Ultra running: if it was meant to be easy, everyone would do it. And everyone would finish. With smiles. But it’s not easy. It takes more than just training, guts and determination to get across that finishing line: the body also has to co-operate, the weather be in your favour, and it really helps if you’re prepared for the terrain. I ran for four hours yesterday (by ran, I mean tip-toed up and down gnarly, slippery, mud-soaked hills) thinking “that’s it, I’m out at 60k”, and the more I had negative thoughts, the harder it was to keep moving forward. Knowing so early in the race that my time goal was blown, with un-cooperative legs and all energy gone, I just kept thinking “what’s the bloody point? Running long races sucks!!”
I just kept thinking “what’s the bloody point? Running long races sucks!!”
Back to the beginning. The Tarawera Ultra Marathon is more than just another race. It’s a celebration of local culture that embraces the natural landscape. Paul Charteris, the event organiser has done an amazing job to get the entire community of Rotorua and surround behind the event, and it was such a joy to see landholders and government embrace it so positively. Part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, the event attracted over 300 overseas competitors with around 1300 total registrants tackling distances of 60, 85 & 100km in both solo and relay teams.
With everyone beginning at the same time, it was busy at the start line, and I found it difficult to work out where to position myself in the crowd. It’s self-seeded, which might be ok for a couple of hundred people, but with so many toeing the start-line, it was bound to cause some headaches. I was maybe 15m from the start line, but with the start line being 30-40 people wide, it wasn’t the right place to be. It took around 90 seconds to cross the start line, and I found myself in the middle of a large number of shufflers. The race starts slightly uphill on a nice 5m wide trail, and after maybe 600m turns left onto a 2m wide trail, before narrowing to single trail by the 2km mark. While I tried my best to get past as many as I could in the first couple of km, I wasn’t the only one trying and it became self-defeating to even attempt it, especially in the dark when footing off the trail was unknown. At around 2.5km the single trail weaves up and down a hill and there were some real path-hogs, causing frustration for many. I was alternating between “argh, this is annoying” and “hey, there’s no chance of me blowing up early at this pace”. I tried to stay with that positive though, but unfortunately the frustration was the dominant emotion.
The first real fun came at 3km when there was a rather steep downhill bit. It was slippery — well, it was just mud, there was no chance of getting down in control of oneself. Now is probably a good time to mention the weather. It was wet. No getting around it. It started with light drizzle on Friday morning, and gradually got heavier during the day and into the night. The trails were slippery underfoot. That steep downhill I just mentioned: I paused momentarily, then saw one guy just take it on at full speed and kind of slip and slide down on his feet. This was while many were doddering about trying to get down the hill slowly but still with no control. Faced with a choice, I went for the cool option, prepared to eat some mud, and threw myself down the hill. It was AWESOME! I was totally out of control sliding all over the place, but somehow, I got to the bottom still upright, with a great big grin and powered along. With the first aid station at 16km or so, I worked hard over the next few km to try to make up some lost time. Coming out of the single trail at 4km (where we dumped our headlamps), there was a sweeping down, up, then long downhill on a wide fire trail. I took to the down hills with gusto, thinking simultaneously “whee, this is quick” and “dude, you’re going to smash your legs, back off a bit”. Again, the fun part of my brain won that particular battle, and I just kept powering along. Coming into Blue Lake we got to see a crowd for the first time, which was fantastic, and the track around the lake was mostly runnable and I was having fun. As I came into the Blue Lake aid station at 16.4km (after the pop-up “seam sealed jacket check point”), I was ready to grab my drop bag, quickly refill with tailwind, and push on. However I saw no sign of the drop bags, and when I enquired I got the reply “no, they’re at the next aid station”. Slightly confused, I just nodded, used my one spare tailwind sachet and pushed on. In hindsight, I think the guy I asked probably didn’t hear my question properly. I was most likely muttering.
There was a fair amount of bitumen road through to the next aid station at Millar Road (22.8k), fairly easy going and I cruised along happily, looking forard to getting my drop bag and keeping on top of my nutrition. Coming into the aid station though, there were no drop bags, and I was out of tailwind. I’d been on-track to that point (200cal/hr), but the next 17km were going to be a challenge without my normal liquid calories. I took on some watermelon and bananas, filled up my bottles with water, and moved on. Coming out of the aid station, I looked at my pacing chart and it indicated that a 12h finish was looking unlikely, but 13h was maybe still do-able (I’ll be honest – although I never intended to race hard, 12h seemed like a respectable time, somewhere around the 25th percentile for the previous year, and a target I thought would be well within my reach).
