Jeez, as I write this race report, I've just realised it has been a LONG time between my last race report and now. Almost two years in fact. Hopefully the events that transpired this weekend spark a renewed interest in my racing and training blog posts, as currently I feel a huge amount of inspiration to put my thoughts into words.
In my head I have a lot of interesting topics knocking about I'd love to dig into right now, particularly on some aspects of my training that have lead me to this race, but the topic of today is going to be purely a race report.
A race report about the time I became a national champion.
Boy, it sure feels cool to write that.
I found out not long after the WUU2K 2017, that Athletics New Zealand were hunting around for an event to use as a national championship for trail ultra running. The event would serve as both a national champs for that format as well as a selection for the ITRA world champs, which they had been sending athletes to for a couple of years already based off non-sanctioned results. To many, melding the bureaucracy of Athletics NZ with the accessible and carefree nature of trail running events may seem like a clash of ideologies, however I don't see it that way. To me, it represented the perfect goal to aim for. The chance to represent my local athletics club in a race format I love far more than any other, i.e. smashing myself over some hills and trails for a few hours, with the hugely enticing carrot of potential national selection for the world champs hanging out there also.
I was initially hopeful that the WUU2K itself would be selected to host the event, there were the odd mention of this happening, with me knowing the course so well and having the ability to train on it benefiting me greatly. But ultimately it was the Port Hills Athletics club and the Crater Rim Ultra that were successful in hosting the champs, and as soon as the entries were open, I was in and the preparation began.
Views from the crater rim trail over Lyttleton Harbour
The Training block
I'll say a bit more about this in another blog post, just because the insights I've aquired during the months before this event are quite numerous. Suffice it to say, the training block leading into this event was both the most consistent I have trained and the most fun I've had while doing it. I felt completely weaponised by the time I began the taper and was pumped as to be going into a race so dialed in.
On the crater rim trail during a reccie run in the week leading up to the race
The week before
Something I am very conscious of, is that I've always run much better in trail races the second time I run them. There is no substitute for actually getting out on the track and seeing for yourself what it is like. I had initially contemplated flying down to run the whole thing during training, which would have been costly and time consuming. And while that was temping, I also figured having a few shortish runs over various sections during my taper would have to be the next best thing.
Thankfully, due to a couple of things lining up, I was able to do just that, while spending the week prior to the event in Christchurch with my family. The NZ Road Relay Champs were the weekend before and as I'd never participated in that event before, I headed down to join my Olympic Harrier team mates. Add to that the bonus of the Crater Rim race being at the end of the school holidays, it was the perfect opportunity for a family holiday that allowed me to not only relax away from the stresses of work, but also give me the time to do some course reconnaissance.
Gratefully, I got some advice from a local trail runner, Andy Good, who selflessly passed on info about sections I'd want to check out to get a feel for the terrain. I ended up covering about 30% of the course, including the full 10km from Sign of the Kiwi to the finish, which as I'll mention later, was the decision made that I think helped more than any.
Of course it wasn't all just running and preparing. The family and I had a great time in hot pools, jet boating, visiting old leper colonies, checking out some gorillas, walking the quake city, and just hanging out doing puzzles and reading books. It was really neat.
Fun times on the water with the family
The morning of
Despite my best efforts to remain calm and get as much sleep as possible, my internal systems had other ideas. Initially, I did feel very calm and actually got to sleep relatively easily thanks to a rather pulpy Jack Reacher novel. He certainly does get into a fair few fisticuffs old Jack does. Unfortunately, a couple of hours later I woke just after midnight, and boom - the head was off racing long before I needed to be at the start line. Regardless of any relaxation I tried, I couldn't get back to sleep.
