Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tarawera Ultramarathon 2013

Away we go in the morning!
Image courtesy Marceau Photography
The Tarawera Ultramarathon is a 100km trail race, running through some of New Zealand’s most beautiful fern forests, pass tranquil lakes and roaring waterfalls. This year the races attracted some of the cream of International ultra trail runners including Western States course record holder Timothy Olson, young gun Sage Canaday, Jason Schlarb, Mick Donges and Vajin Armstrong to name a few. Other world class athletes  would also end up lining up in the shorter events. Paul Charteris, the race director did a sterling job pulling in some of the biggest names in trail running.

Press conference!
Image courtesy Graeme Murray
Team Inov-8 consisted of myself and my fellow Aussie Shona Stephenson and we were here to race. We simply could not miss this opportunity to race against the World’s best. We were both keen to use this race as a launchpad for more international races later in the year, including UTMF and various Skyrunning races. Did I mention this was a race?

We arrived on Thursday and immediately became part of the Tarawera circus; interviews and photo shoots and that kind of thing.  Shona and I looked the part in our spanking new Inov-8 gear; at times resembling twins. On Friday we were fortunate to sit on a panel for an ultra running seminar with a large audience at race HQ presented by Marcus Warner from Ultra168 who were here covering the race. It was a great way to learn a few new things ourselves from our fellow panelists and spread the Inov-8 message. Shona did a wonderful job demonstrating how light and flexible the Inov-8s are as she scrunched her shoe in her hand. It was a real mixed bag of shoe companies on stage across the whole spectrum; TNF, Salomon, Inov-8, Scott and Hoka all represented. Some classic one liners were delivered 'Do you use a GPS watch in a race'. Olson - 'I wear a watch only to tell what time it is'. 'What do you do for recovery'. Canaday - 'Beer'. It was great to get honest answers! Even Marcus was getting in on the act...audience member 'I've been experimenting with putting salt in my water bottle...,', Marcus, 'ooh .experimenting with salt...that will lead to harder drugs in no time'! Hilarious stuff.

The seminar was good fun!
Image courtesy Lloyd Belcher Visuals

With Shona, pre race. What a team!
Image coutesy Marcus Warner, Ultra 168
Race morning came, and it was time put in place the fruits of a lot of training and conditioning. I've trained my ring off for this event and I was keen to mix it up with the elite company. I was not here for a picnic, I was here to race! With the original race course being changed owing to bushfire threats, it was clear in my mind at least that the course had become both tougher and one that would suit runners with a love of technical and tricky trail. Gone was a gradually descending last 40km on smooth firetrail which was replaced with a simple ‘out and back’ on the trickiest part of the course. For this reason I swapped my shoe choice from the TrailRoc 245s to my trusty X-Talon 212’s. The extra grip on the trails was sure to give me no problems with my footing. The NZ trails are so different to the trails in the Blue Mountains. They are soft and leaf littered, piney and well groomed. No sandstone to be seen. Heaven.

The first 20km was probably the easiest part of the course, free flowing and open on well groomed trail, and I was sure I had to use this section to my advantage. I led out the pack of Sage, Vajin and Mick; breezing through stunning lush fern forests and past still, blue lakes. On the first climb of the day I passed Salomon’s Greg Vollet who was running the 60K option and wondered if my early pace was going to come back to trouble me later in the race. Out of Checkpoint 1 and on the small section of road running I opened up the lead to a minute. I was running under threshold and felt fine, being careful to drink regularly and refuel myself with Hammer Perpetuem and Gels. I was the only runner in the top group who went with the hydration pack option; it’s what I’m used to and secretly was hoping that the day would heat up and those just carrying a 500mL bottle would come undone somewhat later in the day. I was fortunate enough to have enough awesome UltrAspire packs on standby thanks to barefootinc NZ, that I could implement the 'pack swap' strategy at checkpoints. There is no way I was going to muck around in transitions; it was a grab and go time. Not until I saw some photos of the aid stations later did I get Checkpoint envy! The food on the tables was gourmet and I regret not stopping to grab a couple of things to eat after the race!

With Vajin and Mick early on in the race
Image coutesy Marcus Warner, Ultra 168
On a small gravel road climb, Sage put in a surge and glided past effortlessly. It was a scary how he was attacking the hill and there was no way I was going to race him here. Entering the forest and then starting the first major climb of the day, the trail was turning to narrow , rocky, singletrack. Varjin joined me half way up the ascent and trotted a little off in the distance. I was keen to stick with Vajin. We have raced each other a couple of times and are closely matched. So far we were one a piece in the head to heads and I was keen to push him today and take the lead in the leaderboard.

