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Running the ultra marathon: when training pays off

Running the ultra marathon: when training pays off

Marcel is a Foundation Run member who has been logging his thoughts about training for his first ultra marathon. He’s just run the 102km Tarawera Ultra Marathon. Here’s his wrap up of the day.

The first casualty at an ultra marathon event is your ego. Having trained for the biggest physical challenge of your life, you’re suddenly surrounded by hundreds of people who look and talk like they whip out a quick ultra every morning before breakfast. Apparently other people do this sort of thing all the time. Today will be just another run for them.

Me? I’m about to redefine my physical and mental limits.

My wife Debbie reminds me not to be intimidated by all the flash gear. Fancy pants don’t make for a better runner. We are well trained and we’re here to run our own race.

So this is it, the Big Thing, the One We’ve Been Training For. It’s rained all night. We’ve hardly slept. We’ve hurtled through the dark on a disconcertingly fast bus to Kawerau. We’ve spent half an hour queuing for the loo. We’re standing already drenched at the start line.

There’s no backing out now. This is no longer something we might do in an imagined future. We’re seconds away from a smack in the face with the real thing. Finally, at long, exhaustingly last, we are about to start running in the 2018 Tarawera Ultra Marathon. The countdown concludes, and we’re off. The finish line is 102km away.

Relive Marcel's 'Tarawera Ultra Marathon'

Useful reminder #1: Don’t forget to enjoy it.

Several people have stressed this to me in the days before the event. It sounds trite but it’s important. Make the most of the day, even the hardest moments. If you’re not savouring the challenge, why are you here?

The first few hours are genuinely easy to enjoy (once we get past that swarm of bastard stinging insects). It’s smooth running: remote tracks, trees towering above us. The wet weather smears an extra layer of adventure over the day. Tarawera Falls is spectacular. The river is in full rage mode, rain and mist adding to the forest’s ethereal beauty. It’s stunning. I’m comfortable and I’m enjoying myself. As I chew through the distance I start to appreciate just how well trained I am for this event.

Useful reminder #2: Stay under the red line.

I’ve heard this expressed in a number of ways, including: “run at your comfortable pace”, “stay under your threshold”, “don’t blow out too soon” and “pace yourself ‘cos it’s a bloody long way.”

I keep passing people. The training has made my comfortable pace a lot faster than it used to be. It’s disconcerting at first. Am I going too fast? Will I blow out later? But I know my own pace. I’m jogging steadily, keeping the engine ticking over. I find it easier to jog lightly up hills where other people are walking them. (A quiet nod of gratitude to those early morning hill sessions.) I’m confident I can maintain this level of effort for a long time. I’m below my red line.

I’ve been fuelling myself with sandwiches and bananas at each aid station. My secret weapon is a drop bag at the fourth aid station: homemade chia pudding to boost me into the second marathon. I’ve never had to say “second marathon” before. Should I be worried yet? I’m still feeling fresh, knocking off one section of the race at a time. It feels like a few shorter runs that I’m stringing together into one slightly longer run.

Pride comes before a fall, eh.

Useful reminder #3: Say yes.

In the registration queue a friendly American said to me, “About three quarters of the way through the race you’re gonna to come to a point where you’ll ask yourself if you really want to keep going. Everyone asks that question. Say yes. Then walk the last 20km if you have to, but finish the race.”

I find myself needing to say yes at around 45 kilometres. With days of rain and the constant parade of runners, the track beyond the Tarawera outlet has degenerated into long sections of mud. Rivendell has turned into Dagobah. The mud sucks at my feet, saps my energy, threatens to yank my knees and ankles in twisty directions.

Everyone I come across is grumbling. “You just can’t do anything with this,” says one woman. My shoes are sodden, my knees and feet are starting to ache. I’m realising that Pain with a capital P is going to be my new normal for the rest of the day. It’s not a cheery thought.

But my lungs are still feeling fine. I’m not puffed, just a bit sore in the legs. Whenever I hit sections of runnable track, my pace returns like an old friend. There’s heaps in the tank.

It’s an important moment. I make peace with the pain and keep moving forward, one runnable section at a time.

Useful reminder #4: It’s an ultra marathon. Anything can happen.

The best-laid plans can get scuppered by wasp stings or bogged in the mud. Damn this mud, it’s such hard work. Other people are having their plans interrupted by upset stomachs. A runner waves me by as he dry-retches against a tree.

