I am going to be straight up and say that this is a pretty open and honest recap of not only my race at Tarawera 102km but also the lead into my race. I think it is important to discuss the struggles we have to sometimes go through to get to a start line and the valuable lessons that we can come away with.
This was mine and Krystle’s first trip across the ditch and we were both pretty excited to be heading to New Zealand and to see the countryside and our New Zealand family.
As most you know I made the switch from triathlon to ultra-running in May last year and completed my first 82km ultra-marathon in September. The switch came from me wanting to give Krystle the opportunity to focus on her professional triathlon career and with only one of us focusing on training for three sports she would have the opportunity to be the best she could be. The switch to running was seem-less however I was faced with the challenge of finding a coach that I thought would be a good fit for me. Being new to the sport of ultra-running I spent a lot of time researching and reading race reports etc. While supporting Krystle in Kona last year I had read Tim Locke race report from the GNW 100km. He got my attention with how he had planned his build into this race and how he tackled the race win. He was also pretty friendly towards me during my race at the GNW and gave me support as he passed me during my race even though he looked like he was in the hurt locker. After reading Tim’s report I asked Krystle to have a read and tell me what she thought. Straight away she replied “Email him that’s your coach”. So Tim and I started working together in early November and had success straight away with a half marathon PB. Tim had pulled back my volume and introduced a lot more quality run sessions. Everything seemed to be going to plan with a 62 day run streak and things were tracking nicely towards my 102km race at Tarawera.
I was probably running the best I ever had been until a day in mid-December when I headed out the door for a 3 ½ hour long run. The route I had chosen was similar to the first 40km of Tarawera with around 900m elevation. The weather was quiet warm and I ended up running around 42km which included 4km of descending at the end of the run. I finished feeling great and happy with how I had ran and being still new to ultra-running I had decided to run at MAF heart rate during this run and ended up averaging around 150bpm. Looking back I now know that what may have been more important to take into account was the terrain I was running rather than heart rate and I don’t think my body was conditioned for the long descent at the end of the run. Ultimately I think this is what contributed to what I was about to deal with. This is what I love about endurance sport though we are always learning.
The following day after this run something happened that I would later find out I would be managing for the next two months. I woke up with an unbearable pain on the inside of my left leg and I could barely walk. I was surprised but not too concerned as I didn’t feel any pain during my run. Over the next few days the pain left that area but another issue occurred in my left hip. This was enough for Tim and I to agree to back off the volume with the confidence of my 62 day run streak in my legs. After a few light days the pain left my hip but a new pain arrived in my ITB and then in my groin. This injury was starting to frustrate me because not only was I unable to continue my build into Tarawera it was starting to affect my work life. I run a small lawn mowing business and as it was Summer business was booming and the grass was practically growing behind me. I was having to turn down work due to the fact that I couldn’t keep up with my workload because I was struggling to manage my injury and was on my feet all day. I decided to have a further chat with Tim who is very easy to communicate with. I reached out to him and explained that something weird is going on with this leg. We decided to have a full two weeks off running and introduce cycling and swimming into the program. After two weeks of absolutely zero running I was able to move around normally but there was still a slight pain in my groin. As I was six weeks out of my first 102km race and already having a holiday booked to New Zealand I decided I had to make this work.
By this time it was early January and I was only getting some inconsistent run training done and still wasn’t running like my normal self. In fact it didn’t take long before I dreaded my morning runs because every time I would have a good day running it would be followed by a painful day of running. I decided I had to rule out any major damage so I went to see my local GP who is also a ultra-runner. He sent me off to get some scans. So I took some more time off work and immediately went and got the scans. The results came back quickly and although I was grateful for the results it only made things more frustrating because the report came back negative to any tears or damage. With the reports providing me with no explanation as to what was going on it didn’t take long before my mental health began to become affected. As some of you may know I have bi-polar which I normally can control very well with different strategies I have developed over the years one of those strategies being endurance sport. I have found that endurance sports helps me maintain the balance between the manic episodes and the depressive episodes.
