Vajin Armstrong’s Tarawera Ultra Marathon 2014 race report. Otherwise known as Adaptability, Or how to pull success from the Jaws of failure.
In Ultra running, one of the key lessons you need to learn is that no matter how well you prepare no matter how thorough your plans are, something will go wrong. This in itself is not the problem, some of my best and most satisfying races have involved things going seriously wrong. It is how we respond and deal with these situations that determines the outcome of our event. Obviously to start with something went quite wrong with this years Tarawera Ultra Marathon before the race had even begun. Whenever I was out training and was visualising the race and how it would play out, it was always sunny; sunny and very hot. I was looking forward to getting out on the original course and having the opportunity to test myself against the 2011 and 2012 Vajin, and hopefully show the world that YES I have improved. So when the news came that it could possibly be rainy, this immediately put me on the back foot. When this was followed up by the last minute decision that we would be racing a shortened course this could have been the knock out punch. But luckily after talking to a friend (thanks GTG) who reminded me that “Ultra Running is all about being adaptable”, I consciously choose that this current situation was exactly what I wanted and this new course and event was perfect for me. Ultra running is hard enough as it is without lining up with doubts, regrets and excuses filling your mind.
Race morning 3.30am Breakfast – three slices of Vogels Gluten Free six seed bread lightly toasted topped with Nutella(I am just waiting for Anton to land the first Nutella sponsorship deal) and sliced Banana. Leave for start 6.05am arrive 6.10am. Make my way to the front of the field, short jog and a couple of drills to warm up. Feeling very calm and collected, I have learnt that the less energy I spend on worrying and stressing about the race the more I have for the actual running. Singing, Haka, the bringing together of our community, one moment, one goal. Bring it on, time to race.
The first lap was great, more of a warm up than anything else, the chance to stretch out the legs and relax into the race. As soon as we returned to that start line though it was race on. I settled in with the guys that I considered to be the main contenders and we started rollin’ at a decent clip. I was feeling good, comfortable and relaxed and between Blue Lake and Lake Okareka aid stations I decided to up the tempo. Heading out onto Millar Rd I passed Sam Clark and had the overall race lead, I didn’t even look at my GPS watch as I didn’t want to know how fast we were running, I was just happy to be moving well and feeling good. It was on this same stretch of road that Sage made his move last year and I was expecting the same today. Without fail as the climbing started he moved past me with Mike Aish in tow. I was still feeling good and was felt I was running the right tempo for me so let them go.
We hit the trail and I cruised up the first climb but as soon as I started descending I realised something was not right. Ten days before the race Christchurch was suffering from a serious bout of flooding. I was out for an easy recovery run and happened to step into a large hole, cunningly hidden by water, that had opened up in the road. It was a near miss I thought as this was the type of hole that could easy snap a leg in two. From me all it asked for was some skin and bruising to the shin. It hadn’t been a problem during training since then but now, 30km into the race my tibialis anterior (the small muscle on the front of the shin) was starting to cramp up and felt like it was going to explode. The bruising to the muscle sheath and the point where the impact had occurred had lead to this poor muscle becoming angry, irritated and over worked. It got to the point where the pain was so much that I had to stop to try and stretch it out. This is where Yun Yanqiao, from China, passed me, good man I thought, all the best. I walked for a bit and then tried to get started again. After another couple of hundred metres, pain, increasing pain, then boom, walking again. This is it I thought, I am out of the race, there was no way I could see myself making it another 30+kms in this condition. It was at this point that the one and only Mike Wardian passed me, lovely guy checked up on me, before he disappeared down the trail. I was walking now and was just waiting for the rest of the field to come storming past. But something strange happened…..no one came and at this point when it seemed all was lost inspiration struck. “This is not how I am going out of this race, never give up”. Too many people had given too much time, love and support to get me to this place, I couldn’t give up without knowing that I had given everything I had. So I started running again, it was painful for sure but the more I ran on it the more the pain began to recede, the fact that the track was now climbing again certainly helped. After stopping and walking for 5 or so minutes I felt that I would be out of the race but very quickly, far quicker than I could have imagined, I saw Mike Wardian ahead of me. Passing him quickly put me into fourth and suddenly I found myself “back” in the race.
I ran solidly down to Okatina, ignoring any protests coming from the shin, and found myself now with 21km to go and feeling pretty good. Having a nice little rest and walk in the middle of a race has an amazingly rejuvenating quality to it. Coming back into the aid station after heading out to the turn around I found myself 8+ mins down on Yun in 2nd, and 4+mins down on Mike Aish in 3rd. “Time to get to work” I told myself, and “Don’t let me walk even for one step” I told my pacer. I gave everything I had over this next stretch climbing as hard as I could and pouring my heart and soul into it. To all those that stopped and let me past and all those that offered so much support to me, you are all awesome and are the reason why this sport is so great. With 7 or 8kms to go I saw two yellow singlets ahead which could mean only one thing, game on for 3rd place. I blew past Aish as he was suffering through a bit of a bad patch and thought that would be the last I saw of him. How wrong could I be…..
After cruising through the next 3-4 kms we were approaching Millar Rd aid station, that magical spot which would mean only 2 kms to go, when I asked my pacer just to check behind us to make sure the coast was clear. He turned back to casually inform me that Mike was there and was closing in on us. At that point in any race it’s not really what you want to hear, but at km 70 in a race like Tarawera with only two fast road km’s to go, you really don’t want to hear that a former 27min 10km runner is hot on your heels. In that moment you have two choices a) accept the “inevitable” and let the “faster” runner run you down or b) fight with everything you have got and see what you are made of. We hit the road and I started giving it everything, I looked at one split on my GPS and saw that we were going sub 3min km pace and still Aish was coming for me. The gap went (according to my pacer) from 80m to 60m and with 1km to go it was down to less than 40m. I was running as fast as I could at this point and was just hoping that the finish line would reach me before Aish did. At this point my pacer looks back and says “Your holding him” and then even more excitedly “You are pulling away, you’ve got 100m”. I didn’t look back and carried on pushing hard all the way to the line. At this point after finishing a race I didn’t think I was going to finish, having held out a quality runner like Mike Aish over the final stages I was in a word “PUMPED”.
More than results Ultra Trail to me is about experiences, it’s about getting to that point where you think you have nothing left and can’t go on and then taking that next step. Of finding that our capacities are indeed greater than we know, of finding out what we are truly capable of. Huge thanks to Paul and his team for providing us all with the opportunity to step into the unknown and find out where our limits are.
Big thanks to all my sponsors and supporters and of course my wife Prasasta, Ultimate Direction (the original and still the best handhelds), MACPAC (Chch’s finest), Buff (good for anything) the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team (inspirational) and the wonderful Lotus-Heart in Christchurch (all things nutritional).