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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
I had the urge to do some data geeking … so have thrown some of the split data into a spreadsheet and banged out a few graphs. If you’re wired like me (or Ron ;)) you’ll probably find it pretty interesting. I like seeing the ‘story’ of the race after only having experienced it in person from my perspective. Click here for the full spreadsheet with all of the graphs.
I find the ‘Position change’ probably the most interesting one – next to the splits.
Strictly looking at the data, I found a few aspects quite interesting:
#1: We should have started a bit closer to the start line in general. I know Caleb & I passed a whole lot of people in the first leg (not showing on the graph as our position at the start line wasn’t recorded), and you can see from the data we all continued moving up the field on our way to Okareka.
#2: The “Changing positions is an inefficient use of energy” award goes to Ron who positioned himself perfectly in the field – and finished in the exact same position as he entered the first aid station – never fluctuating more than 6 places.
#3: The “I love to kill” award goes to Mike who slayed 197 people in the space of 2 legs between Okareka to Tarawera Falls! And then a further 32 over the next 20km to Awaroa. Struth Ruth!
#4: The “soul sisters” award goes to Dave & Thom who’s spirits were so in sync that they finished precisely one hour apart. To the second. Blow me down with a pitchfork!
#5: “Copy book” race plan execution award – looking at the data is an interesting one. Caleb, Ron, Sean and Thom would all be candidates. Caleb takes this one out though. He ran within himself for the first 70 and then unleashed from Titoki pulling the fastest splits for every stage from there on, aside from being pipped on the last leg by 1 minute.
#6: Ron absolutely killed it to Okataina coming in 45 minutes ahead of the nearest MECer only 37km into the race. Even from there was in the top 2 MEC splits for 2 of the last 4 legs as he powered on & held his guts, nerve & steam!
#7: I get the ‘Lazarus‘ award for getting my ass handed to me (dropping back in the field) the most & on 2 separate legs .. the first according to race plan, the latter on the way to Awaroa due to near death nausea (how dramatic – more about that in my race report). Then coming back from the dead briefly to finish strong & pip the fastest time for the last leg.
#8: Thom started to put the foot down from the falls and finished really strongly – making solid progress up the field every leg.
#9: Sean just gained and gained. He moved constantly up the field – increasing his ‘kill rate’ the closer the end came.
#10: Akie finished strong. After either holding back or doing it tough from Titoki to Fishermans and dropping back in the field a bit, he put the foot down and had a great finish – making some significant gains back up the field in the last 10km.
#11: We all made gains (some quite significant) through the technical stuff to Tarawera Falls.
So, I actually sent out an email the week prior to the race when I was convinced it was over for me. No pain free runs since Dec 20. All my usual tricks at speeding recovery had been to no avail. My thoughts switched to how I could recover rather than how I could race.
But I had a painfree walk run with Ron on Tuesday, repeated it with a 3.5k run walk home and thought – I’ve got to give it a go. No way I was missing the race if there was any chance, even a small one that I could take part. So it was great to be down in Rotorua with our biggest MEC contingent ever. We had a fantastic pre-event pasta party at Dave and Evan’s family bach. It was a cool family occasion (and thanks guys for the great pressie).
Race day was as predicted: Cool start (approx 8 degrees) but low winds and mod-warm temps in the afternoon (officially 22 in town). We all met up for the pre-race festivities and I was delighted to be in fine company for the first leg, going out at an easy pace with Dave, Todd, Sean and Thom. We were probably 2/3 of the way back and there was plenty of unavoidable walking in the first 5km. This suited me just fine. That meant no temptation to run on my legs that hadn’t run for more than 6k at a stretch in the last 7 weeks. We had a glorious time laughing our way through the redwood forest and down to Tikitapu. We got in to the Blue Lake aid 30 minutes after Ron and 15 minutes back on Caleb and Brent. I was pumped – no pain in the calf, and the day was looking like it might come together.
We made our way down to Okareka aid station and shortly after our party of five were split. Todd and I were moving faster and got a gap on the other three. I was getting more confident in my calf by the time we left the Miller road Aid station at 21k, and was running more freely on the leg. Over to Okataina we ran together well, catching heaps of people and only stopping occasionally for me to stretch or knead the calf when it felt tight. The downhill to Okataina felt good, and I rolled ahead of Todd who was feeling pretty sore by now. I finished the leg just under 2:17 (over 20 minutes slower than last year). I felt fresh and took on supplies at the aid station before heading out.
