19 Oct 2016
Running your first ultra marathon is like losing your virginity. There's excitement, nerves, and you spend the first part fumbling round not sure if you are doing the right thing. Then comes a period of pain and self-loathing and you ask yourself, “why did I pay to do this?” Before, finally, an awkward embrace and a relieved finish. Sorry. Probably more than you wanted to know. And if I'm being honest I only received a medal for one of them and the ultra marathon lasted a lot longer. I had been floating the idea of running an ultra marathon for a while. My addiction for trails was strongly ignited, while my passion for road running was now a smouldering ember. It was during these flickering thoughts, back in March this year, when an ad popped up for the inaugural Taupo Ultra Marathon. The challenge was too much to pass over, so I signed up and decided to watch my new passion burn. The Taupo Ultra Marathon has four options: 24km, 50km, 74km, and 100km. Being a beginner I decided not to jump into the giant 100km option. Being hardcore I decided the 24km and 50km options weren't for me either. That left the 74km run along the Great Lake Trail. Farmland, trails, a bit of road, and 2500 metres ascent were awaiting me. For those of you who are unsure what an ultra marathon is, I'll try to do it justice. Ultra's are anything longer than a marathon but they typically range from 50-160km. They cover a wide range of terrain but are usually run on trails and take you through bush, wildlife, mountains, farms, and even rivers. The more extreme the better. They are not about how fast you can run (although that is an advantage) but how far you can push yourself, mentally and physically. And, as I've now discovered, they are awesome.
The past few months I had been training for various events, including the Wellington Marathon and WUU-2K, but I always had Taupo in the back of my mind. It wasn't that I had decided this was target for the year, or that it was the most prestigious event, but it had subconsciously triggered something for me. It was a greater, more intimate, challenge. Could I run that far? Or perhaps more accurately, could I run that far properly? I wasn't interested in walking half of it and finishing in fifteen hours – no offence to those that do, but that doesn't excite me. I set about with an aim of running between 100-120km every week and, for the most part, I succeeded. At least one long run was included (between 25-35km) and two medium runs (15-25km). The rest was a mixture of group runs, lunchtime jogs, Strava course record attempts, and getting lost in the paved paradox known as Hataitai. I felt good heading into the race and ran a 5k PB of 18.09 only 11 days out. Everything was fitting into a nice little package until…. WHACK! Six days out from race day, I cracked my knee into a door frame (sober) and had some pain and swelling to deal with. For those who find ice packs ineffective and frustrating, don't bother. Frozen peas have always been, and will always be, the ultimate antidote. I humbly thank my pack of frozen peas for all the help they gave me. They also turned into a delicious Berbere spiced curry after my knee healed.
My alarm is a violin-based orchestra of calming tunes and delicate notes. I've never understood people who like to be shocked out of sleep. As it played it's melody early on Saturday morning, my eyes focused and my mind shrieked an internal battle cry. I had slept okay and hadn't had to deal with too much pre-race anxiety… It's hard to be anxious when your nieces and nephews are punching you in your injured knee and asking, “does that hurt?”. Humbling. I checked my phone and saw the time was 3.45am. I had packed everything the night before so I didn't have much to… wait… 3.45am? My alarm was set for 5am! So much for avoiding the pre-race anxiety, I had just dreamed my alarm going off. Back to bed…. A violin-based orchestra of soothing tunes and ethereal notes eases me from my anxious slumber. I check my phone. 4.40am. Wait… Oh for fuck's sake I'm just gonna get up. The 74km race involved a ferry to the start line, which is pretty cool. The day was a bit overcast, and I was a bit nervous, so I didn't fully take in the sights. Instead I gulped down my pre-race smoothie (bananas, grapes, prune juice, chia seeds) and made some idle chit-chat with other runners. I enjoy this part of trail running, as you have this huge passion in common with complete strangers. There is no awkwardness as you both get to talk about trail running and, well, what could be better right?
As the 8am start time loomed near and the shore line of Waihora Bay even more so, I went over the race plan one more time. Conserve your energy, walk the steep parts, enjoy yourself, and finish within eight hours (I always put on a supportive, yet stern, voice for my imaginary pep talks).
“Does anyone know where the start line is?” is not a question you want to be asked by the race director, but it helped ease any lingering nerves as we all laughed. “Here will do. Good luck.” And as the hooter blasted we took off up the first of many trails and hills. I made sure to join the front runners as I didn't want to get caught behind others while running on the single tracks. Plus there had been a bit of rain so I wanted to be creating the mud, not running in it. An American named Matt was ahead of me, and he ran up the first hill like I run my down hills. Either that dude is seriously fit, I thought, or I'll pass him in the foetal position in 40km. Turns out he is seriously fit. Kudos, Matt, and well done on your win. I wanted to enjoy the initial part of the race as if I got caught up in how far I had to go then it could all become a bit intimidating. Thankfully, the Great Lake Trail holds some stunning views, so it was not hard to lose myself in my inner sanctum. The picturesque trails became rugged farmland, and I couldn't help but chuckle that an unholy vegan like myself should end up running my first ultra on this terrain. I gave a slight nod of the head to my bovine pals and there was a secret understanding that we were kindred spirits, and I would cause them no harm. I ran next to another Matt, from Porirua, and discovered that we were already Strava friends. Then Darren joined us and we chatted for the next wee while. I was happy to have people to talk to as it broke up the monotony of cow dung and electric fences. Then we three broke apart and the long, hard struggle of eternal loneliness enveloped us all.
