I love running the Tarawera Ultramarathon. It has really captured me over the last five years, and I rarely have a day go by now when I don’t think fondly of the course, or scheme ahead to some future race and how I will manage any challenge that comes my way. It falls in mid March, and brings a natural focus to my summer training – putting in the long runs for a big purpose.
I had good success with my training plan this year. Not a high mileage schedule but a REALISTIC one – built around family and work commitments, I knew it would be possible to be faithful to this plan. There were four MECers keen to run and giving some tips prompted me to write down how I would tackle the training (1). I got all my intended long runs in over Jan and Feb, and enjoyed some beautiful parts of the North on the way. I got the pleasure of running in Whananaki, Tutukaka, Te Araroa, The Waitakeres and Rangitoto – made all the more enjoyable with the rich comradery of Ron, Caleb, Brent and the other MEC crew who joined in.
The one hiccup came at the end of February, in the week after my longest run. I noticed a tight left calf which was OK until I tried a 1 mile time trial and it gave some sharp (tear like) pains. My experience with this injury is long and I swung into damage control and rehab mode. I had to skip the Coastal Challenge for the second year in a row, but ultimately the rehab plan worked and I was back running (easy and with heel raises) in a week.
All in all, this was the best preparation I have ever had for an ultra, and so I felt ready and excited to bring it all on March 15. Cyclone Luci swung South out of the Pacific and her looming threat caused the course to be changed on Friday night to a 65k (later revised to 69k, my feeling is it was about 72k). Plenty has been written about this, but I give Paul and the organisers full credit, they made the sensible choice, communicated well and although I was disappointed to not race the best parts of the course or the full distance, I switched my thinking into how to best tackle the Okataina-out-and-back that we were now faced with. I felt especially bad for Brent Kelly and Caleb Pearson, both of whom were doing their first 100k and had trained very well for the event.
We four Maungakiekie Endurance Club athletes (King, Kelly, Hale and Pearson) all managed to meet up at the start. It was cool, still and dry – no sign of Luci yet. We seeded ourselves in 80th spot or so. Ron moved ahead on the early climbs and somewhere around 3k I lost contact with Brent and Caleb who were a few spots back. I focussed on running within myself, eating and drinking according to plan and just letting the early miles tick by. We did an 11k loop back to the Redwoods and halfway through I found myself back alongside Ron. It was great to run together, just as in training, laughing and enjoying the experience of the trail. The rain had held off and the wind was fresh, making for very pleasant running conditions.
We saw our crew again at the Blue Lake (24k) and we were in good spirits. On the tight single track down Ron and I took turns at having the lead and letting the legs spin over freely. We sped past many others while we hooted in delight. We were running into a mix of 55k coursers and those in our 70k race who had started faster than us. It felt good catching people – it always does.
Okareka marked the end of the leg (30k) and we took on extra water for the isolated Western Okataina track. This has the highest elevation (750m) and by far the biggest climbs of the race, and we would go over it both ways on this new course. The first 3k are road and gravel as you climb steadily to the Miller Road aid station and then enter the forest. As we left the aid station we had company from a couple of runners who had pulled ahead on our long Okareka aid break. The group thinned out as we started the climbs but one guy stuck with us, running right behind as I set the pace. Normally I like company on these long runs, but on this day Ron and I were a team of two. A team in that we both wanted to beat each other, but more than that we wanted to work each other harder than we could go simply by ourselves. When one of us was strong, he would lead – giving us a sort of synergy in making each others race better by racing together. This extra guy was not part of that arrangement, and I didn’t feel like him running stronger off of our efforts. Is that mean? In any case, when the trail turned downhill, I did what I had been doing all morning and let my legs spin freely under me, allowing the hill to pull me down swiftly. Within seconds it was back to just Ron and I again. Excellent.
We kept running together and caught other runners along the way. I felt we were making good progress – my best run over the Western Okataina pass. We caught Nathan Bycroft who Ron was told was 20 minutes ahead back at Okareka. He jumped on the back of our caravan as we made our way up toward the highest point on the course. Somewhere up there Nathan dropped, leaving just Ron and I to run the steep downhill together. This 3k plummet stung the toes as it was too steep to fall freely down. It also stung when I tripped and did a full ninja (clumsy ninja) roll down. I had been making good progress until then. I got up, tail between my legs and tucked in behind Ron for the first time of the leg. I felt like I was running stronger than him upto that fall. But my fear was that I was just playing the rabbit, and Ron would wait till I faltered before smoking past me later on.
