Leg 5: Red Rocks (42km) – Tawatawa Reserve (52km)
This is probably the toughest part of the course. An easy few km around Owhiro Bay and into Happy Valley leads to the Tip Track. But first, a km down the road I run into Rhonda, Brian and Sue, who hadn’t realised there was an aid station. We chat, get a few photos and some emotional support (Brian and Sue are both active cyclists and Brian’s marathon PB is well ahead of mine). Rhonda helps me put some more vaseline on my left foot, which has a small blister.
Supporters! And me…
Time to get moving though, and I head towards the most feared part of the course. The Tip Track runs up aside, past and above the Tip. It’s legendary among Wellington city runners for its toughness – 3km, almost all a steep climb over uneven, rocky terrain. I’d be amazed if anyone is running it, except perhaps the race leaders. (Whereas I could have run most of the other hills on the course; I just chose not to). I actually power up it at a fairly good pace, passing a few people – exchanging encouraging words with one runner who has the cramp. Another comments that I always pass her on the hills. It’s hot, and sweaty – again, such a contrast to when I was here previously – I abandoned a training run here due to heavy rain, and feel grateful I just got off the track safely. This time my only worry is sunburn, it’s clear, blue skies and calm – this is Wellington in Winter?
The best part of this hard climb is the other runners – we pass a lot of people coming down, and exchange grins, thumbs-ups, even a hand slap. We’re all getting by on runner’s high, feeding off each other.
At the top of the Tip Track
“You always catch me on the hills”
The worst part comes when I reach the top. my hip hurts. Hurts bad. Not in the way of having done myself damage, or cramp, just pain, sharp stabbing pain that is worse as I try to run downhill. I’d expected pain, but in my knee not my hip. I’d told myself the pain would come, told myself to expect it, to be ready for it. Not to surrender to it. I keep repeating those words, but basically I don’t have the mental strength or pain resistance to push through. The great ultra runners, the real hardcore, say that the ability to not give up, and the ability to welcome the pain is really what makes them great. I’m inclined to agree. Running is hard right now. Even at the best of times descending this track is rough, and I go down slower than most. Today, I’m basically walking, breaking into jogs on the few flat parts.
Descent – much slower and more painful than it looks
I have to talk to myself to keep going – I keep thinking ‘I’ve run further than I ever have before. That’s a great achievement. I’m going to be seeing Susan and Regan and Damian and James soon…I could just stop. We could head back to Damian’s house, pick up some beers on the way, yeah just sit around drinking and chatting, wouldn’t that be great…”
I hit the bottom – the marshals offer a most welcome mandarin. Across the road and over towards Tawatawa. Coming down the road I’m moving to go around a woman and a child when she calls out and I realise it’s actually Susan. We’d been texting, but I was expecting her at the top of the hill. This is great though. She’s thoughtfully walked down the road with nephew Ciaran so they could walk back with me and spend time without me having to stop. Regan and baby Lucy are waiting further up the road. We chat for a while and Ciaran tries to pull a sword out of a stone sculpture, but it looks as though he doesn’t get to be King. He and Susan walk up the hill with me for a while, but I’m not 100% sure he understands this whole ‘race’ business, trying to get me to go the other way.
Climbing up the hill I’m soon met by James and Damian (and baby Saskia, who’s less vocal in her support, but welcome none the less). Again we chat. Thoughtfully Damian has bought some spare energy gels and fruit. I am very, very pleased to see a pear. We take some pictures and the boys try to rev me up. I appreciate this a lot.
Support! And a pear. Both appreciated.
Obviously, like everyone else the guys have been waiting a while, and James had to come a fair distance while Damian had to wrangle a small child.
It was a really good pear, OK?
We’re joined by another runner, wearing an Iron Maori t-shirt. He looks to be doing it tough, but he’s still out there – great man. Damian and James decide to walk with me, and give me some helpful advice about taking it easy when I start running again.
There’s a few tough uphills which they talk me through, too. We end up running for a bit – I’m being easily beaten by a guy carrying a baby, but as it’s Damo it’s OK. We’re winding our way across relatively easy hills between Happy Valley and Newtown.
