Nelson Lakes winter mission

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Mt Hopeless from the slopes of Mt Travers

Several months back I started dreaming of another epic to the hills and made contact with the usual suspects to see if there was interest. Of course Hardman Howell and Trooper Tom were keen for some more action in the high country. We were joined on this outing by Andy and Paul, both veteran adventurers of years at sea in the pacific in a small yacht (Andy) and Paul, a Canadian import with enough tales of bear encounters in the Canadian wilderness to keep us entertained well into the evening in the backcountry.

So as usual the plan was to get high, above the snow line and hopefully bag a couple of peaks. I had never been to Nelson Lakes  in winter and it was decided the scalp of Mt Angeles (2075 m) and Mt Travers (2338 m) with a alpine traverse of the Roberts Ridge would hit the spot. Carrying close to a 20 kg pack my training had involved my usual running with the MEC with several pack hikes with James on my back up and down the Auckland volcanoes.

Unfortunately I ended up being unable to join the start of the trip with work commitments meaning I was flying south 36 hours after the other guys. We had planned to have 4 nights in the hills so I would have only 3 and was a bit gutted to miss a good weather window. The other guys decided to make the most of the fine weather forecast for the initial couple of days and head up the ridge and stay the night in the Angeles hut, heading up Mt Angeles the following morning, then over the Sunset saddle and down Hopeless valley. I was flying down on the second day, heading straight to the lakes and managed to hitch a ride with Rotoiti boatman/political commentator Hamish on the water taxi saving 3 hours of walking up the lake. I still had another 16 km to hike up the valley solo to meet the guys at John Tait hut.

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Enjoying the solo walk in with me and my Macpac

I was enjoying the stunning winter bluebird day walking up the valley and as I rounded a corner not far from the hopeless valley I got my first sight of the mighty Mt Travers rising out of the valley. It was a breathtaking sight and looked like a monster towering on the horizon. I have to say on initial sight it looked enormous and from this angle steep and intimidating. I wondering if we would have any reasonable chance of getting up there.

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Mt Travers from the valley. We went up Route D and got as high as Col above the D letter (photo courtesy of climbnz.org.nz)

As I pressed on I felt excited by the prospect of a summit attempt the next day with some anticipation and a fair bit of uncertainty. I had been walking for 5 hours in fading light was looking forward to the rendezvous with the mob at John Tait hut. I was surprised on arrival at the hut to find three Nelson chaps who had come straight from the meatworks with my mates nowhere to be seen. They had a chuckle when I told them I had left from north of the Bombays that morning.

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The lads pumped to reach the summit of Angeles

Not too long later the guys arrived, they looked a bit ragged but stoked after a dawnie start, a perfect summit of Angeles and epic ten hour mission out the Hopeless valley. They had smashed it and scored a totally epic winter day on the tops and were elated with the summit. I was pumped to have some company and we started pouring over the map of the routes up Travers and plans for the following day. We had spent some time watching the weather forecast the previous few days and knew a couple of frontal systems were on the way later in the week. The latest weather forecast we had showed a frontal system coming in the following night with weather starting to deteriorate the following afternoon so we knew we had to be prepared to turn back early.

We set off the following morning in darkness under a clear sky at 7 am. We had 5 of us walking as a group and 2 Km up the valley turned off the track up the summit creek true left and started making our way through lush beech forest. The going was more straight forward than I anticipated with route finding pretty easy. We continued up and after a bit of a grunt we came out of the bush line and got some sweet views up to the summit. The cloud had started to roll in already on the tops and I have to say I was pretty gutted as this was the only day I had to get up to the tops.

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Andy looking up the valley as the cloud starts rolling in

Toms knees had started to give him grief after 2 big days in the hills with a big pack and the 5 of us had a discussion about the plan looking at the weather ahead, the forecast, and the fact the party had to split as Tom couldn’t go on up. I was still frothing to at least get my crampons on and get up as high as I could and of course hadn’t had the triumph of of standing on a summit the previous day. (I’ve always suffered a serious case of FOMO). Tom convinced us he could slowly make his way down solo and the four of us pushed on. We ran into a few bluffs on the true left of the valley as we got higher and downclimbed under a ice water all that hadn’t looked like had seen the sun for a few months.