So the biggest battle began and it was within my own head. I wasn’t able to run freely and at my best and get my daily dosage of run medication. I was struggling to stay positive and also struggling with running my business and not being able to take any time off work to recover and allow my injury time to heal. The normal strategies I use to manage my mental health weren’t working and it wasn’t long before a depressive episode kicked in. I found myself hating life and couldn’t help but only pay attention to the things that seemed negative and I felt helpless and uncontrollable. If it wasn’t for Krystle and the strong communication that we have and her ability to help me work through things I reckon I would have ended upon at my local GP on medication. Don’t get me wrong I believe there is a time and place for medication but I choose to try to manage and deal directly with my mental health and only use medication as a last resort. Krystle had recently gone through a tough patch herself but lucky for me from her own struggles she had developed some tools that helped me. Krystle was quiet tough on me and we spent a lot of time talking about the best way to move forward. She always supports my crazy decisions but did mention to me that maybe I should consider racing a shorter distance or just having a holiday and not racing at all. For me this wasn’t an option as I felt the achievement of completing this event would help me move forward from where I was mentally and I didn’t feel like physically I would do any long term damage. Krystle then explained to me if this was the case then all we need to do is get you on the plane to NZ and you will have a week to reset and recover before the race. I remember thinking in my head that I wanted to quit and tap out and not listen to her but I also remembered how many times I had been tough on her and she had taken my advice. The week before we left for New Zealand was probably one of the toughest weeks for me and Krystle. I had client’s calling me wanting lawns mowed, new client’s wanting quotes meanwhile I was trying to mow lawns in 40 degree heat, my ride on lawn mower broke down three times (I spent a day fixing it) and my groin was still giving me grief. I was physically and emotionally drained and I don’t know how many times I told Krystle I wasn’t going to NZ and I am done fuck everything. Krystle just kept telling me we just need to get you on the plane.
Finally the day had arrived to fly to New Zealand and once we landed I immediately felt a whole lot better. Our first few nights were spent with Krystle’s coach Bevan and his partner Chris. We then headed to Waiuku to visit a great mate of mine Carl Read and his wife Paula and of course Rosie Read the dog. They have the most amazing house in the country side of Waiuku and we spent a few days here just relaxing and I did a couple short runs before we headed to Rotorua on the Thursday. Once we arrived at Rotorua I spent the next two days relaxing, checking into the race and organising my race nutrition at our shared bach.
On Saturday (race morning) I got up at 3.20am. Bevan had offered to wake up and drop me down to the athlete buses which would transport us to the race start at Kawarau. I made it. I am at the start of my first 102km ultra-marathon with zero pain in my groin. This is going to be a good day. The start line was amazing and after the Haka finished the countdown began and before I knew it I was off and running. I had meet up with a local runner from home Steph Auston at the start line and decided I would try and pace off her considering we have similar running abilities and this was her first 102km race as well. I had messaged Steph earlier in the week and asked how she was feeling and she had said she was in good shape. So we set off together but by the time I had gone through the 20km mark I realised I had probably missed too many key long run sessions due to my injury to maintain the strong pace that Steph was holding. Around this time I also started to become concerned with the fact that I was struggling to take on my planned nutrition. Food was going into my mouth but I had no interest in swallowing it. Over the next 30km I kept trying all the nutrition that I had put in my run vest but my stomach was just not interested. I started to become a little worried because I could feel the lack of calories starting to affect my running. I hit the halfway mark and thought to myself I had better start coming up with a different nutrition strategy otherwise I may be headed for my first DNF. Looking back I realised that I had just ran 55km on around 300 calories. Lucky for me the aid stations had a huge range of nutrition and hydration options. As I went through the next aid station I grabbed a few handfuls of watermelon and headed off. Thankfully the water melon went down but that was about it. I didn’t feel like I had eaten anything (lol probably because watermelon doesn’t have much substance) and there certainly wasn’t any lift in energy. It was 9kms until the next aid station and this was the time when I hit my lowest of lows and went to a pretty dark place. I was done physically and mentally and was hurting so bad. All I wanted to do was stop. I started to think negative like I had been back at home. My mind began to play tricks on me. It was in this moment that I had to make a choice to take control. I asked myself the questions “Are you really going to quit?” “What’s tougher this race or the things I had overcome to get to the start line?” Then in that moment I decided to focus on the people that had come to support me during my race Krystle, Carl, Paula, Bev, Chris and Hannah. These people had already done so much for me on this holiday without even knowing it. They had helped me find a balance mentally and switched me from a depressive episode back into balance. They were all waiting for me at the Blue Lake around the 74km mark. Now my plan was to get to them. I hit the next aid station and decided it was time to make a plan. So I hit the coke and boy was my body happy about this. It was like my body just sucked up all the calories and I immediately felt better.
