Category Archives: From the Heart

Blog posts without photos, that are rather reflections about my travels or something I have seen or done. Posts from the heart

10km? That’s nothing for you!

Sometimes there are downsides to sharing your running achievements, your aspirations, your goals.  When people know that you have run a half marathon, a marathon or an ultra, they base any other distance off that event.  “You ran a marathon and are now training for a 10km? What do you mean you haven’t trained, you just ran 42km you can run a 10km EASILY!”

The first thing going on in your head is “oh my god stop talking…it is sooooo different.”

People don’t do it out of spite or ill will.  But if you don’t run, if you haven’t trained for different events, it is difficult to grasp the concept that just because you ran a 60km or 100km event one weekend does not mean that is a normal occurrence for you.  That was the goal.  Now the event is complete, it won’t come around for a while.  It doesn’t help your training, confidence, or general happiness to hear “How many thousand kilometers did you run this morning?” when actually you slept in and didn’t do any exercise because you are no longer having to adhere to a regimented training plan.  And when you change from 100km to 10km races, it is a completely different ballgame.  Yes, you go into a 10km run without fear of whether or not your legs will hold for the entire 10 kilometers.  You know that they will.  But you want to run fast.  To do well.  To RUN a 10km race, not simply run 10km as if it was a warm up for the 100km option.

And this is one reason that for some people, it is difficult to bounce back after an event, why the post-race blues are a real thing.  People’s expectations are all around you.  No matter how hard you push them away, they nag at you, they find their way into your thought processes and affect your confidence.  Of course, when you are training, all you can do is talk about that, and you are proud when people ask how your training is going, what you did that day, giving you opportunities to show off.  So we should expect that to continue, for people to be interested and make conversation out of it.  For three or so months leading up to an event that was ALL you talked about.  Seriously, the only thing.  When asked your plans for the weekend, you say “Well I have a friend’s birthday party on Friday but because I have a 7 hour run on Saturday morning, I am going to have an early night on Friday and pop in for one, non-alcoholic, beverage.  I will then have a sports massage, go to yoga, the boy and I are having a date night on the couch (again, because I will likely be tired from my 7 hour run) and on Sunday just the vege market and chores, and a 45 minute recovery run.”

However, when that is no longer your life, when you have a break, your response is much different…and when people expect  you to go on a long run, to still be an ‘athlete’, it changes your perception about yourself.  You are no longer living up to the expectations of others.  And their expectations, the expectations of third parties, become your own expectations.  “Hell yeah I was a hard-core runner, I was an athlete, I was a machine. I wish I was like that…I wish I looked like that…I wish I could do that still.”

This is something I struggle with after every event, and post-Tarawera, it has been a long struggle.  I have tried to focus on other things apart from running, but the expectations still linger.  I’m currently lucky to run twice per week and gym twice per week, whereas when I was training, I was exercising about 10 to 12 times per week (running, gyming and yoga).  Part of that is life being busy, part of that is my attempt to focus on other aspects of life, other priorities that fell to the side when training took over.  Trying to have a more balanced life, see friends, spend time with family, travel, and not take life so seriously.  But still, the guilt and the sense of shame that I am not running as much, lingers.

But you know what…who cares.  Who cares about what others think. What their expectations are.  Be happy that people ask, that they care, that they are making conversation about one of your passions and hobbies.  That they actually listen and keep up to date with what you do.  And take pleasure in the fact that you did something amazing, you ran 5km, 10km, a marathon…you did that.  And you can do it again.  When you want.  When you choose to.  Don’t let others get you down, focus on you and what you want.  And learn to confidently say “Oh I didn’t go for a run this weekend, I’m having a break” or “I’m focusing on other things”.  And don’t be scared of starting again…of living up to your expectations and the standards you set previously.  It is a journey, it will always be, whether you have a break or keep going.  For me, I am jumping back on the train, slowly.  Slowly learning to deal with my own expectations and the pressure I put on myself to be the best.  Because at the end of the day, you only need to care about how you view yourself, what you think of yourself, not what anyone else thinks.

