Arbitrary Numbers

“Well, that’s dumb,” I said to Lizzie, my then-girlfriend, while I traced the course map of the Tarawera Ultramarathon with my mouse cursor. “Look. They have a perfectly good 87k course, but in order to make it more than 100k, they have it go off on this big loop through forestry roads, then come back.” I shoved more oatmeal in my face while Lizzie packed her bag for today’s trail run. “That’s dumb.”

“Maybe people just want to see if they can run more than 100k,” she told me. I shrugged and signed up for the 87k, then started booking plane tickets to beautiful New Zealand.

Runivore graciously, elegantly, courteously, uhh… nicely… (are there more adjectives I can use?) invited me to their epic week in New Zealand to compete in the Tarawera Ultramarathon as a tag-along. I was to help usher in the winner of the Dream Race video competition to the start line of the 67k race, give tips along the way, and hold stuff when things need to be carried. I was also supposed to be a photographer, but my cat decided to knock my Nikon D7100 off the table and break a lens mount. Also, there wasn’t much to carry, so basically my job now was to run.

Before the trip, Randall and I did some training runs together. I did my best to offer pacing advice and nutrition tips, but he looked solid, and even offered some coaching my way, too. Before I knew it, we were coming up on the departure date and I realized I hadn’t given much thought to my own race.

Two weeks before we headed out, Lizzie was perched next to me at the computer again as we watched a video of the Vibram Hong Kong 100k. I told her about how there’s some solid talent that comes out for this race because it’s a Western States qualifier.

“Oh, just like Tarawera 102k,” she said.

“Wait, what? First of all, how do you know that? Second off, it’s a qualifier?!”

“I googled it.”

I checked. It was. It’s one of only two races in SE Asia and Oceania that I can use to get in the lottery for the prestigious Western States Endurance Run. Randall tells me with confidence (as he’s been poring over the race information websites and message boards) that runners who would like to bump to different distances can do so at the expo before the race. So, I decided I’m going to try to nail that 102k and get myself a Western States qualifier.

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From left to right is: the Dream Race winner, Randall, Runivore owners Will and Tom, and then myself.

We touched down in New Zealand after watching way too many bad movies and eating not nearly enough for ultramarathoners and took a much-needed walk to a healthy grocery store. I sucked down around twenty-seven coffees and tried to hunt down some gear that might help me fix my camera, but after a few hours hunched over the hotel room table with tiny screws and metal bits strewn about, I was forced to give up and pack away the broken gear and come along for a run.

And what a run it was. New Zealand opened her arms and welcomed us. We did 10k around a wildlife preserve near the ocean with a giant mole hill to climb and look in awe at the glory of the Tasman Sea. I was beginning to stop worrying about my camera.

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We left Aukland in our matchbox rental car and made our way to Rotarua, a town next to a lake and the famous Redwoods Forest and home to the start line of the Tarawera Ultramarathon. Cue 2 more cups of “long black” coffee.

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Rotarua is a popular destination for all things outdoorsy, from mountain biking to zorbing, speed golfing and apparently dog orienteering.

“There’s a dog-gaine… A rogaine with dogs.” Randall told us when we passed a sign. We had just finished a quick run at the Redwoods to shake out the car ride and noticed signs all over warning people of weird runner-folk darting around with dogs and slips of paper looking hole-punch clips hidden in the forest.

“You mean they go orienteering with dogs?” I was intrigued.”You bring your own, borrow one from the SPCA, or you have to run with a stuffed dog toy,” Randall told us. It took some coaxing but with the promise of good publicity for Runivore, we made a donation to the animal shelter, signed out names on our slip of paper, acquired a rental dog from the

“You bring your own, borrow one from the SPCA, or you have to run with a stuffed dog toy,” Randall told us. It took some coaxing but with the promise of good publicity for Runivore, we made a donation to the animal shelter, signed out names on our slip of paper, acquired a rental dog from the Rotarua SPCA, and spend the afternoon giving Tess (our doggie) the time of her life, only occasionally finding some of the hidden hole-punches.

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We even won some bottles of local beer at the raffle.

At the dog-gaine, we bumped into Mike Wardian. Winner of 7 marathons in 7 continents in 7 days. He is a legend among runners and surprisingly relaxed and awesome to hang out with. I bumped into him a few more times (once while we ate lunch downtown and one time while he was just sitting on a hill doing Mike Wardian things) and he was always willing to chat, even did a good job remembering me.

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Mike wasn’t the only big name here. In fact, their panel of “elite runners” spanned across an entire conference room. Turns out if you put a race in a beautiful location and make it part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, some big names show up.

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People like Gediminas Grinius, the Lithuanian who placed second in UTMB and winner of the Ultra-Trail World Tour. And Camille Herron, the 50k and 100k female world champion. Magda Boulet, the winner of Western States 2015… and of course, Jim Walmsley, now unarguably the fastest ultra runner in the world.

