The Penny Drops

The Penny Drops.

It was at about 8pm the night before the Tarawera Ultra that realisation set in of what I had actually signed up for. I was going to run the longest distance I had ever attempted, over ground I had never seen, following a couple of days of persistent rain. To understand quite how I got here, you need to be aware that beer, credit cards and internet access are a dangerous mixture, especially when my brother-in-law Craig is egging me on to enter an event. It is not so much that he isn’t supportive (he is, incredibly so, as is the rest of my family) or that he bullies me in to things (he doesn’t) but he seems to operate a kind of subtle guerilla marketing campaign when he knows I want to do something, but maybe need a bit of a nudge. I finally hit the “submit” button at 7:01PM on 20th December.

“Hi Gareth, Thank you for your order. This email is confirmation of your purchase and is generated automatically by our online system.”

I’m still surprised that it took the best part of 2 months for the penny to drop on how big a challenge this really was going to be. I’d taken Friday off work, so I could drive down in plenty of time for the expo, registration and the race briefing. Aside from a brief stop off in Tirau for a pie and a cappuccino, I made it down in pretty good time. The logistics of the thing are fairly standard and rather dull; however, the highlight of the afternoon as probably seeing a whole bunch of runners who I would regard as stars of ultrarunning troupe by: Sally McRae and Dylan Bowman. I got intro ultradistance running at least partially because of YouTube videos like “Western Time” by Billy Yang so I was a little starstruck as they trouped past at registration. I picked up my race numbers, dropped off my drop bags, attended a briefing and then went home to lay my kit out ready for the 4am start the next day. It was while contemplating the weather and what it would mean for my race plan over a carb-heavy dinner that the penny did finally drop. This was the point at which I had my moment of clarity.

“Holy crap!” read my post on the Runnns Facebook page.

People were strangely reluctant to go and stand in the pouring rain and wait for the start, so it was with only five minutes to go that people wandered out there. I can get indecisive when I’m nervous, so I had already swapped from a simple running top to a long-sleeved base layer; however, I found within a few seconds that I was already too warm, so with about 2 minutes to go I swapped back and re-packed. I felt ludicrously strong physically – the upside of the strength / weakness cycle I typically experience while tapering – but was still very apprehensive. Will I run too fast at the start and blow up later? I’ve not got any sunblock on, what if the weather clears up? My nutrition is very sugar-based but is all “real food” so am I going to and up puking halfway round? Why does everyone here look lighter / faster / harder than me? None of these are good thoughts, and it certainly doesn’t help your mental state when your watch beeps at you after 1.2k and displays the message “-2 baseline performance: fair.” I’m switching that damned functionality off as soon as I can work out how.

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The nice thing about starting is that, at least for a while, the negative thoughts and daft questions get washed away and left behind at the pen. I’d planned to start conservatively and run as much as possible of the first few miles at 145HR or under, which I know I can sustain for a long time; this worked out at 5:30 per k on the grassy start. The race leaders screamed off at more like 3:45 per k and would go through the marathon distance in something like 2:45, followed at a respectful distance by an ever-lengthening pack. After a brief charge through Kawerau golf course, we headed out onto real trails which ran along the river and I was able to settle at the back end of a train of runners, who were probably running a bit more slowly than I would have on my own.
Slightly muddy single-track gave way forestry roads, which were easy to run on at a decent clip and didn’t require a lot of focussed attention. Flats and downhills were run. Anything more than a very moderate uphill was walked as we made our way through the Tarawera Forest; although a surprising number of people ran past my uphill and I started to drift back through the pack a little. I relaxed and began to enjoy myself.

Single Track Hell
I had gone through the first 35.5k in a little under 3 ½ hours and drifted back to 92nd place. I wasn’t really worried about my position at this point, and I generally don’t start trying to reel in runners until the final third of the distance. We hit the Tarawera Falls aid station, where I topped off my bottles, ditched my rubbish and picked up some more food. I find it helps to have a plan when navigating aid stations: it is too easy to dither and chat otherwise.
Heading up the track, I soon reached the falls a few seconds after Damon Aitken (although I didn’t realise this at the time) and we both paused to look at the astonishing sight of the recent rains pouring through holes in the cliff opposite the viewing platform. I wish I had taken the time to get a photo, but didn’t want to get my phone wet and so moved past at Damon’s urging and started to trot along the trail. A few steps later I made the mistake of trusting my shoes on a sloping rock and WHAM! I had completely lost my footing and slammed to the ground, twisting my right arm back in the process. I wasn’t winded and picked myself up quickly, checking for anything more serious than bumps and bruises as I started to walk and then jog forwards. Aside from a twingey right shoulder, everything felt fine.