There was a large bowl of snow surrounded by the rugged ridgeline to Mt Cupola, and I was stoked to finally hit the snowline after the long climb up from the valley. Paul was feeling fresh and the cloud had lifted so we pressed on up the bowl. By this stage the day had worn on and we decided with the forecast it would be prudent to turn back at 1 pm. We did not want to be stuck high on the hill if the weather deteriorated. We knew with a 1 pm turn the summit would be off the cards and focused on reaching a narrow col which would give us views out towards the southwest into the Sabine Valley.

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Paul enjoying a bit more snow than the Kaimais overlooking the Sabine 

As we climbed up higher approaching 2000 meters I was in my happy place. High up the hill, surrounded by rugged snow capped mountains. We had epic views towards Mt Hopeless and Mt Cupola which looked like fearsome and exposed mountains. I was surprised by the ease of travel in ideal snow conditions on what looked more intimidating from lower slopes. We were constantly looking up towards the summit and could see a clear route up to the right of the north buttress, which would take you up to the final slopes towards the summit.

We hit the Saddle and I was frothing, with epic views all around and steep rugged ridgelines going either direction from our position. The weather had actually improved on the morning and I felt a bit of disappointment that the summit was now out of our grasp, but total elation to be up high in the hills.

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On the col below Travers

After a few photos we turned three hundred vertical meters from the top. The walk down we avoided the bluffs and made good time. That night we consumed our whiskey rations and enjoyed the afterglow of and awesome day in the hills.

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Waiting for pickup after a beauty in the hills

It was an awesome trip and will remember those scenes up the top for sometime to come. With a little bit of time and reflection on the way out I had a think about some takeaways for next time :

  • Lock the time of work in the schedule to ensure I’m around for the full window
  • Mt Travers summit was in our grasp had we really wanted it. I have to say I was pretty intimidated by her when I first saw her rising out of the valley the previous day and perhaps at that moment she got the better of me and I gave her away. The takeaway ? Have self belief and stick to the goal even if it feels/looks intimidating. Until further information dictates otherwise or good decision making means you give it away, keep your objective clear – mountains often look steep and unclimbable but a route can be more doable than it looks. Make sure you and your crew are on the same page. The Leadville 100 motto rings true “You’re tougher than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can”
  • The crossovers between ultra running and alpine tramping are numerous – mental strength to push on hour after hour, importance of planning and nutrition, the satisfaction of standing on a summit/reaching a finish line, the camaraderie.
  • To be high in the hills in a remote place with some good mates is what stokes the fire for me, regardless of summit outcomes.

Strava link for the summit day https://www.strava.com/activities/1098716422

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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.

2016 Tarawera Ultra Marathon 100 km

So I found myself back at the Tarawera Ultra second year in a row tackling the big one (100km, 2800 + m climb). Finishing felt like much more of a certainty this year. Last year had taught me the seemingly impossible was actually quite doable with a bit of training, some mental fortitude and a small dose of madness.

TRAINING

Training as usual felt underdone, however on inspection I had in fact done the same kms Dec and Jan as I had done in the previous year. The big training run was the 60 km Kepler in early December which was a hard but successful (and stunningly beautiful) run for me. Read race report here. I had done my best to take Mikes advice and target hills for those last couple of months. A hill highlight was 230 flights of stairs then a 20 km run in the flat lands of Houston Texas, sweating it out in an ugly concrete stairwell alone was the type of training I knew would help me when going got tough at Tarawera. I also found time for a 44 km training run through the Redwoods and Okataina walkway out to Lake Rotoiti in early January.

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Kepler… Training Runs don’t get better than this! 

