Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kepler Challenge 2014

The Kepler Challenge is one of those iconic running events on the Kiwi running calendar.  The course, the challenging contrast of the technical mountain terrain with the long flat run through the forest and "those steps", are discussed in hushed and reverent tones by previous competitors.  Rumors of dire weather conditions, disastrous pacing mistakes and wonderful aid stations have filtered down to my ears.  Needless to say, the Kepler Challenge was an event that I have long felt that I absolutely HAD to do. 

I walked the Kepler Challenge when I was 13, as my first "proper" multi-night mission for a school camp.  I have vivid memories of the endless and torturous climbing up one of the steepest inclines on the planet, the soaring ridge-lines shrouded in cloud and plodding for hours in torrential-monsoon-apocalyptic rain while miles of featureless beech forest unrolled around us.  It was hard, and I wasn't fit enough, but I loved it.

After the usual pre-ultra angsting about having balanced enough training (I probably haven't done anywhere near enough, my recent primary focus being on multi-sport training ) with enough tapering (rest and recovery? whats that?), I arrived in Te Anau amidst a flurry of inclement weather forecasts, and gale-force wind warnings.

Race-day dawned, and remained inky and dim while competitors gathered at the start-line, craning to see if Mt Luxmore had retained its semi-permanent halo of mist and rain.  Fringes of forest spill down to the lake, the water doing its very best to imitate obsidian under an equally grey sky.  The bright lights, and brighter attire of runners milling about the start line glow in the gloomy dawn.  Great beast's of helicopters leap out of the bush, and spin away into the mountains, their blades shattering the air into sound.

Minutes before the start, we surge forward onto the control gates, lining up according to how quickly we hope to finish.  It is pretty thrilling to be alongside (or rather behind) quite a few of my running heroes.  The starting horn sounds and we shuffle off, no one in my vicinity desperate for a sprint start.  We plunge into bush, making the dark morning seem even darker, I am struggling to see the ground at my feet.  I fall in behind a florescent-socked  runner whose pace feels very comfortable, and enjoy listening to the good natured banter of the runners behind me.

As I blast (moderately) through the first aid station, I loose my fluorescent-ankled pacer in the flurry of drink and jet-plane lolly consumption.  The track turns in land, and almost immediately starts to climb.  The incline was pretty gentle, and I was steeling myself for the sheer, calf-searing, lung burning climb that I recalled from my youth.  Everyone slows to a steady walk; there will be plenty of opportunity to run later.  I chat to a few of the runners around me, and jog some of the flatter sections.  The steep-hell I have been expecting never materializes, and by the time I reach the bluffs I know I have somehow past the worst without really noticing it.  We debate the direction, strength and impact of the wind once we reach the tops.

Immediately out of the shelter of the forest the wind slams into us, a headwind, icy.  Its not so strong as to be scary, but I start to run again, just to keep warm.  At Luxmore Hut I wizz through the gear check, stuff my face with food, and launch into the gradual climb to the tops.  I am feeling pretty comfortable.  All of the steeper climbs I walk, and I enjoy stretching my legs out on the undulating ground in between.  I am thrilled that the cloud layer is high enough to allow splendid views of the surrounding peaks, and down into the black waters of the South Fjord far below.

Past the next aid station at Forest Burn Shelter and the track begins to follow the ridge-line properly.  I love running ridges, especially those that are narrow enough to make you feel as though you are suspended in the sky (but not so narrow as to be continuously loosing your footing over a precarious edge and plunging you into a ravine in a twisted mess).  The Kepler tops fulfill my ridge-requirements perfectly, and I soak in the views of Manapouri and the sounds receding into the Westerly.  The mountains here are different from the mountains around home, they are younger, craggier and less worn down by the elements and time.  The landscape seems simultaneously Tolkeinesque and Seusical.

I loved the presence of the helicopters throughout this section.  Their thunderous mechanical presence, part insect-animal, part machine served to somehow enhance the rugged environment, as they swooped and dove around the bluffs.  There were some truly impressive feats of flying prowess, the pilots throwing the machines through impossible angles, defying physics, wind and weak-stomached passengers.  Running towards the next ridge, the air exploded around me, and a helicopter rose meters from where I was running, camera man balanced precariously on a skid, blades gouging great lumps of sound out of the air.  I waved madly.  In a second it spun away and off down the ridge.  I could only assume that the crew were harnessed in, as the open doorway was suddenly facing the ground, and no one fell out.  This surreal interaction thrilled me, and I ran freely, momentarily abandoning my careful pacing plan, as I let my legs fly off down the mountain.  It was pretty amazing to feel important enough to have a camera following this section of the field.

Hanging Valley Shelter marked the end of the tops, and the descent towards Iris Burn.  First the countless steps, interspersed with some technical trail, and I was grateful for all of the river running I have been doing of late.  I felt sure-footed and stable, even as the wind buffeted over the exposed track. Then back into the bush, and an immediate increase in temperature.  The track descends steeply for a long time, and even when you are sure that you must have reached the valley floor, you catch glimpses of the view below, and realize that there is still a long way to go.  I probably ran this section a bit harder than I should have.  I was also at the mercy of the pace of those a head of me, and although everyone was moving well, or extremely courteous, I think I quad-braked more than I would have liked.

