The Story of My First Half Ironman by Neil Papenfus

September 8th saw Neil Papenfus line up in first 70.3 distance triathlon at the Sunshine Coast. Based in PNG, Neil has some of the best session summaries we have ever seen. Proving this is not by coincidence, Neil’s ability to put his experience on paper was again on display when his race report landed in our inbox following race day. It is far too good not to share!

Here is Neil’s experience in the Sunshine Coast in his own words.

IMG_5217 3.jpg

'You're doing WHAT?"


‘A Half Ironman, Grant,' I replied.


'You, a Half Ironman? That's like a 2 km swim and a bloody long ride & what's the distance you run?' asked Grant; staring at me incredulously.


'21 km,' I replied and then corrected his distances.


'This I got to see!' he snorted and so it was that I was standing on a freezing Mooloobala beach before sunrise with a PNG support crew consisting of Grant with his chainsaw counselling skills and his lovely, but concerned sister; Judith..


'They look very fit;' she said casting a doubtful eye over my body.  


Grant, as always, was direct to the point.


‘You're an idiot, Papenfus' says he 


‘I know Grant, but what I do this time?'


'Have you seen the size of these blokes?  You're more than twice their build'


I had my doubts, I must be honest.  I continued to struggle to squeeze into my wetsuit until a kind spectator gave me advice and a helpful hand.


'Bend over Cobber;' has said, 'and grab the suit around your guts and pull it up'


I immediately felt more comfortable and watched Grant walking away shaking his head.


‘Judith,' he said; ' did you bring enough money for dinner? I think we’re going to be here for a while'


Comfortably squeezed in the wetsuit waiting for the progression of our rolling start I got chatting to a veteran next to me while watching the top seeded entrants complete their swim before we even entered the water.


‘The first race is always intimidating;' she advised, 'but stick to your plan and enjoy yourself.'


With that, we were in and away.


I was approximately 5 minutes into the swim when it dawned on me that I had not activated my Garmin watch.  A brief stop to deal with that and I was into it.  I felt good in the water; bilateral breathing, most of the time per every third breath and while there were some sighting issues I thought I was on for a sub 40 minutes so I was disappointed with the final time.  I did have to deal with an errant swimmer who simply could not hold a line & cut across me on several occasions.  This guy was wanting to do the full Iron distance by the looks of things. His final effort brought him crashing alongside me where he stayed glued limpet like at which point I decided I had enough and took matters into firmer hands.  I dropped back, and with my forward stroke placed my right fist in the small of his back, pushed him under & simply swam over the top of him. My last glance on my next breath showed startled, widened eyes behind goggles, but my swim was incident free after that.


My transition was atrocious, a combination of errors that were comedic to the ever watchful Grant.


'Take your ankle bracelet off before your wetsuit!' he roared from the fence as I struggled to pull the suit leg back on in order to remove the offending time keeping device.


I also battled getting my watch back on too.  My right hand; permanently damaged from the motorbike crash in 2011; lacks finesse and I lost valuable seconds.  Lesson learnt is to replace the watch strap with a rubber band like device.  This will help.


Grabbing my bike I headed out for the ride.  Things went well.  Clearly the top boys were on their way back on their first lap when;


Whop, Whop, Whop.......



'What the Hell is that?" I wondered as the lead crew on their magnificent time trial machines flew past me with their stone crushing sounding solid hub rear wheels.


‘Damn; I got to get me one of those,’ I thought


I went ok and even passed a few bikes; feeling particularly smug when I passed one Japanese Gentleman on his mean machine.  He later returned the favour with a contemptuous sneer when he hauled me back in the run; but I digress.


Diet wise all seemed fine.  I used up the two bottles of my regular sports mix and replaced the first bottle with H2O to wash down all the unpleasant sport gel sweetness as per the appreciated advice from JTM Multisport member and fellow racer Amy.  


On the return leg of the first lap I passed an accident which looked serious; and apparently was with broken bones and two being hospitalized.  I wondered why during the racking of the bikes the scrutineer was so insistent that I place end caps in my handle bars when, by the looks of those in that crash; having end caps in their bars didn't help one bit.  


On completion of my fist lap I was right in the thick of it and enjoying the crowds. Sadly, this was not too last as it was turn left to the transition for the run for the guns, but a right and back into the now lonely road and ongoing wind for the sole rider from PNG.  The wind was relentless.  I’d been given advice to stay out of it, though I had no idea how.  Mooloolaba wind is bewitched.  It’s always head on.  Face North; and it’s blowing directly towards the South.  Be smart and turn around and it’s a blast in the face from a grinning South.  It was simply head down & ‘arse up keeping an eye on the power meter.


