Here I am sitting and thinking how to answer to my colleague’s question when is my next ultra race? It’s been a couple of days since I ran my first 100k race; 102k to be precise. Going through all the pain and doubts and solid decision of quitting running, I am now sipping on my herbal tea and thinking ‘hey girl, when is my next race actually?’
Last year I did my first ultra marathons: 6Foot track and UTA50, both in Blue Mountains (NSW), and Stromlo race in Canberra (ACT). The longest of them was 54km. What would be next I thought? They all say if nothing changes nothing changes, right? Next logical step would be running a longer distance. I also always write down my goals for a year. For 2018 the only one that was not crossed out from my list was to run an international race. Putting it all together I signed up for an international ultra marathon race in New Zealand – Tarawera Ultra Marathon. It was early in February, it’s overseas and it’s in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I quickly signed up for the 102km trail race and got super excited, chucking in more trail running training into my busy schedule.
I was feeling very confident about my performance before I headed off to New Zealand as I had been diligently doing my weight strength training in the gym, completing my tempo runs along with long runs every week. I usually never put any expectations on my race time and try to stick to a happy-go-lucky attitude: not overanalysing my pre-race/during and post race nutrition, neither had I ever had any set strategies how to run a race.
This time while packing my trail shoes and running gear I was confident in my abilities to complete this race strong. Little I knew…
The race was scheduled for Saturday and we arrived on Wednesday night to a little beautiful town in New Zealand, Rotorua, about 3 hours drive away from Auckland. The next morning we had a boat tour booked with the race organisers: they took us on a tour around the town, showed us a bit of trails we would be running a couple of days later, talked about history and culture of the locals and fed us with tons of scones with cream and jam. That was such an amazing touring experience, apart from that we did 20,000 steps on that day. Probably not the best thing to do 2 days prior the big race. But who ever cared about tapering, right?
Next day was less physically demanding and we tried to rest as much as we could. By the way, I say ‘we’. We are my husband and myself. My husband is an experienced ultra marathon runner and he was doing 100miles in New Zealand. That distance, his favourite race distance by the way, is beyond my understanding. Men are from Mars.
Here came the racing day, Saturday: we woke up at 2:30am, drank coffee and had our breakfast and picked up our friend who was doing the 102km race. Grabbed another coffee and off he went, my husband, to race the long 100miles at 4am.
100km runners had to get on the bus to get to the start line. It took us about an hour to get there through the dark roads. It was super exciting to be among other runners from all over the world, all set and ready to conquer beautiful trails of Tarawera.
The race started at 6am, and within 20 minutes it was all light and bright. Beautiful running conditions: around 15 degrees in the morning and 23 in the afternoon. Beautiful relatively flat trails. Lots of single tracks. Lots of tree roots too, so I had to keep my eyes down. Beautiful lakes. Strong runners. I was feeling strong and confident for the first 40km. I hadn’t even noticed how the time was flying until it hit me so badly exactly at the mark of 40km. I could not understand what was going on with my knees: excruciating pain in both of them. It was not discomfort or muscle pain or anything I have ever experienced before. It was an unbearable pain, which stopped me from running. I had to walk and it scared me so much. My running credo is to never stop. No matter how slow you run, just never stop. I previously ran many times a distance of 40km on trails and I just could not process why my knees would be in so much pain. Did I push myself too hard? Is it an injury? I was so angry at myself that I couldn’t run anymore, so I started to power walk for a bit and then switched to running again. I am very mentally strong and this strength got me through running for another 62km.
62 long bloody kilometres. I talked to all runners I encountered on the trails and never complained that I was not feeling it today. My strategy was to block out pain and switch my mind from the physical pain to a conversation. It did work. Not that I blocked out the pain. It was still there. People – that what got me through the race. I do believe my chit-chats helped lots of them too as I just couldn’t shut up or was just asking lots of questions. I simply was genuinely interested in their life stories: who they were, why they run, was it their first 100km, what were the trails looked like in Canada? What was their pre race nutrition etc. etc. Although deep inside I was literally running from check point to check point constantly checking my Garmin as a reference of how long should I go. It was a sign of how badly I was feeling through the run.