Just when I thought that I was heartily sick of descending, and would rather like some uphill again, the ringing of a cow bell signaled our imminent arrival at Iris Burn.  A few hundred meters from the hut, the wonderful crew of aid station volunteers had strung up hundreds of coloured balloons into the trees, a heart-lifting and visually brilliant display of colour amongst so much green.  Tiredness and hunger heightens emotion, and I felt a little teary to run through this unexpected rainbow.

Iris Burn signaled the end of the mountain leg, but in many ways the race was only just beginning.  My feet were feeling pretty sore from hammering down hill, but apart from that I was feeling reasonably energetic and able to run.  I fueled up well at the aid station and trotted off.  It took a while for my legs to adjust to running on the flat again, and progress was slow and a bit painful.  I was starting to feel as though this long flat 30km was going to take forever.  Feeling a wee bit sorry for myself, I tried to keep up a reasonable pace, and because I seem to finally be learning that self pity is a sign of energy deficit, I ate and drank more too.  After the race I heard other runners talk about their "bad patch" and I suppose this was mine.

By the time I reached Rocky Point (awesome aid station decorated as a back-of-beyond moonshiners retreat) my legs were warming to their task and the burning in my feet had dulled to a manageable glow.  I downed some orange (how did the Kepler organisers get their hand on the best oranges in the world?), learned that I only had about 26km to run, and set off.  Shortly later I asked another runner for the time and found out that we had only been going for about 5.5 hours.  I had managed to forget my GPS watch, so had no idea of time or distance covered.  People kept saying how well I was doing for my first Kepler.  I felt I was doing ok, but nothing amazing.  Suddenly my legs started working properly again, and I was off.  My cadence was reasonable and I was able to push quite comfortably up the hills.  I counted the markers on the trees as Lake Manapouri and then eventually Moturau came into view.

More oranges.  Several other runners and I stopped to stuff our faces with these exquisitely sweet and juicy morsels, exclaiming that these were not only the nicest oranges in the world, but that they were infact, most definetly the best food we had ever eaten, ever.  16km to go. 6km to Rainbow Reach.

6km is hardly any distance at all, so I powered off, continuing to run strongly.  A few other runners seemed impressed that I was still running up the hills, but I was feeling good, so I figured I might as well just keep going strong while I could.  Half of me was expecting that at some point I might crash, and have a bit of a grovel to the finish, but deeper down I knew that 16km was such a manageable distance and that I had paced myself well enough to finish strong.  Bonus.

Groups of supporters lined the trail along the approach to rainbow reach.  Everybody clapped and cheered, I got some sterling high-5s from wee kids, and all of the trampers I passed whooped and smiled as I dashed past.  These beaut interactions spirited me along, and lifted my heart.  Such stirring support is not always offered at races, but I loved just how much kindness everyone showed.

Rainbow Reach, more orange segments and only 10km to the finish.  I was really excited.  There was such a short distance that was left.  This final part of the trail was the only bit I hadn't been on before.  The river churned and boiled off to my right, and the track wound in and out of the forest.  The air was humid and stifling out of the shade of the beech trees, and I felt a little baked running between the crouching Manuka plants.

Two more aid stations to go (how lucky were we to have so many?), one at 5km and one at 2.5km from the end.  Somewhere along that stretch I started to hear snatches of sound from the finish line bouncing along the river valley.  I knew I was still a wee way out from the end, but felt a rush of renewed energy knowing I was so close.  I was quite pleased with how accurately I was able to guess approximate distances covered in my GPS-less state, and came upon the last aid stations just as I was expecting them.  More oranges.  Yum.

2.5km to go, and I knew it was time to put the hammer down.  I still had reasonable energy levels, and no more excuses.  My legs felt strong and comfortable, and I powered along.  Rounding the final bend and I was suddenly running across the control gates.  I could see another runner ahead of me, steadily making for the line.  Time for a sprint finish.

I crossed the line in 8hrs 33min something, gasping like a fish and smiling like a madwoman.  I am sure the overall effect was pretty disarming for the spectators crowding the grand-stand at the finish.  They cheered this mad-sweaty-fish-woman anyway.  Kepler Challenge done. Awesome.  

Time to go an hop on the bike for a while.  One discipline in a day doesn't feel like enough anymore.  Must be a multisport thing.

