super generic girl

the awesomely average life of a girl like all others


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Everything’s a bit shit until it isn’t – life lessons from the forest

On Saturday, I ran 33km through Riverhead Forest so I’m putting all my half-written posts on hold to tell you about that even though you didn’t actually ask.

It was a tough day. I knew it was going to be tough because most days have been tough lately even when they don’t include exhausting long runs. But I wanted and needed to be tougher than it.

I don’t even want to count on many days to go until the Kepler Challenge because I wouldn’t want to have a panic attack three paragraphs into a blog post but the fact is that I’m running out of time to feel sorry for myself and need to face the fact that you don’t train for a 60km run just by searching for photos of the track on the internet. But this running thing is really difficult sometimes. And the track, by the way, is really insanely pretty.

But anyway, back to Saturday.

The first ten or so kilometres were the hardest I’d run in a while. I started with a sore foot because it seems to be damn near impossible for me to ever run (or walk or do anything useful) without hurting myself. While the foot was a handy excuse to keep taking legitimate breaks (pro-tip!), it was, as usual, my head that wanted to give up all the time. I felt terribly guilty for the group of people I was with, all training for their own races and having to stop to wait for me when they could just be getting into the flow of the run and enjoying themselves. If this had been a road run, I would have Uber-ed my way out of there in record time. There are no taxi services out of the trails for broken runners, though, so there’s a free million-dollar business idea if you’re looking for one.

I didn't even take this photo on Saturday because I took zero photos on Saturday but here's a photo of Riverhead from a time when I could be bothered taking photos during a run.

I didn’t even take this photo on Saturday because I took zero photos on Saturday but here’s a photo of Riverhead from a different run. And you wouldn’t even know this photo wasn’t from Saturday if I hadn’t just told you which means you can always count on me to tell you when I’m trying to bullshit you.

At one point, it all reached a new level of awful. I had over 20kms ahead of me if I wanted to keep going with them but my head was telling me I could not handle a single step into that forest anymore. Even the thought of returning to the car on my own was daunting because it involved having to keep on moving which was the one thing I was dying to stop doing. I felt paralysed. Without knowing how to deal with it (because who the hell knows how to deal with this level of difficult shit?), and after failing to get me to make up my own mind about what the hell I was doing, one of the friends told me to remember that it was all about putting one foot in front of the other.

Except what I really wanted was to not move. I wanted it so desperately I didn’t even care that not moving meant sitting in the middle of the forest all alone.

Itakeanaprighthere

Not knowing what to decide, I decided not to decide anything and just do as I was told. I convinced myself I was doing it for the others (so I wouldn’t ruin their run) and that seemed to trick my brain into choosing to move. So I did – one foot in front of the other.

I couldn’t stand thinking about the entire distance we were going to cover that day. I couldn’t look ahead and see the inclination of the track without feeling dizzy and sick with fear. All options sounded unbearable so I just chose to look down at my feet and focus on their movement. When we veered off the forestry road and into the trail, I had no choice but to pay attention to the obstacles ahead.

Surprisingly, it was focusing on those that brought me back up from the fog I was in. Every little branch or tree root I ran over without tripping felt like a tiny victory and I kept collecting those along the trail. It wasn’t long before I’d gathered enough of those to feel a bit better and to start thinking that maybe I wouldn’t have to ruin everyone’s run that day. One foot in front of the other.

It's okay to not be okay.

At 20km, I was finally running happy, thinking about nothing but the run. At 30km, I wasn’t even close to wanting to stop. I felt fresher and more energised at 30km than I had felt in the first 10km (and if you think that doesn’t make sense, I’d like to remind you that I live in a country where the Air Force logo is a flightless bird).

That’s the beauty of the trails, really – they’re merciless. They’ll help you get through anything but there’s no kindness out there on them. They offer no shortcut, no easy way out. Once you get yourself there, you’re doing it. If you want to give up, good luck – you’re deep in the middle of lorde-knows-where and the walk/run back will be the same length you already did going in so why don’t you just harden up and keep moving forward anyway? There, like everywhere, the only way to get out of a bad situation is to keep going. One obstacle after another, you keep getting past them and can’t even tell you’re getting stronger. Next thing you know, you go from throwing a tantrum about how you can’t take another step to taking a giant load of them and realising you could, by focusing on that forward movement and taking it one step at a time.

I’m pretty sure running is the answer to everything. You should probably never invite me to be part of your pub quiz team.


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A run through the forest, now with 100% less injuries [Riverhead Rampage recap]

I took this photo while running, a pretty neat trick for me these days, considering I seemed to have lost my ability to stand up straight, let alone operate my phone camera while running. BUT THERE YOU HAVE IT.

I took this photo while running, a pretty neat trick for me these days, considering I seemed to have lost my ability to stand up straight, let alone operate my phone camera while running. BUT THERE YOU HAVE IT.

I totally expected my post about the Riverhead Rampage to be a whiny one (which is okay because I’m pretty prolific at whining so those posts practically write themselves).

I was ready to tell you another sad tale of how my crippled ankle couldn’t handle the uneven terrain and the roots and the rocks and all the damn nature and I’d ended up on the ground covered in dirt and tears, looking for my self-respect. And then you’d say something nice to me even though what you really think is “why doesn’t she just take a break to heal up?” and I’d pretend that I was totally going to take a break, even though I’d actually be halfway through typing my credit card details for another trail event on a different browser tab.

WELL. NOT THIS TIME.

The Riverhead Rampage – my fourth running event in four weeks – turned out to be a day of sweet trails, time with good friends and free craft beer so, basically, everything I love about trail running.

I had a feeling it was going to turn into another DNF (and a reason to throw another pity-party for one over here) but I was still pretty damn excited about this brand spanking new event right on my doorstep. It had the sweetest forest trails you can find this side of the galaxy and it was sponsored by the local brewery so included free craft beer (because why use only Strava when you can give your Untappd account a good workout too?). It was pretty much guaranteed to be the perfect day, especially for people with two functioning ankles.