Leg 6: Tawatawa Reserve (52km) to Mt Victoria (61km)
I leave the guys and continue. It’s tough. I’ve still got a reasonable amount of energy in my legs – I’ve trained hard and I’ve eaten a lot today. But I’m in pain. I can walk OK, but I’m finding it hard to push through and run. This means that the uphills are paradoxically easier than the downhills. I try to force myself to run for even the duration of a song, but it’s tough even to jog for the 2 minutes of Blitzkrieg Bop. I reach the safety marshals at Adelaide Rd – this is a great idea, they literally have a marshal walking runners across the road. Smart – after running 50+km no-one is thinking at 100%, so we could easily run straight out into the road without looking. I wind my way up towards Mt Albert. There’s a fantastic marshal up there, cheering each runner from a long way away (I couldn’t believe he was yelling for me, I figured there had to be someone closer to him). This takes us to the Mt Albert aid station, where again I’m greeted by someone shouting my full name (I don’t recognise him, so I assume he’s going off the runners’ list and making an extra effort for people). They tell me I’m only 30 minutes inside the cutoff – I had no idea I was going so slowly. I resolve to pick up the pace. This aid station has unbelievably tasty cupcakes – a few of those and some Coke and I’m gone again.
The end of the trail is relatively easy, or would be if I hadn’t run 55km by now. There are some excellent marshals along the way, really encouraging the runners. At the road crossing to Mt Vic one asks if I’d like a chocolate fish. “I’d love a chocolate fish” I reply, in the sort of voice people use when accepting marriage proposals or high-paid job offers. He grins. I struggle up Mt Vic, cursing race director Gareth, who instead of giving us a nice straight run to the summit has taken the course all around Mt Vic, dropping down to the velodrome at one point. At this point, much of my motivation is coming from hoping I’ll have the opportunity to punch him in the face at the finish. Still, the trails are nice. I chat with a mountain biking family who kindly confirm that I don’t look good, and have to get out of the way of a couple of runners. Feels odd that I’m actually racing and still giving way to others, but to be fair they are going a lot faster than me.
A few more marshals on the hill keep up the encouragement, letting me know how close I am. I resolve to finish strong and cue up some Arnocorps and sing along, probably startling a few bikers with my shouts of ‘my name is Holzfuer!’. I’m running now and I hear shouts of ‘runner, runner!’. All of a sudden the cows from Makara are running towards me, someone’s ringing a cowbell and there are shouts of ‘you’ve got to moooove it, moooove it’ as they fall into step with me and start running to the finish line. This is great! Then I see the final horrible slope – we’re not winding our way around the road to the summit – we’re going straight up! “There’s no way I’m running up that!” I exclaim. Instantly there’s a chorus from the cows “kill the hill! KILL THE HILL!”. well, with that encouragement what else can I do? I start running, the lactate burning in my legs but I’m there now I’m not stopping it’s taking forever but I’m coming up the final hill and there’s the finish line and the announcer calling me in by name, everyone’s cheering and I stagger across the line… Gareth places a finisher’s medal around my neck and there’s Rhonda and it’s over and I’ve done it. Final time 9 hours 59 minutes.
: the cows getting another runner across the line
Finish line, with cows
Rhonda and I hang out, trying to arrange a place on the bus to town. We help take down a tent. The race crew are checking the position of the remaining runners, trying to work out how many of them will be able to finish before they have to close the course. We eventually get a ride in a volunteer’s car – an amazing woman, she thinks she’s taking us to the race hotel HQ on Cuba St. When she hears we live in Karori she offers to drive us the whole way – this is someone we’ve never met! But we caucus and decide we’ll get a celebratory meal in town…we head for Scopa, who to their credit don’t bat an eyelid at the fact that I’m wearing a sweatshirt over very sweaty tights and running shorts, and muddy shoes. Pizza and beer goes down really well and we head home. I’m not in bad shape – I can work up the hill to our house (whereas after the Wellington marathon I could barely walk down the concourse from Westpac stadium to the railway station).
That night I can barely sleep – I have a huge blister on my foot and my hip is painful, and now all my muscles are aching. It hurts to sleep on my side and I just ache generally.
This is, indeed, a blister
I’m very glad that I’ve taken the next day off, and can sit around reflecting on the run. I’m proud, a little disappointed with the time, but most of all very grateful for all the support. A little later the results go up – the winner went round in 5:50. I finished 39th out of the men – 46 finished so I was near the back. 13 women finished, 11 ahead of me, so that puts me in 52nd overall, out of 59. But 81 entered, so over a quarter of the entrants either withdrew, or were pulled from the course for missing cutoffs. It was tough out there. My slight satisfaction at finishing ahead of one of my car-mates from the morning was soon lost when I saw a photo of him downing a beer at the top of the Tip Track. But what impressed me the most? The guy who I saw at Tawatawa, about 8km from the end? He finished nearly an hour behind me (and I was going slow over that last 8km). And it turned out he was only running the 42km. He finished last of all the runners in both races, at nearly 11 hours. But the guy did it. He finished. I have so much admiration for him, and for everyone who made it through. And so much thanks to the organisers, marshals, aid stations, cows, jedis, musicians and especially supporters.