I got some really good tips from my coach and previous runners prior to running the Kepler Challenge, I tried to follow these during the race and found that they were really helpful:

  • "Leave your iPod at home. Enjoy your surroundings and talk to your new friends. They are going to help you finish."  I loved talking to the amazing runners around me, I met veteran runners, multisporters and fellow competitors from previous events.  Everyone was supportive, in great humor and provided a lift when I needed it.  It was also really rewarding to interact with all of the supporters I passed
  • "Pace yourself right" - "If it feels comfortable and easy [for the first 30-40km], stick with that".  I didn't run too hard or too fast for any uphill sections or along the tops meaning that I had strong running legs when I really wanted them on the flat.
  • "Fuel well" - I had a double breakfast and at heaps at all the aid stations.  I dont think I ever got into energy deficit, and I felt good all the way around.
  • "Pack your gear smartly. There is a gear check at the Luxmore Hut, where you have to show all your compulsory gearTwo things you don’t want to do- completely unpack your bag, or hand your bag over for the volunteers to go through. Both of these will result in you having to re-pack your bag and this takes time. I pack my bag by stuffing each item in the pack so there is a pant leg, or arm of the thermal hanging out. Then I rubber band the pant legs, or top’s arms together. This way all I need to show is a small bundle (naming each of the items)- this way you get through the Luxmore check point in 30sec- not 3mins! (Grant Guise)" - I did this and it worked really well.
  • "Go into the event with fresh legs" - I am a perennial over trainer and a bit of a race junkie, so I always find it hard to turn down the opportunity for an adventure.  My poor coach constantly has to act as my voice of reason, encouraging a healthy taper, and minimizing over training.  I am slowly learning to listen, and was even able to stoically resist an invitation to run over Goat Pass 2 days before the Kepler. Being able to run on fresh legs paid off!
For more amazing tips from an incredible runner and Kepler veteran check out Matt Bixley's post on Back Country Runner : The Kepler My Way

I am also learning some valuable lessons as I go along, I think the ones that helped make the Kepler such a great race were:

  • Carry only what you need - I carried the lightest gear I have, and didn't carry extras above what was required on the compulsory gear list.  This included taking plasters out of their fabric first aid kit, and only carrying a small hydration bladder.  I also didn't carry heaps of extra food, I knew I had enough to get me through, but I didn't take lots of extras "just in case".  Consequently I my pack didn't feel like it was weighing me down for the whole race. 
  • Make good use of the aid stations - I dont know why, but in my early running career I would avoid using much of what was offered at the aid stations, now I am the opposite and go nuts with all the wonderful food and drink that is offered.  This means that I have to carry less, and can eat more.  Excellent.

To wrap it up, the Kepler lived up to all of the rumors and exceeded my expectations.  If you love mountains, ultras or both, do it.  Just remember that entry is uber competitive, so dust off your internet connection in plenty of time to swoop in for a spot! 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Three Peaks

Peering through layers of wet, freezing air at cloud laden Flagstaff, I feel a distinct lack of motivation for getting up in the morning and wading across the skyline.  The poor course markers are out in this.

Its not an early start, a leisurely pre-race breakfast, for once a luxury, and then out into the reasonably chilly, but thankfully not rainy morning.  Registration. A flurry of fluorescent running garb.  Endless deliberation over waterproof or not waterproof out-layers.  Consternation over new seam-sealing requirements.  Race briefing, hardly audible over nervous pre-race chatter. And we are off.

Dashing into the damp bush at Ross Creek, the air grows colder in the leafy darkness.  The first climb begins.  A limb-searing push up the steep little incline to the reservoir. And then upwards to the snow line.  My legs feel sluggish and my feet, little frozen blocks of meat, progress is slow and unrewarding.  As I become one with the city skyline, the harbour and streets stretch out below, grey on grey and utterly brilliant - it makes a change to be looking out over a city scape, and what better city view than that of Dunedin.

On reaching the summit of Flagstaff, we are instructed to high-five the trig point, before re-tracing out footsteps back towards Swampy.  I careen down hill, legs now well warm, and footsteps turning over like a windmill.  The traverse to Swampy Summit is a bit muddy and damp, and includes a couple of sharp little climbs.  The wind is colder up here than I had anticipated, but I am well rugged up, and working hard enough to keep warm.  Over the summit, and through a shivering crowd of supporters and relay runners, and down through the chute - a brilliant track cut through the thick undergrowth.  I run fast downhill, almost out of control, bouncing off shrubs and slithering around corners.

The decent briefly becomes a four wheel drive track, before plunging into bush.  This next section I fondly dubbed 'the mud-skiing section'.  The track comprises of gloriously thick mud, varying in consistency from custard to icing.  My shoes, and sense of balance disappear into the ooze.  I slide, head first, on more than one occasion.  I am covered in mud, including my face.  I am in trail running heaven.  I use the time honored mogul-come-jungle-gym  mud negotiation technique, skidding down the steep drops, and lunging shoulder-wrenching swings between branches to try and maintain a more or less upright demeanor .

All too soon the mud turns back into trail, and then into asphalt.  Across the motorway, and then straight into the next climb up Mt  Cargill.  A winding trail through bush deposits me further up the side of the mountain than I had anticipated, and the last push to the transmitter on the top is quickly over.  Again bitterly cold wind bites into my bones as I fly under the red and white tower that appears to drift eternally against the sky.

