When the chunder finally came, it was almost a relief. Having felt progressively more rubbish for the past few hours, anything had to be better than the walk I had been reduced to on the long slow rise out of Titoki. And then the cramps hit.
Tarawera Ultra has become somewhat of a focal point for me over the past few years. My year is split into two parts: a few weeks of recovery from TUM, and 11.5 months of buildup for the next one. Well at least for the last couple of years since Mike & Ron managed to persuade me of something as crazy as running an ultra.
Still being a 100km virgin courtesy cyclone Luci in 2014, I was hopeful that 2015 would provide the opportunity to run the full course to Kawerau.
Preparation had been somewhat spotty to start with. I was sidelined for several months during the middle of the year with tendinitis in my Achilles and that and family duties saw me miss pretty much every target race in the 2nd half of the year. Training began in earnest in October when I was finally able to run freely again. I focused a lot of my training on strength rather than cardio, with a lot of vertical meters, knowing that cramp had been a problem in the past.
Conquering the 78km Hillary trail in December with the boys was a huge confidence boost, and with a few more long runs under my belt, I approached the race feeling quite confident in my prep, despite not having put in a huge amount of weekly k’s.
The race plan this year was reasonably simple. Hold back and knock off the km’s running well within myself – hopefully reaching the top of the loop of despair with enough left to start to dig it in for last 18km & push myself hard into hopefully a strong finish. Anything around the 12hr mark I felt would be a good effort.
Caleb had a similar plan & after enjoying the great company for the first 45km last year I was stoked to be able to team up with him again. Caleb is a strong runner so I knew that he would push me along & challenge me to keep pushing through my ‘downs’ during the race .
Arriving at the start line it was great to see the huge turnout of MEC boys, all clad in our shiny new singlets. We lined up nearish the front & set off. Next year I think I’ll start closer to the front as we overtook a lot of people, which probably is a bit of an inefficient way to use your energy at the start of an ultra.
The leg to the first Tikitapu aid station passed quickly and uneventfully, arriving 15 minutes ahead of schedule. It’s a beautiful run through the trees, and seemed slightly easier with the modified course. A highlight of the leg was passing a saxophone player in the middle of the bush, blasting out great tunes for the runners.
We made good time through to Okereka, and set off toward Okataina. Knowing this leg was the big climb of the race, we ran well within ourselves, walking anything remotely steep and drifted back in the field a little. We eventually crested the top and took it easy on the big drop into Okataina, careful not to put too much pressure on the quads & knees with a whole lot of KM still to go.
Coming into the aid station, I was feeling it a bit more than I might have liked, but stocked up and set off again. It was great to see the familiar faces there with some of the other guys supporters, and high fiving Justin Cheyne with my ‘vas hand’ provided some short term amusement as we set off around Lake Tarawera.
This leg was easily my favorite of the race. Amazing scenery, beautiful bush, and winding technical trail. With over half the race still to go I had to remind myself to keep the brakes on as this is probably my favorite type of trail to really let the wheels turn & pick up some places.
Caleb & I made steady progress through this section, and despite dealing with off & on nausea I managed to keep up as Caleb started to set the pace as we neared closer to Tarawera Falls – arriving having gained a good 40-odd places. 60km down, only a marathon to go!
As we set off for Titoki we couldn’t miss a green MEC singlet up ahead & realized Mike had somehow snuck past during a brief stop at the aid station portaloo. After yelling out Mike waited for us to catch up and it was great getting to run with him for a few KM before he broke away – powering strongly up a hill & demonstrating how he had managed to catch us after taking the start very easily with his dodgy calf.
During this leg my nausea really kicked in as well as some niggling pain in my Achilles – particularly concerning due to my injury earlier in the year. I pushed through but struggled to keep up with Caleb on the hills, eventually cruising into Titoki – something I had been looking forward to for the last couple of hours. Firstly I knew my lovely wife would be there to greet me which was a huge lift. Also one of my best mates Phil Needham had agreed to pace me the rest of the way I was really looking forward to his company.
Feeling that I was becoming a bit of a handbrake to Caleb who was in a much happier place compared to my ongoing nausea issues, I suggested he cut loose so after 70km we parted ways & he disappeared off up the hill, running strongly.
Phil & I set off, only to be shortly reduced to a slow shuffle & then down to a walk. The nausea had ramped up to a point now where I reeeeealy did not want to eat anything, and was crashing my energy and general will to live. With the Achilles pain starting to ramp up I descended into a dark place where even the encouragement & positivity from Phil struggled to penetrate. The possibility of a long walk out or even those never-to-be-thought 3 letters ‘D-N-F’ started to sneak into my thoughts – along with the disappoint of feeling like I was really letting Phil down who had travelled for hours only to have to go on a long boring walk up some forestry roads with some really bad company.