Once I hit my 'official' wake up time of 4am, I got myself dressed, fed, caffeinated, lubed up and out the door quietly. Only to have a false start in the Uber that picked me up when, just around the corner from my accommodation, we were pulled over by the police flashing their disco lights. The officer was looking for a suspect who'd done a runner from another taxi, so I had to explain to him that, "yes I am a runner, but I wouldn't do a runner if you know what I mean". We all had a bit of a laugh and went on our merry way.
A short drive later, and I arrived to meet the crowds gathering at Hansen Park, the eventual finish line of the race. It was a great time to have a few yarns with some random locals and eventually catch up with some old mates from Wellington and Auckland who I was sure I'd be running with for at least part of the race. Much was spoken about our preparation and we were all fizzing to get to the start line and have a good blat.
From there it was a bus ride, a ferry trip, a walk and soon over one hundred eager trail runners were at the Diamond Harbour rugby club rooms, awaiting the start with an energy that was just quietly bubbling away.
Getting prepped - Photo by Shaun Denholm http://shaundenholmphotography.co.nz
I then made a deliberate decision to move myself away from some fellow competitors I'd been chatting to for the last three quarters of an hour, to sit on my own and get myself sussed for the start. I pulled out my trusty iPod, popped in the earbuds, repeating my race plan to myself while some lush tunes flowed through me and watched the clouds start to colourise as the sky started to lighten. I recall quite vividly that at this moment, I felt amazingly content. Something I kept going over in my head were the messages of support that I'd been sent by friends in the previous days. It was just so rad that to know that not only were they thinking of me, but they took the time to send some encouragement my way. A particular message from my training buddy, Greg Clark, in which he said "Your preparations have been unrivaled...You are prime for this now...Gonna be a big day for ya!!" stuck with me the most, and as I moseyed on down to the start line, it was all I could think about.
Start line antics - Photo by Shaun Denholm http://shaundenholmphotography.co.nz
I do love a good run around a grass field, and it was cool to have the start of this race kick off in that way. As the gun went, all the competitors did a lap of the rugby ground before heading out onto the road leading up to the track to Mt Herbert. Of course there is always one guy who kicks off in a sprint, great entertainment that stuff, but aside from that guy, I was up the front with a bunch of about 15 runners all taking it relatively easily as we started up the road leading to the trails.
Once we got off the road and hit the poled route, I'd fallen back a bit as there was a downhill leading into the trail and I didn't go with the masses pounding it out so early. I had a bit of fun here as we reached some fence crossing styles, but I decided to use some old orienteering fence jumping techniques to avoid the lines. It didn't take long until we started heading up the hill in which I found my way back to the front again. The legitimate front of the race this time, as we'd pulled in the glory seeker who sprinted off at the start and started to get into our work.
And this is where the race began for me, about 3km in. I hadn't gone out hard at all so the tank was still very full. There was now a decent spread starting to occur and I was in a small group up the front with Nancy Jiang, Tom Hunt, Will Bell, Grant Guise and Tim Rabone. All of which I knew would be very tough to beat, but I knew I had to ignore the external factors as much as possible and just focus on my own race and get into my work, which is always easier said than done during the excitement of the early sections. Luckily for me, I know I'm an uphill specialist. I've beaten some very good runners up hills and I feel so comfortable on any gradient. I reminded myself that if I didn't feel like I was exerting myself too much, and I could keep pace with these guys up the hill, by the time we got to the top I should have spent less energy than them getting to the same place. Whether or not that would actually be the case, time would tell. It was the plan I stuck with and soon it was just Will and I enjoying the stunning views of the harbour as we pushed out ahead and into the icy cold wind.
And hooooo boy, was it cold.
My decision to start with my jacket on over my race singlet turned out to be exactly what was required as the wind whipped up nearer the top. We started running past pockets of snow that had fallen a few days before and we were just below the cloud, both of us increasing the gap on the chasers as we moved out of sight of them once we got in the cloud.