20km before the finish I abruptly stopped running near the lake as the pain was beyond my limits. The guy running behind asked me what happened. Do you remember I mentioned I never complain? Almost never. It was the first time ever I complained while running. I just simply said ‘I can’t run anymore’. I took my shoes off and soaked my tired feet in the lake, thinking what should I do next. Not much choices, hey girl? It took me about 40-60 second to reflect on my torturous journey I had voluntarily dragged myself into and off I went to finish this last 20km.
Most of my run I was running along with the men and for the last 15km I started to notice more ladies on the track. I encouraged every single one: either with a compliment or just a random chat. I realised there were 50km runners. The last 5km I was just flying because I was just so over the pain I had in my knees and I didn’t care at that time if it would make more damage by speeding up. I was so happy to hear all the noises at the finish line. I sprinted to get my medal and to take the shoes off. That’s it. 102km race is done.
Let me be honest with you: I was not overly happy and definitely did not see a completion of this race as any of my personal achievements at that time. I did not have any tears or any overwhelming feelings that I just had done something beyond any mental and physical human being limits. Not at that time.
It took me 14 long hours and 24 minutes to finish 102km. Not a bad time. Perfect time for the first 100km. That’s what everyone said to me. I personally thought I just messed up my knees and was scared if I would be simply able to run in the nearest future. I hung around at the finish line, chit chatted with other runners I met previously on trails and talked to my friends and drove to our AirBnB home.
I slept for 2 hours before I got a call from my husband who completed his 100miles in a bit over 21 hours and off I went again to get him from the finish line. He was over the moon as he finished 8thoverall along with well-known runners from overseas. I was very happy for him.
The next day we went to the closing ceremony where we met top 5 finishers in all races: 20km, 50km, 102km and 100miles. All of a sudden I started crying as I couldn’t bear the pain any longer. My knees were still in pain.
Looking back now I think the tears I had at the closing ceremony were more from the mental pain rather than from physical. It didn’t go according to my plan to finish the race. I just didn’t enjoy the running process on race day. I couldn’t concentrate on the beauty of the trails and lakes, no matter how hard I was trying to use the positive thinking and being-in-the-moment concept.
I was feeling very down on the next day until I reached a bottle of the local sparkling wine. I know it’s not a remedy and I don’t drink much alcohol either but that was such a relief to have a glass of sparkling after all the physical and mental stress.
All of a sudden all my muscles relaxed and, most importantly, my brain went into relaxed mode. Brain is the muscle too, right? We had friends coming over to our place on that night and then all of us headed to the semi official post race dinner in the best restaurant of Rotorua. Did I mention it was all you can eat buffet? With the best view over the town? With all the race winners and organisers sitting at the next table, keen to chat and answer all our questions we had? I reckon it was the best dinner ever: with a beautiful sea food, fresh meat and desserts, of course. We made sure we had tried every single dessert they had. Probably 10-12. I’m not joking now. By the end of the day the pain in my knees was gone too.
Finalising my recap on the race:
- I am going to see a sports doctor soon to make sure everything is in order or if I need to make adjustments to my running training plan;
- I am feeling happy that I hadn’t given up at 49km and kept going until the finish;
- I have learnt a lesson from the race and it’s as simple as not running hard at the beginning. It is an ultra and we all have plenty of opportunities to run hard later during a race;
- I have met incredible runners on tracks;
- I need to have a strategy how to run a big race. Pure enthusiasm is good but you need something more than that in order to have a good race;
- I love running. I questioned this statement on the tracks of Tarawera but back in Sydney I confirm: I still do love running.
‘A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions’. I absolutely love this quote of Oliver W. Holmes and now can relate to it. I am seriously considering to coming back to Tarawera and to do other 100km runs. The best thing you can do while you are in pain and out of your comfort zone, both physically and mentally, just to get over it and finish what you have started. We all know that pain is gone once you stop but the achievement of overcoming the pain is a priceless feeling.
Hats off to all ultrarunners. You are all amazing!