Leg 3 was where I really let the brakes off. I was pretty sure my calf would hold for the day, and so started to run my natural pace. I noticed that my heart rate was 10 beats or so higher than I would have expected for the effort, but put that down to the nerves of the big day. I steadily caught group after group (sometimes getting stuck behind for a while on the snaking singletrack) as I made it my goal to reel in Caleb and Brent who had started the leg about 13 minutes ahead of me.
As I ran over the hill to Humphries Bay, a MTBer commented on my singlet and said he had seen a couple of guys in that singlet not too many minutes before. Encouraged by the sense of progress, I kept pushing along. I made it to the Tarawera Falls aid in 7:30 – about 30 minutes slower than 2012, but that was all from the first 2 legs. My watch had frozen on leg 3 so I re-started it at the aid station, filled my bottle and my hat with ice and went into the forestry road section.It wasn’t long before I was caught by Caleb and Brent. I had actually passed them while Brent took a pit-stop, so I waited and we ran as a threesome for a bit. I was feeling good. I had eaten well, and wasn’t too sore. I ended up pulling ahead and so said my goodbyes.
My technology was not aiding my ambition. My watch had 3 meltdowns, and on this part of the trail I became aware that my mp3 player wasn’t gonna work either. That was a bit of a blow, as it was meant to focus and lift me through the last 30-40k.
But I wound into Titoki aid still feeling good and making progress. Then it got real. Real hard. My body remembered its lack of training and around the 75k mark I started to slow, feeling tired and sore. The Awaroa loop was tough, I moved OK on the steep uphill, but it was very very sore going down. The heel inserts that had taken the pressure off my calf, had re-allocated it to knees and they cried out in protest. I went from catching up to seeing people pull away, and then getting caught myself. I still had 20k to go and it was a struggle to run at all (interestingly walking was quite fine – unlike meltdowns in 2010 and 2011). I heard a yell and Caleb was roaring down the hill to me. He slowed to talk for a minute and then sped off. I wished him well, so good to see him finish like that, but I took a mental dive as his smart race approach contrasted with mine and I saw my race unravelling at the end. Oh! The beginners error! Made on my 6th TUM, I should have known better. I castigated myself for my foolish leg 3 antics, and questioned my sense in running 100k on such unprepared legs. The self criticism of course made me feel so much better. And I began to walk with a dark grey cloud around me.
I tried to keep myself honest. I stopped and stretched my quads to take the pressure off the knees. I felt a bit freer and ran for a while before the pain took me down again. The aid stations would give a similar, fleeting boost. I was just relieved to see the kms tick over as I pulled into Fishermans bridge at 90k. Dad was there – his impeccable crewing had got me through all day. Every aid station he would give me splits and info and ask what I needed. I no longer need cooling as my speed had reduced. But he was able to pass me my iphone and I plugged that in for the final 10k to the finish.
Not sure if it was just having 10k to go, or the music or what, but I was able to lift into a slow shuffle for the rest of the journey. I actually caught a few people who had taken me earlier. The pain was still there, but was more background now and I made much faster progress. This was better.I crossed the bridge over Tarawera River with about 2k to go, I didn’t really have much more to give this time and I just chugged in over the fields. It was quite emotional getting to the finish line after being in pain and a bit down for a wee while. Heidi was itching to run with me, which made my day, so we held hands and ran the chute together, stopping the clock at 12:16.
Nutrition – ate well, did my gels on the half hour plus aid station food.
Hydration – drank water to thirst and felt fine.
Pacing – Started spot on, but worked too hard on leg 2 and especially leg 3.
Preparation – Minimal, and again the ultra had to teach me not to underestimate how much it will require of you.
I think because I so love the experience of testing oneself and experiencing the natural environment, I can forget how hard these ultras are. This sometimes leads to me not counting the full cost (until the race day, whereby I will pay the cost, oh yes). I will try to remember this because it feels SO much better to finish strong (even if you are sore) then to self-destruct along the way. What I love about this sport is that anyone can have the perfect race – it’s not about finishing first, it’s about delivering your best performance in all areas on the day. I had three great performances 2012-14 where I squeezed the best race out of my self I could, and I’m gonna make sure I have some more.
But, how crazy is it that I was even able to run? 1 week before I would have been happy to run 10k, and would not have expected to complete this event. So I’m gonna be grateful for my own little on-the-trail miracle recovery. As I said to the guys, what I really love is getting to share this whole thing with friends and family – having the competition and the comradery. And that’s what we did – 8 MECers with whanau in tow took on the Tarawera. Look out for Team Green next year!