Riverhead Forest and I were going through a bit of a thing. My last big ankle sprain (you know it’s bad when you have to order them chronologically in your head) had happened there, a couple of months before. Matt, the good guy behind the inaugural event, had offered to give a few of us nutters a sneak peek of the course one day after work. It sounded awesome – getting a bunch of friends together for a forest run at dusk, followed by some of the best beer you can find, brewed right there in Riverhead. Everyone was excited.

So, naturally, I ruined it.

Just 2km into that sneak peek into the new course, I had another one of my spectacular falls and sat there in the forest screaming for – oh, I don’t know – it felt like hours, it was probably a decent few minutes. Michael eloquently described my screams as sounding like “someone being attacked by a dog” and, while I’m aware of the fact that I’m no Adele, I’d like to point out that an ankle sprain isn’t the time to pass judgement on anyone’s artistic abilities.

The good news is that we’re all getting pretty used to my shit. Because I’m careful enough to surround myself with the best running buddies around (but not careful enough not to splatter myself on the ground every time I run, apparently), they all took turns to piggy-back me out of the forest (so, really, they all got their workout that day) and, instead of the hospital, this time we knew better and headed straight to the pub, do not pass go do not collect $200.

Fast forward a few weeks, a few races and a few dozen metres of tape and we were all toeing the start line for the event, inside the Riverhead School grounds. A week after the Hillary, and marking four events in four weekends, all I could think about was getting to another finish line. If I could do it without limping (much), that’d be a very welcome bonus.

I decided to be careful and take it really easy, knowing I’d be running past the exact spot where I’d fallen not very long ago (luckily, my spatial awareness on the trails is close to non-existent so, in the end, I didn’t even recognise the spot when I ran past it so trauma avoided).

The first few kilometres through the forest went by and I kept going, slowly and steadily, sometimes a little too slowly, sometimes a little less steadily. But, these days, a run without a fall is a victory in my books. I really just wanted to finish, regardless of how long it’d take. I already had my ticket for a free beer and my only goal that day was to cash it without having to limp to the counter.

And then something surprising happened: I ran pain-free. And for a few moments here and there, I even ran worry-free. Months of running on a sore ankle have got me used to constantly worrying about where I’m putting my feet with each step – it’s a mentally exhausting game that I don’t like playing (especially because I often lose). Not this time.

The long stretches of forestry road helped my confidence and I managed a good few happy kilometres of genuine worry-free running, a feeling I had started to forget about. The rocky terrain near the finish wasn’t enough to wipe the stupidly smug smile off my face – although it did slow me down to almost walking pace.

So there you go. I didn’t screw it up. I got to cross the finish line of one of the happiest runs I’ve had in a long time – with the peacefulness that I get from running on my own and the excitement of knowing my whole running family was out there on that course too. We put our free beer tickets to good use at Hallertau and sat around drinking in the sun, no piggy-backs or painkillers required.

(I did momentarily roll my ankle stepping out of the car near the brewery but this blog has had enough embarrassing episodes to last me a lifetime so I’m going to go ahead and skip that one.)

This was going to be a #beerselfie but the guy next to us noticed how useless we were being at it and offered to take our photo, meaning I can no longer claim the hashtag. THANKS A LOT RANDOM PERSON. (No, really, thanks. It's a cool photo and I suck at group selfies.)

Such good looking people. Such delicious free beer.

While the ankle isn’t 100% recovered and I still have this weird feeling of not having any balance standing on my own two feet, that finish line got me another giant step closer to where I need to be.

The day after the event, I got on a plane to Australia and have since parked my ass inside a campervan, touring the outback (having only run once in the last week and a half), occasionally raising my feet up onto the dashboard (that’s 1/4 of the whole RICE thing done right there) and even sometimes remembering to do the ankle exercises the physio recommended before I gave up seeing her due to my inability to take any of her advice.

Also, Riverhead and I are on good terms again. This running thing isn’t so bad after all.


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Free advice: Don’t get injured seven weeks before an ultramarathon

Lying with your leg raised above your heart definitely shouldn’t be a part of your ultramarathon training.

Let’s get something out in the open now: I’m not great at dealing with huge amounts of pain. Or minimal amounts of pain. Or mild barely-noticeable discomfort. If you’ve run with me before you know I spend approximately 50 to 65% of the run complaining about different aspects of it. No one runs with me and wonders whether I’m enjoying it or not. They always know I’m not. And they know so because I provide them with extensive commentary on the many ways the run sucks.

But even I will admit that sometimes I do exaggerate and not all runs suck. My run on Sunday, however, sucked on a large number of levels. A plethora of levels, if you want to be a snob about it.

You see, I was really looking forward to coming here and making you all jealous about how I live within a half hour ferry ride of a 600 year old volcano where I can go to do my run/complaining about running combo whenever I want. That’s precisely what I set off to do early on Sunday morning.

But then, PLOT TWIST. Six kilometres into the whole thing, as we were making our way back down from the summit, I failed to notice one of the steps and fell pretty spectacularly, flat on my face on a boardwalk, thus ending a good, hmmm, let’s see, week and a half of running without any sort of pain.

The few moments after the fall went something like this: massive crying fit, screaming, some more crying, another decent amount of screaming, wondering how in the actual hell I’m going to get down from that volcano, more crying, wondering how long until I can run again, a bit of screaming, wondering if I’ll be able to make the start line at Tarawera, another little cry, wondering why the Beatles broke up, some more crying (only partially over the Beatles) and a bit more screaming.

And that was just the initial 40 seconds.

(I know that’s a lot of detail but I need to make sure my future biographer has enough to work with so bear with me here.)

