The race started in the Redwood Forest at Rotorua at 6am under a light drizzle of rain. Nothing too much, and quite pleasant to run in.
What I noticed quickly though is how slippery the trail was, due not so much to the rain, but to the hundred or so runners who had passed before me and stirred it all up. I was, in equal parts, happy with the grip my Salomon trail shoes provided, and sorry for the runners who had opted for road shoes - it would've been terrible.
The first few kms of the race climb out of the Redwood Forest and towards the Blue Lake. I kept my pace easy, running nice and relaxed, and hiking up a long climb on a new bit of the course between the water tank and the Blue Lake. Along the way I was joined for a period by Stuart Bent, and then Chris Wharam, both having a crack at the 100. It was great to see both of them, but they were far too fast for me, so I just stuck to my pace, and let Stuart, then Chris, run off into the distance.
The run around the Blue Lake was beautiful, but was over quite quickly, before the short piece of road between the end of the Blue Lake trail and the first aid station.
As we came out onto the road, we were all checked for the compulsory gear (this year, a seam sealed jacket). I was bloody grateful that I had picked up the message on facebook before the event - that could've proved disastrous. In hindsight it was a big mistake to miss the pre-race briefing. That could have led to a DQ.
Through the Blue Lake aid station at 16.4km I was feeling great and on a high. Just before the aid station I ate a muesli bar, and so didn't stop. It was uplifting to see the familiar faces of Vicki Woolley, Steve Neary, Kristian Day and Paulo Osorio cheering the competitors on.
From the Blue Lake the course follows "Tennent's Track" down to Lake Okareka, which is a lovely piece of single track. When it's dry, it's light and bouncy under foot, but with the rain, and runners, it was slippery and difficult to get traction in parts. I half ran and half 'skied' the downhills. I was still feeling good, and hot on the heels of a pack of runners in front of me. That being said, I was very conscious of conserving energy, and kept dialling back my pace whenever I felt comfortable.
Coming out on to the road to Lake Okareka, I let the group of runners ahead of me go, and continued at my own steady pace.
The next aid station is at Miller Road at the trail head to the Western Okataina Walkway at 22.8km. There's a long uphill road section - half sealed and half gravel - up to the trail head. The section is quite runnable, so I continued on up at a very easy pace. I stopped for a few seconds at the aid station, and grabbed a few sips of Mountain Dew before boxing on. My plan was to run as much of the WOW as I could, thinking that once I got to Okataina, I only had the Eastern Okataina Walkway to go to get to the 60k finish.
I ran the first couple of hills, but soon after that started to feel tight in my calves and hamstrings, and increasingly low in energy. I couldn't work out what was going wrong. I just felt 'off'. Soon I was hiking and walking the uphills, and soon after that eeking the walking out onto the flats. I thought to myself, don't worry, this happens in endurance events, and the feeling will go away. I kept walking and kept positive.
By about half way up the WOW I started feeling very fatigued. I wasn't enjoying the process, and any running I did was hurting. I was struggling to string together more than 1-2 minutes of running, before having to slow down to a walk again. I was being passed by dozens of runners, which was demoralising. And despite the fact that I was walking a lot, the tightness and the pain in my legs was getting worse, not better.
I tried eating. I had another muesli bar, and drank practically all of the water I had on board. That didn't help. I tried putting some music on. That felt overwhelming. I stopped and stretched. Nothing changed. Nothing was helping.
At about this time I bumped into a JK Coaching team mate Tom Igusa. It was great to talk to him. We hiked a long uphill together, but when he said 'ready to run now?', I had nothing to respond with, and had to let him go.
The fatigue and pain continued like the seemingly never-ending uphills of the WOW.
Finally, when I got to the downhill section before Okataina, I was so fatigued, sore, and over it, I decided to give myself permission to end the suffering and pull out. I felt that I had nothing to prove, having run the race five times before. I rationalised to myself that only ego would keep me going. I also contemplated whether continuing after Okataina would take me closer to my goal of a WS100 qualifying performance at the Ultra Trail Australia in May, or further away from it (the answer was obvious). I thought about the days of pain I would be in after the event, the damage I would do if I re-tore my calf, and the fatigue associated with pushing beyond a certain limit. I also thought how much better I would feel, physically, stopping and enjoying the rest of the day. If I'm honest, I also thought about finishing the 60k in 9 hours (which is how long it took in 2009), and that felt like I would be taking a step back rather than forward. I did let my ego get the better of me there, a little.