So, where is this rant going? That’s right…training for a 10km.  Yes.  I ran the 10km event in the Wellington Marathon a few weeks ago.  I had planned on training hard for it, to aim for a PB of 42 minutes.  My fasted 10km was in February 2014, the Round the Bays, and I completed it in 45:35.  It was tough but good.  I had completed my first marathon two months prior, had a few weeks off, and then did a few weeks of speed training to try to improve my speed for the event.  I wanted sub-45 minutes, so I was thrilled really.

This time, work and life took over.  In the three months leading up to the event, I ran probably a handful of times.  I hadn’t done much speed work at all, and most of my runs were longer trail runs on the weekend.  I got sick the two weeks before, and it was cold, so my asthma was acting up more than usual. And on the morning of the 10km, I didn’t want to do it.  I stood in the living room, looking out the window, and said to Rob “I don’t want to go. But I have to, because people will ask how I did, and I don’t want to say I didn’t do it.”  That was one reason I went.  But the main reason, the main way I convinced myself to go out the door, was I finally got to that point of thinking “Who cares.”  I decided to just treat it as any old run, put on some good music, go for a run, enjoy it, see who else is out there running and wave to them.  Don’t feel pressure, just go and do it for the love of it.  (Of course I had to set a small goal – just keep running, don’t stop, even if it hurts, slow down, don’t feel any shame).

IMG_2268And that is what I did.  It was glorious.  I ran with feeling, not according to my watch (which was good because my watch decided to stop working around 2km in, joining the 2nd and 3rd km as one, so my total distance ended up being 9.10 km instead of 10km, skewing my pace slightly!).  I looked at all the other runners around me, played mind games about keeping up with certain people, saw a number of friends out there running and waved to them and cheered them on.  I listened to some music, bopped along to the beats while running, and when I turned around at the half way point I thought ‘Game on.’  I finished with a negative split, I ran my heart out on the way home to the stadium.  I enjoyed it.  I ran with a smile on my face.  I didn’t care what the world thought of me, what my time would be, all I knew was that I was running in a sea of people and it felt wonderful.  I was alive.  I was flying.  And the best thing of all, I was back.  Jen Howes, running machine (in my mind at least) was back.

And a nice surprise – I finished in 48:07.  I was the 35th female finisher out of 638 (in the top 5%) and 140 out of 1,091 overall finishers (top 15%).  And 18 out of 135 in my age group (F20 to F39).  So I was slower than my PB, but I still ran a mean race.  And still finished in the top.

10km time copyKeep in mind split my watch played up during the first few km, so the first two km are actually 3…I didn’t run the 2nd km in 8:44…10km copyI probably wouldn’t have had that finish had I gone in with all the pressures I had been feeling.  But I tried to let it all go, I went back to basics, running because I wanted to, and I believe that is why I got that time.  I also know that I can do better, and 48 minutes without much training is epic.  If I put my mind to it, i can definitely get below 45 minutes, and who knows, 42, 41 or even 40 minutes one day.  But for now, I am happy knowing that mentally I overcame that roadblock.  That I went out there and just did it.  And hopefully, I can hold onto that feeling, and hold onto what it resulted in – a great time in the scheme of things, in the scheme of all other runners that went out there, that believes in themselves and truly pushed themselves.  I was part of that, and that is something truly special.

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Staying lean when training for an endurance event

One of my mini goals that I set, when I decided to run Tarawera, was to not gain weight while training. To stay lean (and to look lean).  To look and perform like an athlete. Other mini goals included (the most important one of) not getting injured and also to be a ‘better’ vegan, to recommit to cutting out dairy and eggs, and to also 100% commit to no meat.

I’m really happy to say that I achieved all of those mini goals. I worked really hard last year on my running technique, my lower body strength and transitioning from a heel striker to a fore foot runner.  I progressed gradually, listened to my body and have spent a lot of time with my foam roller and in the yoga studio.  As a result, I have not been injured or had to see a physiotherapist at all in the past year and a half.

