You’ve done a 200km mountain run in September, you’ve knocked out a 240km road run in December, there’s a 100km mountain run in New Zealand this weekend and it’s almost February already – what could possibly go wrong? Let’s just call the previous seven weeks of not running a committed recovery phase.
Seriously, it was Wednesday. I needed 3 more points to lock in a place for UTMB. March 19 for Northburn wasn’t looking good with two other reasons to be in Australia that weekend. The next and final option would be the Ultra-Trail Australia weekend in May, also problematic for work and travel reasons. Nice first world problems to have, but they meant that if I was going to do this I’d better do it ASAP. Only finding out that there was a 3-point opportunity in New Zealand with 3 days to go, at least training wouldn’t be the problem.
Grant Guise had temporarily hijacked The Ultra Easy’s facebook page – I didn’t mention that this was possibly the most cunningly named mountain race ever? How did that slip my mind? The sales pitch was equally deft: ‘Pick you up from the airport then?’
Nice try, Grant, but you already had me at Easy. Long story short, girl says ‘yes’, HOKA says ‘go’, Scotty Hawker says it’s a blast, entry & airfares get booked and I’m off to New Zealand for the What Are You Made Of Challenge 2016. Oh yes, I am that guy.
The only noteworthy exchange during Friday’s transit was with Border Control at Queenstown Airport. Kiwis easily match Aussies for smack talk and banter, which is one good reason to have at least a few Kiwi mates.
I can’t think of any others.
After the half hour shuffle to get to Customs, I asked ‘what’s with the long queue, I thought you liked Aussies?’ The tongue-in-cheek but telling reply nailed it: ‘We’re the friendly ones, remember. New Zealand doesn’t have a Christmas Island.’
BOOM. Thanks Aussie foreign policy. What can you say to that? ‘I didn’t vote for them,’ I mumbled off, recognizing that yes, there’s no comeback for what Australia is doing to refugees now, and even our nearest neighbour sees us that way.
Enough social commentary, let’s run.
By the time I arrived at the Albert Town Tavern, Wanaka, the evening race briefing had ended but it was good timing to catch up with some familiar faces, leave my 60km drop bag and get gear checked. No pressure, but Nolan’s superbadass and Hard Rock winner Anna Frost was casually Instagramming the area and even Bryon Powell was in the mix, ready to drink microbrews over fallen bodies. Then it was off to stay with friends, go through the final faff and grab a few hours sleep before the 3am start. What could possibly go wrong?
Okay, fine Sal – yes, I got told ‘goodnight’ 3 times before I finally crashed.
One thing you don’t necessarily want to be doing is asking a stranger for lube in the carpark outside a pub at 10 to 3 on a Saturday morning, but that was how I met Lance. This tough and most excellent bastard blew my mind – ‘sorry mate, haven’t got any. Never needed it – I’m bowlegged.’ I’m pretty sure Lance’s skeleton had adapted to accommodate his physiology. The tough old bugger dropped me pretty early but I really enjoyed his company along the way. And geez I wished I was bowlegged too.
When we hit the beginning of the first climb, my friend Sally’s question from the night before echoed clearly in my mind as it would continue to throughout the day, ‘are you mountain fit?’. Well, I’m sure we’ll find out, I thought with 97.5km to go.
By 97.4km I knew the answer was ‘not for sh*t.’ This was going to be a long day, better enjoy it!
The course is timed to give runners the thrill of sunrise from the summit of the first climb. The front end speedsters missed that by virtue of passing the first support staff while they themselves were still climbing to their positions. I was more polite, waiting until they were in position and the sun was well up before getting near the top of anything.
Speaking of extreme volunteers, Anna Frost chucked in a bonus peak-bag metres to the left of the path before giving awesome guidance, ‘it’s rolling to that next wee hill just in the cloud there’. Never believe a Kiwi when they say ‘wee hill’ or ‘just over there’ or ‘non-technical’. Their intentions are good, but their bloodlines run from Middle Earth and they forget we humans are made of pudding and weakness.
