from his hobbled rival. Currie eventually sealed second in 7:59:17 with Swiss 36-year-old Jan van Berkel third in 8:10:22.
“I thought Braden, once he passed me, that was it but I just tried to hang tough for as long as I could in case something happened,” Phillips told Triathlon.kiwi.
“Just starting the third lap, just after he passed me he started cramping. It’s always hard you know when it is something like that slows you down but it’s all part of racing I guess.”
Phillips knows better than most that you have to pounce when the going is good because it is so hard to get mind and body to coordinate with the season’s big race dates.
“To be honest after the first one [his win in 2019], I sort of thought I can go so much faster than that but having a preparation like that is actually quite hard, when everything falls in line and you don’t have any hiccups and stuff,” Phillips continued.
“I guess all this summer I finally haven’t had injuries and stuff so I’ve been able to train consistently and every week it’s got a little bit better, a little bit better and I guess this was the end goal of the summer that I was aiming for so to perform well here, I’m stoked.”
Phillips exited Lake Taupo just six seconds adrift of Currie in 48:08 to set up the expected mano-o-mano. They powered away from the other pro men on the 180km bike – two out-and-back laps to Reporoa – before Phillips laid down the gauntlet over the last 30km.
“I was feeling fairly average most of the day and it wasn’t until that last 30k that I was able to get a little bit of time on the bike and I thought if I had a wee head start, it was probably my only chance to put in a good challenge on the run and it worked out exactly how I thought it would,” Phillips said.
“I was fighting off cramps in my quads and my calves and my stomach so I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other and it wasn’t until one and a half k to go that I could enjoy it. I won in 2019 so to come back and do it again, it’s easy to do it once but to do it twice is hard so it’s cool.”
Phillips has twice raced Kona and now has a third Vinfast Ironman World Championship to look forward to in Nice this September.
“Yeah that’s the goal I guess. I always thought if you can’t race well at home there’s no point going to those ones so it’s nice to win here again and sort of build on what we’ve been doing the last couple of years.”
Currie is also relieved to punch his ticket to Nice early, albeit not quite how he’d envisioned.
“Good swim. Got away early, me and Mike just kind of worked together on the swim and the ride as well, was pretty surprised that we kept on pulling away from some of the bikers, we just kept strong. Mike got away at about 150-160k and did a big surge and I decided I didn’t want to go with that, I knew that would probably completely cook me,” Currie said.
“I felt pretty comfortable that three minutes I could run back into the game and yeah, one lap, two lap felt really good. Third lap I was actually fine and halfway around the fourth lap got a massive cramp in my left hammy and yeah, couldn’t do anything about it, had to stop.
“It was just all locked up, tried walking, it locked up again and then after a bit I got running again and that was it.
Currie paid tribute to Phillips’ stick-ability, both on Saturday and to keep coming at him race after race.
“I knew he was going to race well today, he’s been in pretty good condition and he’s been back running well, so big kudos. It’s great to have someone to race against making it hard, it was a great battle and I think it made it exciting for everyone to watch.”
Nutri-Grain Ironman New Zealand 2023 – Professional Men
1. Mike Phillips – 7:56:05
2. Braden Currie – 7:59:17
3. Jan Van Berkel – 8:10:22
4. Sebastian Kienle – 8:14:04
5. Matt Kerr – 8:27:58
6. Simon Cochrane – 8:30:14
7. Cameron Brown – 8:42:15
8. Lucas Duross – 8:52:05
9. Levi Hauwert – 9:04:44
10. Jason Christie – 9:13:48
11. Mike Tong – 9:28:41
12. Matt Burton – 10:01:43