Date: 16 September 2018
Distance: 100km (we measured 107.6km)
As we were driving up to Thames on Friday morning, the thought of wanting to attempt a 100km run on the tiny amount of training we’ve done the past five months, was not something my mind was willing to deal with. It just ignored the prospect and pretended it wasn’t happening. Only after a good few kilometres into the race did it start to sink in that I was totally and utterly buggered.
We’ve fallen behind schedule, with everything, with life. The lists of thing we don’t get to, are just pilling up. That includes running. Not sure how or when we got ourselves into this pickle, but it seemed to have just crept up while we were busy making other plans.
Arriving in Thames, I quickly cooked a few basics (potatoes, rice) to slap together meals for Friday and Saturday, as I didn’t want to worry about that on top of having to spent time packing, getting sorted and trying to sleep before the event on Saturday night/Sunday morning. The grand scheme was that we would stay up late Friday night, so that we would be tired Saturday afternoon, thus forcing some shut-eye before the 1am start of the race Sunday morning. Unfortunately, that wasn’t meant to be.
We did stay up late on Friday, woke up tired on Saturday morning, and went into town for some last minute shopping, before getting our gear sorted and having a shower. When finally, at about 3pm Saturday afternoon we got into bed, we found out that our lift from the race finish to the start of the race, sort of fell through. Being the kind and caring person that he is, he was going to cut short his plans (unavoidable last minute plans) to try and accommodate us. And off course I would not be able to live with myself for expecting him to do that, so the frantic search for an alternative ensued. Messages were flying backwards and forwards, and all along we were getting more and more stressed about a silly thing like that. We were stuck, and I was cussing the organisers so hard for not having that part sorted, expecting participants to sort out their own transport.
The race is a point-to-point format, starting in Kaiaua and finishing in Waihi, some 100km apart. We were hoping to have our car at the finish (don’t we all) so that we won’t be keeping whoever waiting should we take too long to finish the race. This meant that someone had to pick us up at the finish and drop us off at the start. To get that sorted among fellow participants meant that we all have an extra hour plus trip before the race, as well as more than an hour trip after the race. And after a 100km event, it is not a good idea to drive anywhere, let alone for more than a hundred kilometres.
While our stress levels were going through the roof, we ended up not getting any sleep from trying to figure this out and make other plans.
And then a miracle happened. A bit before 6pm, one of the organisers called to ask if we still needed a lift to the start. It was an absolute godsend (I take back all my earlier cussing). They decided, at short notice, to organise a minibus to take six of us from the finish to the start of the race. It was such a relief, but of course by then, all hope of getting some zzz’s were out the door. We filled our hydration bladders, and flasks, got dressed, had some tea and a bite to eat (salty boiled potato with tuna, onion and peas), before driving the 50km to the finish of the race. We stayed in Thames which is about halfway between the start and finish of the event.
The driver of the minibus was a bit of a menace :-), and a sports bra and helmet would have been handy on the bumpy road. Mind you, the roof of the minivan was actually quite high, so it would take more than SH25 to hit your head against the ceiling! Even though the hour’s drive could have been time to take a quick nap, it was completely out of the question due to the bumpy ride.
We arrived in good time shortly after 11:00 to register and have our gear checked. It was a very quiet and subdued affair that late at night. Some participants tried to sleep on the porch of the school building behind the registration desk (I was surprised that the building itself was locked and only the porch was available to the organisers), while others were chatting about past events and future endeavours. We also laid down on the small porch floor, but it was too cold, too short, and anyway too busy to actually take a nap. Finally, it was time for race briefing at 12:45am and then we were off.
About 20 or so participants started running down the road, into the darkness and the wee hours of the morning, while the line of white headlamps and red tail-lights were spreading out farther and farther up ahead. Although it was overcast and really dark, it was a lovely night with almost no wind and not really cold either. More perfect weather was almost not possible.
Fitness wise, being not nearly close to the minimum requirement (or what I expect for myself, at least) for a 100km race, Gerry and I did the sums leading up to the event, calculating and re-calculating and finally decided to go for a walk-jog strategy of 800m walk and 1.2km jog right from the start. Race plan sorted. We briefly contemplated 1km walk-1km jog, but that would not have allowed enough of a buffer.
Based on an average of about 17 minutes for every 2km (which we figured is reasonably doable), we should be able to cover the 100km in just over 14 hours. Add to that time spent at aid stations, drop bag swop, and toilet stops, plus a buffer for when you get fatigued and slower toward the end, and we should make the 16 hour cut-off.
The first 2km are out-and-back on the road. Gerry and I started off with a 800m walk. Within 30 seconds we were right in the back, except for one other guy who was also walking. I was surprised by this as I was a hundred percent certain no one else would start off with a walk. It usually never happens. After 800m we started jogging, and I could hear the person behind us were also now jogging. After passing the school on the way back, another roughly 10km is run on the road on the Seabird Coast. We continued the walk-jog strategy, as did the person behind us. My curiosity got the better of me, but it was pitch dark and he was a few metres behind us. On his tail was Elee, the tail-end Charles for the 100km event on a bike. Behind her was a safety vehicle with yellow flashing light. The roads were open to traffic, but luckily it was the middle of the night on country roads in NZ, so only a few vehicles came past, and they were mainly very well behaved, slowing down and passing on the other side of the road. Bar one, who was obviously peeved and came screaming past close by, trying to make a point. Idjit.