Mal and Sal (check out their incredible adventure here) meanwhile had pulled up a nice spot to catch the golden morning view. Mal couldn’t resist, ‘When you said you were going to take your time I didn’t know you meant this much time.’ Thanks buddy! See you back at the chateau!!
Grinding along a rolling ridgeline leading steadily and more steeply up through morning cloud, we came across something totally unexpected – free pies.
That’s right, just over the summit of Roy’s Peak, at about 1600 metres, with no roads in sight, there was a drink stop with a generator, oven, and free Waka Pai pies for all. Surreal, but awesome. I skipped the pie but filled my bottle with electrolyte and ran on. 200 metres later, sucking on a dead hose I realised it would have been timely to pull out my bladder and fill up on water too. Whatever, it’s downhill from here to about 37km. How bad can it be?
Ha ha ha ha ah ha ha haaaa. Don’t ever ask that in an ultra.
There’s a special angle of downhill, where running, hiking, and walking all beat you up just as much, and this was mostly it. Finally in the valley after an extremely uncoordinated descent on packed dirt road, I scooped water from a stream that may or may not have traversed acres of cow poo. Taking small sips and tipping it on my head and neck, I figured dysentery shouldn’t hit for at least long enough to get the race finished. The upside would of course be weight loss. Everybody wins!
Almost missing the 38km aid station by following a fenceline instead of cutting across a field, I found out later that the turbo-boosted race leaders made the same mistake when they’d gone through several hours before. It must be hard running so fast that you miss turns and get through checkpoints before they’re even set up, poor guys.
Coffee, banana, electrolyte, banter, go. The next climb was the one I’d expected to be soul destroying. Fortunately, I had no soul left after the first climb so there was nothing more this one could do to me. And besides, big climbs are awesome. They hurt. They only take longer the slower you go. They’ve got all the time in the world. And they don’t tolerate excuses. About 20km later, after a sustained ascent of 1400 or so metres, fizzy cold black poison had never tasted so good. Can’t believe Coca Cola don’t want to use that tagline.
The Bob Lee Hut (I know, bobbly hut) checkpoint crew were all over it. Pete gave sage advice about sticking with my trail shoes for some of the bobbly (ha!) sections still to come. Catching up here with a few other runners and heading out again without too much delay, it also felt like a game again, rather than an epic survival challenge with a 20-hour cutoff that might just crush dreams and break hearts.
Running out from Bob Lee with a Kiwi Girl and Malaysian dude, we exchanged notes on the giant mystic rock up ahead. She’d been leaning toward koala, I was locked in on giant Buddha. On approach, we were both right, but as we drew level, it was just another giant rock. Thanks, caffeinated fatigue. You cloud our judgment and reshape our sore and sweaty world in entertaining ways.
And then things went off course. Literally.
All had been good. I’d got a burst of energy and picked up the pace from slow hiking to slow trotting. The other two runners were a couple of hundred metres behind. I knew this because every now and again I’d look over my shoulder for some misguided assurance that we were still on course. This long, sometimes winding open fire-road section didn’t feature any of the usual pink marking tape or orange tubed star-stakes, but I figured that whoever marked the course up this far had just run out of tubes and tape. So it made sense to follow the line of black star pickets, just like we had followed on earlier sections of the course.
Soon enough, there was a slight divide of the track. A wonky fluorescent pink arrow in the middle was tilted just a bit left, but up ahead and off to the right there was a renewed line of orange piping. If I had kept up and left, I would have seen the markers that continued straight ahead toward the 1900m summit of Pisa.
But no, I trusted the orange.
Like an evil pied piper I veered right and dropped down past a survival hut where the orange pipe ran out. Assuming that all was good in the hood and that some degree of randomness had again informed the course markings I followed the only obvious markers – more plain black star stakes. After about 4km of slight downhill alongside a creek, I’d now lost sight of the runners who’d been following behind me and come to a blue twine across the roadway. Stepping over it I looked for more star stakes and found some straight ahead. As I was jogging down to those and wondering whether the elevation marked on the course had been wrong or whether the route would again climb soon, the 60km checkpoint crew pulled up next to me in a Subaru stuffed with bodies and large drink containers.
