Tarawera Ultra 102.8km – a year in the making

The BHAG – (Big Hairy Achievable Goal)

The Tarawera Ultra Marathon (TUM) for the last 12-18 months has been my BHAG. The goal out in the distance that you dare to tackle, that motivates you to go for that run when you are too busy, or when you’d rather sleep. For most of that time it wasn’t spoken of directly, as this would put yourself out there for critique, but bubbling under the surface was a desire to knock this outrageous distance off. Big… Tick. Hairy… Tick. Achievable…. Well that is the real question, and the one that motivated me. The thought it was achievable entered the realms of possibility @TUM2015 when as pacer I saw first-hand my brother and Thom Shanks successfully knock it off. Wow what an amazing event and even more so, something that weekend warrior athletes like us could achieve with training and guts!

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Having paced him through the dark moments, So proud of Dave as he finished in 2015

First though, before I dared to fully believe, I would have to prove to myself (and others) that my cricket battered body could sustain the long efforts. This would come by way of the Auckland Marathon and Kepler Challenge.

Cramps

Having played premier Auckland club cricket for more than 10 years as an opening bowler, I am good with endurance. Every season I would have long days of bowling up to 30 overs in a day, and the recovery would take most of the next week. However, this also lead to a lot of injuries and numerous coping adaptations in my physiology. These would become evident when pushing into endurance events. The primary symptoms being knee issues and cramps. These cramps are my primary competition when racing. Sometimes I am in front and beat them, at other times, they get the better of me. The best way to describe it is like a vice that mid-race has been attached across your thighs with someone slowly tightening it until you stop and walk at which point it slowly retreats again. Push hard and you will be forced to stop completely. So instead, a fine balancing act is required to hit a pace that can sustain semi-cramp without tipping over the edge.

These cramps first appeared when training for the Routeburn classic. Training runs >25km would end with cramps >>> Cue a trial and error process of looking into all possible causes: Salts / Hydration / Nutrition / Compression clothing (or not) / then technique and conditioning. Still no obvious cause or solution was found.

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Routeburn Classic 2014. My first taste of trail running and I liked it!

The 32km Routeburn Classic in 2014 (do it!) was finished nursing these cramps. The Rotorua Marathon likewise. Then in 2014, knee issues caused a withdrawal from the Auckland Marathon and I sought the advice of a new Physio. At the advice of the MEC boys I visited Vaughan @ Sportslab.

2015 – Rehabilitation and Conditioning

2015 was a good year for running. I steadily increased my km’s from 15km to 20 to 30 or even 50km/week as my knee got more reliable and Vaughan made progress unwinding many unhelpful adaptations from years of cricket. Running with the MEC guys provided ample motivation, inspiration and camaraderie to push on. A disappointing Millwater 10km was appeased by a perfect race strategy and PB at the Onehunga Half Marathon.

Distance was put to the test with the Auckland Marathon. As I approached St Heliers with 12km to go, I was just waiting for the cramps to set in. It wasn’t too long till they arrived at Mission Bay. Fearing the worst, I settled into ‘managing the vice across my knees’. However this time around, by taking regular short walks and managing the cramps, I made it to the finish in a big PB, losing only 5 minutes on the return leg from St Heliers. Perhaps I had a strategy for managing this after all…

Kepler Challenge (60k & 2000+m climb)

2015 built to a crescendo with the Kepler Challenge. Such an amazing race, and a must do for everyone who enjoys trail running. The Kepler was my BHAG before I learned about TUM. It is a fantastic event in sublime landscapes. Even better we mustered 4 entries from MEC boys and the scene was set for a great adventure. (See Thom’s Kepler Report). Heading into the great unknown of a >42km run, this is pretty much how I approached the race:

  • Have a good time with the boys enjoying the adventure
  • Walk all the hills
  • Plan to be in running shape once we are off the mountain at halfway,
  • then see what happens.
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Loving the Ridge-back Running of the Kepler Challenge

All started well, it is such an amazing part of the world, what a privilege to be able to do this. Unexpectedly, I was also consistently finding the pace comfortable. I smashed the downhill (as this is my forte and free-wheeling is actually easier for my knee), then had a long aid station stop as the boys caught up. I was still feeling fresh and pushed the boys pace on the flat track, but decided to essentially stay together as I was entering unknown territory and I figured it was wiser to stay with the experienced group, and save it for the end. Eventually I felt I wasn’t being efficient and set off at my own pace. Much to my disappointment despite my best efforts, the cramps arrived with ~ 10km to go. I walk-runned toward the finish the best I could, but was passed by a fast finishing Thom Shanks (big respect) with only a precious few km’s to go.

Not to worry, I got the amazing experience that I wanted, and along the way learned a few things:

  • I could run more than 42 km !!!
  • By walking the hills and pacing well I held off cramps till 50km.
  • When absolutely shagged and battling cramps, I could still walk/run at 7.5min kms.
  • Running with a backpack for 8+ hours (with a dodgy neck like mine) is rubbish, avoid it if you can.
  • If you care about your finishing time (or beating your mates), then run your own race!

I was stoked with my race and it was really good fun knocking out an ultra with the boys. But afterwards I wondered what would have happened if I had not waited at aid stations, been more goal focused, and set my own pace…

Final Prep

The recovery from the Kepler was not straight forward. I had dug deep into the well to finish that one and my knee was now protesting. This became clear when (perhaps a little too soon after the Kepler) pacing Ron on the starting 32km of this Auckland Traverse. I came to realise that my body needed longer to recover from long efforts than I had been allowing. I developed a new appreciation for recovery runs and learned I would need to leave a good month between long efforts heading towards TUM. On Mike and Vaughan’s advice the focus went on maximising training without aggravation. This meant a diet of ~10km runs, stopping before knee pain set in, trading distance with hitting as many hills as possible. (My Strava heat map of Mt Eden is pretty concentrated). This worked well enough but didn’t build confidence. I still needed to prove to myself that I would have a shot at making it to 100km.

This came by way of the mid-summer double header. A morning Marathon on the Hillary Trail with Caleb, followed by a half marathon in the evening. I think that second run in the evening was mentally and physically the hardest run I have ever done (dropped 3kg that day). My knee was aggravating me consistently, and I was totally spent. However, for the second time now, when totally shagged and sore, I could still chip away and walk/run @ 7.5min kms. Despite the pain on the day, I recovered well (under the new regime) and had a new found confidence that whatever shape I was in, I would make it to the finish!

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Sunrise on the Te Henga walkway Marathon with Caleb.

The TUM Plan

Applying lessons learned from the Kepler, I set a race strategy as follows:

  • Fast hike the hills.
  • Every 1km of consistent running, walk a 100m to let the knee recover.
  • Run with company if possible, but run my own race (and don’t wait at aid stations for anyone).
  • Above all else, my only real goal was to reach the finish line. That was the prize I was after, anything more would be an added bonus.

Using Ron’s time predictor, I loaded up for a steady race, with a fade factor equivalent to finishing the race walk-running those 7.5min/kms. This came out predicting 14.5 hours. A good goal I figured, as this was about Thom’s time from last year. I printed out for Kristy timing charts for each aid station based on three scenarios; Expected (14.5 hrs) / Blow-out (15.5 hrs), and if the stars aligned, an Optimistic schedule for 13.5hrs.

Final preparation was good. Down in Rotorua early soaking it up, we shared a great night-before dinner with the MEC guys. I was particularly happy to figure a way to attach my seam sealed jacket to my racing belt. So if I could manage a handheld drink bottle (I had used only once before), then I would have my goal of avoiding the dreaded back-pack.

Race Day

Heading out at the start with Thom, I found it surprisingly tough going in the slippery conditions. Matching Thom’s pace also had me working harder than expected, but we arrived at Blue Lake pretty much right on schedule, to our adoring fans.