Forsyth, who was running behind me and clearly has his priorities very well defined, paused my Garmin immediately (and managed to do so while I was screaming so badly it sounded like a Rebecca Black song). Steve, who runs downhill at about 460kph (give or take a few hundred kph) was so far ahead he couldn’t hear me yelling in despair (unlike everyone else on the North Island and potentially the good people in Australia as well). A couple of hikers caught up with us while I was busy fighting for my life right there on the ground (ok, sort of) and the man walked down to find Steve. He ran into a DOC worker with a truck who walked up to meet us and offered to take us back down to the wharf. I would have hugged him with relief but, at this stage, I was still lying on the boardwalk.

I'mok

To cut a super-long story slightly shorter but still fairly long, Forsyth piggy-backed me out of the track (he’ll tell you he “carried me down a volcano” and, while not entirely untrue, you should know the truck was about 200m from where I fell) and the lovely man from DOC took us down to wait for the ferry. Since it was only 10:30AM and only losers who smash themselves on the ground need to be taken off the island so early, it was just the three of us on the ferry. The good part: according to what the man announced over the microphone thingy, should anything go wrong, they had about 75 life jackets per person on board for us and the guy suggested we could “throw them all out in the water at once and build a raft”. Instead, we spent the journey back eating cake and drinking beer while Steve and Forsyth worried about the sort of impression I was going to cause in the emergency room, with a potential broken foot and smelling of booze. But I don’t think the emergency room is the place to worry about making good first impressions so I went ahead and drank it anyway.

The hospital part of this whole adventure had some good Kiwi moments, like the nurse deciding that I didn’t need to have my blood pressure checked after all, because the machine was out of battery. “Yeah, you look alright”. I’M NOT GODDAMN ALRIGHT. I’M IN A WHEELCHAIR.

But I actually kept my cool about that. What really pissed me off was when she asked me to describe what happened:

Vera – So I was running down from the summit of Rangitoto…
Nurse (writing down on a piece of paper) – Okay, so walking down…
Vera – No. Not walking. Running.
Steve – Well… It was more like jogging, really.
Vera – I WAS NOT JOGGING.

LIES

(I was probably jogging.)

I tried to describe things a bit better in the form they gave me to fill out but, once again, Steve wasn’t much help. When the form asked me to tick the box describing the type of activity and I had to choose between things like “work”, “leisure” or “sport”, I went to put my tick on “sport”, to what Steve said: “I’d say leisure. You weren’t being that sporty.” This is the same man who also told me my description of the accident on the hospital form was “no Hemingway” and told me to “break a leg” when they wheeled me into the room for an x-ray.

[NON-SPONSORED AD: Running friends available. Free to a good home.]

Anyway. I got myself a nice little ligament sprain on my right ankle and have had to learn to walk with crutches for the first time in my life. I’m not a fast learner and my “good foot” has banged on one of the crutches twice so far. I can’t even hold a cup of coffee and stand upright at the same time so that’s all of my good party tricks taken away in one go. Showering has also been interesting, since one of my feet can’t touch the ground (come on, don’t act like that’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever told you here). So, before you ask, recovery is going swell.

The only bit of good news I have is that my first physio appointment today went pretty damn good. I got told I was doing “everything right”, which is something I don’t hear very often (or, you know, ever) and the nice physio lady told me I can maybe probably potentially go for a really short run in a couple of weeks. A couple of weeks from now will be a month from my ultramarathon so you do the maths to figure out the square root of how screwed I am.

It’s bad, you guys. I’m Keanu Reeves-sad. My last post here bragged about running over 70km in 48h and I’ve now spent the last 48h relying on people to help me do pretty much everything. I’m not the most elegant person on crutches and I’ve realised I wouldn’t exactly be a role model if I ever had the misfortune of having a permanent physical disability.

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To top it all off nicely, I finally met Julian last night while he was up in Auckland for work. Few things are worse than getting injured and catching up with a runner who’s just been given the ok to run for the first time that day after 7 weeks of injury. But whatever, it’s this sort of adversity that builds character, amirite? And also, I hopped my way into the brew bar (hopped, hops, Jesus, I’m like some kind of pun genius right now), drank three delicious beers and forgot about the pain for a bit.

But now the pain is back. And I’m still lousy on crutches. I continually bang my leg on them and continue to insist on trying to carry stuff in my hands while using the crutches which means everything I touch becomes damaged in some way, like some kind of ridiculous inverse Midas effect.

I know what you’re thinking. Poor SGG, let me send her some get well soon cookies and some speedy recovery chocolate.

Yes, you should definitely do that.


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K2M or how I learned to stop worrying and love the roads

Okay, help me out. Pretend there’s a paragraph here where I give you a really good reason for not having written anything in over a month. Go on, don’t make this awkward. Will you believe me if I tell you it’s because I’ve been busy following my super strict ultramarathon training plan for Tarawera? Oh dear, I nearly typed that whole sentence with a straight face. Let’s not even try. Let’s just get over it, like some of you do with hills (I don’t, I just stand there at the bottom and cry. In fact, it’s not inaccurate to say that’s a big part of what I’ve been doing in the last month).

But, actually, there’s been other stuff. In between hours of sitting on my ass eating ice cream straight from the tub (or, as I like to call it, freelancing), December ended up being pretty kickass. I ran my 13th half marathon event for the year, entered a Santa Run, a Beer Mile (A BEER MILE, YOU GUYS! Running is a beautiful thing!), witnessed an amazing feat of endurance and finished my first ever trail marathon (FIST PUMP!). But these are all stories to bore you with another time. Before all that, right at the end of November, there was K2M. In the year I ran my first ever marathon (aren’t you proud of how long it’s been since I last mentioned it?), got my New Zealand residency, ate an unofficial world record number of cronuts, and did a bunch of other cool stuff I can’t remember now, K2M still manage to top it all.

