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.
MEC involvement with the Tarawera Ultra has been a constant over the last 9 years. It’s a great event and a great time, so I love to be a part of it. I didn’t have the right appetite to race it solo last year, and again this year wanted to focus my summer campaign on something more wild and enticing (stay tuned for Motatapu reports). That seemed to be the mood of a few others at MEC so we set about creating relay teams that would allow us to be involved, have a great duel and get an excellent workout prior to the big one in the South Island.
So the teams were set, Evan Atkinson and I would face off against Thom Shanks and James Spence. The MEC Thinkers vs the Feelers. It was a pretty even match with two legs for each player. Unlike last year, we couldn’t alternate legs as the no vehicle policy for the Tarawera Forest plus the new changeover spots meant it was a logistical impossibility. So it was a 1/4 and 2/3 split. Leg 1 (26k) is the most runnable, leg 2/3 (40k) the most technical with significant climb, Leg 4 (21k) a good climb and fast flat finish (if you are ready for it). Thom and Evan elected to do the 1-4, giving me and James the 40k middle section.
Players. On paper it was very close as mentioned. James would be my mark and he had just come off a stirling 2:55 at Auckland Marathon. Adding to this stamina base he also had posted some of the quickest hill climb and 5k times in recent MEC workouts. Thom and Evan’s face-off was also tight. Thom had come off a great Auckland Marathon too, posting a 3:24 and beating Evan’s PB there. He was looking like the favorite until a summer of lethargy and injury meant he had a patchy buildup. Evan had worked consistently, balancing family and work commitments to fit in some good sessions in his full weekly schedule.
Tactics. The Thinkers reviewed this information and came up with the game plan. With Evan now the better prepared athlete, and Michael likely to shed some time to James in a straight race, the tactic was to make Thom hurt from the start. A fast start, hopefully leading to a few minute buffer for me to have over James. Then, with James chasing hard, he may make some errors giving me the opportunity to run smart and hand over to Evan to dig deep and bring it home (hopefully having inflicted more damage on Thom than he had on himself).
The duel. On the wet and warm race morning Evan took off as planned. He ran 4:40 min/ks on the flat, raising Thom’s eyebrows but good old Shanks was playing smart and held to his mark. Evan blazed through the first aid station, and Thom was forced to grab just a quick hand of jellybeans as he tried to hold on. They ran alongside the Brother’s in Arms team for a bit, just back of the front runners. Evan eventually worked his way ahead to a 50 metre lead. Substantial, but not long enough to be out of sight on the long fire roads in Tarawera forest. Thom could see his man, and would do all he good to limit the damage.
Evan took a gel, and missed a corner. He was wondering why the trail markers were missing when he heard Thom call from inside the forest. Disaster! He quickly about-turned but the 50m lead was now in Thom’s favour. Ev doubled down on his workrate to now catch Thom. They came out at the Falls Aid station with Thom still ahead. He can be viewed here looking suspicious (watch from 2:40-3:10) in the aid station before de-fouling our pristine natural environment with a watermelon skin.
Evan poured it out over the last 5k to the Outlet aid station, slowly bridging the gap. In a gesture of goodwill Thom paused briefly and they ran into the changeover together, both exhausted having covered the ground well faster than expectations.
I got out of the changeover a little ahead with James quickly right behind me. I had the lead for the first few kilometres. It wasn’t the situation the Thinkers had hoped for, it was gonna be a straight duel. We shared some fun times on the trail before James offered to take a turn at the front. The pace increased and I was quickly faced with running myself into a hole with more than three and a half hours to go, or backing off. I chose the latter and James moved out of sight on the tight windy trails toward Humphries Bay.
I got to Humphries but James had already cleared out, the volunteers saying he was just ahead. No point blowing up catching him this early, so I just ran at the fastest pace I felt I could maintain. The trail was pretty chewed up and the muddiest I had seen it over this section. I pitied the 100 Milers who would face this in a much worse way later as I passed throngs of 60k walkers and joggers who were generally very obliging to let us through.
I got to Okataina Aid ahead of schedule and saw Dave Robbo. He hadn’t seen James so I just stuck with the game plan as I power-hiked up the mighty climb to the course high point. I let it out on the bomb down the other side, big toes screaming as they mashed against the front of my shoes over the greasy clay track. Every singlet I spotted I looked for James, but despite passing plenty of people I never saw him. I kept up hammering down the road after Miller Road Aid, until slightly coming unstuck on the last 2 k, slowing as we wound back up Tennants track in a mix of exhaustion and oncoming cramp. I got to the Blue Lake and heard the bad news, James was already 10 minutes up on me. Dang.
