By Terry Maddaford

MT MAUNGANUI - The "kick butt" message emblazoned on the back of Cameron Brown's swimming togs underlined his determination to retain his New Zealand half-ironman triathlon title and become the first to do so in the event's 10-year history.

The 26-year-old Aucklander was always handy, and in the 21km run he cleared out to beat Peter Clode comfortably and the redoubtable Scott Ballance, who completed his 10th consecutive half-ironman - finishing them all in the top three.

Easy as Brown's victory looked, the women's come-from-behind winner, Karyn Mills, was even more emphatic in seeing off the strong field by more than five minutes.

While happy to reflect on their victories - which earned them a healthy $5000 each - Brown and Mills talked a little more apprehensively of plans to step up to the full ironman distance.

"I have won the three half-ironman triathlons I have competed in - two here and one in New Caledonia - and I know the full ironman is where I'll ultimately finish up," said Brown, who was third after the 2km Pilot Bay swim but fastest on the 90km cycle and run legs.

To qualify for the world ironman championships in Hawaii, Brown would have to meet entry requirements by competing in a lead-up race. He is eyeing the New Zealand Ironman on the new-look Taupo course in March as a possibility.

Brown, a member of the Jack Ralston-coached triathlon stable, has also seen his swimming improve dramatically under former national swimming coach Mark Bone.

Mills, winner two years ago but beaten by Heidi Alexander in 1998, turned the tables in winning by a tick over five minutes.

Only 14th among the women swimmers, Mills was fastest on the bike but still 3m 31s back from the pacesetting Alexander heading to the run leg. However Mills was too strong and powered to the front and cleared out.

Alexander, fourth-fastest on the run, held on bravely to beat Sue Clark and Fiona McKee, who was second-best on the run.

There will be no rest for 26-year-old Mills, who with her fiancee, Ballance, has just moved to Christchurch and a new job as a podiatrist.

She is already committed to the Taupo ironman - her first at the ultimate challenge - and after that perhaps the world long-distance championship in Switzerland and perhaps Hawaii.