The Kepler Challenge 2017- an exercise in cramp management

 

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Happy boys

2017 has been a mixed bag of running for myself. A bumper start with the Ultra Easy in January, looking back I probably bit off a bit more than I could chew; but it made me hungry for more. One of the major things I took away from that race is that I wanted to live in Wanaka. And the wheels were set in motion to move.

February saw the TUM where Brent and myself took on the relay. My old foe cramps caught up with me on leg 4 and I limped in the last 10 or so km. The race left me in a pretty dark place about running for a while.

I had a new lease on running when I sat down and set some serious goals for the year. None of which have been accomplished as of yet. But I feel I have made some good strides towards achieving them. My main goal was to set a good marathon time at the Auckland marathon. I started working hard towards it but a bout of sore knees, flu, sinus, having a baby as well as moving to Wanaka put pay to completing the training for the thon.

The major positive for the year was the first Saturday in June at 06:00 where I secured a spot in the Kepler. A race I had done well in 2015 with a 08:30 finish as my first ultra, last year I ended up at number 1 one the wait list. So a great feeling to be back in the race. I now had a serious goal to work too, which was basically an arbitrary number I had picked which was taking an hour off my previous time!

My training was pretty solid with November being a great month weather wise and training wise. One of my my most notable runs was a recce of the first half of the Kepler course with a Dutch guy who lives in Boston, called Victor, who advertised on the Wild Things Facebook page that he wanted to do a run with some company on the course as his last long run before the event, what sweetened the deal is that he had a helicopter picking us up half way along the track. Victor was a wealth of knowledge about splits and gave me great info about where I should be when in relation to my time goal. We did the run at 08:00 finishing pace, which felt very comfortable to me. It gave me a lot of confidence that my goal was achievable.

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The pre race briefing was entertaining, there was a fair amount of fanfare as it was the 30th running of the Challenge. The local Te Anau doctor giving us some tips for the race ahead, these included having a small meal, and no alcohol that evening. I had consumed a massive box of pasta for dinner just before arriving at the briefing and had a pint of beer with Connor and Lucy too. Great start I was thinking to myself… #FAIL. He then went on to say, don’t consume any alcohol after the event either. The blood pretty much drained from my face at this point. No beer after running 60km. “What kind of quack is this guy? Someone ask for his credentials. We are talking to ultra runners here” the greatest surprise to me is that he wasn’t heckled off the stage. I presume it was due to the amount of newbies running the race about half by a show of hands during the briefing. Most of which looked like a possum in the lead lights by the stories of doom and gloom. At this point I decided that not all doctors are equal, Mike- if you ever have to do this type of briefing at a race I hope you have at least read the latest research, the research that tells us the good news about our bad habits and keep it at that. The weather briefing, seemed to have a common thread, it was going to be hot, in fact the first time in years that it was going to be a positive wind chill of +11 and mid to late 20’s down the bottom. Although it was going to be windy along the tops. According to the him it was better to run faster so you got off the course before it really started getting hot, at last someone was speaking some sense in this briefing. The local DOC representative briefed us that the course was looking superb and challenged us to go for the record.

I had a surprisingly good nights sleep and got picked up in the morning by Connor and Lucy, and set out to the start line at the control gates, feeling pretty relaxed. A last checkin with the officials we all gathered on the control gates excited, nervous and rearing to complete a lap of this beautiful part of Fiordland. I met up with victor at the start line and we set out together for the first few minutes, my time to broad bay (32 minutes) at the bottom of the hill was bang on a 07:30 finish. I had been chatting to a guy from Wanaka for most of the first section- funnily enough winging about the cost of houses. The hill climb starts fairly gently, and a few runnable sections, which I decided I would walk all the way to the tree line with a few jogs on the flat sections just to give the walking legs a break, I got passed by plenty of runners, but I still felt pretty happy about my pacing.