Evan’s face at the changeover revealed the futility of our position. This gap wasn’t going to be clawed back, barring disaster for Shanks. The game plan had indeed dug a hole, but for both Thom and Evan. James’ demolition of the leg 2/3 section (fastest in category) meant we were out of the game. Thom and Ev dug deep and pushed home. The Feelers crossing the line in 8:32:20 and the Thinkers in 8:44:00.
Another great day, a great race (well done and well deserved to the Feelers who won the 2 person section with Thinkers second). Full credit to all the MEC racers: Ev ran a bold race, James absolutely smashed his section, and Thom showed what a competitor he is, fighting hard and drawing from the well he has dug deep over years of training. I was happy with my performance too, hitting my goal splits for all but the last few k.
Mission accomplished – a great event, weekend away and training set in the bag, now bring on the goal race: Motatapu Adventure beckons.
Flying into Queenstown first thing proved to be a great way to start – a good night sleep and a reasonable wake-up time coupled with getting to the destination quickly. No one misses a long car drive or starting at 4 am! We were at the Ben Lomond trailhead before 11. We whipped off our travel gears and put on our tights and thermals on the side of the road and headed up into the hills.
The weather was very mild, temps 6-16 C in town, good bursts of sunshine poking through the overcast sky and mild Northerlies to keep things crisp. We powered up the smooth Fernhill climb under cover of pine trees, and marvelled at the view from the top before relishing the beech tree forest with roots and occasional bermed corners as we dropped back down.
We then climbed straight up the Ben Lomond track, again very steep but well graded and under tree cover. It quickly got very hot as we burst above the tree line into the open sun that was melting the snow and making the track quite muddy. We made great progress to get to the saddle (1322m) where the wind was really strong. A quick calculation revealed that if we kept going to the top we would have no time for a second run that day. We opted to ‘cut and run’ and so we enjoyed a second downhill drop back to the carpark.
Burgers and beer refuelled us in Queenstown, and then we were on our way toward Mt Dewar (head towards Coronet Peak, its on your left).
Devil’s Creek Track and Mt Dewar
Elevation Gain 994m, Max 1304m
Elapsed Time 2:35:52
Out of the car by 3pm, we knew the sun would set at 6, so we had to make good speed and check our progress before deciding if we had time for the summit. The track was open 4WD in some grassland/tussock. It rises up from the road and then drops down as you head towards skippers Canyon. A quick jump across the river and you are brought over through grassland to the nose of the climb that takes you up to the Mt Dewar summit. We could see the snow on the summit, and it got cold as the clouds moved in as we neared the top.
Our steady effort was rewarded as we made the top well before sundown, took some quick pics and then sped down the gravel access road on the north side.
An MTB single-track took us back to Coronet Peak road and the car, a few minutes before sundown. We enjoyed a tasty Indian meal, caught the last half of the Bledisloe Cup match and then showered and slept at Burton and Mel’s place (cheers guys you are terrific).
Elevation Gain 1,244m Max 1386m
Elapsed Time 3:15:19
Following a well earned rest, we started Sunday morning’s run at quite a gentlemanly hour. We were taking on the Isthmus peak track, located on the West of Lake Hawea. It’s the small range that separates Hawea from Wanaka. We climbed up from the road carpark on another 4WD farm track, but this was more grassy and less tussock as we followed the switchbacks up. There was a bit more wind than Saturday and the sun was behind the clouds so it got a tad nippy as we crossed over 1000m elevation. We could see the snow on the final ridge run to the peak, so the boys stuck on their micro/nano spikes and I clung to my poles for grip. Although moderately thick, It wasn’t too icy so not bad going and no steep runoffs so we were safe. We hit the 1386m peak, and then blatted back down again.
The cumulative toll of plunging descents struck James’ quads and he was in a bit of pain going down. As was usual for this trip, it took us about half as long to get down as it did to get up, and we were back at the car ready to hit another cafe for fuel before our afternoon mission.
Motatapu Track taster
Elevation Gain 537m Max 709m
Elapsed Time 2:03:31
We moved to a non-peak option to give the legs a bit of a rest from the punishment of steep, unrelenting descents. We thought the Motatapu track would be nice and gradual as it winds up from Glendhu Bay to the Fernbern Hut. It looks gradual on the thumbnail elevation chart and it does start off with a gradual climb beside the river on pasture land. However, once it enters the conservation area, it becomes a technical and fiercely undulating track skirting the steep valley edges. The setting was beautiful with cascading waterfalls, leaf litter padding out the trail and little piwakawaka chirping and dancing around you. We had given ourselves a one hour out limit to get to the hut, and with the slow going probably got within less than a km of it but had to turn to get back in good light. A very different trail and an excellent addition.
