Yesterday I ran hard, on a track, for 30 minutes. It was hell. You see flat and hard are something I don’t do. Mostly because I find flat very boring but also, all the pretty places seem to involving climbing mountains and finding paths through forests. I’d much rather be there! As for hard, well my usual hard is very different to this kind of hard, more about that later. Having a coach makes you step out of your comfort zone and do the things you usually avoid. So, yesterday I ran around and around the track in the nearest town, as hard as I thought I could sustain for 30 minutes. It was an interesting half hour and I learnt a lot from it. There was a whole lot of internal dialogue going on, as well as a lot of observation of the process. Here are my thoughts on what I learnt.
30min is a long time
My last race took me over 23 hours. You would think that a 30 minute run would be nothing, and to be fair it usually is. I get to the end of a usual short run and I’m left wanting more and wishing I could stay out there longer. Yesterday however the minutes dragged and when my timer went off to say I had done 20 minutes I cursed the space time continuum, my coach and all the “fast” runners I know. I tried to stay present, count the steps (counting is my “get up the hill without stopping” technique) but my eye kept wanting to see what the timer was up to, mostly because it seemed to be taking WAY too long. It was like time had slowed down, I kid you not!
Running for a time is harder than running for a finish line
When you run a race, with the exception of timed track events like a 12hr or 24hr, you know how far you have to go. So, if I’m running a 10k I know I want to go out relatively hard but leave enough in the tank so that when I get to 8km I can go harder. I also know that if I go harder, I’ll finish sooner, which is a great incentive to push myself. Plus there is that physical finish line that you can see that tends to spur you on. Yesterday I was running for time. As I said before, I don’t do that kind of hard. I ran a short trail race hard last year, but there was terrain (hills) and a physical finish line. I knew where I needed to conserve my energy and where I could afford to push and push hard. The whole pacing myself for a timeframe is new to me, I found it very difficult! I had a few goals I was pushing for, but not having run hard and flat for that long in quite awhile, I didn’t know if they were possible or pure fantasy. I decided that when I got to 2 minutes to go I would push hard, because to be honest, I was terrified I would push way to hard way to early and not be able to finish the task. There was, in my mind, no benefit to going hard at a certain kilometre mark because the finish doesn’t get closer according to the distance I’ve covered. When I hit 2 minutes I tried to gauge where my finish line would be and sprint hard to a certain tree, but I was wrong and then had to go further than that, which I did. As it was I finished and immediately thought “I should have pushed for the last 5 minutes instead” because I felt I recovered way to quickly.
I still have a lot of toxic thought processes
To be honest the toxic thoughts started way earlier than the actual run. When I was trying to figure out my goal pace for the run those little unhelpful thoughts were already starting and comparisons to other peoples runs being made. Sitting at a computer or in my car I can usually push those thoughts aside, but in the midst of a run, where you’re working really hard, your brain can really only focus on one or two things at a time and the fight to quiet those thoughts is a lot harder.
I do a fair amount of mental training to get me through my longer runs. There is also a lot of self reassurance that goes on and I am often asking my coach for external reassurance as well. Alone, on the track, with no pretty view or mountain climb to distract me, no one there shouting encouragement from the sidelines, the demons came out to play and made it abundantly clear that I still have a lot of work to do. Here I was, running the fastest I have EVER run for 30 minutes straight (yes, ever, in my whole life) and I knew I was running that fast because I had my pace showing on my watch and where do my thoughts go? “You know this is Jim, Laurie and Catherine’s easy pace, right? And you’re really struggling.” “I don’t think you can do this without taking a walk break.” “This is the hardest you can go and it’s still slower than other peoples recovery pace.” “Why do you even bother and try, you’re never going to be fast”. Really helpful brain, thanks for that.. Luckily I have comebacks for that, along the lines of “yeah, but I’m strong on the mountains” and “ultras are finished by the strongest and toughest, not necessarily the fastest” and the less eloquent “shut the fuck up and just run dammit”.
When I finished I was engulfed with a sense of accomplishment mixed with disappointment, I had run the fastest I had ever run (Yay!!!) but I was slower than I had hoped. I had two main goals, hit 5km in under 30 minutes (never done that before) and reach 5.5km before the timer went. I ran 5.21km. Again the comparisons started and then the tears. Tears of “why am I so hard on myself”, “why aren’t I faster” and “why can’t I ever enjoy a *win* for what it is, without defaulting to comparisons and I could have done better?”. Like I said, still a lot of work to do.
Hills and 100k is easier than flat and 30min
Pretty much the entire run yesterday I spent reminding myself that if I can run 100km through mountains, I can get through 30 minutes of running hard around a grass field. I seriously found the latter much harder. Yes, it didn’t last as long, but it was harder, it was boring and it was relentless. On a mountain run you have ups that you hike, downs that you fly along, creeks that you cross, views that distract you, people that you chat to. There is so much going on, so much richness to the task, that for the most part the hardness is hidden and only comes to the fore when you let it. On the track there is nowhere to hide, there is no respite from the endless turnover of your legs at the same hard, relentless speed, no change in scenery, no easy distraction. There is just the task at hand, to run around and around, lungs burning, legs hurting, brain fighting. Give me the mountains any day.
Posting times is confronting.
I think a lot of people who don’t really understand endurance mountain running think that I must run fast, to be able to cover those distances. I recently started posting my times on social media, mostly on Instagram and occasionally on Facebook. Some people are a little shocked at the slowness of my Personal Best’s. I guess that’s kind of part of the reason I’m doing it – to show people you don’t have to be fast. The amount of times I have had people come up to me and say “I would love to run this or that, but I’m not fast enough” is ridiculous. Quite often I will look at them incredulously, knowing that they are much, MUCH faster than I am and then proceed to tell them that it doesn’t matter how fast they are, if they want to do it they should just go do it. I have, for the most part, given up on trying to explain how slow I am, as people don’t believe me or don’t really get it. I get the whole “not fast enough” thing though, I seriously do! I have been the last runner, chasing the cut-offs, more than once, but dammit, my money is as good as the next persons and if I am physically capable and I meet all the criteria and cut offs then why shouldn’t I get out there and have a red hot go.