I race down the track to Bethunes Gully, not just letting my body descend under the gentle pull of gravity, but running truly fast, keeping my quads loose and my strides long.  Tearing downwards through forest, I reach the bottom in 12 minutes.  My legs, feeling a little waster, protest as I try to crank up the speed for the final run along the flat.  Hostile pavement hammers into the soles of my feet, familiar streets and houses stream by, and I turn the final corner to Chingford Park.  The site of many a primary school cross-country meet, I had expected the final run over the grass to stretch endlessly ahead of me, but time has shrunk the field, and it is just a short sprint to the finish line.

I finish in 2hours 33min, a time that I am happy with, but that I wish was smaller.  The weather holds out as the final competitors stream across the line in patches of sunshine, but the rain sets in as prize giving concludes.  All in a brilliant run, over familiar and well-loved terrain.   The biggest hero's of the day: the marshals smiling through blue lips on the tops of the mountains.  Thanks for a beaut event on a bitter day.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon

It's still dark outside, the crown of mountains circling the lodge, darker jagged outlines against the inky sky.  I have just gulped down about six metric cups of hot porridge (topped with  Greek yoghurt and brown sugar - best pre race breakfast ever). The room bustles with technical fabric clad athletes, exchanging pre-race advice and bravado in a hushed reverence.  The air is thick with anticipation.

Last night we dined like kings (in a cloud of sand flies), on a feast of locally sourced venison, salads, sausages and a mountain of carbs.  After the rain closed in, I went to bed, and lay awake for hours, listening to the wind crash into the side of the hut.  At one point I ventured out into the night, truly witnessing for the first time, what Alfred Noyes had meant when he described the moon as a "ghostly galleon tossed upon stormy seas".  Even in the depths of the night, the surrounding peaks were remarkably visible, silhouetted against the patches of stars.

I can hear low thudding in the distance.  I head out into the grey dawn, as the first helicopter bursts over the building behind me, blasting sound and light all around.  Landing lights flood down from between the skids as the helicopters are guided in to land.  A whirlwind of sound and down draught whips around the crowd of grinning runners.  I wonder of I am the only one to have been momentarily transported into the atmosphere of a daring military operation.  My insides are dancing with excitement.

Morning has suddenly dawned.  I scramble for a window seat, don a headset and marvel at finally being seated in the belly of one of these juddering beasts.  No one told me that the action of the blades makes you feel like you are sitting on a giant washing machine that is churning it's way through a spin cycle.  This is my first ride in a helicopter. I am just a little nervous.

As the blades whip up to speed, we are suddenly in the air.  The pilot sweeps us in a swooping arc out of the valley.  Climbing steadily, we shoot over a wildly steep ridge, the helicopter plunging with stomach -flipping speed down the other side.  This landscape is unbelievable!

The helicopter follows the winding Shotover River, landing at the Pipeline Bungy site.  Scores of runners are deposited out of busses, catapulted neatly into the lines for the loos.  The field of competitors appear to be elite, experienced ( nearly everyone sporting event paraphernalia from a recent 100km event), competitive ( comparing notes on the performance of other runners in their race category) and fast.  In particular I notice moving bunches of steely-charactered men (the notorious 40+ category), discussing their competition, eyeing each other with an air of war. The interaction is good natured, fascinating, and vaguely terrifying.

I recognise several rather famous runners.  I feel pretty privileged to be lining up on the start line amongst running royalty.  Oddly, the more accomplished the field, the less nervous I feel.  I joke with a fellow runner: we hope that we aren't intimidating the completion too much.

Race briefing. Cross bungy bridge. Slither down slope to beach and starting area. I line up towards the back of the pack.  A kapahaka group send up a stiring Haka into the morning ( a fantastic touch!).  And we are off, running though a guard of-honour-Haka-gantlet, and off up our first hill.

The first part of the course undulates over some low hills, the track is wide enough to pass others, and I do.  I am feeling fast and light footed as I rush through the grass and scrub.  

Descending briefly back to the river bed, I wade through a patch of sand, feeling proud that for the first time in my racing career, I am running WITH men.  I must clarify here, that of course, every race I have entered has included men in the starting lineup, but usually I only ever see them disappearing into the distance.  I tend to meander at the rear of the pack, well behind runners that have been running for longer than I have been alive.  But today, I am actually keeping up.  The runners around me look really fit, and that makes me feel fantastic.

The first climb begins.  Up and away from the river, the at-first gentle climb, quickly becomes a calf-searing scree slope.  Sure, the silhouettes of the runners ahead of me winding up the ridge are spectacularly picturesque, but my legs are on fire, so I put my head down and work as hard as I can.