Elevation Gain 1,275m Max 1586m
Elapsed Time 2:48:26
On the final morning we got up with a bit more haste, as we needed to be done in time to get back to the airport. We gave ourselves 3 hours, expecting about 2 up, 1 down. James was giving his legs a different kind of workout on a MTB track around the Lake Wanaka and the Clutha river. Meanwhile, Sean and I were the second vehicle at the trailhead carpark and we took off up the grassy 4WD tracks. There was hardly a breath of wind at the lower reaches, but again after 1000m this picked up, though not as gusty as the day before. Cloud moved in at the 1300m+ range so our last kms were without views, and across melting snow, thankfully without steep drop-offs (we’re runners not alpinists!). For the final stretch you cross the ridge to approach the summit from the Northwest. This section was in deep snow and it was necessary to follow the previous tracks to avoid dropping to upper calf level. But it wasn’t very long (500m) and we were at the top – success! Our last destination reached, we grabbed some pics, turned around and cut loose on the descent. We alternated running at speed with taking photos and stopping to shed the layers of warmth as we emerged from the cloud into open sunshine without any wind – a scorcher! Sean showed his downhill mastery notching up several sub-4 min/ks and we arrived at the carpark in under 3hrs.
5 runs, 73km distance, 5350m climbed.
A fantastic trip, outdoor adventures, amazing comradery with great food and drink and comfortable beds – what more could you ask for? This format had its genesis in the Apennine adventure and I only like it more and more! Bring on the next one.
The World Masters Games 2017 have been on my radar for a couple of years. A unique opportunity to compete against your peers from around the world. Hopefully finding that ‘sweet spot’ of similar competition that brings the best out of you and gives you amazing mid-race battles. The entry fee is steep, but you get a road run, a cross country and up to six track and field events all for entering the “athletics” section. My approach was to get my $ worth by entering any running event over 400m.
Event 1: 10k Road Race, Saturday 22nd April.
This was a target event – I wanted to set a PB (basically anything sub 36 would do it). The plan was to run evenly (no costly surges) and hope to hold 3:30 – 3:35 min/k. We had the most spectacular and perfect Auckland Waterfront morning. Still and mild, it was made for running fast. Unfortunately something didn’t fire fully for me and I was never on goal pace. I gave it a good race effort though and split 18:31 for the first half and 19:11 for the second to give 37:42. A fine result, made sweeter by coming in 3rd in the M35 AG and getting a bronze medal! Caleb stormed to a PB and Evan paced like a metronome to smash his as well.
Too young and fast for the camera (or how being caught at 7k can shake you out of a slow burn to the finish)
Event 2: 5000m, Sunday 23rd April
This was a mean schedule. Backing up with 5000m after yesterday’s 10k. So the plan was to not focus on time, but try to race as smart as possible. Looking at the field, I thought I was about 7th seed in my division, so a top 5 would be the goal. There were two no-shows, making this easier. But what was also easier was how my legs felt vs the expectation of pain and stiffness. They were feeling nearly as good as the day before, with only a hint of tiredness evident in the 4/5th km. I ended up running at the front of the chase pack and taking the wind, but was happy to be running faster than expected at 3:25 min/ks so just kept going. I got passed by the 3rd guy in my AG with 600m to go. He accelerated away and I had no response, but I finished in 4th place (7th overall) in 17:36.
Event 3: 1500m, Tuesday 26th April
It was nice to get a day off on Monday, as my legs were way more smashed (tight-sore calves and tired quads) after the 5000m than after the 10k. I had a day of easy running, plus continued my nightly routine of getting on the foam roller to help hasten recovery along.
Seems to have done the trick because I was feeling pretty good as I warmed up for my midday 1500m on ANZAC day. The 30-34M went first and it was great to watch Caleb running super strong to get his third medal of the games.
I was 5th fastest M35 going into my race and was hoping to PB with a 4:37. My plan was to let the fastest two go (they were another level altogether) and then work hard to keep in contention with the next two guys Andrew and Eric. Andrew got away after a fast start, but I stuck with Eric the Frenchman (he was the guy who stuck behind me in the 5000m).
The first 800m was 2:29 and we hit the bell lap at 3:23 (bang on schedule), me right behind Eric, and both about 30m back of Andrew. The race had hurt from about 600m into it, but I was glad with how I pushed through. Now in the last lap I really dug deep as Eric surged, somehow managing to hold close. We hit the final straight now only 10m down on Andrew. I gave it everything and closed the gap, but wasn’t able to pass. We all finished within 1.2s of each other.
