I came back to the Westcoaster Offroad Marathon intent on giving it heaps. It’s long been a favourite event of mine. I had my race of the season here back in 2011, it has the best views in the Waitakere Ranges, and is choc-ful of hilly goodness. Plenty of reasons to get excited for it.
I was disciplined in my build up too. I had the ol’ calf trouble revist in late September at the Onehunga Half. I took my rehab seriously and I exercised self control and didn’t enter the Auckland Marathon though I wanted to dearly – wisely knowing that such a long flat run would risk re-injury and potentially thwart my plans for a bad-ass race at Bethells.
I was joined at the event by fellow Maungakiekie Endurance Man – Brent Kelly. He was lining up for his first official marathon, himself coming off a hamstring injury which had denied him the opportunity to race the Auckland Marathon. And so it was that us two runners, plus crew-extraordinaire Stuart Hale made the early drive out to Bethells beach for this adventure.
I had targeted this event, and was even contemplating going for the record – 4:45:53 by Reece Billington in 2011. But when I checked the forecast on Friday and instead of the earlier rain, saw that there was a massive high over the North Island, I figured that fast times were not likely. I guess we were all expecting a beautiful, hot day – but we would all be surprised when we ran through the hottest November day on record.
It was already warm at the 7:30 start. I lined up next to Brent and Steve Neary. Steve is hard as nails, and has many long endurance runs and events under his belt, and I made a mental note to watch him. We started with a couple of kms straight upto the high point of South Bethells, almost 200m of climb. No one started with too much urgency, and I settled into a group of 5 or so guys that included Steve, with Brent just a few positions back. I took it easy on the steep climbs, often dropping into a fast hike. I had suffered a flare up of the calf strain on Tuesday and had only made the decision to race on the night before the event. In the end I figure I had a 50% chance of the calf being OK, and that was enough to warrant giving it a bash rather than wondering “what if?” The calf was feeling sweet though and I managed to catch up all ground lost on the downhill sections without much difficulty. It quickly became a group of 4 as Steve and I ran amongst two young guys – Chris and Tom. Tom was doing it as a team so I didn’t mid as he ran away from us near the end of the first leg. I stretched out down the hill and across the sand-dunes to arrive at the first aid station just ahead of Steve, and with quite a gap back to Chris. I got some more water from Stu, which was just as well because the aid station hadn’t got their act together and there was no fluid out at all.
So I set off onto the Te Henga trail with Steve just ahead. Steve had been a bit faster than me on all the climbs and he moved away as we wound up the climbs of Bethells and Oneill’s beaches. I saw his lead gradually extend through this delicious piece of coastal single track. I felt my pace was reasonable, but boy was it hot on this trail. Almost no breeze whatsoever, very little shade and blazing heat. By the time we climbed the stairs up to Constable Rd, I was poked and Steve had a lead of just under two minutes.
I grabbed some more water and gels from Dad at the aid station on Constable. I also slammed three cups of fluid as I was feeling pretty dry. This was a low point in the race for me, I felt significantly more fatigued than at this point two years earlier. I was thinking that the heat was playing a role in my discomfort, so focused on getting some calories in and hoped that the river run through Mokora Falls track would help revitalize me.
This river section is very technical with a trail that zigzags across from bank to bank and then winds through the trees surrounding the river. Its not really possible to run fast, and I was able to cool off really well on this section. I thought Steve might have made some more gains on me as I wasn’t smashing it through here, but I knew I needed to get myself right if I was to run at my potential. By the time I started the climb out of the stream, I felt much better and I ran the whole way up to the aid station at Horseman Rd.
There at the aid was Steve. It was great to see that I had caught up and not fallen away during the last section. I grabbed a couple of cups of cola, flicked on my tunes and took off after Steve down the Goldies Bush Track. I was feeling super good, and I happily stretched my legs out on the downhill section. I caught Steve and accelerated away. If he was still climbing well, it would pay to have some time in the bank as a buffer.