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At the expo, I got to brush shoulders and chat with some of the best runners on earth. Feeling inspired, I inquired about bumping up to the 102k race.

“Are you in the 102k and are moving down the 87k?” the woman asked.

“Er… no. I’m hoping to run the bigger route.” I said. She found this interesting, but for a small fee, she took my cool bib with the American flag and name on it and handed over a generic black bib, signifying that when we get to the turn 72k into the race, I’ll be one of the folks turning right to go do 30k more while everyone else turns left to the finish. I knew when the time came, I’d probably want to kick myself.

In the hotel room, I pinned the bib to my shorts and crawled into bed early. I thought I wouldn’t sleep, but as soon as Tom flicked off the lights, I turned off as well. With the room still pitch black, I woke up to the sound of our dueling alarm clocks and shut mine off with few hours of sleep, but not nearly enough to feel excited about the day.

By now, the routine is ingrained in me. Toss on the shorts and shirt, then immediately start hydrating. Get the oatmeal in hot water with extra sugar and peanut butter. Fill the hydration pack and start fitting the straps to be comfortable and check what gels/pills/bars (caffeinated cacao Runivore bars, of course) I have handy. After oatmeal and instant coffee, eat an entire sandwich. Yes, two breakfasts. I’m going to run an ultramarathon, dammit.

Since I didn’t really plan out the 102k, I was mostly just winging it. I knew the aid stations would be very well stocked and frequent, so I wasn’t worried about being up the river without a paddle. I was more just curious to see what my body is going to do when long after the point of exhaustion, I still had so much more to run.

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We didn’t really need the headlamps except to help us walk to the start line from the hotel. Looking around at the start line, I didn’t see much in the way of nerves. There were very few people fiddling with their packs or reciting course elevations audibly to themselves like the kid from the Shining. I expected bowel-clenching and sweaty palms, but surrounding me was pure confidence. Athletes who clearly have done this before and were excited to take on this next challenge. This is when it dawned on me that I’m not in my backyard local trail race. This is the second stop of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, and the menagerie of flags posted on the bibs are there because these people are strong runners from all over the world posed to compete with and against each other.

I didn’t have much time to think, though, as Paul (the race organizer, now 30 hours without sleep, he would only have a small nap before the awards ceremony, 40 hours later) was on the microphone announcing that the race would begin soon. The headlamps turned on, illuminating the trees around us adorned with glow sticks hanging from wires above. “Do not steal the glow sticks!” Paul said. “Every year people steal the glow sticks and I don’t know why!”

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The Hakka finish their traditional New Zealander dance, and somewhere ahead the floodgates opened and we were swept away in it, beginning the journey to run incredibly far for incredibly long for no reason whatsoever.

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I try to start out very conservatively. I know I have a snowballs chance in hell at actually cracking the top 20, or 50 for that matter, so my main goal now is to cross the finish line happy and healthy with my WS qualifier. But it doesn’t take long before my racing instincts kick in.

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“This is the easiest 10k on trail I’ve ever ran,” I tell the guy next to me. The trail is wide, smooth and squishy, and it’s hard to keep off the throttle for a 5-minute km. Lines form and I get impatient, overtaking runners through gentle hills winding along the edges of pristine lakes that are so clean the race organizers encourage us to step over and fill our water bottles if we need to.

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Somewhere 33k ahead, Randall was in the forest beginning his run. I wouldn’t see him until we got back to the hotel room, but all day long he was somewhere ahead of me, kicking ass at his first ultramarathon. He placed 19th male, 27th overall.

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Time flies by as I hit the first aid station, then the second. 25k in and I’m still overtaking runners while trying to check myself back and keep a smooth form and low heart rate. My biggest concern is just creating a tempo that is comfortable and sustainable. But I’m having fun, dammit, and I want to run.

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Around 35k in, my body starts to tell me “well that was cool. Time to take a rest now.” I wish I could have told my legs what are still in store for them. After the 40k mark, I match up with a group of similarly paced guys–one from Australia, one from Dubai (although he’s Scottish) and another from Germany–all very friendly and talkative. I check my watch and announce that we just ran a marathon. One of them calls back saying “great, just another marathon and a half to go!” We laugh, but in the back of our minds, we know what that means.

We dip into the forest into some great single-track following river paths and waterfalls. I try to enjoy the views but at this point, my toe has begun bleeding and my left calf is starting to get sore because it has been compensating for the right adductor that is fresh off injury, and is starting to give me the occasional debilitating cramp.

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By the way, right now Jim Walmsley is coming up into the finishing stretch, still clocking sub-4:00 kms. He broke the course record by over an hour and beat the second place finisher by an hour. He is not of this world.

Aid stations come and go with increasing vibrancy, each with unique themes like doctors/nurses, zombies… Over 400 people volunteered at this event and they were meticulously organized and accommodating. Every 10k I felt like I had my mother and my closest friends supporting me. Not even just giving me food, but telling jokes, playing music and talking with us. They warned us that New Zealanders are some of the most compassionate and good-natured people on earth. They weren’t kidding. I’d sign up for this race again simply because of how wonderful the volunteers are.