 

RACE OBJECTIVES

I had not given too much mental thought to the race prior to the few days before but I felt my objectives were reasonably clear:

  1. As always I wanted to enjoy and relish in the goodness of race day through epic country with good mates.
  2. Beat last years time (14:35) which I knew would be a success in itself with the conditions and slightly longer course this year – and had plugged in a total time of 13:43 into Rons race calculator (with no fade factor!) for a bit of a dream run.
  3. Lastly, if the pleasure of a racing challenge with first-time Tarawera speedster and fellow MECer Evan Atlkinson unfolded over the day, I would race as a gentleman but I also determined I would beat him if at all possible. He was untested over the 100 km format, very keen to run his own race, but I had no doubt in his strength and his determination should we find ourselves in a similar position late in the race. I relished in the thought of a serious battle unfolding and knew for me there was nothing better than a competitive MEC brother breathing down my neck to push me to my limit.
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Pumped to have my fans with me 

 

AND HOW IT UNFOLDED

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Start line, stoked to make it in time!! (although not as much as Caleb)

I almost missed the start after leaving my timing chip at home but some illegal speeding by my father in law in the dash home allowed me to reach the start line alongside my MEC bros with literally less than a minute to spare. School-boy error! I had discussed the night before starting out with Evan, I always enjoy running with others and we thought as long as we were both comfortable with the pace we would run together and see what unfolded. Brent ran with us in an-uncharacteristically restrained fashion and we settled in.

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Digging in Deep at Blue Lake with Evan

I always enjoy the first third of an ultra trail race. Running with my mates, not feeling any pain, generally just overwhelming joy and good vibes and stoked to be in soaking up the scenery. I noticed Evan and I were quick on the walking up hills, (thanks Mike for the training advice). As forecast, conditions were wet, warm but not overly so, I felt very comfortable. It was great to run with Evan and the kms were falling easily. As I do most of my training runs solo I always love the crowds and support of a race, in particular seeing the family at Blue Lake and Okareka was such a lift.

 

We rolled into Okataina after about 5 hours (approx. 39 km) within a couple of minutes of Rons super calculator. I was conscious of the large amounts of time I had spent at aid stations last year and my plan was to refuel quickly and keep going this time around. Evan and I set out together. As expected the leg from Okataina to Tarawera Outlet was hard. I am very slow on muddy technical and being an Acky rock hopper Evan pretty quickly pulled away from me. I always struggle with the middle section of an ultra – feeling gassed but still knowing I have 50 km to run is hard. I arrived into Humphries bay tired with a rock in my shoe and morale a bit down. Evan was a couple of minutes ahead and about to leave the station and had a rugged but brave looking Brent by his side.

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MEC green shirts leading the charge 

I pushed on trying my very best to keep up. I knew from experience it doesn’t matter how bad it feels, the good times will come again before too long. The field was now spread wide and every time I saw someone through the trees I pushed on excitedly to find it wasn’t Evan but he had picked off someone else out of the field. In this section I ran into Brent. He was in a bad way and looked sick as a dog, was nauseous and cramping up. Any semi normal ultra runner would be electing to bow out at a very respectable 60 km but I knew Brent would run until he was scraped up off the dirt. I left him to it, wished him well and was quietly thankful that my struggles were incomparable.

I managed to keep Evan in my grasp and arrived at Tarawera Falls not far behind him. We both put on fresh shoes and I was stoked to be dropping my sodden trail shoes that had given me large blisters. The Falls is a massive mental turning point for me. A big crowd, the technical trail is over, only an easy 40 km to go (!) and I knew in only 10 km at the 70 km mark I would have a pacer join me. I left the Falls with a spring in my step and felt it was time to capitalize on the good mental headspace.

Not too far out of the Falls Evan slowed for a brief walk and I kept my slow jog on. I didn’t look back but thought with my pace I would start to pull away. A few minutes later I heard Evan yell out Hi from behind. He wouldn’t let me go. Not long later he slowed again and I was feeling ok and began picking up my pace. I knew to shake him properly would require a sustained effort at a higher tempo for sometime, and that is exactly what I did. I picked up the pace and ran hard and did not turn around to look for a couple of kms until I was pretty sure he was gone.

