Plunging into the world racing spirit

Thursday morning:

In Auckland the sun is shining. Half an hour ago the rain was coming down in torrents. Before that the wind was gusting up to gale force.

Wherever you look the city streets are full of lean people wearing the insignia of many countries and the streets are whirring with the sound of expensive racing bikes.

It's the world championships of triathlon and that means a huge festival involving more than 3000 age-group competitors taking part in aquathlon and sprint or Olympic distance triathlon.

Tomorrow and Sunday, the world's top elite competitors race on a tight inner-city course to determine the world champion in this race and the series champion for the season (both races get three-hour live coverage on TV1).

It can be a complex business taking part in an event of this size. You have to commit up to a year out and from there it's a continual process of putting your hand in your pocket to pay for an international licence, race entry, uniform, travel and accommodation, not to mention bikes, shoes and other training and racing gear.

On Wednesday we flew up from Nelson. When we booked our flights, the aquathlon was scheduled for 5pm, but somehow it got shifted to 2pm, with race-day registration open until noon.

Landing in Auckland at 10.30am didn't leave much time to get to the registration spot in The Cloud on Queen's Wharf, but with family support from my son Sam we managed with ease.

The next couple of hours were a flurry of activity as we waited for our hotel room, checked in, unpacked, found all the necessary race gear and drifted back across to Queen's Wharf to set up shoes in the designated spot in the transition area.

Then it was on to The Cloud, where clusters of nervous people hauled on wetsuits, checked caps and goggles and described the various reasons why they weren't going to have a good race. I think they partly do this to explain to you how they feel, but maybe also to set up their alibi in case they don't do well.

Like cattle in a stockyard, we were then herded from pen to pen to ensure each group was ready to go at the prescribed three-minute intervals.

Our group, wearing purple caps, consisted of 60 or so distinguished gentlemen over the age of 60. With numbers racing and the necessity of sticking to the schedule, there was no time for warmups (if you can describe getting accustomed to 15-degree water as a warmup).

Once we were on the temporary jetty, we were held out of the water. When we finally got permission to get in and touch the wall behind us, there was no delay, the hooter jolting us into life immediately.

My two Nelson team-mates were world champion swimmer Ben Van Dyke, competing in my 60-64 group, and national swim champion Derek Eaton, competing in 70-74.

I started beside Ben, but soon lost him in the flurry of arms and legs at the start. However, it was encouraging that there were only a few swimmers ahead of me as we eased into more open water and that's the way it stayed during the 1km swim.

Just over halfway through, we started to pick up the red caps of the swimmers that had started before us - another encouraging sign. All too soon, we hit the ramp - out of the comfort zone and into the hurt locker of the 5km run (if you'll pardon the stolen cliche).

Ben was gone and out of sight and Derek was just running off as I reached my shoes. It was all much better than I deserved. I seemed to be in a good spot.

I picked up Derek and started passing younger, slower competitors from earlier start groups, but my smugness vanished as two runners in my age group came by. With Ben out in front too I was obviously out of the medals (I finished sixth).

After the adrenaline hit of that all-out effort it was back to our room to write a story for Thursday's paper, assemble the bike and hit a nearby bar for the New Zealand team function.

In an event like this it's good to plunge in and get involved, so I'd volunteered as a bike guide taking competitors around the bike course at 6am yesterday.

Our group of 15 or so competitors from all around the world contained four guides, one to lead, one to go ahead to tricky intersections, one in the middle and a tail-end Charlie. I chose that option so I wouldn't feel embarrassed about not being able to keep up.

As it turned out, there were a couple of Australians and an American who were slower than me, so I was able to cruise along, shepherding them up to the group who waited for us from time to time.

After that, a huge hotel breakfast (have to watch that), then across to the sport expo for a bit of retail therapy (love my new orange shoes).

All that remains now is the nervous wait for our race on Monday, trying to keep the eating and partying at sensible levels, getting some sleep.

The Nelson Mail