You would think from all this, that I have hated having to run hard. This block of training has been confronting and yes, it’s not my favourite thing I’ve ever done. Just this morning I messaged a friend saying I can’t wait until this block is over and I can get back to running trails, pretty much exclusively, 5 days a week. However, I am incredibly grateful to my coach for setting me these tasks. For over a year I have wondered what I could do if I was given the opportunity to just run hard, something I really don’t do in my usual training, so those questions are being answered. I also think a lot of what I have learned from these hard, flat session is going to serve me well in future adventures, both physically and mentally. Who would have thought you could learn so much from running around a field for half an hour?
For those playing along at home, this was my run yesterday:
10 minute Warm Up
30 minutes HARD
10 minute Cool Down
5km PB of 28min 46seconds, an improvement of 2min and 26seconds in the last 5 weeks.
If you are a data geek (like me) you can also follow me on Strava, just don’t be surprised if I don’t follow you back 😉
If you have read my blog or followed me on social media at all, you will know I have a story that I tell myself. When you think about it we all have stories we tell ourselves every day. They can be helpful stories that get you through your day or they can be a hinderance and hold you back. They might be something like “I have a green thumb” or “I suck at burpees”. The thing about these stories is they can often become self fulfilling prophecies. If you think you are a good gardner, you will probably invest a lot of time in it, enjoy it and excel at it. If you think you suck at burpees, you’ll probably not enjoy them and subsequently never improve at them.
When it comes to running I have two stories that I tell myself.
The first is my helpful story, that I am strong. It is a story that I have slowly written and cultivated over the past few years. I have invested a lot of time reaffirming this story and strengthening it because it helps me. My coach has also helped to constantly refocus on the fact that I am strong whenever I am struggling with my training. It has served me well in my running, particularly in the longer stuff because when it gets tough I can always fall back to “I am strong” and I can convince myself that I can get through, up this mountain, past this moment because of that.
The second story I tell myself is that I’m slow. It has become a story that I cling to. It is somewhat of a comfort, because if I know I’m slow and I tell everyone I’m slow then mine and everyone else’s expectations will be low. No pressure. If I come last or miss a cutoff its just because “I’m slow”. My coach is well aware of this story. Last year he had me run a short trail race as hard as I could, partly to show me that I’m not as slow as I think. Of course whilst being stoked with my result, I also put a whole load of qualifications on that run (most of the fast people I know weren’t running or were still recovering from big races held during the weekend prior, plus Strava always shows you just how slow or fast you are if you really want to look). When I came second at Northburn my immediate reaction was one of embarrassment and when telling anyone my result I would immediately qualify it with “but I was 10hrs behind the female winner, because I’m slow”.
Even just a few weeks ago in an email to my coach after doing some speedwork I lamented that “I’m strong to the moon and back, but oh so slow”. I will actually go on Strava and affirm to myself that yes, I am in fact slow in comparison to most other runners on there. I ignore the fact that slowness is relative. Yes, my speed is relatively slow to others, in fact my fast is some others recovery pace but it goes both ways, to someone else I am fast, yet I ignore that.
You see, I needed to reaffirm the slowness, because at the moment it is something that we are working on, focussing on.
The thing about these stories is that they are comforting, they are a known quantity. Its a comfort to know that when I’m out there my speed doesn’t really matter, cause hey! I’m slow! Now however, we are focussing on it, I’m trying to build speed and the thought that I may not be quite so slow is confronting. It brings about expectations, largely that I put on myself. What if I think I can be faster and I do a race and I fall short? It doesn’t even have to be a race, what if I expect I can run faster and I don’t? It brings about uncertainty. Despite always wanting to be faster there is something of a comfort of being able to fall back on the “but thats ok, thats what I expected, because I’m slow”.
I have a speed workout tomorrow. It is hard and it is scary. Hard because, well speed work is hard! Its also hard because I put expectations on myself. I get caught between wanting to be fast but also wanting to subconsciously confirm my story, my fallback, my comfortable space. I will celebrate my PB’s but usually I am also looking at how slow my fast is compared to everyone else. Its a story I need to rewrite, no matter uncomfortable or confronting it is, because its a story that I think is holding me back.
In January, I shared how I was going to start chasing points to get into the lottery for the UltraTrail Mont Blanc 100miler (UTMB) – you can read that post here: Big Scary Goals.
I had already accrued 5 points from my run at UltraTrail Australia 2016, but to gain entry to the lottery I required a further 10 points from a maximum of two more races by the end of 2017. After scouring through the racing calendar and working out what races were doable for me, I settled upon the Northburn 100km in March (5 points) and the Alpine Challenge100km in November (5 points).
About 4 weeks before I was due to run Northburn, which still to this minute has not had its point status confirmed, Alpine Challenge announced that their UTMB points had changed and you would now only qualify for 4 points when running the 100km. This kinda set a spanner in the works, along with Northburn not yet receiving its points status, I was a little worried my plans were going to be thwarted. I was already committed to running Northburn and truth be told, I was rather excited about taking on this tough course, so I put the thoughts of UTMB points aside and concentrated on completing Northburn. I figured, worst come to worst it would be good practice for the future, plus I was getting to run in New Zealand mountains, I was hardly about to start complaining.
At Northburn registration, Terry the RD, confirmed they would definitely have UTMB points and that it was just an administration issue which would be sorted in time for the lottery. You can read my full Northburn account here: One Good Day – Northburn 100k
About two weeks after running Northburn, I travelled up to the Gold Coast to speak to my coach, Matt from Judd Adventures, with the plan of discussing how Northburn went and then where I would go from here. I left home early that morning to light rain, the creeks were low and both hubby and I figured I would be back well before expected rain from Cyclone Debbie hit.
I had pretty much settled on sticking with the current plan (Alpine Challenge 100km in November) and then possibly doing Northburn 100mile the next year to get my required 15 points from 3 races, whilst applying for the CCC (UTMB’s little sister covering 100km) using my current points. As we sat talking, Matt surprised me and suggested that I do the miler at Alpine Challenge, worst case scenario I would DNF and still have the points to apply for the CCC regardless. I was a little stunned to be honest. At the same time though, the thought of doing that distance excited and ….. well….. terrified me. After chatting about Northburn, a bit more about UTMB points and future training we parted ways. I was excited to get home and share the news with my hubby, Sim, but mother nature had other plans.