After 12km we turned off to follow the track for a few kilometres through the Robert Findlay Miranda Wildlife Reserve which was a bit rough underfoot, but nothing serious. At some stage I realised there was actually yet another person behind us following the same walk-jog modus operandi, so we were four, plus the tail-end bringing up the rear of the race.
In the first 12km, I could hear the waves of the ocean right next to us, but after turning onto the track we had even less of an idea what the area looked like. Running in the dark is a very nice experience, but you do miss out on the scenery, especially if you don’t know the area. And of all the participants, we saw the biggest part of the course in daylight, being dead last. We reached the first aid station at Miranda (which is also the trail head of the Hauraki Rail Trail) after which we still hugged the coastline for about 4km followed by a section that runs right next to the Front Miranda Road for about 6km to Waitakururu. The up and overs over driveways, were about as hilly as things got up to that point.
We continued our walk-jog strategy, as did the guys behind us. This bizarre turn of events carried on through the night. Still, I didn’t try to look (who wants to turn around and shine a headlamp straight into a strangers eyes?) and didn’t feel the need to stop and chat to find out who this person was and what his race plan was.
At the second aid station (at about 24km) after we’ve been going for 3:20, we finally saw the young guy (about 20 years old) who were following us and we briefly said hi, he asked and we explained that we were doing the walk-jog thing. When we left, he followed, while the other person who was also in our “bus” had to pull out due to injury. The young guy who introduced himself later in the day as Evander (?), informed us thusly. On this section, it was quite funny to see all the green “lights” of the cows’ eyes, and I was surprised at how far apart their eyes are. Doesn’t look that far in daylight. And why were they not sleeping? Thankfully, I wasn’t seeing any sleep monsters or green baboons yet.
Shortly before dawn, I hit a low. The fact that it was dark and one would normally be asleep, didn’t help. We’ve been awake for over 20 hours and all I wanted to do was to fall asleep. On our 800 metre walk breaks, I would close my eyes and walk a couple of metres in the dark, quickly check where I was going before closing them again. Luckily the path is primarily gravel/metal/shingles underfoot, and just about the only thing to trip over was cow poo, or the odd hedgehog.
After about 38km, the sun had come up, we could turn our headlamps off and finally reached Piriroa where we had our first drop-bag for more sustenance. While I was in the loo, the young chap took off and I thought that was the end of it. After Gerry and I got ourselves sorted, we crossed the Pako River on State Highway 25 and continued on along the coast. We couldn’t actually see the sea, as there were the familiar NZ coastal vegetation/bushes between us and the waterfront.
We trotted along and could see the young chap about a kilometre ahead of us. He was slowing down, and within a few kilometres we caught up with him again. He mentioned something about it begin difficult to pace himself, and so he decided to run with us again. This time there were introductions and we chatted along the way. We saw quite a few hares in the path and crossing the path, running into the paddocks. From far away we could hear loud music and thought it might be the aid station, but it turned out it was a farmer who had music blaring while milking his cows.
When we reached the halfway point at Kopu (in 7:40), we crossed a 700 metres long bridge over the Waihou River. It was little less than an hour before the 55km runners would be set off and we knew they would come past at some stage, making it feel more like a race again where you actually see other participants. The 30 kilometres between Kopu and Paeroa is run mainly through farms on a very straight offroad path where you cross at least a million cattle bridges. For each farm road, or road crossing there were two – one on either side. They are uncomfortable things to cross at the best of times, let alone after fatigue had set into one’s muscles. Interspersed there were also a heap of foot bridges, each time forming a slight incline with a small downhill on the other side. Even thought the race really is flat as a pancake for the first about 85km, there are quite a few of these small inclines to negotiate.
At Hikutaia (at about 67km) we had our second drop-bag, and could quickly add to our food stash. As with previous ultras, we again tried to keep consuming 200cal for me and 300cal for Gerry per hour right through the race. It works wonders – the more you can consume, the better. Finishing this race with the little amount of training that we did, is proof that ultras really are more about mind games paired with good nutrition and hydration, than training. Having said that, I will not attempt another ultra without at least feeling like I’ve done my bit to some extend. Even if it still is less than half of what the elites do.
