Something different happened at Ironman New Zealand yesterday.

For the first time in seven years, Jo Lawn didn't win. Instead the 35-year-old finished second behind Christchurch's Gina Ferguson.

It was refreshing for the race in its 25th year, but even more so for Ferguson.

She finished fifth last year and sixth in 2007 and, while she has won in Western Australia and Wisconsin, she earned her stripes yesterday.

To usurp an athlete who has won six-straight Ironman New Zealand titles takes some going and Ferguson proved she is a top athlete.

"It's the biggest win of my career," the 29-year-old said. "It was a great day for me."

It turned into one on the run because she has made vast improvements in her cycling over the past year.

She went into the marathon three minutes 35 behind Denmark's Lisbeth Kristensen but, crucially, only 90 seconds behind Lawn. Last year she gave Lawn seven minutes off the bike and it was too much.

She was in the lead at the 18km-mark yesterday and won comfortably in a time of nine hours, 18 minutes and 26 seconds, nearly five minutes ahead of the incomparable Lawn.

For Lawn, it appeared hard to take. Although she blew kisses to the crowd as she ran down the chute, she looked on the verge of tears as she crossed the finish line.

"I was beaten on the day by a better athlete," she said. "The hardest was coming along the waterfront where my family and friends were. 'You're still a champion in my eyes,' she mocked. 'Thanks.'

"But I have to be happy because I got a Kona slot. I didn't win but you have to be faster to win."

Ferguson was fast all day. In fact, she's fast all the time.

Most ironman athletes only race two or three events in a year. Ferguson completed six last year, including her first win at Western Australia in December. She also won an ironman-distance race in Wanaka in January and plans to race in France and Germany in the middle of the year before heading to Hawaii. Germany is only two weeks after France.

"I just love to race. For me it's about the journey. I'm not so focused on winning the world champs. I just want as many races as I can. I learn every time I race, I don't learn in training."