Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. And that’s what happened to me in my build up to 72km The Ring of Fire Ultra, only mine was more of a gut shot. One month and two days before the big day I was literally lying flat on my back in the hospital with severe abdominal pain, that turned out to be a gangrenous appendix. So that made things interesting.
After a successful removal I was hit with another gut shot; no running for 4 weeks, which left me two days to train. I was not alone in getting this bad news, the guy in the bed next to me had had his appendix out the night before. He was worried about the impact on his training … for the Auckland Half Marathon. I had to bite my tongue and not be the guy who says “it’s just a road half, in October, I have an ultra in a month”.
I, of course, made the sensible decision that running a tough 72km ultramarathon, that I was already stressing over, would be pure stupidity. A tough 50km seemed like a much better idea, I mean I had two days to train after all. A quick email from the hospital bed and the change was made, before I talked myself back into the 72. I’d come to terms to the length of time I’d take, the time alone, chasing the cut offs, and the effort required, so dropping down felt like a failure before I even started. George had to constantly remind me that I was still recovering from surgery.
Having been restricted to just the short walk to and from Amber’s school, I was stoked when my doctor gave me the all clear for “light” exercise. A couple of swims, a few 4km’er, and a 10k run to the pub; I was ready to race. I now had the sole goal to finish injury free, because there was no way I was going to let my teammate, Vicki, down for the Breca Bay of Islands swimrun just three weeks later.
George and I had decided to take advantage of the accommodation deal offered by RoF, and had a room at the start(ish)/finish lines in the iconic Château. This certainly paid off with the 3:30am departure time for the bus to Turoa ski field for the start of the 50km at 5:30am. Things got off to an auspicious start, when I realized I had the car key in my pack and I had visions of me retracing the course trying to find our lost key that fell out at some point.
All that was forgotten as we jumped of the buses into a cold but clear morning at Turoa. After the usual last minute prestart “preparations” (to avoid having to use the dreaded poo bags later on), and a pretty weak Gollum impression telling us the finishers rings hadn’t arrived, it was time to get the party started. Right off we headed 4km back down the road to meet the Round The Mountain Track and into the beech trees.
This was pure single-track bliss for 15km, there were boardwalks, swing bridges, streams to ford, trees and moss (I do love me a good moss), all while going from head lamp to sunrise. I was grinning from ear to ear and loving it, “this is awesome!” But the Missing Link is a section two extremes and soon it was time to leave the lush bush for rocks and boulder fields.
This was the start of what must be 20km of exposed moonscape. Thankfully we had a perfect day for running, no rain but also no real heat and crucially no wind. On a bad year this area would be pure hell, but picking our way around loose rocks and over some serious climbs it was only mildly hell like. Well that was my take for two reasons:
- Somehow my gaiters and shoes had turned into gravel scoops, filling with sharp daggers every few steps. I seemed to be spending longer emptying them than wearing them. Thankfully there were an abundance of rocks to sit on and empty my shoes. Though the fact I kept forgetting to retie my shoes before hooking on my gaiters added to the process.
- I ran out of liquid a couple of times. I made the fateful decision to just put 2.5l of my custom Infinit mix in the pack and a 500ml soft flask up front. I’d made the Infinit a smidge concentrated, thinking I’d sip a bit and then the water, all the while refilling the bottle at the many streams. The issue arose that a lot of the streams were not really running, and I didn’t want to chance it on semi stagnant water. Thankfully each time was only a few kms from a top up; first the Rangipo hut and then the Tukino aid station. It was more of an annoyance, as I’d otherwise nailed my nutrition plan and my extra carby mix kept me going. But at least running out meant I’d at gotten my calories in.
The trail through the second half of the missing link is something else, often there wasn’t even a trail just marker poles in the distance to aim at. And while you would be jinking and jiving around rocks heading for the next pole, you’d notice something resembling a trail a couple of meters off to one side. So, you reroute and jump on the slightly more worn path, jinking and jiving around rocks, until you notice something a couple of meters off to one side…
But oh man those views to your right just kept going, and the mountain to the left was equally spellbinding. And if it wasn’t for the risk of a broken ankle from inattention, it was easy to keep looking the views.
Whoever first set the track obviously had never heard of switch backs and was a fan of the saying “as the crow flies”. It certainly wasn’t my favourite part, but still I enjoyed how epically rugged the area was, and (now recovered), how testing it had been. But even the near endless desert came to its end with the Tukino Aid Station.
Just as I sat down with my drop bag the skies darkened and rain looked to be threatening. Not wanting to get caught, I quickly changed my socks, refilled my Infinit with more mix but in fruit punch this time (I started with orange), and made a pit stop to the Rocking Trailer o’Portaloos. Then I was off onto the Tussock Traverse course for the last 22km home, feeling refreshed and ready for some “easier” going.
Tukino was also the change over point in the relay event, so from time to time a fresh runner would shoot by and I would try to pace off them for a wee bit. This was working well until some dick started piling the gravel into my shoes again. I tried to persevere as much as I could, since there weren’t the handy sitting rocks anymore, but again I was reduced to a repeating cycle of filling and emptying my shoes.
The inevitable happened around 15km to go, I could feel the blisters starting to form and they quickly took over the balls of my feet. Every attempt to run and every downhill now became torture, as I’d slide around on the raw skin. But I cracked out the best power hike I could muster and aimed to at least enjoy the rest of the trail, even helping out a marshal with her crossword. Seven letter word, a building in Moscow?
I just want to take a moment here and thank the marshals and other volunteers, who were amazing and great encouragement throughout the day. Some of them had been out there over night and most likely a second night. It was funny coming across their little nests off to the side of the trail.
Despite the pain, enjoying the section wasn’t too hard, as despite the occasional spits of rain, this was again a trail that offered a good deal of variety of terrain and scenery. Although it does elicit a moment of concern when you’re heading towards the wrong mountain for a while and you know the finish line is the other way. But the hook back is eventually made and progress towards the ‘right’ mountain continues.
Throughout the day I’d been updating George with my progress, thanks to having the course loaded into my Garmin. “I’ll be back around 5”, “make that 6”, “make that 6:30”, “make that 7”. With 5km left I let her know that my feet were killing me, to which she offered to meet me for the last few k’s. Initially I wasn’t too keen, as night was falling and she didn’t have a headlamp or warm gear, but she didn’t listen and meet me with a few km to go. In hindsight it was great to see a friendly face and a bit of a distraction for a short time.
We parted ways just before the end of the track, her running off the ball room and me heading off to the short trail to the finishing arch. 14 hours after I’d started, I crossed the finish line … and was told I had to keep going inside. With Chris Townley leading the way, it was into the Château and up a finial flight of stairs into the middle of the finishers ball. Normally for me a finish line is pretty empty, so it was a change to have high fives and cheering. Equally confusing was the finish line ribbon – aren’t they normally for the winner of the race?
The decision to stay at the Château was again the correct one, as a shower, change of clothes, and both kinds of recovery drink (a cold craft beer and Infinit Repair) were only a short hobble away. After cleaning up and surveying the damage to my feet, we headed back down to the ball room, first to the medical tent to get the mess seen to, and then to the buffet line and sharing of war stories from the day.
It was a very long and very challenging day, but I really didn’t notice the hours (well, a little bit at the end) and I enjoyed almost all of it. It’s not going to be a race for everyone, but I for one will be back for as I’ve got to close the loop and get that 72km finish. And at least I don’t have to worry about my appendix getting in the way of training again. It’s just everything else I need to watch out for.
Oh, and it’s Kremlin.