New Zealand's leading Ironman athletes are preparing to return to Taupō next week for the 37th Nutri-Grain Ironman New Zealand.
Previous winners, rising stars and Ironman debuts highlight the professional field, with athletes set to go head-to-head across a 3.8km swim, 180km ride and 42km run next Saturday.
The continued closure of international borders means the 2021 event will have a distinct Kiwi feel, with 13 professional athletes lining up.
The women's professional race will see multiple Ironman 70.3 winner Hannah Wells, of Tauranga, line up for her first full Ironman, racing against Rebecca Clarke, Melanie Burke and Emily McNaughtan.
Wells claimed victory at her last four Ironman 70.3 events, including Ironman 70.3 Taupō in 2019, and she's looking forward to stepping up to the full distance.
"It's been a bit of an unknown for me being my first Ironman, new training for me and the big miles are pretty new, I'm not usually a huge volume athlete, we've had to manage the load pretty carefully," she said.
"I think we've done a pretty good job, I have a number of big sessions under the belt now, hopefully all the hard work is done and I'm ready to go.
"I think Ironman New Zealand has such a cool atmosphere, I've been there a number of times watching, it's such a cool event and the community gets behind it, it has a huge history and with the Māori welcome there's a lot of feeling.
"To be a part of it as my first Ironman is going to be very special. I'll know a lot of people out there on the course being a New Zealand race, it's going to be a pretty special day and I feel very lucky being a part of it."
McNaughtan is also set to contest her first full Ironman next weekend, with the Wellington-based athlete having had a taste of the course at Ironman 70.3 Taupō.
"I'm really excited, I'm just getting more and more excited now that it's getting close," she said.
"I love the atmosphere in Taupō, it's my favourite race, I'm really excited to get out there. There are so many supporters down the run course and they give you a real boost when you're tired and I think I'm going to need that on the run."
The men's field includes previous winners Mike Phillips, Braden Currie and Cameron Brown, with the former champions lining up alongside up-and-coming stars including Kyle Smith and Jack Moody.
Phillips has been on the Ironman New Zealand podium for the last two years, with a second-place finish in 2020 and a win the year before.
"I was lucky to get on the start line last year, I had a bit of an injury so was actually pushing it to just start the race," he said.
"I was pretty fortunate that I did because there was nothing on after that for quite some time.
"We had some virtual races for the first few months which was pretty cool, a good way to stay motivated and race with the other pros, after that no one knew when the next event was going to be, or what you were training for which made it tough.
"It's a long day and a tough course, I know what I've done in the last two years there and I think I should be able to go a wee bit faster so I'll try and pace myself on that and if those guys beat me they're having a good day."
Cameron Brown knows what it takes to win in Taupō, with the 48-year-old standing on the top step of the podium an incredible 12 times, and he's keen to be back in action next weekend.
"I wouldn't know what to do over a Kiwi summer if I didn't train for Ironman New Zealand," he said.
"Part of the last 24 years has been preparing for it, the love for the sport, the joy that the journey to March every year brings, it's just a normal summer.
"If I wasn't doing Ironman New Zealand I'd be twiddling my thumbs and pretty bored I think, the motivation is still pretty high at the moment."
Nutri-Grain Ironman New Zealand Professional start list
Mike Phillips NZL
Braden Currie NZL
Cameron Brown NZL
Ben Phillips NZL
Kyle Smith NZL
Simon Cochrane NZL
Olly Shaw NZL
Jack Moody NZL
Lucas Duross NZL
Hannah Wells NZL
Rebecca Clarke NZL
Melanie Burke NZL
Emily McNaughtan NZL