Nerves of steel for Ironman

HARD YARDS: Gina Ferguson is ready for her Mission Impossible  the Hawaiian Ironman.
HARD YARDS: Gina Ferguson is ready for her Mission Impossible the Hawaiian Ironman.

Gina Ferguson has heard the horror stories about the Ironman world championships at Kona.

The heat from the Hawaiian lava fields and sun radiating off the road make the run exceptionally difficult. And this is at the end of an already gruelling day.

The swells and choppy water make the one-loop 3.8km swim one of the toughest on the Ironman circuit. Then, the wind gusts usually peak for the 180km cycle leg. Finally, the combination of the heat and fickle trade winds on the 42.2km run is perhaps the biggest mental and physical hurdle for Ironman hopefuls with the finish line in sight.

Ferguson has watched a video on which the voice-over makes the swim, cycle, run slog sound more like "Mission Impossible".

However, the Christchurch triathlete is keen to make up her own mind. She gets the chance tomorrow, when she competes in the Ironman world championships for the first time.

"Everyone's got different stories," Ferguson said. "I've heard the good ones and the bad ones."

Her Ironman story is just beginning. Ferguson, 27, is in her second season of competing on the international circuit, but has already made waves in the sport.

She took up Ironman triathlons last year after winning the national Olympic-distance series.

Ferguson qualified for the world championships at her first Ironman New Zealand attempt in March last year, when she finished fifth, but the rookie triathlete opted to give the Ironman holy grail a miss.

Ferguson was still finding her feet in the gruelling sport and only wanted to tackle the world's toughest Ironman event when she felt ready.

She took that step in Wisconsin seven months later, when she won the race in record time victory automatically earning Ferguson her spot on the start line in Hawaii tomorrow. She has thought of nothing else since.

"To finally be here is amazing."

Ferguson is overwhelmed by what she now calls her full-time job.

"When I think where I was a few years ago ... teaching, I never dreamed I'd be living this lifestyle, and travelling and training and racing as a job."

There have been sacrifices for the former maths teacher, who divides her time between sport and her other love, the violin.

"I don't miss the maths, but I do miss the violin," she said.

On top of her teaching qualification, Ferguson has a BA in psychology and a Bachelor of Music in performance violin her musical talent earning her a place in the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. She has not severed those strings and when she returns home later this month will perform in two concerts.

"I'll be doing some hard-out violin practice when I get home to get myself back to the standard I need to be."

Until now, the "hard-out" training has been solely focused on the Ironman.

Ferguson's form suggests she should start the race confident of a top finish.

In July she was third in the Quelle Challenge in Roth, Germany a race considered second only to Hawaii. Her time of 8hr 57min 18 sec was her first under nine hours and the fastest recorded by a Kiwi woman.

"I was really surprised my time was as good as it was."

But Ferguson prefers not to think about "results" before her first attempt at Hawaii. Notching it up as experience is just as important.

"Being here for the first time, I just want to go out there and go as hard as I can and see what I can achieve."

The weather will undoubtedly take their toll on the field, although Ferguson said Hawaii was not as hot as she had feared.

"It's like there's little pockets where it's hot, but the weather is definitely one thing that's out of your control."

An early arrival in Hawaii has allowed Ferguson the rare opportunity to train on the course.

"Usually, I turn up to a race and I'm tapering, so I don't get to see much of the course," she said.

"I've been able to get out there a few times, so that should put me at ease."

Many athletes base themselves on the island in the weeks leading up to the race and Ferguson said she had to be careful to stick to her training goals when there were so many exercising.

"If you've got an easy session, it can be hard sometimes not to try and run with people when they're going fast and you're going slowly," she said.

"I don't want to get caught up in the hype of it all."

She has been overlooking the start of the swim leg from an apartment just 500m from the water.

"It's a nice stroll down to the beach."

She knows it will be anything but that tomorrow.

GINA FERGUSON Age: 27 Born: Christchurch Coach: Greg Fraine 2008: 1st Challenge Wanaka Ironman (new course record), 2nd Ironman Singapore, 3rd Quelle Challenge Roth, Germany (8:57:18, fastest time by New Zealand woman), 3rd Port of Tauranga Half-Ironman. 2007: 1st Ironman Wisconsin (new course record), 2nd Ironman Western Australia, 1st Xterra New Zealand, 1st Contact Energy National Triathlon Series (5 wins in New Plymouth, Nelson, Rotorua, Kinloch, Napier). 2006: 1st Xterra New Zealand, 1st South Island Half-Ironman.

The Press