“Just don’t walk.” I repeated this mantra in my head over and over for the last 15 miles of the Tarawera 100k in the exotic trails of New Zealand. But at mile 54, I started walking…on a downhill! Quads buckling, I felt dizzy and nauseous. And thirsty. Man, I was thirsty! My handheld bottle still sloshed around 5 ounces of coke, but all I wanted was water. Fearing the inevitable bonk, I slammed two gels and took a swig of coke. When the trail flattened out I started running again, but it was a slow shuffle – the kind of stride that I reserve for moments of desperation when my body systems are failing and getting to the finish line without collapsing becomes the top priority. I was in a major hurtbox.
Last I had heard, I had about a 20-minute lead over Timothy Olson at around the 50-mile mark. However, given the caliber of runner Tim is, I was now running scared (and glancing over my shoulder). I knew if I saw him he would pass me for sure as my legs were totally unresponsive at this point. The hunt was on and I was the prey just waiting to be engulfed…
It wasn’t always this way. When the Tarawera 100km started in the magical redwood forest area of Rotorua, NZ, a lead pack of hungry runners formed: Brendan Davies and Mick Donges of Australia, Vajin Armstrong of New Zealand, me, and Timothy Olson of the US.
At 12.5 miles into the 63 mile race I made my move. It was totally pre-meditated. On a 1.5 mile long uphill stretch of road (basically the only road running on the entire course), I went hard. A series of mid 6-min miles up the hill and a jolt in my heart rate was enough to get me clear of the field. The rush of adrenaline of leading the race at that point allowed me to keep pressing the pace. In retrospect, that was when I pushed too hard…
By 23 miles into the race I had a good 6-10min lead on 2nd place (I didn’t find this out until after 30 miles into the race though, thanks to the one-and-only Bryon Powell of iRunFar, who took a boat to one of the remote aid stations). Suddenly the trail got a little more technical as the course weaved around a series of beautiful lakes. The narrow single track was often coated in roots, and the little ups and downs of some rather steep hills started to wear on me. I came through 50k in just about 4 hours flat and didn’t feel very good. I thought back to the halfway point at the Bandera 100km, when I came through the first 50k in just under 3:50 and decided that I felt a lot worse on this day. I was already bracing myself for a big positive split and decided 8:30 might be a reasonable finish time to shoot for…. but I had already forgotten about how steep some of the hills were…soon, a few flights of stairs started to really bother me.
I know many would laugh at what I call “technical trail,” but there were many spots of narrow single track that required a significant break in my stride and more dancing instead of running. Ironically, on a flatter and more tame section of the course, I tripped on a root and tumbled sideways off the trail into a stump. My armpit took most of the force of the fall and immediately I thought I had broken my rib. It took a couple seconds to get up from that ordeal. My handheld continued to roll down the trail a bit about 10 feet in front of where I landed. A bit shaken, I cautiously continued on with a little extra blood and dirt.
At the turn-around point about 37.5 miles into the race I made note of my cumulative watch time and counted the minutes until I saw 2nd place. It took 6 minutes to see Timothy Olson flying down the trail head-on at me. He looked strong and full of the run. I figured my lead had held constant at 12 minutes at this point and the more technical running section was going to make it hard to pull away from him.
Photo Credit: Graeme Murray
By the time I reached an aid station at mile 52 I was starting to feel weak, dehydrated and nauseous. Luckily my parents had made the trip over and were able to crew for me. I quickly refilled with some gels, coke, and a couple bites of potato chips. I heard mixed reports that my lead had extended to over 20 minutes, which was very confusing to me as I felt like I had been slowing down more and more. However, I was still confident I could pull off the win…as long as I didn’t start walking…..
Then there was an 11-mile stretch without an aid station. To an ultra noob like me, this is a long way! As I started walking on downhill sections and through little grassy fields I thought about how my kidneys probably didn’t like this. The sun was bearing down on me and although it probably wasn’t even 70F, I felt warm and cold at the same time. I knew if I could get to the aid station around mile 60 I could get water and hold off 2nd place if I saw him coming on the long straight stretch of the road to the finish. Getting to that aid station became my main goal, but every downhill challenged me and made me grimace (I still embraced the uphills as they were still more runnable at that point)
It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t know Tim was finishing really strong in the final 20km of the race. In the end, I had very good reason to be glancing over my shoulder, as he had dramatically reduced the gap between us to a mere 3 minutes.
After almost 9 hours of running (the longest duration I’ve ever competed), I crossed the finish line. It was a huge relief. Seeing Tim cross just 3 minutes later made me feel very lucky that the race wasn’t any longer than 100km, as he surely would’ve passed me within a matter of a few more miles. New Zealand’s Vajin Armstrong, who I had raced against at White River last summer, finished 3rd.
This race really solidified in my mind that I have a lot to learn in the sport of ultra running and there are things that I have to tweak in my training to be able to finish stronger, race downhills, and run more technical trails. I’m not in any rush to move up to the 100 mile distance (despite hearing from many that I should try to). Right now, as it stands, I’ve only finished six ultra races: one 50k, one 50miler and three 100ks. I’d like to try to learn more from doing 50k to 50-mile types of trail and mountain racing. But I’d also like to try to qualify for the 2016 US Olympic Trials in the marathon and I don’t believe that 100-mile training would be a productive step towards that goal as 100 miles is a totally different beast. Maybe one day though…
My splits from Strava tell me that I also have a lot to learn about pacing in these crazy distance events…
In closing, Tarawera Race Director Paul Charteris put on an amazing event and brought out a talented field of international runners. His vision to grow the sport of ultra running both in New Zealand and on a world-wide scale is very inspiring to me and many others. The local volunteers and sponsors like Mark Copeland also are what made this race incredible. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity and support to make the trip out to such an amazing place (I’ve always dreamed of traveling to New Zealand).
Finally I’d like to thank all my sponsors for their support: SCOTT Sports, Flora Health / Udo’s Oil, Ultimate Direction, Drymax Socks, Strava, Smith Optics. Still looking for that energy gel/bar sponsor…anyone out there? I wouldn’t even be able to even dream about trying to make a living as a professional ultra runner if it wasn’t for these companies, my family and girlfriend, and the support of fellow runners in the ultra/mountain/trail/marathon running community. Thank you so much!
See you on the trails,
About the Author (Author Profile)2-time Olympic Trials Qualifier, Mountain runner, Author of "Running For The Hansons," trail runner, videos for Vo2max Productioins, LLC.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Tarawera 100k | Sole to Soul Rhythm | March 26, 2013
- TuM/NB Double | Ski Runner NZ | April 2, 2013
- Lake Sonoma 50: An Unsustainable Pace | Sage Canaday: Ultra-Trail-Mountain Runner | April 22, 2013