Hard yards . . . Mark Esselink's entry to the Kona World Championships has been deferred until 2023. PHOTO: MARATHON-PHOTOS.COM

When Mark Esselink stopped smoking and started running 13 years ago, he never pictured himself as a future Ironman.

“Hell no.

“When I started running, I took the dog for walks. I’d run one power pole, walk two, run one power pole, walk two. Then run three power poles and walk one. It just slowly built up from there.”

Some might say he replaced one addiction with another and his latest fixation has landed the 54-year-old in the top 5% in the world for his age group.

This has qualified him for perhaps the world’s most notorious Ironman, Hawaii’s Kona World Championships, in October.

Esselink, who had been dairy farming most of his adult life, moved south from the North Island in 2001.

In 2006, he moved to Oamaru, diverting his career from dairy farmer to stock agent.

His first foray into any sort of multisport event was Challenge Wanaka, with a group of mates, in 2015.

“I was going to do the bike course, but ended up doing the swim, and yeah, I’ve done it since then.”

He admitted events became “a bit addictive” and he had already signed up for the 70.3 (half) Ironman New Zealand in December, Tauranga half Ironman in January, Challenge Wanaka 2022, and would probably do Ironman New Zealand in Taupo again next year.

“I’ve got the Bridge to Bridge run coming up in June, and the Naseby 50km .. I don’t know, it just seems to multiply.”

Esselink now has two full Ironmans under his belt, after entering last year’s event by accident, having only trained for the 70.3.

A full Ironman comprises a 3.8km swim, 180km bike and a marathon-length 42.2km run to finish.

“I didn’t realise until the day prior … that I’d actually ticked the wrong box.”

All race plans went out the window, but he finished, and then signed up to do it all again this year.

“It’s an awesome event, really cool event to do.

“But Kona’s going to be another step up.”

Once an athlete gains entry into Kona, they have 48 hours to decide whether to take the spot up and pay the $1800 entry fee.

“Just to qualify was amazing, when I got the email. The slots are very sought-after.

“I’m really looking forward to it. I hope it does go ahead.”

Event-specific training for Esselink will begin about mid-June, as New Zealand comes into winter, which will be in stark contrast to the oppressive heat he will face Hawaii.

“The conditions there are brutal, absolutely brutal.

“It will be just a matter of biking with jumpers on … It’s going to be quite a shock. But I like running in the heat, it doesn’t worry me too much.”

Although the cloud of Covid-19 does hang over the event, the athlete is optimistic it will still go ahead.

“Who knows what it’s going to be in a few months’ time? Hopefully things will be different.

“But it sounds like it’s going ahead … I’ll just prepare and if it gets cancelled, hopefully I can postpone.”

The main goal for Kona was to finish. He had no expectations of placing.

“There’s some guys in my age group that are phenomenal.”

Esselink admits running, in particular, is hard on the body, especially as he gets older, and he credits his coach Dougal Allan, a Coast to Coast and multisport champion, for part of the reason he manages to stay injury-free.

He has been working with Allan for close to three years now, and said it gave his training more structure and ensures he did not overtrain, or favour one particular discipline.

“Having a coach, you know exactly what you need to do. It’s not making it up as a I go along … Especially with the three disciplines.

“I’d probably go for two swims, four runs and two to three bikes a week.”

The structure also helps with motivation, as training can be scheduled into his working day.

Sessions are set out from start to finish, and he uses heart-rate monitoring to maintain the correct pace.

“Eighty per cent of your training is at a low intensity and probably 20% at high intensity … I don’t just go out and smash a run all the time, I do probably one fast one a week and the rest is probably slow, gauged, aerobic runs. It’s quite structured.”

Multisport does not come cheap, in either the time or financial stakes, so Esselink is determined to make it worth his while.

In the build up to an event like an Ironman, he will train about 20 hours a week.

really is. Quite a selfish thing I suppose, in a way.”

But for the father of two, the timing is right.

His son and daughter are both adults and since he is his own boss, work and training can fit around each other.

“It comes at a cost … so if I’m going to do it, I’d like to do it to the best of my ability, with the tools that I’ve got at hand, to maximise results if I possibly can.”