I got it right.
We started in the dark at the Redwood’s Forest HQ. Jake and I huddled together at the back of the pack listening to the briefing. We decided to ditch the headlamps because day was already breaking. Perhaps we should have taken the time to seed ourselves in the large bunch of 300 odd people eagerly awaiting the starter’s gun. As it happens, we were right at the back when the gun went. This gave us a slow start, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Probably the easiest mistake to make in an ultra is to go out hard. It’s not hard to stay at the front for a leg or two. But if you haven’t paid your dues in training, you will pay them at the back end of the race if you try to get ahead of yourself.
That said, I was a little concerned that we were forced to walk single-file for the first 10 minutes in the bush. It was great having Jake alongside, as otherwise it would have been easy to lose it and try force my way forward. Instead we relaxed and had a gentle warm-up to the long day ahead. After a further 7 minutes of walk/run we hit a forest road, and I was able to open up and move through the field a bit. I said farewell to Jake and headed on.
The first leg is the best time to meet people and have a chat, so I was happy sharing stories with those I found myself next to as we made our way to Tikitapu (Blue Lake). I knew Ron and Shaun would be way up ahead and had already made peace with this and committed to just running sensibly and trying to stay strong through the whole event. I had worked out a solid plan encompassing regular nutrition/hydration and a run/walk pacing strategy. As well as walking the hills, I gave myself a good 3-5 minute walk every 30-40 minutes to refresh and reset my legs. This was intended to ward off and delay any ITB issue, and had been helpful in training.
The first leg was a pleasure. We all got wet feet from the high Blue Lake and I was very glad to change my socks and shoes at Okareka. The new piece of single track down to Okareka was a treat, much more enjoyable (and a bit slower too) than the road. My time of 2:04 was 14 minutes slower than last year’s conservative start – but I knew this was just due to my quarter-hour conga-line at the start. I was holding a fine pace and felt fresh.
The second leg – 18.5k over the Western Okataina walkway went by smoothly also. This trail has the most climb of any on the course. I made good use of the walk here. The trail was drier and faster than any of my previous attempts here. If one was strong enough, you could run the whole way.
I arrived at Lake Okataina in about 4:08. The 2:04 split was the same as last year’s. And I was still feeling really good – a 9/10 I’d say. It was great getting a big cheer from the entourage of MEC supporters. I was a bit overwhelmed, and actually left without realising I had forgotten to pick up my gels for the next section. But I did get a good feed of roast veges. As I walked off eating these, who should pull up next to me but Ron! I had thought he was long ahead, but he had wisely stopped to change shoes at Okareka and then had another good pit stop for food and sunscreen at Okataina. It was so good to run this section together. Leg 3 has previously been the place where the race becomes hard and I have got rather dark on that section. But with Ron, we chatted merrily together and the kilometres rolled by. We pulled into Humphries Bay aid station (about 45km) both eager for a feed. Following Ron’s lead I knocked back a honey sandwich – these are great (must remember that for next year). I was done a bit quicker than Ron and mentioned that I would start walking. As I walked up the hill from the station, I couldn’t see him following and I was a bit gutted I hadn’t just hung around longer. I almost turned back to wait (almost, but not quite – it’s a race not just a ‘life event’). Instead of the comradery of the last 75 minutes, I was off on my own.
But my legs were feeling good and I ran this section faster than ever before. I came into the Outlet in around 6:20. It was great to see Dan, Todd and Dad there and I was in great spirits. I had never felt this good for this long in the Tarawera before. The section past the falls was as beautiful as ever. I finished the leg in 2:50, a 7 minute PB. This put me at the 60km mark in just a whisker under 7 hours. I let my mind calculate what would be required to hit my top target of 11 hrs – 40k in 4hrs, 6 minute kilometres (including walking time!). I didn’t think that was feasible, but if I played it smart I could make it between 11 and 12.
