It was a great day for me. The weather was mild and overcast – perfect for running. Even the pre-5am alarm was less noxious than usual. I ate my breakfast and got ready on time, another rarity. Just after 5:40 nine of us MEC lads were driving to the start line in the Redwoods in Rotorua. A few stirring words from the Race Director and we were off up the hill, headlamps bobbing in the woody grove.
I was entered in the 60k solo run. Last year I had a great run at the 100k solo, and had taken on the 85k in 2010 and 2011. 60k in 2013 would complete the set. I was hoping to be able to blast the race, and be in the mix for a top placing – but that was back before I got injured 5 weeks out from the event. My right calf had been giving me trouble since then – I hadn’t run pain-free over 30 minutes, and had missed nearly all my targeted workouts in this period. But I had been doing anything else that I could. Strength workouts and hill hiking were my staples. I would find the longest, steepest slope in close proximity (Maungawhau being the best in Central Auckland) and then go straight up and down it as fast as I could walk. These hikes were hard in their own way, but the ongoing calf pain had me seriously wondering if I would be able to complete the whole 60k course. Truly, not in any sand-bagging sort of way. I made peace that I would not be as fast as planned, and looked forward to enjoying the beautiful course and the comradery of the MEC, even if just at walking pace.
I was encouraged by my orienteering run at Cornwall Park on the Thursday before the race. I had no calf trouble despite pushing hard for nearly half an hour around the paddocks and managed to be the fastest on course two. I wrote my predictions for Tarawera, where I guessed a 6:15 would be possible with a compliant calf.
Alongside me as we worked our way up the early hills was Todd Calkin. Todd was doing the 85k in a 2-man team with Sam Thom. Todd had his own ruptured training when he was smashed in a kite boarding accident. We were somewhere around 30th, and even then the singletrack would cause the whole pack to slow to a walk when the climbs got steep or tight. That fit nicely into my plan of preserving the body early on, and Todd was happy to take the rest these breaks offered. I have run with Todd every year at the TuM, but this was the first time we had shared the first leg. Talking away and taking in the view, it was just a joy to be experiencing the magnificent environment along with a close friend.
I pulled up to take a mimi and heard Bryce Robinson run by. He was running the first leg in the 2-man 85k he was doing with his brother Myles. Bryce has been getting faster and faster over the last couple of years as he has focused on road 10k and half marathons. This was his first offroad event and he was looking good and going fast – his split was a good eight minutes faster than mine for this leg. I caught back up to Todd and we ran by our great supporters at the Tikitapu (Blue Lake) aid station. On the technical bush track down to Lake Okareka I pulled away from Todd but he closed the leg hard to finish just behind my time of 1:50 for the 19.5k.
I grabbed my backpack and more supplies in a not quite (but close) formula 1 pit stop and headed out up Miller Road. Myles was way ahead, and Sam Thom quickly ran past. I saw Victoria Travers and asked about Ron. Ron King is another MEC regular, and was taking on the 100k for the second time. He learned some good lessons at last year’s race and had a good buildup this year with a super 5th place at the Kaweka Challenge. I forgot that he would be behind me (unless he HADNT learnt the lessons from last year). Also behind me was the final member of our MEC tribe, Mathew Raffills. Mat was doing his first ultra and was taking on the 85k solo. He had trained faithfully by himself down in the Hawkes Bay. Nigel Turnbull was his pacer and crew extraordinaire for the day.
Like the first leg, I wanted to run steadily in the second 17.5k stint over the Western Okataina hills, with the goal of arriving at the third leg (last for the 60k) ready to close hard. By now I was marveling at the lack of pain in my calf and was starting to believe that I would complete the race. I didn’t see many people on this leg, but as I worked over the hills I felt like I was walking less often than in previous years. I stopped to stretch the calf when it started to grizzle, but otherwise had a sweet run. I came into Okataina in 1:57, a bit slower than predicted, but still my fastest time for that leg to date.
It was great to see Heather, Heidi, Dad and all the other supporters at Okataina. I got all my supplies reloaded and just as I was about to leave heard the announcer say that I was in second place. “Bollocks” was my swift reply. There were three of the fastest trail runners in the world entered in the 60k, super speedy international racers from the Salomon team. No way in the world I was anywhere near them. But, if the announcer had said it… maybe I was somewhere up in the pointy end of the field. I left the aid station determined to work hard until the finish. Bryce had started about 18 minutes up, and Todd around 10. I turned my music on and began to chase.
The Eastern Okataina track is a delicious windy, rolling path that gives regular views across Lake Okataina. I was now confident that the calf was going to hold and I powered along, catching solos and team members regularly. I saw two members of the Salomon team on their way back from the turnaround, but wearing team (not solo) race numbers – leaving me wondering if they were racing as a team now. Bryce came speeding back, looking fast as he returned from Humphries Bay. No way I would catch him – he made the transition to technical offroad running in fine fashion.
Speaking of technical running, I caught a toe about five times on this leg. I generally was able to self-correct but had the full tumble once. I did grow tired of smashing my sore toes and then stumbling about madly. I don’t remember having this problem before! As I descended into Humphries Bay on Lake Tarawera I came across Todd going back up the hill. He was followed by two guys wearing 60k solo numbers. I ran down into the aid station determined to catch those fullas. A couple of cokes and I was off back up the hill. I came upon Todd after a km and thought I would be going too quick for him, but he stuck with me for a few kms more. I love how Todd can push himself right into that red zone. Together we caught the two solo entrants until Todd lost touch on one of the climbs. There was plenty of traffic on this leg as I ran into the outgoing runners. The track was thin, but they were very obliging. I received a lot of praise from these runners which isn’t something I’m used to – maybe I looked like an international with my new haircut. I saw Ron briefly and he looked good. With two km to go I passed a girl moving swiftly, she stuck with me for a bit. Another km and I saw Nigel and Mat heading out, both looking good. I said hi and sped off toward the finish. I shot out of the trail and into the transition area. After a bit of misdirection, I was lead down to the finish by the lake. As I crossed the line I asked where I came. I was sure I was up in the top three but was stoked when the guy gave me a finish medal and told me first place! 5:56:27
So, another day at Tarawera where it all comes together for me ato produce about the best race I could with the fitness I had. I’m thrilled with the result and also with ‘getting it right’ two years in a row. I’ve had some dark times during these long races before which makes two good ones all the more appreciated. The real highlight though was experiencing the challenge with some of my best mates and our wonderful support crews – to share such an adventure together is what really makes an event for me.
For the others (I’ll let them give their own stories, but briefly:) After a smart and solid first 50k, Ron had some bad luck and had a hard second half, finishing in 13:15 for the 100k. Todd and Sam managed to get back in front of Myles and Bryce when Myles was mistakenly sent to the original 60k changeover at Tarawera Outlet. Mat Raffs paced himself brilliantly enabling him to run back from the Falls faster than he had gone out, catching many and finishing his first 85k in 12:37.