A newcomer and a champion claimed the honours in the Port of Tauranga Half triathlon at Mount Maunganui yesterday, an event that doubled as the national long distance championship.

Hamilton's Graham O'Grady, who has plied his trade over the Olympic distance based in the United States for several years, led for most of the journey to claim the biggest title of his career, while evergreen Auckland triathlete Jo Lawn came from behind to win her third women's crown.

O'Grady, 28, has earned a reputation as a training partner for most of the country's best triathletes but has not pressed his own claims until moving up to the longer distance. He had some promising races in the 70.3 series in the US where he has been a regular training partner of Olympic medallist Bevan Docherty.

Today he stepped out of those shadows in a superb performance.

"This is definitely the highlight of my career so far. I've put in so much hard work over the last few months. To beat such a quality field here at home with so much support is just fantastic," O'Grady said.

"Today was perfect really. I felt strong throughout. Just the last 5km of the run were tough when you are pushing so hard from the start then it is going to catch up a bit.

"It's just years of hard training with the likes of Cameron Brown and Bevan Docherty that made the difference. It's special.

"I was able to keep check on the guys behind and that I had two minutes at the last turn. I knew it was going to be close especially around the back of the Mount but I managed to hang on. It shows I am suited to the longer distance and I think I can do well at it."

It is O'Grady's fourth straight win since his return to New Zealand late last year but by far the most important.

He and 2008 winner Kieran Doe were out of the 2km swim with a healthy one minute 40 seconds buffer which they extended to nearly 4 minutes after the 90km bike. Doe fell off the pace on the second lap of the run as the runners - led by Callum Millward, seven time winner Cameron Brown and Clark Ellice - began to eat into the advantage.

Millward, another newcomer to the longer distance after competing in ITU World Cup races impressed as he closed to within striking distance but O'Grady held him off, while Brown also closed the margin but had to be content with third.

The women's race looked to be heading down similar lines when former national Olympic distance athlete Anna Cleaver carved out a big lead. She was out of the water with the leading men although she was caught late in the bike by Auckland newcomer Michelle Bremer with Tauranga's Janine Simpson close behind.

Their challenges fell away on the run as Lawn started to show her strength, catching Cleaver on the base track for the final time. Lawn won for the third time in 4h 15m 38s. Cleaver was a minute behind and Simpson a further six minutes back in third.

"I've got endurance so I knew I was going to last. I think Anna ran well but may be paid for all that effort and she pushed me to the limit at the end. For me it was about putting in an intense workout which we can't do in training.

"I didn't think I could get those minutes back. But after I took out a minute on that first time around the Mount I ran strongly and dug deep. This win is great. But tomorrow I have to turn my focus to Ironman New Zealand in eight weeks time."

- NZPA