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This is the was where everything started to get harder: the trails were muddier, the hills were longer and steeper, and everything wetter as the rain had continued to come down in varying intensities throughout the morning. I was also starting to have to run through more of the back markers in the shorter distance races as time had progressed. Halfway between Okataina and Millar Road aid stations, about 60k into the race, I was tracking down an 80k runner when I decided that headbutting a low hanging tree branch would be a good idea.
Now I’m not noticeably a clumsy person, but I had my baseball cap on peak forwards and I’d finally put my earphones in to deal with the long slog between aid stations. There was a loud click of teeth coming together and I dropped to the trail before swearing loudly; the trail runner a few meters ahead came back to check on me. There didn’t seem to be any missing or chipped teeth and I got over the shock of the thing quickly. I apologized profusely for the profanity, but fortunately she was unfazed.
Then followed the longest, most difficult and unpleasant grind of the day up muddy clay chutes wending my way through trains of other people reduced to plodding like me.
My brain tends to edit out this sort of experience quite quickly, and even only three days later I have to think quite hard to remember what it was like. It was longer and harder than the Karamatura Track climb on the Hillary Trail, and with the horrible slipper clay / sand mixture, the footing far worse than the simple mud of the Waitakeres. This 5k section took over an hour before the slope relented, gradually smoothed out and became a downhill, by which time my quads were aching and I could feel the first signs of impending cramp.

Getting to Millar aid station took nearly 2 ½ hours.

I knew another long section was coming up, but I didn’t want to spend too much time in the aid station. When you have been out own your own for a couple of hours, having only brief contact with other runners, and everything is starting to hurt, it would be very easy to dally. There’s a few wonderful moments as you burst out of the bush to be greeted by music, and people cheering and clapping. Often some wonderful volunteer will come up to you and ask if you need your drop bag / bottles filled / anything to eat.
The next section was considerably easier, with a decent downhill stretch on Millar Road. Without a gentle downhill bit to allow my legs to recover, I would have probably had to walk for a while. It took me almost exactly an hour to cover the 10k to Blue Lake.

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Beer is for Closers
Trotting along the trail alongside the road on the way to Blue Lake, I was pretty sure that I could feel my left big toenail starting to lift out of its nail bed. I had bashed my foot on a rock earlier that day and it didn’t feel good. I had considered doing a bit of investigation at various points along the trail, but decided to stick it out to Tikitapu (Blue Lake) aid station, where a drop bag with clean socks was waiting for me.
I jogged into the aid station alongside a lady runner names Amber with whom I had been playing tag for the past 10k or so, and headed off to the tent with the drop bags. The lovely zombie lady (that being the theme of the aid station) quickly found me my drop bag and a chair. Plonking myself down, I set to work on stripping everything off, rather nervous about what I might find when I removed my shoes. While I did receive a surprise, it was a pleasant one: what I had thought to be my toenail lifting was in fact my toe gradually wearing its way through the front of my sock. No black or broken nail. No blood. I grabbed some baby wipes, tidied up my feet and got dressed again. Heading out of the aid station I felt like something a bit sugary, so I tried a mouthful of Mountain Dew with trepidation, expecting it to bounce.
Nah, the ‘dew was going to work. I don’t normally drink sugary sodas, so when I do they are a bit like rocket fuel. Renewed, I trotted off about 10 seconds behind my intermittent companion. The Blue Lake trail runs around the lake and gently uphill. Each time I would start to walk the uphills, she would very gently trot past me; however, I would get the time back on the flats and downhills, where my basic pace was slightly faster than hers. We continued to play tag until the start of the final set of downhills through the plantation forest, where I gradually pulled away and did not see her on the course again.

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The descent down the tarmac road to the final aid station at Redwoods was pretty tough on sore quads, but as the angle eased it felt easier, and I could tell I can some petrol in the tank for the final 5k. I pulled past my friend Kirk, who I had last seen at the start, but was currently looking a bit uncomfortable. After words of encouragement I ploughed on through the aid station and a bit more Mountain Dew, then on to the paths and roads to the centre of town. I began to speed up as I approach Government Gardens, hitting a respectable 5:20 per k for the final couple and overtaking a few of the other 102k runners in the fume-filled moonscape. I also went past Feruccio Orlando and completely failed to him, as I had my headphones in and head down for the charge to the finish.

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The reception at the finish chute was brilliant, with plenty of clapping and cheering. I managed to maintain a fair clip up to the very end, where I was grabbed in an enormous bear hug by Race Director Paul Charteris. My medal was presented and photos taken before I was allowed to hobble slowly over to the medical tent for assessment. I will admit to nearly falling over when they tried to weigh me, as the cramps that had held off for the past few hours set in and I also began to shiver violently. After about an hour in the finish tent, where I drank water and some coke, I finally felt up to a beer and had a pint then very slowly walked the mile back to my motel for dinner and bed.

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