The next 17km were just miserable. It was relentless single trail, through sloppy mud going up up up, down down, up up up some more. As I crossed the tallest part of the course (725m) I was completely spent, and had lost all faith in the ability of my feet to obey simple commands (such as “don’t step on that slippery wet tree root”). I’d twisted my right angle pretty badly about four weeks ago, and it was still a bit swollen entering the race. At this point, I was feeling overly protective of the ankle, my glutes were wrecked, my quads were shaking, and my legs just weren’t functioning as they should. I continued on with a great deal of trepidation, and by the Okataina aid station at 39.4km, I was in a bad place in my head. It had taken me 2h15min for 16.7km, and although my race wasn’t quite over, I was definitely on the edge of self-destruction.
The Okataina aid station at 39.4km was a real relief. I took a moment to sit down, refill my bottles with tailwind (yay, dropbags!) and have a chat with Vince who was unfortunately done for the day (at least, I think it was at this aid station). I know I was feeling pretty wrecked by this stage, and probably said something along the lines of “I’m out at 60” to Vince, but I kind of felt that I’d be able to turn things around. This was the first aid station where I tried ginger beer, and WOW! it was the magic elixer drink that I’ve been missing. So much gingery goodness. With lots of watermelon and some chips and bananas on-board, off I went. With the next aid station a touch under 10km away, I figured how hard can it be? Well, remember the mud and the hills? It was a constant slog. The mud was not only slippery, it was also heavy under foot. Like running in soft sand, only wet. Every step sucked more energy than it should, and every time I thought my feet were drying off there’d be another mud puddle that would weigh down my shoes. The middle toe on my right foot wasn’t impressed by all this moisture and decided to cramp up, for about the next four hours (not really an issue, but it was sticking “up” while the other toes were pointing down, so it was rather weird and uncomfortable). The mud really sucked. I took 1h45min for that next 9.8km to the Humphries Bay aid station, and a further 1h21min for the 8.1km to Tarawera Outlet aid station.
This has has not happened to me before, and I started to freak out.
It was during that leg to Tarawera Outlet that my dark place became that much darker. At around 7 hours my brain slowly turned some random thoughts into a rational one along the lines of “hey, you’ve only peed once in 7h. That’s a little unusual for you”. I’m a “pee every 20min” guy – I know that’s a bit personal perhaps, but it meant that body-wise, things probably weren’t quite right. Although I didn’t really have a desire to go, I force myself to, and out came a rather pathetic, quite painful, stream of reddy/brown urine. This has has not happened to me before, and I started to freak out. I mean, I’d taken on around 4l of hydration over 7.5hrs, which seemed to be around the right figure. I’d not been doubling-down so much on electrolytes (there’s another story to that, but not relevant), so I was worried. I thought it was probably blood, which wasn’t a good sign, and perhaps there was my out to withdraw at the 60km finish point (where I’d still get a finishers medal and another ultra ticked off). At the Tarawera Outlet aid station, I didn’t want to, but knew I had to, ask to speak with a medic (hesitantly, because if they decided to pull me out, I was still 5km short of the 60!) But it was the best conversation I could have had. He listened, he asked questions, he nodded, he poked me, and concluded that I was probably just having an off-day in my digestive system, my skin showed that my hydration was ok, and that the humidity was likely just messing with me. He was kind, positive, and said I had nothing to worry about, but that if I was still concerned at the next aid station, to speak further with the medical team there. We both agreed at that point that tailwind probably wasn’t doing it for me, to switch to water and gels, to suck it up (everyone was having a tough day), and keep on going. And that was the turning point.
I felt a weight coming off my shoulders.
The 5km into Tarawera Falls aid station was not only a turning point in my head, it was also where the trail changed from muddy, hilly, sticky and just horrible (for me) to smoother, flatter, more runnable terrain. I wasn’t moving fast, but I was enjoying traversing the trail along this amazing river. It was crystal clear, rapid, noisy, and just beautiful. My eyes started to take in the natural beauty of the area, and I felt a weight coming off my shoulders. During this section, I cancelled any plans to withdraw at 60km, and started doing the sums in my head on finishing times. If things didn’t improve, I could always switch to the 85k (though if going really bad, 85km might not work out as I wouldn’t have access to my headlamp on that course). Coming in to the 60km finish area / aid station, there was no question of turning left and running through the finishers shoot – in my mind, it was not a pretty place: it was narrow, crowded, and didn’t look like a fun place to stop. I’d also realized “hey, if I finish at 60k, I’m going to go back to the hotel and do what? I’m not in any kind of rush. Who cares if the next 40k takes 8hrs, you’ve got nothing better to do”.