Pete, driving, wound down the front passenger window and called out those special words that turn runners’ world upside down.
‘What are you doing here?’
We quickly worked out how I’d ended up in the wrong place. With access to a mapping app that could supposedly function even without mobile coverage, I really could have avoided this situation, but I hadn’t thought to use it for GPS-based navigation. I’d only used it as a reference point to check I was on the right track, and even then only sparingly. Now I’d just done about 4 extra kilometres and was off course behind the sweeper, or Tail End Charlie, as our Kiwi mates say.
‘Where is he?’ I asked.
‘About 2km back that way’. Pete said.
‘Well I’ll run back up to where he is.’
‘We can’t leave you behind the sweep.’
‘Well I’d better go now then.’
‘You’ll have to get in the car.’
‘I don’t want to get in the car. I’ll run up.’
‘We can’t leave you behind the sweep.’
This was going nowhere faster than I’d gone nowhere.
The front passenger and his mate jumped out. After making sure that jumping in the car to get back to the sweep and hopefully the place where I’d steered wrong wouldn’t necessarily mean a DQ or a DNF even though the RD could still make that call if he wanted to, I jumped in the front and we turned back around. Asking the guys who waited behind to keep eyes out for any sign of runners coming along the course from where I’d been, I felt like a totally evil stupid bastard. This was going to be knife edge stuff. Time was not at all in my favour. If the 2 runners who had been behind me hadn’t already self-corrected their own routes, or didn’t appear in the next couple of minutes, then following me was probably going to completely ruin their day.
Pete handed me off to the next vehicle. Driven by Kurt, this big grey four-wheel-drive was the Tail End Charlie I had somehow ended up behind. Negotiating some gnarly gullied roadway back to where I’d dropped down to the right, we could see the proliferation of evil orange poles that had made for confusion. I’d done extra mileage. We’d burned 28 minutes talking through it and getting back to where I’d left the course. Asking the injured runner in the front seat what I needed to knock out to get in under cutoff, he replied with ‘a 6-hour marathon.’ Even with a largely descending and rolling remainder to the course, it was going to be quicker than I’d managed all day – sad but true. Turning to Kurt, I said ‘I’ll totally ____ing do that, come on man, seriously.’ He hardly even thought about it, just saying, ‘ok, get out here then.’ Barely half an hour before, my heart had hit the floor via my stomach. But now there was hope. It was still going to be a tough push to get back in, but the clock was still going. ‘Right, game on.’ That one got a chuckle from Kurt as I headed out the door.
Throwing my pack on, I got the hiking poles moving quick as possible. Kurt seemed like a patient guy but that probably wouldn’t last if I kept him driving at 5km/hr for the next 20km. Launching forward with heavy metal crashing in my ears, the adrenalin ramped up and we were all on the way to the summit of Pisa and whatever lay beyond.
Finally cresting, Kurt stayed behind with the next checkpoint crew, taking in the mindblowing mountainscape that ringed the horizon in every direction.
‘Alright, see you guys soon.’ Heading downhill and away, once out of view I pulled out my glucose meter for the first blood sugar check in nearly 3 hours. I hadn’t wanted to pull it out in front of Kurt in case it started him on the thought process of, ‘so this guy has gone slow, got lost, got behind the cutoff pace, aaaand he’s diabetic? F___ this.’
Sugars were good, legs were working, we were pointing downhill, it was do or die. Stabilisers and flexors seemed to have fatigued in their roles as motors so weaker, less efficient muscles like the hamstrings, quads, and gluten were finally recruited for running. I’d paused my Ambit during the lift with Pete and Kurt. Fumbling mental arithmetic said that with the timer saying an average pace of 11:48/km for 13 hours, and an estimated 5½ hours left for 33km, running at an average of 9:00/km is what it would take to get home, so to achieve that I now had to run against my watch until it might eventually say 11:00/km. And that was the new game.