I have also returned to veganism at home and 95% of the time while I am out – which in turn has helped with the first mini goal – to not gain weight/to lose fat and gain lean body mass – because it is so difficult to eat out and socialize as a vegan, I socialize less, drink less, snack less (I used to be so guilty of mindless nibbling at cheese plates!) and in turn that means less temptation, and more chance for cooking nutritious wholesome meals at home.

I also saw a nutritionist when I decided to run Tarawera – to talk about this goal of not gaining weight, of decreasing fat, increasing lean body mass, and ensuring a ate well given the hard work I was going to be doing. I saw Becky Jones at Food Savvy – she specializes in sports nutrition so understood my needs, my questions and was very vegetarian/vegan friendly.

Two great things came out of my nutritionist appointment:

  1. I learned to constantly consider how much protein I am getting each meal, and to ensure I eat enough.  I learned how much protein was in each serving of food, and found I actually was not eating enough! So every day, particularly after a run or hard workout, I made sure I ate enough protein.  This actually meant decreasing the vegetables, rice and pasta I was otherwise eating – I originally thought I would still be hungry after, but vegetarian forms of protein (chickpeas, lentils, tofu, quinoa) fill me up so much that since eating more protein, I feel fuller without feeling heavy or like I overate.
  2. I learned to think of food as nutrients.  As building blocks and a foundation for my training.  Everything I eat needs to have a purpose – candy, alcohol, chocolate – not only are those full of calories but they are empty calories – they don’t give you protein or good fat – they just add up without any benefit.  So I learned to think of my food as fuel, both to help me have enough energy and fuel to get through a workout, but also so that I was not consuming unnecessary and empty calories that would lead to fat gain, or fat retention.

After focusing on the above two, it became (relatively) easy to make sure I did not put on weight during training.  I also found the MyFitnessPal iPhone app to be incredibly helpful in ensuring my intake did not exceed my output – making sure I did not eat too much during or after a workout, that I was actually taking in more calories than I was burning in any day. MyFitnessPal, plus the above two lessons from Becky, and a strong focus on this mini goal – I was away!

Now, why this goal of mine?

To be honest, I’ve never been ‘fat’ or large, but like many people (men and women) I’ve never felt truly happy with my body. In high school and university, I was somewhat active, and was generally a size 10 (US 6). I’ve always been that, even after I started really getting into exercise and gyming lots, I always kind of stayed that size, and a similar weight. I would ‘lose weight’ (fat) when training intensely, but the minute I started training for a marathon I would seem to put it back on again. I was training more, so I was eating more.  I was putting all my energy into running, so I was doing less strength and resistance work, and not very much high intensity interval/metabolic work.  I always thought ‘I am running 30km today, surely I will go down a dress size this week’. But it never happened.

I also got injured during training, for both of my marathons, so of course I then exercised less (due to injury) and probably put my energy into eating instead.  I also was not thinking too much about getting sufficient protein, fats, carbs etc. I wasn’t thinking of food as building blocks, as fuel for my exercise.

I never thought I was fat or overweight or not happy, I just knew I was not loving my body, always wished I could tuck a bit in here and there, and I hated wearing jeans. Weird fact about me – I never wore jeans in university, or even my first year of working. I didn’t own a pair of dress pants/suit pants.  I owned several pairs of jeans – I don’t know why though.  I never weared them. I HATED them. Hated how I felt in them and how I looked in them. I just never felt thin enough. And post-Sydney marathon in 2014, looking at the photos of me before the race, during the race and after – I didn’t like how untoned I was.  In my mind, didn’t look like I actually was an athlete. I at least didn’t look like the athlete I saw in my head – my view of me wasn’t reality.  To me, I didn’t look like I was someone who could run 42.2 kilometers in a good time. I put so much work and effort into training for a marathon – why didn’t I look like it!!