Somewhere on the Okatania traverse I come across a guy who is raging at the elements with proper, angry shouting. I offer him some encouragement as I pass by. He doesn’t acknowledge me but glares like thunder into deep space. I feel his anguish. It’s been a frustrating, slow 30km since the Tarawera outlet and this is the longest, steepest and muddiest section so far.

It’s a massive boost to break through the end of that Okatina leg. A band of volunteers in colourful wigs cheer me into the aid station as though I’m their long lost cousin. It’s a thump of emotion. Got to hand it to all of the Tarawera supporters, they make this event something extra special. Thanks, volunteers!

I’m an hour and a half behind schedule when I reach the Blue Lake. This is a milestone for me. It means I’ve only got 20km to go. “Only”. It’s a huge boost. As an unexpected bonus, my family, friends, Foundation Run coach and physio are waiting there. Seeing people I know and realising I’m gonna crack this thing puts me on some sort of adrenaline high and I can’t stop talking. Only 20km to go. That Okatina leg was tough, but I’m gonna crack this thing. Did I say that already? I can do this. I’m feeling great. Sore, but great. I’m gonna do this. Boom!

I set off around the Blue Lake, passing people who are hobbling, heading confidently toward the Redwoods. See me run, and tremble!

Fast forward 10km and I’m in my darkest moment. Night is falling. It’s hard to see in the forest. I’m feeling the 95km in my legs. My left knee has had enough. It hurts too much to run down the skiddy hills.

Screw it, I’ll just walk the rest of the way. I indulge myself in a few kilometres of grumpiness.

The body is an amazing thing. It has its little tanty and then it recovers. Pretty soon I’m enjoying myself again. I make it over the Redwoods hills, back onto surfaces I can actually run.

Last 5km, it’s completely dark now so I trail behind someone who wasn’t fool enough to forget their head torch at the last aid station. My comfortable pace is still strong and the guy in front is too slow. I use the torch on my phone and leave him behind. My legs are heavy but the engine is still firing. Time for a final pep talk:

“Yo, legs! I know you’re weary and sore. I know you’re loaded up with 14 hours of running but I’ve still got plenty of energy to push you forward. Let me do the driving and we’ll be over the line in no time.”

I switch my legs over to autopilot. They don’t get to complain for the final 3km.

Useful reminder #5: Walk around at the end.

The best part is crossing the line with two of my boys, 11 and 13 years old. They meet me in the stinky dark of the Rotorua geyser fields and run with me for the last 1500 metres. “You’ll have to keep up because I’m not waiting,” I warn them. We hit the finish line together.

And so ends the longest run of my life. What a strange, great moment.

I’m tired and sore but not nearly as broken as I expected. It’ll be a couple more hours before Debbie crosses the line. I walk to the car, walk to the drop bag tent, walk to the portaloos (a portaloo has never looked so welcoming) and walk to the beer stand (the single greatest beer of my life). I’m tentative at first but the walking loosens me up. It sets me up for a much faster recovery the next day.

Debbie makes it home with a much sorer knee than I had to contend with. She’s a lot tougher than me. We both shed a few tears of triumph and relief. I should add here that I couldn’t possibly love this woman any more than I already do. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot during the day. She’s the reason we embarked on this madness in the first place. How much do I love you? 102 kilometres’ worth.

Useful reminder #6: The hard work was done in the training.

It’s hard to believe we just ran that distance. Even having run it, one foot in front of the other, my brain can’t compute what 102km looks like. When you’re on the trail you only ever see 500m at a time, so that’s what you focus on. The full distance is arbitrary, intangible. Stringing it all together, it was just an unusually long run.

If that seems a bit vainglorious it’s only because I found the ultra marathon so enjoyable. The day was tough – yes, definitely tough – but more than that it was manageable and fun. I don’t have any dramatic stories of endurance to make my mum cry. Aside from a couple of black toes I’m completely intact. The hard work was done in the training. I could not have been better prepared.

That’s a testament to the Foundation Run programme that got us firstly to the start line and then to the finish line in such good shape. They don’t pay me to say that. I can’t recommend them highly enough. I’ll tell anyone who even smells like they’re thinking of going for a run to get a coach, and then I’ll point them to Foundation Run.

I’m still processing our achievement. A week later it’s still sinking in. In the meantime, possibly the best immediate outcome is being able to say to our kids: “If your mum and dad can run 102km, then you can empty the dishwasher.”

February 19, 2018

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