Kaweka Debrief

One could say a good race is where execution meets preparation. Prior to Kaweka I had a record of one from three ‘good’ off-road races at the marathon+ distance. Not that I didn’t enjoy the others (they were fantastic) or get a good result, just that there was something of a mismatch between prep & race day. Typically getting a bit too excited on race day and blowing up well before the finish (ie. poor execution).

Despite the Kaweka being a rather frightening prospect as indicated by the course profile and descriptions of the terrain and compulsory gear list, training came a bit late, crash starting with Michael Hale’s pre-Xmas excess Huia run on Dec 23rd. That turned out to be the only decent trail run I managed in the build-up. Practically all else took place within the confines of the Auckland Isthmus.

The approach was a mix of 3 week rapid volume expansion and stiff hill sets to be found in proximity to work and home. Basically I found every opportunity I could to run and took detours to any hill I could think of. Hill reps were found on Mt Wellington, One Tree Hill, and the headlands of Glendowie. Scary thing was not even my short hill sets had the rate of climbing that the full Kaweka had.

Training went well, body seemed to respond well to demands, and the gear I’d accumulated for the race felt comfortable enough over 10km outings (full race pack weighed in at just over 5kg). Enough to survive the event surely, but unsure as to how much I could push it on the day.

With a course that challenging and a somewhat dubious build up the aim on the day was to finish it, enjoy it, and not cripple myself. Race strategy was pretty obvious, start conservatively, decay gradually, eat/drink frequently, and maximise social and scenic opportunities.

The principal setback in the whole shebang was the absence of Dr Mike, who despite issuing the entry challenge, wasn’t able to front up himself. Fortunately I happened upon an Auckland based extreme-social-off-road running collective of Steve Neary, Keith Crook, Daniel Smithwood, Vicki Woolley, and Tago Mharapara, who both provided me with a ride down and accommodation (bring your own tent). As a bonus they knew pretty much everyone at the event.

Trepidation was evident at the start with everyone bunching the end of the corral farthest from the start line. Even as the hooter sounded the first runners had to be prodded to get underway.

Guess I exited the corral among the first 10 or so runners, though this turned into a walk within the first few hundred metres as we hit the first climb of the day. ‘Runners’ quickly strung out, then started clustering into small groups. I was following Mr Neary up the hill, calves burning but otherwise not too hot a pace for the rest of the day (I hoped).

The Kuripapango climb was a pretty good indication of the day ahead, a 780m climb at an average grade of 19% on a mix of dusty trail, rock and scree. The recent lack of rain was evident with the scree being well lubricated in the dust for some rocky slip and slide.

Must have swung by Steve about half way (I knew he was coming back from injury so figured he’d be playing sensibly today) by which time the lead runners were seen disappearing up onto the ridge line. A group of four formed on the upper section of the climb, me, Daniel Smithwood, Jamie Stewart, and Craig Fowler. We ran the together until about the 12km mark as we started heading up towards Kaweka J (the highest point on the course at over 1700m) where Daniel and Jamie faded back a bit.

Craig and I continued on grabbing runs where we could and walking everything else (conservative: tick, social: tick). We were above the patches of morning cloud, but the day hadn’t yet begun to heat up and we were treated to some spectacular views (scenery: tick). By the time we crested Kaweka J I’d got through most of my water and two out of three of my Leppin flasks (eat/drink: tick), and the first station was at the bottom of the 700m descent to Makahu Saddle carpark. Stopping for a quick pic at the top the marshals told us we were lying in 5th and 6th position overall, nice.

We were running well together, though regrettably Craig turned down my request to lead me by the hand down the descent so I wouldn’t have to look down the dizzying heights (fear of heights and mountain running make for an interesting combination). We made it down the descent pretty efficiently, and mostly under control, with a few scree slides thrown in for good measure.

Following a compulsory gear check, I refilled both my bottle and pack bladder, as the day was definitely heating up. Out of the check point we headed along some ‘easy’ forested trails to meet The Donald. More fearsome than any narcissistic, megalomaniacal swoophead, The Donald is gulch where contours bump and switchbacks are scarce.

