My second crack at the Kaweka Mountain Marathon, a course slightly lengthened to 50km from the commonly agreed 46km event of last year. The extension being a couple of flat km at the start (and finish) to take you to the first brute of a climb up to Kuripapango, a straight up 700m climb. Everything else was unchanged, as least as far as the course map went. I already posted about my build-up, which had me cautiously optimistic of a similar if not better performance to last year –
- I knew the course (well I thought I did)
- I had better hill preparation
- It wouldn’t be in the heat-wave conditions 2013
- I had improved nutrition/hydration options (copious home made gels and two bottles for stream refills)
- Though my endurance was a bit down from last summer
The optimistic early weather forecasts were for perfect running conditions, cool and calm with a bit of cloud cover. There was confidence in bettering my 2013 time, I told Victoria and Violet to be sure to be at the line for my <7:30hr finish. Meanwhile I had jacked up a ride from registration in Havlock North on Friday evening to the race camp (1:30hrs distant), courtesy of some very hospitable local race volunteers. In addition to the lift I was offered up a second dinner of beef stroganoff and matching Hawke’s Bay wines up at base camp.
An excellent night’s sleep was assisted by cool temperatures and peaceful patter of rain on the tent. I had by this point blocked out the reality of the conditions in the mountains 1km above the camp. Rising to the sound of other early starters at 05:00, the rain had definitely not blown over, though neither had the predictions of it ‘pissing down’ by locals come to pass.
I don’t know how Philip the race director manages to come across as simultaneously nonchalant and rather alarming about the event, as he was announcing rain, gale force winds, and sub-zero windchill at the start. And we were off, I sort of listened to the navigation details figuring it was basically the same as last year. Error #1 was minor, but following the early race lead, who by that stage was drifting off the front, it was pointed out to me by fellow competitors that I was going the wrong way (as did he but by now he was long out of sight), so I doubled back round the carpark to the correct side of the tape and ended up at the back of the event for the swing-bridge queue.
No real problem I figured as we were 10min into a +7hr course. I took the opportunity while waiting to cross to take off my jacket as we’d be taking this first 700m climb in the lee of the wind (I hate overheating). And up we went, I wasn’t forcing pace on this climb but made my way through the field and must have been inside the top 5? As expected conditions deteriorated with temperatures dropping, winds rising, visibility declining, and rainshowers coming through in waves, jacket back on. At times the track had turned into a lovely trickling stream, and I wished I had my merino socks on.
Running along the ridges in the cloud I could barely make out the frequently spaced track markings let alone any other competitors (it would have been nice to be with a couple of others a I know but a minute ahead at this point, damn that early detour). The pace clearly was well down from last year hunching to counter the wind, so no besting this year. I guess this is where I made my #2 and prime error, electing to go for the higher-energy-moving-to-keep-warm rather than layering up to keep comfortable option. I made my way along the ‘track’ frequently stopping to sight the next marker a mere 15 metres off and double checking the junctions against my mental image of the map. At one point I caught another runner, and then was caught myself as I triple checked the route against a sign.
Route assured, I slowly moved out of sight of the other two and was on my own again, summiting Kaweka J at over 1,700m in conditions where I was unable to stand upright due to the wind. Given my earlier choice not to layer up and the horizontal soft hail I was rather anxious to descend quickly at this point, and running down past the poor buggers camped out up here as volunteers (they poked their heads out of a rather impressive polar expedition tent to check my number) I headed downhill on the Makahu Spur.
With a fear of heights and a rather dizzying descent my last year’s strategy was to stay close to my running companion Craig and let him take me down without overly worrying about the drops on either side of the spur. Evidently there were also marked track junctions I’d been unaware of, whereas the LINZ map that I’d reviewed again this year had none. This combined with an eagerness to get down from the tops inevitably lead to an unfortunately choice of following the track named after the eponymous topological feature rather than the course itself.
Despite it feeling wrong I continued down, being not so keen to try map reading in gale conditions, or indeed staying still too long as I knew my core was cooling. As the route became even more unfamiliar and frighteningly steep -at least for someone who isn’t keen on heights- I knew I had to review my situation. I wandered about a bit to check possible alternative routes I may have missed, then had a rising sense of anxiety at the situation (height, wind, cold). I came to my senses and stopped, sheltered behind a rock looked the map and rapidly came to the only sensible conclusion, to climb back up to the last junction, cos this track was clearly wrong. Mistake #3 I’d folded the map to fit the waterpoof map bag to obscure the printed directions on the back of the map which had the names of the tracks which were non-existent on the map itself.
As I ascended I came across a pair coming down who made the same mistake, after a brief discussion two of use concurred that we were on the wrong track and made our way back. With the junction came familiar territory and relief as we descended the lovely long switchbacks rather than a direct drop of the previous spur. Though by this time I had given up any race spirit not knowing how many had passed or how long I’d been off course – in fact I was just glad to be back among others.
Hitting the bottom we encountered the compulsory gear check, for my part I couldn’t speak properly as I was too cold, and one of the others didn’t have the dexterity in his fingers to open his pack. Though conditions down here were relatively balmy and I was soon sweating again having set off at a trot. The only other real point of interest of the event was encountering another runner (who I’d passed earlier before getting lost) at the bottom of the Donald gulch. I grabbed him crossing the river as the hip-high current started sweeping him downstream.
Funnily enough I knew I was both cruising and running more of this last third of the course than the previous year. In the end I finished well over an hour down from 2013, but in 5th overall again. In fact if my foul weather decisions and navigation had been up to task I would have been in an excellent tussle for 3rd overall as that finishing time was equal to mine less the time I spent wandering off-course. But then this was always pitched as a race where you need to make those kind of decisions, so I guess it is like saying I would have won if I could have run faster than the others.
The stats and recovery concurred, I wasn’t a wreck after the race, I could walk comfortably even up and down stairs. My TRIMP and Strava Suffer scores (a measure of time x intensity) correlated also being well down on last year. What did hurt post-race was my hands which ached from the cold the following day. So maybe my build-up was pretty good, I was also very happy with my nutrition/hydration and never felt stressed in this regard.
While I would like to say having done the event in both heatwave and winter-like conditions I have experienced both extremes of the course, but suspect even this would be false comfort. Will be more prepared next time. Though if I mutter anything about doing the 96km 25th anniversary version please stop me.
Oh, and here’s a pretty pic, just over 4,000m climbing clocked up in 50km thanks to my detour. Of note over 3170m was gained in a little over 11km putting the bulk of climbing gradient in excess of 30%. Nice.