Motatapu Ultra 2018

Anyone can run well at the start of an ultra. The real challenge is to set yourself up to do so at the end.

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The Motatapu Valley, looking North

My target race this season was the Motatapu Ultra, a 51km mountain run from Glendhu Bay, Wanaka to Arrowtown. It covers four mountain passes above 1200m, and passes briefly through the Motatapu valley about halfway through the course.  The high alpine tussock, sweeping views, beech forest and punishing gradients made this race especially alluring. I’ve mentioned before that mountain runs are not necessarily my forte, but I’m drawn to them for the soaring landscapes and vigorous challenge.

The summer training plan was built upon logging some big climbs and getting as much vertical gain/loss possible. I didn’t include many really long runs (>4hrs) to minimise disruption to family. The final hard session was the Tarawera relay 4 weeks prior which gave a good race effort over 4 hours in the forest. I then switched to doing more hiking to prepare for the steep alpine climbs. My race strategy was to preserve myself, finish strong and to make the most of the runnable terrain.

It was  set to be a perfect day weather wise – sunny, no cloud and low winds. It was actually very cold at the start, like 5 degrees with a slight breeze. I was glad to have switched to a merino T shirt (sorry MEC singlet), and had added arm warmers and gloves. I planned on running comfortably on the first few kms of gravel road – nothing silly but no point sandbagging at this early stage. I was surprised to find myself back in about 30th position despite running 5 minute kms into a slight climb. My headlamp, unused (and now loose) since last winter bounced up and down on the back of my head and I failed in my attempts to tighten it on the go. But it pointed where I needed to go so I just got on with it.
Into the farm tracks the group of 30 pulled away as my speed dropped marginally as I picked my way through the loose rocks. After ten minutes or so were went into the beech forest and it was proper dark. I thought my lamp was decent, but I struggled at times to find the orange arrows. I was caught by a good half dozen people, but had prepped myself to go easy and not fight through this slow section.

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Headlamps winding up toward Fernbern Hut

It didn’t take long and we were out in the open, heading up the single track toward the Fernburn Hut. The daylight dawned and we could turn the lamps off and appreciate the beauty of the tussock filled valley. I felt good, and was taking it steady, walking any climb that was steep or long. We dropped into the hut at 75 minutes, and I was pleased to be ahead of my predicted time. I filled my bottles, put the headlamp in the back and used the facilities before heading up the valley again.

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Looking back to Wanaka as we approach Jack Hall’s saddle

The next section was a bit slower than planned (and hoped). I think the climb up to Jack Hall’s saddle was about right, but I hadn’t appreciated how slow the descent would be. We dropped 400m in less than 1200m. I shuffled down this slope, aiming to save my quads for later. It was hard, as I got caught by several more folk but bit my lip and stuck with the plan. I pulled into Highland Creek Hut, 16k done in 2:40 elapsed which was about 10 minutes off my goal time (i.e. split 15 mins slower than target). Still, I was eating regularly, feeling goood on any runnable section and felt optimistic as I went into the third leg to Roses Hut.

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Highland Creek Hut

The 11k section here had two of our ‘Big 4’ climbs. It was warming up, and the arm warmers were off and we at last came into direct sunlight sometime after 9. Fortunately it wasn’t too hot and the sun was largely at our back. I kept pace with my competitors on the climbs, and usually caught one or two, but was again left behind quickly on the descent as I nanna-ed my way down again. I supplemented my gel diet with a good ol’ one square meal as I started the next climb out of the beech forest.IMG_5231

On this third climb I started to notice the first signs that people were breaking under the load of continual steep hiking. Unscheduled rests were apparent. By the top of this climb I had caught back up to Dr Andy, a British expat doing his first ultra. We chatted as we sidled our way around the contours, then as we started to come down I played the familiar game of drifting off the back. This pattern saw me in about 50th position as we got to the bottom of the Motatapu valley. It was a formidable sight as you descended – you could see the hut 400m beneath you and behind it the towering ridge 700m above, cut through with tight switchbacks just waiting for you.

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Climb 3: Looking Down to Motatapu Valley
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Climb 3: Looking up

It was a nice jog through the stream and across the valley to Roses Hut at 27k. I checked in about 11:15 (5:07 elapsed), filled my soft flasks, grabbed a couple of pikelets and moved on. I left ahead of a number of others who were less keen to move out swiftly. Andy was there and we reconnected and power hiked this last climb. I noted my HR was a bit lower than previous hikes, revealing that my fatiguing muscles were no longer able to push as hard.

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The ominous view over the valley to Rose’s Hut and Climb 4

The climb was as brutal as it appeared. The sun was hot, winds were low and the 20% gradient pitched up to over 40% as we got near the top. It was welcome relief to hit the top, and realise that the big climbs were done. This time I was not left behind on the downhill. I had more latitude to let the brakes off, plus this descent was less steep so I had some good fun rolling the wheels down.

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Approaching the top

I got to the Arrow river, 32.5k at 6:15 on the clock. I was ready to open up the engines and burn along this flat section. But it was hardly as runnable as I expected. The river was shin deep, and wading was slow. The RD had marked the sheep tracks that cut through some braids with little pink ribbon. With eyes peeled I tried to follows these shortcuts, but regularly had to backtrack or virtually crawl underneath sharp matagouri bushes. It took 40 minutes to go the 4.5km to Macetown, but remarkably I pulled ahead of several others, including Dr Andy who had taken a wrong turn.

It started becoming runnable as we approached Macetown and I was beginning to have some real fun, running strong through the river trail. Every bend in the river I looked ahead for another shirt to chase down. I had a quick bottle refill and cup of coke in the Aid station and sped off. My cruising pace was low 5 min kms, interrupted only by the very regular river crossings. I got faster still, but annoyingly the people to catch seemed to dry up. I felt good, and would have loved to know how far ahead the next person was – would pushing that extra 2% be worth the risk of sending my legs into withering cramps?

