Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ultramarathon Series - Part Three

Tarawera Ultramarathon - March 19th 2011
Race day! At 6:45am, I was amongst the huddle of runners eagerly awaiting the verbal cue from the race director to start running. It had rained the previous afternoon and through the night, so it was with great relief that the rain had stopped and the only form of discomfort I felt was my build-up of nervous energy and the sharp sting of cold air on my skin. I had almost been tempted to wear a long-sleeved top with the aim of wrapping it around my waist once I warmed up, but I’m glad I opted to go with just my arm-sleeves as it was no more than ten minutes into the race that I had them rolled down to my wrists.

Ready to go - all smiles
The first couple of kilometers were ironically what should have tipped us off as to what lay ahead, but maybe the excitement of finally starting out on our first ultramarathon distracted us from realizing that the long hill-climb that marked the start of the race was actually just one of many more long hill-climbs to come. Consequently it was with great enthusiasm that Andrea and I hiked up our first incline, completely oblivious to the brutal challenge that awaited us.
The first twenty kilometers went by relatively easy, nothing too major to scare us into thinking we might have trouble finishing the race. Even my problematic hamstring seemed to be holding up pretty well. The only real issue I foresaw was that my bladder seemed full already and I wasn’t keen on having to make a pit stop behind some tree. The only way I knew how to avoid such a scenario was to settle in to the run and focus instead on the fabulous scenery around me.

Stunning lake views before we had to start climbing
At around the second or third aid station we came across a couple of friendly "kiwi" blokes who struck up a conversation with us as we ran along one of the wider parts of the trail. I keep referring to “we” and “us” because although we didn’t intentionally plan on running together, Andrea and I had come to rely on each other in a way that I think probably only the two of us can really understand. We not only run well together in terms of pace compatibility, but we also seem to be able to motivate each other during our most difficult moments. Some would say that our dependency on each other invites certain limitations, but we would say otherwise.
It was at the end of the Millar Road aid station, at around the 21k point that things started to get tough. We didn’t realize it at the time, but it would be approximately 15k before we saw another aid station, and much of that 15k would consist of arduous climbing that involved mostly walking. Reading back over the website after the race, this section of the course is described by one runner as “perfectly runnable.”  As far as I was concerned, this continuous and often steep stretch of trail was not runnable at all. In fact, it was on one of these so-called runnable hills that Andrea and I caught up with Anna, and not surprisingly, she too had slowed to a walk. 

By the time Andrea and I reached the 36k aid station at Okataina, we were struggling to remain optimistic about the remaining kilometers we had yet to run. The 15k we had just covered had been much harder than we had anticipated, and in many ways, because of the way we were constantly blindsided by one hill-climb after another, our minds had also taken a beating; it was hard to stay focused and positive. Furthermore, the descent to Okataina was long and steep, causing our quads to take the full brunt of the impact and rendering them half useless by the time we cleared the forest. If it hadn’t been for the joy I felt at seeing my parents, and both mine and Anna’s little girls at the aid station, I think I could quite easily have called it a day and quit.

Happy after seeing my parents and little Jade and Laura, AND after refuelling!

Laura and Jade wishing they could follow us
With 24k to go, I told myself that I had just two easy 10ks to run, followed by an even easier 4k. My father had told me that the worst part of the course was over and that it should be relatively flat and easy from Okataina to Tarawera Falls. I was happy to hear that, but a little cautious as Andrea and I had been hearing similar reports along the way and none of them had panned out the way we had been led to believe. With determination underscored by a certain amount of skepticism, we started out on our final leg of the race.
The next 10k was mostly uphill with some short and sharp descents, and it was on the descents that I started to experience problems with my left IT band. I was now moving at a slow but steady pace, my eyes to the ground and my mind steadfastly repeating one of several pre-rehearsed mantras. I vaguely remember coming out of my little trance for a split second, and in that instant being alerted to the fact that it was eerily quiet.  Andrea and I had been talking about how the course was so much harder than we had expected, and with those thoughts still in my mind I began to tell her that I was having doubts about being able to finish. Surprised at her non-response I turned my head and was startled to find that I was all alone. 
With less than maybe 15k to go, I wearily moved forward, praying with every step and asking God to please give me the strength to keep going. There were moments too when I felt isolated and afraid, concerned that I might have missed one of the trail markers. Hence it was with great joy and relief when I saw the final aid station in front of me, and an even greater blessing when I saw once again, the two men who had befriended Andrea and I earlier in the race. 
I had only 5k to go now, but the pain in my leg was giving me much grief and I began to lean heavily on one side in an effort to minimize the sharp pangs that stabbed me with every step I took. Several runners overtook me in this final stage of the race, but I refused to give up when I was so near the finish line. As I hobbled around the last bend and saw the small crowd of spectators waving us in through the finishing corral, I gritted my teeth, picked my feet up, and went through running. No tears, no self-pity, no regrets. Just sheer admiration and respect for all the runners who make up the relatively small community of ultramarathoners; a community I can proudly say, that through a test of extreme physical and mental strength, I have now been initiated into.

First ultramarathon completed - 23rd overall in a field of 65 and 6th female in a field of 25
The question still remains unanswered however - was I crazy to consider doing an ultramarathon? Probably. Will I ever do another ultramarathon? Absolutely!

No comments:

Post a Comment