In the end it was an easy decision to make. I walked into the Okataina aid station, and told my wife Bridget that I was done. I immediately felt a sense of relief, and failure at the same time. Bugger!
What went right???
At first I thought that this would be like the chapter in Allen Carr's book "Easy Way to Stop Smoking" on the benefits of smoking (which is a blank page). When I think about it however, there were things that went right:
- My gear performed faultlessly. I ran in a pair of Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra 4's and they were brilliant. They were light and flexible, with the right amount of grip for the trails, as well as performing perfectly on the road sections. I also want to make a special mention of the Salomon Bennetti jacket I wore. It is an amazing piece of kit - ultra light to carry and it kept me completely dry when I needed it.
- I felt relaxed and ready going into the race. I tapered as per James' advice, and felt fresh come race day. We opted to stay at a hotel away from the event base, and spend minimal time at registration to avoid the hype and nerves of the throngs of runners, and that was a good call.
- My pacing on the first 21km was good. It was nice and relaxed, and never felt like I was pushing too hard. If anything, I wasn't pushing hard enough, and that's a good problem to have in an ultra trail race.
I think, objectively as I can, I can put my DNF down to 4 significant things:
- My body was not prepared for the race. I had done minimal running in the 6 months leading up to it, and had been struggling for months with a calf injury that took a long time to come right. The injury had healed by race day, but the tightness and lack of conditioning remained. There's no bluffing your way through an ultra (well, not unless you are really prepared to suffer, or are a freak!), and my lack of preparation shone through. I needed more running in my legs, more strength in my body, and more flexibility and suppleness in my muscles.
- I had residual fatigue, even though I didn't realise it, from a long training run (54k and 9 hours) I had done in the Waitaks two weeks before the event. That was too close to the event, and I suffered as a result of it when the going got tough. Any long hard training like that needs to be done further out from the event.
- I didn't get my race nutrition remotely right. I was over-confident. I thought that I could rely on what was available at the aid stations, and my 'plan' was to eat when I was hungry during the race. I rarely, if ever, eat during training runs, and as a result I'm not used to chugging down gels at regular intervals any more. The ironic thing is that is what used to work. Relying on aid stations, and eating only when I'm hungry didn't work. I need to give this much more thought.
- I wasn't 100% committed to finish. I wanted to do Tarawera, but had no greater purpose (either because I was chasing a PB, running for charity, or trying to knock off a distance). I also had one eye on the Ultra Trail Australia, and wasn't prepared to put a finish at Tarawera ahead of that bigger goal. So, when the pain and suffering started, I had an excuse in my mind to drop from the race, and it was an easy decision to take it.
Where to from here???
The plan from here is to refocus and rebuild towards UTA in mid-May. I've got 14 weeks to prepare, and to right the wrongs of my effort at Tarawera this year. I'm going to train consistently and well, include strength and flexibility, and pay attention to good nutrition, and healthy habits.
I will think of it as a learning experience, and a reminder that no matter how many times you've done a race, endurance events can be, and often are, (in the words of one of my great mates) brutal affairs, and must always be respected.
First and foremost, a huge thank you to my wife and chief supporter Bridget. I couldn't do this without your support, and I would have been in a world of difficulty if you weren't there to pick up the pieces for me at Okataina. I truly appreciate everything you do to support me.
Also, a big shout out to Salomon and Shoe Science Takapuna for supplying me with the best gear that I have ever run in. The Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra shoes, Bonatti Jacket, and compression shorts are phenomenal. Not to mention the other fabulous gear. I truly appreciate your generous support.
To my coach, James Kuegler of James Kuegler Coaching - thank you for the incredible support, mentoring, and coaching you've given me, and for building such a great tight knit team of runners and multisporters. It's a privilege working with you.
Finally, to the race organisers Paul Charteris, and Tim Day. You guys have created an incredible event, which I have been proud to complete in since 2009. It is my first and favourite trail ultra, and that keeps me coming back year after year. If only that damn Dr Jo Petersen would retire, I might be able to catch up to his 8 finishes one day!
- Mark Colthart