Round 1 of this year’s Xterra Offroad series saw us return to Shakespear Regional Park. This is a favourite venue of mine – I love the mix of a first half of rugged coastal running and a second half bombing up and down steep pastureland. I have previously had some of my best races here and I was looking forward to kicking off the season well.
Ron and I have decided to duke it out over 4 Xterra races this season. We’re missing the middle two but have Shakespear, Riverhead, Whitford and Hunua on our list. We are very closely matched and I know he’s particularly strong on the last two so it was definitely part of the plan to give myself a buffer with a strong showing at race 1.
From the gun you head up a paved road which briefly flattens before sending you up a steep trail to one of the main ridgelines on the peninsula. It’s certainly a wake up when you find your lungs and legs screaming within a few minutes of starting. I pushed myself hard to keep contact near the front, and after a very fun descent I popped out onto the start of the coastal section in fifth place, a hundred metres down on the front two.
Hitting the rocky section with more speed than previous years saw me quickly get rather dizzy. I was forced to slow down while I adjusted my breathing to the syncopated rhythm of my feet. I was caught by Sam Manson, who had worked very hard to catch up from a rough start – while he was dutifully walking through the shoe cleaning station the race was started (nice way to treat last year’s U20 champion!). Soon Chris Wharam passed me by as well, and Big Ed Hyde whom I had shadowed onto the beach was pulling away.
But I found the rhythm I was looking for, my heart rate came under control and I made up ground on those three. We were all trapsing along with about 30 metres between each of us. Whenever I safely could, I would check to see where Ron and any other challengers were behind me. The gap back grew as I remained in contact with the other three. This was good.
The tide was much further in this year than last, making the going tougher on the rock scramble. At one stage I made a foolish error following Chris and Sam up a tall stack of boulders, only to arrive at the other side faced with a 2 metre drop onto further rocks and the tide. Sam took the drop and while Chris deliberated I decided to lower myself down backward, whereby I was left dangling over the edge with no view of my landing. I aborted that approach and hauled myself back down the rocky tower, trying to keep composed despite losing valuable time on Sam and Ed, and knowing that Ron would not be as silly.
Sam and Ed were now well ahead and Chris passed me again on the loose rocks that followed. I trailed him by a couple of seconds as we rounded the point back to Te Haruhi Bay (half way) on the Southern side of the peninsula. We ran into a chilly South-Wester along the beach and I drew alongside Chris, and was feeling strong enough to push on after Sam and Ed, who were 200 and 300 metres ahead.
Another jump into the bracing tide and we rounded the final headland. I was still feeling strong and able to drop Chris. As we pulled onto the land again I had reduced my deficit to Sam and Ed but quickly lost sight of them as we joined the progression of runners from many different races. I decided to just push hard and see what would happen, but was already feeling pleased that Ron must be at least a couple of minutes behind as I hadn’t sighted him in ages.
And so I pushed hard, feeling strangely solo in a mass field of runners all doing different events to me. My new shoes gripped wonderfully as I hurled myself down the mud-sloped hills and inspired me to really dig it in. I even made myself run up the big mother. It was particularly pleasing to do so as some other fulla had just demanded that a group of us ‘move left!’ as we all arrived at the base of this behemoth climb. In these events where you are brought back into the midst of other races I tend to find that there is much passing to be done, and I try to ask politely and say thanks (more like a “Ta” spat out of heaving lungs, but the intent is there). So I was not impressed with said runner bellowing orders like some drill sergeant. I was obviously joined in my indignation by another who voiced his disapproval with an “ask nicely” retort. Power to the polite, I say! Anyhow, I was particularly happy to drive myself up this climb leaving no-manners-Ned wallowing, hands on knees, far beneath me. Nothing like the meek inheriting the earth (or a steep hill) to bring a smile to the blotchy, muddied face of a trail runner.
Another smile came across my face as I noticed that I could see Sam as I crested the hill. I got up onto the ridge and could see Ed as well. They were a good few hundred metres up, but maybe I had enough time to get them. I blasted down the remaining descents, and pulled hard up the final hill. I had got to 30-50metres behind Ed, with Sam another 100m ahead. Then Ed let loose with a big surge to catch Sam before the bush-trail descent back to Te Haruhi Bay. By the time I arrived on the beach I could see them both well ahead, and out of reach. I kept a good pace along the sand and finished behind them both in 6th place, 1:32:33. Chris came a couple minutes later, and Ron a couple of minutes after him.
So race one gives me some precious seconds in the bank for the rest of the MEC series. I was really happy with my race. The rock section was slower than last year, but unavoidably so due to the tide. I was 4 minutes behind my split from last year when I exited the rocks, but managed to finish just 16 seconds down at the finish (helped by the re-routing of the course away from one bush section this year, but probably 3 minutes faster over that steep section).
My calf was (and is) pretty sore so a bit of massage and rest are in order now to make sure I can run hard at next week’s MEC 10 Miler!