Back to my mini goal – wanting to stay lean or become more lean while training for Tarawera – it honestly wasn’t about having a flat stomach or a small waist or getting down to55 or 58 kg. It was about looking like an athlete and feeling like an athlete. Performing well on the day and not carrying any unnecessary fat with me over the finish line. The number on the scales don’t matter, but the fat and lean body mass percentages do. The more fat you have and the less LBM, the less muscle you have to utilize to help propel you forward. The slower you are. The longer it will take to cross the finish line. Just because you have more fat on your body. I wanted to run as fast as possible and become as much of a machine as possible – so that meant trying to get rid of unnecessary fat and build more LBM – more muscles to make me stronger, faster and better.

Of course, I also wanted to look good in the post-run photos, to not be worrying afterwards about the angle I was standing, whether I need to hold my hand against my hip so my arms look more lean, to suck my stomach in…all those things play some part. I wanted to look like I worked out, like I gymed, like I could run 60km in a heartbeat.  I wanted my training to be reflected in my day to day life.

But really, at the heart of it, I just wanted to run the 60km the best I could. And push my body to see what it really could achieve. Could I get lean while training for an ultra marathon? Could I do that on a vegan diet? Could I do that while working a (sometimes crazy) full time job? Could I also get through the holiday season with self-control – watching my cake, candy and alcohol intake? All of it was a challenge.

And my results?

A challenge that I overcame. And won at. I went from a size 10 to a size 6-8 (US 2-4).  I went from 20% body fat to 12% in 14 months (10-15% is what many professional female long distance runners have…men will have below 10%).  And I own three pairs of jeans, three pairs of pants, and I love to wear them.  And honestly, besides the gains (or, losses really) in my body measurements and skin fold measurements, I felt so much happier and healthier mentally.  Happy, inside and  out.  Because while I am happy with my body, I am happy because I got there, I achieved it, I got there through hard work, through eating and living a healthy life, through improving and watching my nutrition, through sweat and tears – not starvation.  I feel strong, lean and like a real athlete.

How did I do it?

  • I cut back on alcohol – I had one or two at Friday night drinks, and one or two on the weekend.  I didn’t have any alcohol during the week and even over Christmas and New Years I refrained.  I offered to sober drive, and I made a lot of iced tea and drank sparkling water.  It was hard to start with, but after two months, I stopped really craving or wanting a drink.  Once a glass of wine after a long week no longer became my reward, I didn’t need it as much.
  • I also stopped going to Friday night drinks – so I could avoid the chips, the cheese and crackers, the other nibbles that I didn’t need and didn’t do my body or muscles any good.
  • I made sure I always had a good breakfast:
    • During the week = Oatmeal with 1/2 scoop of protein powder, soy milk and a banana
    • Pre-long run = Two pieces of Burgen toast, peanut butter and banana (or jam)
    • Sunday = I would no longer treat myself to a scone, to dumplings, to pancakes or brunch out – I started eating brunch/breakfast at home – a smoothie, eggs on toast (before I cut out eggs again), scrambled tofu, baked oatmeal
  • I made sure I didn’t over eat following a long run.  My go to meal post-run would be one of the following:
    • Scrambled tofu with mushrooms, avocado and toast
    • Green smoothie with protein powder added in
  • I kept up my resistance and strength work at the gym – two upper body/ab sessions per week, on top of my running program.
  • I tried to avoid processed carbs such as pasta, pizza, bread (except for Burgen bread, before or after a long run only), scones, muffins, croissants, cookies, cake, etc.
  • I kept an eye on the scales and how my clothes fit, how my muscles felt, how much energy I had.  I found that if I ‘fell off the wagon’ – I would feel worse the next day. So I just focused on the fact that every day was a training day, every day I needed to feel good.  And that it was three months – three months and then I could go back to eating and doing whatever I wanted…if I wanted to.

