Catchment Ultra recce

Date: 22 June 2018
Distance: 50km
Time: 9:08

There was a time in my life when I thought it was pure madness to run anything further than 27km by yourself in a training run. It already took some brain gymnastics to run anything further than a 21km and not get a medal. But to run ultras you have to also do long training runs and while training for a 5-day stage race back in 2008, we finally got our heads around 23+km training sessions – without medals! We have always tried to do our extra-long-runs (e.g. further than 27km) at events. Events to me is not necessarily a “race”, but often just a LSD training run with the added bonus of having aid stations along the way.

But, since we now live in an area where we are less spoiled for choice in terms of events, we have had to convert to the “solo” long training run. And it is a good thing we did too, as it feels more liberating to know you can cope without the help of aid. Previously I couldn’t get my head around willy-nilly doing distances like marathons and further, but it gets easier the more you do it. It is after all just a mind game.

And so it happened that three days after my birthday (we usually try to treat ourselves to a decent run for our birthdays), we were in dire need of a long run. Not only did we enter for the WUU2K ultra without giving our available training time any thought, but we also wanted to recce our new Catchment Ultra course.

How it all started

In 2015 we arranged a pack run along North Range Road in the winter month of August, because the running calendar is rather empty this time of year. The course runs on a 4WD road that Gerry and I was using for training runs and we thought it would be great if others could join so that we can remedy the transport issue. With the route being a point to point you have to rely on friends to drop you off. Fourteen runners and walkers joined on a glorious morning for the approximately 23.5km jaunt through the windfarms.

We had so much fun the first time that we decided to have a repeat in 2016. Word got out and soon the pack run necessitated an event. In excess of 200 runners and walkers showed interest and within the timeframe of about two months Gerry and I had to organise buses, toilets, medics, traffic management, sound, bibs, course markings, spot-prizes, etc, and of course I thought it would be fun to have soup and a hand crafted “medal” of sorts. We cannot thank our friend Ross enough who helped with the traffic management and sound, while the Striders offered to lend us equipment (tables, water containers, clock, etc). A group of wonderful volunteers jumped in to take charge of registration and the aid stations. Rachael took it on herself to have a bake station at the turn-around point of the Humdinger which was extremely popular and set a very high standard. Truck stops also offered their marquee tent as a shelter at Ferry Reserve.

We worked night and day to get everything done in time, and come race weekend, the weather was absolutely atrocious. The marquee nearly blew away during the night (Gerry, myself and Graeme stayed the night to look after the stuff) and had to come down at some stage to avoid damage to it. We were maxed out on the stress-levels and when we drove up Hall Block Road on race morning to check out the conditions at the top, we ran into a massive slip closing off the whole road. Even though you could potentially run across, there was no way to get toilets or medics or waterpoints to the top of the ridge, so we had to postpone the event to the following day. That meant that some people could unfortunately not attend anymore, but on the upside, it allowed others who couldn’t make the Saturday to take over their race numbers and run on the Sunday.

The three of us (Gerry, myself and Graeme) spent another windy night at the Ferry Reserve, while the Tararua Council quickly cleared the slip. On the new race morning, neither of us have had much in the line of sleep for two nights straight. I don’t think we’ve ever had as much stress and as little sleep for the biggest part of two months.

It was misty and cold at the start of the 25km event, but runners and walkers seemed to have fun which made it all worthwhile. Gavin offered to take photographs, Brian, Trish and Andrew (and his son) manned the first water point, Gary was on his own at the second water point out in the sticks, and Rachael had her bake station with help from her friends, and Alister, Dianne and Pania did a sterling job at the last water point. Junior took charge of the soup kitchen, while his wife was doing the event, and Michelle, Margaret, John, Jane, Steph, Greg and so many others all helped out at various spots. Dionne offered her generator to help keep the sound going and without the help and kindness of so many people, this event would never have happened. I was immensely humbled by the kindness and generosity of so many people, some which we hardly knew at the time.

Afterwards, Gerry and I were knackered, but in a good way. We love anything running related and would do anything to have others share that feeling.

Then came 2017. Michael mentioned that we could easily include the South Range Road and turn the event into something longer. The seed was planted and we started exploring. For days and weeks we tramped the area and finally decided to use the newly formed route up from Wairarapa side (Nae Nae Track) which was rough, but seemed like fun and was beautiful. It would link up with the Otangani Loop, Sledge Track, Toe Toe and a possum service track before reaching South Range Road. But Nae Nae Track, which was built on a paper road, unfortunately had us running into massive adversity from the farmers on either side. The course was already advertised, and runners entered, so we had to beg and please explain to have it go ahead. It was a very unpleasant situation, and we feared the farmers would remove signage or make the course impassible (the track had been vandalised before). From a health and safety point of view, this part of the course proved to be too challenging and coupled with difficult farmers, we decided to change it for 2018. Although a few runners got lost in the bush area, there were luckily no bad incidents (except for Dave who popped out his shoulder, but still managed to finish!).