Once we reached Paeroa, we knew that there was only a half marathon to go. But this was where the kilometres started playing tricks on our already braindead minds. It took forever to actually get to the aid station at the other end of town (the tail-end, bless her heart, said it is definitely not more than 500m, but in fact it was closer to 1.5km). When we reached the aid station, Gerry’s watch was already on 83km in 12 hours. This aid station was also the start of the half marathon race through the Karangahake Gorge, following the Ohinemuri River. This is by far the prettiest and most scenic part of the course, but it is also the part that has a lot of little undulations. And then we reached the tunnel that threw our 800/1200 walk-jog strategy completely out the door, turning it back to a random “run bits, walk bits, you’ll get there” approach. I think the tunnel was meant to be a run section according to our plan, but it was too dark, too long, and I was too tired to try and run it, so we walked the whole way, about one kilometre.
To put it mildly, the tunnel was pure torture. Because it was dark, and rather cold in there, all I wanted to do was crawl up and sleep. We’d been awake for over 30 hours by then, and although I had these sleep-deprived dips throughout the day, this was by far the worst offender. Mostly because of the darkness, my mind registered that as time to sleep.
With about ten or 15 kilometres to go (who knows – there was a lot of uncertainty between Gerry’s watch, the trail markers, the course markers and the marshalls at the waterpoint), I just wanted it all to be over, to have a shower and go to sleep. Evander was starting to get dizzy from lack of sugar (he also borrowed shoes from a marshall halfway through the race), and Gerry got grumpy about the kilometre discrepancies. A hundred kilometres is a long way, and it takes some doing to keep your head on straight. At the final aid station, one chap promised high and low that it is definitely not more than 7km to the finish. Apparently he’d lived in that area for over 40 years and knew the trail like the back of his hand. Well, it turns out that only after another kilometre or two, we reached the course marker that said eight to go. This truly stuffed up my mind. It took everything I had to try and ignore the distance markers and just keep trucking on. But, it is unavoidable that one starts to count the kilometres to the end. You are tired and a little braindead and desperately want to believe the shortest distance to the finish. Turns out, the course markers were correct, and not the chap who’s been living there all his life.
With about 5km to go, Evander took off. He got a second wind or something, but we didn’t see him again until the end. I am amazed by his resilience and the fact that he pushed through despite the odds.
Elee was fantastic! She stayed with us all the way, chatted some, encouraged some more, and also opened a couple of gates for us in the final few kilometres. It was great to have her company.
When we finally could see the train station in Waihi, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Gerry still took a photo of a hedgehog in the middle of the path, and we tried to jog the last hundred metres to the finish. Just about the whole crew was at the finish, clapping and cheering us on. Throughout the day, the organisers and crew were great, friendly, chatting and checking that we were okay. This event is not about the course. Because, truth be told, it is a bit uneventful apart from the final 20km. But rather it is about the people. It is a great team who stage this event – the best kind. I cannot imagine the level of logistics that went into this race, because we had almost the same group of people at nearly every aid station, including the medic. How did they do that? The field was so spread out with the first person finishing in 10:22 and the last in 15:54.
We actually overtook two runners in the last few kilometres, so ended up not being last (on the results page, there’s only one person behind us, but we saw both of them finish?). Seventeen participants finished and with only three woman in the mix, I was third (and placed second in my age category). Hehe, it’s easy to podium if the field is so small! 😉
On the way back to our AirBnB in Thames, we bought Indian takeaway in Paeroa. While waiting for the curry, we had a ten minute nap in the car, which helped a lot to get us back to our cabin. Unfortunately, our hot water at the cabin ran out, and being naked under a cold shower at that stage was not fun. While the drama was unfolding to change the gas bottle, I took on a foetal position wrapped in a towel, freezing my butt off. When a second round of icy cold water indicated that the gas was not the only problem, the caretaker eventually suggested that we shower in the main lodge. It was way after 8pm Sunday night (36 hours after we got up on Saturday morning) that we finally had something to eat (the curry was cold by then). I don’t think I have ever been so tired in my life, nearly fell asleep in my curry, and 80% of it was from sleep deprivation and not covering 100km.
Which brings me to our next endeavour. For the past couple of years we’ve been wanting to do the Northburn 100. To me, it is the authentic NZ hundred miler and I’m really keen to give it a crack. But, meanwhile I’ve also decided to do a PhD and while I was meant to wrap it up this year, it can now only happen next year (fingers crossed!). To be in the final throes of a PhD, and to try do a hundred miler at the same time, might be too big an ask. The stress of the damn study is already all consuming. I don’t think it will be wise to take on the mammoth task of training and doing a hundred miler, especially not the Northburn which by the looks of it is no walk in the park.
I think a couple of glasses are in order for us to recoup and figure out our lives for the next few months. Only time will tell what can and can’t be done.
PS. The cherry on our out-of-hand-life cake, was the fact that Gerry had to teach at 2pm on Monday in Palmy, with another three hour long class at 5:30pm in Whanganui in the evening. With a 4am start Monday morning, and in no condition to jump out of bed spritely, we started on the trip back home. While Gerry was preparing his classes in the car, I was the chauffeur for the day. We only arrived home at around 1pm, exhausted and with the event already nearly forgotten. This work commitment too was not part of the plan, as Gerry didn’t have class on a Monday, or a Monday night, when we signed up for the event. But, sometimes things happen. The way you deal with it, is what matters.