I rang hubby to let him know I was on my way home and he told me that the creeks were rapidly rising and it was doubtful I would get home, he was about to leave to go get our kids from school and was unsure if he would make it back himself. He was in a panic and had to leave so I told him I would head to a friends and talk to him later.
So, I was stranded at a friends and I had this big exciting news to share. I told my friends Jill, Claire (who had lovingly given me a place to stay) and her partner Pat (who said he already knew that was going to happen) along my super support crew from Northburn, Sarah and Maz (who both confirmed I was crazy but that they were excited for me). I still hadn’t had a chance to tell hubby due to him having low battery power on his phone and communication being strictly crucial info only (he was also stranded at a friends house, closer to home). I also hadn’t done my usual “look what I’m doing next!!” on social media, mostly because the idea was and is still really terrifying. Then, when it became apparent that I was going to spend a second night at Pat and Claire’s I sent him a text telling him about moving up to miler distance. The convo was hilarious, mostly as he didn’t read the whole message the first time (a regular occurrence for Sim).
So, now, a few days later, I am home, the clean up from Cyclone Debbie is in full swing, I am finally sharing what’s next and hubby has come around to the idea. He says he is excited for me, but thinks I’m crazy. And me? I am ridiculously excited (how unusual, right?) but I am also terrified out of my mind, to attempt to go for an extra 60km past what I have previously done. It is going to be such a long 2 days. I only have this life though and if nothing else I know its something I want to attempt, so why not now? Its just a little sooner than I thought it would be. I have all sorts of imposter syndrome and not good enough going on, but hey, as I said to Matt in my meeting, in for a penny, in for a pound. I may as well go the whole hog now and see what happens. If you never try, you never know.
Yes, I probably am mad, but in a good way. Right?
For the week leading up to the race, Terry, the Race Director (RD) for the Northburn100, had been posting on the Facebook page about how the Cromwell weather was saving up all its bad days for the race. Northburn is a notoriously tough race, in fact it’s tag line is “You don’t race it, you survive it”. It is known for its challenging weather conditions, as well as its difficult, off-trail terrain. In fact, the weather was one of my main concerns leading into the race.
My training, under the direction of super coach, Matt Judd, had been my best to date leading up to an event. I had mimicked the terrain as best as I could guess from Strava profiles from previous years and despite an ankle injury in early December, I had missed very few sessions and reached race day feeling strong and confident that I had all the tools I needed to finish. Of course I knew, from past experiences, that it all comes down to what happens on the day and that the smallest thing can turn a good day into a not so good day or a disaster.
I travelled from home in Australia to New Zealand with my dear friends, Sarah and Maz, who had volunteered to act as support crew for the race. We spent a couple of days before the race exploring the surrounds of Cromwell, including Wanaka and Queenstown, and with each new vista my love for the New Zealand mountains grew stronger and stronger.
On Friday, the day before the race, we took the 10min drive from Cromwell to Northburn Station for race registration and gear check, to be followed by the race briefing later that night. As I walked up to the registration desk the RD, Terry recognised me from our Facebook messages over Northburn’s UTMB point status. I was surprised and a little embarrassed but Terry was lovely and reassured me that points were definitely on offer before sending me on my way with my bib. After being weighed for medical and having all my gear checked we headed home to prepare for the coming day, before heading back out for the race briefing.
We had had a crew meeting the night before, so when we got home my wonderful support crew set about readying everything they would need to support me in the downstairs area while I set about my own preparations upstairs. I began doling out my TrailBrew powder that I use for liquid nutrition, along with my solids of Clif Bars, Bounties, Snickers, Chips and chocolate covered coffee beans. As I divvied up my TrailBrew into bottles and baggies it dawned on me that I only had enough electrolyte for 24hrs. My heart sank, what a stupid miscalculation, it was a big ask for me to finish under 24hrs on such a challenging course, in fact that was my B goal for the race. Whilst trying to keep calm and not completely freak, I messaged my wonderful friend and seasoned ultrarunner, Jill. We chatted about working the problem and possible solutions. I figured I would plan to finish under 24hrs and I could use aid station electrolytes or more solids if need be. It wasn’t the end of the world. I finished packing up everything, put together my drop bag and sat back to reread my prerace email from Matt, whilst my crew packed some extra special things in my drop bag.
At the briefing we sat listening to the safety instructions. Both Terry and Tom reiterated the toughness of the course, the remoteness, the lack of dangerous wildlife but also that every plant has it in for you and will cause you pain. After going over what to expect on each section and what the course markings look like, Terry’s last words of advice were “Prepare yourself for the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but know it will be worse than anything you can imagine”. Reassuring right?
With the briefing done and the fear of Northburn firmly instilled (if it wasn’t already), we set off to try and grab some sleep before waking in the wee hours for the 6am race start, in the dark.
We got back to the house to our slow cooked dinner and as we ate and chatted about the race and the hilarity of the briefing, the nerves started to creep in. My crew took care of the dishes, in fact they had been taking care of me all day with such love, it makes my heart burst when I think of it. After dishes the crew set to work with some henna messages on my hands and arms to help me not feel so alone out there and to make me smile.
I then readied myself for bed, wondering if sleep would come easy. I reread over my notes for my race plan, a plan that Matt and I had nutted out the month before. After making sure I knew what I was doing, I spoke to my family back home and my hubby sent me a message so I could reread it in the morning before the race. I fell into bed exhausted but excited for the morning.
Late that night we were woken by a very loud, drunken party next door. It was, of course St Patricks day and the people next door were celebrating hard! As I lay there, trying hard to sleep despite the noise, I heard the garage door open and wondered what the hell was going on. I got up and Sarah assured me it was all under control and to go back to bed, Maz (bloody legend!) was taking care of it. She gave them a stern talking to and I was soon asleep only to be awakened by my alarm.
