By Hayden Shearman //
This time yesterday I had never run a trail race in my life. It was race five of the Xterra Auckland Trail Run Series, and although I’ve run plenty of cross country races in my seven years of competitive running, I’d somehow managed to dodge the world of trail racing.
I had a free weekend from road racing or targeted training workouts, so I thought I’d dip my toe in the foreign and muddy waters of trail running and, you know, just get out for a steady training run in the hills.
But that toe-dipping quickly turned into a head first dive into the deep end. Steady training run it most definitely was not.
The race was held amongst native bush in the Whararau Regional Park (on the western shore of the Firth of Thames). I’d never been there so that was part of the attraction. Race officials said this of the 21km course that featured 1400m of vertical:
This is the creme de la creme of super long courses; highest point in the Hunua Ranges, steep climbs, burley descents, technical under foot, just under 1400m (1392m to be exact) of vertical amongst 100% native bush trails… Tumeke!
I wanted a good two-hour training run, so I kinda just glossed over the finer details of this description (it turns out terms like “burley” and “technical” are warning signs).
The next mistake I made was to only read over the compulsory gear list the night before the race (rain proof jacket, thermal top, emergency blanket, gloves, woolen hat). Luckily I had all the gear, but was seriously lacking in a backpack to carry it all. So I improvised by putting the thermal inside my jacket, tying them around my waist and stuffing the pockets full of the survival gear.
It took me till about 50 metres into the race to realise how awkward this arrangement was: my hands clipped my jacket at every stride, the gear in the pockets bounced around everywhere. Anyway, I got used to it and only really thought of it again in the second half where I the bouncing jacket kept sounding like the footsteps of a runner storming up behind me (provides good motivation to keep the foot down).
Aside from not doing my prep on the course and compulsory gear, I also hadn’t tried on my trail shoes for almost two years. Strangely they had shrunk half a size so I was left with my road shoes.
THE RACE: UPHILL
For a race with a course record of 2:02 (last year was the first year) I was surprised how fast everyone went out. I was back in about 12th at 1k where the hills really started to crank up.
Before we hit the narrower trails I did a quick count of all those in front of me and then set about just counting them down as we worked up hill after hill. Eventually I moved into third.
There’s a certain point when running on trails where walking becomes just as fast (and certainly more efficient) as running. I use the “staircase” gauge: if it’s steep enough for stairs to be built on it you may as well walk. And the key with this gauge is to start walking before you need to—or else you end up walking where you shouldn’t.
I found I could maintain contact with the runners around me quite easily by walking these early hills and then catching them on the short flats in between (where the others were getting a recovery). And sure enough, the others were soon walking the steeper hills as well.
Midway up the uphill half of the race we hit a demoralizing downhill which provides a break from the relentless climbing but nails the quads and reminds you that you need to make up these lost vertical metres all over again. As we hit these descents I couldn’t believe the speed of the two runners around me. It looked suicidal. For every one of their steps I’m sure I would take four. I picked my way through the branches and leaves and roots and puddles, stupidly trying to keep my road shoes as clean as possible. Meanwhile the others looked they were closing their eyes and just unleashing.
I became more confident as the race wore on but technical descending is definitely an area I will need to work on for any future trail races.
THE RACE: MAKING MY MOVE
I came into this event treating it like a steady training run. But at about 8k, sitting in second place and feeling pretty comfy, I figured I could push on for the win. But if so, I knew I’d need to use the uphill to get some space between me and the other two (who both much faster descenders than I). Otherwise they’d come screaming past me in the second half of the race.
So I went.
I stopped walking the hills, pumped the arms and just cranked it. Funnily enough the summit was only a few hundred metres away which meant that I could just accelerate over it and (hopefully) disappear into the distance from my competitors. (This is a mental technique my former coach, Steve Plowman, taught me to use in cross country—apologies, Steve, for giving away any trade secrets!)
Luckily, instead of hitting a straight downhill all the way to the finish we had undulating terrain for the next 7km with a net downhill of 300m—meaning I could still gun it on the flats and uphills while doing my best to not face-plant too much on the descents (I had a total of three falls, one of which involved a stick ripping through into the mesh of my shoe and breaking off to leave part of the stick inside of my shoe for the rest of the race).
