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Let me tell you about that time I ran an ultramarathon in a cyclone

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Credit: Allan Ure – Photos4Sale

Is this the most overdue ultramarathon recap in history? Potentially. Will it be worth the wait? Probably not. Should I stop asking questions and just get on with it? Definitely.

The truth is that I thought this was going to be really easy to write up. I planned this post in my head approximately 43,348 times in each training run. But I guess if I wanted an easy predictable topic to write about, choosing trail running was my first mistake.

Tarawera was nothing like I expected and, yet, it was everything I wanted.

Like some kind of really lame practical joke, a cyclone hit New Zealand during the weekend of the ultramarathon and forced a bunch of changes, meaning nothing went according to plan. The course had to be changed and the new distances became approximately 60 and 70km.

Just in case you have something better to do then read the rest of this, I’ll jump straight to the finish and tell you I didn’t actually get to cross the finish line, as Search and Rescue closed the course and a bunch of us got stopped at 53km. I cried my eyes out for a few minutes, standing there in the pouring rain after being told I couldn’t keep going – I’m one of those ugly criers and there were heaps of people around so that moment is probably not going to feature in my future best-selling autobiography.

By the time we got on the bus, however, I was over the disappointment. I realised I’d actually run an ultramarathon distance in a god damn cyclone, so dangerous that the course had to be closed. If that’s not something to be proud of, then all I’ve got going for me is that time I won the spelling competition in primary school and got a mechanical pencil for a prize.

The truth is that, for such a long run, this ultramarathon ended up having very little to do with running. I got a bunch of life lessons thrown at me in just a few hours, which is why it’s taken me so long to process it all.

In the months leading up to the event, the thought of having to run this ultra in the rain didn’t even cross my mind – now, all of a sudden, we’d be doing it in a cyclone. And my ankle was still sprained, swollen and hurting, forcing me to visit a physio the day before the race to strap the living hell out of it. And the rain. The damn pouring rain. Nothing about it seemed fair but, then again, Macklemore had won a Grammy earlier in the year so I already knew the world was full of injustices anyway.

It turned out that there was no point spending months worrying about what shoes to wear, how many gels to pack, where to place my drop bags, what songs to put on my playlist or any other of the 694 items on my Tarawera to do list. I ended up wearing brand new running shoes for my ultra (ask anyone who runs and they’ll tell you what a giant mistake that is) and not even that made a difference.

Credit: Marceau Photography

Credit: Marceau Photography

As we lined up at the start line at 6:30am, it was still pitch black in the forest. They say the only thing you have to fear is fear itself but I’d like to call bullshit on that because I was pretty freaking terrified about the prospect of an ultramarathon in a cyclone. Carlene used her ukulele to inject some adrenaline into everyone’s veins with the song that you’ll never be able to get out of your head, followed by a Maori chant coming from somewhere between the trees. You try to get through that without getting all goosebumpy and tell me how that works out for you. We all hugged and wished each other luck. That was it right there – the culmination of months and months of training, hours of running in the middle of nowhere, long group chats about what the hell we were getting ourselves into. Our group was all there, all ready (ish). The universe hadn’t looked so right since that time Vanilla Ice danced to Ice Ice Baby on the Dancing on Ice TV show. We counted down from 10 and, just like that, we were off into the forest.

I used my inhaler about 20 times in the first few kilometres but kept my pace nice and slow. I didn’t know how I was going to feel in the second half of the run and wanted to save as much energy as possible for that. Plus, I had a sprained over-mobile ankle to worry about and was focusing really hard on not splattering myself on the ground that early into the race.

Forsyth and Glenn, who helped me train for this damn thing, stayed with me from the start. I thought they’d take off and leave me behind at some point so was just trying to enjoy having their company while I had it. We chatted the first few kilometres away, going at the slowest pace any of them had ever run.

It wasn’t long before we got to the spot where we had to choose what new distance we’d be doing. F and I were both signed up for the original 60km, while G was meant to be doing 100km. The “short course” option (60km) meant a left turn, the “long course” option (now about 70km) meant a right turn. In hindsight, I know that turning left and running the 60km would have meant that I would have crossed the finish line (as I would have been out of the area Search and Rescue closed before they got there). So it might sound a little odd to tell you that making the “mistake” of turning right and going for the 70km option will stay as one of the proudest moments of my life.