Race day morning is a bit of a blur. I got ready determined not to let waves of nerves get the better of me. We were trying to time our leaving for the startline so we were there without too much time to wait around but early enough not to stress about being late – its a fine balance! I dashed for the bathroom for a last minute nervous wee. Ugh! Blood… Great… One more thing. I walked out and announced to Sarah and Maz “And! I have my period!” Whilst shaking my head. Once this would have sent me into a panic, but thanks to such random occurrences as my period starting without warning on the startline (Tour de Tambourine) and halfway through a race (TNF50), along with discussions with my friend Jill about the hormonal advantages of bleeding on race day, I just accepted it and decided to bleed through as I was wary of chafing.
At the startline, geared up and ready to go, 100k runners were informed they would now have trackers. These were crammed into already full to bursting packs and I was reassured that my crew would know where abouts I was, meaning I could leave my phone off unless I needed to contact them. I warmed up, had my last minute hugs and lined up at the back of the pack with a mix of miler, 100k and 50k runners of all ages.
We stood in the dark, waiting for all the trackers to come online, nerves slowly rising. I listened to the seasoned runners around me chatting, whilst trying to keep warm, not panic and reminding myself I could do this. I hate starts!
The start itself was very subdued. Terry and Tom counted down from 10, I flicked on my head torch and we were off on a 5km loop that would take us back through Base Camp before heading out onto the course proper. As people ran off up the hill, I stuck with a fast power hike, determined not to go out too hard. I tried to ignore the usual fears bubbling up inside (last again) whilst it seemed everyone rushed passed, constantly reminding myself that it is 100 very steep kilometres to the finish and to take my time. I ran, jogged, hiked in the dark, glancing at my HR to make sure it wasn’t crazy high, but not yet being stringent about it, knowing adrenaline was playing a big role right now.
About 3km in I could hear someone behind me, I figured they were stuck so I called out that they could pass. Aaron, who I would run with throughout the race, called back that my pace was good and he would stick with me for a bit to stop himself going out too hard. We ran and chatted and were soon passing through Base Camp where I waved and called out to my crew that I would see them soon. I dropped back to a hike as we started uphill again, passing Terry who was noting race numbers and congratulated us on “Being sensible in hiking the ups”. It was hard to tell whether he was joking or not…
At this point I decided I needed to click into strict MAF heartrate zone, so Aaron took off to run his race while I hiked and ran along, now watching my HR as much as possible. The sky was now starting to lighten a little and there were hardly any people around, although I could still see others ahead here and there. The grade of the track began to change to a bit steeper uphill, we were on four wheel drive farm tracks now, and I made the decision to get out my poles, I didn’t stow them again for the entire race. As I pulled out the poles, two men who were doing the miler passed me and commented that they were saving theirs for later. Fair enough, I thought, you have an extra 60km to do so why not wait! I was still feeling pretty sluggish and my legs were complaining more than I would like so early on, but I put it down to menstrual cramping more than anything else and tried to focus on the outside instead of what was going on in my legs.
The sun was now up and I was able to stow my headlamp and switch to my visor. The views were gorgeous, but it was still cold and I was glad for my thermal keeping me warm but not hot. As we continued to climb it was interesting to watch the different strategies. Some people seemed to pick a pace and just go with that constantly, whether it be up, down or flat. Others were hammering the hills and then walking the flats and short downs. I was being dictated pace by my HR so would hike the ups and do a gentle run down and either hike or jog the flats. I was also starting to yoyo with a few people including Amy (100k) and her friend doing the miler, as well as Marina and Andy (both doing the miler) who passed me whilst deep in conversation about UTMB – I may have been a little starstruck at that point!
We took a sharp turn behind a rock and the track curved steeply up to a ute serving as a waterpoint. I could see people off to my right and figured I was finally at “the fenceline” a notoriously steep climb from the first loop. I actually got really excited at this point, because it looked just like the steepness of my training fenceline at Mt Gipps in northern NSW. After a short chat with the volunteers and filling a soft flask, I clambered through the fence and started up the course. You will note I didn’t say track. That’s because there was no track. We were now just following each marker. There were sheep tracks to follow, but they didn’t always lead to the marker, in fact at one point I got so engrossed running along a sheep track that I looked up and it had lead me away from the markers on my left. So, up we climbed. It was here that I started to really feel comfortable, my legs knew what they were doing and I have to be honest, I loved the technicality of being off track. I was now jogging happily along any flat or non steep bits, enjoying having to pick my way between rocks and the spiky spaniards of death (super spiky plant that was everywhere higher up on the course, it has poisoned razor sharp leaf tips that sting really bad). I was also being buoyed by the fact that I was now starting to overtake people and holding my own. It was here that I passed Sam and Adele, two amazing Brissy women who were undertaking the miler. We had a brief chat and I kept moving, my HR now happily within the zone and actually having to work to keep it there at times.
As it started to flatten out a little (I use the word flat very loosely) the terrain changed to being more rocky and less vegetation. It was here that I caught up to Amy and her friend. We ran/hiked for a bit together and chatted about Northburn (the friend doing the miler had done it before) and food – as you do. I stopped and decided to take off my thermal as I was hot and then moved past them up the hill. It was getting cloudy now and there was a slight breeze but I was warm enough thanks to the steady incline, interspersed with small clambers over rocks here and there. As I reached what felt like the top the cloud descended and I put my thermal back on as the temp dropped. I stood up and scanned for the next marker, taking a few steps in the direction I thought it was before it appeared through the mist. Huge shapes in the form of rocks also appeared through the mist as I ran to each marker, they were epic and other worldly and ahead I could just make out the shape of a ute and a group of people. I had reached the next aid station.
As I came into the station the volunteers welcomed me and took down my number. I busied myself refilling my flask and noted the two men also refuelling were those that had commented on my poles earlier – ok, I’m doing ok, I thought. I was as quick as possible , although my hands were shaky with cold at this point, the aid station workers commented that the temp had dropped at least 5degrees in the last 10min thanks to the cloud and also that we had just missed the photographer (seems to be the story of my racing life in New Zealand!) So, after a thankyou and checking I was going the right way I headed over another fence only to stop immediately and put my gloves on – my hands were freezing! My nose was also starting to drip from the cold, so I wound a buff around my wrist as a snot rag and set off again.