Eventually I got so green that I decided enough was enough. Knowing the mere thought of another-freakin-hammer-gel was enough to nearly make me start retching, I ripped one open – banana *shudder* – and slammed the whole thing down. Achieving it’s intended outcome I promptly ripped off my straw hat, and spewed my guts out. Multiple times. 6 to be exact.
Now that my stomach had removed all my pending nutrition, my body decided it was time to freak out with a near simultaneous cramp of most significant muscles in my body – through nearly every leg muscle to my back & forearms. I managed to force another gel down & after a good dip in the river the cramp started to back off enough to start moving forward again. We eventually ambled into Awaroa having taken over 90 minutes to travel about 8km – nearly 30 minutes slower than Caleb who was smashing it!
As we pushed out onto the “Loop of Despair” the nutrition started to kick in & for the first time in hours I started to feel considerably better. Despite the warnings I’d heard about this section, I actually found the loop of despair quite the opposite. We powered up the hill in good time, and I came out at the top feeling well on the way to recovering from my bottoming-out.
This was the spot I had intended to pick up the pace knowing it was predominantly downhill from here. Performing some quick calculations in my head it came as a bit of a surprise that if I could keep to around 6 min k’s for the last 20-odd km I still had a shot at getting in under 12:30 – something I had long since written off. Telling myself I hadn’t run this long to cream-puff out in the last couple of hours, I forced myself to lean forward & run.
The last two legs are a bit of a blur to be honest. I don’t think I’ve ever focused so completely on forcing my body to obey & push beyond where I thought it could. As we pushed towards Fisherman’s Bridge the brief walks stopped and the pace increased. I kept thinking “Just two laps of the Estuary and we’re home”, just “1.5 laps of the Estuary and we’re home” etc..
We pulled into Fisherman’s Bridge around 11hr30 – 10km to go in under an hour. I can do this. Phil was phenomenal as he had been since he joined – crewing me as well as pacing. He had my water bottles filled in a flash and was onto removing my shoes for me to clear the stones and allow me to push hard to the finish. The straw hat was off. Game on. We departed after a few short minutes & headed for home.
Keeping pace was all consuming for that last leg. I had long since decided to hold nothing back & go for broke. If the body gave in, so be it. We hauled in a steady flow of tired runners as we regularly pushed along around 5min30’s, slowing for the occasional sand-cliff to climb or bridge to cross. The constant encouragement from Phil was great, although I apologized profusely in the days after the race for my clipped 2-word instructions to ‘speed up’, ‘slow down’ and my generally poor, tired and grumpy communication. We pushed straight through the last aid station 5km out & it was all out for the finish.
As we rounded into Kawerau fields I kept lifting the pace. Seeing a couple of runners in the distance ahead I set my final goal to catch them before the end. I always find it satisfying sneaking a couple of places at the end. I figure I just ran for 12 hrs to get to my current place – if I can pick up a couple more just by pushing hard for 2 minutes that some serious ROE (return on effort ;)).
We managed to hold sub-5’s for a lot this last few km, interrupted every 500m or so of a yelp from me, some straight-legged-hopping as I tried to get a locked up cramping calf to release, and then straight back into it. We hauled in the first of my ‘targets’ with about 500m to go and was pressing on to the last one when the calf packed it in good and proper. It locked up & wasn’t letting go.
With a few inappropriate words of frustration I pulled to a halt and stretched the calf out until it released – watching all my hard work disappear round the corner into the finishing chute. Luckily there was no one behind us for ages, so I hobbled the last couple of hundred meters and managed to run across the finish line in 12 hrs, 26 min & 51 secs.
Overall I was pretty disappointed at crashing out in the Titoki leg. I think I probably over-ate for a good portion of the run, being used to training at a lower cardio level than I probably was at as we started to increase the pace about half way through. However I am really pleased at the recovery and finish and pretty satisfied with the final finish time – all things considered. It will come in handy in future races knowing I can dig a bit deeper & push a little harder when I feel spent.
A huge thanks to my supportive wife who lugged around an 8 week old baby for half the day to support me over the latter part of the course. What a woman! Also to “Team Green” – awesome bunch of guys & love the training & camaraderie. And finally Phil Needham my complete legend pacer, putting up with my crazy emotions and selflessly crewing and pacing me from Titoki. He smashed out the longest run he’s done, supporting me the whole way without one complaint or comment about being tired – nothing but compliments & support. It was awesome to tick off a big goal with such a great mate at my side – cheers bro!