It turns out that, in spite of my many, many, many talents (shut up), it is actually impossible for me to find the right words to adequately tell you how cool K2M was. This whole time, I’ve gone full 90s-teenager-in-the-same-room-as-Robbie-Williams and the only thing that comes out is “OMG SO AWESOME” which, really, doesn’t make for a very interesting blog post. But since I’ve just dipped into my savings to renew this domain for another year, I’m going to get over my little mental block and just tell you about how cool it was and add that, if you’re finalising your race calendar for this year, you need to get your shit together and sign up for K2M now. Yes, even you living outside New Zealand. Take a second mortgage and start looking at flights.

If you’d asked me a couple of months ago if running an overnight relay of over 300+km fitted within my definition of fun, I would have been all like “please stop emailing me while you’re drunk”. But now? Now I want to relay my way everywhere. Turns out I’d be doing fun all wrong before, without sleep deprivation or stinky vans or far too much running. Fun means cramming all your stuff into a van with five other runners for over 27h (less, if I’m not on your team, because I’m all about value for money and making sure I give other teams a fair chance) and running your way across part of the most beautiful country in the world, non-stop.

Let me take this opportunity to do some quality bragging, since I don’t get the chance to do that very often: our amazing team of six collectively ran over 300km in 27 hours and 25 minute, averaging around 50km each, from Papakura to Mount Maunganui (only one of the prettiest places in the world). It was the most fun I’d had since the last time I had a shitload of fun, whenever that was.

I know you’re probably wondering how the hell I managed to do that. I am too. It’s still one of life’s great mysteries, like Roswell, the pyramids or people who think Nicole Kidman is a talented actress. I guess we’ll figure all that out later. I just wanted to give you a bit of a general update now and will probably leave the details for other posts (because now that I’ve done one relay I’m obviously a relay expert).

I didn’t prepare much, as you might remember. The whole team just kind of came together because Kiwis are crazy and will agree to whatever you suggest to them, whether or not you’re holding a knife when you ask them. Other than getting people to agree (which took an average of 0.05 seconds per person x5), all I did was hire a van two days before the event and empty out the confectionery aisle at my local supermarket the evening before. That morning, we all got in the van, turned the radio on and “Eye of the Tiger” started playing. I’m not making this shit up. Then at midday we started some crazy, sleep-deprived 27 hours of running and driving and dancing in the middle of the road and hurting and laughing.

Here’s sort of how it worked: each of the six of us ran 3 legs of the relay, to individual totals of around 50km each. We decided to do it the way the website suggests it for teams of 6 (you can also do it as a team of 12, if you’re smart) and each ran 2 consecutive legs (which meant that we only passed our batton – which was actually a neat fluoro bracelet – at every second exchange point). Turns out, as the organiser told us in the middle of the night while we waited to use the toilets inside a church hall in the middle of nowhere, we could have run the legs in any order we wanted, as long as there was always one of us out there running. This would have been really handy information to have before the start of the relay, so we could have tricked Michael into running the whole thing (Michael was our super speedy machine who went on to run a Double Hillary the following weekend like it was no big deal).

Yeah, that fast.

Yeah, that fast.

But I’m glad we didn’t (and I guess so is Michael). Even with the Great Big Mac Incident of 2013 and even with the giant tantrum I threw in the middle of a field when I’d been awake for 24h and was told I was going to have to climb the stupid hill in front of me, running all those kilometres and sharing each of those sweaty milestones with that group of people turned that weekend into one of the best weekends of my life.

(Awwwww. I know.)

There’s a bunch of stuff that happens when you’re awake for that long in a small van with a group of people who are as crazy and as sleep deprived as you. It all starts super civilised, with questions about how work is going and Steve in the back of the van making us Japanese mayo and smoked salmon wraps. So super fancy. But then you fast-forward to 4am and I’m in the McDonald’s carpark in Matamata stripping down to my knickers in front of everyone to get ready for my next leg. This after having an impromptu party around midnight dancing to the Cake cover of “I will survive” in the middle of the road wearing our reflective gear. So, you know, stuff escalates pretty quickly.

The thing about K2M (and I guess, relays in general), is that it might involve a hell of a lot of running (300 ENTIRE KILOMETRES, MY GOOD LORDE!), but it’s actually very little about running.

I’d told myself that K2M would be my goodbye to road running for a while, since road running had left me injured for the biggest part of the year and, not only am I a bit bitter about these stupid injuries, I’m also training (lolz) for a trail ultramarathon. I was tired of my stupid road runs on my own. They were monotonous and repetitive and K2M was going to be the perfect way to end that. I’d gone through ITB problems, shin splints and a bunch of other stuff that the doctor kept saying was due to running on roads. I was finally going to follow his advice and move solely to nicer softer surfaces. But then K2M happened and I’m all in love with the road again. Roads have vans with friends inside them and those friends check on you and hand you water every few kilometres and make jokes when you’re tired and make you feel like, even though you might be doing something the vast majority of the world would call stupid, you’re really not alone and maybe the vast majority of the world should really go sit in the corner and rethink its attitude.

In the end, rather than being a break in my Tarawera training, K2M did wonders for my ability to think I can actually run this damn ultra. Between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning, I ran a total of 76km (because I’m an idiot and ran a half marathon on Sunday after driving back from K2M, but that’s a therapy session we’re going to leave for another time). If this isn’t a confidence boost in ultra training, then I’m all out of ideas.

Over 27h and 300km later, NO MURDERS!

Over 27h and 300km later, NO MURDERS!

And even if it hadn’t been for that, K2M gave me a really good bunch of good friends. Steve, Michael, Rob, Carl and Kirsty were just “people I knew from running” before this relay. Now they’re the people who put up with my shit day and night inside a van and were still happy to drive alongside me during each of my legs of the race, stopping every couple of kilometres to check if I was okay. Does that fit all the canonisation criteria? Because it should. I don’t even want to ask them how long it took for the nightmares to go away but I hope we’re cool now. I mean, we better be because we’ve already decided we’re going to do it all over again next year (with a bit more training, a bigger van and absolutely zero Big Macs). SO COME WITH US!