I was pleased with my time; 3.5 hours as I made the final climb past two Police on motorcycles who declined my suggestion we swop bikes. A fast pace through town and I finally made my way into the transition for a quick change into my running shoes.  Unfortunately, the price of being slow is that there was little space left on the racking bar to place my bike and I had to manhandle the bikes on either end of my allocated spot to in order to slot my bike in.  Slipping my running shoes on I was off……


‘Your running number, Sir; you don’t have your running race number!’


‘Huh?’ I enquired of the race official as an image of the abandoned number next to my bike wheel became apparent.  Turning back to grab the required number ensuring that I did not notice Grant’s shaking head and I was footing it into the beginning of what was to become a very long day.  Initially, I felt strong and felt I could go harder though stuck to the race plan.  A few passed me; but I did the same to others.  I felt good; the legs were moving, and the first ten km went without incident.  I ran up the hill approaching the end of the first lap; feeling confident that I would complete the event under 7 hours.  A kilometer into the second lap and the process of becoming unhinged began.  It started with the onset of lethargy which shots of GU and cups of electrolyte would not offset.  It became difficult to swallow energy bars and only a big drink of water would get it down.  Soon, it became apparent that my body was rejecting the carbohydrates and a crushing cramp began to squeeze my lower abdomen.  I was still running, barely; but the legs were becoming unresponsive.  My mood did not improve when the planned passing of a walking participant failed.  Her pace was quicker than my ‘run,’ a definition that is used loosely in this context.  Slowly, I was being overtaken by those I had done the same to on the bike and I felt absolutely filthy when a sprightly athlete clearly on the high side in the 60’s cruised by.  I wished her no malice; nothing terminal, but at the very least a stone in the shoe.  This was not to be as she disappeared to a glorious race end.


I stopped at the race station for a coke; and was disappointed that there was no accompanying rum.  A drastic change in the race plan was necessary and I planned to walk to a chosen spot at which point I would try to run and then repeat.  The plates in my right wrist and let clavicle, legacy from the 2011 crash; were starting to give grief and my body was now an orchestra harmonized in a symphony of aches and pains. Mentally, I was determined; though to be truthful, a little fearful.  Out there, somewhere, was a lurking Grant.  This was a confrontation I would not be seeking.




Oh crap, he found me!


‘Mate,’ he said taking up an easy jog alongside; ‘you need to pull finger.  You’ve got two km to go and at this pace you won’t get there before the cut off’


I found the final gear and slowly began to pull away from Grant, now distracted by lady Mooloolaba surfers and I shuffled up the final hill towards the approach to the race end.


‘And we have Neil Papenfus ………………’ and I was under the race arches listening to the announcer giving my final race details.  I had managed to come under the cut off time; a debt owed to Grant.   The congratulatory and excited smiles of a JT Multipsort team member standing proudly in her club shirt greeted me.


‘Well done Neil.  You’ve done it!’


I had.  I had indeed, though how I’ll be able to complete a full Iron is another matter; but still, this was a big deal and noticing the smart phone in her hands I thought it might be an idea to record a message of appreciation for James; JT Multisport coach, who had got me over this line. 


So, what I said (or something to the effect) was;


“Thank you so much and how wonderful of you to greet me.  Yes, it was a rather rugged affair and I am a little jaded.  I do wish to record a message for James to thank him for his tireless work and help so do you mind using your phone to record a video?’


What she actually heard was;


‘I blaH GRGJkkg$%#$% Shudd#$T%#CFFF frrrrrrrrrrrrkkkkkaersheeasdttersaaf video BLAH’


The smile now became unsettled at the realization that the man standing in front of her may be showing the first symptoms of being bitten by a rabid dog; so James, I did not get her name, but please pass on my appreciation for her being there at the end which was special.


Proudly sporting my medal (no; Dylan, my darling 6 year old son; I did not win) I slowly made my way to the gear bag collection point.  I was now in poor shape.  I felt like passing out and had to sit down repeatedly. Cramp in the right leg now struck; cruelly timed to coincide with the arrival into the lower intestine of the Gu’s and gels and bars and I realized that I was not going to be able to climb down the 2 short set of stairs to the loo!  While Grant grabbed my gear and headed off to the vehicle; a worried Judith remained with me while I walked 20 metres or so, then slump onto a bench; recover and repeat.  Nauseous and dizzy from the sugar crash we slowly made our way to the road where Grant was waiting; the passenger seat reclined ready for a grateful and knackered 70.3 finisher. I eased into the seat and closed my eyes as Grant began the drive back to Brisbane.


I listened to Grant & Judith share the events of the day.  Apparently; the medal presentation for the podium finishers had occurred while I was still on the bike!  Grant told a story of a nasty high speed crash he’d seen at a sharp corner and Judith commented on the sheer number of bikes.  It had been quite the day for the three of us from PNG; a superbly organized event unlike anything we had experienced before.


‘Grant?’ I asked weakly under closed eyes.




‘We going to Argentina?’



James ThorpComment