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Trail beauty arriving at the Falls 

I arrived after a quick few kms into Titoki (72 km) feeling strong and was joined by Dad who was going to be my support runner for 20 km. We set off for Awaroa and it was great running with the old man. He told all the same yarns as last year, good times. I maintained my pace and slowly found myself picking off people. The notorious loop of despair felt surprisingly doable and we pressed on. I did not doubt for a moment that Evan would be pushing it behind me and I did not let up the pace, half expecting him to come around the corner anytime. I was not wrong either, Evan was running a great race and at times closing my lead on him, particularly from Awaroa inbound. (check out Strava Flybys!)

I knew it was only a few clicks until finish line escasty and I was pumped. I could see all going well I might beat my 13:43 time on Rons race calculator and picked up the pace. Dad was going to stop after 20 km at Fishermans Bridge (92 km) but was feeling strong and decided to press on the finish. He was doing awesome for an old chap who hadn’t trained but he stopped briefly for a pee and said he would catch up. By this stage I had a good dose of finish line fervor and was off, despite his best efforts Dad did never did catch up. I was in my happy place when I crossed the line in 13:27:09 and I cheered Dad as he ran solo down the chute a couple of minutes behind. Evan arrived a few moments later in fine form.

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Stoked to be finished!!

POSTSCRIPT

So how did it go? The Tarawera dished up the beauty and good vibes as always. I was on the buzz all week afterwards! I have never felt so hydrated in an Ultra and the nutrition plan went really well (Gels every 45 min and grab solid food every aid station). I sustained no injuries and recovery was quick.

In terms of a race I was very happy with my time and surprised how well it went. It was awesome to having such a great sparing partner in Evan, I certainly wouldn’t have crossed the line at 13:27 without his morale support and competition to drive me on. Full credit to Evan for his first 100 km race, with no pacer and under the tough conditions his race was exceptional. Also deserving a mention was Brent who showed unbelievable levels of persistence to run out the race in the state he was. Dad and Elysia were amazing support as always and I couldn’t have had the race I had without them. Thanks to Mike and co for the training and camradarie….I told Mike this is my last ultra for an undetermined time – Although I’m already missing it so watch this space 🙂

Strava Link here

 

 

 

 

 

 

2016 Tarawera Ultra, nearly but not quite

Revrun reports

Buildup: B+

Very happy with how my late spring / early summer went. I had two races (SkyRockNRun and Westcoaster) of around 5hrs with lots of climb in November and December. I was consistent, managing to get my 60-70k per week in around my other priorities. Then in January I ramped up the climbing further and got some great trail runs and hikes in. Only thing really lacking was a couple of runs around the 50k mark. I think having one that finished with some gradual road climbs would be good specific prep for this race.

Pre race prep, physical: A

Got down the day before. Hydrated and carbo-loaded well. Noticed that I was really tight in my hips so foam rolled them to bits the night before. Had all my crew instructions ready to go and got to bed just after 10.

Pre race prep, mental: D

I was fit, in probably the best shape I ever have been for this race. And so my goal was a small PB – 15 mins. Very reasonable. However, I had not dug the motivation deeper than that. This is a race I have loved. But still it is an event where experincing discomfort is certain, and suffering and misery are likely. Therefore, having a single time goal is a very vulnerable motivation. A breadth of goals is what is needed e.g. Run my best race on the day, come top x in my category. Push through the pain to finish strong. Never give up, stay positive, keep moving.  This is Racing 101, so big points off for this lapse in preparation