Just below the summit of Mt Herbert, I was tucked in behind Will, and decided to make a move on him up the last steep pinch. There was a 'race within a race' offered to the King and Queen of the Mountain, ie the first man and woman to reach the summit. I decided that since I was within striking distance of claiming that, I'd make the effort to take it and did just that. It was a good feeling to get something out of the day already, now all I had to do to claim that prize was finish the race!
At this point I have to give massive kudos and respect to the brave marshals that were up the top there. Not only were they dealing with freezing winds, but were they stuck in low vis cloud so couldn't even get to enjoy the views. Hats off to them.
As I suspected would happen, no sooner had I rolled over the top of the summit, Will streaked past me at a rate of knots and disappeared into the misty cloud in no time.
Should I chase? Nahhhh. I needed to let my legs settle down from that last push, and also it was time to have some food and water - which was tricky to do so on the rocky descent without slowing a little. Once I was all set after that brief interruption to pushing, I got back to work again down the hill and it was good to be running completely on my own.
This part of the course was really fun. It was a rather rocky, muddy, gorse filled technical downhill on the side of Mt Bradley, as you drop down to Packhorse Hut. It reminded me a lot of one of my favourite local downhills that's a section off the side of Crows Nest on the Wellington Skyline trail. I felt right at home keeping the effort up on this section, blaming it through the mud and rocks.
As I popped out of the clouds I could see Will up ahead and did a time check. About a minute thirty behind. Cool, no stress, keep on working.
The next section from Packhorse Hut to Gebbies Pass could only be described as lush. Most of it was downhill, either on brilliantly cambered dirt single track or on soft buttery pine forest tracks carpeted with lovely soft pine needles. It was all very enjoyable at this point, body felt good, weather warm enough to be running in a singlet, in second place but not by much. Good times.
Finding my groove up the hills - Photo by Shaun Denholm http://shaundenholmphotography.co.nz
The slip back
As I arrived at the Gebbies Pass aid station (20km), and stopped to fill a couple of bottles, I spotted Grant Guise and Tim Rabone running together closing in on me. They then dragged me in completely a few minutes later. This was due to missing a marker and continuing 20-30 meters needlessly up a hill on an open farm section, and as I stopped to look around because I felt like I was obviously in the wrong place, they yelled out and pointed where I should be going and we were then running side by side.
The next couple of kilometers was a really integral part of this race.
My mood threatened to be very bad at this point. I was now in 4th, I had just made a bit of a mistake by going off the course a smidge and wasting energy I didn't need to up a hill plus I thought I was running really well, yet here I was, actually slipping in the ranking. Bugger.
Doubt definitely crept in to my head slightly and in hindsight, I'm surprised I didn't descend into a pit of self disappear, with the magical mystery of the brain to body connection, having the mood affect my speed and cause me to fall off the pace.
Tim and Grant on the chase - Photo by Shaun Denholm http://shaundenholmphotography.co.nz
I tucked in behind Grant and Tim, exchanged a bit of banter which took my mind off racing for a little while, and then after paying them back for pointing me in the right direction by shepherding them through a gate, I reset my mood and reminded myself both that the race wasn't even half way done yet and I should have confidence in myself and my training.
At the same time I was getting back into my mental groove, additional aid arrived in the form of an outrageously steep climb up to Summit Road and beyond onto the Waibls Track. It's the sort of hill that is a little obscene in how heinously steep it is, and it's just those sorts of hills I like to teach a lesson, so that's what I did. Feeling strong, I went to work up the hill - power hiking where it was more efficient, running where it wasn't. I didn't intentionally make a move here to drop the other two, but that is what happened and soon I was back in second place with a reasonable gap between me and the others. Reaching the top of the hill, attention on what was behind switched, and was now focused on what was in front. I had no idea how far ahead Will was by now. I assumed it was at least three or four minutes, but I was feeling solid and again that word confidence popped into my head as I knew I had the ability to keep going at my current pace and just stick to my plan.
