Guest Post- Richard Houghton TuM Race Report

 Richard Houghton gives us his Tarawera Ultra race experience and how his first 100km race played out.

Background: Many years ago when I ran my first marathon; Auckland 1994, I chased a time to beat. Post that race there were really two options on endurance running. To go faster or to go longer. There was a 100km race in the South Island at the time that I was interested in doing but never pursued it. But out of this came the bucket list to do a 100km running race. At that point I had never heard the term “Ultra Marathon”. Then I got distracted from running by windsurfing, multisport then triathlon. Along with all the usual life things like job, travel, family. But with time becoming more constrained for training and in reality endurance events really coming down to a race against the clock. The challenge had gone from these events. A marathon or Ironman wasn’t the mental challenge of can I do it; it was a physical challenge of how fast can I do it. So it was time to find a mental & physical challenge that met the criteria of time effective and cost. Hence back to arguably the most time and cost effect sport and the simplicity of running. The aging body actually limits the training hours, cost is shoes and food. Also there was that bucket list item. A 100km ultra had been on the radar for a few years, but I had been mentally unprepared for the challenge and kept putting it off. So after a couple of slack years of racing it was time to step up to the challenge. Additionally I got handed my ego at Auckland marathon; that destroyed any thought that perhaps I could go fast, so now was the time to go long.  I entered and got onto the wait list which was a bit of a reality check that perhaps I needed to be a bit more committed to the event. I had been training through the winter with the intention of doing the ultra, but had not committed. So once my spot was confirmed in early December it was time to focus.

TUM start

Richard, number 575, starting off on his 100km journey.

Training: I’m a relatively low hour trainer. I run where I am rather than drive to a better location, I train alone a majority of the time. Therefore when I leave the house I’m training. My training largely consisted of road running along the waterfront and few hills of Auckland, a bit of soft surface on the Tamaki Essetry, and hills of Birkenhead. I did a few double run days; which were new to me, by running to and from work. I avoided back to back run days a lot unless there was a key purpose. I had to overriding goals for the start line. To arrive uninjured and mental desire to run. Being self-coached the ability to change things has positive and negative benefits. There were training runs that I didn’t do/changed as life got the way. I stopped part way through runs if it just wasn’t happening on that run, and increased runs if it was. I trained in a fasted state a lot on shorter duration runs. Another key skill to learn in the training was to run slower, I could naturally go and run for a couple of hours at 5min30sec/km pace comfortable and get this down to very low 5’s high 4’s for extended periods. To run an ultra I need the ability to pace myself at 6-7min/km for as long as I ran. This was hard at time especially when you are either time constrained and can only do 8km/hr at this pace rather than the 12km/hr I had been used to, also running on the waterfront everyone passes you. Good training on ego management; which was going to be critical for the first 30km of the ultra. In the last 12 weeks most of my weeks were between 50 and 70km, with some cycling in addition to this. This was made up of 3-4 runs. My longest run was 35-40km, but flat, I did one week that I was determined to do 100km. This was done with 3 double run days and max run length was 16km. After 4 runs in two days I had to have a day off. That was certainly a tough week to survive. There certainly was a gap between my training distances/times and the race. However I achieved my two training goals. I arrived at the start line achieving the two key goals of being uninjured and mentally enthused about the 100km challenge.