We joined the other races at the Soho river (6k to go), and I was now speeding along, passing the bikes and marathoners as I let it out downhill. I ran it strong right into the finish, stopping the clock in 8:14:35, 15th male (18th overall).

Reflections: Mission accomplished – I saved my legs and hauled myself back more than 30 positions in the last 2 hours or so. My hiking has improved, but is still the area that would need the most work to improve my position in this type of race. I ate, drank and paced very well. I feel really satisfied with this effort and it has been a great race to savour. I think last year my time would have placed me 5th overall!

Big thanks to my family for letting me indulge in such joyous endurance, and to me MEC crew for the shared times on the trails, car rides and spare beds. I’m a lucky man.

Now, time to drop the climbs and see if I can bring some stamina out of the strength.

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BTW: Burts and Ev also had cracking races, I will leave it to them to tell their stories.
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Tarawera 87k Relay 2018

MEC involvement with the Tarawera Ultra has been a constant over the last 9 years. It’s a great event and a great time, so I love to be a part of it. I didn’t have the right appetite to race it solo last year, and again this year wanted to focus my summer campaign on something more wild and enticing (stay tuned for Motatapu reports). That seemed to be the mood of a few others at MEC so we set about creating relay teams that would allow us to be involved, have a great duel and get an excellent workout prior to the big one in the South Island.

So the teams were set, Evan Atkinson and I would face off against Thom Shanks and James Spence. The MEC Thinkers vs the Feelers. It was a pretty even match with two legs for each player. Unlike last year, we couldn’t alternate legs as the no vehicle policy for the Tarawera Forest plus the new changeover spots meant it was a logistical impossibility. So it was a 1/4 and 2/3 split. Leg 1 (26k) is the most runnable, leg 2/3 (40k) the most technical with significant climb, Leg 4 (21k) a good climb and fast flat finish (if you are ready for it). Thom and Evan elected to do the 1-4, giving me and James the 40k middle section.ojohabkwiv_tum_2018_005584

Players. On paper it was very close as mentioned. James would be my mark and he had just come off a stirling 2:55 at Auckland Marathon. Adding to this stamina base he also had posted some of the quickest hill climb and 5k times in recent MEC workouts. Thom and Evan’s face-off was also tight. Thom had come off a great Auckland Marathon too, posting a 3:24 and beating Evan’s PB there. He was looking like the favorite until a summer of lethargy and injury meant he had a patchy buildup. Evan had worked consistently, balancing family and work commitments to fit in some good sessions in his full weekly schedule.

Tactics. The Thinkers reviewed this information and came up with the game plan. With Evan now the better prepared athlete, and Michael likely to shed some time to James in a straight race, the tactic was to make Thom hurt from the start. A fast start, hopefully leading to a few minute buffer for me to have over James. Then, with James chasing hard, he may make some errors giving me the opportunity to run smart and hand over to Evan to dig deep and bring it home (hopefully having inflicted more damage on Thom than he had on himself).

The duel. On the wet and warm race morning Evan took off as planned. He ran 4:40 min/ks on the flat, raising Thom’s eyebrows but good old Shanks was playing smart and held to his mark. Evan blazed through the first aid station, and Thom was forced to grab just a quick hand of jellybeans as he tried to hold on. They ran alongside the Brother’s in Arms team for a bit, just back of the front runners. Evan eventually worked his way ahead to a 50 metre lead. Substantial, but not long enough to be out of sight on the long fire roads in Tarawera forest. Thom could see his man, and would do all he good to limit the damage.

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Evan took a gel, and missed a corner. He was wondering why the trail markers were missing when he heard Thom call from inside the forest. Disaster! He quickly about-turned but the 50m lead was now in Thom’s favour. Ev doubled down on his workrate to now catch Thom. They came out at the Falls Aid station with Thom still ahead. He can be viewed here looking suspicious (watch from 2:40-3:10) in the aid station before de-fouling our pristine natural environment with a watermelon skin.

Evan poured it out over the last 5k to the Outlet aid station, slowly bridging the gap. In a gesture of goodwill Thom paused briefly and they ran into the changeover together, both exhausted having covered the ground well faster than expectations.

I got out of the changeover a little ahead with James quickly right behind me. I had the lead for the first few kilometres. It wasn’t the situation the Thinkers had hoped for, it was gonna be a straight duel. We shared some fun times on the trail before James offered to take a turn at the front. The pace increased and I was quickly faced with running myself into a hole with more than three and a half hours to go, or backing off. I chose the latter and James moved out of sight on the tight windy trails toward Humphries Bay.hhqjbhrnpy_tum_2018_004037

I got to Humphries but James had already cleared out, the volunteers saying he was just ahead. No point blowing up catching him this early, so I just ran at the fastest pace I felt I could maintain. The trail was pretty chewed up and the muddiest I had seen it over this section. I pitied the 100 Milers who would face this in a much worse way later as I passed throngs of 60k walkers and joggers who were generally very obliging to let us through.jjphruibzv_tum_2018_020154

I got to Okataina Aid ahead of schedule and saw Dave Robbo. He hadn’t seen James so I just stuck with the game plan as I power-hiked up the mighty climb to the course high point. I let it out on the bomb down the other side, big toes screaming as they mashed against the front of my shoes over the greasy clay track. Every singlet I spotted I looked for James, but despite passing plenty of people I never saw him. I kept up hammering down the road after Miller Road Aid, until slightly coming unstuck on the last 2 k, slowing as we wound back up Tennants track in a mix of exhaustion and oncoming cramp. I got to the Blue Lake and heard the bad news, James was already 10 minutes up on me. Dang.