Also during this section was the first point in the race where the course crossed paths with roads fairly regularly, and with the roads came supporters. It was so rad to get heaps of cheers and support from so many people, including Will and Tim's partners who were out there supporting them. Just so cool.
Finding something to smile about - Photo by Shaun Denholm http://shaundenholmphotography.co.nz
The up and down out and back
Heading onto the Crater Rim track, soon enough I hit some trails that I knew, having cruised around this area a week earlier. My recon had uncovered the surprisingly technical nature of the trail, particularly the track that sidled under the radome on Cass Peak. I'd made plenty of mental notes on how to attack the more complicated bits, and was stoked to be able to employ those maneuvers during the race as it allowed me to focus more on my effort rather than stress about where to put my feet.
At around 30km, After popping onto the road briefly before starting a sidle around Mt Ada, I passed one of many back markers from the Bellbird Buster - the 30km race which started part way through our race. She gave me encouragement as I went by, but appended the comment "He's fifteen minutes ahead". I said thanks as I continued on, but in my head I was saying "WHAT!? FIFTEEN MINUTES".
Not sure I fully believed her, but I did have to consider what I was going to do at this point, being over 50% through the race, with the easiest third of the course still to come. I came to the conclusion that there was no point changing the plan. If I was to try speed up and chase a 15 min gap at this point, blowing up was a possibility. My race plan was to get to the bottom of Kennedy's Bush track about 5km away in decent enough shape to give it all from there, so I put aside any worry of coming second to Will again this year, and kept on keeping on to the top of of Kennedy's Bush. Besides, this section was an out and back, and I'd know very soon exactly how far I was behind.
I'd also been over this part a week previous, so I knew what to expect. It's a wide 4WD road, with a few bumps here and there, but fairly flat and fast underfoot as it descends 300 meters over about 3km. In hindsight, this was one part of the race that I feel I held back on perhaps a bit too much. My memory is that my legs were rather toasted, and I was worried that if I put any extra effort in, that I'd find pulling the trigger on the uphill a very tough task, so I tried to let gravity do a lot of the work as I just kept my legs turning over as efficiently as possible.
Regardless of my pace, I had soon spotted a sight for sore legs among the 30km back markers ahead of me, the sight of the fabulous blue colour of a Wellington Harriers singlet, worn by my nemesis, the one and only Will! And not running up the hill towards me after the turn around as I expected to see him, he was still going down. I immediately did a time check, one minute ten seconds for me to reach where he was. I was in the race!
I made a choice here to not speed up to try catch Will for a couple of reasons. First off, I had to stick to my plan of saving legs for the uphill. Secondly, I wanted to know if he was slowing down or not.
On the second time check just before the turn around, fifty seconds. He was slowing. Oh boy, I was definitely in here.
As I got nearer the turn around, Will was coming back up and we both high-fived as we passed each other. I had no idea of the issues that were ultimately causing Will to slow down, so at this point I figured we were both just having good races and that we had a good battle ahead of us all the way to the finish. Regardless of the outcome now, I was very pleased to be in a position to contend for the win.
No sooner had I started up the hill to begin my chase in earnest, I was suddenly enlightened to the fact there were more people in this race than just Will and I. A bunch of other 52km runners were being drip fed down the hill the opposite way. And worryingly, some were looking very swift indeed. It turned out that Tim and Grant had been passed by a local, Tim Wright, and a Tahitian runner, Lubin Thomas. None of whom were hanging about at all.
The race was very much on, time to execute the next phase.
Will leading the charge - Photo by Shaun Denholm http://shaundenholmphotography.co.nz
The push to the end
With two thirds of the race done, I was now able to remove any limits I'd imposed on my effort up until then and start burning all the matches. I'd, strangely enough, really been looking forward to this moment the whole race. If only to have a change up in the mental state from "Don't run too fast" to "Ignore the pain, run faster".