Just below the tree line I could hear the wind whipping through the tops of the trees, and the promised 50km/hr wind was well and truly blowing, it seemed to be in our faces for most of the way over the tops. I didn’t feel cold though, so I didn’t need to stop and put on any warm gear. The run up to Luxmore hut is a real gem, and has some great vistas of the lake down to Te Anau and across to the mountains in the west. I got to the hut in 01:46. A quick refuel and gear check at the hut and I was off. I decided to put my gloves on at this stage as I had them out of the bag anyway. One of the great things about doing to reccie run was that I knew that there was still about 500m of climbing to do before we started going back down again, and had saved my legs for what was to come. I started passing some of the uphill runners at this stage and got a burst of energy. Halfway up the first big climb past the hut, I came across Grant Guise (couple of top 10 hardrock finishes to his name) with a cowbell cranking obscenely loud music from a speaker and offering shots of tequila so we could warm up. I had real FOMO but decided against having a shot. Cecilia coming through plus a tequila shot

800BF144-FB78-48FB-9BDA-4B310EAA7EC0A couple more climbs and descents along the tops heading west with amazing views of the lake 1000m below us and great runnable tracks, we reached hanging valley shelter at 23km bang on a 07:30 split and still feeling very comfortable. Little did I know how quickly things can unravel. The Long descent to Iris Burn hut the halfway point, starts with a number of sets of stairs and that’s where the first hiccup of the race came, I had a big stumble and in my quick footing to not end up a heap on the side of the track I got a huge cramp in my right hamstring. I have had cramps numerous times in the past so I knew this could get very ugly very quickly. While I was stretching my cramp out Malcolm Law came flying past me looking very fresh. I spent a few minutes working on the cramp and soon set off again only to take 20 steps and be crippled by cramp again. The worry turned in to total disbelief that after all my hill training I was a wreck after 23km. I set out again, to tackle the 88 switchbacks to Iris Burn, only after taking a handful of salt tabs and numerous sprays from my trusty cramp spray bottle and smashing 2 gels (probably not very healthy but hey you got to do what you got to do). I started out pretty tentatively but soon my confidence was back and seemingly I was keeping the cramps at bay. I passed one runner and then another and started running well again. One runner even commented as I ran comfortably past him that he would “see me on the flats”probably a reference that I was going too hard, but I was in fact reeling it in compared to my descents on the training runs. With about 1 km to go to the aid station I stepped aside to let a runner through who was going about double my speed, as he passed me I had another stumble on a rock this time my other hamstring cramped and I spent the next few minutes in pain on the track. I repeated the “remedy” form the top of the hill and finally got going, rolling into the aid station on 07:30pace, and in 156th place. From here on in salt tabs were being eaten by the fistful and instead of spraying cramp stray I started drinking from the bottle (of course all tongue in cheek, but that’s what it felt like).

The next section to rocky point aid station was probably the best section of the race for me as I had no cramps and felt great and was running well within myself and passed Malcolm who was still looking good. At rocky point I was on approximately 07:25 splits the next two sections to Moturau hut at 45 km (145th place) and Rainbow reach at 50km (also 145th place) were progressively more difficult as the cramps returned with a bang and each time I ran a downhill or started pushing I ended up cramping up. Although I lost places while starching out cramp I seemed to make them up while I was moving, which was extremely frustrating as I was feeling great otherwise. The temperature really started cranking up as we left the shade of the bush at Moturau hut into the full sunlight. I started consuming more oranges and bananas at the aid stations as well as upping my electrolyte intake. The run along the lake manapouri down to the river is a great undulating trail in the lush Fiordland bush. One of the fantastic parts of the Kepler is the support from all the hikers on the track, many of which offered words of encouragement and claps and even on occasion organised war cry’s and chanting, it’s a real lift of the spirits when energy levels are low.

The aid stations start coming thick and fast towards the end when you really start needing them, from Rainbow reach to the end is about 10km with 2 aid stations between. I started throwing water onto my head as it was starting to get really hot. The cramps were coming thick and fast and I was loosing time. With about 2km to go I could hear the melodic tones of the announcer at the finish line wafting down the river, my hunger was growing to get this beast finished. Unfortunately my legs just wouldn’t play the game, having to stretch out another set of cramps. Suddenly I popped out of the bush and saw the control gates I knew that my 07:30 goal was over. I put in the obligatory burst of speed as I headed down the home strait while the announcer called me in. I crossed the line in 07:45 and some change and in 148th place a result that I was extremely happy with. A quick massage and a warm beer against doctors orders and I started feeling better.

