Ring of Fire from the Back of the Pack
By Melissa Franklin on 24th April 2018 Race Reports
When I first heard about the Ring of Fire event I wondered how incredible it would be to do. I had a few ultra events under my belt now since getting involved in this crazy sport in 2016. But after reading the website from beginning to end and back again, I quickly realised that I might not be able to do the 72km distance as a snail pace runner, so instead thought if I did the 50km I would have heaps of time to enjoy the race and not worry about cut-offs like I stressed over for TUM100. I also realised the event date was on my youngest daughter’s birthday and wondered would she forgive me for not being there on the day (lucky for me she did).
So once the decision was made, yes I will do it, I signed up to the Wild Things VIP contest to get a chance to win an entry or get a discount. Unfortunately I wasn’t lucky this time around so I knew I‘d need to sign up on the first day of entry to save myself some cash. This lead to me sitting on my computer, webpage at the ready and signing up as soon as entries opened. As a result I was rewarded with getting the number 5000 (first number for the 50km runners).
The problem with signing up for an event 9 months beforehand is that it leaves you with a long wait, during which motivation to train can wax and wane. Lucky for me I had also signed up to a 50km event in August and another 100km in October. I also knew I would do Triple Peaks again (Hawke’s Bay’s only Ultra event which I have done every year since 2016) which was a month out from ROF. This meant there was definitely no time to not be motivated!
So the 9 months flew past and in that time I decided that I would go by myself to ROF (since there wouldn’t be much for the kids to see anyway) and just camp up at Whakapapa Holiday Park in the backpacker lodge. Therefore, on April 6th I drove from Central Hawke’s Bay to the Chateau with a heightened excitement level. Upon arriving I checked into the backpackers and headed to check-in. Waiting in line, running mate and fellow Wild Thing Tania Gardner appeared. She was just about excited about the day ahead as me. My gear was checked by Paul Charteris who noticed my Wild Things cap and commented “you’re a Wild Thing so you will have all the right gear”, which of course I did. Next was a quick visit to Mal and Sal at the Wild Things stand to pick up my nutrition I had ordered and then off to race briefing.
After briefing I returned to the backpackers, got my gear sorted and had dinner. I was able to chat to a few other Ring of Fireans who were also staying in the lodge before heading to bed. I think I managed about 5 hours of sleep before the 3am alarm call. By 3.45am I was walking to the bus which was waiting for us 50km runners and managed to find Tania. She laughed when she realised both her and I were wearing exactly the same clothes. We both had on the same running skirt, thermal top and yes, even the same the socks (I didn’t ask about underwear because that is just rude!) The bus ride was longer than I expected but we chatted about out plans for the day. I declared I wanted to arrive home before dark (under 12hours) and Tania was going for 10 hours or less, but like all plans they can always be changed because you just never know what will happen on the day. After the bus first stopped at the wrong spot we continued for other 1.5km to the real start point. Lines for the portaloos were long and it was cold but we all managed to get that business done and leave only left a few minutes to stand around waiting for the count down.
Kerry Suter and Paul Charteris sent us on our way. We went straight down Ohakune Mountain road for 4.5kms. I remember hearing at briefing it was only 3kms but I wasn’t complaining as the views were amazing as the sun was rising and we got to see the headlamps of those first runners on the Goat leg with still a few kilometres to go to the aid station. After descending for about 25mins we entered the trail and encountered beautiful single track running through native forest bursting with bird song. Boardwalks were a great time to look up and admire the sunrise and smile at the camera and then bottle necks at the swing bridges (one person at a time) meant it was a good time to eat and drink. After I crossed the first swing bridge the first relay runner arrived and all the talk of “nah, they can wait in line like the rest of us” was forgotten and he was allowed through without waiting (now nice are we). The native forest continued with undulated valleys of stream crossings and boardwalks across a few swampy bits.
The trail was easily marked with poles and but wasn’t an actual track that was easy to see. Sometimes you just had to decide where to go and remember to keep looking up for the poles. Just before Managhuhue Hut we came across an injured runner who looked like his race was over (poor fella) and two other people were staying with him (again I’m always just amazed by the kindness of ultrarunners, we really do stick together and support each other, which is a reason why I love this sport) while someone else had run to the hut to inform people of the injury. Later we saw the helicopter heading in that direction which we assumed was for him.