I decided to ask my body how it felt. I went into a slightly higher gear to test if I could push that much until the end. After a couple minutes I didn't notice any issues aside from more exertion, so I asked a little bit more. I think I found the sweet spot fairly soon and while I could feel more push back from my body as I was working everything that much harder, it wasn't long until that became the new normal and I was now charging back up Kennedy's Bush track.
About halfway up the hill, I caught Will. It wasn't the moment of glory I thought it may be, as unfortunately he had stopped to deal with a shoelace that had gone rogue. We both ran together for a little while but once we started to hit another steep section, I kept up the effort and was soon able to move clearly in front to the point where I couldn't see him over my shoulder once I reached Summit Rd.
Heading over the fence style here, I had two realisations. First was "Holy moly, I am currently winning. That's super rad!". Second, however, was that I was actually feeling rather rooted.
As the next section had wee downhill, I found it quite hard to go as fast down as I wanted due to my muscles being fatigued, in pain and not wanting to balance like they normally would. It was time to dig into some mantras and self talk.
Of course there are the classics;
"You have done the work." "You have one chance, take it." "Pain is temporary."
But I had a couple others;
"Once more into the fray..." "Custard squares and chocolate milk are waiting at the end." "Everything is awesome."
From this point on, I was repeatedly reminding myself that, regardless of how I felt here, everyone else in the race is likely feeling the same. So the key was to just keep pushing, feel crap for a while, get to the finish line and the glory, and worry about the pain later.
And that is pretty much how the race unfolded, at least as far as I could see in front of me. I only saw on the Strava flybys after the fact, that Tim Wright had at one point closed within 20-30 seconds of me. Pretty much on the other side of the road at the Sign of the Kiwi cafe. Had I known he was there, I'm not sure I would have run as well as I did in the 5km from there to the top of the Rapaki track.
Where's the aid station? Photo by random guy I met after race
Thankfully, again as I saw on the Strava flyby, I was able to consistently increase the gap on Tim all the way to the finish. I had run this last 10km only a few days before, and I knew that there were absolutely no demons in it. All the climbs, even the steep ones, were very short and sweet so no point power hiking. This was very fortunate also as I was getting flutters of cramp in my calf muscles around here, yet with not stressing about what was in front of me, and the track being rather straightforward technically, I was able to keep up the effort, but in an efficient and relaxed manner.
Once I hit the Rapaki Track, I was able to look behind me a fair distance, so looked to see if I could spot any competitors. The closest person I could see was a couple minutes back but with all the other races filling the trails along this section, it was impossible to tell who may be in my race close to me, so I made the call to not bother looking behind again until the finish. The rest of the course was less than a park run down a hill on gravel then tar seal road, I just had to gun it. Quads, do your thing.
As I was pounding down the hill, with the finish marquee in sight a few k's away, I checked my pace on my watch for the first time. As I read the display, a massive shot of adrenaline went through me. I was going at 3:40 per km and after some quick, rough calculations realised that for someone to catch me, they'd need to be doing some near impossible speeds. Even knowing that, I tried to pick up the pace even more.
The finish line
The next 10 or so minutes down the Rapaki track was a case of ignoring the growing negative feedback from my body to move as fast as I could. I jinked left onto Centaurus Rd, across that and onto the river trail and eyed up the bridge. As soon as I was over that bridge, I knew I'd done it. I hadn't finished yet, there was still a good eight hundred meters to go, but with how pumped I was, I was knew no one was going to out kick me.
Gritting it until the end - I had to outsprint my daughter ;) - Photo by Shaun Denholm http://shaundenholmphotography.co.nz
Rounding the field, I was looking out for my wife and kids. My girls are thankfully quite predictable, and knowing there was a decent playground next to the finishing straight, I was damn sure I'd spot them having fun there while they waited for me to finish. And sure enough, they were there, extracting themselves from the swings and see-saws to join me on the field.