The morning is cool, full of golden sunlight, great grey clouds, and painfully blue sky.  At the top of the ridge, the trail turns into a narrow, cliff-hugging path.  I scramble along.  Everyone around me is swift, and those that aren’t, are courteous.  Progress is good, even when I am sideling around large rocky outcrops, even when the ground next to the goat-path-track is actually just air, even when my feet fail to find the ground all together.  I sprawl over the edge more than once.  So do lots of others.  Everyone checks that everyone is ok.  As the path widens, I plunge on.

I know that I am supposed to stick to my own race plan, run at the pace I trained for, and not pay attention to the progress of those around me, but the porridge is making my legs fast and strong, and I take tremendous pleasure every time I pass another runner.  Today, the competitor is me is strong.  I go with it.

A steep descent over bleached tussocks propels me onto the valley floor.  The first aid station: a plethora of grinning marshals’ weild electrolyte, bananas and sports beans.  I fill my belly and my pockets and get stuck into the next climb.

I am always so impressed by how fast others are able to climb up hills.  My speed is pretty average, but plenty of other float past me, bounding upward at great speed; I want to be this good!  The course joins the first of many sections that follow the remnants of an old water race.  The wider trail, winding around bluffs and traversing small streams and the odd rock fall, is extremely runable, and I feel myself speeding up.  The morning light is still crisp and bright, the sunlight feels sharp, and the contrast between light and shade is almost blinding.

Diving into beech forest, the trail crisscrosses a stream, heading decidedly, but comfortably upwards.  I splash through the chilly water again and again, and am suddenly deposited back into the brightness.  A narrow, tussock shrouded valley, the trail underfoot sometimes creek, sometimes stone, sometimes swamp.  The marathon course veers off, and I rock-climb for a short section.  I haul my wet feet upwards with the aid of a handily located and deftly knotted rope.

Climbing through tussocks, the steep ridge above me disappears into the blinding face of the sun.  For a while, I feel like I am the only person on earth, bathed in sun, the runners ahead of me, dissolved against the bright sky.  A cloud races in, bringing a cold gust of wind, competitors toiling away above me, I am back in the race.

I love this particular climb among the ridges and peaks.  Every step elevates me, revealing more of the ranges draped all around.  The going is steep, but neatly interspersed with satisfyingly runable sections, is this the best race on earth?  The mountains are flooded with sunshine and shade by turns, the landscape flitting between hues of green and grey and gold.  The mountains stretch forever.

More sustenance at the peak, then a slithering ski-like descent over ice-slippery tussocks - a few moments of descent undoing all of those recent upward footsteps.  I find these treacherous tussocks quite a challenge, and am slowed to short scattering footsteps, every second foot-fall threatening to send me head over heels, possibly all the way to the bottom.

A brief reprieve along a short section of 4wd track, then back to climbing, then more quad punishing descent – the Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon does exactly what it says on the box.  The next section of water race leads me past piles of abandoned mining equipment.  Pickaxes, helmets and other items of unrecognizable twisted metal line the trail.  The water race sections remind me of The Great Naseby Water Race (which I loved), running this sort of terrain again fills me with fond memories.

A thrilling descent down a shifting scree slope makes for my favorite descent of the race.  Although the slope is very steep, I bound down, each foot-fall securely sinking ankle deep into gravel, I feel like I am flying.  Amazingly the contents of my shoes remains entirely of feet and socks, I don’t have to stop to empty gravel out of my footwear.

Down to the river, I splash through the wide, shallow, lazy flow, grateful for all of the river-bed training I have been doing at home.  Exiting from the river (via a ladder – BRILLIANT!), I climb to more beech-forest-shrouded water race.  Back in the sunlight, and the day is rapidly warming.  I discover that I have lost my sunscreen, desperately trying to avoid sunburn, I slather my SPF+15 chap stick all over my shoulders (in retrospect, this approach was only mildly successful, and is not recommended).

A final dash through beating sun, and I emerge at Moonlight Lodge, gobble some sports beans, and then stumble (porridge energy has all but evaporated at this point) up the next incline onto Death Ridge.

I don’t usually have a problem with heights, but as I shuffle along the ridge, my patented blend of tiredness, low-ish blood sugar, and the sobering realization that I have only just made the half way point (and consequently that my 7 hour finishing goal is a bit out of reach), makes me feel a little giddy along that narrow ridge.  I concentrate on my breathing and try to ignore how far below me the earth is.

Safely restored from my balancing act, I charge down to Ben Lomond Lodge.  Greeted with encouraging compliments from none other than the one and only Anna Frost (yep, pretty cool to be cheered on by one of my hero’s), I grab fistfuls of cold, cooked potatoes.  Potatoes have never looked so good, and it is surprising how many I manage to fit into my hands as I head up the road towards my final big climb.  I give myself a well-deserved walking break, and enjoy my potato feast in the sunshine.