Race execution: C

Ron, Caleb and I met at the start and ran together as planned. We actually started a bit further back than ideal but made up by catching plenty on the first 5k. In retrospect, I pushed a little hard on some of the first leg single track in aid of getting to a pace that felt most efficient. Lesson: Start further up. If caught back, bide time and protect legs and await some firetrail to get into position.
Interestingly my heart rate (HR) was a bit high for the first leg. Not sure why, I felt fine. Still thinking on it. Came right by Leg 2 to Okataina.
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The trip to Okataina is the most familiar part of the course, and I was happy with our progress here. The effort felt manageable and the HR came back to expected. We came to the Okataina aid station in 4:09:05, just 4 minutes down on my predicted splits for a 10:45 finish.
The third leg to Tarawera Falls was hard. We ended up doing it about 10 minutes slower than expected, but the body felt like we had being pushing hard, not taking it easy. This is still a bit of a puzzle. With the rainy conditions, I thought we would have an easier time (less effort shifting heat), but perhaps the mud made our legs work just that much harder that they fatigued sooner. I had great grip in my X-Talons, but was very glad to swap them out for road shoes at the Falls.
As mentioned in Ron’s report, our three man team collectively stepped off the gas at the Tarawera Falls. I saw we were about 15 mins down on time needed to make goal of 10:45, and not feeling nearly as fresh as expected/desired. That felt like there was no chance of hitting the target (huge mental mistake – counting your current state  of wearyness/energy/misery as if it is fixed, when actually you can recover). In actual fact, we were in the top 35 at this point (but unaware) as everyone was behind schedule! We transitioned from pulling each other along, to happily going at the lowest common speed – i.e. whoever was slowest set the pace. Toilet stops, walking breaks, we all took them together.
It was nice to have company, but if I am honest, it was real hard going. I have had more fun pushing myself hard in this section, drawing everything out of my fatigued body. I was downcast at missing my goal, and Caleb wasn’t having a happy time either. Ron seemed content, and we all trudged in slow silence. The quiet company of three was no match for the motivational force of an engaged pacer (or a competitive/positive mindset). No complaints from me, I was very glad to have the boys to run with and wait with – but just a reflection that I wanted to share as a lesson.
On the way to Awaroa after Titoki I noticed my pee had gone from yellow – dark yellow – brown. I started to drink more, but was feeling fine so not particularly bothered by this. Then just as we left the Awaroa aid station (83k) I noticed that it was brown and red. Oh. Not good. I won’t go into the difference between myoglobinuria (extremely bad) and exercise associated haematuria (maybe bad, maybe benign), but I knew that my kidneys were likely stressed regardless. This left me quite stressed. Ron gave me the good advice to go back to the aid and slam some fluids. I did this, asked if there was any medical person there (no, they had just left) and filled both my bottles. I made the decision to run it to Fisherman’s bridge 8.5k away. Dad would be there, which meant an objective opinion, and potential evacuation in his car if necessary.TUM_2016_Bluelake
Ron and Caleb had waited for me (much appreciated) and we picked up the pace and ran down the hills. I now had motivation to get there quickly and was moving the fastest I had in a couple of hours, with little change in effort. Amazing how perspective change can impact your performance. We got to Fisherman’s Bridge and I was very relieved. I took a couple of minutes to check my urine and think and discuss with Dad what to do. I decided to take the safe option and pull out there at the aid station. I sent the guys who were now quite wet and cold from waiting for me onward and I spoke to the race medical team who concurred (nice medical word eh?) with my decision. An hour later in the med tent at the finish I had put on 1.3 kilos (i.e. over-hydrated) and shortly after this I was peeing clear again. The kidneys had bounced back from the hydration and I was fine. In retrospect I can see that I had rehydrated sufficiently (actually too much hypo-isotonic fluid – hence the weight gain) and would have made it to the finish OK. However, I wasn’t to know that at Fisherman’s Bridge and so while very disappointed not to finish, I am reassured that I made the sensible call on the day. Better to live to fight another day then die trying to prove you’re a hero.
So, another year at this excellent event, but definitely not my best or my favourite performance. Some great results from the MEC though, and I will live it to those chaps to tell you the story for themselves. See you soon on the trails.