The Race: Registration, briefing etc. all was easy and done with. Tanya and the kids came to the start; leaving the hotel before 5am. Race morning was clear and crisp with the promise of getting warmer during the day. I prefer to race in the warmth, so looking at being the perfect weather for racing. So after the established pre-race process of portaloo’s and portaloo queues, Tanya and the kids walked up to be ahead of the start. The start was 6am in the dark for the first 30 min, so headlamp on, 1000 runners up a bush road is quite a spectacle.   I started about mid pack probably, as didn’t want to start fast and get carried away in the event. But was conscious of the fact that fairly quickly it went from road to single track, and uphill single track, which arguably would be my strengths. The start was great, lights, camera’s everywhere, saw Tanya and kids and was on my way. Trying to remember to run slowly, if given the choice of pass or fall back, fall back. Walk the uphills all that good advice that you read about but have no experience in. The first 20km I had done in a training run so knew what to expect.   I fairly quickly got into the race routine of drinking, and running, walking the hills/inclines. While I never looked at the total time on my watch or distance all day, it would give me the 5km split. This I was mentally logging, probably more about ensuring I wasn’t going to fast in the first 30km and then that I was moving forward in the last 70km. The day became very much a routine of thank the volunteers and supporters, drink, drink, look at the scenery, remind yourself why you were there, watch your footing if necessary, then later in the day remind yourself of what you have achieved. My nutrition plan was to use Perpetum (a carb/protein blend from Hammer Nutrition) for the first 60km, then swap to the provided electrolyte after that. This was based on giving the stomach something different more than nutritional value. I stuck to this, with the inclusion of some gels at each aid station. Chocolate gels can actually taste good. I used drop bags for the Perpetum powder and had some gels etc. but didn’t use. The aid stations broke up the routine of running, but I didn’t graze on lolly’s or real food as I knew that I could survive and was better off on my nutrition plan. At Lake Okareka; the first drop bag aid station, I couldn’t get the bladder open and had to get two volunteers to help open it, then dumped the bag of Perpetum all over the bladder, made sure I didn’t tighten it up as much. Felt like I was taking an age in the aid station, but wanted to ensure that I got the nutrition that I needed. Additionally at this point I put on Sunscreen; careful not above the eyes, collected sunglasses and cap from drop bag. Then it was back to the routine of running. The trails were easy running, and from then started the climb to the course highest point. This trail while climbing was well formed and easy running/walking. This was where the strategy really comes into play, is it step enough to walk, should I run this bit, should I pass this person or stay at their pace. As my strength is uphill and in particular I walk faster than most (in MTB racing this is my only strength walking up hill fast). The uphill over this section was not step but long, the down to Okataina Lodge Aid Station was stepper. By now you were getting used to running within a group of passing on the ups, getting passed on the downs, but for the first time you were actually getting some time to yourself. The field was starting to spread, but would bottleneck quickly. This section like the first was in bush, with shade and very pleasant running. Additionally it was within the bounds of what was known. After Okataina Lodge aid station where I again filled up with Perpetum and a gel from my drop bag. The race changed. The time to get here was about 4 ½ hr, but only 37km. The trail then was along the side of the lake, while still in the forest, and was now narrow, lots of tree roots, twisting arross the trail. This was to be the most technical and mentally challenging section of the trail. The fatigue was starting to set in; actually probably already had. I was generally running in a group as there was no easy passing, so it was like running on the streets, crammed in running someone else’s race, but having to concentrate hard on the surface. I remember someone saying that was the first marathon done, and most of us were in new experience territory. This was certainly the case after 45km for me. My 5km splits along this section would be my slowest all race. Somewhere around this point I tripped and fell. It was a relatively heavy fall, lots of others around me stop to see if I was okay; in the way runners look after each other. As I lay there checking out the body to see where the most pain was and that parts still moved. With other runners stepping around me, checking I okay I slowly move to sitting, then standing. My legs are okay, bit sore but nothing that feels like I can’t run it out; and in fact do over the next 5km or so. Certainly nothing that could later be blamed for slowing me down.  