14 Feb 2017
“The real world is a place where things muddle along day after day. Get up, work, eat, go to bed – repeat. A month later you have forgotten what you did. The real world is the place where someone tells you that you are mad to run further than a marathon. The pessimists have already thought up twenty different failure scenarios before a single success scenario. We don't live in the real world. The Tarawera Ultramarathon is an event for completely different kinds of people. It's for dreamers, adventurers, stubborn-minded achievers, creators, craft beer drinkers. The muddy, the sweaty, the bloody, the foul-mouthed and the teary-eyed. It's not normal, it's not sensible – but it's our real world.” - 2017 Tarawera Ultramarathon Race Programme
30km into a 102km ultra marathon is not the point where you want to question your sanity. Your decision-making process. It is not a point where you wonder if six months earlier, when you signed up for this event, you had banged your head and damaged your frontal lobe. It's not a point where you want to feel the effects of fatigue, your pace slowing, your breathing a bit heavy. It is the point where you want to feel strong, and efficient, and other words that good runners use. With 72kms to go, you should feel “fresh”. 30kms into the 2017 Tarawera Ultramarathon I made a tough call – I decided to pull out. It was a hot, hot day, and I had trained in the cool Wellington wind. I was not prepared for what would happen, despite the warning sign I had in the heat of the Blue Mountains. I blew up large. My heart rate data would later tell me I was operating around 160-165 bpm, instead of 140-145. Game over, close the curtains, good night nurse.
Funny thing about quitting an ultramarathon is you can't just pull over and walk off the field. You are in the desert, on top of a mountain, or in my case, in the middle of the western track around Lake Okataina (which means “the lake of laughter”, funnily enough). So I had no real option except to plod my arse along to the next aid station. That gave me time to think, reflect, and, thankfully, find my resolve. I want to claim that some heroic quote came into my head, like the ones twenty year old girls are always posting on Instagram. I want to claim I had a moment of realisation, an epiphany, but the truth is far less romantic… I've always considered myself more like my mother. Kind, sensitive, introverted, devilishly handsome and with a smile that could warm the coldest heart. Did I say modest? Humble? I should add those in there too. But between that 30 km mark and the Okataina aid station, I realised I had one trait that definitely came from my father. In 2002, my older brother, my dad, and me, were watching the Warriors play in the NRL. It was early in the season, I think it was against the Bulldogs, and things weren't going so well. Dad threw what I would call a tantrum, saying he had had enough, and vowed “never to watch the worst team in sport again”. The Warriors then went on to a miraculous winning streak to finish top of the table in the regular season. Every game, he would pop his head round the corner to check the score, until we spotted him, which would send him storming off in the other direction claiming they were about to blow their lead. Every game. He refused to accept he had been wrong, and the Warriors were actually a top team. He refused to sit down for the rest of the season to watch what was a great run to the Grand Final. You see, my dad is one stubborn S.O.B. And, I'm happy to say, so am I. The less-than-romantic quote, the one that spurred me on, was a bit more like, “you can walk the rest of the way if you must, but you WILL NOT QUIT.” I think. I was a bit delirious at the time but it went something like that. It also contained swear words, slurring, and I think I cried a bit part way through. I also yelled it out loud about five hundred metres from the Okataina Lodge aid station, so I apologise to anyone I may have scared. So I plodded along from aid station to aid station, putting one foot in front of the other. Four hours became five, then six, then seven. Forgetting how far I had to go. Not allowing my analytical brain to calculate how long it would take me to finish at my current pace. I walked when I had to. I ran when I could. I laughed at my primary goal of an eleven hour finish. I sniggered at my secondary goal time of twelve hours. I had one purpose in life: get to the finish line. You will not quit.
I was joined by my pacer, Tracey, a local who kindly offered to help me out a few days prior, with 30kms to go. She gave up her afternoon to help out a stranger and I'm positive I made her regret it. She kept encouraging me and I kept digging as much as I could. But I was a miserable git. When the course separated, with the 87km race going left and the 102km race going right, I didn't want to look like a wuss so I went right. “You will not quit” going through my head. But I do have to give special thanks to Tracey, who helped me through some difficult moments. The course dragged on and on. Eight hours became nine, then ten. The epic scenery around Lake Okataina and Lake Tarawera had become long, forestry roads on the way to Kawerau. They were unforgiving. They were demoralising. They were better than me. They broke me. But I am stubborn and I will not quit. Finally, after twelve hours and ten minutes, I went through the final aid station, at River Road, I again question my sanity. Why do I do this? It's mental. I am no longer fatigued – that was a minor sensation I felt ten hours ago. There is no term to describe this level of exhaustion – trust me, I googled it. The race broke me mentally about five hours ago. It is stupidity. It isn't fun. It sucks.
But as I cross the finish line, another feeling sweeps over me. Well, actually, many feelings. Relief, pride, pain, delight, to name a few of the usual rhetoric. But there is something else, something a bit more difficult to describe. There is a reason I do this, an emotion deep down that doesn't drift to the tongue quite so easily. It isn't ego, much to my ego's disappointment. It isn't because I want to win, or that I think I can win. It isn't that I want to feel pain, even if there is a sick sense of achievement that comes with that. It goes back to the Tarawera race programme, and the spiel I mentioned at the start. I get up each morning. I go to work. I eat. I get paid. I go home. I watch the latest god awful comedy on tv. I wash the dishes. I read a book. I turn out the light and go to sleep. Rinse and repeat. I feel deadened, numb, catatonic. But not when I am “balls to the wall” at 97km and questioning my sanity. Not when I fear that I won't finish, when I think I don't have enough. And sure as hell not when I cross the finish line.
Those are the moments when I feel alive. That is why I run, to tell the truth. That is why people say I'm obsessed, jokingly or not. Because yes, I suppose, I am obsessed. All trail runners are. We look at each other and give a stupid grin at the start line. A pat on the back and a kind word on the trail. A big sweaty hug at the finish line. Because we know the truth. We are alive. As all humans should be. Before we go back to the accepted reality of Lambton Quays and lattes, spreadsheets and meetings, smelly nappies and mortgages. Where we humour you with talk of the latest renovation to your house, who was eliminated on The Bachelor, and how bad traffic was this morning. We listen, but secretly we are planning our next big race where we will live once again. One question I have been asked frequently since Saturday is, will I do a 100km race again? Sure, it was tough. It didn't go as planned. I've explained all that. I also explained that I am a stubborn bugger, thanks to my dad. So, yes, I'll be back for more torture. Because I can only think of one thing more terrible than putting myself through all that again. And that is quitting. Because I can only think of one thing more horrific than 12 hours and 53 minutes of agony. And that is accepting the “real world” that so many of us live in.