Even though I was able to take on the coke I was obviously still very mentally and physically fatigued. I remember reading lots of ultra-runners race reports and majority of them all say the same thing. Don’t stop! Keep pushing and focus on moving forward. I knew if I kept pushing forward at some point the calories from the coke would kick in and start giving me a bit more energy. Finally I started to feel good and I was starting to get some flow back into my running. At this point I was pacing off another athlete who was a triathlete who had switched to ultra-running however I’m not quite sure he was completely sold on the running as he was wearing a 2015 Ironman Port Macquarie finishers shirt. Anyone remember this “Anyting is possible” lol how could anyone who did this race forget the spelling mistake on the finishers shirt that year. I remember staring at his shirt thinking I qualified for Kona at that race and came 2nd in my age group behind Nat Heath. For a moment my mind stopped thinking about this stupid 102km running race and I was reminiscing about the good old triathlon days.
Finally the trails opened up into a sealed road and I was greeted by my support crew. “Come on Hockers” yelled Reado. I couldn’t help but smile just like earlier on in the week my support network of friends were there for me again. This definitely got me motivated for the next 28km of my race. Shortly after passing everyone I jumped back into the mountains and started seeing runners from the 50km race come past me. This gave me some motivation and I actually started to feel like I was running strong again. I hit the other side of the Blue Lake and the next aid station. “Come on Hockers” yells Reado again. This aid station was pumping there was music jamming, people everywhere and plenty of runners who looked like they were struggling to stand. I handed Krystle my vest knowing she would immediately check what nutrition and hydration I had taken on but at this point I didn’t care. That’s the thing about racing the best laid plans can always turn to shit and sometimes you have to improvise. I told Krystle to just fill up my two flasks with coke. Ok I was off again with 16km to go. The next part of the course opened up onto a dirt road where you can actually start ticking along with a good run cadence and I was knocking out fairly comfortable 5min pace kms for the next 3kms through the Redwoods until I hit a massive climb which destroyed my legs and drove another nail in my coffin. At this point I was in the hurt locker bad but still continuing the move forward. I hit the last aid station and found a friendly face, Hannah Wells. Hannah was there waiting for her partner Nick Berry who was doing the 50km race. I asked Hannah “Hey mate how’s Nick going? She replied with a smile “Mmm having the same race as you”. I just looked at her and said “What a shit one”. She laughed. In the meantime the volunteer at the aid station had misplaced one of my flasks so I made the decision to move on with just one flask. I ran out of the aid station and headed down the trail. I remember thinking stuff this I’m done I’m walking and I did. Next thing I hear a big “Josh” I turned around and to my surprise I saw Hannah running full throttle towards with me with my flask in her hand. With a smooth pass of the flask filled with coke and a giant push up the backside she yells “Run”. Feeling a little intimidated I shit myself (not literally) and started running.
OMG I am out of the mountains and it feels so good to be in an actual town. I was still doing everything I could to keep moving forward. Run, walk, run, walk 3km to go. This was definitely the toughest part of the race. I could hear footsteps approaching behind me and I turned around and instantly I started smiling. It was my mate Nick Berry. I recently meet Nick at Sunshine Coast 70.3 last year and straight away we clicked so to see him was better than sliced bread at this point in my race. After a little cuddle and a high five we decided to run it in together. As we started running we started motivating other runners “Come on mate run like us” as if we had been having such a good race lol! Nick and I hit the finish chute. I decided to walk the finish soaking it all up and high fiving my support crew before crossing the finish line in 11 hours and 19 minutes.
I learnt a lot of valuable lessons in the lead up to and during my first 102km ultra-marathon. The obstacles that you think will stop you on race day may not necessarily be the things you will need to deal with. If you had of asked me before the race what will stop you from finishing I would have been quick to say my groin injury. I wasn’t prepared for my stomach to shut down on race day and this could have potentially led to my first DNF. I think it’s important to remember that like how coke saved my race there is always a way of getting to your end goal or destination. Also just like my friends that kept showing up throughout the day there is always going to be someone there that cares just like my friends did on race day and in my week leading up to the race. I hope my race report helps someone get through a tough time and inspires them to talk to a close one to help them keep moving forward.
Thanks for reading.
As usual Krystle and I had everything well organised before Saturday the 8th of September 2018 (race day). Even though I have such a competitive side to me I tried not to bring that to this race. Being my first ultra-marathon I wanted to enjoy it and appreciate it for what it was my first ultra-marathon. When I look back on my Ironman racing and think back to the races it’s not the podium finishes, 70.3 worlds or even the Ironman World Championships it’s my first long distance event that means the most to me. Canberra 70.3 back in 2012 that’s the race I always think of. It was the unknown that excited me and after that every 70.3 or Ironman was the same to me. Same race, same distance just different location. So given that I live right at the bottom of the GNW (Great Northern Walk) I wanted to make this race my first ultra-marathon that way when I look back on my memories they are closer to home.