What I’m trying to say in this really confusing way is that it’s really hard to write a proper recap of all the crazy stuff that happens when you get yourself into something this massive. Can we just go with “OMG SO AWESOME”? No? Too late? Anyway. Add K2M to your 2014 events calendar, make it part of your new years resolution. And it better be the 1% of the list that you actually manage to achieve this year (I’m kidding. I trust you guys and I know 2014 will be epic. I don’t like to brag but I had TWO naps on the first day of the year alone so now it’s just a matter of pacing myself so I don’t get all my resolutions done within the first month).

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So yay for relays, for running friends, for rediscovering the love for road running, for breaking mental barriers, for thinking there’s no way you can do something (like, hmm, running 76km in 48h) but still going out and giving it a go anyway, for getting out of your comfort zone and discovering that that’s where all the fun is and that you’re actually a hell of a lot stronger than you think you are.

(Also, happy 2014! Go do awesome shit!)


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Lessons from the Big O 2013 – I’d rather feel like crap than just feel okay

Posing for Mike Tennent's camera, before I knew what I was in for.

Posing for Mike Tennent’s camera, before I knew what I was in for.

I ran the toughest course of my life on Saturday and I’m not even sure I’m prepared to talk about it but if I don’t dump it all onto this keyboard right now, I may never find the ability to talk about it again so, stand back, here goes whatever’s about to come out of me.

The 21km trail I was supposed to run that morning ended up being a 28km trail with brutal elevation (who knew some parts of Rotorua were so close to the sky?) and some of the toughest terrain I’d ever run in my life. When I think of parts of it – and I still do, like some sort of weird PTSD – I just want to use swear words. I’m going to try to choose others and spare you from those but, frankly, I’m so out of energy that I can’t promise much. This will probably be a long one so get a cup of tea or something (and bring me a stiff drink while you’re at it). If you don’t feel like reading this whole thing (why would you?) and you just want to know whether I finished or not, I did. You can leave now.

For myself and whoever poor bored soul has decided to keep on reading, here’s a recap.

I signed up for the Big O on Tuesday after Leah told me she’d be running it in a fairy costume. I thought of my poor tutu abandoned at home and decided that putting some extra miles on it wouldn’t hurt.

Hahaha. “Wouldn’t hurt”. Anyway.

That same week, I got shin splints and a weird 24h bug forced me to work from home the day before the run. Feeling better by Friday evening, I felt too guilty to skip the NZ anniversary drinks of a really close friend, so decided to stop by those anyway (with the race in T minus just a few hours). “Stopping by” turned into cocktails and dancing (because my mind is that weak) and, at midnight, I was standing up in the kitchen separating jelly beans into tiny ziplock bags and hoping for a miracle. I finally fell asleep at 1am, with the alarm set for 5am.

whatcouldpossiblygowrong

Just a few hours later, in pain, sleepy and with a slight hangover, I got picked up by Stacey, a vision from heaven who picked me up with a hot coffee and a muffin. Three hours later (with an intense few minutes trying to follow the America’s Cup because apparently I’m now one of those people who follows boat races), we arrived at the event base in Rotorua. I immediately spotted Mike (who took the tutu photos) and a few other familiar faces and, as the excitement kicked in, I managed to forget about how crappy I felt and how there was absolutely not a single good reason for me to be attempting that run after such a shitty week. Whatever, I was wearing a giant tutu and it was going to be an amazing day out!

Except, not so much.

You see, I wanted to prove to myself that, even under such miserable conditions, I could run a half marathon. The problem is that, even if you ignore the shin splints, the sickness and the hangover, I’m still at the lowest level of fitness I’ve been in the last year. Finishing a half, at this stage, is like a personal Everest. I’d done it the week before on road and I wanted to do it this week on the trail, even though I was feeling even worse.

I know it might sometimes sound like I’m taking the piss when I tell you about how unfit I am and then write recaps of runs a lot of people can’t – or don’t – run. I’m not, though. If you know me, you know I have the eating habits of a stray dog living behind a McDonald’s drive-thru, I stay awake thanks to litres of coffee every day and sleep an average of four or five hours a night. Also, I don’t run nearly as much as some people think I run, just because I keep a running blog. But I have this theory that running is mostly a mental exercise and so, as long as your mind is strong, it doesn’t matter that the rest of you is falling apart.

Just a couple of little issues with that theory: a) it’s mostly bullshit and b) this run wasn’t actually a half.

I had company the entire way – Ruby the dog joined me about 4km into the run and never left me again so we had the chance to bond for a whole 24km of running, walking, sliding down mud, jumping over fences (so many goddamn fences!), getting lost and crying. Yep, crying. Not even embarrassed to admit it. I cried and told Ruby how much of a stupid idea this whole thing was. She listened patiently even though, by then, I had already yelled at her to “stop fucking judging me!” as she stood at the top of hills watching me drag myself up.

I spent hours and hours and hours and then some more hours climbing up hills, negotiating roots and vines, getting my legs cut by gorse. I fought not to let the mud swallow my shoes and tried my best to block out the constant rain that kept pouring for hours. Partly because of how shitty I was already feeling before I started running, partly because it really was that tough a run, I ended up sinking to a level of low I didn’t even know I could get to, a little basement hidden under the basement of the most negative shit I’ve got in me.

Running often does that to me and I don’t complain because it’s part of what I chase when I run: high degrees of emotions, whether they’re happy or sad. Some of the most unadulterated happiness I’ve felt in life has happened during a runner’s high. Some of the deepest sadness has happened during a runner’s low (is that even a thing? I get it a lot so it should be a thing).

