MEC involvement with the Tarawera Ultra has been a constant over the last 9 years. It’s a great event and a great time, so I love to be a part of it. I didn’t have the right appetite to race it solo last year, and again this year wanted to focus my summer campaign on something more wild and enticing (stay tuned for Motatapu reports). That seemed to be the mood of a few others at MEC so we set about creating relay teams that would allow us to be involved, have a great duel and get an excellent workout prior to the big one in the South Island.
So the teams were set, Evan Atkinson and I would face off against Thom Shanks and James Spence. The MEC Thinkers vs the Feelers. It was a pretty even match with two legs for each player. Unlike last year, we couldn’t alternate legs as the no vehicle policy for the Tarawera Forest plus the new changeover spots meant it was a logistical impossibility. So it was a 1/4 and 2/3 split. Leg 1 (26k) is the most runnable, leg 2/3 (40k) the most technical with significant climb, Leg 4 (21k) a good climb and fast flat finish (if you are ready for it). Thom and Evan elected to do the 1-4, giving me and James the 40k middle section.
Players. On paper it was very close as mentioned. James would be my mark and he had just come off a stirling 2:55 at Auckland Marathon. Adding to this stamina base he also had posted some of the quickest hill climb and 5k times in recent MEC workouts. Thom and Evan’s face-off was also tight. Thom had come off a great Auckland Marathon too, posting a 3:24 and beating Evan’s PB there. He was looking like the favorite until a summer of lethargy and injury meant he had a patchy buildup. Evan had worked consistently, balancing family and work commitments to fit in some good sessions in his full weekly schedule.
Tactics. The Thinkers reviewed this information and came up with the game plan. With Evan now the better prepared athlete, and Michael likely to shed some time to James in a straight race, the tactic was to make Thom hurt from the start. A fast start, hopefully leading to a few minute buffer for me to have over James. Then, with James chasing hard, he may make some errors giving me the opportunity to run smart and hand over to Evan to dig deep and bring it home (hopefully having inflicted more damage on Thom than he had on himself).
The duel. On the wet and warm race morning Evan took off as planned. He ran 4:40 min/ks on the flat, raising Thom’s eyebrows but good old Shanks was playing smart and held to his mark. Evan blazed through the first aid station, and Thom was forced to grab just a quick hand of jellybeans as he tried to hold on. They ran alongside the Brother’s in Arms team for a bit, just back of the front runners. Evan eventually worked his way ahead to a 50 metre lead. Substantial, but not long enough to be out of sight on the long fire roads in Tarawera forest. Thom could see his man, and would do all he good to limit the damage.
Evan took a gel, and missed a corner. He was wondering why the trail markers were missing when he heard Thom call from inside the forest. Disaster! He quickly about-turned but the 50m lead was now in Thom’s favour. Ev doubled down on his workrate to now catch Thom. They came out at the Falls Aid station with Thom still ahead. He can be viewed here looking suspicious (watch from 2:40-3:10) in the aid station before de-fouling our pristine natural environment with a watermelon skin.
Evan poured it out over the last 5k to the Outlet aid station, slowly bridging the gap. In a gesture of goodwill Thom paused briefly and they ran into the changeover together, both exhausted having covered the ground well faster than expectations.
I got out of the changeover a little ahead with James quickly right behind me. I had the lead for the first few kilometres. It wasn’t the situation the Thinkers had hoped for, it was gonna be a straight duel. We shared some fun times on the trail before James offered to take a turn at the front. The pace increased and I was quickly faced with running myself into a hole with more than three and a half hours to go, or backing off. I chose the latter and James moved out of sight on the tight windy trails toward Humphries Bay.
I got to Humphries but James had already cleared out, the volunteers saying he was just ahead. No point blowing up catching him this early, so I just ran at the fastest pace I felt I could maintain. The trail was pretty chewed up and the muddiest I had seen it over this section. I pitied the 100 Milers who would face this in a much worse way later as I passed throngs of 60k walkers and joggers who were generally very obliging to let us through.