A huge Congrats to Connor who put in a huge effort to finish in 07:10 a great effort. As well as Victor who finished in 08:47, who I know will be back to crack his 08:00 goal.

The back to back winner was Sam McCuutcheon bin a time of 04:49 outside of the course record set by Martin Dent. Ruby Muir crushed the woman’s field for her 5th win at the Kepler, less then 2 minutes outside of the course record. Ron’s nemesis from the Taniwha Cecilia Flori came in second.

My take home from this event is that my fitness was spot on for my goal, and my hard work during training had really paid off to set a 45min PB on the course. The homework about how not have my body reject me during these crazy adventures is in full swing and I’m looking forward to my next adventure with a cooperative body. I will be back to complete the loop around some of New Zealand’s finest landscapes in years to come. https://www.strava.com/activities/1298425597

I have committed to the ultra easy in January as my goal race for the season as I have some unfinished business on that course, and with a few changes to the course as well as adding 6km I can’t wait to line up. As well as the MEC Motatapu assault which a race which scares me, after doing a training run on the course. Unfortunately I don’t believe I will be joining Ron for the double Motatapu, NorthBurn back to back double, I just can’t seem to wrap my head around a miler just yet.

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Ready to start
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Auckland Marathon 2017

With a reasonably long and to date unsuccessful Auckland Marathon history I was keen at some point to go head to head with the old girl and bury the demons. Previous attempts had ended in injury and a waddle to the finish in 3:54 in 2013, and a more spectacular crumble into an ambulance case at 40 km in 2014. Read Here. My PB was 3:42:01 at the Queenstown Marathon in 2015.

Hence with no ‘honest’ road marathon training and attempt to date Mike embraced my interest with enthusiasm when I proposed it to him a couple of months back and set me up with a training program.

I could only commit to 3 runs a week with a few things on. So the plan for each week: 1 long run, building up to 3 hours with some speed work; 1 workout (MEC Tuesday) and 1 easier run around 45- 60 mins.

The training came together pretty much as planned and included most of my long runs in the heat abroad. I also managed a couple of local beauties, notably a stormy outing up Castle rock with Sean and a tough last session with Mike and James around the domain. I was unable to enter the Onehunga half as planned so decided on a solo effort over the course pulling out a 1:35 which was an unofficial PB by 2 mins.

Things seemed to be tracking pretty good coming up to taper so I decided that my original main goal of a sub 3:30 would become my plan C. I was still pretty nervous about having a too aggressive race plan after my previous attempts and set my Plan A dream race pace for 4:50/kms, (3:24 race time), and my plan B to beat my partner in crime Evans PB of 3:27 (just quietly!). If I felt good on race day I would launch out at 4:50/kms and see if I could hold on.

I found myself up on race day early and more nervous anticipation than perhaps I had ever had in a race. It was good to catch up with Connor and James at the start line and have a warmup jog and a familiar face in a green singlet!

I settled into the race and was enjoying the beautiful morning and the good vibes of race day. The kms fell easily, I felt good and conditions were great with a cloudy day and light-moderate north easterly. I stuck to my plan of gels every 30 mins. It felt like I was holding back and struggled to not run faster than 4:50s, with a few splits in the first 20 kms faster than the race plan.

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Gels from my support team on Tamaki Drive

 As usual I was buoyed by the crowd support and of course the great turn out of MEC supporters. I caught Mike and Ron on Quay St outbound, and was starting to hit a bit of breeze blowing up the harbour. I mentally felt awesome, but the hammies were starting to feel a bit tired. I was in a pack of guys and spent a fair bit of time drafting behind some of them.

