West is best: the 2013 Speights West Coaster

Finish

I could probably just stop with just that picture and you would get a good summary of my day.

The Speights West Coaster is probably the most physically demanding thing I’ve done in my life.

It was my first marathon & I knew it would be a hard one. The rep of the mighty west coaster had been drummed into me. Having recently signed up for the Tarawera 100km (what the hell, why not), I figured I better get at least one marathon under my belt, and this would be a good ‘tester’ to see how I handled the lengthier run.

The build-up wasn’t ideal. I had done one decent 20km+ run in 6 weeks after pulling my hammy just prior to the Auckland Marathon, but was feeling confident all the same with only minimal pain in a few of the last half-dozen runs.

It was great to meet up with Mike Hale & meet Stuart & also managed a quick good luck to Steve Neary just before things kicked off. I set off at casual pace, for the first KM or so using my usual ultra-complicated race pacing strategy of “don’t go as fast as Mike”. I was quite looking forward to relaxing into the run a little, enjoying the scenery without the pressure I would usually be putting on myself to achieve a good time. My #1 goal for the day was to make it through injury free … gels every 30 mins, lots of water and hopefully approach the last leg feeling good to pick up the pace near the end. I set a pretty relaxed time target of sub-6hrs.

mike-steve

Self-control in holding back has never been a strong point of mine, so I was quietly proud of myself as I hiked up the initial long windy hills, watching the leaders disappear. I didn’t seem to lose too much ground on the guys that were running & usually overtook a number of them anyway as I allowed myself to ‘go with the gravity’ on the downs, figuring it was better to burn a little cardio and save working my muscles in trying to brake too much.

The first segment passed in reasonable time and without too much drama, with the exception of a little warning contraction on the hammy down one of the faster hills, and getting somewhat confused coming off the sand dunes thanks to some punk who apparently changed some of the signs (what would a trail run be without getting lost at least once or twice).

Remembering advice that overheating would likely be a big problem, I took a quick rinse while running up the Bethels stream coming into the first aid station, knocked back a bunch of water and set off on the Te Henga trail feeling pretty good about things.

Boy was that about to change. For all its beauty along the cliffs, this segment damn near killed me. Big hills, blaring sun, no shade and no way of cooling off. I enjoyed the skinny trails, and kept restraining myself to walking every significant hill. I managed a couple of nice wipe outs, ending up half way down a bank with a nasty calf cramp on each occasion. As the leg progressed, I felt myself starting to seriously overheat and fatigue so resorted to spitting water from my pack onto my face in an effort to cool down – with seemingly no effect. Eventually I emerged at the top of a million stairs onto Constable road, feeling seriously cooked & low on energy but determined to suck it up & push on, knowing it was most likely due the heat.

WestCoaster_000033

Stuart was waiting for me at Constable & kindly gave me some great tips, and I was surprised to learn I was only 7 mins behind Mike at that point as I knew he’d be near the front. I took my time at the aid station, watching a number of guys go past as I poured water over myself and made ample use of the station supplies, knocking back cup after cup of fluid as well as a few half-bananas for good measure.

We wound our way down and down into Goldies, getting a little lost again but eventually making it to the river. I had been looking forward to this section of the race. Aside from the shade and river, the technical rutty windy trails are a particular favourite of mine and I seem to do pretty well on them. Knowing I still had another Te Henga leg to get through I didn’t want to push things too hard, but still felt like I managed a reasonable pace. As I cooled off I started to feel really good again & thoroughly enjoyed the river & bush segment of the course. While my muscles were feeling the run, they felt like they had plenty left in them & with my temp under control, cardio-wise I was feeling great! My plan to finish well was looking good.

And then the cramp hit.

The first step heading back up the hill my leg seized & locked straight. And boy was there a lot of stairs still to come. By the time I got to the Horseman Rd aid station I knew I was in for a long painful trip home. On the flats & downs I still managed to cruise along at a reasonable pace provided I didn’t straighten or bend any particular muscle too far. But every hill, & particular steps, I would be hands on knees trying to assist the muscles to keep them just below that point where they completely locked up.

I eventually emerged at Constable Rd and was a touch gutted to find the aid station had run out of electrolytes – not ideal in my current state! But with 1 gruelling leg to go, I topped up on water, knocked back a couple more bananas & focused on the prize, heading off into what might as well have been the Saraha … with massive hills.

WestCoaster_000960The next 10 km’s would have to be the hardest leg I have run in my life. I was duelling with Andy Ferrer who had been with me on & off since the end of the first leg. He was looking pretty gassed, and I felt like I had plenty in the tank to pick up the pace a little. However every time I would try, bam – the cramp would kick in. I set myself micro-goals to make it to the next point & so on, to keep me positive. I must say it is seriously demoralising when, in that state, you give it everything to gradually pull away from a guy, and feel like you’ve finally broken them – only to spontaneously enter into full cramp lock down mode where your legs physically will not bend. And then after waiting 2-3 minutes for it to finally subside seeing them trot back around the corner … and repeat.

By the last big hill at ~ 39km I was majorly cramping every 3 or 4 steps trying to climb it. I had made it about half way up when everything seemed to shut down. Both legs cramped & were refusing to go a step further. With some uncanny timing the race director came plodding down the hill & in the ensuing conversation I suddenly remembered I had a single electrolyte tab in my pack so I dropped that in & sculled about 80% of my remaining water to get some in me – knowing running out of water would be hell, but also knowing crawling up the rest of that hill on my belly wouldn’t be much fun either. That and/or maybe some cramp spray administered by a kind soul seemed to ease things a little & I managed to push on from there & even start running again on the flats.

WestCoaster_001648 As I approached the finish I pushed harder & harder, trying to finish within my 6hr goal. I was majorly overheating, and seriously thirsty having run out of water about 2km ago but didn’t care at that point with the end in sight in the distance. About 20m from the end, in a dramatic flourish my calf gave me one last middle finger salute. I thought to hell with it & kept run/limping with a straight cramping leg, and as I crossed the finish line my quad & hammy joined in, making what must have been quite a comical sight.

I was absolutely spent. Big thanks to Mike & Stuart for bringing me cup after cup of water & pouring heaps more over me to cool down!

I was surprised to later learn despite the dramas I still managed to finish 10th in a time of 6:01. I was stoked to hear Mike had taken out the event with 5:09 and Steve coming in 2nd at 5:13.

While I must admit to vowing “never again” during the last 3-4km, within 24 hours I found myself looking up the next event … safe to say I’m hooked.

Key learnings?

  • The sun trumps all. Doesn’t matter how fit you are – if you overheat you are gonna feel like death … warmed up of course … a lot.
  • Pretty simple – somehow I’ve got to get my nutrition or whatever it is to a point where I can avoid that cramp. I feel like, the cramp aside, the race went roughly to plan but if I can’t run more than 3.5hrs without cramping then Tarawera is going to be a whole lot of fun :). Any tips are graciously received – I’ve already got myself some S-Caps (thanks Justin Cheyne!) to try out.
  • Trail running is a brilliant sport.

Strava Link

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