By Lesley Turner-Hall on 8th November 2017 Race Reports
This time last year, I hadn't even heard of the new Taupo 100km Ultramarathon. It wasn't until I saw my good friend Steve Neary's facebook post with a video of the race and him saying how great it was. Steve had posted that on November 7th, 2016, the same fateful day he had lost his life. And the day the world lost one of the world's best.
And this time last year, I had only just started running again after having had 6 months off to recover from having major surgery to repair a torn hamstring and a torn hip joint. But it was shortly after Steve's death that I decided I would be on that 100km start line as a tribute to the man that touched my life and the lives of countless others in the trail running community. There is a massive void in our lives now without him. But I know that it is Steve's positive attitude and the way he lived his life with passion is what makes many of us still lace up each day. We now have a finer appreciation of the privilege we have of being alive and to be able to run in beautiful places.
I kept it pretty quiet about my year-long goal to run the 100km ultramarathon, only giving subtle mentions about my training in the last several weeks. Naturally I didn't want to publicly commit to something I wasn't sure my newly repaired body was even going to be capable of doing. But as the months ticked along and my running and racing was going well, I knew in my heart I really was going to be on that Taupo 100km Ultramarathon start line in 2017. I had competed in a few races including the World Masters Games half marathon in April (winning a bronze medal in my 45-49 age group) and then competed in a few more races including Total Sport's Wild Kiwi trail run and the Rotorua marathon (surprising myself with 1st place in my age group in a time of 3.23). Then my surgeon suggested I put a hold on the racing for a few months as the scar tissue in my hamstring was still very sore and was limiting my ability to train as much as I would have liked. It was a minor setback but I knew I'd still have plenty of time to get fit for Taupo.
By the time the months of August and September rolled around I was ready to up my running mileage. But I still felt like I was what some call a 'weekend warrior', people who did little run training during the week and saved it all for the weekends. But I think that was good strategy for me and my hamstring. I put in a lot of mileage over the weekends, training mostly on the tarmac on the legendary Arthur Lydiard Waiatarua course in Auckland and had two fun weekends running 50km on the Blue Lake/Green Lake trails in Rotorua and then one final weekend, one month out from race day on the Kinloch to Whakaipo Bay trail. I wanted to be familiar with that final section of the ultramarathon and so I ran it there and back and really got to know it! In training, that section was extremely muddy and very slippery, but thankfully on race day, the track was dry and extremely nice and fast to run on.
I'm not one of those runners that can remember in great detail the course layout and at what stage I may have been feeling low. If you want to read an amazing and extremely well detailed race description, I highly recommend reading Yonni Kepes' race report. He is also the first 17 year old New Zealander to run 100kms. He ran the ultramarathon in an extremely impressive time of 12h10m, placing 16th overall in a field of great Ultra runners.
My race day started with my alarm going off at 2:10AM. The earliest I have ever woken up before a race. But the race started a good 75km or so out of Taupo and I had to catch the 3:50AM bus that picked up me and a few other runners at the Taupo I-site which took us to the Waihaha start line. It was very cold in the morning and most of us were freezing but in very good spirits.
I was stoked to see Nick Johnston, the former race champion from last year at the start line. Like all trail running events, the runners are friendly and chatty and usually pretty pumped to get out there and run with all their compulsory gear strapped to their backs.
I didn't bother wearing a head-lamp at the start as I knew the sun would be up very soon after the starting gun went off at 6AM. I also quickly stuffed my windbreaker jacket back in my pack as I knew I'd eventually heat up on the run. My goal for this race was firstly just to finish and try not to focus on a run-time goal or placing. But being the competitive runner that I am, and having looked up the results from last year only just a few days prior, I set myself a goal of running under 11.5 hours and to place top 5 in the women's field. I had placed 2nd woman the week prior in the inaugural Tauranga half marathon in a time of 1.31 so I knew I had good speed in my legs and I was confident my fitness would get me through an eleven to twelve hour day. I started out conservatively and was about 4th woman to start out with. It didn't take too long before I passed two women and got myself into 2nd place. A position I was comfortable being in as I wasn't 100% sure I wanted to 'race' hard-out today. The first 25km were on pristine, smooth single-track trails and I felt like I was flying. I loved it. And then at around the 21km mark, along the short out and back section on the trail, I had passed the 1st lady who said she was struggling with a niggly leg. I asked if she was okay and she said she was and that she would carry on. As I was coming back, I could see she was running a lot better and she had only slipped into 3rd place. Then I saw at least 3 more women in quick succession and in my rough calculation I was only about 1-3km's ahead of the other women. And I knew what that meant, the race was on! And it was at that stage I committed to the fact that I was here to race and I was here to do my best to try and win this race. But man, that is a high pressure position to be in. I was also told by the race marshall at the turn-around point that I was 11th runner overall. Now my new goal was to see if I could place in the top 10 of the entire field. But it was still very early on in the race, in fact only 1/4 of the way in and I still had 75km ahead of me.
