Two days ago, Saturday 9 January 2016, I ran 55.5 kilometers. In one go. On one day. On my own. It took 8 1/2 hours, and involved a mixture of on and off road running, and lots of up and down hills, but I did it. I completed it. ME.
Physically, it was probably the toughest thing I have had to do in my life. To be on my feet for 8.5 hours, climb mountains, eat and drink on the go, push through the annoyances of my socks falling down, the sun beating down, the wind trying to throw me off the Skyline, and having to continue to pick up one foot after another and keep going. I had an average pace of 9:11. I climbed a total elevation of 2,317m with a big climb of 435m between 0:40 and 1:20. My last two kilometers on the flat were an average of 6:42 and 6:26, which meant I finished strong.
Mentally, on the other hand, the run itself wasn’t that tough. Even three hours in, knowing I had 4 1/2 hours to go, I didn’t feel any mental anguish or self-doubt, nor a feeling that I wanted to stop or couldn’t go on. That’s the funny thing, once I started, I knew I could do it. I kept thinking “You’ve got this”, not because I needed to reassure myself, but because I knew that to be a fact. I was off on an adventure, to tackle something big, to achieve something many others would never and could never do. All of that helped fuel me mentally.
Convincing myself to go for the run, however, was the hardest thing I have mentally had to do. To overcome the fear, the self doubt, the little voices in my head saying I couldn’t do it. Mentally preparing myself for the 8 1/2 hours I was going to be out there for – and the big questions of “What if I can’t do it? What if I give up? If it hurts too much? What if I want to…or have to stop? Why am I doing this?”. I also worried about whether it was a good idea to do such a big run in the lead up to a 62km race – I had heard a lot about splitting a long run over two consecutive days, to help prevent injury. And that you should only ever do 80% of distance in the lead up to an event. Weren’t those smarter strategies?
I spoke to Greig (who set up my training plan, has provided me with all my strength work and has so much amazing knowledge and experience with running (short distances and ultras too) that he is an inspiration to learn from) about whether 8 1/2 hours on one day was a good idea, and whether I could do it, or if I could split it into two days. His answer was simple (and I paraphrase):
Are you running the race on consecutive days? No. You are doing it on one day. You can do this. Stop doubting yourself. Simulate race day.
Once you do this, you can do anything.
With those words of (strong) encouragement, I knew I couldn’t back down, there was no way out and I had to hold myself accountable. But still, even once I convinced myself that it was a good idea to run for 8 1/2 hours, I had to get over the self doubt and fear of that amount of time and the distance (and hills).
So how did I mentally convince myself I could do it?
As well as discussing it with Greig, I spoke to my partner Rob about it numerous times (who of course offered endless support) and discussed it with two other runners in Wellington who have both completed the Tarawera Ultra – I had coffee with Emma the day before and chatted with Alan in the days leading up via Facebook. I personally think both Emma and Alan are amazing runners, their knowledge, advice and experience has been so helpful and forthcoming, and (little do they know but) they have both been part of my inspiration to run Tarawera and to believe in myself and my ability – so thank you.
I mapped out my potential route (see here), I wrote out a fuel plan, I looked up how much water, sodium and calories to take in while running, I baked some energy bars to take with me, I even picked out a Lululemon singlet to reward myself with once it was done. I checked the weather about 15 times a day in the lead up and I made sure I got a lot of rest the night before.
Then, Saturday morning, I woke up at 5am, ate breakfast, prepared my bag, my food, and set out at 6:30am. Going to sleep the night before scared me, waking up in the morning and getting out of bed was a hurdle in itself. Even the first few steps I took outside my apartment, to begin the run, the self-doubt continued to be present. It was only once I ran about 500m down the road, I saw the beautiful sun rising over the harbor, the blue skies, and I pressed play on my Sydney Marathon playlist (cue M83 “My Tears are Becoming a Sea”) did it all disappear, and did I start running with conviction and confidence. With a smile on my face, knowing that whatever the day had for me, I could take it.
The plan was simple – run from home, along Old Hutt Road, to Khandallah, up to the top of Mt Kaukau, along the Skyline to Karori, join up with Makara Mountain Biking Park and run to the top of Makara Peak, down some trails and then fill up my water before heading to Wrights Hill. Turn around at 4.25 hours and go home – if I wasn’t quite there yet, then continue from Wrights Hill along the Sanctuary (by Zealandia) towards Red Rocks, and go as far as I could until I hit 4.25 hours).