For the next 7km, I gunned the downhill, gunned the uphill and gunned the flats. but it took it’s toll. I had no idea how far back the others were behind me, so I just kept hammering it. There were no distance markers. I had no idea how long it was to the finish so I just kept hammering it. Without splits and with constantly changing terrain I had no ability to gauge my pace and effort. Metaphorically, I went through a whole box of matches in that middle section.
At 1 hour 30mins I was toast.
THE RACE: DOWNHILL
The thirty five minutes of hard running on root ridden, slippery, constantly up and down trails had finished me. I started to ease up.
After five minutes of easier running I looked around and saw second place flying downhill towards me. If he came past I knew I would have no answer. We had hit a muddy section of the course and I had zero traction. I was running on ice. And based on last year’s race times I was still 30mins from home. There was no way I could hold him off.
But just in time, we came to another undulating section and joined up with runners who were completing the long and medium courses (we were on the super long course). The break from the downhill allowed me to focus again on my strengths and dodging the other runners one-by-one provided a much needed distraction (sorry to the girl who I almost bowled over—one of us must’ve misunderstood “on your left”, not sure who, I was in a blur!).
Much of the last 5k was downhill on a wide 4WD track, but not too steep that it was super technical. I was managing to hold my lead, just.
THE RACE: VISIT TO THE WELL
The groaning had started. My “on your left” or “on your right” calls became increasingly inaudible and slurred. And just when I thought I could smell the sausages cooking at the finish line, I turned the corner to read a Total Sport (the race organisers) saying, “One More Chance for Glory” (or something along those lines). Essentially it meant more hills. Not what I needed.
My “staircase” measuring rule for walking had been tossed out and replaced with a “walk most hills” approach. My efforts would be only on the flats. It was all I could do to hold onto first place, but second place was closing fast.
Before the finish there were three gate crossings. I jumped the first two (and my legs almost gave way beneath me) and then took the stile on the last gate just to make sure I didn’t finish the race in a heap next to a farm gate. Turning at the stile, I could see second back about 30m. Just 30m!
Over this final hurdle, there was only about 400m to run on a slight downhill. I could hear the music and MC at the finish line. I opened the lungs for one last push and stumbled across the line for the win.
Hands on knees, my head spinning, I staggered (full on wobbly legs) delirious through the finish zone. The MC interviewed me (I have know idea what I said), some how my transponder was removed from my shoes, and I double-gammie-legged my way to the electrolyte table.
After several cups of electrolyte replacement I zigzagged (seriously, my legs were so gone!) into the queue for free gourmet sausages. Usually I love even a cheap snarler after a race, but this time I got a whiff of cooking animal fat and almost vomited all over the BBQ as they handed me the sausage. Luckily, I just caught the electrolyte projectile in the back of my throat. So I left the sausage untouched and instead made my way over to first aid.
I’ve woken up in ED twice before after races and today I was feeling similar signs. So I let them know my medical background and what usually needs to happen if I collapse. 20 minutes here eating gels and electrolytes with my wife (a nurse) and her workmate (also a nurse) on hand, I was in safe hands. Sugar, salt and liquids did the trick.
I’ve only been pushed myself this hard on a few occasions and as such my first foray into trail racing has taught me a few lessons:
- Don’t enter a race as a “training run”.
- When racing on roads, use road gear; when racing on trails, use trail gear.
- Harden up and attack the downhills like you’re being chased by zombies.
- Study the course so you know where the uphill and downhill sections are, know how to gauge efforts, and to have a clearer idea of distances left to run.
- Take on board a little more fluid than road races (my feeling is that the uphills have greater sweat demands).
Thanks Total Sport for a great event and I’d recommend all runners to give at least one of these races a go each winter. There are two left this season (more details here). And a huge well done to Sam Manson who pushed me ridiculously hard and looked a whole heap fresher than I did on the finish line! Photos care of www.Photos4Sale.co.nz.
Did you run this race? How did it go? Share your experiences below (feel free to include links to your own blog posts).
Overall Results for the Super Long Race:
1. Hayden Shearman – 1:53:27
2. Sam Manson – 1:53:36
3. Chris Morrison – 1:56:13
4. Nico de Jong – 1:58:39
5. Owen Warburton – 1:59:55
While you’re here, why not have a read of some my other recent race reports: