Anyone can run well at the start of an ultra. The real challenge is to set yourself up to do so at the end.
My target race this season was the Motatapu Ultra, a 51km mountain run from Glendhu Bay, Wanaka to Arrowtown. It covers four mountain passes above 1200m, and passes briefly through the Motatapu valley about halfway through the course. The high alpine tussock, sweeping views, beech forest and punishing gradients made this race especially alluring. I’ve mentioned before that mountain runs are not necessarily my forte, but I’m drawn to them for the soaring landscapes and vigorous challenge.
The summer training plan was built upon logging some big climbs and getting as much vertical gain/loss possible. I didn’t include many really long runs (>4hrs) to minimise disruption to family. The final hard session was the Tarawera relay 4 weeks prior which gave a good race effort over 4 hours in the forest. I then switched to doing more hiking to prepare for the steep alpine climbs. My race strategy was to preserve myself, finish strong and to make the most of the runnable terrain.
It was set to be a perfect day weather wise – sunny, no cloud and low winds. It was actually very cold at the start, like 5 degrees with a slight breeze. I was glad to have switched to a merino T shirt (sorry MEC singlet), and had added arm warmers and gloves. I planned on running comfortably on the first few kms of gravel road – nothing silly but no point sandbagging at this early stage. I was surprised to find myself back in about 30th position despite running 5 minute kms into a slight climb. My headlamp, unused (and now loose) since last winter bounced up and down on the back of my head and I failed in my attempts to tighten it on the go. But it pointed where I needed to go so I just got on with it.
Into the farm tracks the group of 30 pulled away as my speed dropped marginally as I picked my way through the loose rocks. After ten minutes or so were went into the beech forest and it was proper dark. I thought my lamp was decent, but I struggled at times to find the orange arrows. I was caught by a good half dozen people, but had prepped myself to go easy and not fight through this slow section.
It didn’t take long and we were out in the open, heading up the single track toward the Fernburn Hut. The daylight dawned and we could turn the lamps off and appreciate the beauty of the tussock filled valley. I felt good, and was taking it steady, walking any climb that was steep or long. We dropped into the hut at 75 minutes, and I was pleased to be ahead of my predicted time. I filled my bottles, put the headlamp in the back and used the facilities before heading up the valley again.
The next section was a bit slower than planned (and hoped). I think the climb up to Jack Hall’s saddle was about right, but I hadn’t appreciated how slow the descent would be. We dropped 400m in less than 1200m. I shuffled down this slope, aiming to save my quads for later. It was hard, as I got caught by several more folk but bit my lip and stuck with the plan. I pulled into Highland Creek Hut, 16k done in 2:40 elapsed which was about 10 minutes off my goal time (i.e. split 15 mins slower than target). Still, I was eating regularly, feeling goood on any runnable section and felt optimistic as I went into the third leg to Roses Hut.
The 11k section here had two of our ‘Big 4’ climbs. It was warming up, and the arm warmers were off and we at last came into direct sunlight sometime after 9. Fortunately it wasn’t too hot and the sun was largely at our back. I kept pace with my competitors on the climbs, and usually caught one or two, but was again left behind quickly on the descent as I nanna-ed my way down again. I supplemented my gel diet with a good ol’ one square meal as I started the next climb out of the beech forest.
On this third climb I started to notice the first signs that people were breaking under the load of continual steep hiking. Unscheduled rests were apparent. By the top of this climb I had caught back up to Dr Andy, a British expat doing his first ultra. We chatted as we sidled our way around the contours, then as we started to come down I played the familiar game of drifting off the back. This pattern saw me in about 50th position as we got to the bottom of the Motatapu valley. It was a formidable sight as you descended – you could see the hut 400m beneath you and behind it the towering ridge 700m above, cut through with tight switchbacks just waiting for you.
It was a nice jog through the stream and across the valley to Roses Hut at 27k. I checked in about 11:15 (5:07 elapsed), filled my soft flasks, grabbed a couple of pikelets and moved on. I left ahead of a number of others who were less keen to move out swiftly. Andy was there and we reconnected and power hiked this last climb. I noted my HR was a bit lower than previous hikes, revealing that my fatiguing muscles were no longer able to push as hard.
The climb was as brutal as it appeared. The sun was hot, winds were low and the 20% gradient pitched up to over 40% as we got near the top. It was welcome relief to hit the top, and realise that the big climbs were done. This time I was not left behind on the downhill. I had more latitude to let the brakes off, plus this descent was less steep so I had some good fun rolling the wheels down.
I got to the Arrow river, 32.5k at 6:15 on the clock. I was ready to open up the engines and burn along this flat section. But it was hardly as runnable as I expected. The river was shin deep, and wading was slow. The RD had marked the sheep tracks that cut through some braids with little pink ribbon. With eyes peeled I tried to follows these shortcuts, but regularly had to backtrack or virtually crawl underneath sharp matagouri bushes. It took 40 minutes to go the 4.5km to Macetown, but remarkably I pulled ahead of several others, including Dr Andy who had taken a wrong turn.
It started becoming runnable as we approached Macetown and I was beginning to have some real fun, running strong through the river trail. Every bend in the river I looked ahead for another shirt to chase down. I had a quick bottle refill and cup of coke in the Aid station and sped off. My cruising pace was low 5 min kms, interrupted only by the very regular river crossings. I got faster still, but annoyingly the people to catch seemed to dry up. I felt good, and would have loved to know how far ahead the next person was – would pushing that extra 2% be worth the risk of sending my legs into withering cramps?
We joined the other races at the Soho river (6k to go), and I was now speeding along, passing the bikes and marathoners as I let it out downhill. I ran it strong right into the finish, stopping the clock in 8:14:35, 15th male (18th overall).
Reflections: Mission accomplished – I saved my legs and hauled myself back more than 30 positions in the last 2 hours or so. My hiking has improved, but is still the area that would need the most work to improve my position in this type of race. I ate, drank and paced very well. I feel really satisfied with this effort and it has been a great race to savour. I think last year my time would have placed me 5th overall!
Big thanks to my family for letting me indulge in such joyous endurance, and to me MEC crew for the shared times on the trails, car rides and spare beds. I’m a lucky man.
Now, time to drop the climbs and see if I can bring some stamina out of the strength.