Evan’s face at the changeover revealed the futility of our position. This gap wasn’t going to be clawed back, barring disaster for Shanks. The game plan had indeed dug a hole, but for both Thom and Evan. James’ demolition of the leg 2/3 section (fastest in category) meant we were out of the game. Thom and Ev dug deep and pushed home. The Feelers crossing the line in 8:32:20 and the Thinkers in 8:44:00.dwtkfedfiy_tum_2018_011783

Another great day, a great race (well done and well deserved to the Feelers who won the 2 person section with Thinkers second). Full credit to all the MEC racers: Ev ran a bold race, James absolutely smashed his section, and Thom showed what a competitor he is, fighting hard and drawing from the well he has dug deep over years of training. I was happy with my performance too, hitting my goal splits for all but the last few k.

Relay pace curve 2018
Leg paces for Thinkers (pink), Feelers (orange), Solo race winner (blue)

Mission accomplished – a great event, weekend away and training set in the bag, now bring on the goal race: Motatapu Adventure beckons.

The 100 Miler DNF – an exercise in honesty

The miler (161km). Are you prepared for this distance? The course? All conceivable conditions? Physically? Mentally? Do you have a goal time? How much support do you need? How much are you responsible for and how much are the organisers? And if everything goes pear shaped? Why are you doing this?

If you can recognise the need to give an honest consideration of all these (even if you can’t actually be certain of the answers), then you are all set.

From a general preparation and fitness perspective I was all good. Though I was going into the event with some bio-mechanical issues. Got bi-lateral significant achilles/calf muscles tight/tenderness mid December for no obvious reason. A new physio finally booked the week before the race linked it back to a twisted/tilted pelvis (also likely related to lower back issues of last year) and noted tightness round the hips. So he did a bit of work to increase mobility in the area.

Race start was rather quicker than I had prepared for, though I backed off after 30km or so. The left achilles was a little tender from the start but not dangerously so, though the hip issue presented itself somewhere soon after 30km. An auto-diagnostic check revealed shuffle running flat surfaces in a straight’ish line was relative comfortable. Unstable and sketchy stuff not so much.

The first section of the miler course was pretty good in that regard, so I figured if could get through from Tarawera Outlet to Okataina I’d finish. The course and terrain were familiar enough. The conditions were wet, though I’d previously run the 100km in similarly heavy rain. However, the amount of mud we experienced after 1000 runners had already churned up the course was far from expected.

I was a bit anxious about the issue of chafing. I’ve got soft skin, it scratches easily, marks easily, and chafes easily. Wet weather distance running for me requires a similar approach to ocean swimmers. A base layer of body-glide around key seam and contact points, and handfuls of vaseline over the top. Went with merino sock and shirt combo – as I’ve previously come away from 12hrs running through rain scar free. I also sported running putties to slow mud from getting into the shoes. And carried body-glide in the pack.

While a pack was necessary to carry compulsory gear (thermals, emergency bag, etc), I was leaving my nutrition, hydration, and support requirements entirely in the hands of the aid stations. I was originally planning on leaving multiple drop-bags at stations with dry gear and bepanthen/vaseline. I left my organisation a bit late and left a single bag about 100km in at Okataina. Turns out that was about two aid stations too late as chafing was already getting bad by Tarawera Outlet (where I found out that anti-chafe gurney goo burns if you put it on after chafing is underway).

I’d also left running poles in the drop bag and was counting down the km to them with hip discomfort increasing. So I was somewhat disturbed when the bag was nowhere to be found. Okataina aid station was a bit chaotic, they’d run out of electrolyte and drop-bags were scattered. I’d previously used drop-bags and aid stations on the 100km TUM editions for support and they were efficient and attentive. As a 100 miler we were coming through at the tail end of the race and generally had to be a bit more proactive to get what we needed.

While I’d briefly considered withdrawing when the hip issue first presented, it was here that I seriously considered withdrawing. No poles over that hill would have been foolish given my state. Bag found, shirt and socks changed, fully lubed, and refueled (not necessarily in that order), I moved on out of the station. All this took a mere 45min. Also started txting updates about situation, with the offer of an official pacer from Logan at the 145km point which was accepted after a short period of self-pitying darkness.

Don’t know why but I’d expected the ground conditions of the next leg to be better than the last mudbath. It was not. Far from it. I ended up walking the vast majority of it, which was pretty frustrating as the running bits on my legs (muscles) were actually ok, energy was also good and I was eating well. Got into the Millar Rd station after what felt like 6hrs. Moved on after performing the essentials which again took quite a long time. While I was relying exclusively on stations for nutrition, I didn’t have any way to stash food and eat it on the fly without it dissolving in the rain, sweat, and lube.

Got message around here that Victoria was at the next station with a toothbrush and moral support (beauty!). A few minutes after leaving the Millar Rd I could manage a reasonable walk shuffle-run pattern on the road section. Was in a bit of pain by now though via a hip and chaffing combo. Got into the Tikitapu station about 9:20pm. Victoria was there, Logan was there, Victoria’s entire relay team was there. She brought the toothbrush and a wide variety of food/drink. And a car.

So here’s the decision. Push on, get that finishing toki. And if most of the rest of the course were on likes of forestry roads I’d have a chance of coming in under 24hrs. If not I still had plenty of time to walk out, energy levels and leg muscles were good. Hell I was even mostly lucid. On the other hand I felt that I’d used sandpaper instead of a towel to dry myself. My back, shoulders, flanks, crotch and butt were angry red and a bit weepy. My trusty old merino shirt had started dissolving and I had to pick bits out of raw skin. The hip pain was only increasing, possibly with an increasing likelihood of real damage. And I was nursing my left achilles, though that was very nearly drowned out by pain elsewhere. And though I hadn’t originally counted on a pacer, Logan couldn’t pace me as he didn’t have all the compulsory gear which would have risked a DSQ.