The point is, and this is especially true for trail running, I experience feelings at a much higher frequency when I’m out running and that is a big part of the reason I do it. On Saturday, proving that it wasn’t all bad, I rode quite a good runner’s high between kilometres 5 and 9 (when I slipped and hurt my knee). For those 4km, I took close notice to the fact that I was wearing a giant tutu and running alone through a stunning piece of Earth in New Zealand. And fucking hell, I felt lucky. Luckier than you and anyone else around. I had one earphone on and didn’t bother with my usual BPM-influenced running music. Instead, I put on Yann Tiersen’s Amelie OST, which sounded strangely fitting, and spent a good half an hour smiling to myself in the middle of nowhere, genuinely happy. I don’t get that stupidly happy doing anything else that I do in life. Even if I’d not finished the run, it would all have been worth it for that half an hour alone.

But just like that, I also experienced what I now remember as the absolute lowest of the lows, a sort of feeling I find much harder to translate into words. When I got lost, cold, in pain and didn’t know how much longer I had to go, I wanted to give up. I wanted to sit there and cry. I didn’t sit (mostly because stopping would only have made me colder) but I cried and hated running and hated that I’d put myself in that situation.

I couldn’t remember the happy moments anymore and went into a strange dark place in my head where the finish line didn’t actually exist anymore and I was just going to have to accept I was going to be there forever. I stopped the music and went into a weird auto-pilot mode where I kept putting my feet one in front of the other without really hoping to get anywhere. I didn’t care about the cold. I didn’t care about the screaming knee. I didn’t even care about finishing. I was just empty of whatever it was I was supposed to think or feel and, instead, there was just nothing.

Now that it’s been a couple of days, even though nothing will change the fact that I felt absolute hatred for those moments, in those moments, I can see that they’re just part of what I seek anyway. Who wouldn’t want to feel things in such extreme ways?

The problem, you see, is that life is too comfortable. Way too comfortable. We take the elevator and get takeaways, pay extra for same-day delivery, have remote controls, heated car seats and apps for everything. If we plan things right, we can go whole days without even having to move anymore. We do whatever we can to make life as easy and comfortable as we can because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. We even measure people’s success by how comfortable their life is. And we sort of stop feeling things. It all becomes average. Not quite freezing, not quite boiling, just an in-between temperature that fits no purpose and that is no good but also not bad for anything. We think that suits us just fine but we’re just crippling ourselves and getting through life missing out on actually feeling things.

In long-distance trail running, there’s no room for that in-between. Everything is heightened, enhanced and technicolor. Happy only means happiest and sad only means saddest. Average is a concept that only exists out of the trail, in the weekdays at work when people ask how we’re doing and we say “okay”, the hours we spend commuting, the time we numb ourselves in front of screens and forget to feel things because feeling things is hard work and drains you out.

A long-distance trail run never goes “okay”. That trail on Saturday left me empty, which was exactly what I wanted it to do (whether I realised it on that day or not is an entirely different matter).

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Just about every non-runner I know has asked me at least once why the hell I get out and do these things (especially since the next few days are spent barely moving and bitching about it). I find it such a transcendent thing that I have no skills to explain. I can only hope they assume there must be a really good reason I willingly put myself through the pain I talk about. Because that pain is just the result of a major rush of happiness and genuine feelings are supposed to leave you exhausted. Other runners know. We’re not as stupid as we look. We wouldn’t spend all this money, travel this far, abuse our bodies this much for something average. For that, we have PlayStations.

I’ve written so many words already I’m going to spare you a step-by-step account of Saturday. Let me just leave it here, for posterity, that this 28km trail was way, way tougher than my road marathon (and it took me longer too!) and tougher than any other event I’ve ever run. And I know you’re thinking “well, duh” after I gave you the laundry list of all the things that were wrong with me before I even started but I assure you it would have been one of the hardest regardless.

One of the absolute worst moments came at the 20km mark, when I caught up with another runner as we both slowly made our way up another god forsaken hill, trying to avoid all the gorse (he was smart and wore long pants, I’m currently sporting some really hot scratches all over my legs). I told him “not long to go now!” and he looked at his Garmin and said “yeah, maybe 5 or 6km to go, maybe a bit more” and, around about that time, my heart sank all the way down to the bottom of the Earth.

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“NO! We’ve got 1km to go,” I told him (and I’m pretty sure he could feel the panic in my voice). He explained that the aid station at 13km was the halfway mark (is this stuff in the emails the event directors send out? I need to start reading those) and that we were at least 5km away from the finish. He also said something about elevation and how he thought we should be heading down soon but we were weirdly still going up quite a lot. I don’t know, I stopped listening. I was still trying to process the whole “I wasn’t even ready for a trail half and now you’re telling me it’s more than a half” deal. So I took off and left him, obviously (actually, nothing to do with that, he was lovely, but I was freezing and running was the way to stay warm).

What happened next was proof that maybe freezing but staying near someone else would have been the thing to do. Being the self-proclaimed worst trail runner in the world (a title I embrace with more pride than I should), of course I got lost. We were high up in some crazy ass massive piece of farmland, fog so thick you couldn’t see anything in front of you, one wrong turn and I was panicking in the middle of nowhere and blowing my emergency whistle hoping someone would find me. Turns out the whistle did a bucket load of nothing and no one came to my rescue. I managed to backtrack all the way to the last marker I’d seen and found my way back to the track. Not long after, I spotted the same runner again – who had passed me while I was busy getting lost. Having gone through my little panic attack (of which we shall never speak of again), I decided to stick with him. We had a couple of kilometres to go by then and finally started making our way down. My watch marked just over 28km when I crossed the finish line. It took me over 5 hours to cover those – longer than it took me to run a full marathon on the road.

RIP, tutu.

RIP, tutu.