Of course when you have such a competitive personality it’s hard to hide that side of you. It just finds a way out. So here is how my day unfolded.........
Krystle and I rocked up to the start line pretty much five minutes before registration closed which back in the day would of had my bipolar peaking at threshold but I reminded myself it’s my first ultra-marathon just soak it in.
All the runners lined up on the start line and before I knew it the race Director called 3 2 1 GO! Ha I thought what a chilled race start and a perfect way to start my first ultra-marathon. Like I said earlier you can’t hide or lock away a competitive personality. It only took 200m before I located Scott Baker a strong local runner who finished 2nd in the GNW100km in 2016. I knew he was going to be the runner that would potentially win the race. So I thought if I was anywhere near him I am doing well. Before I knew it my competitive side had taken over my entire body. It’s GO TIME... I wanted to take the lead straight away but flash backs of me pulling groups of weak riders to the front of age-groups during the bike leg of triathlons had me check myself. So I decided to sit behind Scott and let him set the pace, while I took in hydration and nutrition while I could. The pace for the first 15km was controlled not sure if it was Scott’s pacing or if he was waiting for me to pass. I was happy pacing off him it was making me stick to my hydration and nutrition as planned. We both hiked to the top of the gap towards the Coms Tower having a joke talking about the wet weather.
Before I knew it we hit the rain forest section. Scotty had good skills through the tight single trails which had me on my toes. He would put in little surges and drop me which had me focused to find his heals again. This cat and mouse game played throughout the whole section of the rain forest. By the time we popped out of the rain forest I was thinking there is no way I can beat this guy at the end of the course. It’s very similar to the rain forest section tight switchbacks and lots of technical running which he obviously had more experience with than me. Once you exit the rain forest you have a 2km forest road section before checkpoint 1 then from checkpoint 1 to checkpoint 2 it’s 23km of rolling hills where you can hit more of a tempo effort. So when Scott and I started running towards check point 1 sitting around 5.00min pace I decided to turn the screws a little down to my Ironman run effort to see if he would stay with me or stick to his pacing. I noticed he dropped back slightly which left me thinking if he was being disciplined or if he didn’t like that pace. I came into CP1(29.9km) just in front of Scott and there was Krystle in perfect view with the perfect set-up which gave me a perfect transition. I was in and out (1min) and before I knew it I was running again.
At this point I was thinking there is going to be three opportunities for me to put time into Scotty the next 23km then Congewai road then later at the top of the Congewai climb. I remember watching a short interview with Braden Currie about when he saw an opportunity to gap Gomez at Cairns Ironman and he knew it was now or never. At that moment I looked over my shoulder and didn’t see Scott running with me out of CP1 so this was my time to attack. I reminded myself I have a long history in endurance events, I know I can recover from harder efforts set at my own intensity. I came up with a plan 2 x 15 min efforts at my marathon run pace with a five minute recovery in between. If he could come with me at that effort then I am in big trouble and I will have to figure out another way to beat him. I took on some nutrition, hit lap and opened up for the first 15min effort at 4.05min pace and before I knew it was time for the recovery. I looked back for the first time with a massive relief as there was no sign of Scott. More hydration more food and I hit lap again. Second 15mins again at 4.05min pace by the end of the second effort I was sure I had put time into Scott and other potential podium finishes so I started to run at a more controlled mid zone 2 run pace just to maintain the damage I put into the other runners. At this stage I was relieved to see I was approaching Congewai road another section I could take advantage of my road running skills. I started thinking of my next attack and thought no way I am running 4.05min kilometres again as I was already concerned if that would come back to bite me later. I came up with a plan to run 4:30-4:40 pace along the road. I would then get a short rest at check point 2 followed by a couple more road kilometres then head up the Congewai climb which is pretty much un-runnable so I knew I had sections to use to recover from my next I attack. Along the road sections runners must wear a high vis vest for safety reasons so I popped mine on and hit the road. At this point Krystle knew where I was going to pop out of the bush. As I popped out of the bush there she was standing there ready to greet me. As I was about to hit the road I put on the high vis vest and instantly started cooking. Wow I thought this must be why they call Congewai the oven. I was so hot. I had just hit lap and decided to start my next attack. I started feeling hot and uncomfortable from the heat and wasn’t prepared for it I was only ready for the effort of the attack.