And it wasn’t 8 1/2 hours of 100% running – my training plan said “Run: Walk (25:5) x 8.5 hours”. I stuck to this for the first two hours, which meant that I ran up the hill from Old Hutt Road to Khandallah (a mini mental and physical victory in itself), I ran up the trails to Mt Kaukau, and I ran down hills in Makara. Towards the end I also ran down Mt Kaukau and down from Khandallah to town (approximately a 324m loss in elevation) which was a good way to test my knees, especially 7 1/2 hours in. I ate every 30-45 minutes (starting from 60 minutes – only water/SOS in the first 60 minutes), with a pattern of gel-food-gel-food, with my food being a mixture of fruit (orange and banana), peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and homemade ‘Glo bars’ from Oh She Glows (a site with AMAZING plant based recipes).
However, things don’t always go to plan. I reached Makara at about 2:45, and I thought “I’ve really got this, I just have to make it to the bottom, spend some time refilling my water and then I can actually make it to Wrights Hill!”. However…I made two mistakes. I didn’t take a photo of the trail map, and I went down the only trails I knew – which were one way trails (going up), so when I reached the bottom of one trail, there was no sign telling me where to go next. I then took a wrong turn…and went on a crazy big loop in the middle of no where. I was out of water, I was tired, I needed to eat but needed to drink more. I lost my hat. It was hot. I didn’t want to go on. My run that was going so well was falling apart. And what was worse – I didn’t know how to escape, how to get out, if I could. My phone didn’t have signal, there were no other people, no houses, no streets. I was in complete and total despair.
So what did I do? I sat down, and cried. I cried my heart out. I swore. I even thought about having a small sip of water from the river I was that desperate. I had a million thoughts going on in my head, and started to feel sorry for myself. Sorry for my poor tired body, my thirsty mouth, my fuel-hungry brain, and realized that my emotional toughness just wasn’t there. Mentally and physically I was succeeding, but my emotions were totally taking over.
So I walked – the only way I could make myself keep going in that heat, and with the lack of water and lack of any direction, was to tell myself to keep going. A lot of Makara is walking, and stopping, and crying, so it took me quite some time to get out. But I finally found my way back to the place I took a wrong turn (ironically it was called the “Missing Loop” trail) and found my way to a map, with a couple on mountain bikes. The girl gave me some of her water (and I am still so thankful to her for that, it helped pull me out of the dark emotional hole I was falling into) and the guy told me to follow the 4WD road, which would lead me to the main road, and then to Karori Park. I did – and I soon escaped. I got to Karori Park, slowly, with small steps, and little energy, but as soon as I saw houses I felt so elated and so happy – I was back on track.
I used the bathroom, washed my face, refilled my water bottles, drank a bottle of SOS and filled it up again and then ate a sandwich, and set off again, slow but steady, disheartened but refreshed, reinvigorated, with a refocused sense of purpose.
Once I set off again, I knew that I needed that dark moment in Makara. I needed to feel emotional, partially helpless and sorry for myself. There may be moments like that on race day, and it’s better to experience it now for the first time and pick myself up, than experience it for the first time on the day. It definitely made me stronger, and I was so proud that I was able to push through it. It made the run more meaningful, particularly when running down Mt Kaukau and Cashmere Ave/Onslow Road down to the flat.
And once I finished, so many emotions. I was running along the waterfront, and had just run over the bridge between Frank Kitts Park and the Te Papa…and my watch hit 8:30. I stopped. I firstly felt relieved. Relieved, happy, elated. And then above all – I felt astonishment and disbelief for the fact that I had just completed that seemingly impossible run. I had a HUGE smile on my face, and all I wanted to do was go to Oriental Parade and jump in the ocean. It was the kind of happiness that I want to last forever.
I texted Rob to let him know I was done, and within 2 minutes I had someone run up behind me and give me a huge hug! He had come down to surprise me, and bring me a towel for after I had jumped in the ocean. I had never been so happy to see him before in my life. I gave him the biggest hug in the world, and cried. Happy tears. Winning tears. Tears of thanks and gratitude. I felt so thankful to him for being there, supporting me, and to all other around me who have supported me in small and large ways, even if they don’t know it. And thankful that not only did I overcome the little voices in my head telling me I couldn’t do it, but I had new voices in my head saying “You got this.”