As the road climbs and climbs, I am exposed to the wind.  I run most of the way up, even the steeper sections; it is a joy to have more energy, and such runable terrain.  When I already think that I am at quite an altitude again, the road gives way to another steep and tricky climb.  Before I know it I am on another, even higher, more precarious feeling ridge.  The vertigo returns.  More controlled breathing.  This ridge is remarkably familiar, it's the one we plunged over in the helicopter this morning.  That feels like a lifetime ago. The trail is narrow, and the wind buffets me, sounding like the ocean as it crashes into the rocks around me.  I wish that this marathon had come with a disclaimer about heights, and then I could have better prepared myself for tackling these killer peaks.  After the race I heard another runner describe this part of the trail “like running on a balance beam, on an angle, 1000m in the air”.  That pretty much sums it up.

I was feeling a bit grim, but just as I needed it, a fellow runner came past and struck up a conversation with me, boosting my spirits no end, and spurring me on in a much better head space.  To that runner, I am extremely grateful.

Next came a seemingly endless and impossibly steep descent.  The half dozen, sunken goat-carcasses, half way down, do little to boost my confidence.  My descending, never particularly quick or sure-footed, was reduced to a crawl as I clung to the fence wires.  My quads wanted to give up and cry, but I wouldn’t let them.

Finally the bottom, a short, bouncy, handrail-less bridge and then another, much easier climb to the final aid station.  The marshal at this station was fantastic; he couldn’t do enough to help each runner, and praised everyone with warm and heartfelt encouragement.  I left with a smile from ear to ear.

The final descent was relatively easy, although it took a while for my wasted quads to warm to the idea (I wondered if I was going to be able to walk the next day).  I duly met the much anticipated and delightfully refreshing riverbed.  With renewed energy I pushed on hard.  I knew I had only a few km to go (my GPS watch had run out of battery, so I didn’t know exactly how many kms), and I knew that compared to what I had conquered thus far, it was going to be easy.

At some point, the early morning has turned into late afternoon.  The sun light becoming lazy, the air thick and mostly windless, the shadows growing long, the sky to the south collecting clouds.  I splash through river crossing, after river crossing, languishing sometimes up to the waist in the beautifully cool water.  The course travels through a short tunnel, the dim interior an exciting feature, so close to the end.

Finally the river valley widens, in the distance I can see The Woolshed, and the long awaited finish line.  I dig deep and put every remaining shred of energy into my legs.  The closer I draw to the end, the more determined I am to finish strong, and the slower my legs seem to travel.  By the time I drag myself up the final slope and across the finish line I am utterly spent. And by god, I am utterly satisfied.

The Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon challenged me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, but the whole race just went so damn well.  There are enough mountains, views and river crossings to lighten the soul of even the most hardened trail runner.  The terrain varies from highly technical to extremely runable, and the marshals’ were focused, caring, genuine and encouraging.

From a personal perspective, I felt that I ran really well, the speed training seemed to have paid off as I was happy with my overall pace, and my fueling both pre- and during the race, was generally pretty effective.  I finished in just over eight and a half hours and in 8th place for my category.  Pleased much? I think so!

An enormous thank you to Adrian, the Foster family, the volunteers and my fellow competitors – you are all amazing!  Will I be back next year?  HELL YES – I am already trying to work out where I can train so that I will be able to conquer those killer ridges with confidence.

What a race!

Wicked SMMM 2014 Medal

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Run With Me...

A fantastic vid from this years marathon course, just a taster of the incredible course from Saturday, what a place!

Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon 2014 highlights from Adventure Types on Vimeo.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Do good runners get stitch?

So trying to PB over 5km, on one of the hottest days of the year, while being dehydrated, was probably never a good idea.  Last week I bettered my PB by a minute, so I was going for a similar performance this week.  Except, that my body refused to play ball.  The result, horrendous stitch about 2km into what had started out as such a promising run.  I completed the 5km (I love that I can still run through the pain), right hand jabbed into my right side, grimacing wildly.

And as I struggled through the course, I wondered, do the elite and the swift suffer from the same physical ailments as us mortals?  I don't ever recall seeing professional athletes doubling over in agony.

Runners World offers the following advice for combating stitch:
  • Don't eat high fiber or fatty foods before you run
  • Warm up properly
  • Regulate your breathing
  • Slow down and regulate your breathing
  • Hydrate properly
  • Strengthen and exercise core muscles to support breathing
In an attempt to improve my race performance I have been focusing on speed work, technical training, core strengthening and have revisited my nutrition plan.  The speed work seems to be paying off, so I will be interested to see how these training additions affect my race performance this weekend.

In other news.  My new Mizuno Wave Ascend 8's are fab! (Oh Mizuno, why did I ever doubt you).  Lesson learned.

I am really looking forward to the Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon this weekend.  I hope that the weather is reasonable (forecast is dodgy), and that my performance is up to my expectation.  Very excited and a little nervous.  Do runners ever feel as though they have done enough training?

