“To finish in daylight” - it seems like a very simple and easy goal. After all, I only had to run slightly faster than last year to make it happen. But if I’ve learned one thing from the ultra marathons I’ve run, it’s that nothing in an ultra is ever as easy as you might think. Nothing is guaranteed, and you can’t take anything, even finishing, for granted.
So as I lined up with the 175+ other runners in the darkness at Khandalla Park, I went over the race plan in my head and set my sights firmly on the goals I wanted to achieve in this, my third year running the WUU2K.
I had two main goals this year –
1 – to finish in daylight.
2 – to run well throughout the race (not do the little old man shuffle) and to finish the race running strong as well.
I’d completed the Wellington Marathon two weeks previously and had come through that race remarkably well, and thankfully, not injured this year. My body seemed to recover fully within a few days, and I was itching to get back out running again by the end of the week.
So I had no excuses this year. I knew what I was getting myself into, where to walk and where to run. This was my best chance to see just how well I could run the course. And for me, ‘how well’ does not necessarily equate to ‘how fast’. I could have run the race faster, but I would have been totally trashed by the half-way mark, and unable to even move the following day.
This year I had a strategy that involved not being stupid as much as possible (a difficult task for me) so that I’d still be able to run at the end of the race. I resolved to not get carried away and push hard, like I normally do, and instead just try to keep a steady pace for the whole race, knowing that doing so would see me cross the finish line well ahead of my target.
The weather on the start-line was perfect – windless and not at all cold – about 12 degrees. A quick briefing from Gareth – the awesome and lovely Race Director, and off we went into the darkness, snaking our way slowly up the trail that would take us to the top of Mt. Kaukau.
I started at the very back with the Tail End Charlies using the mass of runners in front of me as a break to stop me attacking the climb and repeating the mistake of my first year. Much of the ascent was done at a walk due to the number of runners and the narrowness of the trail. I was fine with that. There was plenty of race left to make up for any lost time. I got to the top in about 22 minutes, a bit slower than previous years, but still an ok time. I felt pretty good at the top with my heart rate not spiked and my legs feeling hungry to run.
Unlike previous years it was fine on the top as we started along the Skyline trail, with views of the city slowly waking up as we ran into the dawn. There was a bit of a breeze, but nothing a Wellingtonian would comment on.
As dawn broke I found myself running behind a couple of women, one dressed up as a ‘single use plastic bottle’. They pulled over to the side a bit and called me to go past, but I said ‘no worries, keep going’. They were running at a slightly slower pace than I wanted to run, so I used that as a guide to stop me doing something stupid. And this was a strategy I used for the rest of the day – find someone running at a good pace and stick behind them instead of trying to blast past them.
We kept ticking along the Skyline track as the sun came up on what would prove to be a lovely day in the hills around Wellington. At almost the same place where I twisted my right ankle last year, forcing me to complete the race on a malfunctioning leg, I twisted my left knee this year. The expletive laden exaltation was more in frustration than actual pain. My foot flared in angry red fire for a few moments, but then subsided and gave me no trouble for the rest of the day. But my knee would tell a different story. It got a bit grumpy as the day wore on, but nothing like last year, and not enough to really slow me down.
I ended up passing the bottle lady as the trail widened out and we got some nice downhill running. I was feeling good, if a little concerned at the time it was taking to get to the first aid station. While I didn’t want to go too fast on the first section, I didn’t want to leave myself in a hole that was too deep for me to dig myself out of either.
I was having some issues with my Hokas as well. They were a good choice for the 60km ultra I did in January – the Hutt River Trails Ultra. But out here on the technical trails, they were too wide with not enough grip on the greasy surface. My legs were feeling the effects of being twisted and turned by the uneven ground and were quite jelly-like by the time I saw the Makara Road aid station.
I put this down to the change in training and my strategy to do my bulk training on the road. I had put in a lot of hours on the pavement because it was easier running for me and it meant I could clock up a lot more hours with a lot less pain and injury risk. But that also meant that my legs were no longer used to the uneven surface of the trails. But by the time I hit the uphill grind to the top of Makara Peak, they had begun to remember what this trail thing was all about, and started to relish the uphills.