This placed me 5th, in 4:31.25, a massive new PB, and exceeded my expectations. The last 800m was 2:21, with a final lap of 67s.
Event 4: 10,000m Thursday 27 April
Another day off proceeded the toughest day of the games for me. I had the 10k and 800 on the track. But I could tell that these also offered the best medal chances so I needed to hit them hard.
The 10,000 was hot. 11am in the sun. I started quick, but felt very comfortable. I kept pace behind two 45-49 year old guys in 5th place for the first 4k. The legs started to tire a bit though and through my 5th km I started to slow. It just felt like plain fatigue, my start was at the top end of what I can do, but felt controlled. I now had a 5k grind of endurance – holding on to see if I could stay ahead of the others and what time I would make.
I wasn’t caught, but man it was gruelling. I finished in 5th, 2nd M35 in 37:35. My 5k split was 17:25, which was faster than Sunday’s 5000m. Silver medal!
Event 5: 800m, Thursday 27 April
I did what I could to recover before the 800m. I guessed I was 3rd seed with two real speedsters ahead, so my goal was 3rd and a time around 2:14. I went out strong, going through halfway in 65s, the second half was as hard as expected but I held on for 3rd and 2:15 – my 2nd fastest time for the event. Two races, two medals, today.
Event 6: 3000m Steeplechase, Friday 28 April
Oh how weary I felt! The double effort the day prior meant my legs were both tight, sore and fatigued. But I made it to the start line OK. And when we got to the TIC I found two of the top seeds (as well as most of the field) hadn’t turned up. So it was game on for an unexpected possible medal chance.
Maybe those no shows knew something about this event. It was my first time so I didn’t. Let me tell you what I found about steeplechase: It’s hard, requiring lots of strength and a good bit of technique and flexibility too. My water jump is not something to admire (yet). I dropped into the water pit and fought my way out again like an old dog shaking off after a sea swim. It was also rough on the left achilles which took the impact all seven laps (as a side note the Achilles had been best it has for months up to then). The other thing I found is that it is compelling, and I want to have another crack at it, and I’m sure some technique practice would do wonders.
Evan and Caleb went hard from the start and I only caught Evan with 600m to go. So we got silver M30, and silver and bronze M35. MEC represent!
Event 7: 8k Cross Country, Sunday 30 April
Last event. It was so good to get the Saturday to rest up first, I came to the start line feeling much improved on Friday. I knew I wouldn’t be fresh, but I wasn’t feeling like lying down at the start. The Domain course was better than expected, despite the lack of real hills there was enough variability to make it feel different to a road race or track event. It was very warm, the sun had come out after the storm and there was a good gusty wind blowing too. I paced myself sensibly and worked my way up the field over the first two and half 2k laps. The guys I passed reformed as a group and I had to work to hold them off on the fourth and final lap. I came 18th, 7th in M35 in 31:32, lap times: 7:35, 7:55, 8:05, 7:57.
Reflections on the series:
My speed increased over the first five days or so, while the fatigue increased throughout. I noted the fatigue would slow my legs in the later stages of an event. My HR would actually dip as the legs were unable to move fast enough to merit that level of cardiac output. Dropping a couple of events would have made my times a bit faster overall, but my schedule was more for the experience than for the strategy.
I think I may have been fighting something at the start of the Games as I was genuinely surprised at my speed in the 10k and 5000m. I had done a 17:06 5k in the rain a fortnight before and felt that my preparations had gone very well. My first couple of races were a little disappointing as I don’t think my efforts reflect my true fitness/potential at that time. I reckon I am in sub-17 5k and sub-37 10k shape for sure. I will hopefully get a chance to show that later on this year.
The 1500m was my highlight, I got a big PB and had an amazing racing experience which took me right to the edge. The whole track experience has been really exciting, and I have got a bit of a taste for it. you really get to experience the pure thrill of racing when you take to the track with good competition. I will keep an eye out for opportunities to run against similar competition on the track in the future.
My body held out better than expected too. I was tired, and I got a bit sore a couple of times, but thinking back even 12 months, I would struggle to run the day after a hard race. Back then I couldn’t even comprehend running hard for several days in a row. So the good functioning of my body has been another positive to take away. I look forward to seeing if I get any notable fitness kick out of all that racing stimulus.
The follow-up to the Ultra Easy 100 was the 2017 Tarawera Ultra. This has become a feature of my calendar for nearly a decade – it’s such a cool event, I just love to come back. However, last year’s race showed me that my motivation was a bit tepid for the 100k. So doing the two-man relay was a perfect way of scratching the Tarawera itch and not being silly doing two massive events in a fortnight.