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At the Tarawera Outlet station 57k in, I saw my old friend, Michael, the Australian that I started with.

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He was hunched over the table chewing on some orange and I gave him a twap on the back and told him we need to get moving. He seemed a little weary, but nodded and said he’ll be right there. I jogged up the road and into the trail when I felt my toes crunching up into the front of my shoe. I bent over and retied them (touching my sock to see my fingers come away with blood) and was relieved to see Michael soldiering up the hill after me with a smile on his face. “Let’s finish this,” he says.

So Michael and I turn onto the 60k mark together. This section is really pretty if you are looking at a photograph of it or something. Silent forestry roads lined with ancient pines that shower down squishy needles. Michael and I agreed that if we were doing a quick training run this would be awesome. Then 60k turns to 70k, then to 80k and we are still on pine-lined forestry roads. Straight lines, flat ground.

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Just an aside: Above are Pat and Sam, two local New Zealanders that I started the race with. Not breaking tradition, they were very affectionate and skilled in the art of chatting during a race. I think after around 2 minutes they got my entire life story out of me before we exchanged good wishes and high fives and they dropped back and to talk with others.

Mike and I were still following this straight, flat forestry roads long after our legs gave out for the third or fiftieth time. It was now that Michael told me that when I saw him at Tarawera Outlet he was in the process of dropping. He told me my slap on the back was what snapped the race back into focus and he decided he was going to tag along and finish this race no matter what it took. He told me that if he’s holding me back, feel free to go ahead, but at this point, we both felt like such garbage that we agreed to just get the miles to pass under our feet together. I egged him on to tell me stories about the security company he works for and the projects they were doing. His watch had long-since died and I was happy to have the job of telling him our pacing and distance to the next stations.

“Just think, when we finish this section and get to Fisherman’s bridge, we will be at 92.5k and will have less than 10k left to run.”

80k passed and we climbed and dropped the only hill remaining at Awaroa. We talked about his family and his kids. I told him about life living on fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. Anything we could do to take our minds off of the pain and distance ourselves from what we still had to endure.

“Why would anyone want to run this far anyway?”

“I really don’t know, man.”

At the aid stations, I met his family and got to put faces to the stories he told. It’s amazing how after running 40k with someone, you feel like you even know their kids. His daughter thought the big sweaty tall guy calling her name and asking for a high-five was a little scary, but mom loaded everyone into the rental van and by the next aid station she seemed to warm up to me. At the final checkpoint, Fisherman’s Bridge aid station, we only had 9k remaining and his wife agreed to carry my stinking, sweaty pack to the finish so that Michael and I could run in with hand-packs and a little less weight on our shoulders.

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I grabbed the American flag from a row of flags put up by a photographer. I wanted to hold it for the picture, but he encouraged I run into the finish with it. One more runner ambitiously passed us as we came into the final 2k stretch along rugby fields and school yards, finally back into civilization. By this point, I had dropped from the 50-60th place range down to 90th. I long-since abandoned the idea of placing well and just wanted to get to the finish line.

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I crossed the finish just ahead of Michael in 92nd place. We agreed ahead of time that he would find his family and run in with his son. I offered to let him go in first then I’d run in after, but he insisted. “If it wasn’t for you, I would have climbed in my wife’s car at 57k,” he confessed between heaving breaths.

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The race organizer gave me a hug and they put my medal over my head. I tapped my watch to see that the kilometer box can, in fact, hold 3 numbers, as it was now displaying 101.81. I looked around me and realized that I can finally stop running.

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Michael came right behind me with his son on his heels. My legs felt like they were impaled with poles, and the lactic acid started to harden all down my quads and calves. Rumor had it the river nearby was freezing cold, so I told him I’m going to go crash down there, and he should come down and have a beer. He gave me another hug and we parted ways. I didn’t see him again.

They weren’t kidding about how cold the river was, so after a soak, I stood shivering in the sun along the banister lining the finish to cheer on runners as they came in. I watched as runner after runner experienced finishing their ultramarathon. Families soaked in tears, couples holding hands, solitary runners from countries far away marching achingly over the final timing mat, collapsing as soon as it beeped to register that they had finished.

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An hour passed. My voice was getting weaker and my hand sore from high-fives when I saw fellow Runivore, Will, come in. In that time it finally hit me why anyone would do this stupidly long distance. There’s something extraordinary about standing up to a challenge that seems so massive and so impossible. Something that brings out the best in a person–things they didn’t know they were capable of. And it’s not from their legs but from their heart and the support of those around them that they are able to accomplish something so great.

That’s why we run over 100k.

Huge thanks to Tom, Will, and Andy from Runivore for helping make this trip happen. Everyone reading this should go buy some energy bars from them.

One thought on “Arbitrary Numbers

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