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Supporters are the best. Out all day with the kids in the rain for a brief moment of encouragement.

The next leg set in play the major dynamic of the run. With all my hill work, I was consistently pushing the pace going up and down the hills. On the flat however my sparring partner Thom, was quicker, with my regular walking breaks (to let my knee recover) causing me to regularly play catch up. At the same time we looked to run together and in our competitive yet supportive approach, whenever someone needed to stop to pee (or walk) the other would forge ahead, but at an easy pace. Neither of us wanted to drop behind and a serious effort was put in each time to link up again.

As I headed over the hills to Okataina, I noticed I was stretching Thom, and with the experience of the Kepler fresh in my mind, if I was going to put a move on, I would have to put some serious distance on Thom knowing he is a very strong finisher.

The leg from Okataina to the Outlet is where I made my move. Having caught and commiserated with a brave battling Brent Kelly, I was moving freely and at my own pace stretched away from the comrades. That middle section is very tough going and at 55km I first heard the familiar voice of those cramps starting to taunt me with whispers of ‘I’m not far away, here I come’. While walking it off, I got a timely ‘pep talk’ from fellow competitor Fran, a school teacher who told me in no uncertain terms ‘Don’t be a pussy, you are going to finish this 100km! I will check the board at the end and make sure you weren’t a pussy!’ OK, Yes Maam!

Coming into the Falls, I was stoked to have made 62km right on schedule and in such good shape, much better than when I finished the Kepler. I was at the food table looking forward to my change into running shoes when Thom appeared at my side. It was good to have my sparring partner back for the second half, but to be honest I was a bit disappointed. I thought I would have been a good distance ahead. I should have known better, Thom is tenacious and to get line honours, I would need to finish strong.

The 2nd Half (The Business End of the race)

In our new slippers we set off at a good clip on the leg to Titoki. Running pace was good, but my knee was requiring regular walks. It was quite a funny scene, I’d pull ahead then with each walk, Thom would go past. Back running I would set sights on Thom before walking again. This to and fro fun came to an end when the dreaded cramps hit me head on at 67km. Still 35km to go…. Thom sympathised with my misfortune and forged ahead. I was left to contemplate how I would walk out the last 35km. I am not an overly emotional person, and my rational brain kicked into solving how am I going to do this. System Check: I’m feeling good, my nutrition is good, my fluids are good, if I can manage these cramps I will still do it. So the plan was: Salts, more gels, walking and… a little ‘potion’. The week before the race, I picked up some ‘Cramp Stop’ homeopathic spray. With nothing to lose (hell I’ll take placebo effect if it works!), I took the 3 x 5 sprays over the next 5 minutes walking and to my great relief, my legs loosened up and I could get back to having both feet off the ground at the same time!

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With Thom well out of sight, I focused on keeping moving, managing the tightness of the vice across my thighs with regular walks, magic spray and salts. My conditioning was good and I was regularly passing people on the hills and my natural pace was good when able to run. Awaroa arrived after an age, and the loop of despair turned out to be the loop of passing people. It was actually harder going down than up.

MEC SEGMENT CHAMPION

As a member of the 2nd Tier @ MEC, I would like to take a minute to highlight my first MEC victory. At the 2016 TUM I was the fastest entrant in the Awaroa to Fisherman’s Bridge Race. I was onto something, I stopped walking for the sake of knee pain and just dug in for the last 20km. I arrived at Fisherman’s Bridge to find that my loyal supporters out in the rain had been wrong footed by my pace and were nowhere to be seen. Between Titoki and Fisherman’s Bridge, I had moved from the ‘Expected’ timetable onto the ‘Optimistic’ timetable. But I wasn’t the only one, and l had to let Elysia know that Thom was not behind, but in front of me, and she better haul it to River Road asap! (See Strava FlyBy)

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In hot pursuit of Thom, Brent rolling down the loop of despair, Ron and Caleb coasting to the finish