When planning my race the lack of possible beauty was something that Matt had brought up a number of times. I run because I love it but also I love the things I get to see and experience during the run, whether it be training or racing. Plus, a pretty waterfall or gorgeous treeline can change how your feeling when things get really tough. I had prepared myself for a lack of beauty. Lying in my bed in Cromwell looking out over Mt Dunstan and Mt Horn it all looked like brown mountainside. Not particularly beautiful or inspiring. But in truth there was so much beauty up there.
The next section was my absolute favourite. It was stunning and I really wish I had taken at least one photo but I was trying very hard to just stay completely present and I was feeling good and didn’t want to stop and possibly ruin that feeling. I was now running beside a small alpine creek on spongy, mossy ground. As I looked at my feet it seemed like an undersea scape with all different types of corals. The mosses and grasses grew right to the very edge and sometimes over the stream which was crystal clear with small granite type pebbles at its bed. Here and there I would jump over small star shape flowers, smaller than a 5 cent piece and bunches of what looked like small white tulips. All this in an increasingly misty valley with nothing to hear but my breath and the creek bubbling away. It was seriously like something out of a fairytale or Lord of The Rings. I was also still having to guess and search for markings thanks to the thick misty cloud, but kept Terry’s words in my head that if there was an obvious path to follow it, the path in this case being the creek. After heading down for a bit I then switched across to another creek and began heading back up. I stopped here and there to have a sip of the icy water and tried to take it all in as much as I could while continuing to steadily move up and out.
I don’t actually remember the transition up off the creek but I was then climbing over another fence and back onto four wheel drive track. I was now half way through my first loop, which in my head was just half way. I was doing two 50km runs, not a 101km race. Here we started to steadily descend. Nature called and I began to look for somewhere, a big bloody rock basically, that I could hide behind. Finding one where people couldn’t see you was difficult! I was also starting to catch more people, but was cautious of running as hard as I felt I could because I knew that along with a lot of ascent there was much more descent to come. Finally I found a big rock and found some relief. It was getting warm now and I figured I had enough water to get me through to close to 40km, keeping a steady pace I headed down off the mountain, chatting in short sentences here and there to those I passed, wondering if my watch was right as far as km’s and beginning to think about the 50k aid station stop with my crew. It was definitely warm now, and all my warm gear was stowed away.
At the 40km we came to a waterpoint within view of Base Camp, it was tantalisingly close but from here we headed back out away from it along the Loop of Deception. Hiking along the up, I rang my crew to let them know where I was and some extras that I would like if they could get them (my toothbrush and some magnesium oil to rub my legs – I had both in my 80k drop bag but thought they might be good now). Sarah answered and exclaimed they could see me on the tracker and I wasn’t far off now. I laughed and said I reckoned at least another 1.5-2hrs and then made my requests. Getting off the phone I had been boosted by the short conversation and started really pushing.
It was super hot now and despite moving well it seemed to be taking forever to get to the next waterpoint. I started to worry that I was going to run out of TrailBrew, I was down to a quarter of my last flask. I had been staying well on top of my nutrition at this point, having half a flask of TrailBrew and half a Clif Bar or a funsize chocolate every hour along with extra water and I really didn’t want to stuff it up. After a nice short steep descent we began to climb again and I saw the waterpoint, much to my relief. I filled up my flask whilst answering questions about my interesting henna and then set off again, determined to keep moving. The tracks were much more dirt road like now and easy to run and I clicked along at a steady pace, catching people here and there and not feeling too tired considering the 50k I had just run.
As 50km ticked over I wondered where the hell Base Camp was, thinking around each corner I should see it, but couldn’t. At the same time I was feeling absolutely stoked at my progress, knowing I was coming in at the fast end of my time estimates for the run. Then, just as I remembered that the first loop was 51km, Base Camp appeared up ahead. I could see people waiting on the hill and as I got closer I heard cheering. Emotions welled up but I put my game face on knowing that the hard work was just about to begin and that I needed to not get too comfortable here with my crew. Sarah met me on the hill and cheered me down to Base Camp where Maz was waiting. As I walked into the tent where the crew had set up, they had everything laid out and ready for me, I spied Aaron and said hello.
I dropped my poles, I took off my pack and pulled out all my flasks and the bladder, put my watch on to charge and then Maz held my hand and walked me to the loo while Sarah refilled everything for me. Having the loo and loo paper to clean up was SO good. I was relieved I wasn’t bleeding too hard but it was still messy – oh the joy! Maz and I walked back into the tent as she asked questions about what I’d seen and what I needed to do. Maz gave me a rub down on my legs while Sarah and I sorted nutrition to pack in my pack. I emptied out one shoe which now had a hole in it thanks to a spiky spaniard attack, then Maz suggested she wet me down as they had been hearing reports that the next big climb was very hot. I stepped outside the tent and Maz doused me with 2L of water. It was freezing on my hot head, but oh so good as well. Quickly back into the tent and everything was repacked, pack on, teeth brushed and out the door. As I got to the dirt road, one of them yelled out that my butt looked sexy in those shorts (go the duds!) and I yelled back that they forgot to make me laugh – to which they both flashed me, bwah ha ha ha! That did it! What an awesome crew. As I ran past a caravan where one of the 100miler crews were sitting they also yelled out that my butt did look sexy in those shorts, which made me crack up again. Then I headed up the climb, away from Base Camp.
Soon after Aaron caught up with me, we chatted and hiked and having company helped pass the time. I was finding it hard to hike hard enough to get my heartrate up now, despite it feeling like I was working really hard. We were moving nice and steadily though, we caught up to Marina and had a brief chat about how we were practically neighbours (she is from Mullumbimby) then we kept hiking and hiking and hiking, going up and up and up. Aaron started talking about how I was keeping such a good steady pace and pulling him along and that I should do the third loop for him as his pacer, too which I laughed and said I wasn’t that crazy. As we got to a small flatter spot, with the sun starting to set, I pulled out a note my crew had given me at Base Camp. It was from my best friend, Tui, I had been instructed to wait until I was somewhere really beautiful to read it, this was the spot. Tears welled up as I felt her love in those words and the connection burned bright. I stuffed the note away and turned determined to get to Leaning Rock before night fall.