What I did however do in the fall was fold my fingers back on my left hand. The pain was immediate, and considerable. It meant that I couldn’t use my left hand to help move myself of the track or stand upright. The hand started to swell, with no movement in my fingers. Normally I race in my wedding ring but wasn’t; which was lucky and the finger & hand swelling was considerable. As I started to move forward again after what seemed an age and the trail was simple to run on, I would try and move my fingers. First by wanting to move them, this didn’t work. Second by moving them with my right hand, this worked and didn’t cause excritating pain. From this I established that nothing was broken, only sprained. The upside of the fail is I got a nice war wound with blood on my leg, I was covered in dirt, and I didn’t feel any pain from the rest of my body for the next 55+ km. From this I kept running through what were hard trails that didn’t flow on what was the longest section between aid stations. This was also mentally hard as it was longer than I had ever run before, it was a long way and the trail just seemed to repeat itself. After the outlet, the mental side became easier as I knew I wasn’t that far from the 60km finish and that the Falls were in here somewhere. The track also became easier to run on. The pain in my hand distracted me from the numbness of running.  As I came to signs that said 1.5km to the Falls carpark and the 60km finish. The mental game started again. I could finish at 60km and it still would be a major achievement; people would still think me crazy. The other side was it was only a marathon to go, that I can comfortably run, even the mind was saying that its only 3 ½ hrs to go. Little did the mind realise it was going to be a 6 hour marathon. Additionally the pain in my had meant that I couldn’t really hold a thought for long, or really focus on the thought. The joys of simpleness. By the time I came into the crowds of the aid station/60km finish I had convinced myself to keep going. Wasn’t really hard in hindsight. At this aid station my drop bag included two extra luxuries; fresh socks and shoes (1/2 size bigger). So I got my drop bag, sat down and proceed to try and change shoes and socks with only one fully functional hand. Not wanting to get sent to medical, I didn’t want to highlight to the helpful volunteer’s the state of my hand. Once shoes and socks were off I had created an additional amateur mistake in that I hadn’t turned my new socks the right way in. New challenge of turning sock the right way, putting on and then shoes and laces without much use of left hand. This was really a painfully task, possibly the most painful part of the race. Eventually done.  Additionally I was going to myself congratulations you have run 60km, further than ever before, really trying to celebrate the milestone. Then it was onto filling up new clean bladder for nutrition change.  My nutritional plan had a change from Perpetum to Heed electrolyte. Still sticking to the key nutritional plan of no food from the beautiful banquet presented to me, especially simple sugars like lollies and coke. As I left the aid station I grabbed ice and then ran/walked with a large piece of ice on my left hand. This numbed the pain down to discomfort, a very welcome relief for 15 minutes. The other key change from the 60km point was now we were running on forest roads and not trails. This certainly made the running smoother. From this point on it really was about trying to keep moving forward as economically and fast as possible. Is this incline to be walked or run? Do I drink again? Should I stop and empty my bladder. Additionally a number of people had pacers; and those with pacers seemed to be passing me. From the 60km aid station the mental game really began. The body was tired, getting brutally tired, I was running in the sun and glare for the first time. I would always prefer to race in the heat than cold, it just meant looking through smearing sun glasses. The roads went up then down then up then down. I walked then ran then walked then ran etc., probably ran some where I could/should have walked.  This was just boring endless forest consuming the km’s. This continued until the 77km aid station where the 85km participants went left, and the 100km went right. My mind set coming into this point was simply. If I do the 100km then I do not NEED to do another to tick of the bucket list, I may want to but will not NEED to. That is what simply made me turn right. From this point I just repeated the last 17 km mindset of just keep moving forward. At the loop of despair, I just didn’t have the energy to put much emotion into the despair. This was a loop where you ran against the others coming out of the loop for a bit before an isolated piece of single track that climbed steeply. This was almost a welcome change. It was certainly a change from the straight graded forest roads. This was single track, steep climbing. Then it was onto the downhill that would go on for the next 20km to the finish. My thighs were to shot to run fast down the hills and I am a crap downhill runner anyway. Because of this I was not making the progress that I should have. Also from the start of the loop of despair I was on my own, no-one near unless they were running past me.   