20 Jul 2016
I signed up for WUU-2K four months ago. It was a great idea at the time because I wouldn't have to worry about it for four months, and in four months and one day I could brag to everyone about how well I did. But right now, the night before the race, I am questioning my sanity. Am I biting off more than I can chew? Am I prepared for all these hills? What if I need to go for a poo during the race? I am concerned that my running temperament is drifting away from passionate and edging towards masochistic. Long distance trail running involves hills, blisters, bleeding nipples and self-doubt before, finally, another hill. This is not what concerns me, however, as only through truly testing yourself and your limits can you discover the real you. No, what concerns me is that I am looking forward to it. I have a few jitters, sure, but I am overwhelmed by excitement. A friend asked me recently if I would be running the Wellington Urban Ultra, and my response was a confused look and a Tim Allen grunt. The what? “WUU-2K”, he replied, “the Wellington Urban Ultra”. Ohhhh, I thought, so that's what WUU-2K stands for. It's an ultra-marathon run in the backdrop of Wellington City, an urban environment. Makes sense. “You do realise what the 2K stands for, though… right?” Oh yeah, right, of course I do, I fumbled for words while my brain tried to find the logic behind the '2K'. It was founded in the year 2000, like that bug that never did anything, I replied. Check. Mate. Dang, Brad, you so smart. My friend looked at me with an expression that could only be described as condescending. “Geez, Brad, you signed up for this not knowing what it was? The '2K' stands for over 2000m vertical ascension. You are going to be running up a lot of hills.” It was at that point I realised that the look my dear friend had been giving me was not condescension, but sympathy. I looked up and gazed into my friend's big brown eyes. 2000 metres, I thought while running some quick math in my head. That's like running up Mt Victoria ten times, or over a speed bump 7000 times, or over Gerry Brownlee twice. My friend gazed back and waited for my response, no doubt aware that a sudden realisation was sweeping over me. My look sharpened and my pupils dilated. Awesome! I said, before turning away and walking off. Awesome, I repeated, as I walked off into a picturesque sunset.
My alarm went off at 4.45am and I jumped out of bed, alert and ready. I gulped down a delicious banana and mango smoothie and before I knew it I was on the bus heading to the start line. Everything was prepared and I felt relaxed and ready.
The race started at the bottom of Mt Kaukau, Wellington's highest peak, at 6.30am. It is a daunting start to a race, but I much prefer it at the beginning as opposed to the end. About 150 runners took off in a mixture of headlights and enthusiasm that would have scared shitless any early risers in the area. This was my first trail marathon, so I was unsure how to pace myself. I came up with a plan to walk/run/walk the uphill sections and run everything else, while being conscious of my breathing and heart rate. If it felt like I was running too hard and my breathing was heavy or my heart was pounding, I would slow down until everything was regular. I wanted to make sure that I had energy in the tank so I minimised “hitting the wall” towards the end of the race. Running across the Skyline track (between Mt Kaukau and Makara Peak) was filled with stunning views and great tracks - if it wasn't for the cow dung I would have said it was romantic. I hadn't run this track before so I made sure to stick with others to avoid getting lost. I chatted to those running nearby and met some fellow Wellingtonians, an Australian, and a Hamiltonian. This was an enjoyable part of the race as I felt fresh, people were chirpy, and the views incorporated much of central Wellington. The hustle and bustle of the central markets and the feet-dragging of hungover millennials were participating in an alternate Sunday morning. After I pounded my way up Makara Peak, and then glided my way down Lazy Fern, I popped out at Makara Carpark amid a barrel of noise. Woohoo, I thought, the first set of spectators. As I turned the corner into the carpark I noticed the gleaming faces of several observers, whose expressions turned to disappointment at seeing me, before quickly putting on a friendly smile. Clearly they were waiting for someone else. Their fluxing facials were akin to walking into a bar and realising your blind date is Donald Trump. I passed the first aid station, with the volunteers all dressed as cows, with plenty of life in my legs. 13km down, a mere 29km to go. It was at this point I realised I had barely had anything to eat. Eating is a weakness of mine while running, and a strength when not, but I chewed down a home-made gel and made a mental note to eat every twenty minutes or so. The downhill stretch for the last few kilometres had rested my legs, which was just as well as Wrights Hill and the Salvation Track were approaching. I passed another runner on Salvation, who was heaving away, and felt comfort in knowing that my breathing and heart rate was regular. I managed to run the entire way up Wrights Hill this way, never feeling fatigued. More cheers awaited me at the top, as the volunteers clapped and pointed me in the direction of the next track. Wait! Aren't you forgetting something?! Oh right, I thought, eat something. I guzzled down another sweetened gel and heard my stomach grumble it's distaste. The next section of the race took me anti-clockwise around Zealandia, on a track known as Fenceline. Fenceline is not a favourite of mine. It is a hard and uneven track, making it difficult to find traction, and has a few short and sharp climbs. It hides behind the guise of an easy track, but I find it to be much more difficult than that. Nearing the end of the Fenceline track, I glanced at my watch and noticed I was slightly behind my goal pace. Any worries were soon forgotten though as I turned a corner and was greeted by a man in a Wookie costume. After having already experienced an aid station with a cow theme, I was only mildly surprised, but that quickly changed when the Wookie ran alongside me for 500m to chat. He informed me I was coming 7th and that I looked strong. How deceiving looks can be. I could feel the strain begin to emerge in my legs, weary from the hills but still required to operate for another 16km. I ran around the bend at the Brooklyn Wind Turbine and was greeted with aid station number two. I looked up and noticed a range of Star Wars themed outfits, and suddenly my Wookie friend made perfect sense. At least I wasn't hallucinating. I departed the aid station with some mandarins and a full bottle of water, to the tune of the Star Wars Cantina band. Fantastic stuff!
