The last 12 months have been a little bit crazy.
Justin Cheyne told me about 18 months ago how he runs these things called ultra’s. I’d never heard of them & thought he must be a little bonkers. He is .. but that’s besides the point. I sure as hell was never going to do one.
In April 2013 I got myself invited along to my first MEC run. I was pretty green as far as training or running with others goes. Mr Cheyne had got me back into running 6 months earlier by helping me fix my ‘knee problem’ (ITB + roller can make any man cry – at least that’s what I tell myself). I’d never run a race as an adult – I’d barely even run with other people full stop.
Within a year I find myself crossing something off my bucket list that was never actually on it in the first place. This is the effect these guys have on you. A group of guys who are so infectiously passionate about running that you can’t help but get caught up in it all.
My racing experience began with the winter Xterra series – a series that introduced me to something that would instantly captivate me – trail running. I’d done one once before & thought I’d invented it. Seriously. It’s called ‘Bush running’ & it’s a novel idea I came up with where instead of walking a bush walk, you run it! That’s how I came up with the name. Bush walk run. Legend … anyway I digress.
In fact while I’m digressing, here’s another interesting side note: my first race was Xterra Shakespeare, May 2013. Despite shaking a few hands at the start line, the only guy I knew there was Mike … check out who ran it. Woah! Coincidence? I think not.
A month or so out from my first marathon in November (wasn’t to be with a pulled hammy two weeks out) Mike, and then Ron started making murmurs about joining them in the Tarawera Ultra. Convinced they were bat crazy I wrote it off. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but a few weeks later I found myself a few hundy poorer, an entry to the 100km richer & wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into. Filling out the entry form was ‘interesting’: How many ultramarathons have you run before? “Thank goodness they didn’t ask how many marathons you’d run” I thought as I entered 0.
Having completed the Speights West Coaster marathon late November followed by Karioi in Raglan, I launched into my training plan of “Do whatever Mike tells you to do”, which began nicely with a number of beautiful 20-30km trail runs around Mangawhai & the Brynderwyn’s. My first long run with Mike back in Auckland was a real key moment in my training – 5hrs, 50km of non stop Q&A and by the end I still felt great. I began to really believe I could actually do this & wouldn’t end in the ball of pain that was the West Coaster. A foot injury slowed things a lot but I still managed to fit in one painful Te Araroa 50ker and a few good solid hike/runs. Despite a few nagging ‘phantom’ foot pains, I was feeling pretty good by the time of the race.
The news of the shortened race arrived the night before courtesy of Cyclone Luci and like all involved I was pretty gutted (although I can only imagine how the organisers & volunteers felt!). I felt physically prepared, mentally ready to endure the pain, and had been looking forward to crossing off the 100km in one foul swoop. Shortening to the reported 65km (it ended up 72km) also suddenly introduced a factor I hadn’t bothered considering for the 100km – pace.
The race kicked off & I felt calm and relaxed. My #1 aim was to not prove myself the ultra-newbie I was and go out too fast and end up crashing. This translated into a rough plan to walk anything remotely steep, let myself go a bit on the downhills, and nothing under 4:30’s on the flats – at least until after Okeraka. If I could get to Okataina without major cramp, then I felt I would be well positioned to finish strong which was a key goal.
Caleb & I seemed to have roughly similar race plans and goals, so teamed up as Ron & Mike predictably disappeared toward the front of the pack over the first few km. I felt we worked well as a team, neither knowing who’s approach was best but with Caleb pushing the pace a little, and me being a little more reserved – wary from the beat down I had received from the Te Henga trail.
Team duties were split: mine being to keep the both of us appraised of the GPS readings, nutrition timetables, and keeping an eye on what hills were approaching – thanks to my wife’s accurate vivid work ‘tattooing’ the elevation chart on my arm. Caleb of course had had a bit of a watch fail (leaving his gps at home) and his mother’s watch around his wrist, whilst looking very elegant and dainty … well let’s just say I didn’t see a lot of other runners wearing one – even the girls. Caleb’s team contribution was making sure he looked he’d barely broken a sweat, while ensuring we got well more than our fair share of cheering, with a regular “Hey aren’t you that Caleb guy from The Block?!?” every few km.
As we passed back through the start and headed off on the next leg we continued quite a restrained, comfortable pace, slipping back in the field a little as we headed up the hills while regaining a few places on each of the downs. A few km out from the Blue Lakes aid station Caleb really started to pick up his pace, reasoning that a lot of hills would soon be arriving and the pace would likely pull back to a walk. Knowing Caleb was a strong runner made me a little nervous at pushing beyond my conservative plan, but I chose to stick with him and use the opportunity to push myself a little harder than I otherwise would.
