29hours, 24 minutes, 50 seconds - The TUM Miler!
By Paulo Osorio on 20th February 2018 Race Reports
29hours, 24 minutes, 50 seconds.
So I know what you’re thinking. You’ve done the maths.
100 miles, hmm what’s that, about 4 marathons? A half-decent runner can do a marathon in 4 hours-ish, can’t they, so let’s give him 5 hours for each. Maybe add an extra hour or two for a breather, refreshments. What are we up to? 22 hours? So what the hell was he doing for the other seven and a half hours? Sleeping? Can’t say I’m terribly impressed!
[Pauses – takes deep breath – summons patience]
Ok - let me try to explain. After all, I’m sitting here pretty darn happy that it only took me 29.5 hours…!
In short, between the start line and the finish line, the fiendish race organisers not only put on a 100 mile course that involved 5,000+ metres of climbing and descending (in British money that’s 4 ascents/descents of Ben Nevis starting from sea level), but they sneakily conspired with the dastardly weather gods to lash down a torrent of rain on the trails to produce the stickiest, slidiest mud-fest you’ve seen. And just for extra spice, they asked over 1,000 runners of the 60/85/100km races before us to go churn up the trails – because running those trails in the dark just wasn’t challenging enough.
But before I got to enjoy the pleasure of the 4am start, and my 29.5 hours, I know you want to hear about The Training.
Now in times past, some people have got the impression that I don’t really put in the training for these ultra thingys. It is of course absolutely not true. It’s just that my training usually involves running on the flat Auckland waterfront, a couple of times a week, without a backpack, and usually for about 40 mins to 1 hour. It’s a lovely run – you should try it. This year was different and I’m proud to say that my long-run training through the year consisted of:
- 1 x 50km (17 laps of Orakei Basin). Not really many hills to conquer when you run around a lake if I’m honest.
- 1 x 34kms along Te Henga in the Waitaks on Christmas Eve.
- 1 x 33kms with Lesley Turner Hall on 1st October on her favourite Concrete Monster run.
- 1 x Auckland road Marathon in October.
Yes – that’s it. Other than that there was nothing over 25kms in the last year.
So having prepared like a professional, I was ready to run! And so there I was, at 4am in Government Gardens waiting to be sent off on a slow parade with 140 others.
It’s ironic that before the race most of us were huddled in a tent trying to escape the rain, when we were going to be drenched only moments later…and stay drenched for the best part of a day-and-a-half.
Similarly ironic that I was trying to avoid some of the bigger puddles in the first few minutes of the run (don’t want wet feet too early, you know). It wasn’t long before we were ankle-deep in it – wet, dirty feet with all sorts of debris and detritus making its way through your gaiters, into your shoes and stabbing you repeatedly like your annoying neighbour’s kid holding a sharp stick. I’ve learnt to be quite tolerant of those situations, but it does take some mastery.
The send-off for us runners was typically spectacular with Tim Day the race director also clearly emotional about the event he had poured his soul into organising. A traditional karakia (prayer) and rousing waiata (song) performed for us, and then off we went.
I was excited, relieved (that the day was finally here), fearful (of the unknown), determined, but also quite relaxed. There was no way to make this day go any faster than it would so I concentrated on trying to run with the least possible effort at the start.
Through to the Buried Village aid station at 30km, and everything was good…except I was well ahead of schedule which is not normally a good thing in an ultra. It also meant I was there before my crew, Charlotte. But luckily there was Vicki Woolley to stop and talk to, and I distracted her from helping other people (sorry!) until Charlotte arrived.
Bottles re-filled, and off I trotted, mentally noting to slow down.
It was nice to be running with others and there was some good chat with Mgcini Masuku who remembered me from the Cyclone Lusi course of 2014. I then accidentally deserted him just as we got to our short crossing of Lake Rotomahana by boat at the 49km mark. But we were to catch glimpses of each other through the evening and late night, flirting with each other like two teenagers at their first school disco.
Off the boat and another few kms to the Rerewhakaaitu aid station (56kms), where Charlotte was there, checking in on me, and giving me encouragement before she quite wisely was heading into Rotorua for a leisurely afternoon at the Polynesian Spa. Although my legs and feet were fine, my back was really hurting – next time, perhaps train more with a heavy pack. (Next time?!?!?!).