Ploughing ahead in the pouring rain and splashing my way along the river, I arrived into River Road to a very enthused family who simply gave me a kick in the pants and said THOM IS ONLY 3 MINTUES AHEAD, GET MOVING!!!! That was just the elixir I needed and with target acquired I peeled off my fastest km of the race. At the start of every straight I scanned ahead for green shirts. There’s Thom, nope that green shirt has sleeves, it must be a TUM race shirt. I was pulling out the stops, but with 2km to go, that vice closed up again and I realised I had pushed it too hard. In the last couple of km, I had to give up the chase and just get to the finish. With 500m to go, a multiple cramp lockup of the quads, hammies and calves halted me to a static stretch. The Kawerau locals hollered from the side of the road ‘JUST GET MOVING’!

Finally the home straight and my two biggest fans literally ran straight into my legs. Hand in hand we ran over the line and to my astonishment I was the best part of an hour ahead of my target in a time of 13hrs 34mins. With all systems cramping I picked up the boys and ‘smiled’ for the post-race photo. Job done. 

In terms of numbers: Of the 623 brave souls that entered, 316 completed the challenge and quite respectably I was 116th over the line.

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Reflections – If you are still with me 😉

  • Completing Tarawera, was a massive achievement of determination, not just on the day, but in getting to the start line. That is something I am very proud of.
  • I succeeded at the BHAG. Something that was intimidating with no guarantee that I would be able to do it, and I managed to surprise myself in beating my challenges to do so.
  • Thom was a great partner in crime and I have no doubt that the competitive element of our race drove us both faster than we would have on our own. In point of fact, this rivalry dynamic is no doubt the reason why Thom and I (perennial MEC chasers) put in the fastest MEC times on the 40km’s from the Falls to the finish this year. (Of note: despite not seeing each other, only 1sec separated our times over the last 20km) Congrats on your race Thom you are an amazing competitor and I hope to line up with you again soon.(See Thom’s Report)
  • This was the perfect culmination of all the lessons I have learned in trail running. Right Shoes / Clothing / Gear / Nutrition / Hydration / Race Management all came together so so well.
  • The weather was tough, and the course slow, but I really enjoyed not being too hot. Once you are wet, you are wet aren’t you…
  • Expectations are a funny thing. The day after, I think I was the most stoked of the MEC runners despite finishing 90+ minute behind the MEC lead pack. (See Ron’s Report)
  • Mike, I have a lot of respect for a tough runner who still has the wisdom to know when to fight another day. (See Mike’s Report)
  • Brent, what a legend. To grind out a finish in such a state as you clearly were, having already completed TUM before, demonstrates what a tough determined competitor you are.(See Brent’s Report)
  • Cramp Stop spray works !!!!
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Get up Dad! … I Caaaannnn’ttt Craaaaamppp

Many thanks to Mike, Ron and all the MEC guys for your advice and to Vaughan @ Sportslab for keeping me able to run all year. Dave, for being my running buddy and for showing me that Aky’s can do this endurance thing. Gutted I couldn’t do it with you this time, but no doubt we will have many more adventures. Most of all, thank you to my lovely wife for supporting me in my hours out training when you’d rather have your husband at home sharing the load. Time for the next challenge… Baby number 3.

But I’ll be back.

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3 thoughts on “Tarawera Ultra 102.8km – a year in the making

  1. Mate, what a tale! Love the roundup of your last couple of seasons, culminating in this tremendous race performance. It would make a good screenplay – broken ex Cricket champ turns to the trails and finds redemption in the long run. Great running with you this lat 18 months pal.

  2. Epic write up bro :). You smashed it. So impressed at how you cleaned up in your first 100km – brilliantly planned and executed! You were looking super strong when you came past me at Humpheries. Your cramp stories are exactly my experience – we must share insights as we get them … must get me some cramp stop spray too! :).

  3. Great recollection Ev! You had me right to the end. Impressive tactical implemtation… Who would’ve thought running required so much focus and thought

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