Aid stations came and went, farm land became road, road became trails, and Gu became poos and wees. Before I knew it, I was crossing the half way point after approximately three and a half hours. I was well ahead of schedule but I could feel the fatigue in my legs. I was overwhelmed by the thought that I was only half way, yet my legs felt about 75% cooked. Never mind, I thought, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. My stern pep talks continued.
I was lucky enough to have a support crew consisting of my Mum, Dad, sister, and her husband and three children. They were waiting for me at Kinloch, which was about 50km into the race. I can't thank them enough as my pace was slowing and my determination was waning. They were the perfect pick-me-up. A change of shoes, socks, and t-shirt were just what I needed. They also handed over a pre-prepared orange smoothie that I started to drink, but my stomach wasn't having a bar of it. I desperately needed to refuel but I couldn't keep anything down. Still, I ran off with renewed enthusiasm which lasted for, oh, maybe two kilometres. That is when the race truly began…
Through Kinloch the race moved on to the W2K track. Beautiful views, great tracks, nice gradient, and I hated every second of it. I'd love to come back and run it again one day when I haven't got 50kms already under my belt. After about 52km, I felt a twang in my right quad. I decided to be as proactive as possible and stopped to stretch it out. BANG! My hammy seized up and my entire right side began spasming. Not to worry, only another frickin 22km to go. I realised stretching was a futile device to use on cramps this bad, so I decided to walk it out and, once I was able, I commenced running again. The pain was palpable though. Every inch below my waist had gone from aching at Kinloch, to complete and utter fatigue. I couldn't hold down food. My mind was pleading with me to stop. I had nothing left in me. It is hard to accurately describe what goes through your head at this point. Your body has given up. Your mind is evolutionarily programmed to send signals through your body to register that you are entering dangerous territory. The fatigue that consumed me. STOP! Cramp shooting down my legs like lightning bolts. STOP! My stomach becoming nauseous. STOP! My feet aching. WHY AREN'T YOU STOPPING! But I knew that those warnings were just that: warnings. I was entering dangerous territory, but I wasn't too deep yet. My body wanted me to stop before something bad happened, but I wasn't prepared to quit until something did. And that is the challenge of ultra marathons. Ignoring the predisposed warning signs and fighting through. But fuck me it is hard. Sorry, but it truly is. I coped by ignoring the distance left. Forget there are 20kms to go. Forget that your pace is slow. Can you run to that tree? Yes. Then do it. Don't stop because you want to, stop because you have to. I made it to the tree. Good boy. Now run to that river. This may all seem doable. Tough, but doable. The hardest part is that it takes so long. With 20kms to go, running to the above river only consists of 50 metres. So, by my calculations, I had to tell myself this four hundred times. I also reminded myself to be proud, I was achieving something really difficult, and this was worth a bit of hubris.
After what seemed an age, and approximately 224 pep talks, I entered the final aid station. All I could handle was half an orange and some flat coke, but it was better than nothing. I was down to single digits, the last 8.8 kms, and this milestone certainly helped my psyche. The remainder of the race seems like a blur now as, despite all the cramping and pain, I was bubbling with pride under the surface. My face broke into smiles as it started to register that I was going to make it, and in a bloody good time too.
I made my way out of the bush and along Whakaipo Bay, the finish line. A crowd had gathered and were full of exuberance, clapping and cheering me on the way. I passed my awesome support crew, who once again shouted out their praise. Pain gripped my face as the final two hundred metres went uphill. I should have walked but my vanity declined that gracious offer, so I screamed internally instead. The grimace quickly changed to one of my biggest smiles as I crossed the line in 7 hours and 35 minutes. Good enough for third place!
I can't fathom the amount of hours that must go into creating an event like this, so I won't comment on that as I would likely insult the organisers. What I will say is that they did an incredible job. It was hard to believe this was an inaugural event as it went off so seamlessly. From the briefing on Friday night, to the ferry to the start line, to the superb volunteers, to the doctor at the finish line (I lost 6kgs during the race), it was more than I had hoped. Well done. I will be back next year to tackle the 100km. I also wanted to thank Darren Leybourne, who pipped me into second place. When I was cramping badly with 20km to go, my spirits were a bit low, and he gave me some encouragement and offered a gel. It really helped and was even more special as I'd never met the guy before. It summed up the day for me too, which was about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. We were all in it together. Finally, a huge thanks again to my family for helping out. Having you at Kinloch and again at the finish line helped immensely. My pep talks throughout the race involved seeing you all at Kinloch, and then again at the finish line. It would have been a bit deflating to finish my first ultra and have to celebrate with Larry Loner. My sister even made her first vegan burger for me to eat after the race!