Ron and I combined our powers like a trail-running Captain Planet to make team Tumeke Waewae. We were joined by another couple of MEC teams – Brent and Burton facing off against Evan and Thom. There was a fierce rivalry between those two, while Ron and I eyed up some well-fancied opposition from the Sportslab crew.
We applied the self-annihilation attack strategy to this race. It would be a unique opportunity to run with the big boys – they were doing 100k solo and we were just knocking off a couple of 20k-ish legs. So could we stay in touch and learn a thing or two from the pros.
Ron had the first leg, and claimed to be still finding his running fitness after his Italian sojourn. But he still managed to redline it from the gun and come around the Blue Lake just outside of the top 10.
My turn. I noted that Aaron Jackson, first team member for our main opposition was ahead, and (legendary ultra runner) Mike Wardian behind, so I got into my own over-zealous pacing to see what I could do. Wardian caught me within a quarter of an hour and blasted past up the new trail around Lake Okareka. I then held my own, catching several bods over the Western Okataina leg. It felt good running it with more intensity then usual. I came in to the Okataina changeover and we were just behind our marks – the Labrats, and keeping right on our schedule.
Can’t tell you much about leg 3, except that we had vastly overestimated how long it would take Ron ‘unfit’ on ‘tired legs’. By the time I had driven through Kawerau and arrived at the Falls carpark, Ron had been waiting of me for nearly 15 minutes. Im gonna be the bigger man and say that it was his scheduling that cost us that, not my yarns with the other MEC lads while eating at the aid station buffet.So the final quarter had a shambolic start, but Ron through me his water bottle and I put my tunes in on the go and got into it. What a great leg it is to Titoki when you don’t feel like rubbish! That long downhill is dreamy, legs spinning at sub 4s and life is good! There were a few more technical bits afterward and some inevitable discomfort (NB nothing like 100k pain though, not a bit). We had got solidly into the lead of the two person division and it was a gratifying final few run for the final few kms to take the win for Tumeke Waewae.
Logistics in two person team events are actually rather challenging. You have to know quite precisely how long you will run each leg and how long the drive will take. I have never had to get around the course in a car before – its harder than I realised!
But the relay is a great option – you can run hard, you can share the day with mates and it doesn’t have to shatter you like a massive ultra tends to. I’d be keen to repeat, but I think Ron misses the 100, so we’ll see what 2018 brings.
Coastal Challenge 2017
The bravest race director award of 2017 goes to Aaron Carter and the TS crew for holding this event which has plenty of ocean interaction during the tail-end of a cyclone. I couldn’t believe it was going ahead, but it did, and it was epic as usual. Thom Shanks and I decided that mother nature wouldn’t hold us back, and drove North to Arkles Bay with the mighty Stu Hale as team photog and crew.
The course changed a bit – it was lengthened to help reduce the length of the swim across the Okura estuary and we ran over the Long Bay headland track rather than risk rockfall around the coast up there. Otherwise it was the same juicy wet goodness it always is.
I got stuck a little further back then I would have liked at the start, about 20th at corner one. I worked my way up and was in top 10 by the Wade River swim, and top 5 by Okura swim. A few kms after Long Bay I moved into 2nd when one of the leaders dropped with an injury. The gap to the front runner Nick Berry varied between 5 and 9 minutes, but I wasn’t able to catch him in the end. I was pretty bushed from Takapuna onwards and held on for (another) 2nd place here. Nick is a beast Surf Lifesaver / sub 9 min 3000m runner so not a bad guy to be beaten by!
Onward to the World Masters Games… time to add some speed to the stamina!
Ahh the goal race for the season. Worthy of a full race report, this one. Make your self a cuppa and sit down, this could take a while:
This race is a beautiful beast.
Vital stats: 100k, 4700m climb/descent, anticlockwise loop in Wanaka, with elevation between 270-2000m.
I saw it online when looking for a new ultra challenge to replace the Tarawera Ultra. As I said in my 2016 report, I love that race, but need to get away to be able to come back with the true hunger to race that. So, when I saw the course map, with its three massive climbs and natural loops in one of NZs most pristine alpine areas, I was in.
And my training over the summer has been focused on this one race. The goal was to log regular 65-75 km/week and try to get about 2000m of vertical each week as well. Of course it would be better to get more, but I have worked out that those numbers are about what my schedule can accommodate without displacing family, friends or work commitments. And I have to say I did well, more or less hitting those numbers for a good 10 weeks following my recovery from the Auckland Marathon.