Soon after we decided to stop, put a layer on and get out our torches before it got too dark. Marina caught up to us and I helped her change the batteries in her torch before we ran together for a bit to get to Leaning Rock. As we headed up and up the sun began to set proper, treating us to a spectacular pink and orange sunset with snow capped mountains far on the horizon. We reached Leaning Rock aid station just as it became really dark. I refilled and grabbed some apple slices, although I was still keeping on top of my nutrition I was finding it harder and harder to chew and swallow solid food, particularly as the bars were so hard in the cold. I was ready to go and Aaron was happily chatting so I called out that I was off and headed out. Aaron caught up to me and reiterated that I was to be his pacer, which I laughed at again and we went in search of TW, the next major aid station and my drop bag point.
I was still jogging all the downhills and hiking well on the ups but my heartrate had not been within the MAF zone for quite sometime. I could feel tiredness starting to keep in and my knees were a little sore, but Aaron’s constant chatter was a distraction in the now extreme dark. In the distance we could see the lights from Clutha Dam and cars driving along the highway well below, the stars were also amazing, but mostly I saw rocks and rubble and grass, concentrating on each step. TW seemed to take forever to get to. In reality what was only an hour seemed a lifetime. Unlike at Base Camp, when we entered TW I became the Queen of Faff. I got my bag, unpacked stuff, looked for things that weren’t there and were unneeded, went to the loo, read my notes from friends (thank you everyone) but barely took it in. Although Jonathon and Barry you made me laugh and Tina, I read yours out aloud and everyone in the checkpoint thought it awesome!
I had a cup of pumpkin soup and then, just before we were about to leave I decided I needed to get something warmer on. The volunteers confirmed that the temperature was dropping quickly so I decided to change from shorts to 3/4 length tights. Once that was done we were out of there, way too much time had passed, but that is in hindsight. During that time, Marina had been in and out and we caught up to her again in a couple of kms. Aaron was beginning to have stomach trouble and I was now needing to pee every 30-60min, probably because it was now so cold. We would power for a bit and then hit a low spot.
I was starting to struggle with having constant company. I’m not really used to running with other people and Aaron was starting to get increasingly negative. I think the realisation that he was only about halfway through was dawning on him. He kept telling everyone that I was his pacer and I seemed to take that on, whether intentional or not. It was a weird place to be in, mentally. I am a slower runner, to be honest knowing that I was keeping someone going, who can run 10ks at least 20min faster than me, was probably a bit of an ego boost. I was starting to feel a sense of duty to get him at least to the 100k but also feeling like I was losing time that I could be making up.
The climb to Mt Horn, which on the race profile looks innocuous after the two big climbs we had just done, was nothing short of arduous. I refused to stop though, my whole plan to get to the top of that bastard without having a break. So we climbed and Aaron began talking about dropping at 100ks, I shut him down, not wanting to hear any negativity, trying to keep my own thoughts about how hard and cold it was or how sore and tired I was at bay. The need to pee seemed constant and I past the point of modesty, taking a single step off the track before dropping my daks. At one point another miler runner ran past and called out “Still peeing? Thats a good sign”, just your normal every day conversation….
Finally we reached the top and then dropped down to the Mt Horn checkpoint. Here, I refused to go in the shed where the heater was set up and as soon as I was restocked with water I bullied Aaron back on the track, my sense of duty still strong, although it was hurting me at the same time.
As we did our last steep descent, I was really beginning to hurt. My ankles and knees refused to run due to pain and I was sure I was starting to get butt crack chafe, the worst kind ever. Picture me standing on the side of the trail shoving handfuls of PawPaw cream down my butt…. Hiking, however was fine and I was setting a good enough pace that Aaron would hike behind me for awhile and then jog to catch up. All I could think was I should be running this downhill, so I would start running but the aches would stop me within a few hundred metres. The path was overgrown and slippery because of the dew, markers were becoming hard to find again thanks to the terrain, long grass and fatigue. I kept seeing cats sitting on the side of the trail only to find they were in fact tufts of grass as I got closer. Then I had my first ever encounter with a hedgehog! The cute little guy was sitting in the middle of my track, at first I thought I was seeing things, but Aaron assured me no, it was a hedgehog. So cool! We saw a mother and baby a few kilometres later. Climbing over fences and styles was now comical and at one point I commented how they had put the fence crossing right in a patch of spaniards, sadisitic bastards! Only to check the other possible pass point and see that it was much worse. Bloody spiky shit!!
It was getting harder and harder to choke down my solid food, but I persisted adding a small pinch of potato chips after each bite, which seemed to calm the nausea
Aaron was now saying I was going too fast for him and that I should wait. At first I protested and told him to just keep up, but he was fading and not long after the 90k waterpoint he decided to stop. I couldn’t wait any longer, I just had to go. I cautioned him against getting too cold, to make sure he put another layer on if he sat down and then I set off, hiking as hard as I could, wanting to catch Marina if I could, after being told she had left the last waterpoint in the group before us.
Now I was doing my own thing. I was hiking hard but my heartrate was still low, I had in fact given up looking at it. The dark and quiet was lovely, not scary as I sometimes think it will be. The tiredness was seeping deeper and deeper in, food was hard to eat but the chocolate covered coffee beans I had broken out at 3:30am were keeping my eyes open.