I wasn’t even close to prepared for what the day would eventually bring me. I know some training, less injuries and some better decisions (like, you know, not drinking and dancing the night before) would have made a difference but I’m glad the difference wasn’t between finishing or not finishing. I sort of still managed to prove my point, I guess. I’m more proud of those 28km than any of the longer distances I’ve ever done before and I’m still stupidly excited for everyone who braved that course that day, especially those legends who set out on a 35km and ended up having to accidentally run an ultra (and I’m super glad I ran the Big O 35km last year, when it was actually 35km).

With Ruby finally asleep in the car, Stacey and I took my bottle of wine spot prize to an Indian restaurant (we made sure it was BYO), ordered the banquet (all you can eat out of pretty much all of their curries, plus entrees), spent nearly $50 in lollies at the supermarket and drove back to Auckland singing our hearts out to keep ourselves awake.

The trail that marked the official start of my training for Tarawera ended up being so bad that it had the upside of making me confident that I can run that ultramarathon next year. If I survived Saturday, the way I was feeling, I can survive whatever gets thrown my way.

Settle down, universe, that wasn’t a challenge.


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Arthur’s Half recap – That time another runner helped me across the finish line

Pre-race, when he didn't really know what he was in for yet (hence the smile).

Pre-race, when he didn’t really know what he was in for yet (hence the smile).

I’ve said here a few times that signing up for half marathons and then not training for them is a really bad idea. I know this because I’ve made that mistake a few times. Like, oh I don’t know, last weekend, for example.

I registered for the Arthur’s Half (one of the hilliest road half marathons I’ve ever run) a few weeks before, then proceeded to not run anything over 5k until race day. Remember you like me for my charming personality, not for my smart decisions.

Anyway. I’m going to keep this recap boringly chronological, even though all I really want to do is jump to the bit where I tell you that I actually finished, but I suppose you need to understand why finishing that half marathon was such a big deal.

I jumped out of bed at 6am on Saturday morning with the ease I only jump out of bed early for running events. I got to the event area just as the marathon runners – those legends! – were starting their race. The marathon included a few extra amazing people doing it, including trail-addict Malcolm Law, running his first ever road marathon, and a group of people who had run a full marathon over night and for whom this was the second marathon that day. I hadn’t even had breakfast and those people were on their second full marathon. Knowing this was happening out there made the event extra special and I didn’t even care that it was raining and I actually just wanted to go back to bed.

I picked up my registration pack and immediately spotted Mike Tennent sitting at one of the tables, getting ready for the run. After a few months of almost-but-not-really meeting up at running events and knowing each other from Facebook, we finally got to say a proper in-real-life hello. Now, keep Mike’s name in mind. It’s important. In the bathroom queue, of all places, I met Jenny (hi Jenny!) who said hello to me even though she reads SGG. A few of us, Mike and Jenny included, then hung out by the registration area, as it poured outside. Leon, who was going to start the run with me, arrived shortly after.

Before we get to the running bit, let me tell you a bit about Mike. I’d briefly mentioned him here before, when I celebrity-spotted him at the Huntly Half a few months ago. Mike is currently nearly halfway through an year long charity fundraising project that basically kicks ass. He is running 52 races (half marathons or longer) in 52 weeks to raise money for Hospice. Now doesn’t that just make you want to high five a pony? I mean, what an amazing thing to do. The Arthur’s Half was event #22 for him and, because he’s one of those stubborn hardcore runners, he’s been sporting an injury and running them anyway (sometimes two in the same weekend because that’s just the type of fabric of awesome he’s made of). Because of his injury, and because he was planning to run another half marathon the next day (which he did, in 1:45:18, while injured!), he decided to start with me so I could keep him at a slow pace (I knew my slowness would come in handy for someone one day).

Pre-asthma photobombing, when things were still looking promising.

Pre-asthma photobombing, when things were still looking promising.

Shortly after 8am, we were off. And shortly after that, I felt something was off. I was running along with Mike and Leon (who couldn’t resist the temptation to run faster and bagged himself another sub-2h that day, the crazy man) when, suddenly, it felt like, no matter how hard I tried to breathe, no oxygen was coming in.

Oh great.

That exercise-induced asthma I had discovered I had a couple of years ago – and which I’d only experienced less than a handful of times – was back. Bitch. My inhaler? Nowhere to be found, of course, because inhalers are for sensible runners who plan shit properly.

We were just over 3km into the run and my immediate thought was that I could not possibly go into a panic. But you know what happens when you think that you can’t go into a panic? You panic about the possibility of panic. LAYERS OF PANIC. So I tried to think about other stuff and focus on my breathing instead. Like, really focus. No, harder than that. Literally putting some thought into every time I inhaled and exhaled.

I took a few walking breaks and Mike dutifully slowed down to walking pace to keep me company. I kept trying to bring my breathing down to normal levels and it occasionally seemed to work but always temporarily. I can’t remember how many times I told Mike I couldn’t breathe – as if he couldn’t tell – and he kept giving me instructions to try to get my breathing back to normal. He also tried to tell me off for not having my inhaler but he didn’t get mad at me for longer than maybe 2 seconds (not that I could tell anyway). We kept going at this running/walking/running pace as I tried to regain control of my lungs. At times, it felt like things were going back to normal. Then shortly after, I’d sound like Darth Vader again. It rained on us a few times and the wind was throwing the rain sideways at us and Mike kept carefully placing himself to shield me from it. Throughout the entire thing, I kept telling him I was failing to bring my breathing back to normal and he kept calming me down. Over 17km of this and the man still hasn’t unfriended me on Facebook.