I had a week down in Wanaka with the family to holiday and check out bits of the course. I ended up only running twice down there for several reasons:
The parts of the course I wanted to check out (Pisa range) cross private land, requiring difficult logistics to organise your own way.
I didn’t want to get weary before the big day
Holidaying is fun, so I was happy holidaying.
I caught up with Burton and we did a brief shakeout up Mt Iron, and Myles came down for the 42k as well, so we had a good MEC crew lining up.
I have to mention the weather: It was meant to be Central Otago in summer – think blue skies, low winds, hot days and cool crisp nights. Instead we had a week of significant wind and on the Saturday prior to the race, a blizzard came through and it snowed on Mts Roy, Alpha and Pisa. Interesting. So that’s why you have to take all this compulsory gear…
But on race day (the 28th) we had perfect weather. The 50 or so solo runners plus another 50 teams were sent off from the Albert Town Tavern at 0300, heading up Mt Iron, then along the Wanaka waterfront to the base of Roy’s Peak. There was a bit of a breeze blowing in from the West, and at that time of the morning it makes it kinda cold, but within a few minutes I was comfortable with my chosen outfit of merino T shirt with arm warmers plus extra merino T over the top (to be ditched once things warmed up). My bottom was covered with running shorts, my calves with compression socks and my feet with inov8 trail roc 255s.
The game plan was straight-forward: Get to the highest point (Mt Pisa) at 68km in decent shape, then use whatever is left to run the long downhill and flat section home to glory. I’ve done a few Tarawera 100s, but have limited experience in the mountains, and so wanted to make sure I wasn’t exposing myself (if you will) in the high altitude.
Leg 1 to Roy’s carpark was smooth sailing. I ate and drank to schedule, and found myself moving comfortably at about 5:15 min/k on the flats. It was interesting how fast others seemed to go at the start, I was initially left in the back half of the field. I came to Aid 1 (15k) right on schedule at 1:30 and struck my first hurdle: My drop bag was no where to be seen. No drop bag. Dang. That one had my gels, my bumbag and 600mL bottle and most importantly, my trekking poles.
This took me aback and I wandered anxiously, searching for the missing bag. The RD Terry was at the station and so the aid crew summoned him. He quickly helped me find the Aid 2 drop bags and we looked for the missing bag in there. Negative. Oh no. Suddenly, I remembered that I had dropped this bag off at the last minute, after having returned home to add my poles to it. I had absent-mindedly put it in the container on the far right, which meant I had sent it to Lake McKay Aid at 88k! Terry (what a legend) said he would see if someone could get it for me and bring it to Aid 2 at Cardrona Valley Rd. I thanked him, nervously filled my bottles and grabbed a handful of the gels available and headed up the climb. I spent 10 minutes in that Aid and really should have only spent 2. But that was my fault, so there you go. What this incident did get me to do though was flick from a ‘I need to race this thing’ mindset to a ‘this thing is a mighty challenge and I need to do whatever I can to make it through to the finish’ mindset. That was a good thing, methinks.
A word on trekking poles: these things are wondrous for mountain running (hiking). They take pressure off your legs and keep you feeling stronger for longer. Its like having someone behind pushing your sorry ass up the hills. They don’t work on tight single track or overgrown grass/foliage or over boardwalks where they get stuck, but they lap up wide open dirt roads. I got mine on Dec 31 and had worked on my pole conditioning and coordination (my ‘pole dancing’ technique) so I would be ready to race with them on Jan 28.
Climbing up Roys Peak was fun. Through switchback after switchback we gained 1000m of elevation as the sun slowly rose over Wanaka town to our East. I calmed myself down and chatted to a few folk, most of whom were faster at hiking than me and steadily moved ahead. Brad was one of these people and he kindly gave me some of his fruit Danish as we told each other of our build up to this race. By the time we hit the final ridgeline (somewhat precarious) to the summit it was light enough to turn the headlamps off. I had warmed up, and paradoxically, the wind had dropped now that we were at 1500m too. There were plenty of tourists at the top, as the conditions were perfect to witness the sunrise. It was truly spectacular to have beautiful landscapes in 360 degrees as the sun peaked over the hill and I was feeling good!
I took a pic or two and headed along the skyline singletrack to Mt Alpha, marvelling at the view of Mount Aspiring and the Southern Alps to the North West. The great reputation of this trail totally matched my experience and I felt filled up by the rich visuals surrounding me.
