14 weeks later…
Yep it’s been a long time since I’ve laced up the racing shoes and had that blowout that only a race can produce.
Unfortunately over the last 6 weeks I’ve missed two events. One was unavoidable due to work and the other was Mother Nature’s fault. So after missing the Kinloch Off-road challenge and the North Range Traverse I was amped to get out and knock off number 4 for the year. Perhaps a little too amped…
This month’s entry is a race report on the Taupo 50k that I participated in over the weekend.
Now, before I start I’ll give you forewarning that this contains some bad language. You can tell from the photos that the landscape we ran through was New Zealand at its finest, but that’s not the point of this entry.
I hope this will give an insight into some of the ups and downs I faced out on the course. I know there are thousands of runners out there who are faster than me and I’m not writing this blog because I think I’m a good runner. I love this sport and I just want people to be able to experience through reading, what goes on between the ears of someone who’s giving it everything they’ve got.
Spoiler alert. This was the best event that I’ve been to this year.
The 50km course.
The lead up…Pressure?
A little bit. This is always lingering when I race, but I try to push it from my mind. It’s just a fast run on some cool terrain with other people sharing in the experience. Most of the pressure comes from within and from knowing what you are capable of. Sure some of it does come from external influences like colleagues and friends, but at the end of the day it’s just one race.
There will be plenty more and if this one falls to pieces in a ballistic Zach Miller inspired all out assault from the start line, then so be it.
Friday – The day before.
After a really good taper and some much needed rest the legs were absolutely begging for a work out. Throughout that entire last week before the race it was bloody tough keeping a lid on things.
I’d been looking forward to this weekend for a long time. It was not only a great opportunity to meet some new people, but two of my best friends had kindly said they would crew for me.
I was excited about some much needed bloke time and the multitude of terrible yarns we would spin on the 4 hour drive up to Taupo. We covered topics ranging from surviving a potential zombie apocalypse to American politics. I realise now that maybe these two could actually be linked if Trump gets elected.
My crew consisted of Chris Dunell and Simeon Joplin. Chris is another NZTrailRun ambassador who was fresh off a win at the Abel Tasman Coastal Classic and Sim is a strength and conditioning coach who works with athletes such as Sophie Pascoe, Tom Walsh and the Black Sticks Hockey team.
Needless to say I was in good hands.
After checking into our accommodation we headed into town for a quick meal and then off to the event registration.
As soon as we entered the events centre it hit me that this was a pretty big event. Over 500 people were here taking up the challenge of either the 100,74,50 or 24km runs.
The excitement and nerves started to sink in and I was immersed in all of the info that race director Will had to say. The briefing covered course markings, safety points, aid station locations and what kind of gear we would have to carry with us the next day. My first impression of the event was shared with the boys and we concluded that this was a very professional set up.
Waiting for the race briefing to start with Chris.
After the briefing we headed back to the motel where I gave the lads my game plan for the next day. They patiently listened to what my needs would be in terms of nutrition and then we covered timings for moving around in between the aid stations.
My race plan may have been a little reckless. Without going into too much detail I informed the lads that I planned on running an aggressive race. Chris and Sim both embraced it and said that I should make the most of the confidence they could sense I was feeling.
With all of us keen for an early night we took care of the kit prep. I sorted my timing chip and race number, then mixed up my Tailwind into soft flasks for the next day.
With the crew confident in their role and all the other race prep sorted I was happy knowing the only focus now was running well the next day.
Saturday – Race Day
After having one of the best and totally uninterrupted sleeps I’d had in a while I was feeling pretty bouncy on Saturday morning. It had been a bit of a crazy week with our second daughter Elsie being born a few days earlier. Julia and I were both excited and relieved that she’d arrived before the weekend after being born 8 days overdue.
We all sat around having a laugh with some good tunes blaring away in the background. We enjoyed a solid race day breaky of coffee and good old fashioned Weetbix with fruit.
After we’d finished Chris switched into coach mode and gave me an inspirational little Remember The Titans speech.
His final words were along the lines of “you should be fucking hurting out there”.
Although he was having a bit of a laugh I knew he meant what he was saying. His words stuck with me and I thought about them later in the day.
At about 8.30 Chris and I went for a much needed warm up. After a jog, some strides and some sprints the legs were ready to kick into gear. We chatted about the course profile, a few potential outcomes and had a good laugh about how cold the ice bath in the lake was going to be that afternoon.
And we’re off. Only 4 hours to Whakiapo Bay.
1000 – The Start Line
Excitement surrounded the start line as all of the competitors gathered to wait for the horn to go off. The atmosphere was electric with the always reliable; Sail from AWOL nation playing. Kerry Suter from Squadrun was on MC duties and was sharing some of his experience by offering the runners some last minute motivation over the loud speaker.
