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.