All of the hill work I had put in during training was about to be tested big time.
Last year I had tried to run the rough, rocky section from the road up to the 4-wheel drive track that leads to the summit. It hurt a lot at that stage. But this year I power-hiked the rough sections and ran what I could, and reached the road feeling good and chirpy. After a quick chat with the marshall there, I took off for the summit, walking some of the uphill bits, and running some of the uphill bits. I was always talking to myself and telling myself to be smart about this - ‘You know what happens later on if you run this bit. So let’s not make that mistake this year’.
Just below the summit I spied a figure by the side of the track, and though my sunglasses were a bit fogged up I recognised who it was – a photographer. Everyone in front of me was walking the short steep uphill section to the top, smiling at the camera as they passed. So I broke into a run, trying to look fit and strong, not old and winded. The photographer even laughed out loud that I was running as she brought the camera to bear and fired off a few shots in my direction. I laughed as I passed and she turned to focus on the runners behind me. I said “And now, I can walk’ as I passed her by and headed for the summit.
Once on top of Makara Peak I took a few moments to take some photos of the dawn back towards Mt Kaukau and the start of the day’s adventure. Then it was off for a date with the Leaping Lizard track as I got my first big downhill section of the day.
This was a lovey run, and I enjoyed it very much. Not only for the scenery and the easy running, but also for the company. I was running with a couple of people originally from South Africa (from their accents), and we chatted as we descended into the bowels of the bike park.
I’m sorry to say that I don’t remember their names, or their bib numbers, but if you are reading this, thank you for one of the highlights of my day. It was a pleasure to run with you.
It turns out they had watched my videos on the course and found them useful. They and numerous others came up to me during the day to say how much they liked the videos and how they had helped them prepare for the race. It’s a very humbling thing when people do this. I get a real kick out of it. Not for the ‘fame’ of it, but to know that something I created is actually useful, is really cool.
Coming up Possum Bait Line – which I walked strategically, we all stopped to get a selfie, and I was laughing all the way up to the top at how funny that was – that people were getting a selfie with ME!
We started Nikau Valley in good order, happy to have the climb behind us. And I must admit that now I was in the front, things got a bit loose. I was flying along just feeling so good and relishing the little climbs and wanting to push even harder.
I caught up to a group in front of me, and since the trail was narrow, and I knew I was being a bit stupid, I tucked in behind them and used them as a guide to keep me on track and under control. This worked really well for the rest of the climb up Missing Link.
It wasn’t long before I started lifting my head and cocking an ear to try and catch some music or conversation that would mark the end of the trail. I knew who would be at the end – the always lovely Kathy Kemp. Who would she be dressed up as this year? I heard broken snippets of sound through the trees and smiled. I’d know pretty soon now.
As I left the trees and hit the open cross track, there she was and I nearly fell over from laughing. She was dressed up as Freddie Mercury (complete with moustache) with Queen playing on the stereo behind her. We chatted for a bit and remarked on how much better my race was going this year. At this point I really had nothing to complain about and I was having a really good day.
My companions from Leaping Lizard arrived, thanking me for waiting for them, and we left together for the short climb up to Snake Charmer. Last year this track hurt. It hurt a lot. My leg was so cramped and my knee so inflamed that running downhill was almost impossible.
This year it was almost too easy. I just let myself go and relaxed into the run, letting gravity be my guide. Lazy Fern took over from Snake Charmer and lead me down to the aid station at the carpark where I could refill my water bottle and get some food down.
Then it was time for my next big challenge, one that I had not been able to even contemplate in the previous two year’s races – I was going to run Salvation from the bottom to the top.
I walked up the road (I don’t know why but I have never been able to run that section even in training) and hit the bottom of the track and tucked in behind another couple of women who were putting in a good effort as we climbed.
Once again I used them as a guide to keep my impulsive nature in check. When they walked, I walked and when they ran, I ran. And in this way we made it to the top of Salvation in a reasonable time, while still feeling comfortable about the running that lay ahead. I was pretty happy with how that played out and how I was feeling at the top of Wright’s Hill.
Now all that remained was to run the Zealandia fence-line around to the Windmill and I would have made it to the halfway point.
