102.7km. It’s a bloody long way! Add plenty of mud and rain into the mix and it gets even uglier, or so you would think. The reality is, my race at Tarawera Ultra was one of the most beautiful running experiences I’ve had. I don’t mean just in terms of the scenery, more so with reference to the entire weekend. Yeah, of course you always remember the good days fondly, but I think even if I hadn’t placed so highly I’d still have had an incredible time.
My journey towards Tarawera started in late December when my wife Emma and I were talking about what to do for my birthday. For a while I had said I’d always wanted to run 100km and I figured late 2016 would be it. Then we saw a post on Facebook with someone talking excitedly about doing Tarawera. This raised the question “Em, can I do this race as my birthday present?” Her response was quite decisive. “Of course!” With that a flurry of emails were sent to try and score a last minute entry. An introduction by Ultra-Trail Australia race director Tom Landon-Smith to his contemporary in NZ (Paul Charteris) was met with an awesome response “We’d love to have you.” With that, flights were hurriedly booked and a hotel locked in. Now for the training…
I raced the Kepler Challenge (60km) at the start of December and had a week or so recovery afterwards. From there I was planning a slow build towards racing something in March, but with the commitment made to become a centurion and only 5 weeks to get my shit together, I had to quickly ramp things up. My training is typical of what a marathoner would do, with the key exceptions being an occasional weekend trip to the Blue Mountains to get away from the city (I live in the middle of Sydney) and my Sunday long runs sometimes being a bit lengthier. I’d like to do more of the long stuff and hit the hills regularly, but it’s just not possible with a busy work life. So I made do with a consistent weekly grind that included the odd mid week medium long run up to 24km or so, one or two sessions a week which would be a tempo and some hills or shorter reps, plus the Sunday slog (The longest being 50km) and some incidental runs in the days between. My mileage was from 140 to 175km per week.
My wife and I travelled to Auckland two days before the race and drove the 3 hours to Rotorua, arriving late in the evening. The pungent bouquet of sulphur gas greeted our nostrils, welcoming us to this geothermal wonderland. It’s the geysers and hot mud pools that put this place on the map, but unfortunately we didn’t have the time to properly explore them. Instead, we were both pretty exhausted and feeling a tad under the weather after a busy few weeks of work and training, so instead of checking out the sites, we hid in our hotel and watched TV. Our only jaunt beyond the confines of our room was to register for the race and grab my number.
Race morning arrived with cool conditions and rain. I much prefer the heat, as cold climes are the enemy of the skinny and rain makes for muddy trails that are much better suited to the stronger, more ‘thicker-legged’ types. But you make do with what you’ve got and get on with the job. Squeezing my way through the crowd I eventually got near the front of the start. I stood a few rows back as I was not deemed worthy of a front row ticket. They were reserved for the Euros, North Americans and local celebrities. It didn’t make any real difference as after the traditional Maori welcome we were set off and the field quickly spread out, allowing me to find my way towards the front.
From here things unfolded as expected. The rising sun meant we could ditch the headlamps about 10km in and with the dull sunshine came beautiful forest views. I say it was ‘dull’ purely because the rain persisted and made for a soft light. The opening kilometres passed without incident and I spent much of them chatting to Vajin Armstrong, a guy I call the nicest bloke on the trails. At around 16km Vajin, Mike Wardian and I were at the pointy end with Jonas Buud slightly in front. It was here I decided to get a bit of a wriggle on and catch the Swede as I didn’t want him getting away. I figured my only shot at winning was to lock horns with him from the start as he’s not the kind of guy that you’re going to be able to mow down if he gest a bit of a gap.
Jonas and I traded the lead for the first 60km or so, with the two of us going stride for stride. I felt really strong and at the 58km point I actually thought to myself that I reckon my plan might work and I’d be able to pick up the pace in the last 40km. However, shortly after this moment of bliss I had a really rough patch. It was as though I’d gotten a flat tyre and was really struggling to move freely. Then in a matter of about 100m at around 60km I fell twice in short succession. Quickly Jonas came up on my shoulder and we exchanged a few brief words. “You look like you’re jogging mate!” I said. He replied with “There’s a long way to go still” before putting on the afterburners and running away.
From here I went into survival mode. I knew the rough patch would eventually end but how long it would hang around was unknown. I decided to consolidate and backed off a tad. I conceded my chances of winning were gone, but started to question whether or not I’d last the distance and hold onto 2nd place. I gradually came out of the hole at around 70km and started to feel human again. The pace picked up and I made it to the short out and back section (80kmish) where the final real climb of the race is. Here I was given a time-check and heard Jonas was 15 minutes ahead but no one was sure what the gap was like for the chasers behind.
Hitting the climb I was once again in a spot of bother. I quickly went from feeling ok to being a bag of crap! I hiked over the top and ran back to the end of the lollipop shaped out and back to hear that Ryan Sandes was in third, around 5 mins behind, and looking good. This made me nervous. He’s a seasoned performer and I’d heard he was back in form after a year of battling illness. This meant I spent the final 10 miles looking over my shoulder, waiting for him to pop up around a corner! It’s not the most pleasant position to be in. I liken it to running scared from an enemy that’s keen to put you in the hurt locker. I was already there and had no interest in being involved in a sprint to the finish line.
In the end I managed to hang tough, dragging myself through the final kilometres with my awesome support crew Emma cheering for me along the way. Reaching the finishing chute I felt a sense of relief and excitement. I’d just run a really long way and managed to beat some of the top ultra runners in the world, something I always believed I was capable of, but having only ever run 60km there was a little bit of doubt as to how I would handle the distance.
So how did my body pull up? Well, I had the worst chafing I’d ever endured. My thighs were red raw and I waddled around like I was in a nappy. My feet were pretty good, with a couple blood blisters being the only noticeable marks. I also had a stack of scratches on my legs as a result of a few falls and a failed attempt at climbing over a fallen tree. Other than that, I was good to go within a few days. That said, two weeks on and I’m still doing nothing. Not due to fatigue, but an injury I sustained moving boxes!