The terrain change after the Tarawera falls can be hard. You leave behind beautiful single track with plenty of visual distractions and find yourself on long straight forestry roads. The pain became real for me here. I turned on the music to give me a lift as I felt my mood dropping away. I was still running better than last year though. There was no hip flexor acute pain that made each step agony, just the steady ache of legs that are well tired. I walked the steep uphill, but could run the shallows. I came upon a couple of guys and started a long game of yoyo tag with one of them, Greig. We passed each other several times before running together down the long drag to Titoki. This picked me up, and I was all smiles as I saw the crew here. I cooled off with some water, refuelled and picked up Todd Calkin, pacer-extraordinaire.
It was uncharted territory for me as we headed up to Awaroa. Greig had gone ahead and Todd told me that Shaun Collins had only just left ahead of me. That put a bit of fire in my belly – lets go catch Shaun! We passed him while he took a mimi in the forest. I had been struggling to drink and eat lately and had figured out the culprit – the Heed in my bottle was bouncing around and getting a big lot of foam on top. When I swallowed I was taking on heaps of air. My guts hurt and I was gassing out both ends overtime. I figured the best way to fix this was to switch to drinking water. At Awaroa I did this and the guts felt better, allowing me to force down the precious gels.
I arrived at Awaroa in 2hrs. I had pulled a little ahead of Grieg and Shaun, who had been holding pretty close till then. A quick refill was all I needed and Todd and I headed out onto the loop of despair. This whole area is recently planted forest so you run along limestone roads with immature pine trees at your side. You can see for ages without them obstructing the view, but you don’t have the shade they usually provide. But I was happy, not despairing on this leg. I caught two guys on the steep hill climb. I was hiking, but obviously faster than others! The harder part was the downhill drop to Awaroa again. My quads were now weary and hurt like heck as I went back down. Greig made yet another reappearance as he took off up the steep hill after the aid station. As I turned up the hill, I saw Ron turning in to the loop. He was in good spirits, but had obviously dropped the pace off a bit.
It wasn’t long before Todd and I caught Greig up again. We now had 18.5k to get to the finish. I still wouldn’t let my mind think about the end too much. The ache in my legs and fatigue deep in my bones were desperate for a quick exit, and focussing on the finish would actually bring me down. I just looked to the next aid station, played some tunes and kept forcing the legs to go fast. They were going to hurt anyway, so it may as well be at a good pace. Todd was his encouraging best, and as we caught runners rather regularly it did make me feel good.
Somewhere around 80k, I noticed that the walk breaks were no longer helping. Instead of feeling fresh after the walk, I was stiff and it took ages to build back into my previous pace. It was time to give the walk the flick. Gels would now be consumed while jogging. Shaun was well behind, but Greig was still in the mix. I thought back to Jake often, hoping his knee was OK, and wondering how Ron was doing.
My pace over this last section was not just a surprise to me. I imagined that I would be doing plenty of short walks, and now I was running well and not stopping for anything. At Fisherman’s Bridge I was half an hour ahead of predicted time, so the crew were all still back at Titoki cheering Jake on. I was happy enough to know that there was only 10k to go – just over an hour I thought.
We drilled the last section. I was so impressed with Todd. We were both expecting this to be a slow jog to the line and instead I was still feeling good enough to smoke along (relatively speaking). He had only done one run of 20k to prepare. He later told me he was often running with HR near 200. And then I would just take off while he was still opening a gel or whatever – the life of a pacer aint easy. We crossed the Tarawera river bridge at 10:45. I knew then that I had a shot at breaking 11 hours. Todd, like a perfect lead-out rider in Le Tour had spent himself to get me to this point and he bid me farewell as I upped the speed across the grassy fields, hammering home the final 2 kilometres. I crossed the line in 10:54, 16th place (chicked by one), and half-collapsing on the finish fencing I said, “That’s how you do 100k”.
Great nutrition and hydration
Very happy runner.
Not that I consider myself an ultra master, nay not by any stretch. The winner was over 2 hours ahead! But it does feel good when you put together a great performance, one that brings out the fullest of your fitness. The other thing that made the trip great was the excellent crew I shared it with. Doing that run solo would have been less than half as good, and certainly a lot slower. Thanks to the cheering babes, the documenting dad (these are all his phtoos), the pacers and my comrades out there on the trail. Huge congrats to Jake and Ron for finishing their first ultras! Big ups once again to Paul Charteris and his team for holding a fantastic and well organised event.