2016 TUM100 – everything changes (same as every other year)

2012, the first crack at the TUM100 came in at 12:07hrs from a desired time of 11hrs. On the fifth attempt it ended in 12:15hrs from a desired 10:45hrs. Not only was it the slowest of the standard 100km course attempts, but it also saw the greatest gap between expectations and reality.

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Happy times =

The thing is, I had thought I was coming into the event better prepared than ever and I was only 7mins off my 10:50hrs target time last year.

So what gives? It appears it wasn’t a decrease in effort, my TRIMP score (think a conservative Strava Suffer Score) was near identical to last year 1105 vs 1107. These were the highest of any of my past TUM, including the extended distance/climb 2013 Fire Edition. Nor was it cracking and running in a state of exhaustion, I didn’t feel like death during or after the event. In fact recovery was excellent, and somewhat quicker than previous years. Nutrition and hydration was also better than previous years, ate and drank well, no gastro issues.

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See -I’m eating
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So Tasty! Mmmm.

That leaves two suspects. The most obvious was the conditions, it was wetter and warmer than the 2013 Lusi Cyclone edition. The course didn’t actually feel terribly slow underfoot, and unlike many I wasn’t wearing clown shoes so felt pretty confident on the climbs/descents (wizard sticks helped). Even though it was wet and grey, it was warm and humid from the get go. Despite a solid effort over the first 60km our pace was well down, so maybe these early exertions were just sucking out energy more rapidly than anticipated?

The other identified suspect was the social approach of the run, as three of us were all targeting a 10:45 finish we started as a pack. And ran as a pack. Each nicely pushing the pace over the first 60km. I guess each aware that we were falling further and further behind schedule. Then at the Tarawera Falls aid station, since a sub-11hr was clearly off the cards it was like an unspoken contract was entered to cruise to the finish. Nobody pushed the pace, nobody parted company to press on alone. Nobody mentioned time or pace.

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So long suckers

It was nice running as a bunch, comfortable. It wasn’t like I was trapped in an unwanted social contract. It just stopped being an individual race I guess. Fine by me, I’ll take challenging collaboration over competition given a choice. Unfortunately the dream three-way MEC finish wasn’t to be, though we did finish as two. The others’ stories are sure to come…

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Happy times…

Kepler Challenge 2015

 

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Kepler Track, in the misty mountains of Fiordland

The Kepler Track is one of the most spectacular of the Great Walks, with high alpine ridgeline travel, situated in the wild environment of Fiordland -it has forever been on my to do list. I’d walked/ran 6 of the other Great Walks over the years but not the Kepler – and never one to enjoy missing out on a mission, when I heard some of the MEC bros were putting their names in the hat it didn’t take much convincing.

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Burton, Thom, Evan and Dave. MECs elite action squad (Photo Credit Kristy)

Of the four of us planning to do it, only Evan initially made the cut for the ticket but Burton, Dave and myself eventually made tickets from the waitlist. I was pretty stoked on the line up we had, aside from running it with such a top bunch of lads it was cool to be lining up with some of the MECers who were of similar caliber.

There were loads of LOLS at the very understated southern race briefing the night before. “Should be a nice up there, wind is now only gale (dropped from severe gale)” etc etc. We were not optimistic about the weather after the forecast, with snow on the hills and chances of heavy falls in gale force winds.

So the plan was pretty simple. We would set out together at an easy pace, walk the hills, stay as a group over the tops (first 25-30km), enjoy this scenic section as a pack and then see how we go for the relatively flat last 30 km. I figured there was plenty of ground to cover and pick up the pace for the last 30 km if I found myself with some gas in the tank. With a total climb of over 2000 m we all agreed if we could get over the hills with something left in the legs then that would make or break the race. 8 hours race time seemed like a good number to aim for although wasn’t based on any particular plan. My usual nutrition plan was to eat gels every 45 mins to start then 30 mins at the latter stages and grab some grub enroute at the aid stations.