The climb back up to Constable is steep and stepped. My climbing legs were well done by now and I hiked the stairs, running the flats. At the top, I ran along Constable Road, now mixing with lots of runners from other distances. I arrived back at the aid station with my hammys twitching in pre-cramp fasciculations. It was baking now, we had left the shade behind and I asked for an extra water bottle in order to have some spare fluid to tip on myself for the scorching 10ks of Te Henga I had yet to cover.
The Constable Rd aid station is only 4.5k from Horseman Rd, so although I didn’t know how far ahead I was from Steve, I didn’t think it was a big lead. Te Henga was now a busy trail, with plenty of other runners making their way back to Bethells. If I had been able to run faster, I would have been asking to pass a lot more, but I quickly found that I was struggling to run any hills. My hydration pack ran dry far earlier than I had hoped and I was left with just 250mL in a handheld and 75mL in a gel flask for maybe 8k. I slowed markedly, and found that despite leading a race in one of my favourite places to run, I wasn’t having much fun anymore. I walked the climbs and waited for Steve to pass. There would be no contest when he came, I just didn’t have it in me. The Tasman Sea some 60 meters beneath us looked so refreshing, and so out of reach. I plodded on, counting down each of the major climbs that I would endure on my return journey. I felt about as fresh and free as Frodo climbing Mt Doom and my stooped gait on the climbs was not pretty – hands on knees, and all hunched over like Quasimodo’s Kiwi cousin. Had I played my hand too soon? I would still be happy when I got to the finish, happy to have had no injury setbacks and to have experienced a taste of my own limits. As I scaled the bluff above Oneill’s beach, with only 3k to go, I wondered if Steve was also struggling – why was he taking so long to get me?
I was starting to get in a little bit of a bad way – stumbling and kicking bits of the trail and lurching around a wee bit. I took a swig of gel with my last sip of water and trudged down into O’Neills. I kept focused on getting to the finish. Because of the heat, the finish and its promise of shade and water was the only real option – to stop would just leave you baked and dry on the side of the hill. Down the last hill I could finally see the finish, and my pace quickened again. Across the stream, and 500m to go, looking back every minute and still there was no one who looked like Steve approaching. For the first time since Goldies Bush, I thought I could win and mount a defence of my position should I need to. The short-coursers around me left me for dead as we ran the last 100m to the line, but I wasn’t troubled by that. I crossed the line, and collapsed into the nearest shady spot – thrilled, and thankful to have made it back first.
As I lay down in the shade, Steve finished looking much fresher and just 4 minutes behind.
I lay and wondered about everyone out there – would there be some casualties of the heat? I felt I had gotten pretty close to having to pull out, I guessed others would have too. Brent came home in 6:01, securing 10th place and joining the salubrious club of other MECers for whom Bethells had been their first marathon.
Some reflections on the race:
If its going to be hot, take more fluid than you would usually – especially on a course where you may be >90 minutes between aid stations. Drink to thirst and pour the rest over yourself to cool down.
Dress for the day. I nearly baked, and I was running in a midriff-showing tri-top. I’m not an exhibitionist, I was just deliberately trying to get as much ventilation as possible. I saw tons of people running in t-shirts – even a few in tights! Do yourself a favour and make it easier to shed heat.
How does this performance rate for me? Well, I am stoked to get the win! I think my pacing was OK, I would have done better though with two things: 1) more hill endurance training (I lost my climbing legs way too early) and 2) having more water and regularly drinking and pouring it on myself. The fact that I felt bad both times on the Te Henga track, and was able to recover so much in the river makes this seem like the most likely explanation for my struggle at the end.
Great crew makes a big difference. I was met at several aid stations by my Dad who had full bottles ready for me and helped get stuff out of my backpack that I couldn’t reach. I got information on my competitors, and some objective feedback as I progressed through – invaluable contributions to my day.