For most of the day the game had been Let’s Finish This 100km Before It Finishes Us, but now the game was Get This Average Pace to 11:00/km. Sexy, huh?
11:35/km. Finally, after pounding downhill for ages I caught the back of the field.
Nope, it’s a hiker.
Finally, after pounding downhill for even longer, I caught the back of the field.
We tic-tacked for the remainder of the 2,000-meter descent. Whatever way we played it, this was ugly. Remember those angles on hardened dirt road that hurt whatever way you do them? Yeah, lots of those. With the cutoff for the 87km aid station at the wool barn being 9pm, Stefan and I speculated that it might be 5 minutes away or half an hour. Either way, let’s just get there.
At this point, pushing against reason and what might be possible, on the verge of vomiting for the simple fact that it might break the monotony and couldn’t really make things worse, I thought about my partner Jess, the level that she runs at and the demons that she must face. And I thought ‘Holy S__t.’
11:21/km. Finally, as you do, we hit the last checkpoint with just over 20 minutes to spare. I’d put on afterburners and got in ahead of Stefan, only to crash in a chair and garble incoherently. Clearly the check crew were runners because this didn’t seem to faze them at all. They just provided – sound the celestial brass section – ginger beer and iced water. WIN. All I’d been wanting for the last hour was anything ginger and without royal blood. Thank you, wool shed crew!
Stefan blew through without stopping and five minutes later I was up again too. We’d been contesting the wooden spoon all day, and still neither of us wanted it. The new improved Tail End Charlie, Jo the adventure-racing physio, lobbed in with me as we headed into the final 13 or something kilometres.
Maths is cruel, especially in the final stages of any ultramarathon, and should be treated as a foe, not a friend. This means that however much time you think you have on hand, you have less. However close you think the finish line might be, it’s further. However fast you want to go, run faster. However quick you think you’re going, you’re slower.
One of the coolest heads in endurance is Andy Dubois. As my running counsellor – I feel like it makes him responsible for a slow undisciplined runner if I call him my coach – Andy has helped me prepare physically and mentally for some really fun ridiculousness over the last couple of years.
Two key insights he gave me before Ultra Easy were that once you can’t run the downhills, you’re on your way to losing a massive amount of time, and that hiking by choice early, rather than later on by default, would really be the way to get through this. The first piece of advice he’d actually given me was, ‘take yourself out this weekend for a 5-hour test run because… oh wait, you can’t, because you’re running 100km in New Zealand this weekend’.
In my internal dialogues throughout the day, these nuggets of advice kept surfacing. Whenever I caught myself wasting runnable descents, I would pick it back up as best I could. Whenever I felt like I was running into an exhausting space, I’d reassess and ease back long enough to know better. It wasn’t any kind of a stellar day out, despite being an exceptional experience – perhaps because it was such a constant barely-going-to-get-there grind in fact – but if I hadn’t been tuned in that way by Andy and his common sense approach, I wouldn’t have been able to out run the clock over the closing stages.
No more idea what per km. When I pulled up past Stefan, walking with his partner, Jo abandoned me for him and I called out that I thought it was about 9km to go. A calming inner voice told me that there was plenty of time to make it now and we could just cruise it in, but I’d been picturing 20:00:01 all day and was ready to gut myself.
A rolling stop-start run alongside the stunning turquoise waters as all colour leeched from the sky in the late Wanaka dusk, more awesome vollies, the surrender to pause and finally put on a headlamp, face encased in a nuclear pulse of riverside midgies, that typical running-in-a-dream feeling of time passing without any forward progress, an increasing sense of panic that everything was even further away than even worst predictions, a couple more turns and finally, red numbers hanging blurred in space.
Over the line, I was empty. Thanking Terry the Race Director for his contributions to sanity and failing to recognize our friend Sal on the first couple of attempts, two things dawned on me. Firstly, I had actually just made it with about ten minutes to spare. Secondly, the pub was shut.
At least the pub was open the next day.
And they all lived happily ever after.