I tried to push out the thoughts of race-placings and just focused on each section of the course. I knew the awesome trail was about to end and we would be running on boggy, muddy cow pastures from about 27km to the 42km mark. Being a lover of running on tarmac, running on rutted farmland is my least favourite terrain to navigate across. It really taxed my spirits but at roughly the 33km mark I was reminded of why I love trail running. The camaraderie of fellow runners is very uplifting as are the supporters along the course and at the aid-stations. It was this particular aid station where I was helped by a man (also a trail runner) named Mgcini Masuku. I had never met him before but he seemed to know me and hearing the words "go the LTH" really lifted me and I didn't feel so alone out there. His cheers stopped me in my tracks and I went up to him and asked him his name so I could personally thank him for cheering me on. I had taken my long sleeve merino wool top off at this stage and he helped stuff it back into my pack and zipped it up for me. He then gave me a high five and sent me on my way to tackle the rest of the farmland section. Words cannot express the extreme gratitude that his small but kind gesture did for me during my race. It made me happy and made me appreciate that I was out there doing something pretty amazing that many cannot or choose not to do.
Although the farmland section is probably the most mentally taxing section of the race, I am actually grateful for it as these farmers have personally allowed us runners to run on their property. The Great Lake Trail is still in sections and yet to be linked up as one big trail. So until then, we are fortunate to have their muddy cow pastures to run on. After this section we had about 6km of tarmac road to run on. Something I was looking forward to as I knew I could really pick up my speed and do my best to put some distance between me and the other women. I had no idea at this stage where they were, but I kept it in the back of my mind that they were most likely only about 2 minutes behind me (in reality they ended up being over 1hr behind me, but I was not to know that). I did have to walk some of the long steep sections on the tarmac but I made sure I walked as fast as I could. Once that section was over we were at the half-way mark of the race. I had barely looked at my watch the whole day but I noticed I had gotten to the 50km mark in about 5h21m. And I thought, right, if I can keep this pace, I will finish in under 11hrs. So I pretty much didn't look at my watch again and focused on maintaining the fastest pace I could handle.
The last 50km was on amazing single track trail again. Some sections were on lovely pine needles, my favourite off-road terrain. Now my new focus was to run the sections that I could run; hard and fast. I was still feeling strong and my body wasn't hurting too badly. It was great to see the 74km and 50km runners and passing some of them was a real lift. We all gave each other shouts of encouragement.
Now all I wanted to do was get to the 77km Kinloch aid-station and onto the final 23km trail section to Whakaipo Bay, the trail I had trained on a month ago. I chose not to stop at this aid-station where I had actually had a 2nd backpack in a drop-bag ready to take with me and another pair of trail shoes. But I still had plenty of water in my hydration bladder and in the water bottle I had in the front of my pack. I had been drinking water from the aid stations along the way which meant I didn't have to drain my own bladder and stop to fill it. I swallowed two peanut butter & chocolate GU gels at one time and drank from my own water bottle to wash them down. I knew the final section was a very undulating mountain bike trail, but I was still feeling really good and I knew I had the energy in me to really hammer out that final 2.5 hour section. I did have to power-walk up most of the short steep hills and once at the top I'd take a few deep breaths and then would run as fast as I could on the downhill and flattish sections. I'd repeat this all the way to the finish. I was having a blast. But I was quite puzzled when I did finally look at my watch and noticed that the course was going to be a bit short according to my GPS. Apparently this is because the course is measured to an exact 100km by a wheel. When I had gotten to the final aid-station the sign there said 8.8km to go. I had asked the people there if that was true as my watch said I had at least 15km to go. They reassured me that the sign was correct. So I downed two cups of flat Coke and a handful of salted potato chips. Gave out a few elated high fives and I was on my way. I was stoked there was less than 9km's to go and knew I was going to get well under my goal of 11.5 hours.
The last few hundred metres is on an amazing grassy downhill and turns left into one of the nicest finish chutes ever. I was greeted by the amazing Total Sport event organisers Aaron Carter and Debbie Chambers who placed my finisher's medal around my neck. I finished in a time of 10:43:28 and was the first woman home and 7th overall. I just won a 100km ultramarathon. Holy heck!
No doubt Steve was watching us run today. I'm sure many of us carried him on our shoulders as we ran. And I know he'd be pretty chuffed with my win. He would expect nothing less of me. I thank him for the drive to run to the best of my ability and I am so humbled and grateful for the immense support and accolades I have received from friends and fellow runners. Our trail running tribe truly is the best.
The Total Sport events are by far my most favourite races on the calendar and the Taupo Ultramarathon is something I will happily repeat in the future. It's a beautiful part of New Zealand to run in. I just may be lining up for the 50km instead next year! And in two weeks' time I will be running my 45th marathon at the Auckland marathon.
Lesley Turner Hall
Food Fun Facts:
Food eaten over 10 hours and 43 minutes
500ml Perpetuem meal replacement
Approx 1.5 bananas (3 x 1/3 sections)
5 x GU gels
100ml flat Coke
150ml diluted Electrolyte drink
one small bite almond butter & banana sandwich
Handful salted potato chips
I had only lost 800 grams of weight the entire race
All photos by Photos4Sale