Fisherman’s Bridge Aid station At 90km could be heard from quite a way out, but the trail which had been long and straight since the loop, now leaved out and twisted along the river’s edge. So the coming into the aid station seemed to take forever. This was the first aid station my wife and kids came to; they had been enjoying the day doing their own thing. This certainly provided the lift. The positive that comes from seeing your family in a race shouldn’t be underestimated. There they are enthusiastic about the whole thing, concerned for this broken, dirty, pained looking, middle aged man, who can hardly string a sentence together. And in reality just wants this to end and the only way to end it is keep moving saying goodbye. Abigail ran with me for about 1/2km before she turned back will I continued along the trail, which was quite level but just kept going. Whilst I have a GPS watch the only feedback I had from it was the 5km splits, which couldn’t come quick enough. I also only approximately knew how far was left to go. This and the fact that if I looked and my watch would only give me information that would despair me, I never looked at the watch all day. I was definitely going slowly but still forward. There was no physical exhaustion of having to walk. It was just feeling that you were not going fast. I know what I can run 10km in, telling yourself that there as under an hour to go, but knowing full well that you were not running 10km/hr but probably closer to 5km/hr.  The two feelings of fatigue and frustration were dominant. The pain in my hand meant there was no real leg pain being noticed. Joseph joined me at the aid station with 5km to go as my official pacer, wearing his official pacer number. His enthusiasm buoyed me up as much as I could. My pace probably lifted from slow to not quite so slow. It was great to have some company and I now know how he feels when I run with him and talk and run just in front etc. The final bridge over the Kawerau River need a special mention, stairs up onto the bridge and off again 97km into a race is just torture. But the upside in hindsight was the photo below. Yes that is the sun starting to go down. Once coming into Kawerau the finish line seemed to take a long time to get to. Once the line was in finally in sight it was making sure that I didn’t ruin the finisher’s photo with another competitor in the photo, also getting Joseph to run next to me so the photo worked. Crossing the finish line was relief that I had done it, achieved what I set out to achieved, ticked of something from 25 years ago. The photo sums it up, too drained to really process the reality.     Going into the event you get asked often and how long will it take you? I would say hopefully between 12 & 14 hours. This TuM storywas based on no knowledge of the course or running that distance. I finished in 13hr 43min.   Post-Race: After finishing and getting some photos. We were weighed again I dropped 4kg from being weighed at registration. This is over the 5% they recommend. I did not feel faint or dehydrated; I had peed 4 times evenly over the race. With the swelling in my left hand it had been hard to fully monitor hydration, but I felt that I had been drinking heaps throughout the day, and if anything too much. I quickly took of my shoes to the relief of my feet, no blister, toe nail trauma, etc. Great plug to Compress Sports socks and Hoka One One shoes. After 10 min or so rest it was time to collect up my drop bags etc. then be bundled into the car for the drive back to Rotorua. While I had been racing my legs were fine, one stopped the real pain, muscle soreness, cramping started. This would be a key learning if doing more events is that you can’t stop for long at aid stations. I was too drained physically and mentally to really process the achievement. I didn’t have the energy to celebrate and share the celebration with the family. No energy to do anything but process bucket list ticked off. They say that crossing the finish line of an event like this can be life changing/defining but I had no energy to do any of that deep thinking, emotional stuff.   The race was really well run by the organisers and as professional as any of the other events; often run by professional organisations, that I have done. It had a real community feel about it, whilst being professional. All the aid stations were well stocked and run. On Sunday I was still and sore, but no the intense muscle soreness that you can experience with shorter races. By Monday afternoon I was walking okay, and climbing stairs okay. The body was tired for about a week which is why this is taking so long to write. The overall experience was the challenge that I wanted. It made training interesting, I had to research new things, learn about race strategies. Then I had to execute this to get to the finish as that was not a foregone conclusion. How to train for the distance. My training was light and would try and do more days and back to back long runs; I was very conscious of increase in load and injury risk. This possibly meant I did less running than planned at times. The double run days worked well and would certainly thing them worthwhile in any endurance run training. Gear selection of good shoes and sock was critical as my feet were never an issue during the day, or in training. The key question of would I do it again? Yes I would, but I think I would rather do other runs of similar nature rather than repeat, as that gets back to chasing an improved time.

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