Before the run, I did semi deprive myself of food (processed foods, alcohol, snacks etc) but as a result, I no longer want the foods I used to crave.  I don’t feel bad about a beer, wine or piece of chocolate every so often, but I no longer binge or feel the need to.  I often have sparkling water instead of beer or wine.  I cook and eat delicious meals at home on a daily basis.  I have experimented with a range of different recipes and ingredients.  I’ve proved my old personal trainer wrong (he was adamant I would have to eat meat to get any muscle definition or to get ‘lean’).  I love how I look, how I feel and how my body moves and functions.  And I love feeling so strong and knowing that my sheer determination and willpower got me here.  Apart from this blog post, and several conversations with my PT, and with my partner, it has been a personal journey, an internal challenge, to learn to love myself and to feel happy in my own skin.  And to get to a point where not only do I love my body, but I do not have anxiety about losing it, about having a piece of chocolate or a glass of wine – I don’t freak out that doing so will undo all my hard work.  I have learned to let go a bit more – something I have always struggled with in the past.

And now that Tarawera is behind me, and my next goals are a wee way away, I am trying to keep it up.  It is of course a struggle now I am no longer doing 50+ km a week.  But it just means that I can focus on the gym, on healthy eating but also healthy living.  We went paddle boarding recently, something I wanted to do while training for Tarawera, but it was an ‘after Tarawera’ activity.  Seeing friends more often.  Having a piece of cake every so often.  Sleeping in and watching Game of Thrones.  Going on slower more social runs and not caring about time or distance.  Travelling, doing winery tours without any guilt.  I can’t say that I have found the perfect balance – finding that balance is always going to be a struggle for me.

I am an all or nothing kind of person – I struggle with balance.  If I have chocolate, I will eat an entire block, but if I focus too much on dieting or healthy eating, I become dangerously focused in that area too.  But do not fear, I am not about to go on a juice or smoothie diet, and am not about to eat lettuce and tomato and nothing else.  My nutritionist taught me better, and my experiences have proved better too.  It will always be a struggle, but that is part of the fun – who wants to be one shape or size or ability forever – we need change and strive for change in order to measure our success.  Whether it is to bench press a certain amount, perform one unassisted pull up, run 5km, 50km or fit into a sleek dress for an event – working towards and achieving that goal is part of the journey.  The sacrifices become worth it.  Or at least that is what we tell ourselves!

Race Report: Tarawera 62.7km

On 6 February 2016, I completed the Tarawera Ultra Marathon.  It was my first ultra. I came out mostly unscathed, albeit muddy, drenched, tired, with two small blisters, minor chafing under my arms from the last hour of running in the rain and some scratches on my right ankle from nearly falling down a bank into the river.  But I was (somehow) full of smiles and laughs, having conquered 62.7km in tough conditions on a tough day.

It is two weeks later, and I am still somewhat speechless about the experience.  When I crossed the finish line, and even the day following, I was completely overwhelmed.  My thoughts were scattered, between “oh my gosh did I just do that” and “that was incredible” to “that was terrible why on earth did I sign up to this” and “thank god it is over”.  Over the following days, people would ask me how it went.  I changed from “it was tough” to “it went well” and then eventually to “really good”, “great” and “amazing”.  But at the same time, I struggle to find much more to say about it, because it was such a huge day, a huge experience and such a huge effort that I can’t truly put into words what it felt like and what it meant to me.

IMG_0904I know it happened, I know I did it.  I crossed that finish line – I have the medal to prove it.  But I’m still struggling to connect my memories with the detail from that day, the detail of each hour, each kilometer, what happened, how I felt, what the course looked like and what I experienced.  A lot of the day is a blur, where it merged into one, and I have little flashes of parts of the day.  Running an ultra puts your body and mind under such extreme stress, that of course you can’t have a perfect memory of what happened.

All I know is that it took me 9 hours, 33 minutes and 10 seconds to run the entire 62.7km.  This was longer than my goal (my secret personal goal was under eight hours, the goal I told people was between eight and nine).  But you know what?  I finished. That was the main goal – to complete the race, to make it across the finish line pain free, to survive.  To mentally and physically push through, and to prove to myself that I was capable of pushing my body to the brink, and that I was capable of testing my limits and joining the ultra community.  Of doing something I had never done before – a trail event, an ultra marathon, an event involving hills! Eating food while running, and enjoying beautiful New Zealand scenery along the way (professional photos that show off parts of the course can be found here).