Running through gorgeous forests
Image courtesy Graeme Murray
The long descent to CP2 at Lake Okataina was no problem for the 212s and I was able to scoot down the descent and a good clip and hold my place to the bottom. Entering the forest once again, the heavy breathing of Timothy Olsen was progressively getting louder with each stride and it wasn't long before this superstar of the sport cruised by. From here the trail is a real mixed bag of lumpy up and downs, exposed tree roots, rocky outcrops and small rock ledges. It was very difficult to get into any type of rhythm and the leg between Humphries Bay and the Outlet was a real low patch for me.

When these things happen, I’ve learnt the best thing to do is to get back to basics and it may sound silly but take it ‘one step at a time’. On the positive, my hydration and nutrition was on track and I felt with a bit of time I’d be back into this race. Half way through the last leg before the turnaround, Sage and I ran past eachother. I estimated he had opened up at least a 30 minute gap in 60km. Phenomenal running on this tricky trail, although I did wonder if he was going to face a big battle on the tough way back or begin to dehydrate due to his minimalist approach (just carrying a small bottle on the run and filling up at aid stations).

It was hard going out there!
Image courtesy Mead Norton
Approaching the turn we passed the magnificent, rumbling, thundering Tarawera Falls. The energy release from the water was contagious and I instantly felt rejuvenated. I’m so thankful that running has taken me to some of the most beautiful places in the world and this was just another breathtaking memory that I will remember forever. It was very tempting to just stop there and then, go for a swim under the falls and chill out for the rest of the day. But I still had under half the race to run! At the turn I was about 12 minutes behind Vajin and 15 minutes behind Timothy and with a renewed spirit I was determined to do anything I could to make some ground on them on the return home.

The last few legs consisted of me pretty much going over many mental strategies and keeping my positive thoughts up…visualising Vajin just around the next corner and really concentrating on my form. I was aware of Mick Donges and Jason Schlarb and others behind too that would only be too happy to pounce if I was to falter. Entering the last leg, I gulped down some Coke and knew the trickiest parts of the course were over and only one big climb to go before a few kilometres of downhill to the finish line. I wanted to finish strong and pull in the minutes I’d let slip by earlier in the race.

James's girlfriend Anna helping me get the new
UltrAspire Alpha on...I was pretty tired!
For this last leg I had elite kiwi multisporter James Kuegler keeping me company as my pacer. He really did a great job encouraging me and making sure I didn't slack off. I was happy how I climbed, on tired legs I only walked a couple of the longer, steeper sections and James made sure I ran 'through' the smaller pinches, setting little targets on the trail to aim for, breaking the sections into smaller bits. James also introduced me to pureed baby food, and I gulped it down. At first I was a bit dubious but I really think he is onto a winner here. On the descent towards the last 2km of road, we pushed over the 100km mark and high fived each other and raised the bat! A ton is a ton after all  On the road, we pulled out a couple of sub 4 minute kms between the 100 and 102.5km (the actual distance) section to the finish. As I crossed the line it was a mixture of joy and relief.

Although I just missed the podium, it was a tremendously rewarding race for me for a number of reasons. Now I know why Sage and Timothy sit at the pinnacle of the sport. I’m determined to reach another level in my racing and seeing these guys produce that has inspired me a great deal. Seeing Ruby also totally dominate the womens field was also a privilege  So young and so much talent, look out for this girl on the world stage in the years to come. Shona unfortunately had a few gut issues and had to pull out at 85km, but I'm glad to say is recovering well now. You were awesome company all weekend mate and I know you will be back stronger than ever.

Vajn took out the battle of the Tasman and a well deserved 3rd place.
Next round TNF100!
I want to thank my Australian supporters barefootinc, as well as Dylan and the gang at barefootinc NZ who were great supporters 'on the ground'. Of course, also a big thank you to Inov-8, Injinji and Hammer Nutrition. It was great fun helping out at their various stalls at the race registration (I even sold a few UltrAspire packs, Injinji socks and Hammer gels!) It was awesome to meet all my new NZ and Hong Kong trail running friends and I think I offered accommodation to just about all of you when you visit the Blue Mts some day! Now I better start looking into that house extension! 

Lastly, thanks to my wife Nadine who spent the weekend working on her thesis without me there to help ;-) and her wonderful, ongoing love and support.

Top: Team Inov-8 Performance Technical Shirt
Shorts: Team Inov-8 branded Body Science Compression Shorts
Shoes: Inov-8 X-Talon 212s
Socks: Injinji Ultra Thin Performance Toesocks
Hydration Pack: Alternated between UltrAspire Surge and Alpha Racing Vest (swap strategy)
Nutrition: Hammer Cafe Latte Perpetuem in 250mL UltrAspire bottle at each checkpoint, Hammer Gel every 40 minutes kept in Hammer Flask
Hydration: Water, Hammer Enduralyte capsule every 30 minutes.
Watch: Garmin 310XT

Image courtesy Graeme Murray