Continuing to push the pace, we started to work our way up the field a bit, pulling in 14 places in the 4km from Blue Lakes to Okeraka before stopping to load up on water, ready for the long hilly leg through to Okataina.
I found the rise up to Millar Road a bit of a drag & struggled to keep Caleb’s pace through this section. I must confess to a bit of sneaky slipstreaming as we pushed into the wind & up on to the Western Okataina trail.
I progressed nicely along this leg, trying to keep pace until we started to ascend the big hill when my stomach, with about 3 steps notice, decided to evacuate all contents. Between powerchucks I told Caleb (who was very kindly waiting round for me) it was time for him to push on. After the race I concluded the most likely cause was a bit of an OD on sugar/carbs. I had added carb-rich electrolytes to my usual water-only hydration at Okeraka. Having been treating them as water & still consuming my regular gels, I figure my stomach decided enough was enough with the double-up.
Post-purge I felt surprisingly good and, fearing the potential cramp repercussions, decided I needed to quickly replace some of what I had just lost and knocked back a gel & a good dose of water. Feeling great, I finally cleared the summit & really pushed the pace on the down the hill into Okataina, overtaking a steady stream of careful descenders. It was great to briefly see an ascending Mike, Todd & Ron on the way, all looking strong and focused.
I saw the wifey at the aid station, gave baby Sam a quick fist pump for hanging out in the rain and completed the out & back relatively uneventfully (aside from nearly falling off a few cliffs on the narrow trails!). A quick top up and I was homeward bound from Okataina having gained 21 places since leaving Okareka.
Despite knowing I had the biggest climb of the race ahead of me, I was feeling OK & in pretty good spirits. A bit of music helped keep the mind occupied as I tried to hike strong up the hill. Cramp was starting to hit in the calves & hammies, but I decided to keep a watchful eye and press on, whilst ensuring it didn’t get so bad as to start affecting my flats & downhill’s which I really wanted to push hard on.
I was really happy with this leg and although staving off cramp with S-Caps & electrolytes was a continual battle, I continued to push harder & faster the further I went. Being a lover of the technical stuff, the muddy, slippery track was playing into my favour and aside from one good wipeout (resulting in full leg cramp) while trying to pass a couple of runners (shame), I continued to make good progress and regularly catch & overtake people on the downs.
About 10km out I decided it was “Rage Against the Machine” time. Trying to absorb a good dose of aggression from the music I pushed myself to run the majority of the last big hill and really smash it from there out onto Millar Rd.
A kind soul coming the other way encouraged me on: “under 2km to Millar Rd!”. 2.5km later as the forest trail continued my thoughts were turning a little dark on him. How dare he be so bloody inaccurate! It’s funny how big a deal something can seem when you’ve been slaughtering your body and been left with your thoughts for a long time :).
Finally emerging at the Millar Rd aid station I blasted straight through & decided it was all on to the finish. “Leave it all out on the trail”. I charged down the hill, surprised at how quickly I could pull tired & spent people in.
The last KM or so along the flat took a lot of self-control not to slow up, but hearing the announcer & crowd while seeing a group of 6 runners 1-200m ahead of me was enough to push me into a ‘sprint’ finish & I was stoked to catch & pass 2 of them (think they were in the other race but it sure still felt great!) before reaching the finish line – absolutely spent.
Total time: 8hr15, Final position: 62 having gained 6 places on the last return leg (apparently the majority of overtakes were people in the other divisions/race! :)). Stoked to finish in the top 20% of the 346 runners in my first ultra and a big congrats to Mike (27th), “King Ron” (35th), and Caleb who came in 54th in his first ultra! Shot!
Post-race learnings / thoughts? It’s funny how if you crash in a race you think “if only I had’ve taken it easier” and then when you finish strong it’s so easy to think “I wonder if I pressed GO early enough?”. I would have loved to hit below the 8hr mark (those who know me know I love round numbers!) so while I’m totally stoked with how the race went and how I finished, now that I have one under my belt I think for me the next few races are about starting to push myself a bit faster and earlier to see if I can’t handle getting a bit further up the field!
Thanks heaps to my wife Lysette for supporting me with all the training, not to mention standing around with an 8 month old baby in Cyclone Luci for half the day! Caleb if you need any tips for convincing a brand new mother to let you commit to an ultra, just give me a bell ;). Cheers Justin Cheyne for the tips & S-Caps which worked well! Also a big thanks to the guys in the club and in particular Mike for all the training, tips, advice and encouragement you’ve given over the past year.
Bring on 100km TuM 2015!