Continue or withdraw? For me it comes to the ultimate question – why am I doing this? To push limits, test myself? Absolutely. And part of that test is knowing when falling short is a good idea. Can my ego handle a DNF? Sure. I’m not a pro, my future isn’t riding on my results or completion rate. Do I need to prove I can run myself raw or risk a serious injury? Aah no, not really, my self-image/identity is all good thanks. All that said, there were a few other factors floating through my mind that were contributed to the DNF decision. The main one being my lack of preparation in self-support combined with slow pace meant the 21km and bloody big hill between me and the next station was mentally challenging (but solvable).

If Victoria hadn’t turned up with a ride out, would I have withdrawn? Unlikely. Did I feel some regret when I picked up my drop-bag from the finish line the next day? Most definitely. Do I still believe withdrawing was the right choice? Yep. I’ve got Northburn in 5 weeks to sort this hip crap out.

Finally was my DNF due to me not fully considering those questions I posed at the opening? In part, yep. Nobody expected the course to be that bad/slow, but I absolutely should have taken more responsibility with drop-bags and food carrying capacity especially given that 21km station gap at the end. It wouldn’t have made any difference to the hip issue but the chafing would have been better and a walk-out finish palatable.

Epilogue – 1 week on

The first running DNF is hard. It’s nice to have pain free showers again. Recovery progressed regrettably quickly, no DOMS, could freely negotiate stairs. Recovery run confirmed muscles all good. Evidently had plenty of gas in tank, just wheel nuts were coming off.

Root cause analysis is pretty clear cut. I’m a dick. The casual cascade went: old back/pelvis issue caused bi-lateral calf/Achilles lock ups, late physio appointment largely resolved lower leg issues but irritated hips, hip pain initially slowed pace, further slowed on sketchy conditions. Extended (soak) time to drop bag resulted in extensive chafing. Run-out then unappealing due to hip pain, and walk-out unappealing due to extended chafing opportunities. Lack of planning to carry sufficient fuel/water between stations also a contributor.

Dick move no 1. Leaving physio too late. If I hadn’t got treatment, slowdown would be due to Achilles/calves. Dick move no 2. Not following my own clearly written down plan to leave multiple drop bag changes. Dick move no 3. Not having clear provision to carry extra food/water on long legs.

Note to self – next time don’t be a dick.

The Taniwha. Nice.

Hello Dad and Mike and interweb denizens, yes it’s been a while since I posted anything about running.

Soon after the last event I entered in February this year (the Tarawera relay with Mike) I suffered a rude reminder of middle age with what turned out to be a herniated disc. Unlike previous lower back spasm type incidents this also came with sciatica (nerve pain). Luckily being in my mid-forties I had sense enough to seek treatment. Not so luckily, this did sweet nothing after 3-4 months after following professional advice. Plan-B, Google my way out of it (and listen to my wife).

Solution was some McKenzie exercises and completely giving up the bike, any bike, all bikes. Though turns out running was a non-issue. Just to be sure I adjusted my running pose a little and made sure even slow runs were +180 cadence to keep it super low impact. Increasing running volume week on week had nil effect. Pain diminishing, mobility increasing. Runner reborn.

Those long, long days of not running gave some reflection of what I really wanted to do. Run fast or run long? Long won out, but with some concessions (PB’s in 5, 10, 21, 42, 50, 160km – lacking road stuff I’ve got a pretty soft history). So I entered Northburn again with the option of the TUM 100M when it opens. Turns out the TUM 100M requires a +50km trail qualifying criteria. Hence the Taniwha, a proper distance back recovery test and a TUM qualifier (the Italy sojourn put all my official trail stuff outside the time frame).

All I knew about the Taniwha was that it was a Total Sport event (good vibes and beer at the end) and the Waikato River trails were part of a MTB route. Figured my training was getting back on track and the course didn’t look so difficult as to target a 5:30 race pace. Turns out I’d mistaken the Waikato River trails for a more general family ‘bike trail’ which they are not. Instead they are sections of fantastic MTB single-track linked by forestry tracks and the odd road section.

The weather forecast in the lead-up was consistent – intermittent hosing rain but warm. Having bought a ticket to camp at the finish line, I opted not to have to get up 4:30am and pack up a wet tent in the dark and instead borrowed a friend’s car and slept in the boot (station wagon). Love that car’s window awnings. And my goodness, the location of that campground at the finish is spectacular and needs a post-event overnight stay with friends next time.

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View from the boot of the car

I’ve been fooling round with a power running meter for the last month or so and decided on a full experimental approach to the Taniwha. Calculate what pace I reckon I can sustain on the flat for ~6hrs translate that to power and let that guide my efforts irrespective of terrain. So I chose a pace of 5:30min/km looking at the course profile and previous finishing times. I made power adjustments for pack weight (water, food, and walk-out clothing options), but didn’t fully comprehend the running conditions. The Stryd power meter estimates running power via weight, gradient, and a fancy accelerometer. External resistance like mud and wind don’t factor at all. And there was a lot of mud.

Haven’t really delved into the details but figure the power readings I was following were underestimating my true output. Given that I was only looking at power, not pace, not heart rate, and actively suppressing perceived exertion guidance, there was a bit of chance at play. No better way to learn than an opportunity to fail I figure.

The Taniwha itself was great. The finish-line campsite and bus options meant I just had to get up at 0500 get changed, eat, drive 700 metres to the bus and then get ferried to the start line. Given the wet and warm conditions I opted to get wet in light merino without a rain jacket. Worked well, I may as well have been swimming at times, soaked as I was, but having applied antichafe everywhere so no worries.