At this stage I had just ran the most I’ve ever ran, decided to start an effort and I started cooking from the mandatory high vis vest and then on top of that there was Krystle looking as beautiful as always “Go babe” she yelled then “How do you feel she asked?” Sorry babe I thought one of these factors can potentially break me here. I need to keep the lead with this effort and I can’t hide from the heat. So I decided to give Krystle nothing I didn’t even look at her I was already feeling overwhelmed with the distance I had just ran. I just had to block her out and get to check point 2 (53.9km).
At CP2 the procedure was weigh in and then have all your mandatory gear checked that you must carry, restock with hydration and nutrition and then you are good to go. I was in and out in 4 minutes and back running down the road solo. After leaving CP2 I had to run back the way I came then make a right hand turn before approaching a 4km climb out of the valley. I was waiting to see Scott surely he was just about to hit the checkpoint. As I approached the right turn I couldn’t see anyone at all which gave me a big confidence boost my decision to attack after CP1 had paid off. I decided with my handy lead to really take my time up to the coms tower and if I am honest that climb scares me. I power walked for most of it making sure I was still taking on food and fluid. I wanted to be fuelled properly so if someone came running up on me I was ready to jump on their pace and defend my lead. Once I hit the top of the climb you run along the ridge with some aggressive hills but it is still runnable. I made a decision to surge for as long as I could before hitting the next un-runnable climb. It was around kilometre 65 when I experienced my first low. I accepted it as I knew was always going to come. At this point I decided to back right off eat as much food as I could, clear my head and get back to work. Yes back on a high and didn’t I ride the wave as long as I could for the next five kilometres. I was making some aggressive time and confident I wasn’t losing time but still concerned about where Scott was given I knew his strength on the course. As I approached the second last climb before the finish I was starting to feel the effects of running this distance. When I finally got to the last climb I was pretty happy to hike up to the top. In ultra-running if it’s un-runnable you don’t have that guilty feeling that your walking. As soon as I got to the top I regathered my motivation and started to run again. I reckon I only ran 500m before my second low hit and after dealing with the first low really well I was in good spirit to ride this one out and get the race done. This time the low lasted a lot longer than the first one and it made me dig deep into my race experience bag to get back on track. Even though I started running again I wasn’t happy that I had no variation in my pace. I was concerned that if someone was to run up behind me I may have to hand over the crown. Staying as positive as possible I reminded myself of my lead. It was around 75km and I could hear another pair of footsteps. He did it Scott has made time on me I knew he would come back at me. As the steps got closer I decided to surge I am not giving in without a flight. So off I went digging as deep as possible at kilometre 76 for the win. I could still hear his footsteps he is shadowing me just like I did to him at the start of the race. Wait a minute his actually about to make a pass. How could this be? He must have ran so hard to catch me. As the pass was being made I noticed it actually wasn’t Scott. Now I was even more worried who’s this guy thinking to myself I thought I was the dark horse in the race. I was now running shoulder to shoulder thinking to myself great this last 4km is going to be hell. But then to my surprise the runner asked me if I was in second place? What I said “I bloody hope not I thought I was winning”. I will never forget the words that came out of his mouth next. Are you racing the 100km? “Huh” with relief I said “No I am doing the 50 miler”. The relief on his face was priceless he actually thought I was second place in the 100km so he was running as hard as he could to make the pass and I thought he was in the 50 mile so I was trying to put time into him. After realising we were both racing two different race distances things became a lot friendlier. I had about three kilometres to go when my new 100km pacer looks at me and says “Mate you know there is no one for kilometres behind us you have got this” he said “Run it home”. With 2km to go I was still concerned about Scott and another local runner Benn Coubrough who is good for a 3 hour marathon. So I ran as hard as possible slipping over making errors and it was clear to me I was running on the fear of losing the race in the last kilometre.
There it was I did it the finisher chute what a relief. I had just made history of the first ever GNW 50 Mile Champion and guess who the first person to come shake my hand was. Scott Baker the bloke had to pull out at CP2 due to an injury or sickness. I was so gutted for him and it was then I realised I may have won the race but I didn’t beat Scott. I wish Scotty a speedy recovery and look forward to our next battle on even playing fields.
Thank you to all the volunteers and supporters who were involved in the event. I highly recommend the GNW it is ran by the Terrigal Trotters who do an amazing job. As a runner you definitely get more then you pay for with this event.
It now time for me to step back help and Krystle focus on Kona before moving my attention to my next major event Tarawera 102km ultra-marathon in February 2019.
As for the GNW 2019 I will be setting my sights on the 100 miler.
Thanks for all the support from my friends & family