I was given the option of doing something shorter and easier and decided to go for the option that scared me the most (I’d never run more than 42km so going for a 70km run during a cyclone felt like a pretty bold decision to me). My lack of hesitation seemed to surprise everyone, including Tim Day, course director and all round awesome dude who was marshalling the intersection. But it didn’t surprise any of them as much as it surprised me. Even now, knowing I could have finished the whole race if I’d chosen the short course, I’m still proud of my decision to attempt the 70km.

I kept expecting F and G to take off and run their own races but they continued to run along next to me. We caught up with a few other friends along the way, chatted along with some other runners, saw friendly faces at every aid station (Tarawera has some of the best volunteers you’ll ever find) and passed the time talking about random stuff I’ll never be able to remember again. Having them around meant I didn’t get in my own head so much and could focus on each step, making sure I didn’t let my ankle roll again. Every time my mind wandered (as it inevitably does when you’re running out in the bush for ages), I’d come back and notice they were still with me, chatting away like they had nowhere else to be. I kept telling them they should go ahead and run faster (which I totally didn’t mean because I actually wanted the company) and they kept refusing, saying I’d need help if anything happened to my ankle. And so they stayed, letting me set the slow pace, kilometre after kilometre after god damn kilometre, during the toughest run of my life.

Credit: Allan Ure - Photos4Sale

Credit: Allan Ure – Photos4Sale

They stuck with me through all the highs and lows. My highs were pretty high – thanks to industrial doses of Gu Roctane, and my lows were really low, mostly because I’m a giant wimp but also because, in my defense, I was running an ultra in a cyclone on a busted ankle. None of that seemed to matter to them. Every time I told them to go ahead without me, they told me to stop insisting on that. Next thing I knew, after a bunch of smiles and even a good dose of panicky tears, we’d done over a marathon. I kept focusing on my steps, trying to keep the ankle safe, and every time I looked to the side, F and G were still there too, sacrificing their ultramarathon time to make sure I was safe.

It doesn’t matter how many beers I buy these two in my lifetime, I’ll never be able to thank them enough for what they did that day (so I guess no point buying them any beers, right? Right).

By the time we hit the Western Okataina Walkway, the rain had started getting really heavy and I was feeling pretty – how shall I put it? – motivationally-impaired. I had a crying fit that I blame on exhaustion and panic over cut off times (because I’m the worst at maths and thought we were way behind even though we actually weren’t). At that point, when I felt like I was staring at life from the bottom of a gutter, G decided to go ahead for a bit, while F stayed with me and got acquainted with the worst version of myself.

We kept each other going along the undulating trail, managed some high fives and hugs to friends that were running back from the Okataina aid station, and helped each other through the highs and lows. I found some motivation at the end of a couple of packs of Gu Roctane (I’m telling you, that stuff is magical) and even managed to pass a few people along the way. The walkway was turning into a giant mud pool by then. We saw G again at the aid station, where we had to start a 4km out-and-back before being able to return the way we came, up the Western Okataina Walkway again. By then, the cut off times had been brought forward and kept getting shorter and shorter without us knowing because the weather was deteriorating fast (and so was the state of the trail).

We were told we had plenty of time to do the 4km so chucked down a quick drink and off we went. G was then told he had to leave the aid station so went on without us. We did our little loop, got the bracelet to prove we’d done it and, with what we thought was an hour to go, were then told by a marshall we had four minutes to return to the aid station. I know people like to say impossible is nothing but impossible is actually running 2km in 4 minutes so we ran as fast as we could but returned to the aid station to find a bus load people pulled out of the course by Search and Rescue, ourselves included.

I had my giant ugly cry about it (because it sucked, because it was pouring with rain, because I had plenty of energy left to keep going, but mostly because I cry about everything). As we started getting our stuff together to get on the bus, G re-appears, telling us he didn’t want to keep going on his own.

Now, seriously. Do you get why it’s taken me so long to write about it? THIS IS WHY. How do you explain this? How do you talk about the magnitude of what you experience when, in the middle of the ultramarathon (in a cyclone, on a busted ankle!), you discover that you are, in fact, the luckiest person you know, surrounded by the absolute best people in the world?

G had the all clear from the aid station to keep going and cross that finish line (and I know how important that finish line was to him). F could have beaten me by hours and yet they both gave up their finish lines to do the race with me.