Given my slavish commitment to following power numbers alone I found myself out front at the get go. I hate being in front. Fortunately I soon had company with Anthony Hancy (Ants), who was great. Chatting about family, house maintenance, training (and lack of), we were wizzing along. The pattern soon became established, I’d keep an even effort up the hills (ie. slow) and he’d pull away, then I’d catch him on the downs. The first down was a doozy, endless swtichbacks in sketchy mud.

The first 30km felt pretty effortless, though I was noting the sections of mud and snaking MTB singletrack weren’t quite what I was expecting (I’m thinking sections of Riverhead Xterra here). And the hills were a bit more biting given a lack of hill training. I was loving the muddy downhill’s doing my best flowing single speeder impression without a bike. Ants and I disconnected at some point round the 25km(?) mark so I was by myself again… though I did have a stick insect drop in for a bit. I carefully placed him/her on colour matched foliage before moving on.

The mud went on and on and on, fun but sapping. Energy levels were still excellent though my right hammy was starting to complain, given that’s my sciatica side I initially had concerns it was connected. It wasn’t, though I had to ease up all the same. Hit the road section that signaled the end of the bigger climbs of the day so just had to cruise out for the last 20km. Then the wheels came off. Energy crashed, cramp management engaged. Left leg in solidarity with right. Super-cruise button didn’t work.

Got passed by the huge smile of Cecilia Flori around the 42km mark who’d been the shadow I’d been feeling all day. Given her form I’m guessing she could have passed us anytime she pleased, though it turns out Ants is the [solid] course record holder so she was in observation mode till he dropped off (fortunately for us his training schedule got replaced by new house fencing and maintenance). I didn’t try to latch on or keep in contact, it was pure damage control from thereon.

Pity I was internally focused for that last 20km cos they really seemed rather nice, flowing scenic trail and all. However cramp spasms left & right quads/hammies/calves were a bit distracting. After the last 6km of stupendous sketchy mud a slight climb into the carpark ~500m from the finish I came to a complete stop in a pseudo-Half Foster (Crawling to the finish line: why do endurance runners collapse?).  Luckily it was only a temporary seizure, and the hobble turned walk, turned gammy jog. Thanks for the pick-up Steve.

And the result? I ran the event at precisely my estimated pace of 5:30min/km, qualified for the TUM (volunteering aside), and came in first male finisher. A mere 17min behind an in-form-quality-runner. While I came in at exactly the target pace without ever looking at pace on the watch, it wasn’t the even-Stevens result I was looking for. Though I did run the climbs slower that I might have otherwise, the overall energy output must have been way high to collapse and still get the desired finish time. Excellent learning from a successful failure I’d say.

Yes I underestimated the Taniwha in the glorious mud. Is it a fast trail 60km? It can be. Will it be easy? Nope. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Am I going to bring company? Yep.

The Great Kauri Cranleigh Run – 2017

You know when you get 3/4 through a race & find yourself still really enjoying yourself that it’s been a great day out. To be fair, 10 minutes later I was yelling my head off from agonising cramps. But hey, you’ve got to focus on the positives – at least I wasn’t vomiting too.

When Thom suggested a weekend away for this run down in the Coromandel I thought why not. Training had been pretty sparse, but there was plenty of time to get into shape and it was sure to be a fantastic run. 32km, ~1200m of elevation, panoramic views & a heap of beautiful Coro bush trail. Sounds epic.

The “get into shape” part never really happened. With work, projects & family life all being flat out, something had to give … and it was the training. I’d pulled back to the bare minimum of generally 1 run a week – maybe averaging around 15km/wk for the past few months. The one potential redeeming factor is most of that limited training was hill work.

My general race plan on the way down to the race was to take it real easy, try not to blow up & maybe just maybe (hah! Yeah right) have something left for the technical section & big downhill at the end. Thom quickly pointed out that I’ve pretty much never had a race go like that, and he would put money on this not being the first.

Sure enough, Thom the Seer proved correct, and arriving at the start line I threw out the conservative approach & decided on a new race plan. With 2km of beach going onto single trail, I was worried if I took the start too easy I’d seed well back in the field & spend the next hour burning lots of energy trying to pass people on single trail. So new plan: start faster, but not too fast & try seed near the front. Once we got onto the trails, run completely to feel & try to be at least a little bit sensible – especially conservative on anything steep. And then hope like hell I didn’t blow up with 15km still to go.

We set of down the 2km beach section at a reasonably comfortable pace around 4:30’s/km. I paced myself just off the lead bunch, settling in about 20m behind Sean. Coming off the beach you have a beautiful few km of winding bush trails with 4 or 5 stream crossings, and a runnable hill climb through the first 50-odd metres of elevation. I felt I was taking it reasonably easy, but still hanging with a bunch of guys in 3-7th (Chris Morrissey & one other had vanished as soon as we got off the beach). The going got tougher & we pulled back to a hike & ground out a steep climb eventually pushing out of the bush up at the first trig point @ ~7km mark, 350m above where we started. I’d shuffled a few places, but was sitting around about 5th with Sean in sight about 100m ahead in 3rd.

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Stream crossing at the end of the beach. 2km in. No point in trying to keep the shoes dry!

The next section involved repeated steep downhills, followed by steep uphills – starting over pasture, and moving onto a quad trail through the bush. The uphills we ruthless – I remember seeing the grade break 40% a number of times – and I decided it was time to pull back or suffer the consequences of trying to keep with the others. So I let the guys ahead disappear, shortened my stride on the climbs, walk more hills & tried to not bomb the downhills too hard.