A quick glance at my watch gave me a moment of disappointment however. I have planned to be at the halfway point in about four hours. If I could be there in that time and still in good running condition, I felt I’d have a good chance to put in a really good performance, one that would be a really good vindication of the hard work I’d put in during training. As things stood I was about 40 minutes too late for that.
I decided not to panic. I was still 20 minutes ahead of where I was last year, but more importantly, I was still able to run, pretty much pain free. After The Windmill was the long downhill section to Red Rocks and then the mostly flat run to Owhiro Bay and then the bottom of the Tip Track. I could make up time there easily.
The long climb up to the road was really hard and I found it difficult to break back into a run once I reached the top. So I continued walking for a bit, trying to get my breath back. It took a while. But by the time the whirling edifice filled my vision, my legs and lungs were back and ready for action. And so I hit the halfway point feeling the best I have ever felt and keen to hit the next section hard, and push to make up some time.
The weather had continued to improve and now it was a bright sunny day. So as I left the aid station with a smile, I picked my feet up and tried to look fresh for the photographer (nothing vain about that! Hehe) as I continued to the track that I hate the most. No, not the Tip Track. I actually quite like the Tip Track. It’s hard, rocky, brutal in places, but it doesn’t hide what it is. You always know what you are in for and it always delivers on its promises (or threats?). No, my nemesis is Barking Emu.
I hate this track so much! This track promises to be easy running with its slightly undulating profile and vistas of the city. But this track seems to hate me as much as I hate it. Every time I have run this track, be it in training or in a race, it has tripped me up. I have had more broken, blackened and destroyed toenails on this section of track than all the other trails I’ve run combined.
So I hit the start of the track well warned of its tricks and cunning purpose. Despite my best precautions, I’d not gone a full kilometre before a sneaky rock jumped up and grabbed me by the ankle, sending me sprawling, arms pinwheeling as I sought to not face-plant on the trail, again. Somehow I kept my feet under me, but I felt the strain of doing so pass to my left knee and knew that it would cost me time on the hills to come.
Annoyed and overheating, I stopped and peeled off a layer, allowing other runners past while I got myself together and focused on making it to the top of the Tip Track in one piece. I chatted with some more people as we traversed the rutted snaking piece of mischief that snagged my feet again and again. I had to slow down a bit and let them get ahead to spare them from my language as I told the track what I thought of it.
Then in the distance, around the next bend was the sight I had been hoping for, and one I was expecting, but not hoping for so much. Which made a nice change from last year.
The expected sight was the top of the Tip Track, marking the end of my torment on this cursed track, and the first cut-off point. One that I would pass through with plenty of time this year. The other sight I was expecting was Death himself standing at the top waiting for ‘customers’.
As a little old man, I expect to see Death pretty much every time I climb the Tip Track. It’s a given that he would be there waiting for the inevitable. It turned out that this incarnation of the Grim Reaper was actually Brad – the race director of the Tip Track Marathon. How fitting he should be there to greet the runners as they got their first glimpse of the infamous track.
We chatted briefly before I was sent on my way down to the south coast and Red Rocks. This section always surprises me with how hard it can be to run, especially with a grumpy knee. The views were worthy of slowing down however, so I didn’t complain, much.
I ran most of this section on my own, with most of the other runners making the most of the downhill running to make good time. I was trying to be smart about what I was doing, so I took it quite easy, just moving steadily down towards the beach.
I crossed the two little streams at the end of the trail easily, grateful for my waterproof socks, because it meant I didn’t have to try and skip across the stones and still end up with wet feet. I could make sure of my footing and take my time, preventing twisted ankles and further aggravation of my grumpy knee.
Storms and tides had made a mess of the road along the beach and it was nowhere as easy to run on as the last time I ran through here. That left me walking quite a few bits where everything was loose or tangled in seaweed. I told myself I was being sensible, but in truth I, was being knackered.
I was looking forward to the next aid station. For the last two years the Owhiro Bay aid station had the most delicious apples I have ever tasted, and I was really hanging out for another helping. I managed to run the last bit and was greeted by more friendly volunteers wanting to refill my water bottle. It would have been a shame to do it myself since they had come out today to do exactly that. So in the interests of helping them have a good day out, I let them refill me. They seemed to like that.
