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.