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Phillips (26), a tramping guide for Ultimate Hikes in the Milford and Routeburn areas, resigned himself to traveling in an 80-strong peloton over the 55km cycle stage between Kumara and Aitkens Corner.
"There were a few people who blasted away from the start. They took off and we just said ‘see you later’ to them and I just stayed in the pack and tried to stay away from too much hard work," he said.
He ran his own race and although passing two or three other individual competitors, remained unsure of where he was placed in the individual section.
It was not until he reached the finish line at Klondyke Corner that he realised he held the lead.
Completing the first day in 5hr 16min 28sec, Phillips said he felt surprisingly good, apart from a little bit of cramping on the alpine run.
"But after that I just wanted to stay steady and try and pick off as many people in front of me as I could. I didn’t stop, which was the main plan."
Phillips found his tramping background a huge benefit, knowing when not to waste too much energy.
As for today, Phillips plans to just compete in his own race and not get drawn into anything silly.
"I just want to get through every rapid and make sure I’m there at the end."
Phillips competed in 2015 and 2016 but could not return to the course last year after breaking his leg in a social game of football in Queenstown.He decided to get more serious this year.
In the women’s two-day individual event, Florence Van Dyke leads after the first day, much to her surprise.
Van Dyke (28), a past under-19 Triathlon New Zealand team member, hit the wall between Doreen Stream and Goat Pass and "took a bit of a walk for while" before coming right on Goat Pass.
"I had some really great competitors around me who gave me lots of encouragement," she said.
Getting a second wind on Goat Pass, Van Dyke crossed the finish at Klondyke Corner in 5hr 48min 43sec, taking a 5min lead into the second day of competition today.
"I’ve never done anything remotely like this," she said.
"It’s such a beautiful part of the country down here. I’m really looking forward to the gorge tomorrow."
It may have been been his first time on the course, but Sam Horgan made every post a winning one when he helped smash the record for the 55km cycle stage between Kumara and Aitkens Corner along with Keegan Hornblow (Nelson), who crossed with Horgan through the transition to the 33km alpine run. He broke the record by 1min 45sec.