The ridgeline to Mt Alpha was great fun, and I started to catch back up to a few of the fast hikers. We summited and then started our descent, running swiftly to the amazing Alpha Aid Station. Co -RD Ed (co-legend) had driven his 4WD up and he was there with his missus dishing out water, chips and hot pies. Yep, they had a diesel generator at 1500m and a pie warmer. I gushed, and promptly downed two mince pasties. Then, with bottles filled, I continued my descent. It was 12k downhill to the Cardrona Valley and I steadily caught runners despite taking it easy on my legs. Again, this part of the trail was truly gorgeous and I arrived in Cardrona with the body feeling good and the mind at peace.
It was great to see the family at this point. We had been going nearly 40k and taken a good 5 and 1/4 hours. It was also great to see my drop bag had made it with my poles! I took my time to swap clothes, and top up supplies before chasing back after Brad who had already made his way toward the big climb up the Criffle Range.
We crossed the Cardona River (chilly but nice at mid shin level) and I cranked out the poles as our second 1000m+ ascent began. This one differed from the first in that you couldn’t see right to the top as it had several false summits, but you could see North to Wanaka and South to the Alps so we enjoyed some terrific views as the sun continued to rise. It wasn’t too hot though, I was fine in a t-shirt merino with the gloves and arm warmers well and truly stowed now.
I was a bit more on pace with my contemporaries on this climb, but again Brad pulled away. It sure felt nice having the poles to assist though. I got to the top of Little Criffle in just under 2 hours. At this minor aid station there was a lonely looking dude sitting on the back of a quad bike loaded with water and a bag or two of chips. I topped up the bottles, took a selfie and said a hearty thanks as I left.
The 12k section south to Bob Lee Hut was rather bland. You follow a 4WD track along the top of the range, but often so far inland that there are no views. The only vegetation is tussock, so although your first 5k of this is rather pretty, it is nothing on the visual symphony of Roys Peak and the skyline trail.
Coming into and out of Bob Lee Hut Aid I made a couple of errors – I lost the trail twice in a short period of time. The first time was my fault, I saw a crushed red cone ahead and missed the massive row of intact cones on the left hairpin when I passed through a fence. The second one could have been avoided with better markings. As I left the Hut, I was told to follow the fence line down to the track. I ran down the fenceline for 100m where the track departed from it to the right, which I took and ran downhill for half a km. Then I realised I hadn’t seen any markers and had to walk back up the hill to the station where I had departed the ‘track’. I was surprised how buoyant I was when faced with these wasted efforts. I think pacing my run to finish strong meant I had a good reserve and that helped keep me going when these things went astray.
We were now 60k in, 9 hours down. I was feeling weary but not really sore. My nutrition and fluid regime was working well (gels and water only on the go, topped up by real food PRN at the aid stations). The real milestone though was getting to the top of Mt Pisa. I remembered it being about 10k from the Hut, but the advice we got as we left was that it was 12 or so. In any case, I was keen to get there in good shape. For me, being 2000m high and 12+k to the nearest vehicle was not a place I wanted to run myself into the ground at. So I was really happy to pull up alongside Andy from Dunedin, and I took it easy while we ascended and chatted together. We made the top in 1:36, meaning it was nearly 2pm. It was still sunny but it was pretty cold with gusts from the West. My arm warmers were back on when we hit the aid station. Some poor soul had been abandoned to serve water to sweaty runners on this desolate mountain top in the wind. Lucky guy. If I thought the section to Bob Lee was a bit barren, this leg was just plain stark desert. Few tussock remained and we traversed long straights with nothing but dry rocks at our side. This was not the Southern Alps that make us romantic and misty eyed. Having run through the Rangipo desert a couple of times, I can tell you I would far prefer that environment, because you have a view. I guess what I became aware of on this run is that I like running in the mountains, but more accurately I love running where there are great views and interesting features. I want a visual feast if I am to don the ultrarunning robes. I want to at least get a buzz on if I am to drink the cup of suffering.
So no, you will not find me entering any of the masochistic ultras anytime soon. I am a trail runner, who runs ultras on occasion, but there must be a payoff. You may not care where you run, I do and I’m OK with that. Runner, know thyself!
Where were we, oh yes, top of Mt Pisa. Well, now the fun begins: a 20k downhill where we drop from 2000m to 300m ASL. It would certainly be amazing on a MTB – that Big Easy ride would be all time! Its not such a picnic running down however, especially on legs that have run for 11hrs+ and 4000M+ climb. So I changed plans and kept my poles out, hoping that they would take a bit of the bashing my legs were gonna receive over the next 2 hours. I turned the music on and started to let the legs roll. After a while, people I hadn’t seen since before I lost the trail came back to view. I was making ground! Then the view appeared as we moved out of the centre of the range and all of a sudden I was hit with the magnificent scene of Lake Hawea, the Clutha River, Mount Iron and Wanaka. The grin appeared, the arms went up. I began to hoot and cheer. This was great. The hill high carried me down to the farm at the bottom, somewhat tempered by the increase in gradient as we finished the descent. The knees were letting me know they had been abused, but there was no catastrophic damage and I was a happy man rolling into Lake McKay Aid to see my family once again.