I’d been pulled out of the course at 53km with about 17km (or a bit longer) to go. It was, for all intents and purposes, a pretty shit situation. But I’d run 53km in a cyclone with two of the best friends a crippled runner could ever ask for so what was there to be sad about?

Not much, really.

Trail running has given me more joy than I’ll ever be able to fit into a blog post (or a thousand) but nothing could have prepared me for what Tarawera would show me, both about myself and the people around me.

In the end, we got our finishers medals and a giant bear hug from Paul Charteris, only the coolest race director around. And while that medal is now potentially the first thing I’d save if my house caught fire, it’s only one of a million little things I treasure from that day.

There are many things we do in life that make us happier people, but it’s not often that we get the chance to do something that, more than just making us happy, helps define our identity. In fact, there haven’t been that many times in my life when that’s happened and they’ve all stayed as milestones for that reason. Running your first ultramarathon (like running your first marathon) is life-changing because it redefines your identity. On March 15, I became an ultramarathoner, part of one of the most special tribes in the world. And no matter what I do with myself in the future, I’ll always be one of them.

I set off that morning to do something I had no idea I could do. After hours of keeping my head down, minding my steps, swallowing my weight in energy gels and telling myself not to give up, I’d entered the class of people I admire the most. All of a sudden, all the limitations I thought I had got this giant question mark over them. If you can do something you think is impossible for you to do, what is there that you can’t do?

It’s been nearly a month and I’m still in that state of wonder about it. It still amazes me that I managed to run that far since I’ve been surviving on a diet of ice cream, chips and craft beer. But I ran 53km and got on that bus in the pouring rain knowing I could have kept going a lot further.

The only thing I don’t know is exactly how far I can go – and that’s a pretty sweet place to be.

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Never Wipe Your Ass with a Squirrel – book review

Never-Wipe-Your-Ass-with-a-Squirrel-by-Jason-Robillard

I didn’t realise Never Wipe Your Ass with a Squirrel was such a recent release (April 2013) until about two minutes ago when I searched for some extra information about it to write this review. But look at me, being all early-adopter and stuff.

I bought the book on May 22nd, according to my Amazon account history, after virtually wandering around Amazon searching for books on trail running, days before signing up for my first ultra. The title grabbed me, and not just because it has the word “ass” in it (I’m not that juvenile, really). The full title is actually pretty long: Never Wipe Your Ass with a Squirrel – A Trail and Ultramarathon Running Guide for Weird Folks.

Weird folk, that’s me.

Jason Robillard, the author, is known in the running community for his Barefoot Running University website and for his previous book, The Barefoot Running Book. He’s also known for having pretty much my dream life (writing and running for a living). Don’t you just want to hate him a little bit?

No, you don’t. Because, number one, your mum was right and that’s ugly. Number two: he actually has some pretty good advice to give.

It took me a few pages to really get into the book. It’s got a long list of chapters, which at first I thought interrupted the whole flow of the book. But then I realised that, as a handbook, it needs to have information structured in that easy-to-find way. Just a few pages into it, I discovered a really good deal of incredibly useful advice, not just for trail runners in general but for anyone stupid enough to sign up for an ultra.

(270 days to go, you guys!)

I liked the unpretentious conversational tone of the book, which reads almost as if a trail running buddy was just emailing you his best tips. These days, being the ridiculous gen-y that I am, I judge my opinion on books partly based on how many highlights they get on my Kindle. This one got a few, mostly tips about how to run in different conditions but also stuff like:

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Robillard also says he walks all the hills of any course over 50k and adds that that strategy has actually resulted in improvement on his finish times. Any trail runner who tells me walking is a good idea in an ultra is automatically added to my best friends list and would qualify for a Merry Christmas card if I still bothered sending those.

He also suggests a number of interesting things I wouldn’t have thought would be a good idea, including wearing white cotton shirts when there is a lot of sun exposure and adding “foodless runs” to your training, to help develop the ability of using fat as fuel.

I’d like to share a few of the tips I got from the book but that would be doing it a disservice since what you should really do is pick up a copy and read it yourself (won’t take you long). It’s not exactly Nobel material and it doesn’t try to be. It’s written as a trail running handbook and, as such, it pretty much ticks all the boxes, with a really comprehensive list of practical advice for every trail runner out there.

For a free sample of the book, click here. For more information on the book, check the blog with the same name or head to Amazon for a copy.