I was hoping to run in with them, but as I reached out to both, they yelled out "Ewww no you're sweaty" and ran a good meter to the side of me. The cheek! Instead of slowing momentum to be really horrible and giving them a bear hug, I just keep powering towards the finish line.
Meters short of crossing the tape, I let the emotion pour out. When you dream about winning big races, you see this moment in your head a lot. To actually experience it, I'm a little lost for words.
All the planning, training, time, effort, sacrifices, ups, downs, and support. All of it compressed into the last few moments of that race bursting from you. I'm not sure I'll ever experience anything like that again, but I'm just insanely grateful that I was able to.
Jumping over the finish line, I was finished, but not done. I saw my wife and the last thing I had to do was to thank her for the unwavering support she had given me in all my training. Of course the only way to do that was to give the biggest, sweatiest, hug I could muster.
So pumped - Photo by Shaun Denholm http://shaundenholmphotography.co.nz
I'd only just got off the finish line when 3 minutes later, Tim Wright came in for second position. He had a fantastic run and I am so thankful that I didn't let up in the last 10k or it would have been a tough race to close out. Not long after Lubin Thomas came in for third, and then the rest of the field started to filter in also. Fantastic runs by so many great competitors. Was stoked to see the other Wellingtonians, Tim Rabone and Will Bell come in soon also. Will had a bugger of a day after the Kennedy's Bush track, and dropped to 9th, whereas Tim closed out really strong and was able to take 5th overall, but first NZ senior man in the athletics national championship!
Chilling and showing off the club colours
After inhaling a custard square and some blue powerade and finally sitting down with the family, I found I was able to relax, but I wasn't able to stop smiling.
I had just won the Crater Rim Ultra, and the National and Oceanic Championships for Trail running. And as it was a trial race for the World Champs team, I'm now in good stead to be wearing the NZ singlet in the world champs in Portugal in 2019. A lot to really contemplate at that point, and let the relief wash over me along with the realisation of how buggered I was.
I'm not too humble to say that I'm incredibly proud of myself. I stuck to my plan, didn't get freaked out and cause any issues, so was able to close it out as I had always wanted to.
It was just as close to the perfect day that you'd ask for and near a week later, I'm still just so stoked with how that day went. I'm also glad to finally get a blog post done.
I'll be writing more about specific thoughts about this race in future posts...hopefully!
The Thank yous
I just have to quickly thank some people for helping me reach this amazing achievement. First off, my amazing wife Clare and wonderful girls Piper and Lainey. The support from you guys is unparalleled and I love you more than anything. Thank you.
I have also had amazingly expert guidance and advice from my coach Chan. There is no way I'd be in the shape I was for that race without his efforts. Thanks bro.
The race itself was a clinic on how to run a great event. Race director, Jamie Hawker, and all the people involved in it from the admin staff to the marshals, you guys out did yourselves and I'd love to be back next year. Thanks everyone.
All my mates for putting up with me bailing on drinks and complaining about movies eating into my sleep, you guys are pretty good too. Chur.
The people that gave me specific advice or prep for the race, Andy Good, Tim Sutton, Pawel and Flo at Origin Manual Therapy, Greg Clark. You guys rock.
All the crews that I've raced and trained with, Olympic Harriers, The Big Sunday Run Group, Wellington Running Meetup. Lets keep doing it, it's fun times!
The prefect support crew
What I wore:
OR Running cap (ripped and worn out)
Kathmandu Merino Gloves
Olympic Harriers Singlet
New Balance tight shorts (for the ladies)
Icebreaker lightweight merino socks
Saucony Peregrine 7 trail shoes
Ultraspire Velocity Pack w/ 2x 500ml flasks
Macpac Merino Beanie
Macpac Merino longsleeve/longjohns
OR Helium II Jacket
Whistle/Strapping Bandage/Emergency Blanket
Nutrition & Hydration:
2x Gu Roctane Sea Salt Chocolate
2x Powergel Strawberry Banana