I went hunting for the apples and was disappointed to see there were none on offer, just oranges and bananas. I grabbed a couple of oranges and savoured the sweet juice as my refilled bottle was handed back. I thanked the lovely woman and set off for a date with the infamous Tip Track, and another meeting with Death himself.
I took my time running along the pavement, walking occasionally. I had it in mind that I was going to try and run at least some of the uphill slog, just to say I’d done it. But even walking it was hard enough at this point. So I determined I’d power hike for all I was worth and try to get to the top as fast as I could.
As I passed Bata Place my watch beeped – low battery. Already?! It was fully charged when I started and we were only about 6 or 7 hours into the race, there should be plenty of juice left in it. But no. It was in the red. I pulled out my little power bank and plugged it into the watch, hoping it would charge.
I have issues with the watch in that sometimes it will charge and sometimes it won’t. Today was a day when it didn’t. So with the watch tucked away in my race vest I put my head down and focused on getting to the end of the race as soon as possible.
I hit the bottom of the Tip Track not knowing what the time was, but knowing I was not chasing the cut-off this year.
The day was really heating up now, and even the fresh head-wind I’d run into on the beach seemed to have faded. I was sweating and panting and doing my best to clap for the runners already done with the climb and headed for the final aid station. I’d done this climb twice before in race conditions (5 times of you count my fun run at the Tip Track Marathon) and both times I was chasing the cut-off. So the slow slog was agonising as the clock ticked away my chances of finishing.
This year I had plenty of time and I wasn’t concerned about being cut. I just wanted to get it over and done with so I could meet my goal of finishing in daylight. That didn’t make it physically any easier, but it did make the mental game a lot easier.
It seemed to take forever and not long at all, until a runner rounded the corner and told me the top was just a few hundred metres away. I was sure he was wrong, there was still another bend or so to navigate, but no, around the corner Death stalked the junction waiting for the poor ragged souls to stagger to a standstill and breath out their bib numbers like a hopeful prayer.
It had taken just 40 minutes for me to reach the top, but I was spent. So I sat for a bit and had some water and a gel. Then it was time to begin the trot down to the Tawatawa aid station and the final cut-off.
This year was a year of firsts in a way. As I ran down the track I passed other runners on their way up – a new experience for me. In the previous years I had been the last runner, so there was no-one to encourage on my way down. I put on a slow and easy pace, not wanting to twist an ankle or trip, now that the crux of the race was completed.
I actually quite enjoyed the run down to the aid station. I took my time since there was no hurry this year. I hit the aid station with time to burn, but didn’t linger beyond getting my water filled up and snagging some delicious fudge. I had another hill to climb.
The hill up over to Berhampore was another hill I was determined to run, and another hill I completely failed to fire on. It was enough to power hike it, and although I knew it was costing me time, there wasn’t all that much I could do about it. Pushing hard now would not win me the race. All it would do is blow me out and I’d have nothing left for when the running was easy. So I plodded as fast as I could towards the summit. I have found on climbs like this, when I’m tired, the difference between running to the top and walking to the top is something like 5-10 minutes. It’s not enough to make or break the race, but it does make a difference in how well I feel at the end, and how well I can run after the climb. So I was comfortable walking up, even though in my dreams I’d power up the hill on reserves I didn’t know I had.
Just below the summit I was caught by another runner – Gavin I think it was - who was having a hard day with IT band issues. I really felt for him, and I knew exactly how that felt at this stage of the race. He was putting in a good effort though, and we ran together off and on, to the finish.
Once the top of the Berhampore hill was gained, I checked the position of the sun an knew I had this in the bag – failing any disasters. We had some sweet downhill on lovely trails all the way to Adelaide Road and then a short sharp climb up Mt Albert.
I trotted down to the road, still able to run fully on the flat soccer fields – another big improvement on previous years. There was no doubt that I would walk to the top of Mt Albert. The climb is steep and rough and not a lot of fun at this stage of the race. I got to the top of the track, just below the nasty end bit, where you think you’re done but there is still another grassy hill to climb to get to the road, and waited for Gavin. He was still pushing himself hard, digging in his poles as he ground the climb out. I had a good idea of the pain he was in and I just couldn’t watch. So I turned and tried to keep moving toward the road and the crossing that would lead to the summit of Mt Albert.