12 k to go to the finish. I put on the MEC singlet for the heat (and to represent!). I keep the poles, as I have a hunch they will help me start up every time a stop threatens to seize my legs like rust. I pass more people and although I am well achey, I am in good spirits as my race plan seems to have been a smart one. But somewhere just before Stevenson Road Aid my knees become more than sore, and I stop running freely. Have I eaten lately? Not really, I thought I could cut back now we have just 7k remaining. Those caffeine gels are tasting gross and I’d rather not have another thanks. I will myself to the Aid and realise that I will be caught if I don’t shake this shutdown. So I smash some fluids. They don’t taste sugary enough (who makes that non-sugar electrolyte rubbish, what absolute homeopathic codswallop… rant over), and I know I need energy. So I have a half banana, and then another half. Then I make myself leave the Aid, despite the chair looking so appealing. It hurts so much to start running. The flats are the worst. I can walk hills guilt-free. I can run down hills. But flat running is not working for me right now.
And then I get caught, first by a team runner, then a guy with mini polls I haven’t seen for ages. Then Victoria, a Chilean runner who has yo-yoed ahead and behind me since Mt Alpha. She tells me to stick with her to get to the finish. I rally somewhat and start running a bit more, but she moves steadily ahead as we cover the last few km. We hit the road at Albert Town and I look back, no one behind me, and nothing left in the legs. I walk-run to the final bridge, see Heidi waiting for me and greet her and Heather gladly as the kids join me for the final walk to the finish (I would run but Beau decides that walking is what he would like and I’m a very selfless guy). So I finish, exhausted and full of running in 14:40:48, 18th place.
On reflection I’m very pleased with this run. It was by far the hardest course I have tackled, and I measured my effort 95% spot-on. Lessons include better attention to drop bags, and making sure to eat right to the end. I fully recommend this event, its got a great team behind it and the first 40 and last 32k are just sublime to spectacular.
One more thing – We used these great GPS trackers called Yacht-Bots, which enabled friends and family to follow along at home – this was awesome! I hoped you enjoyed it – I certainly loved reading up on the FB comments from those who were following live. More (all!) races should do this. Review the race
After having a blast at this course back at the inaugural 2013 event, I have been looking for an opportunity to run it again. 2016 handed me the opportunity as it makes a perfect hilly build up race for my summer alpine adventure.
Myles joined me for this one, and we headed down to Raglan in the pre-dawn cloud. This year’s race water contrasted greatly with 2013 – instead of relentless sun we had the whole mountain enveloped in mist and occasional squalls passing over form the South West.
The race has obviously gone from strength to strength under the passionate RD’ing of Francois. You know a guy puts his all into a race when he hikes a 50L water can up 40 degree slopes so you can have an aid on the summit ridge. This year there was a real host of post race goodies to indulge in – a great BBQ, local fruit and veg and popcorn and a couple of kegs to sample curtesy of the good guys at Pilot Brewery just up the road.
After the dawn karakia Francois set us off up the grassy slopes, heading to wards the bush line and the obscured mountain top. I was in about 10th place and comfortable as we entered the forest canopy. I had bought my trail roc 255s, somehow imaging/remembering this race as a drier affair than it was. Should have taken the talons. It was mushy deep mud at the top, and I struggled for grip.
I made it to the top in about the same split as 2013, but took a bit longer going along the muddy ridge and down to Te Toko Gorge and the first aid station. I think this can be attributed to my lack of grip and not that I have lost my descending ability. Once again, I felt best on the Whaanga Road section – even with the hill training being my focus lately, the gruelling nature of these climbs was more than a match for me.
I caught up a bit on my 2013 split on the Whaanga Road and farm loop section. As I passed the start of the keen 10k people I knew the biggest climb was coming. And it proved once again that it was able to smack me down. I gave it my best but was unable to get a quicker split this year. I then slid my way back across the ridge before the enjoyable bomb downhill back to HQ. I stopped the clock in 2:51, 11th place (7th male), about 4 minutes faster than 2013.
So a great fun time, but not quite the demonstration of strength gains I had hoped for. A great and gruelling course. I was very impressed with the four mighty wahine ahead of me, and Chris Morrissey who showed his class by taking the race out for the 4th time, coming in just under 3 hours.
Definitely a race to recommend, I hope to be back in less than 3 years this time!