I got to Okataina Aid ahead of schedule and saw Dave Robbo. He hadn’t seen James so I just stuck with the game plan as I power-hiked up the mighty climb to the course high point. I let it out on the bomb down the other side, big toes screaming as they mashed against the front of my shoes over the greasy clay track. Every singlet I spotted I looked for James, but despite passing plenty of people I never saw him. I kept up hammering down the road after Miller Road Aid, until slightly coming unstuck on the last 2 k, slowing as we wound back up Tennants track in a mix of exhaustion and oncoming cramp. I got to the Blue Lake and heard the bad news, James was already 10 minutes up on me. Dang.
Evan’s face at the changeover revealed the futility of our position. This gap wasn’t going to be clawed back, barring disaster for Shanks. The game plan had indeed dug a hole, but for both Thom and Evan. James’ demolition of the leg 2/3 section (fastest in category) meant we were out of the game. Thom and Ev dug deep and pushed home. The Feelers crossing the line in 8:32:20 and the Thinkers in 8:44:00.
Another great day, a great race (well done and well deserved to the Feelers who won the 2 person section with Thinkers second). Full credit to all the MEC racers: Ev ran a bold race, James absolutely smashed his section, and Thom showed what a competitor he is, fighting hard and drawing from the well he has dug deep over years of training. I was happy with my performance too, hitting my goal splits for all but the last few k.
Mission accomplished – a great event, weekend away and training set in the bag, now bring on the goal race: Motatapu Adventure beckons.
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.
The follow-up to the Ultra Easy 100 was the 2017 Tarawera Ultra. This has become a feature of my calendar for nearly a decade – it’s such a cool event, I just love to come back. However, last year’s race showed me that my motivation was a bit tepid for the 100k. So doing the two-man relay was a perfect way of scratching the Tarawera itch and not being silly doing two massive events in a fortnight.
Ron and I combined our powers like a trail-running Captain Planet to make team Tumeke Waewae. We were joined by another couple of MEC teams – Brent and Burton facing off against Evan and Thom. There was a fierce rivalry between those two, while Ron and I eyed up some well-fancied opposition from the Sportslab crew.
We applied the self-annihilation attack strategy to this race. It would be a unique opportunity to run with the big boys – they were doing 100k solo and we were just knocking off a couple of 20k-ish legs. So could we stay in touch and learn a thing or two from the pros.
Ron had the first leg, and claimed to be still finding his running fitness after his Italian sojourn. But he still managed to redline it from the gun and come around the Blue Lake just outside of the top 10.
My turn. I noted that Aaron Jackson, first team member for our main opposition was ahead, and (legendary ultra runner) Mike Wardian behind, so I got into my own over-zealous pacing to see what I could do. Wardian caught me within a quarter of an hour and blasted past up the new trail around Lake Okareka. I then held my own, catching several bods over the Western Okataina leg. It felt good running it with more intensity then usual. I came in to the Okataina changeover and we were just behind our marks – the Labrats, and keeping right on our schedule.
Can’t tell you much about leg 3, except that we had vastly overestimated how long it would take Ron ‘unfit’ on ‘tired legs’. By the time I had driven through Kawerau and arrived at the Falls carpark, Ron had been waiting of me for nearly 15 minutes. Im gonna be the bigger man and say that it was his scheduling that cost us that, not my yarns with the other MEC lads while eating at the aid station buffet.So the final quarter had a shambolic start, but Ron through me his water bottle and I put my tunes in on the go and got into it. What a great leg it is to Titoki when you don’t feel like rubbish! That long downhill is dreamy, legs spinning at sub 4s and life is good! There were a few more technical bits afterward and some inevitable discomfort (NB nothing like 100k pain though, not a bit). We had got solidly into the lead of the two person division and it was a gratifying final few run for the final few kms to take the win for Tumeke Waewae.
Logistics in two person team events are actually rather challenging. You have to know quite precisely how long you will run each leg and how long the drive will take. I have never had to get around the course in a car before – its harder than I realised!
But the relay is a great option – you can run hard, you can share the day with mates and it doesn’t have to shatter you like a massive ultra tends to. I’d be keen to repeat, but I think Ron misses the 100, so we’ll see what 2018 brings.