Normally fear of heights while running comes from looking off the side of a trail, but sure enough The Donald delivered and I just about froze looking down the ravine that was the trail. Was happy both for the company of Craig, and sizeable Manuka trees to hang onto at this stage (to clarify I didn’t actually hang on to Craig at any point). I bade farewell to Craig as we started the ascent on the other side as he took a bit of a breather, mostly I just wanted to get out of The Donald so kept going.

After this point the track predominantly consisted of nice wooded trails with some beautiful sections of Beech forest which were almost-mostly runnable. I was sucking through water at a fair rate now and was happy to stop at each of the numerous stream crossings to quickly refill my bottle with cool water (the bladder being virtually empty by now). Oddly enough I came across a runner who mentioned they were out of water (and parched), so I offered my bottle and they duly drank half of it. Luckily I hit another stream as I ran out and had a chance to refill it again (hope the dry runner did the same).

A few km later I hit the final check-in and water station, meaning I was also at the base of the final climb. Took the opportunity to ensure both my pack bladder and bottle saw some water as I figured a good part of the climb would be exposed and hit was sunny and hot by now. Still managed a strong walking pace with interspersed run sections on this final climb which was a mere 480m at an 18% average.

Climb done it was just a final downhill on the same bit of track we first climbed up in the morning. Dropping out of the wooded section near the top on a steepish scree slope I happened across a runner curled up on the ground with another looking over him. The guy on the ground looked in poor shape though the chap with him didn’t know what happened and we couldn’t see any significant injuries. The guy on the ground wasn’t making a lot of sense but said something about tingling and wanting water. It didn’t look like he was getting up any time soon, so I left them my water (thankful I’d refilled to have some to offer) and took off down the hill to base camp which was about 3km away.

Tried to manage the final descent as quickly but safely as I could – wouldn’t want to cause two evacs. Actually found the descent surprisingly easy, though it could have been the solid motivation to alert the event base.

Clocked into the finish in 7:32hr (after 45km, 3586m vertical), weirdly a rather longer day than I’d guessed despite it being pretty much spot on for anticipated difficulty. I wasn’t alone here, pretty much everyone including the organiser underestimated the marathon finishing times (maybe due to the heat?)

Anyway, once over the line I alerted the first aid and Land SARS people at base. Who then took my race map with the marked spot of the down runner and headed off up the mountain (I’d have thought they’d have their own map ;). The guy was eventually helicoptered off the mountain to hospital. Turns out it was some kind of hydration/electrolyte/heat issue and thankfully the guy was fine after an IV line.

So was pretty happy with my race, think I did my preparation proud. The event itself was fantastic, delivering a truly challenging and rewarding course, stunning scenery, and a very supportive and social list of participants and supporters.

Oh, and managed to arrive in 5th place overall (though unsure if the first place male and female qualify as regular humans) and 1st in the old men division. As a bonus I’m feeling pretty good post race (much, much better than after the last Speights West Coaster), and should be good for the build up to Tarawera.

Ps. No pics from me, despite carrying a camera all that way the memory card had a hissy fit and wouldn’t save anything.


4 thoughts on “Kaweka Debrief

  1. Superb run and a gripping report Ron. I am both impressed and disappointed – impressed in your effort and disappointed I didnt make it down to run. As usual, you put in a brief but specific buildup, and coupled with your more conservative and thorough (appropriate) race effort, you landed a big result – very well done. Interesting to note your comment about Strava suffer scores – and that the Westcoaster (with only half of the climb of Kaweka) was rated higher. I’m guessing their algorithm is weighted to heart rate (and not toward climb) – so your attacking pace there would account for the score being superior. Or perhaps the more runnable terrain also enabled a higher average HR? What do you reckon? Also, was your body more broken after this or Westcoaster?

  2. You got it RE Strava Suffer Scores, from what I understand is a modified TRIMP score, ie how long at what level of intensity (by HR). Hiding behind the numbers is the sheer amount of work required to just complete the course (Kaweka), as opposed to sheer stupidity trying to run at a half marathon effort (West Coaster), or simply sheer course distance (Tarawera). Kaweka climbs were steep enough to put my HR at about 80% just walking solidly. The suffer scores do (in these 3 instances) correspond nicely to how broken I felt in the days following the event, I was much worse after the West Coaster.

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