Gavin caught me at the crossing and we climbed the final stretch together. Then the sweet, sweet downhill beckoned and I let it carry me down to Melrose Park and past the zoo.
I bounded across the next road crossing with a smile. In my first year of the race, this was where I had lost the daylight. I could see the sun still above the horizon and felt that I was still on target to achieve my goals. Gavin was right there as we ran the last section of Mt Albert and headed for the final climb of the day – Mt Victoria.
Mt Vic is a lovely place to run. The trails are pretty friendly, even on tired legs. I was walking more than I wanted at this stage, but since I was pretty sure I’d make it to the finish in time, I wasn’t too bothered about it.
I reached a section of trail the loops back on itself before heading up to the final road crossing of the day, to find my way partially blocked by a 6 or 7 year old kid, standing in me middle of the track staring at me as I ran towards him. Not trusting myself to dodge lithely around him, I stopped running and walked.
His poor mother was trying herd three young boys off the track to allow runners through, apologising all the while. The chap in my way called out ‘Good job. You’re doing great’ as I passed. I smiled and told his mother that he was no bother to me at all.
He was exactly where he should be.
What does it say about our society when a child (who unconsciously mirrors the environment it grows up in) sees a sweaty, stumbling old man in a dishevelled state as he struggles up a trail where that child and his brothers could sprint up with ease, and the first words out of his mouth are those of encouragement and support for a complete stranger.
I felt hugely humbled and happy to have had such an encounter at that stage of the race. I was smiling all the way up to the road.
And that’s where I got my most excellent surprise of the day.
It began with the usual encouragement of the marshalls as they kept me safe for the final crossing. The road cleared and I set off, but I was a bit too slow to take advantage of the break in the traffic. I was less than halfway across the first lane when two cars came around the bend. So I quickly retreated back to the verge.
The first car blasted past, roaring as it climbed the hill. The second car slowed as the driver shouted at me through the window. I was stunned to see it was my friend Dimitri – he had come to meet me at the finish line and drive me home. God bless Dimitri!
By the time I crossed this time Gavin had caught me up and we ran the last section together, with me dropping in behind him and guiding him a little and doing whatever I could to encourage him on. I knew what he was feeling and how desperately he wanted to cross the finish line.
And then, there was just the last little hill to climb and the finish line would be in sight. The sun was still above the horizon, not by much, but enough. I would achieve my fist goal. I still had another goal to accomplish however – to run, actually run across the finish line. To do that, first I’d have to do exactly the opposite.
As Gavin toiled ahead of me I dropped to a walk to let him get some distance ahead. I didn’t want to be that git who blasts past him on the finish line like a complete dick. So I held back until I saw him crest the hill, lift his head and set his sights on the finish line. I could see him draw on his reserves for a final push, and wished him on. Once he was far enough ahead that I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to catch him, I called on my own reserves, a small packet I had secreted away just for this particular section of the race, and lurched into a run.
And it was a run, an actual run. Not a shuffle, not a ‘drag my dying arse over the line and collapse’ type run. It was a triumphant run. I was finishing in daylight, I was running across the finish line and I had run reasonably well all day.
I nearly ran straight in Gareth’s arms as I crossed and he put the finisher’s medal around my neck and confirmed that it was indeed still daylight. It was high fives all round.
I glanced over at Gavin, my running companion for most of the last 8 kilometres or so. We shared a silent look of respect, he took my hand and we parted. Him, to a well-deserved rest and I hope some serious pampering. Me, to the cupcakes. (well, they’re really good)
I chatted with Dimitri and Megan for a bit and then it was time to be driven home. I am so grateful that Dimitri was there, and that I didn’t have to walk. The sun had set and it was no longer daylight by the time I got home.
I had made it, just, but I had made it. All that was left to do was have a shower, a beer and some ice-cream and then fall into bed.
And that was it, my third WUU2K, and best one yet, completed. I now had two days to get my washing done, pack my bags and head to Wellington airport for my next big adventure – my long awaited honeymoon.
But that’s a story for another day.