So we set off to race plan and after an easy warm up jog through the flat forest at about 5 km we launched into the steep climb up to the tops. Walking was the plan and that is exactly what we did. Just as we approached the edge of the bushline we felt the full brunt of the wind and we were hit by rain. We stopped and put on all our gear.

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Awesome ridgeline trails 

 

On the tops it was a true alpine environment, and the trail flattened and sky opened up in places. The views were breathtaking, I was in my happy place and I hardly noticed the climbing terrain or the occasional nasty squalls that came through. I was running with my mates through some of the best NZ has to offer and the kms fell easily. We had a brief stop for a gear check at Luxmore Hut and continued up. There was banter and good times, the wild weather only added to the intensity of the Fiordland experience – in the exposed places it was pretty cold in the wind. As we continued on the ridgeline the weather improved significantly and we were running razorback ridgelines with a backdrop of the Kepler and Murchinson mountains. Epic.

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Evan, Burton and Dave posing while being overtaken
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More eating and posing

At about 25 km the trail dropped steeply off the tops out of the alpine section and back into the bush with the notorious quad busting switchbacks. The trail was busy at this point the Acky brothers took off like madmen down the hills flying past big packs of people. I couldn’t keep up with them and Burton was nursing the quads down the hill. The thought crossed my mind that I might not see the guys again so I left Burton to it and tried to catch up. As the trail flattened out a bit down the bottom I caught the Ackys and the three of us set off out from the Iris Burn Hut.

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Dropping off the tops, what a view (photo credit Evan)

I was struggling with the pace keeping up with Evan who was running strongly. Also mentally, now I was out of the beauty of the tops and still with a solid 25 – 30 km or so to go I entered again that familiar dark place that seems to be a part of at least some of every ultra.

Eventually we spread out and we each ran at out own pace, I couldn’t keep up with Evan, and Dave dropped a bit behind me. Evan always waited at the aid stations for Dave and I, who weren’t too far behind. There were certainly times where I felt like I was battling for every km. At least the track was very well maintained and generally easy underfoot.

As we closed in for the last 20 or so km I was pretty sure that I would not see Evan again and stuck with trying to maintain my pace and battling to the end. I arrived at the aid station at Moturau, 16 km from the end I was surprised to see Evan who was looking pretty relaxed and I had a quick chat. Shortly after, Dave arrived, and while I was having my usual scoff much to my surprise Burton appeared from around the corner! I was totally stoked for him to see him running so well, and the four of us were briefly together. Evan was ready to go and not long later I set off by myself – Dave and Burton were wolfing down some supplies at the station. We all left that aid station separately but within a minute of one another according to the recorded times.

 

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The Acky Bros, Fearless downhill speedsters, Morale boosters on the trail.

So I love running the hills with the bros and the epic camaraderie in a stunning environment – but a race is a race and for me anyway at this stage my competitive side started to rear its head. I had given up hope at this stage of running Evan down, he was ahead and throughout the race seemed so strong, but I felt like if I did not hold it together Burtons fine form would make the better of me as well so I determined I would maintain as brisk as pace as possible, and once we hit the last 10 km dig deep and finish with nothing in the tank.

So Burton chose to surprise me again a few minutes later and charged up from behind. He was absolutely stoked and to me he seemed fresh, jovial and elated. I felt spent. We ran together for a while, the pace was strong and we were overtaking people. It was such a lift to be running with my old pal in such an epic setting (and in such a world of pain!). A bit later in a bout of finishline fever me and Burton parted ways and I pushed ahead, determined to maintain the best pace I could.

At the 10 km mark we hit the Rainbow Reach aid station and I was stoked to see Burtons and Evans support crews and it was a real lift. They mentioned Evan had only just left the station and I decided I would not stick around and keep moving, I was feeling tired, but mentally strong. The trampers we overtook were standing aside and clapping as we ran through, all a great encouragement in the latter stages. I found myself breaking the kms to go down to bite size pieces – 3 km is only one lap at Cornwall Park etc. Not long afterwards I saw Evan up in front and I won’t lie, I was happy to see him within striking distance ahead. As I approached he told me had cramp, which was a real bummer as he had been running so strongly, I gave him a salt tab and pushed on, aware Burton was hot on my heels!