As I hit 98km I began to get excited, in that totally exhausted way. I knew that if I kept moving I would finish before sun up (my C goal) and possibly under 24hrs (B goal). I watched as the lights of Cromwell got closer and then further away. I was on a dusty track now and could see footprints everywhere, which I took as a good sign despite the markers being few and far between. I clicked over 100k at exactly 22hrs59min, 1min and 15sec faster than my UTA100 time, I had hit my A goal as well! I had a little celebration and then my stomach decided it was all too much and I frantically searched for a tree or rock, I found nothing, it was just lucky no one came past right then. I got up and buckled down. Less than 1.5km to go, tears were starting but also the wistfulness of it being over. Just then I saw a headlight and recognised Marina, heading out on her 3rd lap. From watching her all day I’ve learned that being super fast at stops makes all the difference, she was lightening fast at each checkpoint and that made a huge difference. She congratulated me on finishing, asked where Aaron was and said she would see me tomorrow at the miler presentation before heading off on her final loop. I jogged, power hiked as fast as I could towards the now visible lights of Base Camp. I finished, oh so happy. I had met all my goals and as Terry congratulated me I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
Of course the story doesn’t finish there. My crew gave hugs and chicken soup, messages were sent to family and friends who were sleeping in Australia and I was bundled up to be taken home for a shower (Oh my how I did stink!) and the much anticipated cheese toasties and chocolate milk.
After a brief sleep, I woke to be told I was currently the second female, by Pat who had found the preliminary race results on Facebook. I was incredulous. How exciting! That is one of those “its never gonna happen to me” things, you know? At the presentation, I received my medal, a bottle of Northburn Station Pinot Noir and some Gurney Goo, a hug from Terry (#terryyoubastard) and smiled. However there was a level of disconcertion growing.
I didn’t feel I deserved this. I was so slow and we had amazing weather. Any other year in the usual, tougher conditions that Northburn is known for, I would have been lucky to be top 10 in the women (its always a very small field).
As we stood in the lake at Wanaka, trying to bring down the inflammation in my legs and just cause we all loved Wanaka so much, I voiced these thoughts to my crew, who of course immediately slapped them down. My coach had similar stuff to say, about stopping with the comparisons (a common theme for me) and relishing it for what it is. I still feel like a bit of a fraud, for taking the 2nd place. I know its not my decision, and its funny because I’ve always wondered what it must be like to get a placing. How much brighter the accomplishment must feel. If anything its made me feel awkward because its not the 2nd place that has brought me so much joy. It is, in fact, the conquering of Northburn, an epic adventure if there ever was one and meeting all my goals, something that I haven’t been able to say about a race for a very very long time.
It was a very good day.
Shoes – Inov8 Trailroc 245’s
Socks – Injinji Trail 2.0 midweight crew
Poles – Black Diamond Carbon Z flick lock
Pack – Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta
Nutrition – TrailBrew, Clif Bar (Choc Chip/Coconut Choc Chip/White Choc Macadamia), Funsize Bounty/Snickers, M&M’s, Zentvelds Choc Covered Coffee Beans, Apple, Pumpkin Soup
My hubby, Sim – for always encouraging me to do whatever makes me happy, for looking after the kids so I could go play in the mountains and for always being there when I doubt myself
Sarah and Maz – for being the best support crew and travelling buddies. You took all the stress out of the trip and the race for me. I love you both and am so happy to have all those wonderful memories that we made together.
Matt (super coach) – for getting me to the start and finishline of this and many other races. For listening and caring and for believing in me, even when I sometimes don’t.
Mum and Dad – for always instilling a sense of adventure and for supporting my crazy adventures which I know are a bit outside the box.
To my friends who sent messages of support throughout training, the race and after – knowing you’re there holds me up when I feel down, helps me get out of bed when I don’t want to and makes me smile when it’s hard.
When I started my journey in the world of running I was somewhere in the vicinity of 90kg. I’m not really sure how much I weighed as we didn’t own a set of scales.
When I realised I couldn’t even run the 200m to our property gate without stopping for fear of dying I knew I had to do something. On the recommendation of some friends I joined Michelle Bridges “12 Week Body Transformation”. With the combination of a very low calorie diet and a high intensity program of cardio and weights I quickly lost weight, a lot of weight. Unfortunately though I was of little use to anyone after most sessions as I suffered from severe exhaustion as a result of so few calories and a body adjusting to, what seemed at times, the punishment of exercise. I also took the increased activity as an excuse to reward myself with alcohol. My youngest had now weaned, my partner worked away all week and I was depriving myself of the thing that I used to deal with my emotions – food, so alcohol took its place and then some.
Not the healthiest existence, but from the outside it looked like I was getting on top of my weight and moving more, so what did that matter.
Once the 12WBT finished, I was left to my own devices. The alcoholism stayed, but I at least realised that the way I was eating was not sustainable. The biggest blessing was that over the course of the 12 weeks I had discovered that I loved running.
Without the money to continue with the Michelle Bridges plan, I turned to friends who knew about nutrition and running. My running progressed and I began to run farther and discovered trail running and races. My nutrition jumped around, I did strict paleo, Low Carb/High Fat and then settled on a cobbled together diet from what I read in books, internet articles and various sporting websites.
At my lowest weight, some 30kg lighter than when I started, I was faster than I have ever been but I don’t think I was truly healthy. I looked gaunt, I was slow to recover after big days and my drinking was now pushing over into my daily life.
Events were an excuse to drink as much as my body could handle, I would fast to increase the impact of the alcohol and I would think nothing of planning a 30min drive with the kids just to pick up a bottle of wine and vodka. Its not something I’m proud of, but it is my story.
Around this time I started a dialogue with some close friends. I knew my drinking was unhealthy but didn’t know how I could unravel myself from it. It was also around this time I found my coach. The regular routine of running was a comfort. The drinking however, continued. It took me over a year of attempts to get alcohol out of my life. In that time I learned that I cannot moderate myself with alcohol and I also learned how much good friends can help you and be there for you, when you need them.
During the process of eliminating alcohol from my life, I used food and drink (milo) as a substitute. I figured these substitutes were a lesser evil than alcohol. At the end of the Coastal High 50 in 2015 a friend made a comment about me drinking chocolate milk while everyone else wandered the field with beer in hand. My reply “Yep, thats how I roll!”.
Of course, like everything, chocolate milk is great in moderation, something I don’t seem to do well. So I again jumped back into the world of online diets, downloading programs that would work for awhile but didn’t seem all that sustainable. By now I had a good basic knowledge of food, nutrition and fuelling, but felt I was missing key elements. I trained for and ran my first 100k and another 50k. Meanwhile my weight slowly increased, I tried to remember that fuelling my body was important and that starving myself for the sake of decreasing my weight would likely be detrimental, but in the back of my mind I wanted to be better and fitter and more and I knew my nutrition played a part.