Which brings me to our recce run. Again, we had to scout for alternatives, even exploring the old Hunters Track on the Wairarapa side of the mountain, but in the end decided to basically have the whole course on gravel roads, and therefore to exclude all the single-track trails. We measured bits and pieces over and over again, negotiated permissions with another farmer and council, and finally got it all sorted out. Even though this course is far easier underfoot, it is still off-road, hilly, with a few muddy sections for good measure, and can become quite extreme if the weather is adverse. Having said that, I think it is totally doable, and a great introduction for newbies to the ultra scene. The best part is, one can get everywhere with a 4WD, which gives great peace of mind knowing the medics do not have to go in by foot to give assistance should the need arise. It is also highly unlikely that one would get lost.

The Manawatu had seen tonnes of rain in June and the sunny days could be counted on one finger. With our recce run only one day after solstice, we decided to make it an early start to allow the full nine hours of daylight to check out marshal points, water points, important course marking spots, etc. Rob, one of the core team, opted to join us which meant we could have a car at either end. It was also useful for him to familiarise himself with the course as he was the unofficial tail-end Charles. We met shortly after 6am at the finish and drove to the start at the Palmy Catchment area entrance. On the way, we left some water, Coke and extra snacks in the bush shortly before the Pahiatua Track, at about the halfway point.

It was still dark and dreary, and with head lamps in freezing temperatures (around 4 degrees) and a light drizzle, we set off on a slow walk up Turitea Road. It has a steady climb, and by the time we reached Greens Road it was daybreak and on a short downhill, we started running for a bit to try and warm our frozen limbs. This was short lived as when we reached the farmers gate (at about 5.5km) a relentless hill took us all the way to the catchment area gate (at 9.5km). We plan to have a water point and toilet at this gate, before participants will head further up the hill to reach a little out-and-back section in the catchment area (of about 700m one way) to make sure the course is the right distance. At the top (which is the second highest point at 550m), you pass by a trig visible a few metres off course and are treated to the most beautiful 360 degree views. We were lucky to have had a break in the weather that day and had stunning views of Mt Ruapehu, Mt Taranaki, the Wairarapa, as well as the flooded Manawatu plains. We could even see Nipple Peak in the distance, the wee knob that caused so much trouble last year with runners wanting to go up there! 😀

Even though the sun was out and not much wind, it was still freezing on top of the mountain. The 4WD tracks in the road were frozen solid and ice started collecting on the back of my shoes. I doubt it was more than 2 or 3 degrees (if that), even though it was meant to be 11 in town. It is very hard to fathom, but it invariably is always a lot colder on the mountain than in town. Coupled with wind and/or rain and you could face hypothermia very quickly.

We took some photos and made Instagram and FB updates, before backtracking the dogleg. After this very steep 700m stretch we turned left onto a two-track grassy road (which is used to service bait stations). This is the only bit of grass underfoot and about 2km long. Reaching a fork on this bit of road, we accidentally took the wrong turn. Instead of going right, we took the left turn and ended up doing another wee out-and-back stretch (as if we needed that on an already long day out). At the bottom of the grassy patch, there’s also a couple of stream crossings which Gerry and Rob managed to get though dry. I couldn’t be bothered so just walked through, which instantly rendered my feet frozen. It was extremely cold and for a few kilometres I couldn’t feel my feet.

We finally reached the start of South Range Road after about 12km. Since North Range Road is only about 23.5km, the first section has to be around 27km and I personally wouldn’t want to run the out-and-back section in the latter half of an ultra (which is where the out-and-back for the 25km run is), hence having it at around the 10km mark.

We were going okay, despite very haphazard training since ROF. I fooled myself into thinking that I did a 100km run beginning of March and the 72km ROF early in April, so I should be fit enough to do this, ignoring the fact that we didn’t do much in-between these events. In a way, one does have the memory in your legs of going long, but it is also true that you lose fitness very quickly if you don’t run consistently. We averaged 32.5km per week for the ten weeks between ROF and this run, which is not nearly enough for a 50km ultra.

South Range Road still has a few decent hills, but after you reach the 20km mark, it becomes easier and most of the hard work is over. By the time we reached our “aid station” we were going for about five hours. Filling up water bottles and doing all the things you normally do at a drop-bag aid station, we started cooling off very fast. By the time we got going again, I was shivering like a stick. An ice cold wind came through the saddle on Pahiatua Track and even though the first 3.5km of North Range Road is a steady incline, we had to run to keep warm. By then, there were some clouds, but the sun was still coming through every now and again, still making it a pretty decent day out.

North Range Road was as muddy as ever with all the rain of late, but there was only one spot where we got wet feet. All the other spots we could negotiate dry footed.

By the time we reached the power station (at about 42km), I was well and truly buggered. Everything was sore and my lack of training showed as clear as daylight. My feet were aching, my quads were sore, my calves knew they were working and my whole body was just not happy with me anymore.

We got back to the car at around 4pm, took a pic at the finish and started traveling back to the start to get our drop bag on the way and Rob’s car at the other end. By then it was dark, and I was really looking forward to a warm shower and a glass of wine.

Glad to have done the course, I feel more comfortable and knowledgeable about what it would be like for participants. I am usually at the back end of an event, and to have done it slowly and easily in 9 hours, means that to train just a little bit more than what we’ve managed, the course is very doable. I’m super excited about this and I hope others will like the course too.

Less than two months to get everything finalised. 25 August – here we come!



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