From here it was a long uphill section round the backside of Mount Tarawera (last eruption 1886) including the Frontal Labotomy mountain bike section. It was good to pass the time of day with fellow Brit Emma Brownwho by her own admission “had got tired of her own company”. I couldn’t promise much good chat, but we ticked off the kms, keeping an honest pace of running anything runnable, and sensibly walking the uphills. She told me her story of Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (the jewel in the 100 mile running calendar), and the 42 hours it took to complete that. I was clearly running with someone far stronger and more capable than myself! But I looked to just hang on as long as I could with her, as she made running and poling look effortless.
Onwards, onwards, until finally we were at Tarawera Falls aid station (79km), a familiar part of the trail for me from previous years. I love this section, and for a few brief km’s the running was smooth, the tracks were lush, the sounds of the raging river and then the booming crash of the Tarawera Waterfalls was just great. For the first time outside of an aid station, Emmaand I stopped for a photo and to admire the Falls – with all the rain, it was a spectacular sight. This was the half-way point, and I had reached it in just under 12 hours. All was well.
And then, just a couple of minutes later, BANG! My feet continued to move forward as my head was violently knocked backwards. I had been “clotheslined”. Except it was a pretty big tree and not a WWF wrestler in small pants that had laid me flat on my back on the trail with one swift blow to the head. I had been looking at my sheet to see how far the next aid station was, and had taken my eye off the trail. Big mistake, and it could have been costly.
Just as suddenly, and actually more shocking, was the deterioration in the state of the trails underfoot. This is a technical piece of track, lots of tree roots, rocks to negotiate, and continually up and down. But the sludgy mud, churned up by all the runners before us, meant this wasn’t runnable, and was even tricky to walk. Using poles really helped to keep balanced, but I was slipping around like a drunk, and occasionally giving in to falling sideways into the bush.
On and on, past The Outlet aid station (85km), past Humphries Bay (92km) the pace getting slower, less and less running. And suddenly it was dark. My headlamp was in my backpack, but I didn’t want to stop to get it out, as I would might lose my running partner, and it would break my rhythm. So I settled for running in the dark, hoping Okataina would come quickly, trying to use Emma’s light in front of me, desperately hoping I wasn’t going to regret my choice with a mis-placed step and a twisted ankle. The trails were narrow, rocky and super-sludgy. It required concentration, and on reflection it was a really dumb idea to not stop for a few seconds and retrieve my head-torch.
Finally, we popped out of the bush at Okataina aid station. This is a big milestone at 102kms and another aid station with a great vibe.
Charlotte was back from her spa treatment (“I’ll tell you about it later” she very kindly said) and again looked after me as I sat down in a chair for a few minutes and gobbled down watermelon and orange slices. “It’s going to be slow – I’ll be some time” I said, realising that my original estimation of picking up Lesley at Blue Lake at midnight was wildly optimistic. One of the toughest sections of the run with a deeply rutted section of trail was still ahead of us – the climb out of Okataina and a long 16km trudge to Millar Road.
The trail was just as bad on the Western Okataina Walkway as it had been on the Eastern side. Walking and poling, keeping that relentless forward progress. I tried not looking at my watch too often to see the distance. Hearing the buzz when my GPS watch clocked another km was good…but the infrequency between buzzes was shocking!
During this section, Emma had raced off ahead of me, and I wasn’t able to keep up. I had my rhythm, and there was no option for me but to stay in my zone, at my pace. Everything was hurting by now, but nothing was getting worse. I had to get comfortable with the discomfort.
Physically, I was exhausted, but had reached a point where the tiredness in my body had just plateaued. I had suffered and put up with my back pain for so many hours now, I knew that it wasn’t going to stop me, it was just part of me. And after all, it was only one of a dozen things that hurt!
Mentally, I was in a really good place. This was what had to be done on this day, and I just had to do it. I thought about the fact that months earlier I had actually chosen this Tarawera 100 miler to be my first Miler because I expected it to be on the “easier” side. But with this weather and the trails as they were, this was now a true battle, and I knew there would be many pulling out or not making the cutoff times. I liked this, and I liked my response to it. Now that I was in the race, I didn’t want it to be easy.
Having full confidence I would finish, I mentally turned the tables on the situation, and was relishing the challenge. This course might never be this hard again – doesn’t that make it more special if I can pull it off?
Saying all that, I was still battling – every step, every darn mud-clawing sticky step. And I also realised that I had made another mistake and not taken enough water with me, and was now rationing water for what was a long 4 hour leg to Millar Road. I begged for sections to be able to run, if only to bring the aid station forward quicker, but it was hard to find anwhere to pick up a rhythm, and I was still using a very poor headtorch which was not nearly enough to allow me to see the trail clearly.