After a quick refill of water at the hut we continued on our way and I was excited to see the boulder fields, Wahianoa river, Rangipo desert and the lahar zone. The landscape really did become so different, I could only imagine like being on the moon. Massive boulder fields and lots of loose rocks meant navigating the path was a little trickier. I got my poles out at this point and found them so useful for the down hills on those loose rocks. My Hoka One One Speedgoats were also doing an amazing job gripping the rocks and the cushioning protecting my toes and feet, but sadly despite wearing gaiters and taping the holes in the uppers of the shoes I could feel the sand getting in them. I knew I would have to change my shoes at Tukino as the Tussock Tranverse section would be worse for sand.
The climbs through this section were just incredible and hard to describe just how technical they were. But I didn’t feel overwhelmed by them and just put one foot in front of the other knowing I would eventually get there to the top. We were pasted by more relay runners and the speedsters from the 72km event. It was really nice that we would often have a quick conversation as they past (quick because they were so fast they would move out of earshot in less than a minute), but they encouraged us and we reciprocated.
Rangipo Hut eventually appeared and after a quick stop to refuel and take some photos we were soon running the desert to get to the Lahar zone ,which was definitely a highlight. One of the volunteers at the hut told me to pack my poles away when I crossed that swing bridge over the Whangaehu River and I’m certainly glad I did as being just a little terrified of heights and with the winding blowing through that section, that swing bridge crossing was certainly a scary but at the same time thrilling experience.
After 6h 45min we finally arrived at Tukino. My watch said it was 27km and I had hoped to get through this section in under 7 hours so was pleased than I did with my feet and body feeling pretty good. A change of shoes and some more fuel on board, we headed off for the last section.
At briefing we were warned of the rocky drop off from the aid station and so we were pretty careful. Tania fell behind me a little because I could go faster down the slope with my poles, but I kept going knowing she would catch up on the flat quickly. This is exactly what she did. And then she passed me! At this point I noticed my pack wasn’t feeling right after taking it off at the aid station so I stopped to adjust it and continued on to find Tania now at least 100m ahead of me.
I kept plodding along – now enjoying some actual running – and taking in the scenery. Tania had now sped away to more than 200m ahead, being a faster runner than me, I was not surprised she was using the easier running sections to pick up the pace. She continue to distance herself ahead, disappearing over a climb never to been seen again (except after the race of course).
My slow plod continued as I ran through a dry river bed with lots of sand. I was happy to notice I was only being passed by relay and 72km runners. My pace must have looked so slow to them, as they caught me up and past me, disappearing into the distance in a matter of minutes. However, in what seemed like a short time, I arrived at the 15km to go marker. At this point, the kind course marshal told me if I needed water the Waihohonu Hut was 150m in the opposite direction. Unfortunately not only did I need water but also a toilet stop was necessary as I wasn’t going to be using my poo bags and carry it home with me! So a diversion to the hut was needed and arriving at the hut I was pretty surprised to see just how big and fancy looking it was. My experience of DOC huts has certainly not been this level of comfort!
After the water refill and toilet stop it was just a 15km march to the end. So the slow plod begins and while the track was easy going compared to the first leg, there was still a fair but of ups and downs and many a tramping group was encountered on the way. I managed to actually catch up with a few people, but tripping and hitting the ground hard with about 8km to go meant that those last downhill sections were really hard to run with sore knees.
The 5km to go marker appeared and I checked my watch to declare to the course marshal “No way is it 5km, more like 7km” he quickly reply “Yes its actually 7km, the sign was meant to encourage you to think you were close”. As I ran off, thinking about what the marshal said. I wondered who’s idea was it to play with the minds of tired runners and if they were having a good laugh about it! But “Relentless Forward Motion” (thanks Malcolm Law for this inspiration) is the only way a race will be completed so I continue to plod and shuttle on spying the Chateau in the distance.
The shuffle home. Pic by Photos4Sale
7km becomes 6km, then 5km. My knees hurt from the fall and my legs ache from the climbs but my heart wants to push faster and so I push. The chateau gets closer, I can hear the music and I check my watch to see whether I’m going to sneak under the 11h 30min mark. Yes I have got this, one last push through the bush section on to the road behind the Chateau, a right turn back on to the track and then a left for the final dash to the finish, click goes the timer 11h 29min 58sec.
How bitter sweet that finish is, the feeling of accomplishment with a side of sadness that the day is over. But with the new bling around my neck there is definitely a huge smile on my face as I realise this is Ultra number 10 I have completed in just 2 years of being in the sport. Also, despite doing other Ultra events which were longer, I think this was definitely one of the hardest but most rewarding of them all. Now I’m left wondering, could I be fast enough to do the 72km next year?