I felt like this slightly more defensive strategy (as far as protecting the body goes) seemed to be working quite well until at the 13km mark I half tripped on a gorse bush that surprised me lying across the track, resulting in sharp spasms of cram with both calf’s locking up. Oh dear. Not even half way through. This could go terribly wrong. However I had been in similar positions before & knew at this stage it was more of a warning sign than anything too debilitating & could be managed. So I set off again, having lost 1 position (chick’d), started popping electrolyte tabs, cramp spray, & anything else I could think of to hold things at bay.

Everything went pretty smoothly through to the next aid station & the following next 6-7km was a beautiful ridge line bush run, completely runnable along a quad track with interspersed epic vistas of the east and west coasts of the Coromandel.  I held strong pace through this section but saw no one, eventually coming out at Kennedy Bay Rd. I was pretty stoked at this point. I was 3/4 through the race, had felt great the whole run so far & was really enjoying myself. My nutrition was, for once, going to plan. Staying off solid food & a less aggressive fueling approach of a gel every 40 mins with a roughly 1/3rd mix of electrolyte drink to water in my bottle was seeming to do the trick & I’d had no sign of nausea, or any ‘low points’ on the energy front.

However I’d known the whole race that this next section was going to be the real test. A steep climb, followed by a heavy technical steep up & down section (mostly up) on fatigued legs that hadn’t been this long or high in a long time. The first steep climb (~130m up) went great, I felt strong with lots of energy & tried not to fall into the trap of slamming my legs. However as I crested & entered a steep technical downhill the cramp finally bit hard. I’d been looking forward to this section the whole run, so it was a bit disappointing (not to mention immensely painful) to have my calfs, quads & hammies taking turns, or often all at once, going into full blown cramp lock down.

Stretching out was doing nothing, and was often impossible as both quad & hammy were cramping at the same time, so to stretch one was to fire off the other worse. In the end I had to just try & hobble/shuffle/walk with the cramp still in full swing. It must have looked pretty funny (not to mention often yelling my head off), my foot would often stick out a funny angle as even my shin muscle would cramp. But standing around wasn’t working so I gritted teeth & began to force myself forward.

This went on for a couple of nasty km over the next half hour. I was resigned for a slow & painful slog out to the finish when I summited at the last high point – the Kaipawa Trig and beginning the 560m descent over the last 7km ahead of me back to sea level. Miraculously I’d only dropped 1 place (chick’d again) through this ordeal – I guess a good place to blow up is in a highly technical section where everyone is going slow anyway – I’ll have to keep that in mind for future races.

20170513_132529 (1)
Gotta stop for cramp anyway so might as well take a photo.  Finish line in the distance a long way down. Managed to half remove the grimace for the second it took to take the photo 🙂

Through this section I had been noticing that the cramp seemed to be more to do with climbing than downhills, and as I got into the descent, I was relieved to feel the cramp letting go more & more – finally managing to string more than a stride or two together at a time. I was soon ambling along, shortly after running freely, shortly after bombing down the windy, often slippery track – more concerned with careening off a cliff than with muscle seizure. Surprisingly I managed to hold this all the way back to town, only starting to see signs of the cramp when things flattened out on the 2km road run back into town.

I could see there was no one for a long way either in front or behind so I opted for as conservative an approach to the finish as I could bring myself to. I knew the only thing that could cost me a position would be pushing too hard & having to stop to stretch out cramp – so I ran to feel & each time I felt the cramp building I would drop back another 10-20sec/km until I found a pace I could hold.

Seeing the wifey who had lined up a couple of excited toddlers for me to run in the last 100m was a nice boost at the end (despite firing off a hammy cramp trying to pick one up) and I crossed the line in 7th place (5th guy) in 3hr 27m. Overall I was pretty stoked with how the run had gone. I was about as unprepared as I felt I could be for it, and despite wishing the cramp held out for 2 more km at the top of that hill, it couldn’t have really gone much better in the circumstances. I knew I was pushing the line as to what the body would manage so to not blow up earlier was a good outcome. Aside from the obvious, it was a really enjoyable day out. The scenery was magic, the trails (especially the bush single track sections) were awesome & I felt really good throughout the run.

Congrats to Sean who ran really strongly & took out 3rd in 3hr 03 Awesome effort. Also to Thom who battled it out to finish in 4hr 28 despite also having a average lead up, and his old man Alistair who was only 1 minute off taking out the 60+yo ‘Classic Men’ section in 5hr 02 – his favourite line about the trail “why do you keep calling it technical? It’s just bush trail.”

Finally a big thanks to the organisers of the run. They’d obviously done a lot of work on parts of the course for the race. Everything was really well run, everyone was really friendly, the course marking was great and all proceeds from the run go to adding to the 3000+ Kauri trees they’ve already planted along the trail over the past 12 years they have been running it. A great initiative.

Full results here.
Strava link here.

World Masters Games 2017 – An Athletic Odyssey

WMG 5000 startThe World Masters Games 2017 have been on my radar for a couple of years. A unique opportunity to compete against your peers from around the world. Hopefully finding that ‘sweet spot’ of similar competition that brings the best out of you and gives you amazing mid-race battles. The entry fee is steep, but you get a road run, a cross country and up to six track and field events all for entering the “athletics” section. My approach was to get my $ worth by entering any running event over 400m.

Event 1: 10k Road Race, Saturday 22nd April.

WMG 10k startThis was a target event – I wanted to set a PB (basically anything sub 36 would do it). The plan was to run evenly (no costly surges) and hope to hold 3:30 – 3:35 min/k. We had the most spectacular and perfect Auckland Waterfront morning. Still and mild, it was made for running fast. Unfortunately something didn’t fire fully for me and I was never on goal pace. I gave it a good race effort though and split 18:31 for the first half and 19:11 for the second to give 37:42. A fine result, made sweeter by coming in 3rd in the M35 AG and getting a bronze medal! Caleb stormed to a PB and Evan paced like a metronome to smash his as well.