It took me 1hr23min for a touch under 10km through to the Titoki aid station (72.2km). I wasn’t doing too badly considering how slow I’d been earlier. The tracks were much more runnable, and I’d found an nice rhythm in a run/walk strategy (basically run from one marker flag to the next, then walk to the following one etc). This aid station was the decision point for 85k vs 100k, and honestly, it was a no brainer by this stage. By then that I didn’t care how long it took, a 100k finish was a 100k finish, I wasn’t in any serious discomfort, and how much longer would an extra 15km take anyway? I loaded up again on ginger beer (so good!), watermelon, a handful or two of chips and grabbed a Hammer gel to take on the way. This was where I discovered the new Hammer gel that is basically nutella (hazelnut chocolate) – I used to like Hammer gels, but had gone off them (one too many apple cinnamon and vanilla flavours for my liking). But this nutella-like one was to die for! So good. And the gels were actually working, I felt like I had a lot more energy. My legs still didn’t want to co-operate, but my brain and legs seemed to have reached a happy agreement with the run/walk approach. I’d come up with goals for how long to the next aid station (taking into consideration hills etc). The next 7.7km I allowed 1h (it took 1:05, though that included a proper toilet break — thanks Hammer for waking that part of my body up) and a lot of pfaffing about at the aid station. Then came the dreaded out-and-back climb that I’d overheard many people saying was tough. I gave myself 45min for this 5km section, and honestly, it was a doddle compared to what we’d already done, and I knocked it out in around 35min.
Feeling pretty positive now, and with under 20km to go (and no big hills, in fact, it was basically all flat or downhill) my pace picked up, knocking out the next 8km in 1h, then 5km to the final aid station in around 40min (bang on the goals I was setting myself at this point). That final aid station at River Road was amazing – Star Wars themed, there were cardboard cut-outs of storm troopers lining one side of the road and large quotes on the left (my favourite: “Do. Or do not. There is no try”). The vollies were all dressed up in theme, music was blasting away, and the atmosphere was party-like. At this stage, the 85 and 100km runners had merged, and there were a lot of people ahead and just behind me. Everyone walked into the aid station, I just looked, checked my bottles for enough water, and kept on going. As I counted down through 5 … 4 … 3 to go, I was passing people easily with my walk/run strategy, and was busting out longer run segments. Although I’d pulled out my torch ready for use, as I crossed the bridge into Kawerau, I tucked it away unused, and took in the surroundings. With the river flowing on my right, it was just as I’d imagined it would be(although a bit darker than I’d planned). I was moving along at a decent pace until I looked over my shoulder and saw one lady who I’d passed not to long ago starting to catch up. And when I heard a spectator behind me say “go on love, you can catch him”, I was off like a rocket for the last little bit. As soon as that finish line came into sight, I was sprinting (in my head at least, though I suspect I looked like a two legged dog dragging itself along the ground). Up through the finishers shoot, lots of clapping, something that sounded like my name over the loudspeaker, and over the finishing line, arms in the air, so so glad to get to the end. Paul Charteris was standing there, arms wide, offering a hug, and I took it gladly! He asked how I found the course, and I think the words I managed were “brutal. amazing. epic. thank you”. Kerry Suter was handing out the 100km medals, and he took the time to chat with me found about five minutes, it was just amazing! Just so stoked to finish, and I’m very very happy that I persevered and got to the end. 14:31:06, a couple of hours slower than I would have liked, but hey, who cares?
At the presentations on Sunday, Paul made the comment that it was the toughest the course had ever been. I’ll take his word on it (I figured that perhaps the year of the cyclone would have been similar with the mud/wet factor). Certainly, the conditions were difficult – it rained pretty much all day, though I’m happy that it did so. It’s summer, and rain+heat=humidity. The humidity was as hard to cope with as the muddy, slippery terrain, and had a real impact on my body. There was a point around midday where the rain eased up and it started getting warmer, and I started thinking “uh oh, this is going to be bad”. But no sooner had it eased, it returned with some intensity. Although there was never a time when I wanted to put on my rain jacket (it was high-teens to low-twenties for most of the day), there was a moment or two when I felt chills if I allowed myself to cool down too much. Honestly though, I enjoyed being kept cool by the rain. The mud, not so much.
Just briefly, back to earlier when I peed red/brown. I’ve had some time to think on it, and have worked out the cause. I took several Shotz electrolye tablets, the fizzy kind, the day before the race. They were Berry flavoured, and therefore red. That’s why the reddish pee. And the lack of pee, it’s obviously how my body works: at the Track Ultra WA event last year, it was hot for the first 4-5 hours, and I remember distinctly that I drank a lot then, and got a really distended belly and wasn’t going. It wasn’t until the evening when things cooled right down when I needed to pee regularly. So there you go, I learnt something else about myself during this race too!
- Elevation: +2755m/ –3055m
- Time: 14:31:06
- Position: mid-packish (160th when I last checked, still being finalised).
- Blisters: none
- Sore spots: none
- Chafing: none
- Falls: none
- Rocks in shoes: none
- 100k medal: ONE
- Hugs from Paul: ONE