Coastal Challenge 2017
The bravest race director award of 2017 goes to Aaron Carter and the TS crew for holding this event which has plenty of ocean interaction during the tail-end of a cyclone. I couldn’t believe it was going ahead, but it did, and it was epic as usual. Thom Shanks and I decided that mother nature wouldn’t hold us back, and drove North to Arkles Bay with the mighty Stu Hale as team photog and crew.
The course changed a bit – it was lengthened to help reduce the length of the swim across the Okura estuary and we ran over the Long Bay headland track rather than risk rockfall around the coast up there. Otherwise it was the same juicy wet goodness it always is.
I got stuck a little further back then I would have liked at the start, about 20th at corner one. I worked my way up and was in top 10 by the Wade River swim, and top 5 by Okura swim. A few kms after Long Bay I moved into 2nd when one of the leaders dropped with an injury. The gap to the front runner Nick Berry varied between 5 and 9 minutes, but I wasn’t able to catch him in the end. I was pretty bushed from Takapuna onwards and held on for (another) 2nd place here. Nick is a beast Surf Lifesaver / sub 9 min 3000m runner so not a bad guy to be beaten by!
Onward to the World Masters Games… time to add some speed to the stamina!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…
Up we go…
We love hills
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!
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.
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.
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!
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)
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.
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 !!!!
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.
For some reason every year I run this race I spew. Seriously – check my previousrace reports – TL;DR? They go like this: feel good, feel good, feel average, feel horrific x 5, spew & then feel good – finishing strong. I was sure my 3rd effort in 2016 would be different. Boy was I wrong.
2015 had been a really strong year for the first two thirds. I had a > 12 month period of injury free uninterrupted training, and made some good gains in the pace department, setting PB’s for 5km (18:16), 10km (37:12) and half marathon (1:23:19).
However just over a month out from attempting my first road marathon @ Auckland things went pear shaped. I picked up some niggles which hampered the last 6-odd weeks there (I picked up a reasonable time, just missing my 3hr goal @ 3:05:18 after bombing the last 10km), and they got worse as the year ended up.
Between that & a crazy busy life with other commitments, training was definitely very sparse heading into Tarawera 2016, averaging just over 30km/wk for the 11 weeks prior, fitting in only 1 long run (50km) during that time. I tried to focus mainly on shorter hill training sessions which kept under the ‘injury threshold’, but in the weeks prior it was obvious I was majorly underdone. Heading into the race, cranking out the physio I put aside thoughts of pulling out & decided to just run it anyway.
The race plan was simple: take it really slow at the start & try grind one out to the finish. I set a rough goal around 13.5hrs, figuring adding an hour to last year should be about right if I could avoid the nausea that crippled me last year around Titoki.
The morning started much as expected. I joined up with Thom & Evan, to start with but ended up drifting away as I determined to stay well within myself, but 100% run my own race. Being quite far back in the field, the course was quite muddy in the rain and traction in my heavily worn Leadville’s was a real issue. I’d opted for the safe bet as far as my niggly lower calf was concerned, but it was at a real tradeoff for grip from the trail shoes. This caused me a reasonable amount of concern over the first few legs, as I knew I was exerting more pressure on muscles that I would have liked, trying to stay upright & not regularly bail.
Coming through Lake Okereka & seeing the family was a great little lift, and I pushed forward to the Okataina trail, briefly seeing Thom & Evan as I left the Millar Road aid station. I felt I was taking it really easy & had visions of being able to lift the tempo come Tarawera Falls. The trail to Okataina passed uneventfully although the body was definitely starting to feel quite weary, and I knew the leg through Humpheries & The Outlet would be a killer.
This leg is one of my favourites with beautiful scenery and windy trails, but there’s not doubt – you don’t pass through without paying the tax man. And this year I paid in full. About half way to Humpheries Bay my quads pretty much blew and heavy cramp started to kick in. And the nausea. The forsaken nausea. The scenery often helped to distract, but I was regularly reduced to stopping with fully locked quads, kneeling down trying to get them to release.