I exchanged a few good lucks with the people around me and took in some deliberate deep breaths relieved that the wait was finally over. The countdown finished and in the space of about 20 seconds I had situated myself with Rhys Johnston at the front of the field.
The first section of course was over private farmland with a very narrow and dangerous little trail cut into it. Taking care to avoid this little goat track we made our way down the steep and cambered countryside before linking up with a well-formed mountain bike trail.This would set the scene for the first section heading toward the first aid station. As we made our way towards the lakefront the landscape slowly morphed from an open dry hard packed surface to a soft fresh trail, underneath a beautiful native canopy.
By the time my watch gave me the first split at the 5km mark I had settled into a comfortable rhythm. I was having heaps of fun playing around with quick little bursts in and out of the tight MTB trail corners.
Once I reached Kawakawa bay at approximately the 9 km mark I made a conscious effort to make sure I was on track with nutrition. I knocked back the last of the Tailwind in my first soft flask and got my next one ready to go.
From here the cornering settled down and I enjoyed running so close to the lake. Before I knew it I’d surprised the marshals and arrived at the first aid station. The aid station was under a Doc shelter and looked well set up but with no requirement to stop. I asked them which way and was off again.
1040 – Kawakawa bay
Having had a good look at the course profile the day before, I knew that the first climb over to Whangamata bay was coming up. I didn’t get a large volume of training in before this race, but I did get in some quality hill work courtesy of the Manawatu Gorge trail. The climb went well and I was pleased that the specific training had been worth it.
What goes up must come down and for the next 3 km I carefully navigated the switchbacks back down towards the lakefront. I had my first thought of where the rest of the field was at this point, not sure if the lead I had was seconds or possibly a couple of minutes. Trying to push placing’s from my mind so early on, I focused instead on the positives. I thought of home and how I wanted to do well for all of the girls and it gave me an added spring in my step. With a smile on my face I heard people on the trail up ahead and all of a sudden I was back on the beach arriving at Whangamata Bay.
Coming through the fast section of MTB trail into Kawakawa bay.
1110 – Whangamata Bay
Back at Lake level things were feeling really positive. The 15km mark had passed and another split popped up. With only a minute or so in between my first 3 splits I was happy with the pace that I was running and started to think about seeing my crew soon. It’s amazing how much better a race can go with an experienced crew on hand. I take my hat off to those runners who didn’t have anyone out there and had to use drop bags.
After coming to the end of the beach a big red arrow told me to turn left and I obliged. Not knowing the area I was surprised when the next section headed through a nice new housing suburb and wasn’t trail at all. I hadn’t expected road but after having to concentrate so hard on smooth lines up to this point it was a nice feeling to just find some flow and run at a natural pace. The crew was indeed close by and pulled up along side me to see how I was going.
Their presence helped and still feeling fresh I decided to shift it up a gear.
The next 5km were a bit of a blur and I’d say I probably tapped into some adrenaline stores. This may not have been a good thing so early on in the race but my mentality was “Fuck it this feels good, so who cares!”
Chris popped up again at around the 20km mark. He ran along side me for a few seconds and told me where he and Sim would be at the main aid station in Kinloch. I made sure I’d downed my second flask of Tailwind in preparation for a quick change around, while enjoying the feeling of carrying next to nothing in my vest.
11.40 – Kinloch
A thought had crossed my mind earlier that the 24km start was at 1200 and it was around 11.40 according to my watch. I really didn’t want to get caught up or bottlenecked in the mass of people, so I think looking back that this is what motivated the fast start approach. After completing the little loop of pine forest just out of Kinloch I approached the main aid station. To anyone that may have been there sitting in the stands your encouragement was overwhelming. The roar that they gave me actually gave me butterflies in my stomach and an ear to ear grin.
The crew was waiting for me just beyond the grand stand and this was the first time I’d stopped all day. I know its inevitable but I hate stopping in a race and I try to limit it at all costs.
Chris gave me some really good feedback saying I had built up a 6-minute lead and then asked a few questions to see where my head was at.
I was still feeling good but some fatigue was definitely starting to settle in. I think the excitement of the crowd and also wanting to get in before twelve had used up a few more stores than I’d anticipated. I knew the next 25km were going to be uncomfortable but that’s the price I’d have to pay for starting off quickly.
While this was happening Sim mimicked a formula 1 pit crew and within seconds had taken all of my trash, replaced my flasks and given me my stash of caffeine gels (rocket fuel) for the last section of the race.
It was at this point that I hit one of my lowest moments of the whole day. I felt like someone had just stuffed 4 blocks of butter into my vest. This obviously wasn’t the case but it was the most weight I’d carried all day.
I have to admit I dropped lip here for a few seconds.
Stocked up on supplies and back into it after leaving the aid station in Kinloch.
