Te Ahu Patiki: Aotearoa Ultra

The stretch from Gebbies Pass to the top of the Summit Road on Banks Peninsula is colloquially known as “The Bastard” by many a cyclist who thought it a good idea to ascend its constant climb and unending switch backs. After 38Km of running and the sun beginning to belt down through the now burnt off Canterbury Inversion layer, I was calling it much harsher names as with every step the sheering pain in my hips tried to tell me to stop and question my being.

A common word of advice is that you are made up of the 5 people you choose to surround yourself with, a caveat to that advice is to choose wisely. For some reason I choose to surround myself with savages and digest content on social media from people who appear to connect pain and suffering with fun and enjoyment. Its no surprise then, that in the deepest darkness of Winter, Post the NZ Covid-19 lock down, entering a 101km event which traverses Banks Peninsula near Christchurch was a bright idea. My good Mate Dave Perry began a short Podcast series for his brand Vanator Outdoors towards the end of the initial New Zealand lock-downs, of which I was the first guest. Among the group were Jordan Fitzgerald aka “Fitzy”, the alpine master Sammi Holland, Tararua Wild Foundation legend Justin Amor and firefighter and Ultra Athlete Helen Waterworth.

Helen being a product of Hawke’s Bay was passing through and thought it would be a good idea to catch up, savage to savage, for a quintessential nutcase beverage of black coffee. An hour and a half later, Helz had to get on the road back to Whangarei and I needed to go pick up my now windscreenless 96 primera to take it around the corner to the panel beaters in order to fix the rust, needless to say we became good mates and had regular yarns across Soc Med.

Shortly after in a moment of synergy that my life appears to be filled with, I had been checking on Facebook, no doubt uploading content for the stag roar podcast and a sponsored post for the Aotearoa Ultra came into my feed. Noting there was a 53km on offer, the seed was planted that this could be a good idea. Growing up in Southland and every year seeing the legends seemingly waltz up and down the Kepler and Luxmore grunt, being fascinated by the tenacity of people like Steve Gurney and Nathen Favae and the legend herself Lisa Tamati, I always fancied myself that extreme endurance events were something I could do one day. With my time in the hills hunting and modern day machines like Cameron Hanes, David Goggins, Courtney Dauwalter and Zach Bitter fresh in my motivational mind bank, I thought I’d float the idea passed Helz to see if she thought it was an achievable goal. At that stage my running pedigree consisted of ; the 12km Round the Bridges in Hamilton in 2017, and while growing up I had been a competitive middle distance runner and cross country competitor, however this was more down to a large aerobic base from Swimming and Football rather than any skill or specific training.

This is were the statement of chose those friends wisely comes in. Turns out that day Helz had signed up for the Taupo 100km Ultra and upon floating the idea of my own goals she casually asks “Whats the furtherest event?” Sheepishly I replied it was a 101 (I hadn’t looked at the total elevation at that point, approx 3998 if you’re asking) to which she nonchalantly replied “Always enter the longest event”. Now I don’t know if it was the whirlwind of lock-down, me still trying to get my head around the separation with Alex, or the country air living on my mates farm in Central Hawkes Bay, but the next day I paid my money and was entered in the task of completing 101km by foot in 8 months time.

Choosing your friends wisely again is very important when you’ve committed to something so hairy and audacious as an Ultra Marathon, and thankfully Helz and her friend Ady sorted me out with a 6 month training program. That gave me 2 months to build some time on my legs, as by week three I was going to be cracking that 12kms and in the depths of the program was scheduled to do a training run of 60km!!!

To help me through this I was using the ATG knees over toes work out program after speaking with Ben Patrick in my podcast. The thinking that strengthening my knees, ankles and hips at range would bulletproof them for the repetitive task of running. Also I made the commitment to go to Osteopathy every fortnight in order to release the fascia and support the tendons.

As July began, so too did the program and I was astounded how I managed to make my way through the runs, by mid-August though the time commitment was already beginning to take its toll and I shifted back to Havelock North in order to maximise my time on legs instead of in the car. By the end of August I completed my first half marathon distance run; a loop around the Mohaka and Makino rivers, up to the Makino hut and back to my car in the Kaweka ranges. While I was at it I cleared 26 rats from the traps in this loop to help protect the Whio and Kiwi in the area and felt amazing completing the approx 24.9km. After a feed and with hunting boots and pack on, I immediately felt less optimistic as I trudged back to the hut to attempt a days hunting the next day, needless to say it was less than productive, but a good way to add another 6kms each way tramping.

The following week I pushed further still with a good 26kms from the Mount to Tauranga and back and I began to meet “The Wall”. For me the wall feels like searing hip pain, locked legs and agony up my lower back, oh and swearing to myself, wondering what the hell am I doing as a 92kg ex-rugby player trying to conquer such ambitious distances. But the sense of accomplishment was immense and the ability to back it up with a cruise up the mount the next day gave me some confidence.

Some de-load weeks and some conserted runs up Te Mata peak and the surrounding flat roads of Havelock had me on a roll, then the wheels literally began to fall off: Every second weekend I drive to Te Kauwhata to spend time with my daughter, so fitting long runs in would mean one week following the plan with runs on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and eventually Sunday and the second week cramming them in to Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, as I was driving on Friday I would do the long run in two or three stints on the Thursday. After completing an epic 40km run on the Saturday with two trips up the peak, I set off for a morning half-marathon before work on the Thursday, at the about the half marathon point things were not so good and the hip began to scream in agony, I made the decision to complete the distance by substituting the stationary bike at the gym.