As Thom & Evan caught & passed me just out of Humpheries, there was nothing I could do but wave them on, wishing them the best. I was in the hurt locker, and with over 50k’s still to go, dealing with a serious onslaught of doubt. The crew through here (as with the whole course) were amazing & I just counted down the k’s to each aid station. Kristy offered some much appreciated words of encouragement at the Outlet & I pushed on toward Tarawera Falls with a serious decision to make … bail or man up? I was still hurting bad with the cramp, and feeling very grim with nausea which had plagued me for the last couple of hours.
In the end there was only 1 real option. I hadn’t come all the way down to bail out because I was sore (no kidding – it’s an ultra), and one of my big goals of the day was to run the finish chute with my little 2yo Sam – who just loves running.
I tried chowing a good amount of food at the falls to see if I could get the cramp to release. Bad idea. Nausea kicked in even harder & I bottomed out, forced to walk for the next hour or so until a kind soul offered me a ginger lolly which actually seemed to help some. I determined about half way to Titoki I was going left at the turnoff. I could still finish with Sammy having done 85km. I promised myself. “Sometimes your body just isn’t up to it” I told myself.
To be fair I stood at the turnoff for a good 2 minutes, but fate would have it I had Rage Against The Machine blaring rebellious tunes at the time and with the Titoki crew egging me to go right, I plunged across the mat towards Awaroa, knowing there was no turning back from that point. It was actually like a bit of a weight lifted and I felt on a bit of a high pretty much all the way to Awaroa, knowing I was going to finish the race.
Pushing up the loop of despair wasn’t too drastic. Coming down was another story. Downhills were a world of hurt & often I had to experiment with going straight down, going sideways, walking backwards … anything to get the quads to not lock up & reach the bottom. If it wasn’t rough gravel I’d have probably tried rolling down.
Coming out of Awaroa for the last time, I decided I’d had enough. I’d been battling nausea for over 40km / 5.5hrs now & it was time to try something new. So on the side of the road, 88.6km in I embraced thoughts of smashing another gel & the vomit came. Out came completely undigested fresh plums from Tarawera Falls. Seriously – you could have washed them off & put them back in the bowl. I’m not a quiet vomiter either – much to the delight of my fellow contestants passing me by who release a stream of ‘encouraging’ comments.
Turns out it’s the best thing I could have done. Instantly I felt better. I managed to get a gel in me, and some water. The cramp was still heavy, but it was like my body was getting nutrition again, and I managed to push hard & pretty much run non stop from there to the end, passing a steady stream of people. It was approaching dark and I was big time motivated to get in before my boy had to go to bed – that and the idea of trail running at night without a head torch.
I ended up running the last few trail sections in the dark anyway, guided by the glow sticks & keeping my feet high to avoid face planting just before the finish. Coming out onto the fields I picked up a couple of last minute places and with a few hundred metres to go saw the delighted faces of my lovely wife & absolutely ecstatic son, complete with his official pacer number pinned to his singlet.
We raced the finish chute hand in hand, Sam waving to the cheering crowd much to their (and my) delight. I couldn’t have hoped for a cooler finish – the effort was totally worth that moment.
2016 was definitely an interesting race. My final time was 14:49:30, finishing 174/316 finishers. I’ve never had to grind it out like that before. I’ve never had to come in that far back in the field before either, seeing all my comrades disappear over the horizon. Also 15hr’s largely solo with no crew in the field leaves a lot of time to spend in your own head. It was definitely a different game mentally, however it’s kind of satisfying to have experienced a different kind of race, & I’m stoked to have still come away with the finish.
While it’s not the hardest run I’ve done (2014’s Ruapehu loop keeps that mantle), it’s definitely the worst condition I’ve been post-race. I was up most of the night feeling very ill, vomiting black sludge from an empty stomach around 3am (still have no idea what that was!). I didn’t really start to eat properly again a good 24 hours after finishing, and probably was the morning after that I finally got my appetite back. Carnage!