In 2013 (‘Fire Course’ year), fellow Brit Nick Ham and I ran/walked this section back to the 100km finish when the course was changed. It was incredibly slow then as we knocked out the final k’s of the race, but this year it was slower still. And this year, instead of being close to the finish line, I would still have another 44 kms to go even once I hit Millar Road.
Colourful glow sticks on the floor signalled that Millar Road aid station (118km) and the end of the Western Okataina Walkway were approaching….and there it was…’80s music pumped up loud, aid station volunteers dancing, whooping and cheering. It was 1.34am, and there was a party going on!! And then the words I had wanted to hear for hours and will never forget: “Would you like a cup of tea?” How good was that?! It was an AMAZING cup of tea! Thank you Anonymous Aid Station volunteer.
From here it was another hour or so to Blue Lake (125km; 22.5 hours in), and the exhilaration of knowing I had my crew and pacer waiting for me. Great to see Brendan Moore too – thanks for coming out to support us! Emma was there too and indicated she would start to walk off ahead. She didn’t have a pacer, but she thought Lesley and I would catch her up soon.
Pic by Photos4Sale
Even though the worst of the muddy trails were behind us, I knew that the next leg – even with Lesley pacing me – would be a toughie. It was 21.9km through to Puarenga (Green Lake). There wasn’t lots of running here but we were keeping a pretty fast pace hike. Lesley knows these trails, and was able to explain what was coming up. I was just consolidating, getting ready for the final 15kms to the finish after we had nailed this one. It was great to have Lesley out in front of me, picking her way through the trail, and allowing me to switch off my brain a little and just follow her feet. There was lots of chat, and although this leg still took a long time, the benefit of having a pacer was huge. We finally caught up to Emma, who thought she had taken a wrong turn and spent some time finding her way again.
And then there was just 15kms to go. We had run through the night, and it was light again. I was determined to run most of that to the finish and had indicated to Lesley to try and get us to the finish before 10am so I could beat 30 hours. As we were approaching the final Redwoods Forest aid station (157km), I told Lesley that we wouldn’t stop. I just didn’t want the break in rhythm. Waves and cheers from Malcolm Law (fresh from his 60km) and Vera Alves (crewing with a 1year old - amazing) but we didn't stop for them either!
We passed a number of runners (walkers), some in obvious distress but battling it out. We just kept going and going, now running out of the Redwoods forest, across the geothermal area of Sulphur Point, and into Rotorua town. And then finally – up Government Gardens to the finish line, being whooped and whistled by some crazy supporters in wedding outfits.
It was done! 29 hours 24 minutes 50 seconds
Relief, exhaustion, exhilaration, gratitude, delirious joy. All together. Super concentrated. It was pretty emotional. Hugs and High-Fives, and the presentation of the finishers' medal – a hand-carved piece of pounamu (NZ jade / greenstone), crafted into a toki blade, signifying strength (mana) and courage. Something to really treasure.
I honestly don’t know if I will do a Miler again. This was so special in many ways. Things came together to make the race spectacularly challenging and rewarding. It was truly extraordinary. You should all try it.
Some thank you’s:
- To Crew Member extraordinaire – Charlotte– who threw herself at everything, and looked after me through the day, and got me back home safe. You give great finish line hugs!
- To kick-arse Pacer Lesley. I knew I was in safe hands with you. Your continual encouragement was amazing. Running through the night was brilliant. I hope to be able to re-pay the favour and see you across the finish line of your own Miler
- To Paul Charteris and Tim Day (including Kylie and Sarah) – for an outstanding event from start to finish. You are great ambassadors for trail running in New Zealand, and you set the bar for delivering amazing adventures. There must have been an extraordinary amount of effort to host this inaugural 100 mile event. You did it!
- To all the volunteers – AMAZING! From the poor lonely marshalls out in the rain on a street corner at 3am, or the aid station vollies in fancy dress, thank you for coming out and supporting the event. To the wonderful tea-bearing lady at Millar Road, you were my favourite! And Ross Steele you came a close second with an equally good cup of tea and amazing brownie at the finish!
- And finally to the weather gods….Thank You for serving up a beast of a day. It made it all the more special.
Veni, cucurri, vici.
I came, I ran, I conquered.
PS Copies of my 100-miler ultramarathon training plan are available from all major high-street retailers.