The last 5 km I felt the elation of the finish line approaching and with the mental lift got some faster kms under my belt, it felt awesome to be overtaking people, which only fed the enthusiasm. (28 places in last 10 km wohoo!). I was frothing to cross the line and truly felt like I was spent. (8:24:56).

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Feeling Fresh!! smashed but happy (photo Credit Kristy)

It had been an epic day on the trails with some legend lads. I have to make a shout out to Evan and Burton who I thought totally smashed it particularly considering it was their first ultra. And also pretty cool all four of us finished within 14 mins of one another over a 60 km race, pretty awesome considering in the end we all ran our own race.

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Burton and his crew… legend effort from zero to 60 km in one year. That man is Stoked!!

2015: A Year in GPS Trail Watch Review

After putting a bunch of GPS watches through some robust trail testing and long term experience with them we can do a ‘best fit’ for various runners. The runners described are –

Adventure and ultra-plus: battery endurance, accuracy in difficult conditions, reliability, navigation and back-country functionality.

Fast and furious trail racer: trail accuracy, reliability, and racing functions.

Budget trail runner: trail accuracy, +12hr battery endurance, and anything else we can get

Smartypants trail runner: trail capable, +12hr battery endurance, smartphone features

Roadie with a bit of trail on the side: like the fast and furious, but with less trail features.

The watches in the 2015 test pool were: Garmin’s FR310XT, FR910XT, fēnix 2, and fēnix 3, Polar’s V800, Suunto’s Ambit2, and Ambit3 Peak.

Note: not all these unit’s have full write ups yet but they’ve all done the time. Write ups are on their way.

Adventure and ultra-plus

First pick: Suunto Ambit3 Peak, unrivaled in the category. More accurate with more endurance than anything else tested, combined with absolute reliability and best navigation functionality.

Runner up: Suunto Ambit2, like the newer Ambit3 Peak but with less endurance and a few less features.

Fast and furious trail racer

First pick: Garmin FR910XT, not quite the match of the Ambits in terms of accuracy (is prone to extended track shadowing), but has a more race friendly design and feature set (screen legibility, vibrate alerts, button placement/feel, virtual pacer).

Runner up: Suunto Ambit3 Peak, while a more capable unit in most areas, it just loses out on the specific demands of blurred vision racing.

Budget trail runner (if you can find them)

First pick: Garmin FR910XT, pretty obvious really. Is more accurate with more proven endurance than the fēnix’s. Can’t be used day to day, and is prone to a bit of off-track meandering from time to time.

Runner up: Garmin FR310XT, pretty much like the 910XT without the altimeter. Also is orange and a bit bulkier.

Note: If there were a market for 2nd hand Ambit2’s they’d be worth a look too.

Smartypants trail runner

First pick: Garmin fēnix 3, more features than you can count on both fivefingers. Great looking, user design is excellent, and pretty impressive smartphone integration for a trail beast. Is held back by poor real world battery endurance and middling accuracy in tree cover.

Second pick: Polar V800, solid smartphone notifications, nice screen and easy to use design. Doesn’t quite cut is a full featured trail watch though, pretty accurate outside tree cover but stated distance a bit variable in the trees.

Road with a bit of trail on the side

Too hard to pick.

Suunto’s Ambit3 Peak is super accurate, has some great road running metrics, screen a bit average and lacks vibrate alerts, advanced workouts/interval training dependent on mobile app which still a bit iffy on Android.

The Polar V800 is fantastic on the road and urban trail, save the bulky pods, some proprietary issues, and general lack of trail features. Also often slow to acquire GPS.

And the Garmin FR910XT is still a class act on the trail and road, though can’t be used as a day to day watch and acquisition time is a bit painful in comparison with modern caching GPS.