Uber Excited About This Wonderland

Monday, February 3, 2014

27 Ways To Improve Your Ultra Running

I found this really interesting and helpful article on Ultra168, written by Andy DuBois of Mile27Coaching. 
Many ultrarunners I know like to keep it simple; put shoes on, head out the door and run. There is nothing wrong with that approach but if you want to improve then the body has to have the right stimulus to force it to adapt and become stronger.
Andy DuBois - he knows a thing or two about ultras
Andy DuBois – he knows a thing or two about ultras
Elite athletes aim to leave no stone unturned in training. They do all they can to provide the body with the right stimulus and recovery to maximise their training. Whilst many of us don’t have the time to focus on training that some of the elites do most of us could improve in a number of ways with very little if any extra time involved.
I’ve listed below 27 ways you can improve your running that don’t need much if any extra time. See how many of these you can implement in your training program.
1. Know when to run hard and when to ease up. Many runners run their easy sessions too hard and that means their hard sessions aren’t hard enough.
2. Spend more time working on your weaknesses – whether its speed, uphills, downhills, stairs, trails – whatever it is spend more time doing it rather than avoiding it.
3. Build up the elevation of your training runs so it matches that of the race you are training for. If there is 400m per 10k in the race then that’s what you should aim for in training. Even it the only way you can do that is to run up and down the same hill for hours.
4. Stop static stretching – its a waste of time.
5. Introduce dynamic stretching and do it daily instead of just when you are injured.
6. Add a running specific strength training program to your weekly routine. Thirty minutes twice a week can make a big difference.
7. Focus on running during every hard run. Dwelling on work problems during a hard run isn’t going to help your running.
8. Practise staying positive in every run no matter how bad you feel.
Claire Price one of Asia-Pacific's finest female runners always seem to have a smile on her face. Do what she does.
Claire Price one of Asia-Pacific’s finest female runners always seem to have a smile on her face. Do what she does.
9. Smile when the going gets tough, you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.
10. Step outside your comfort zone and choose some races that will show up your weaknesses.
11. Make getting 7-8 hours sleep a priority.
12. Stop eating processed food and increase your fruit and vegetable intake.
13. Include walking in your training – you do it in a race so practise it in training. It’s a big component of ultra running so why not train it.
14. Next time you buy shoes try several different brands on, not just your favourites and see if there is a shoe better suited to you.
15. Stop doing the same runs you always do and try a different route.
16. Run with people a fraction faster than you for your hard runs and slower than you for your easy runs.
17. Seek professional advice and get a personally designed running program.
18. Listen to your body and be prepared to have a day off or two when it needs it.
19. Don’t try and run through an injury.
20. If you have a persistent injury seek professional advice sooner rather than later.
21. Do the least enjoyable sessions more often, you’ll probably benefit more from them.
22. Practise your race day nutrition plan in your long run.
23. Do some regular meditation to develop the ability of the mind to stay focused.
24. Decrease your alcohol intake.
25. Don’t be afraid to every now and then push yourself so hard in an interval session that you can’t finish the session at the specified pace.
26. Running on technical trails is a skill so practice it often until it’s a skill that you have some level of competence at.
27. Don’t be worried about taking a few days off if you are feeling run down. We improve through recovery and if you aren’t recovering then all you are doing is breaking down.
Now how many of these do you do?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The James Stampeed Ultra

Winding up through the hills behind Hanmer Springs, it seems as though the bus driver is going for some sort of large-vehicle-mountain-drifting record as he hurls the bus through the steep and gravelly bends.  The morning is still inky and new.  Great hulking mountains begin to resolve themselves into the dawn.  Heading towards the start-line, we are absorbed in to the fog flooded the valley.

The sun is bleeding onto the peaks above us as we pile off the bus into the freezing morning.  Some hardy souls appear to have camped here over night.  My feet are numb, and I am wearing all of the poly-props that the extensive gear list has insisted I bring.  My pack feels of tramp-worthy weight.  We stomp about in circles lamenting the lack of warm morning beverages, and make various trips to the loos.  My tummy has been playing up all night, and I live in perpetual fear of becoming the next runner of viral fame, crossing the finish line with the evidence of digestive stress in plain sight.  Running, in fact, in the most liquid sense.  I am hoping my insides play fair for the next few hours.

"Stampeding" into the mountains
We set off a bit after 7, dashing immediately through mud, and then beginning to climb.  Its not very steep, but my cold bones and icy feet make progress sluggish.  The swifter runners ahead quickly draw away.  The mountains unfold around me, glowing golden in the morning sun.  Already I feel tiny in this vast landscape.  I am glad to be running slowly enough to enjoy the huge lumps of mountains rising above me, their great schist-laden sides shrouding the bluffs in cold shade.

By the time I reach the top my feet have thawed.  The trail begins a zig-zagging descent, plunging into the folding fingers of one of the most stunning mountain-scapes I have seen.  I race downward to the stream, my feet skidding amongst the hoof prints of the legendary wild horses.  I imagine that the swift head runners have actually morphed into centaurs, and are galloping through the race, putting my two-legged attempt to shame.

