What a day. I’m gonna call the Westcoast Marathon the best race of the season.
I have been wanting to give this event a bash since its first running a few years ago. Back then, the Horsemen entered and won the teams section, and we still hold the fastest time for the (old) course, but the challenge of taking on the full remained unfulfilled. Injuries and the resultant lack of fitness has previously left me in no shape to take this beast on – 42km offroad, 2000m of climb, streams, sand, gravel… glory.
So this year when I decided to run, I committed to training proper. Unfortunately, old man injury showed his ugly head again and I was forced to apply training plan B. But over the 7 weeks leading up to the event I put plan B through its paces, and never missed a session. I arrived at the start line after a reasonable taper, feeling fit and strong.
Ron King and I were the MEC starters for this event. We have had a great season of running battles through the Xterra Offroad series. I was expecting another great duel at the Westcoaster. Although my build up wasn’t ideal, I knew the course better, and had logged plenty of 40k+ runs over the last few years. Ron had the upper hand in fitness, and knew how to suffer and endure from his bike exploits – but this was his first marathon. It would be an epic race that saw us see-saw right to the finish. On arrival we saw some other players who would surely be in the mix: James Kuegler was putting on his five fingers (“lacing up” doesn’t really fit), Reece Billington emerged from the Innov8 tent, and the Waiheke endurance legend Mark Bright was a surprise starter. I also recognised Scott McGregor, and the always strong Rob Iremonger. Add to this a few blokes who you don’t know, but are sure to be swift, and my thoughts drifted from a top-5 to a top-10 finish.
We took off into a howling South West wind, which helped slow things on the first mile down the black sand of Bethells beach. Kueglar took off and the rest of the bunch were content to pace along conservatively – myself and Ron included. By the time we turned into the private farm we were sitting in 4th/5th, about 30 seconds down. It came as a surprise that there weren’t more crazies looking to push hard. I guess everyone had a bit of sense about them! As we wound our way up to Razorback Ridge I took in the great view back over Bethells beach. Mark Bright, the tall veteran had taken the lead and I noticed that it wasn’t just me hiking the steep climbs – all the front runners were. In fact, I was either stronger than most or more foolhardy because without pushing hard I moved past Kuegler and into 2nd/3rd. Ron, Reece and James formed a pack behind me and an unknown runner who were sitting 200m behind Bright.
At the top of the climb (about 220m) we then turned back down toward Bethells lake. I had unfortunately lost two of my gels down my pants when my flask burst. Nothing like a sticky bum on a long run. Ron inevitably blew past on the technical downhill, and I was joined by Reece as we coasted past the other chap. We wound our way round the back of the lake and passed into the first transition as a triumvirate. Ron, Reece and me 2nd-4th after 13k in 1hr12.
Stuart Hale, my excellent crew (and Dad) passed me my hydration pack and I took a cup of liquids from the table. I then hurried along, about 20 seconds down on the other two, and another minute plus change up to Mark Bright in first. My plan was to use the climb over to O’Neills Bay to catch the guys. They held their distance, so I planned to catch them on the haul out of O’Neills. I drew near at the top of the climb, and could see Mark wasn’t so far away either. However, I had to take stop for a mimi on the way down and then over the rollercoaster Te Henga track I saw Reece run away from Ron and start pacing it with Mark at the front. I was content, told myself that the race had hardly started and made sure I focussed on running a comfortable pace and taking my fluids and food as per the plan. The Tasman sea looked impressive and foreboding as it beat against the cliffs beneath us.
I popped out onto Constable Rd after that 10k section with a 1:20 deficit to Ron and over 3 minutes to the lead pair. I was happy to devour a muffin and some fluid at the aid station (what a great crew). The downhill gravel track to the river was easy and I sped along, feeling great. I was aware now that with over half the distance done we were well up on predicted time (leg 1 and 2 both about 7-8 minutes ahead of schedule) and I was still feeling comfortable with the pace. What a day this was.