Learnings? I really need to figure out how to get my nutrition sorted & crack the Tarawera nausea curse. If it happens again though, I’m forcing myself to vomit early (and often if required). Even if it means a finger down the throat. It’s just not worth trying to hang in there.
Massive thanks to my wife who waited about 4-5hrs in the rain at the finish line with 2 kids very young kids to allow my magic moment at the finish line. She completed an ultra of her own that day. Huge congrats to my mate Phil Needham too who finished his first 60km ultra despite only ever having a longest run of 30ish km max (pacing me the year before) & getting minimal training in prior due to a dodgy knee – what an inspiring effort! And finally big up’s to all the MEC boys. Legends. (Some epic efforts in there too – Thom cleaning a good hour off his PB, and Evan chopping his first hundy like he was just out for a casual one).
Very happy with how my late spring / early summer went. I had two races (SkyRockNRun and Westcoaster) of around 5hrs with lots of climb in November and December. I was consistent, managing to get my 60-70k per week in around my other priorities. Then in January I ramped up the climbing further and got some great trail runs and hikes in. Only thing really lacking was a couple of runs around the 50k mark. I think having one that finished with some gradual road climbs would be good specific prep for this race.
Pre race prep, physical: A
Got down the day before. Hydrated and carbo-loaded well. Noticed that I was really tight in my hips so foam rolled them to bits the night before. Had all my crew instructions ready to go and got to bed just after 10.
Pre race prep, mental: D
I was fit, in probably the best shape I ever have been for this race. And so my goal was a small PB – 15 mins. Very reasonable. However, I had not dug the motivation deeper than that. This is a race I have loved. But still it is an event where experincing discomfort is certain, and suffering and misery are likely. Therefore, having a single time goal is a very vulnerable motivation. A breadth of goals is what is needed e.g. Run my best race on the day, come top x in my category. Push through the pain to finish strong. Never give up, stay positive, keep moving. This is Racing 101, so big points off for this lapse in preparation
Race execution: C
Ron, Caleb and I met at the start and ran together as planned. We actually started a bit further back than ideal but made up by catching plenty on the first 5k. In retrospect, I pushed a little hard on some of the first leg single track in aid of getting to a pace that felt most efficient. Lesson: Start further up. If caught back, bide time and protect legs and await some firetrail to get into position.
Interestingly my heart rate (HR) was a bit high for the first leg. Not sure why, I felt fine. Still thinking on it. Came right by Leg 2 to Okataina.
The trip to Okataina is the most familiar part of the course, and I was happy with our progress here. The effort felt manageable and the HR came back to expected. We came to the Okataina aid station in 4:09:05, just 4 minutes down on my predicted splits for a 10:45 finish.
The third leg to Tarawera Falls was hard. We ended up doing it about 10 minutes slower than expected, but the body felt like we had being pushing hard, not taking it easy. This is still a bit of a puzzle. With the rainy conditions, I thought we would have an easier time (less effort shifting heat), but perhaps the mud made our legs work just that much harder that they fatigued sooner. I had great grip in my X-Talons, but was very glad to swap them out for road shoes at the Falls.
As mentioned in Ron’s report, our three man team collectively stepped off the gas at the Tarawera Falls. I saw we were about 15 mins down on time needed to make goal of 10:45, and not feeling nearly as fresh as expected/desired. That felt like there was no chance of hitting the target (huge mental mistake – counting your current state of wearyness/energy/misery as if it is fixed, when actually you can recover). In actual fact, we were in the top 35 at this point (but unaware) as everyone was behind schedule! We transitioned from pulling each other along, to happily going at the lowest common speed – i.e. whoever was slowest set the pace. Toilet stops, walking breaks, we all took them together.
It was nice to have company, but if I am honest, it was real hard going. I have had more fun pushing myself hard in this section, drawing everything out of my fatigued body. I was downcast at missing my goal, and Caleb wasn’t having a happy time either. Ron seemed content, and we all trudged in slow silence. The quiet company of three was no match for the motivational force of an engaged pacer (or a competitive/positive mindset). No complaints from me, I was very glad to have the boys to run with and wait with – but just a reflection that I wanted to share as a lesson.