The run into Okataina and then the short (3k) out and back loop felt like treading water. I was at my physical low, with a slightly queezy stomach and legs that had run 50k and pushed themselves to a new PB over the last pass. I took on solid food and got a big lift from seeing my family and friends giving huge cheers at the aid station. It was great to see them twice in such swift succession, and something that has good appeal to make supporters come out (“see your athlete twice in half an hour, without driving for miles to chase them”). However, the Eastern Okataina track is narrow and very hard for runners to pass going in opposite directions. That and my mid race blues made this part the lowest (and slowest) part of the course for me.
I made quick work getting out of Okataina aid the second time, now heading home with Todd as my pacer. Ron wasn’t with us and didn’t catch up as I ambled up eating a sandwich. I got to high-five Caleb who looked fresh and strong. We climbed up the switchbacks and I saw Brent running down looking good also. Todd pointed out that Ron was a few switchbacks beneath us. I took the point and put an effort in to see if we could break away. I had energy to push but was quickly aware of adductor (inner thigh) cramps on both sides, which slowed me right down as I chewed on an effervescent salt tab to fight them off. A couple of minutes later the pain was gone and I sped along until I hit the base of the big climb. This climb was always going to be tough, and is sufficiently steep that almost everyone at my level would be walking large sections of it. I tried to run the lower grades, sometimes successfully and would then pay for it with more cramps. This was not good. I felt energetic, but my body was not cooperating! This is ultra-running I realised, part of the art lies in keeping the machine working, even if it means leaving unburnt fuel in the tank early on. Had I been too cavalier in speeding down the hills instead of conservatively defending the status of my leg muscles?
Finally we crested the top, now in steady rain and gusty wind. This made my choice of footwear appropriate – I had big lugs in my shoes and wasn’t going to slide on the clay very much. Being able to trust my footing really helped as I dropped downhill, my legs again spinning freely beneath me. The pace was good, the terrain fun and Todd and I quickly came upon several other runners on this descent. They appeared to be in my race too – excellent. I made full use of my downhill ability and relished the section. I knew there was one more big climb to go, and I plodded up there too, hoping not to be re-caught, but no longer cramping, I held my own before the second round of downhill plunge began.
Miller Road aid station took longer to arrive than I had hoped. But that isn’t unusual for the last 5k in an ultra. When we finally arrived I was relieved. I grabbed a quick swig of coke and pushed my now sore, weary and crampy legs back down the last 2.8k to Okareka. I pushed along, but not at the heights of speed I had managed earlier as fatigue had now taken the polish off. Still, I had a bit of gas to finish strong, smiling as I ran into the finish, right into the howling face of Luci.
I came 27th, catching 7 guys in that last leg. My finish time was 7:20 (I guessed 7:30). Total climb 2500m. Total Distance 72k.
Once again, Tarawera delivered. Although the course change was unexpected, I was thrilled with how my race went and felt I ran smart and strong, producing the best performance I could. The best part though is sharing this with a great group, and running with Ron, Caleb and Brent was a real treat (both in training and at the race). My family and friends support for my racing is also amazing: Todd has paced me 4 times, Dad has crewed every one of my ultras and this year it was cool to have Ma and Bri cheer too. I am always especially grateful for the support my wife Heather gives me to spend so much time doing this thing I love – running for ages in the wild: testing, suffering, pondering, experiencing and enduring.
(1) Training Plan Summary (for those who are interested):
A steady diet of regular easy paced runs during the week, with 1 interval session (Tuesday night Mendurance run forever!), and a massive run (3+ hours, building up to 6 hours) on the weekend. One easy week out of every three (no long run).
I would build up my distance in January and February, with as much emphasis on distance as on hill work and strength work as well. Peaked at around 100k per week. The longest long run was scheduled for four weeks out, then a strength endurance run (Coastal Challenge) two weeks out, then taper for the race.