The Omokoroa Falls track is a bushy, slippery rooty trail with plenty of river crossings. So much fun and almost a forced rest as you have to back off the pace to stay on the trail. I couldn’t see anyone up ahead and just focussed on getting through quickly, hoping I could catch Ron before the falls. Alas, I never saw him, each white shirt I glimpsed turned out to be flapping trail markers. I took another gel as I hiked up the stairs. It’s a dirty climb up to Horseman Road – never steep enough to really deserve a walk, but after 26k of grinding hills you take one all the same, its just that you feel guilty for it. I kept it short and forced a run. The DOC sign said 250m to the carpark, I picked it up again and then saw Ron flying down the hill. Gulp. He looks good.
A quick refill at the Horseman turnaround and I was off again in pursuit. I missed checking my split, but knew I was again ahead of predicted time (and so the crew missed us at this aid station). I had also missed seeing the front two – this meant they were over 500m ahead now. Ron later revealed he never saw them here either so they had really pulled away from us over the last 10k.
The food worked a treat and pretty soon I was flying on the dried mud that was the Horseman trail taking us back down to the river. I knew I needed to hit it to catch Ron ‘the descending’ King. It felt good and up the gravel trail from the river I certainly noticed the contrast as my legs had less to offer. I hit the stair section with some trepidation, but was well happy to see Ron hiking, a mere 30 metres up on me. Game on.
I drew even on these stairs before Ron surged away again on Constable road back to the final aid station. He even ran the last climb up to the station, while I was happy to take a hike, another cup of fluid and then launch after him again. We had now covered 32k, were in third and fourth and were about 30 minutes ahead of our estimated time. A good day for sure.
The Te Henga trail in reverse was a lot more congested, with plenty of shorter course people running home with us. They were very good about yielding as we passed by. I noticed I was gaining on Ron and drew behind him after 3k or so. He stopped to tie his lace and I took the lead as we became a two-man convoy. I asked how far to the front two – Ron said they were well gone. He was right, and we were fatigued and sore. My body which had held together so well thus far was now complaining, particularly the right knee/ITB, which was a concern.
I tried a few small efforts on the climbs, remembering that is where I had put distance on Ron earlier. But he never faltered, and remained stuck on my heel like a sweaty piece of chewing gum. My stomach no longer looked forward to the gels and I had to force one down. With about 4km to go we caught a bunch of four. The first few let us by quickly but the girl in front put on a burst. I just stayed with her, knowing she would soon slow and I could go by. It happened so and as I passed her I was stunned to see Mark Bright trudging up ahead. A fresh fire filled me and I sped on, caught Mark and blew by. I was hurting but this was great – second place!
The trail turned to the last grunt climb up to O’Neills cliff. I forced myself to run for longer than I could and sneaked a glance back to see Mark was gone but Ron was still in contention. This was great and awful all at once. I just wanted Ron to fade and leave me to coast home. Instead I ground up this killer climb and then hurled myself down the far side to keep him at bay. I was focussed, I was determined, I was out of control. A short course guy turned around to ask where the course went, I pointed to the trail, yelled “on your right” and he stepped right. Into my path. A perfect ninja roll later I was back going. Now I was madder still. But pretty stuffed. I grovelled my way along the headland trail and then let the brakes go for the final descent into Bethells.
After the hairpin I looked up to see Ron still following closely. Like some evil Terminator, he wouldn’t die or leave me alone. The final muddy flat to the finish was ugly, I had left my best on the trail and just fought my body to keep going. I slogged out the mud, forded the estuary, checked Ron was out of touch, smiled and crossed the finish. Second place, 4:51:04.
A big congrats to Reece Billington who took the event out in 4:45:53 – a new record. And of course to Ron, who came third, less than 1 minute behind me in his marathon debut. Wow.
So my best pacing, best nutrition and fluid intake, best crew, best long range battle, best course = my best race of 2011. How did I squeeze that performance out? I believe my preparation was as good as could be for the time available. I built my long run up, and worked on strength. If you’d asked me to do a road marathon, I would have been well exposed as lacking any pace. But when your average pace is 7 min/ks, speed isn’t a feature. Time to recover now, then do some adventure runs over the summer as I work up to the Tarawera Ultra.
Leg 1 (Bethells South 12.2k) – 1:12:19
Leg 2 (Te Henga North 10k) – 1:13:47
Leg 3 (to Horseman Rd 5.5k) – 44:58
Leg 4 (Horseman Track 4.5k) – 28:23
Leg 5 (Te Henga South 10k) – 1:11:43