10k thumbs WMG

Too young and fast for the camera (or how being caught at 7k can shake you out of a slow burn to the finish)

Event 2: 5000m, Sunday 23rd April

WMG 5000 startThis was a mean schedule. Backing up with 5000m after yesterday’s 10k. So the plan was to not focus on time, but try to race as smart as possible. Looking at the field, I thought I was about 7th seed in my division, so a top 5 would be the goal. There were two no-shows, making this easier. But what was also easier was how my legs felt vs the expectation of pain and stiffness. They were feeling nearly as good as the day before, with only a hint of tiredness evident in the 4/5th km. I ended up running at the front of the chase pack and taking the wind, but was happy to be running faster than expected at 3:25 min/ks so just kept going. I got passed by the 3rd guy in my AG with 600m to go. He accelerated away and I had no response, but I finished in 4th place (7th overall) in 17:36.

WMG 5000 shoulder check
Into the wind, who else wants a turn?

Event 3: 1500m, Tuesday 26th April

It was nice to get a day off on Monday, as my legs were way more smashed (tight-sore calves and tired quads) after the 5000m than after the 10k. I had a day of easy running, plus continued my nightly routine of getting on the foam roller to help hasten recovery along.

Seems to have done the trick because I was feeling pretty good as I warmed up for my midday 1500m on ANZAC day. The 30-34M went first and it was great to watch Caleb running super strong to get his third medal of the games.

WMG Caleb lead 1500
Caleb leads the M30 1500m

I was 5th fastest M35 going into my race and was hoping to PB with a 4:37. My plan was to let the fastest two go (they were another level altogether) and then work hard to keep in contention with the next two guys Andrew and Eric. Andrew got away after a fast start, but I stuck with Eric the Frenchman (he was the guy who stuck behind me in the 5000m).

WMG 1500 lap 1
Lap 1, me well positioned in sixth.

The first 800m was 2:29 and we hit the bell lap at 3:23 (bang on schedule), me right behind Eric, and both about 30m back of Andrew. The race had hurt from about 600m into it, but I was glad with how I pushed through. Now in the last lap I really dug deep as Eric surged, somehow managing to hold close. We hit the final straight now only 10m down on Andrew. I gave it everything and closed the gap, but wasn’t able to pass. We all finished within 1.2s of each other.

WMG 1500 sprint
Final straight fever

This placed me 5th, in 4:31.25, a massive new PB, and exceeded my expectations. The last 800m was 2:21, with a final lap of 67s.

 

Event 4: 10,000m Thursday 27 April

WMG 10k front bunch
Early days in the front chase group

Another day off proceeded the toughest day of the games for me. I had the 10k and 800 on the track. But I could tell that these also offered the best medal chances so I needed to hit them hard.

WMG 10k pacing
My M45 pacers, duking it out while I hang on.

The 10,000 was hot. 11am in the sun. I started quick, but felt very comfortable. I kept pace behind two 45-49 year old guys in 5th place for the first 4k. The legs started to tire a bit though and through my 5th km I started to slow. It just felt like plain fatigue, my start was at the top end of what I can do, but felt controlled. I now had a 5k grind of endurance – holding on to see if I could stay ahead of the others and what time I would make.

WMG 10k sprintI wasn’t caught, but man it was gruelling. I finished in 5th, 2nd M35 in 37:35. My 5k split was 17:25, which was faster than Sunday’s 5000m. Silver medal!

Event 5: 800m, Thursday 27 April

I did what I could to recover before the 800m. I guessed I was 3rd seed with two real speedsters ahead, so my goal was 3rd and a time around 2:14. I went out strong, going through halfway in 65s, the second half was as hard as expected but I held on for 3rd and 2:15 – my 2nd fastest time for the event. Two races, two medals, today.

WMG 10k Heidi hugEvent 6: 3000m Steeplechase, Friday 28 April

Oh how weary I felt! The double effort the day prior meant my legs were both tight, sore and fatigued. But I made it to the start line OK. And when we got to the TIC I found two of the top seeds (as well as most of the field) hadn’t turned up. So it was game on for an unexpected possible medal chance.

Maybe those no shows knew something about this event. It was my first time so I didn’t. Let me tell you what I found about steeplechase: It’s hard, requiring lots of strength and a good bit of technique and flexibility too. My water jump is not something to admire (yet). I dropped into the water pit and fought my way out again like an old dog shaking off after a sea swim. It was also rough on the left achilles which took the impact all seven laps (as a side note the Achilles had been best it has for months up to then). The other thing I found is that it is compelling, and I want to have another crack at it, and I’m sure some technique practice would do wonders.

Evan and Caleb went hard from the start and I only caught Evan with 600m to go. So we got silver M30, and silver and bronze M35. MEC represent!

Event 7: 8k Cross Country, Sunday 30 April

Holeshot XC
The early leaders enter the first corner

Last event. It was so good to get the Saturday to rest up first, I came to the start line feeling much improved on Friday. I knew I wouldn’t be fresh, but I wasn’t feeling like lying down at the start. The Domain course was better than expected, despite the lack of real hills there was enough variability to make it feel different to a road race or track event. It was very warm, the sun had come out after the storm and there was a good gusty wind blowing too. I paced myself sensibly and worked my way up the field over the first two and half 2k laps. The guys I passed reformed as a group and I had to work to hold them off on the fourth and final lap.  I came 18th, 7th in M35 in 31:32, lap times: 7:35, 7:55, 8:05, 7:57. Full field XC

Reflections on the series:

My speed increased over the first five days or so, while the fatigue increased throughout. I noted the fatigue would slow my legs in the later stages of an event. My HR would actually dip as the legs were unable to move fast enough to merit that level of cardiac output. Dropping a couple of events would have made my times a bit faster overall, but my schedule was more for the experience than for the strategy.

