Where next? Dreaming of my first ultra

straw runner

I’m on holiday at the moment which means plenty of time for running and, on the flipside, recovering. My ankles are the bits that seem most in need of a rest at the moment, which makes a change from shins and Achilles tendons, but there’s a good reason for that. Actually I haven’t been running that often, but when I have been out it’s been pretty memorable. My attitude to running has changed quite a lot over the last month or so. If you’d asked me a few months ago about my running goals, I would have said something like “getting under 1.40 for the half marathon, a sub 45 minute 10k, and the oh-so-impossible dream of a sub 20 minutes 5k”. Ask me now though and the answer’s very different.

Top of the list, I’m going to come out and say right now, is the Tarawera Ultra in 2015. I’m not sure whether I’ll go for the 60, 85 or 100k but I plan to be there. That’s a year and a half away. (Update – Already entered the 60k in March 2014, so it’s more like six months away! Woo hoo! Update – Missed the 2014 race altogether in the end) Til then it’s things like the Mt Matthews and Mukamuka trails in the Rimutakas, Johnsonville to Red Rocks via the hills, Eastbourne to Baring Head and back. I’d still like to get under 1.40 for the half marathon if I can, but if it doesn’t happen I don’t feel too fussed. I’ve stopped using a timer on most of my runs. What I really want to do is get some distance in my legs and get used to trails. Hence the sore ankles at the moment.

It’s hard to say what brought about the change of heart. I came close to 45 mins at the Adidas 10k in June, which wasn’t bad after all the hassles with my Achilles, but not what I was hoping for either. I’m obviously not built for speed. Invariably at Parkruns when I try to run ‘fast’ I end up with sore shins. But a long, slow run and my shins are never a problem. In “Run to the Top” Arthur Lydiard emphasized the long run as an important part of building up a runner. Of course his training involved speed work and a lot of other things too, but only after a solid base of 100 miles a week had been built up. I can’t see myself getting up to that level any time soon (or ever!) but the message is clear – go long. Perhaps I should be thinking about distances, not speed. But racing isn’t really my thing – I don’t need to build up a base so I can do speed work. Why should I put in all those k’s then? Why do I run?

Mount Kaukau
Mount Kaukau

We have a great view of Mt Kaukau from our house, so I decided to have a go at it one day and realised two things: a) I could run up without killing myself, and b) getting off road was a lot of fun. And once I was up at the top, with the whole of Wellington laid out before me, the question practically threw itself at me – where next? The thought of setting off from home and running via the hills into town, say, suddenly felt appealing – a mission! So that was the next thing I did – Ran up Kaukau and carried on via the Skyline track into town, had a coffee, and caught the train home – easy, apart from taking the wrong track to Crofton Downs and having to run back up again. But anyway – Adventure! Thrills! Excitement! I started to think about running in terms of places to go and things to do, rather than training towards races and times. And to be honest, much as I love running anyway, it just got funner. Running is playtime.

This is exactly the point that Mark Rowlands puts across in “Running with the Pack”. You can think about running as something you do to get fit, lose weight, or even win prizes (like those little cans of cooked chicken they hand out in finisher’s bags – that’s the closest I ever get to a prize), but there’s more to it than that. Running is a valuable activity in itself, without having to offer any tangible rewards. We do it just for the experience, whether it’s a pleasure or a slog. In a sense, that is exactly the same thing as play. Sometimes it’s a game, like playing ‘dare’ with yourself. 5k in under 20 minutes, go on, I dare you. Run all the way to the library just to hand that DVD back, go on, I dare you. And sometimes it’s not a game; it’s running around the block a couple of times just because you can, or enjoying sunshine and fresh air at the park.

dog playing in snow

Once I’d dropped the obsession with time goals the idea of running as playtime made more sense to me. I would say I’m a lot more motivated to get out the door too. So I’ve been off exploring, and the variety of running on and off road around Wellington is pretty good.

This is the bit where MapMyRun gets really addictive. So just how far is it from here to the central library? To Red Rocks? How far is it to Parkrun from here? (Last weekend Parkrun organiser Richard McChesney race-walked from Lower Hutt to Porirua Parkrun, ran the 5k, then walked home again. Which is pretty damn inspiring!). What if I took the Hutt Road into town? Or went via Ngaio? If I meet you at Scorch-o-rama at Scorching Bay, how far is that? There is something extremely satisfying about saying you’ll meet someone for lunch, and running all the way there to meet them instead of driving (assuming it’s someone who doesn’t mind you being red faced and sweaty, and it’s a cafe with good breeze through it).

It was this change of heart that made me rethink what my running goals are; my running dreams, even. At this point it becomes obvious that I’ve been filling my head with too many books like “Eat and Run” by Scott Jurek, because the Tarawera Ultra in 2015 is my dream now; a trail ultramarathon run each year between Rotorua and Kawerau, with 60, 85 and 100k options. I can sum up my training plan pretty simply: find interesting routes and go a bit further each time. Right now I’m comfortable with 20-25k runs, so I guess my next step is to get used to marathon distances. And get used to running off road.

It was with this spirit that I set out for the Rimutakas the other day, aiming to run about 20k on trails. I started off on the Orongorongo track, which is a well formed, undulating walking track that takes you 5k through the bush to the Orongorongo river. From there I carried on along the Big Bend track, which was more like a tramping track with sections that were all tree roots, rocks, mud etc. Big Bend doesn’t stray far from the river so it’s quite easy to follow, but it peters out after a few km so I carried on along the rocky river bed to the Papatahi hut, which was another couple of km. So it was about 10k to the hut in total, which took just under an hour and a half. Apart from the odd Grey Warbler and the sound of the river it was perfectly quiet, and I didn’t see another soul until I got back to the car park and one other car had pulled in. I enjoyed that aspect of it though, but it meant that the number one goal of my trip was to stay upright and not get hurt or lost. Speed wasn’t important, although I felt happy to have covered a fair bit of ground in a short space of time. I even enjoyed getting my feet wet, which is unavoidable as you have to wade through the Orongorongo river a couple of times (which was quite shallow and only came up to my shins). Definitely left me with a taste for more, although my ankles hated me afterwards! Tarawera here I come.

The start of the Orongorongo track. Mostly well formed, gravel track
The start of the Orongorongo track. Mostly well formed, gravel track
Playing "follow the orange triangle" on the Big Bend track
Playing “follow the orange triangle” on the Big Bend track
Swing bridge on the Big Bend track
Swing bridge on the Big Bend track
Stream crossing on the Big Bend track
Stream crossing on the Big Bend track
End of the Big Bend track marked by the orange triangle. Follow the river bed from here
End of the Big Bend track marked by the orange triangle. Follow the river bed from here
One of the many opportunities for getting your feet wet in the Orongorongo river
One of the many opportunities for getting your feet wet in the Orongorongo river
View along the Orongorongo river bed
View along the Orongorongo river bed
Papatahi hut signage
Papatahi hut signage
Winding, steep steps up to the hut
Winding, steep steps up to the hut
Papatahi hut. Locked, but still a great spot for a break. Nice deck
Papatahi hut. Locked, but still a great spot for a break. Nice deck
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2 thoughts on “Where next? Dreaming of my first ultra

  1. Awesome; that realisation about how far you can get when your long run is 3hrs plus is kind of giddying. I remember runs in Auckland where I’d include the summits of Mount Eden, One Tree Hill, Mt Roskill and the Domain. :-)

  2. Yep, it definitely gives you a new outlook on things. Not sure if that means the world feels bigger or smaller though

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