St James Wild Horses
I am feeling faster now, plunging along the valley and through the scrub, splashing through a myriad of creek crossings.  Every few hundred meters reveals magnificent vistas.  The narrow valley funnels me between towering peaks, propelling me into the grassy river flats of the Stanley.  The course becomes muddier.  I splash through the sticky, and rather smelly muck, not making any attempt to avoid any deeper sections.  Suddenly I am submerged in mud up to my waist.  An innocent looking mud puddle, concealing a deep muddy hole worthy of the very worst slap-stick comedy sketch.

After dragging myself out I laugh out loud, possibly like a mad-woman, and for quite some time, imagining how comical I must have looked.  I laugh more when I look down and see that the mud-hole has endowed me with the dirty looking legs and pants that I feared a dicky tummy might have resulted in.  Hilarious!

Lake Guyron
The trail wound up to the glassy Lake Guyron.  I ran past the snow capped peaks reflected at my feet, before heading back to the first aid station.  The sun was reaching well into the valley now, and I began on the multitude of cool river crossing that provided clement relief from the warming day.  Bone coloured tussocks lined the river, and the trail negotiated various twists and bluffs, providing beaut views of river flowing below.  Somewhere along this stage of the race, by knee started to get rather achy.  I pretty much ignored it and kept running, but from here on out, my pace was basically shot.

After running through the valley for a while, the trail climbed towards the beating sun, and onto "The Racecourse".  This vast bowl of low-lying alpine vegetation, nestled between rounded, gravelly mountains, seemed to be surfaced entirely of sponge.  Progress here was tiring, and a lack marked trail made for intrepid route selection across the stretching length of plateau.  Cue an aerial shot traversing the scene from end to end, the tiny spec of a struggling trail runner, seen dwarfed against the landscape.

Fluorescent signs, direct me up a washed-out ravine, climbing higher and higher until I crest a narrow ridge.  I can see the river valley far below, flimsy dots of runners and cyclists travel along the pale dusty road.  I know I still have a fair way to go, and I feel jealous of those below who are so much further ahead on their journey to the finish line.  I dash along the ridge, truly understanding how other runners feel when they describe the landscape as invigorating and energizing.  I am by no means on the highest point of the mountains around me, and it is humbling to be so high up, and yet so low.

Looking back out over the "Race Course"
The aptly named "Bums-Rush" looms as my next major obstacle.  It seems like an impossibly steep descent, and is lined with rather slippery looking tussock.  I wish that I had brought a sledge with me.  I run down, partly with tiny steps, partly wildly out of control, partly on my backside, and nearly propel myself right into the middle of the aid tent.  Tenacious mountain bikers rush past. Brightly coloured flashes against the bleaching heat of the Edwards River Valley.

Yep, that's the road down there that I have to get to!
I was now somewhere in the vicinity of 16km from the finish.  I took solace in the fact that I covered that distance on long boring Canterbury Plains gravel roads two or three times a week.  I hoped to be finished in just a couple of hours.  I settled into the run.  I knew I was going pretty slowly by now.  I felt the form on my whole left side breaking down, hip, knee and ankle weakened by distance and punishment.  Mountain bikers constantly streamed past.  Without exception they offered friendly encouragement, and checked to see that I was ok.  There were a few times when I was feeling pretty low on this last leg (one could say, I was on my last legs), and those cheery words of praise really helped to keep me on task.  I expected that I would need to walk, but by this stage, my relatively slow shuffle-run felt (bizarrely) more comfortable, or at-least more industrious.

I shed a few tears when my knee felt too sore, or when I found that this 16km was going to take me closer to three hours, but by the time I headed into my last climb, I was just keen to get on with it.  The last ascent deposited me onto a smooth track (reminiscent of the rail-trail), and I coasted through the last few kilometers to the finish.  I desperately wanted to pull out all the stops and speed in at the end, but my knee and the nearly 9 hours of running meant that I had to be contented with just keeping up a steady pace.

I felt that the sun light was accumulating that heady golden glow of the late afternoon, but that may have just been the exhaustion.  This race really took it out of me, but in lots of ways I was really proud to have run for so long, to have even made it to the start line after my night-long, dehydrating relationship with the toilet, and to have kept going despite the "knee-issue".  I would have liked a faster time, but I suppose that I would need to complete some speed training if I wanted to be quick.

The James Stampeed Ultra, is hands down, one of the most stunning mountain runs New Zealand has to offer.  The landscape is even more spectacular than I had anticipated, and the terrain, for the most part, is extremely runnable.   It was hot, but we were so lucky to have such impressive weather.  The race is well organised, and the volunteer marshals were fantastic.  This is the sort of race that I will 100% return to in 2015, (fitter and faster!?), but I absolutely can't wait for it.  Hopefully this fantastic race will gain the notoriety it deserves, and will take its place as one of New Zealand's Must Run events.

Second placed woman Leah Anstis wrote this fab report for her race:

St James Stampede Race Report

I would like to thank my feet: 9 hours of running, 14 river crossings, 1600m of climb and not a blister in sight!
Total Vertical Ascent To Date: 7145m