With the madness behind me, I slipped into the Car Parts Extension track and decided to Chewbacca gel (oh, come on!). This is a fun track to run usually, but it was at this point my stomach started rebelling and my pace slowed. I was frustrated, but I also knew that the nausea could pass at any time. It was, however, going to be a struggle to get any more calories into my body for the rest of the race. Placing the anxiety to one side, I exited Car Parts Extension for the Barking Emu. Barking Emu soon became the infamous Tip Track, one of the tougher climbs in Wellington. With my legs starting to ache and my stomach still complaining, my relief that I was running down Tip Track and not up was palpable. Running downhill can be deceptive though, as your already battered quads incur further punishment. I focused on taking quick, short strides, but it is an art I am still learning, and once my plant-fed 6 foot and 4 inch body gets momentum it is hard to stop.
Once I reached the bottom of Tip Track I consoled myself that only three hills remained. My stomach pains eased as I ran and walked up Tawatawa Reserve. With only 10km to go, I was happy that my legs were still working and I was able to run some of the uphill parts. Tawatawa is a deceiving track. My impressions, having never run it before, was that it was a small hill and easily runnable. It's certainly not big, and perhaps I felt this way because I had already covered 32km, but it just seemed to keep going. I was tired by the time I reached the top and, Oh shit, EAT!! I ate a frooze ball and chugged back some water and, uh-oh, my stomach reacted. Barely being able to keep down the frooze ball, which was a stupid food choice anyway, my pace slowed again. Tawatawa Reserve became the Berhampore Golf Course and this was where my biggest mistake of the day occurred. I don't know whether it was because this part of the course was poorly marked or, perhaps more likely, my fatigue had set in, but I took a wrong turn. If I hadn't have been in so much pain it would have been funny. I passed a guy who was struggling with cramps and fatigue and I thought, 6th place, yeah! I wasn't feeling good but I still had some energy left. I took a path and followed it for a couple of hundred metres, before taking a sharp u-bend and, What the hell!! The guy I had just passed was beating me again. Shit! I had not seen the track to the right and it had cost me 3-4 minutes. The correct track turned into a bit of a slog and I realised I'd come to Mt Albert, the penultimate hill. My walk/run tactic came into good use again, although it was closer to a walk/run/walk/walk/walk/hobble at this point. I passed the final aid station and set my sights on finishing. Only 5km to go. It's at this point of a race that is the most difficult to describe to non-runners. Your legs aren't sore, they are dead. Your entire internal system wants to shut down and rest. But hey, that's relatable, right? We have all been in a position where complete fatigue has set in and we crash into our beds for sleep's sweet embrace. A marathon is like that except you have to keep going. So I put one foot in front of the other and waddled on. A hundred metres passes after what feels like an age, and I realise I have to do that another 49 times to reach the end. I hate my analytical brain sometimes. Finally the Mt Albert ascent becomes a descent and I pass by another struggling runner. This course is tough and I am quietly chuckling to myself about how well I have paced myself. As I cross over Crawford Rd I come to some very familiar territory in Mt Victoria. The final hill. I struggle my way up and come to another volunteer who ushers me to the track on the right. No no, that can't be right, I think, that heads down to the valedrome. The finish line is straight ahead. I won't repeat the creative things I called the organisers at that moment, but it certainly wasn't flattering. I passed through the valedrome and onto Zig Zag Track. It's a fun, easy, uphill stretch on a Tuesday night W.O.R.M. run, but at the end of a marathon it was pure hell. The moment I had been dreading had arrived and I “hit the wall”. It is a feeling of pure agony which requires incredible mental strength to run through, something I haven't yet mastered. I ran parts, but there was more walking involved, and the finish line felt decades away. Despite the pain, I made it up the final, unsightly, evil hill, and finished my first trail marathon in 5th place and in a time of 4h39m. To say I was pleased would not do the day justice. Everything had fallen into place. The weather was nice, I had paced myself well, enjoyed the course, finished in a good time and been placed. But it was more than that. So much more. Trail running has a real sense of community that is missing from larger, more popular running events. The trails, the runners, the volunteers, and the organisers all coalesce to form some sort of super alloy. It's warm and contagious and hard not to be swept up by. It would be fair to say that I am positively addicted to trail running. Well done WUU-2K. See you next year.