I think I may have been fighting something at the start of the Games as I was genuinely surprised at my speed in the 10k and 5000m. I had done a 17:06 5k in the rain a fortnight before and felt that my preparations had gone very well. My first couple of races were a little disappointing as I don’t think my efforts reflect my true fitness/potential at that time. I reckon I am in sub-17 5k and sub-37 10k shape for sure. I will hopefully get a chance to show that later on this year.

The 1500m was my highlight, I got a big PB and had an amazing racing experience which took me right to the edge. The whole track experience has been really exciting, and I have got a bit of a taste for it. you really get to experience the pure thrill of racing when you take to the track with good competition. I will keep an eye out for opportunities to run against similar competition on the track in the future.

My body held out better than expected too. I was tired, and I got a bit sore a couple of times, but thinking back even 12 months, I would struggle to run the day after a hard race. Back then I couldn’t even comprehend running hard for several days in a row. So the good functioning of my body has been another positive to take away. I look forward to seeing if I get any notable fitness kick out of all that racing stimulus.

The next World Masters Games is in Kansai, Japan in 2021. There are also NZ Masters Games, Pan-Pacific Masters Games, Asia-Pacific Masters Games etc etc… get ready to race some track soon!

Endless (End of) Summer Writeup

Tumeke Waewae at Tarawera 2017

The follow-up to the Ultra Easy 100 was the 2017 Tarawera Ultra. This has become a feature of my calendar for nearly a decade – it’s such a cool event, I just love to come back. However, last year’s race showed me that my motivation was a bit tepid for the 100k. So doing the two-man relay was a perfect way of scratching the Tarawera itch and not being silly doing two massive events in a fortnight.

Ron and I combined our powers like a trail-running Captain Planet to make team Tumeke Waewae. We were joined by another couple of MEC teams – Brent and Burton facing off against Evan and Thom. There was a fierce rivalry between those two, while Ron and I eyed up some well-fancied opposition from the Sportslab crew.

TUM_2017_010021We applied the self-annihilation attack strategy to this race. It would be a unique opportunity to run with the big boys – they were doing 100k solo and we were just knocking off a couple of 20k-ish legs. So could we stay in touch and learn a thing or two from the pros.
Ron had the first leg, and claimed to be still finding his running fitness after his Italian sojourn. But he still managed to redline it from the gun and come around the Blue Lake just outside of the top 10.

TUM_2017_020356My turn. I noted that Aaron Jackson, first team member for our main opposition was ahead, and  (legendary ultra runner) Mike Wardian behind, so I got into my own over-zealous pacing to see what I could do. Wardian caught me within a quarter of an hour and blasted past up the new trail around Lake Okareka. I then held my own, catching several bods over the Western Okataina leg. It felt good running it with more intensity then usual. I came in to the Okataina changeover and we were just behind our marks – the Labrats, and keeping right on our schedule.

TUM_2017_002980TUM_2017_002984Can’t tell you much about leg 3, except that we had vastly overestimated how long it would take Ron ‘unfit’ on ‘tired legs’. By the time I had driven through Kawerau and arrived at the Falls carpark, Ron had been waiting of me for nearly 15 minutes. Im gonna be the bigger man and say that it was his scheduling that cost us that, not my yarns with the other MEC lads while eating at the aid station buffet.So the final quarter had a shambolic start, but Ron through me his water bottle and I put my tunes in on the go and got into it. What a great leg it is to Titoki when you don’t feel like rubbish! That long downhill is dreamy, legs spinning at sub 4s and life is good! There were a few more technical bits afterward and some inevitable discomfort (NB nothing like 100k pain though, not a bit). We had got solidly into the lead of the two person division and it was a gratifying  final few run for the final few kms to take the win for Tumeke Waewae.

TUM_2017_002988Lessons:

Logistics in two person team events are actually rather challenging. You have to know quite precisely how long you will run each leg and how long the drive will take. I have never had to get around the course in a car before – its harder than I realised!

But the relay is a great option – you can run hard, you can share the day with mates and it doesn’t have to shatter you like a massive ultra tends to. I’d be keen to repeat, but I think Ron misses the 100, so we’ll see what 2018 brings.

TUM_2017_016367

Coastal Challenge 2017

The bravest race director award of 2017 goes to Aaron Carter and the TS crew for holding this event which has plenty of ocean interaction during the tail-end of a cyclone. I couldn’t believe it was going ahead, but it did, and it was epic as usual. Thom Shanks and I decided that mother nature wouldn’t hold us back, and drove North to Arkles Bay with the mighty Stu Hale as team photog and crew.IMG_4569

The course changed a bit – it was lengthened to help reduce the length of the swim across the Okura estuary and we ran over the Long Bay headland track rather than risk rockfall around the coast up there. Otherwise it was the same juicy wet goodness it always is.

I got stuck a little further back then I would have liked at the start, about 20th at corner one. I worked my way up and was in top 10 by the Wade River swim, and top 5 by Okura swim. A few kms after Long Bay I moved into 2nd when one of the leaders dropped with an injury. The gap to the front runner Nick Berry varied between 5 and 9 minutes, but I wasn’t able to catch him in the end. I was pretty bushed from Takapuna onwards and held on for (another) 2nd place here. Nick is a beast Surf Lifesaver / sub 9 min 3000m runner so not a bad guy to be beaten by!

Onward to the World Masters Games… time to add some speed to the stamina!