MEC involvement with the Tarawera Ultra has been a constant over the last 9 years. It’s a great event and a great time, so I love to be a part of it. I didn’t have the right appetite to race it solo last year, and again this year wanted to focus my summer campaign on something more wild and enticing (stay tuned for Motatapu reports). That seemed to be the mood of a few others at MEC so we set about creating relay teams that would allow us to be involved, have a great duel and get an excellent workout prior to the big one in the South Island.
So the teams were set, Evan Atkinson and I would face off against Thom Shanks and James Spence. The MEC Thinkers vs the Feelers. It was a pretty even match with two legs for each player. Unlike last year, we couldn’t alternate legs as the no vehicle policy for the Tarawera Forest plus the new changeover spots meant it was a logistical impossibility. So it was a 1/4 and 2/3 split. Leg 1 (26k) is the most runnable, leg 2/3 (40k) the most technical with significant climb, Leg 4 (21k) a good climb and fast flat finish (if you are ready for it). Thom and Evan elected to do the 1-4, giving me and James the 40k middle section.
Players. On paper it was very close as mentioned. James would be my mark and he had just come off a stirling 2:55 at Auckland Marathon. Adding to this stamina base he also had posted some of the quickest hill climb and 5k times in recent MEC workouts. Thom and Evan’s face-off was also tight. Thom had come off a great Auckland Marathon too, posting a 3:24 and beating Evan’s PB there. He was looking like the favorite until a summer of lethargy and injury meant he had a patchy buildup. Evan had worked consistently, balancing family and work commitments to fit in some good sessions in his full weekly schedule.
Tactics. The Thinkers reviewed this information and came up with the game plan. With Evan now the better prepared athlete, and Michael likely to shed some time to James in a straight race, the tactic was to make Thom hurt from the start. A fast start, hopefully leading to a few minute buffer for me to have over James. Then, with James chasing hard, he may make some errors giving me the opportunity to run smart and hand over to Evan to dig deep and bring it home (hopefully having inflicted more damage on Thom than he had on himself).
The duel. On the wet and warm race morning Evan took off as planned. He ran 4:40 min/ks on the flat, raising Thom’s eyebrows but good old Shanks was playing smart and held to his mark. Evan blazed through the first aid station, and Thom was forced to grab just a quick hand of jellybeans as he tried to hold on. They ran alongside the Brother’s in Arms team for a bit, just back of the front runners. Evan eventually worked his way ahead to a 50 metre lead. Substantial, but not long enough to be out of sight on the long fire roads in Tarawera forest. Thom could see his man, and would do all he good to limit the damage.
Evan took a gel, and missed a corner. He was wondering why the trail markers were missing when he heard Thom call from inside the forest. Disaster! He quickly about-turned but the 50m lead was now in Thom’s favour. Ev doubled down on his workrate to now catch Thom. They came out at the Falls Aid station with Thom still ahead. He can be viewed here looking suspicious (watch from 2:40-3:10) in the aid station before de-fouling our pristine natural environment with a watermelon skin.
Evan poured it out over the last 5k to the Outlet aid station, slowly bridging the gap. In a gesture of goodwill Thom paused briefly and they ran into the changeover together, both exhausted having covered the ground well faster than expectations.
I got out of the changeover a little ahead with James quickly right behind me. I had the lead for the first few kilometres. It wasn’t the situation the Thinkers had hoped for, it was gonna be a straight duel. We shared some fun times on the trail before James offered to take a turn at the front. The pace increased and I was quickly faced with running myself into a hole with more than three and a half hours to go, or backing off. I chose the latter and James moved out of sight on the tight windy trails toward Humphries Bay.
I got to Humphries but James had already cleared out, the volunteers saying he was just ahead. No point blowing up catching him this early, so I just ran at the fastest pace I felt I could maintain. The trail was pretty chewed up and the muddiest I had seen it over this section. I pitied the 100 Milers who would face this in a much worse way later as I passed throngs of 60k walkers and joggers who were generally very obliging to let us through.
I got to Okataina Aid ahead of schedule and saw Dave Robbo. He hadn’t seen James so I just stuck with the game plan as I power-hiked up the mighty climb to the course high point. I let it out on the bomb down the other side, big toes screaming as they mashed against the front of my shoes over the greasy clay track. Every singlet I spotted I looked for James, but despite passing plenty of people I never saw him. I kept up hammering down the road after Miller Road Aid, until slightly coming unstuck on the last 2 k, slowing as we wound back up Tennants track in a mix of exhaustion and oncoming cramp. I got to the Blue Lake and heard the bad news, James was already 10 minutes up on me. Dang.
Evan’s face at the changeover revealed the futility of our position. This gap wasn’t going to be clawed back, barring disaster for Shanks. The game plan had indeed dug a hole, but for both Thom and Evan. James’ demolition of the leg 2/3 section (fastest in category) meant we were out of the game. Thom and Ev dug deep and pushed home. The Feelers crossing the line in 8:32:20 and the Thinkers in 8:44:00.
Another great day, a great race (well done and well deserved to the Feelers who won the 2 person section with Thinkers second). Full credit to all the MEC racers: Ev ran a bold race, James absolutely smashed his section, and Thom showed what a competitor he is, fighting hard and drawing from the well he has dug deep over years of training. I was happy with my performance too, hitting my goal splits for all but the last few k.
Mission accomplished – a great event, weekend away and training set in the bag, now bring on the goal race: Motatapu Adventure beckons.