I ran a few hundred meters with Evan around Okahu bay who offered encouragement and enjoyed the company. Through this section I felt to maintain 4:50s was taking me to a higher effort threshold and I ran to feel and ran a few slower splits around the 4:55’s. I was aware in the back of my mind of mikes advice – let the race come to you – and I knew from experience you can feel like a million bucks at 30-35 km and be in world of hurt half an hour later.

One of the great things about Auckland is the out and back gives you the opportunity to see the leaders running inbound as well as your mates, and it was cool to see James on fire up with the speedsters (and Ruby Muir) and Connor not far behind.

At the turn I was pretty pumped to be out of the headwind and on the ‘home straight”. I increased my gel intake to 20 minute intervals and prepared for the private battle that I would inevitably endure and watched a few runners start to unravel around me. I was determined to not let the race slide away from me in the final reaches and held the pace to a minimum 4:50’s. The cheering faces of my family and familiar MECers were a great lift.

As I approached the last 5 kms including the spot where I unravelled last time I was working hard for my pace but was surprised how good I felt, and knew I had a bit in the tank still. I lifted the pace a bit to 4:30’s and knew that unless I was unlucky enough to have cramps I had this race in the bag.

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Feeling Strong (but not enough to stand up!)

I ended up with a good finish and final time of 3:24:30. My splits for first half were 1:42:31 and second 1:41:58 which I was pumped about. I was pretty ecstatic about the race result and stoked to finally settle the score. Thanks Mike for the plan and encouragement and all the rest of the crew for the support on the day. A road marathon raced at your best is a beautiful tension between triumph and tragedy, and it can easily go either way if you are giving it your all. I’m looking forward to taking the race fitness from here and getting back into the trails in the new year.

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With Connor at the finish line

Strava link Here

Maunga Man Prelude – Yosemite Vertical Km 2016

Prelude

As a warm-up to this years “vertical km” MEC Maunga man, I thought I would share my previous vertical KM run I did in Yosemite National Park last year, when visiting the states for a good friends wedding.

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The Classic view of Yosemite Valley at Sunset

Having achieved the primary goal of the visit; the exhilarating ascent of  ‘Half Dome’ (stay tuned for that adventures post), my climbing partner (Ryan) knackered and just the morning remaining till departure, we set a plan for a Car vs. Man race to the majestic Glacier Point. I would run the ‘4 Mile Hike’ trail straight up the valley wall, Ryan would drive the 60 miles out of the valley and back around. May the best man win.

4 Mile Hike

https://www.strava.com/activities/722224672

After the brief warm-up from the trail head the the valley wall, I quickly figured out that this Hike had only two pitches; Switch backs up the valley wall and then traverses around obstacles. Starting the climb looking west out of the valley you quickly rise up above the valley floor of cedar and pine. With each progressive switch back offering higher and higher elevated views of ‘El Capitan’ and the cathedral spires.

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Climbing out of Yosemite Valley – (El Capitan looking away from you on the Right)

With the steep pitch and stunning views, all I could muster was a fast hike up the climbs, sprinkled with jogging recoveries on anything resembling run-able. The view got better and better with each successive switch back, so this quickly went from a semi-serious attempt at a vertical km, to a good time photo taking adventure 🙂

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Nice.

Geology Corner

The bulk of the ascent was achieved in the first 6km of the trail at a fairly consistent 15% gradient of 150m/km. At this point you complete a traverse under a sheer cliff and turn to the south looking straight up the valley to reveal the imperilous Half Dome.

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The solid granite peak and sheer face of Half Dome (conquered the day before)

Fun Facts: The whole Yosemite valley was once the giant magma chamber of a super volcano. Over millennia this granite plug was lifted up to the surface where glaciers first  wore away the soil to reveal the granite and then brutally carve the valley shape that you see today. The half dome is smooth on top as the glaciers once flowed over the top grinding it smooth!

The day before, we had hiked 30km, reaching the dome and braving ‘The notorious half dome cables’  to ascend up the back of the solid granite dome and peer over the cliff, but that episode is for another day.