I’d told the lads to keep me moving the day before when we talked about the aid stations and they did a great job of getting me back on the trail without lingering. Just as I was about to leave Chris told me to forget the distance and to just focus on getting up that hill which was great advice. In races like these it’s all about breaking things down into small achievable goals and that exactly what I did.
One of my goals for this race was to attack the big climb out of Kinloch. My mind floated back to Chris’ words at breakfast “you have to be hurting” and
I all too suddenly realised that this was going to be a tough section. If I wanted to pull this one off I was going to have to grind it out and finish what I’d started.
The climb didn’t actually go too badly but I did start to experience a few cramping issues. In a weird way this actually helped me focus on the short term goal. I knew that all of the aid stations had a huge stash of potato chips, so for the next 7km I zeroed in on just getting to that aid station and throwing back a huge mouthful of salty chips.
The beauty of this section was probably wasted on me and that’s one of the only regrets I have of racing so hard sometimes. As I climbed my way up I developed a bit of a mantra repeating the words “head up, arms up” in my head. This helped me keep my arm drive going and also made sure I focused on the trail at a distance instead of watching my feet.
After around 35mins of running with cramps the aid station materialised. The chips were there and I dug in…They were green onion… “FUCK!”… But the salt did the trick, so I was happy with the outcome.
The positive vibes came back into play here and I realised I’d probably just broken through a massive mental wall. I was glad I’d persisted and managed to grind through the negative thoughts that had tried to creep their way in during the climb.
The aid station was only half way up the climb but my head was back in the game now. I had talked with the lads the day before about wanting to be the first to the top. The view back toward Kinloch showed how far I’d already come since the halfway point and I figured that someone would have to be running really well to beat me on the 13km downhill section from the high point.
It just so happened that Rhys who I’d been running with at the start would run this section much better than I, but that part comes later in the story.
The view looking back toward Kinloch. Photo courtesy of Matt Duguid.
The trail continued to wind its way up toward the top of the bluff and every now and again the vegetation was bare, which would give glimpses of a stunning view out over the lake towards the Kiamanawa ranges. Once again my watch bleeped at me and this time it told me it was time for some rocket fuel…YES!
I’d been looking forward to this and quickly slurped back the 75mg of caffeine and sugary goodness.
For the next 15km I’d take one of these every half an hour to get me to the finish line. I’ve found sipping on my Tailwind is certainly enough fuel to keep me going, but on race day I like a boost from some form of concentrated energy as well. It can be dangerous stuff and after some brutal trial and error I’ve found that the key is timing. Once you’ve starting taking it, you have to maintain it until you are finished to avoid the crash.
That little booster didn’t take long to kick in and before long I had reached the top of the bluff. With the forest being fairly dense I wasn’t a hundred percent sure it was the top but I checked my current altitude and it was about right.
From here I knew that I only had to break the remainder of the run down into two more sections.
First get to the last aid station and then from there hopefully have something in the tank left to bring it home to the finish line.
I took a brief moment to enjoy the view and there was a mountain biker out doing the same thing. We said hi and I thought that if I had the chance I’d have to come back up this trail the next time I was in town just to make the most of the vista.
The next aid station was around 10km away but the trail was about to start dropping in altitude rapidly. Knowing this section was going to be a fast one, I did my best to conserve the braking muscles and avoid anymore nasty cramping. The course wound it’s way around the peninsula and the descent was in the form of multiple switchbacks. I made the most of the switchbacks that had large trees on the inside of each corner. Swinging around on them sent all of the collected rainfall on me from the rain showers earlier in the day. This was so refreshing and I ended up getting absolutely soaked on the way down.
Nothing too eventful happened during this section of the course. I was in a positive mindset but i had definitely come to the conclusion that I was feeling it and was ready to see the finish line. Knowing I was moving slower than I wanted to, I did my best to keep the feet ticking over quickly. Rhys and the rest of the field were close behind, but I dug deep and thought about how much I wanted to get across the line first.
The positive side of moving a bit slower was that it allowed me to get back on top of my nutrition and I completely downed one of my flasks of Tailwind and another gel. This lightened the load and I felt a lot freer knowing I had only 400ml left on me.
Leaning back, looking tired at around the 40km mark.
The last aid station was hidden away in a dense section of bush, but still had all of the trimmings. The logistics of organising an event like this definitely hit me and I was thankful for what was on offer for all of the runners. Once again I took nothing but I did throw back one last caffeine gel and washed it down with some Tailwind. The crew there asked me how I was doing and I replied with complete honesty “I’m actually pretty fucked ay”
As I left there I took note of the sign saying it was only 8.8km to the finish. I reflected on the fact that I’d just completed a solid trail marathon, but didn’t loose sight of the reality that there was still a lot of work to do. I later found out that Rhys was running really well and I only had around 2 minutes on him at this point in the race.