After my last 50k, I spent most of my recovery time trying to work out where I was going wrong. Why was I gaining weight? I was also reading a lot on running (as you do) and there is that whole thing of the less you have to carry the faster you get, to a point. As anyone who follows me knows, I’ll take any increase in speed I can get.
So, I talked through my thoughts with my hubby. He was, of course, worried about me going back to my previous unhealthy weight and also about the toll it would take on my training, as I had just started training for my second 100k race. He suggested a nutritionist or dietician might help, something I had talked about before. My thought processes about getting professional help for my diet were sadly similar to what I went through with getting a coach. It seemed somewhat indulgent, plus isn’t that something only elite athletes need and do? I sat with the idea for awhile and after another few weeks of no shift in weight and feeling like I was doing everything I possibly could to improve my performance, I approached my running coach for his thoughts and also contacted my strength coach to see if he could help. We decided it couldn’t hurt.
A few weeks later I saw a dietician recommended by my strength coach. I prepared myself to be told that I had to completely change what I was doing to get results. I also felt really nervous, it feels like this is the last little thing I can do to influence my running. It probably seems silly to those looking in that I go to such lengths, particularly when I’m nowhere near the front of the pack. It really is hard to explain why I do expend so much energy on trail and ultra running. Maybe its just that it brings me such joy, I feel driven and compelled to do everything I can to be the best I can be, even if that ends up being mediocre.
So, it turns out I was mostly on the money with my nutrition. Working with how I eat everyday, the dietician moved around a few elements to aid recovery, reduced some key foods and increased others to give me the balance she feels I need. I left feeling excited that I could do what I need without becoming unhealthy again but also nervous.
Its scary when you feel like you’re truly putting everything you can into it when you toe the line, but I figure I only get this life so I may as well live it the best that I can. So, I am upping the ante. I am taking on Northburn 100k in 7 weeks and I hope to be the absolute best athlete I can be by the time it rolls around. I am ridiculously excited, as always, and very nervous, but feel I am truly covering all the bases that I can think of this time round and thats the best I can do.
Anyone who follows me on social media would have seen my post about struggling with my speed, mostly due to comparing myself with others.
“My long runs are rarely just about running. I have kind of been stuck in my head the last week. Trying to work out what it is I’m missing and why being faster matters so much to me. Of course the answer is I love trailrunning and I really want to be good at it. Patience is hard. So, now I have to work out how to stop myself getting stuck in my head. One of those is to back off again from strava. Comparison really is the thief of joy. The other is to look up and see the beauty around me.
Its no secret that I train really hard. I do everything my coaches ask of me. Yes, coaches, I have two of them. I have a running coach (Matt from Judd Adventures) and a strength and conditioning coach (Graeme from Coast to Coast PT). As well as this I also read everything I can, I take my recovery seriously, I am in bed early to get enough sleep, I do yoga for my body, mind and soul, I eat non processed nutritionally dense foods and I have even had a session with a sports psychologist to deal with my fear of failure.
Why? Because I love trailrunning, I love what it has done to my body and mind, I love the places it takes me, the pristine areas that few others see and the people I have met because of it.
Unfortunately, it has also brought something else out in me. A desire to be competitive.
I have never been a competitive person as far as sport is concerned. As a child I was the one getting the “participation” ribbon for every possible event. As a teen I walked in every single high school cross country event and our netball team revelled in being there for fun not competition.
Then I found trail running. At first I loved that I was able to run at all and see areas of the pristine bush and magnificent vistas, pure a simple. That enjoyment is still there, in fact it is the joy of those things that still gets me out on the trails most days. Somewhere along the way, I decided I wanted to be faster, faster than the runner I was and then I wanted to run faster than at least some of the others running the same races as me.
I have become faster. In fact last week I ran what is possibly the fastest I have ever run. I was stoked that I hit my goal pace, I held it and ran that 3km as hard as I could.
My joy was palable when I came home and I grinned all through breakfast and my shower and then I uploaded my run to strava…
And as I revelled in my fastness, my win as it were, I wandered through the stats of the people I follow and there it was, someone titled their run “Easy pace” and it was below my pace, my fastest ever, drag my guts out and set my heart pounding pace. Then the spiral began that led me to my post last monday.
On my monday run the shit kinda hit the fan. There was anger and there was tears. I got home and posted my picture, leading to the usual debate about the good and bad of strava. As I got ready to go out with my family for the day, my husband asked what was wrong, was my run no good this morning? I snapped back that no, it was great, for me, I ran really well but there were tears and I’m so sick of being so slow. This is nothing new to Sim. Both my hubby and my running coach have dealt with this before. It is a recurring theme, as anyone who has read my blog before will know.
As I sat in the car, trying to compose myself, my hubby spoke and with those words I remembered, yet again, why I love him so. He put his hand on my knee and said “I know you want to be competitive but maybe you’re just not meant to be. I think you really are a Soul Runner”. I must have looked puzzled so he explained that he came up with it from the term soul surfer.
From wikipedia: “A soul surfer (coined in the 1960s) is a surfer who surfs for the sheer pleasure of surfing. Although they may still enter in competitions, winning is not the soul surfer’s main motive, since they scorn the commercialisation of surfing. The term denotes a spirituality of surfing.”
As we continued to drive, I rolled the notion over in my mind and Sim went on, talking about how I glow after running in the bush, how I am bursting with joy when I find a new path or a new vista and how much I really just enjoy the running.
So, it would seem, I am a soul runner, or at least I am taking that title as my own. I do love to run. I love the sound of my feet as they crunch the leaves underfoot or splash through a creek, the feeling of the wind on my face as I sit on a peak watching the sunrise or spying a lyrebird in the brush and a wedgetail eagle in the sky. As for the competitive stuff, it does not serve me. For my psychological well being I have reduced my Strava contacts by two thirds and while I will still use it, mostly so I can compare my own efforts and track my own progress, I am trying to focus purely on being the best runner I could be running the most amazing places I can get to.
Afterall, I am a soul runner.