So you get it, right? It sucked. I couldn’t breathe for most of my half marathon and it freaking sucked. But the universe has this weird way of balancing things out and, in all that suckiness (if twerking is a word, suckiness can be a word too), there was Mike. And now all I have are amazing memories of that morning. I felt immensely guilty for forcing a guy who runs half marathons much faster than I ever will to stay so far behind and I told him a number of times that he should keep going and I’d catch up. He could see right through my bullshit, though, and kept reassuring me that he would not leave me behind. And he never did. Instead, that usually speedy runner spent two long hours and fourteen minutes running at the slowest pace of his life and trying to take my mind off my breathing by telling me about his life and getting me to tell him about mine.

Mike carried me through that entire course. There aren’t many things I know for a fact but I do know I would have given up if it hadn’t been for him. I’ve never pulled out of an event and you don’t have to know me that well to know how giving up would have absolutely crushed me. So I owe Mike for the fact that I’m not crushed right now. That I’ve got half marathon #14 under my belt, that I’m breathing ok again and that I can continue to say I’ve never pulled out of an event.

A couple of kilometres from the finish line and we're actually looking happy. I blame the rain for the look I'm sporting, not just the sweat. But mostly sweat. I should probably stop filling the internet with sweaty pictures of myself. One day.

A couple of kilometres from the finish line and we’re actually looking happy. I blame the rain for the look I’m sporting, not just the sweat. But mostly sweat. I should probably stop filling the internet with sweaty pictures of myself. One day. (Photo by Allan Ure, Photos4Sale)

That, right there, is what running is all about. Forget the rest. It’s just that, nothing else. Just that man on the course who could be competing against others (or against himself, trying to get a new personal best) but instead fought his competitive instinct and stayed with me the entire way, a runner he’d only met that very morning, just to make sure I was ok. Along the way, he greeted all other runners we saw, took photos, chatted away, kept checking on everyone’s little pains and niggles. In between trying not to suffocate, I kept wondering to myself whether I was going through the most painful or the best half marathon experience of my life.

The answer, of course, was obvious. It was both.

Please go and like Mike’s Facebook page as soon as you’re done here. If you can, donate to his amazing cause. He’s dedicating all weekends for a year to fundraising for Hospice and, at the same time, he’s being the kickass human being I’ve just described to you. If you can, please donate. You can pledge an amount for each of the events or just make a single donation. If you have problems with the form on his website, let me know and I’ll put you directly in touch with him (although chances are you’re smarter than me and can work it out).

Now if you’ll excuse me, I seem to have signed up for another last minute half marathon (this weekend) and I’ve got an inhaler to pack.


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XTERRA Auckland Trail Run Series – Riverhead Forest

The true sign of a good time is putting a load of laundry in the machine and having to set it to “very dirty” (which, thankfully, is an actual setting on my machine) and cross fingers your clothes will go back to their real colour.

That’s what happened today, after running the XTERRA event in Riverhead (event 2/6 of the series, after Shakespear Park).

Riverhead, in case you don’t know, is a forest in Auckland where all the mud in the world is kept and it was the stage for the second event of the XTERRA series.

This morning, the weather was miserable, my legs were heavy and my head hurt a bit from not drinking enough water. I didn’t feel like I should be running.

But I should know better than to doubt the ability that the trails have to make everything better.

It all started looking upwards when I met up with some friendly faces before the run even started (including people who knew me as SGG before they even met me as Vera and still wanted to hang out with me anyway). I was also worried that, without proper trail running shoes and all that talk about how clay is just the most slippery thing ever, I was going to end up with two broken legs.

Once the run started, all the climbing and sliding down muddy trails felt far too fun for my crankiness to survive and I ended up having a blast (without breaking legs in the process). I wasn’t much of a fan of the slippery climbs, with my old road running shoes, but thankfully trail runners are the nicest people you can find and with a push here and a hand there, everyone made it to the top (even me).

The weather cleared up just enough for us to get our running done before the rain returned and the views from the top of our steepest climbs were nothing short of amazing (made slightly less amazing by the fact that I had to quickly hold onto something as I was climbing my way to the top of one of the hills and accidentally grabbed a bunch of gorse).

I was slow and took a while to get my mind in the right place but caught myself smiling like an idiot as my feet dug through mud pits and mud splashed everywhere. If there is one secret to enjoying muddy trails, it’s really to just not give a shit. Once you stop caring about where mud is going, then you can just go for it.

My hands were so caked with mud I didn't dare take my phone out for any photos so I made you a really realistic representation of what I'm pretty sure I looked like from behind.

My hands were so caked with mud I didn’t dare take my phone out for any photos so I made you a really realistic representation of what I’m pretty sure I looked like from behind.

And here's another super artistic illustration of how it actually felt to get through that mud.

And here’s another super artistic illustration of how it actually felt to get through that mud.

Ski lessons came in handy dealing with the slippery downhills and I manage to only fall on my ass once, an absolute victory in my books.

I can’t say I loved every second of the run today (definitely didn’t feel any love for the holding-onto-a-gorse-bush bit) but, once I got into it, the time I spent enjoying it far outweighed the time I spent in the beginning wishing I was back in bed. After crossing the finish line, I got to my favourite part of these events – the cold cider + sausage + friends combo.

I’m counting this run as training for the Tarawera Ultra. Some bad news for volunteers at that event next year, though: my run today was only just over 1/6th of the length of Tarawera (since I’m entering the 60km) and, judging by how long it took me, I suggest you take sleeping bags.

But for now, I’m going into the new week after a fantastic event that brightened up an otherwise pretty dull Sunday. Roll on Waiuku!

Now I’m off to get the mud off my shoes, which is a whole other workout in itself.

Speaking of shoes, I’m going to pour yet some more money into this running thing by buying a pair of proper trail running shoes, to avoid having to deal with any more of these one-step-up-three-steps-down hills. I looked at the Inov8 tent at the event and told the lady I’d go back after the run but was far too muddy to try anything on. Do you have Inov8 shoes? Love them? Any other brand I should be looking at? Spill the details!