We must have both run the next section at a similar pace and were obviously pushing hard as we made our way back down to lake level. Finally after half an hour or so the trail started giving little glimpses of Whakaipo bay. I did my best to stay on a consistent pace, was noticing every km that ticked over now. At the 46km mark a thought occurred to me that I might be able to hold on after all. This may sound funny but I remember feeling a little teary at this point. It’s crazy how much running can strip you down, even though I’ve run a lot further in the past it just goes to show what the atmosphere of the big day can do to you.
The trail started to open up now and the next thing I knew I was going over a cattle stop into some farmland. As I ran through the paddock, a spectator told me I was getting close now. Exhilarated I jumped over the stile at the far end of the paddock and I got the first glimpse of the finish line. It was still around 1200 metres away but a huge sense of relief washed over me.
The rest of the run followed a gravel road all the way to the finish and I remember saying to myself you’ve done it…
The next thing I knew a shiver ran down my spine. Looking behind me for the first time all day, I was a little stunned to see Rhys less than 100m away and he was pumping!
After 3hrs and 45mins there was no way I wanted to be beaten in the last kilometre. The old road running instincts kicked in and somehow I found something in the reserve tank. It was cruel that a 50km race turned into a sprint finish, but this was what it was going to take to get the dream result. For the next 700m I didn’t look back. I ran what must have looked like the most tormented, desperate and painful running style. As I rounded the last corner I saw Chris, he was going nuts telling me to dig deep. At the same time the crowd and the loud speaker kicked in, giving me one final surge of speed.
Only 200m from the finish line now I risked a couple more looks behind. I’d pulled away again and I knew I’d done enough.
I really can’t explain how good it felt crossing the finish line. It had been a massive day and there had been no break in the action since the starting horn. A picture really does tell a thousand words and you can probably tell from the photo below how over the moon and relieved I was.
Relief hitting stop on the watch at 3.48.12.
13.48 Whakiapo Bay
I’d decided enough was enough and plomped myself down right on the finish line. The medical team came and asked me if I was ok. I replied that was fine, but just running on fumes. They wanted me to come and sit down but I really wanted to cheer Rhys over the line. Rhys came in 30 seconds later and he was beaming. After running an epic negative split he had run a ripper of a race. He went on to tell me that it was his first Ultra and I was wrapped for him, feeding off his sense of achievement.
Sitting down for a chat with Rhys. A good bugger.
Kerry from Squadrun came over and asked a few questions to which I did my best to answer with some kind of intellect. If I could summarise the conversation I’d say all in all it was one hell of a race!
If you are still reading this I hope it hasn’t taken up too much of your time. It was really hard to shorten this entry and I have had to leave out quite a bit. I hope I’ve highlighted a few things to those people who wonder what it’s like running in a long distance race. This is a great sport for the soul and as you can probably tell it strips you down to another level.
Everyone goes through highs and lows out there, its all the more rewarding when you achieve your goal having toughed it out and run yourself through a wall. Whatever your fitness level, if you want to set yourself a challenge just have a look on the NZ running calendar website. There are 100’s of events out there so just pick something that looks fun, and get into it!
This event put the AWE in awesome. It was the highlight of my running this year and a huge confidence booster moving into 2017.
A few words of thanks are owed and I have to start by thanking my wife Julia. She couldn’t make it to the race as planned, but she supports me on a daily basis and does an amazing job of balancing our crazy day to day life.
To my work, thanks for giving me the extra time to train and manage my schedule in the way that I do. I am extremely grateful and I’m proud to represent an organisation as professional as the NZ Army.
To Will, Debbie and the Total Sport team for their planning and execution. The course was very well marked and the trail itself was a great balance of everything us trail runners love. The aid stations were loaded and the info leading into the event was reassuring and comprehensive.
To Chris and Sim you guys were a dream support crew. Your laughter and camaraderie made the weekend a complete success and I look forward to repaying the favour in the near future. Sim your guidance in terms of after race recovery was extremely valuable and I’ve never felt so fresh 5 days out of a race before.
I have to thank NZTrailRun for giving me this medium to share my thoughts. If no one reads this stuff I’m not too phased, because It’s a brilliant way to decompress and reflect after an event.
Lastly to Mark at Tailwind Nutrition NZ and Tim at CEP sports NZ thanks so much for helping me out with your quality products and support over the last few months.
Oh yeah… Now is probably the best time to mention I’ve accepted an entry for the Tarawera 102km in February.
This has been a goal of mine for a couple of years now and I’m super excited about toeing the line with Elite runners who compete on the Ultra Trail World Tour for a Living. The race itself is New Zealand’s most high profile Ultra marathon and gets competitors from all over the world coming to experience what New Zealand trail running has to offer.
Sound like it could be a good blog? Watch this space.