It was confirmed by the osteo that he tendons were struggling and flared up and my only solution was rest with permission to use the stationary bike. The next week was a lesser run and I tried for the morning half marathon again, only to have things go pear shaped at the 16km mark, I limped it home deflated but still determined.

4 weeks passed on the bike before I tried another attempt to get out for 50km. Some slow paced running, nursing the hip and I made it to the top of the peak. Feeling good, I began the decent, to all of a sudden tighten up in the quads, giving them the mandatory stretch I took off again, the bang!! the pain so many runners will know, sharp pain through the middle of the knee, this was still not to be. Thankfully my flatmates had been on call and rescued me.

More time spent on the stationary bike was starting to drive me a bit silly. On a scheduled de-load week I decided to go out hunting again justifying the long days on legs in challenging terrain and a pack on my back as suitable cross training. It was so refreshing to be out in the mountains and bush and I was so stoked at the ease of navigating around. The legs were strong and the fitness was incredible and to see a few animals and be 10m away from another squealing at me through the dense bush a welcome distraction.

The following week a gentle 12km run I named “tendon tester” on my Map My Run, gave me a little confidence but I kept to the bike for the rest of the week and the weekend up with my daughter kept my mind off the daunting task ahead as well as that 60km scheduled distance I wasn’t running off my mind. Part of me was disappointed not to have pushed to that training distance as it would have been a massive confidence booster, but if I injured myself by pushing through the pain then the previous few months would have all been for nothing. I focused on stretching, sauna and movement; I had started getting to Yoga each Monday and with the strength and movement of running and the ATG work, I was finding amazing positions and feeling the tendons loosen in the sore points.

3 weeks out and a 43km run was scheduled. I had that feeling of its now or never, I had to prove to myself I could make this. I had managed two 10km+ runs that week without pain, making sure I held a good pace. I put out my coconut waters and hoisted my new Ultimate Direction running vest on my back with my compulsory gear and 2.5L of fluids. The first half marathon was a dream and I made it to my first check point feeling stoked. 24Km in and I hit the limestone trails of the Tukituki river only to have my phone go flat, goodbye to tracking and goodbye to music, also hello to back and hip pain. I ground it out and made it home 3hours later managing to run the last km and a half. I was defeated. 101km was a hill too far and the next morning I emailed in to change my entry to the 53km.

On the plus side, even with disaster striking I had averaged 8:14/km and this was well and truly within the pace needed to finish. Granted it was missing a good 2400m of elevation, but seeing as I had conquered over 46km close to tears for a good 20km of it, what was another 7km in that state? The strange thing about Ultra running is the pain is immense, but the pain doesn’t get worse, it just continues. Heck there are even times when it gets better, the challenge, which was reiterated to me from 2021 Revenant; Ian Evans, is that the mind game is to find that extra bit of efficiency. It’s a long race and 1min per Km faster over the remaining 30kms is a big difference in time and placing.

The following week was the lead into Xmas and with the prospect of 70km of agony off my shoulders a bit of taper madness was relieved, and given the previous weekend’s agony it was welcomed. Two lots of 6km, including a post presents Xmas day loop felt surprisingly good and by not indulging too much in xmas festivities I hit the Hakaramata Traverse on boxing day in good steed. She’s a beautiful range, but the downside of established Mahoe bush is their roots entangle the track making the 12km each way almost like boulder hopping. Added to that a good 200m climb at one end and a 250m+ climb at the other tested the pace, but was good simulation for what was to come on race day. To make matters worse, the dense canopy, and a dodgy 2 degrees cellphone service had my GPS trip-out on the details. To be and extra kilometer shy of the end when my phone was telling me I was at the 24km mark tested the patience.

A couple of lettuce wrapped Angus burgers from Macas with a McFlurry and coke, then a night with my mate in the Hauraki plains allowed me to clear the head enough to get up the following morning and make the 400m climb up the Kaimai range into one of my old hunting grounds. A decent thunderstorm which rolled in that night limited my opportunities in the dense bush, but the next day nearing the end of a marvellous loop track which took in the incredible Te-whare-okioki, I crept up a creek which I had E-Scouted and came across a velvet stag. Lucky for him I had my bow and his position behind two large pampas grasses in an otherwise open finger 40m away was too much of an ask for me and my bow.

It was a quick trip down the hill and with a pep in my step and with the tunes pumping in my Outlander, it was over the Hill to Mount Maunganui to meet up with earlier mentioned mate Pat and our other fellow El Rancho flatmate from Uni, Matt. We had a good three nights concluding with one hell of a time having our ear drums blown out by Friction, Dimension and Sub Focus. Matt and I had a nice 5km flat run to the Mount and back on the 30th before we got into our work with a good crew of seven, helped by the immense stereo Matt’s parents have and some ‘beer’ pong.

New Years eve morning, I awoke feeling good despite the previous days antics, amazing what a good nights sleep and hydration can do, not to mention a good coffee and some bacon and eggs. That had me on my way to Pukekohe to meet Billie before we flew to Queenstown on New Years day to spend time with Family in the mighty South. This part of the road trip, one week out from the event is where the taper madness and guilt kicked in. I managed a run on new years day, the fourth of Jan and the 7th of January, all very small. Despite a diverse array of beds; from camp stretchers in Glendhu Bay, a single bed at my Uncle and Aunties in Invercargill, sharing a double bed with Billie in Dunedin and then one to myself at my parents place in Christchurch, I managed to be surprisingly well rested, even if the whether was a constant dampness.

Friday 8th of January was check in day, and cue the butterflies and feeling of excited dread….

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