The view from the Top

Having broken the back of it, the last two kms you approach the busy ‘must see’ tourist stop of Glacier Point. The contrast of having run a deserted trail, to suddenly being spat out onto a tour bus lookout was quite confronting. You think, “Why don’t people bother to walk 100m down the track to unveil unique views with nobody around!”

In case you are wondering I won the race by 15 minutes. Wave after wave of tourists (dropped at the top) arrived taking enough time for their selfies before jumping back on the bus to go to their next stop…. So instead we jumped the fence, walked 50m down the point and found a spot sheltered from the wind where we soaked up the warm autumn sun. The view… was pretty darn good. We lingered for hours.

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The view from our spot on Glacier Point. 1km off the valley floor

Reluctantly, the time came to depart and drive back to San Fran so I could fly home a very satisfied adventurer.

Post Script

  • The vertical KM Maunga man will be tough! More hike than run me thinks.
  • Can’t wait!
  • If you like adventure in the outdoors, Yosemite is a must

Progression

Back in October 2005, my mate Craig Clark rang me two nights before the Auckland marathon asking if I wanted a free ticket to the race – I wasn’t a runner, and hadn’t done any training, but had been reasonable back in school.  I took up the offer not knowing the pain I was about to endure.  In fact, I didn’t have any idea as to the pain I was going to endure, even at the half way mark.  I think I ran through halfway around 1.45 or so, in relatively good spirits.  At the turnaround however, I experienced what is still to this day, the worst ever 10km journey of my life, crawling crawling inching.  See pic. I ended up finishing in 4 hours 35 mins.20x30-DFB1096

12 years and a number of marathons, ultras and halves later, I was sitting on the start line of the Auckland marathon again, with the aim of achieving what was becoming my biggest goal – beat 3 hours.

I left home after 5am, which was crazy when I think about it now, seeing as I had to uber, then catch the ferry, drop my bag and walk and warm up.  I made it to the start line with 10-15 mins to spare which I guess was ok but a small delay could have put me in jeopardy.  I lined up just behind the elites and was startled at the weight (or lack of) of the elites.  I reckon, being 77 kgs, they must carry about 20kg less than me, which reminded my of carrying my son on my shoulders.  Before I started, I had my future goal: drop at least 10 kgs.  My aim was to hold the same pace the whole way (4.08) while banking a couple of seconds before the bridge.  The gun went off and we all started.  I was astonished at the general pace and had to physically slow myself down to ensure I wasn’t banking too much time.  This was reallyheartening, with all the excitement, I felt the 4.08 pace was slow and totally manageable.  There are a couple of long slow downhills which I tried as hard as possible to use to conserve energy.  I was pretty stoked at km 10/11 that we turned onto the bus lane – I thought we were going up the back roads around Northcote, the old route.  This made the race quite a bit faster.  By the time the bridge came I was stoked to have banked 2 seconds and went into it sitting with an average of 4.06.  My goal was to make it to the top without pushing the overall average out to above 4.09 – and then gain the extra second going down.  I was totally stoked to find that by the top I had only lost one second without killing it.  I was sitting at 4.07.  That was the moment of the race I knew I was going to be ok – I had lots of supporters to come.  At Swashbucklers my wife, mum in law and two kids were there, then I saw my coach (who jumped on his bike, riding with me and telling me to lift my hips, no idea how to do that).  then I saw my sister, then Mike and the guys, it was a rolling maul.  At the turnaround, I thought I had a bit in me, perceived effort went up for sure, I thought I was definitely speeding up, but the average, still sitting at 4.07, just wasn’t budging.  Moving the dial at that stage in the race is so so difficult, it also gives you a lot of comfort that your not going to lose time too fast.  I came back into the city in total pain, trying to race with the top 3 women.  One of the only things I remember is Ron offering me a flat white 300ms before the end.  2 hours 55.127_m-100793183-DIGITAL_HIGHRES-2108_082846-12858163

I have been getting faster every year, without increasing the training.  The body must just get stronger with consistent training.  The thought of going backwards freaks me out.

much love MECer’s.

James

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

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