For some reason every year I run this race I spew. Seriously – check my previous race reports – TL;DR? They go like this: feel good, feel good, feel average, feel horrific x 5, spew & then feel good – finishing strong. I was sure my 3rd effort in 2016 would be different. Boy was I wrong.
2015 had been a really strong year for the first two thirds. I had a > 12 month period of injury free uninterrupted training, and made some good gains in the pace department, setting PB’s for 5km (18:16), 10km (37:12) and half marathon (1:23:19).
However just over a month out from attempting my first road marathon @ Auckland things went pear shaped. I picked up some niggles which hampered the last 6-odd weeks there (I picked up a reasonable time, just missing my 3hr goal @ 3:05:18 after bombing the last 10km), and they got worse as the year ended up.
Between that & a crazy busy life with other commitments, training was definitely very sparse heading into Tarawera 2016, averaging just over 30km/wk for the 11 weeks prior, fitting in only 1 long run (50km) during that time. I tried to focus mainly on shorter hill training sessions which kept under the ‘injury threshold’, but in the weeks prior it was obvious I was majorly underdone. Heading into the race, cranking out the physio I put aside thoughts of pulling out & decided to just run it anyway.
The race plan was simple: take it really slow at the start & try grind one out to the finish. I set a rough goal around 13.5hrs, figuring adding an hour to last year should be about right if I could avoid the nausea that crippled me last year around Titoki.
The morning started much as expected. I joined up with Thom & Evan, to start with but ended up drifting away as I determined to stay well within myself, but 100% run my own race. Being quite far back in the field, the course was quite muddy in the rain and traction in my heavily worn Leadville’s was a real issue. I’d opted for the safe bet as far as my niggly lower calf was concerned, but it was at a real tradeoff for grip from the trail shoes. This caused me a reasonable amount of concern over the first few legs, as I knew I was exerting more pressure on muscles that I would have liked, trying to stay upright & not regularly bail.
Coming through Lake Okereka & seeing the family was a great little lift, and I pushed forward to the Okataina trail, briefly seeing Thom & Evan as I left the Millar Road aid station. I felt I was taking it really easy & had visions of being able to lift the tempo come Tarawera Falls. The trail to Okataina passed uneventfully although the body was definitely starting to feel quite weary, and I knew the leg through Humpheries & The Outlet would be a killer.
This leg is one of my favourites with beautiful scenery and windy trails, but there’s not doubt – you don’t pass through without paying the tax man. And this year I paid in full. About half way to Humpheries Bay my quads pretty much blew and heavy cramp started to kick in. And the nausea. The forsaken nausea. The scenery often helped to distract, but I was regularly reduced to stopping with fully locked quads, kneeling down trying to get them to release.
As Thom & Evan caught & passed me just out of Humpheries, there was nothing I could do but wave them on, wishing them the best. I was in the hurt locker, and with over 50k’s still to go, dealing with a serious onslaught of doubt. The crew through here (as with the whole course) were amazing & I just counted down the k’s to each aid station. Kristy offered some much appreciated words of encouragement at the Outlet & I pushed on toward Tarawera Falls with a serious decision to make … bail or man up? I was still hurting bad with the cramp, and feeling very grim with nausea which had plagued me for the last couple of hours.
In the end there was only 1 real option. I hadn’t come all the way down to bail out because I was sore (no kidding – it’s an ultra), and one of my big goals of the day was to run the finish chute with my little 2yo Sam – who just loves running.
I tried chowing a good amount of food at the falls to see if I could get the cramp to release. Bad idea. Nausea kicked in even harder & I bottomed out, forced to walk for the next hour or so until a kind soul offered me a ginger lolly which actually seemed to help some. I determined about half way to Titoki I was going left at the turnoff. I could still finish with Sammy having done 85km. I promised myself. “Sometimes your body just isn’t up to it” I told myself.
To be fair I stood at the turnoff for a good 2 minutes, but fate would have it I had Rage Against The Machine blaring rebellious tunes at the time and with the Titoki crew egging me to go right, I plunged across the mat towards Awaroa, knowing there was no turning back from that point. It was actually like a bit of a weight lifted and I felt on a bit of a high pretty much all the way to Awaroa, knowing I was going to finish the race.
Pushing up the loop of despair wasn’t too drastic. Coming down was another story. Downhills were a world of hurt & often I had to experiment with going straight down, going sideways, walking backwards … anything to get the quads to not lock up & reach the bottom. If it wasn’t rough gravel I’d have probably tried rolling down.
Coming out of Awaroa for the last time, I decided I’d had enough. I’d been battling nausea for over 40km / 5.5hrs now & it was time to try something new. So on the side of the road, 88.6km in I embraced thoughts of smashing another gel & the vomit came. Out came completely undigested fresh plums from Tarawera Falls. Seriously – you could have washed them off & put them back in the bowl. I’m not a quiet vomiter either – much to the delight of my fellow contestants passing me by who release a stream of ‘encouraging’ comments.
Turns out it’s the best thing I could have done. Instantly I felt better. I managed to get a gel in me, and some water. The cramp was still heavy, but it was like my body was getting nutrition again, and I managed to push hard & pretty much run non stop from there to the end, passing a steady stream of people. It was approaching dark and I was big time motivated to get in before my boy had to go to bed – that and the idea of trail running at night without a head torch.
I ended up running the last few trail sections in the dark anyway, guided by the glow sticks & keeping my feet high to avoid face planting just before the finish. Coming out onto the fields I picked up a couple of last minute places and with a few hundred metres to go saw the delighted faces of my lovely wife & absolutely ecstatic son, complete with his official pacer number pinned to his singlet.
We raced the finish chute hand in hand, Sam waving to the cheering crowd much to their (and my) delight. I couldn’t have hoped for a cooler finish – the effort was totally worth that moment.
2016 was definitely an interesting race. My final time was 14:49:30, finishing 174/316 finishers. I’ve never had to grind it out like that before. I’ve never had to come in that far back in the field before either, seeing all my comrades disappear over the horizon. Also 15hr’s largely solo with no crew in the field leaves a lot of time to spend in your own head. It was definitely a different game mentally, however it’s kind of satisfying to have experienced a different kind of race, & I’m stoked to have still come away with the finish.
While it’s not the hardest run I’ve done (2014’s Ruapehu loop keeps that mantle), it’s definitely the worst condition I’ve been post-race. I was up most of the night feeling very ill, vomiting black sludge from an empty stomach around 3am (still have no idea what that was!). I didn’t really start to eat properly again a good 24 hours after finishing, and probably was the morning after that I finally got my appetite back. Carnage!
Learnings? I really need to figure out how to get my nutrition sorted & crack the Tarawera nausea curse. If it happens again though, I’m forcing myself to vomit early (and often if required). Even if it means a finger down the throat. It’s just not worth trying to hang in there.
Massive thanks to my wife who waited about 4-5hrs in the rain at the finish line with 2 kids very young kids to allow my magic moment at the finish line. She completed an ultra of her own that day. Huge congrats to my mate Phil Needham too who finished his first 60km ultra despite only ever having a longest run of 30ish km max (pacing me the year before) & getting minimal training in prior due to a dodgy knee – what an inspiring effort! And finally big up’s to all the MEC boys. Legends. (Some epic efforts in there too – Thom cleaning a good hour off his PB, and Evan chopping his first hundy like he was just out for a casual one).