On the way to Awaroa after Titoki I noticed my pee had gone from yellow – dark yellow – brown. I started to drink more, but was feeling fine so not particularly bothered by this. Then just as we left the Awaroa aid station (83k) I noticed that it was brown and red. Oh. Not good. I won’t go into the difference between myoglobinuria (extremely bad) and exercise associated haematuria (maybe bad, maybe benign), but I knew that my kidneys were likely stressed regardless. This left me quite stressed. Ron gave me the good advice to go back to the aid and slam some fluids. I did this, asked if there was any medical person there (no, they had just left) and filled both my bottles. I made the decision to run it to Fisherman’s bridge 8.5k away. Dad would be there, which meant an objective opinion, and potential evacuation in his car if necessary.
Ron and Caleb had waited for me (much appreciated) and we picked up the pace and ran down the hills. I now had motivation to get there quickly and was moving the fastest I had in a couple of hours, with little change in effort. Amazing how perspective change can impact your performance. We got to Fisherman’s Bridge and I was very relieved. I took a couple of minutes to check my urine and think and discuss with Dad what to do. I decided to take the safe option and pull out there at the aid station. I sent the guys who were now quite wet and cold from waiting for me onward and I spoke to the race medical team who concurred (nice medical word eh?) with my decision. An hour later in the med tent at the finish I had put on 1.3 kilos (i.e. over-hydrated) and shortly after this I was peeing clear again. The kidneys had bounced back from the hydration and I was fine. In retrospect I can see that I had rehydrated sufficiently (actually too much hypo-isotonic fluid – hence the weight gain) and would have made it to the finish OK. However, I wasn’t to know that at Fisherman’s Bridge and so while very disappointed not to finish, I am reassured that I made the sensible call on the day. Better to live to fight another day then die trying to prove you’re a hero.
So, another year at this excellent event, but definitely not my best or my favourite performance. Some great results from the MEC though, and I will live it to those chaps to tell you the story for themselves. See you soon on the trails.
2012, the first crack at the TUM100 came in at 12:07hrs from a desired time of 11hrs. On the fifth attempt it ended in 12:15hrs from a desired 10:45hrs. Not only was it the slowest of the standard 100km course attempts, but it also saw the greatest gap between expectations and reality.
The thing is, I had thought I was coming into the event better prepared than ever and I was only 7mins off my 10:50hrs target time last year.
So what gives? It appears it wasn’t a decrease in effort, my TRIMP score (think a conservative Strava Suffer Score) was near identical to last year 1105 vs 1107. These were the highest of any of my past TUM, including the extended distance/climb 2013 Fire Edition. Nor was it cracking and running in a state of exhaustion, I didn’t feel like death during or after the event. In fact recovery was excellent, and somewhat quicker than previous years. Nutrition and hydration was also better than previous years, ate and drank well, no gastro issues.
That leaves two suspects. The most obvious was the conditions, it was wetter and warmer than the 2013 Lusi Cyclone edition. The course didn’t actually feel terribly slow underfoot, and unlike many I wasn’t wearing clown shoes so felt pretty confident on the climbs/descents (wizard sticks helped). Even though it was wet and grey, it was warm and humid from the get go. Despite a solid effort over the first 60km our pace was well down, so maybe these early exertions were just sucking out energy more rapidly than anticipated?
The other identified suspect was the social approach of the run, as three of us were all targeting a 10:45 finish we started as a pack. And ran as a pack. Each nicely pushing the pace over the first 60km. I guess each aware that we were falling further and further behind schedule. Then at the Tarawera Falls aid station, since a sub-11hr was clearly off the cards it was like an unspoken contract was entered to cruise to the finish. Nobody pushed the pace, nobody parted company to press on alone. Nobody mentioned time or pace.
It was nice running as a bunch, comfortable. It wasn’t like I was trapped in an unwanted social contract. It just stopped being an individual race I guess. Fine by me, I’ll take challenging collaboration over competition given a choice. Unfortunately the dream three-way MEC finish wasn’t to be, though we did finish as two. The others’ stories are sure to come…