TUM_2016_004520A lot of people didn’t finish – they either didn’t start or didn’t make it over the finish line.  There was a tropical storm to battle with that meant flights were delayed or cancelled.  The forecast in the week leading up to the race was wet – rain rain and more rain.  I kept hoping the rain would pass, but it was not to be.  I am more of a tropical person, who thrives running in the heat and sun.  So I was disappointed about the rain forecast.

The rain also meant that we were required to carry compulsory gear – seam sealed jackets…another worry of mine.  I had a jacket that I was 95% sure was seam sealed, but I didn’t want to be pulled out half way through the race because the volunteers didn’t agree with me.  My jacket was also a bit heavy, and I wanted to have as light of a pack as possible.  I had nightmares about my jacket and the fact that it might not be sufficient.  I even showered in it for 10 minutes to see whether it was truly seam sealed (and it appeared to be…the water didn’t penetrate through!).  But still…I didn’t want to risk it.  So I splashed out on a $300 Marmot running jacket at the expo the day before the race (I saved $100…totally justifiable).  A big spend, but it put my mind completely at ease.  Totally worth it, just for that mental element.

Me in my sweet new jacketAnd because it had rained the day before the race, and the morning of, this meant a LOT of mud.  I hadn’t trained in mud, and many people (including me) struggled with it.  I had trained in rain, in the wind, in the sunshine, in the dark, on trails, on road, flat and hilly…but I hadn’t combined rain, dark, trails and hills all in one.  It slowed me down in sections, I almost lost a shoe once or twice, and I had to take extra care when running over some of the flatter muddy parts.  Don’t get me wrong it was fun at times – it made it more of an adventure and also gave my mind something to focus on.  But it also meant that some downhill sections were dangerous, with people sliding and falling over. The course essentially became a slip and slide at points, and while I managed to stay upright the whole way through, there were a few near misses.  We also had the heat and humidity to battle against…like I said above, it was a tough day.

Tarawera course copyBefore I get any further I will clarify one thing, something I didn’t know or think about prior to training for an ultra: I did not run the entire 62.7km.  I was not ‘running’ for 9 1/2 hours.  I was at aid stations for portions of it.  And I did walk sections. Everyone walked sections.  It is a ‘run’ but that definitely doesn’t mean you are ‘running’ the entire time.

Also – no one told me there would be THAT MANY HILLS.  I knew there would be hills, but there were so many of them.  So many ups.  So many downs.  Just over 2,000 meters worth.  I think I was willfully ignorant of the course because had I known and understood what the course would involve, I never would have signed up.  Hills for days.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile of the course. A + 2,043 metre (6,702 ft) vertical gain and – 2,177 metre (7,142 ft) vertical loss.

In terms of my preparation, I went into the race feeling so much fitter, stronger and happier than I had ever been for another event.  I had trained really well.  I was thrilled with my training.  I had put so much effort and time into it and had really dedicated three months to training.  As part of this, I had built up a strong level of lower body strength.  I worked on my weaknesses.  I ran various different trails.  I had even run 55km a few weeks previously and had gotten my nutrition on track.  I had trialed a number of different foods to determine what worked and what didn’t.  I had logged hundreds of hours of training.  I had gone through some stressful moments where my work life, my personal life and the demands of training were all too much, but I came through the other end stronger and more determined.

I had previously experienced a dark moment during my 55km run where I stopped, sat down and cried, and didn’t think I could go on.  But I had survived that moment, and I thought my mind was as tough as it could ever be.  I had stuck to my training plan 95% – which I was incredibly proud of (no one sticks to a training plan 100%!).  I made myself do nearly everything Greig told me to do, even though I disliked some of the plyometric jumping exercises, I was forced to run on days where it was hot (and I would have preferred to be at the beach) or raining or when there was 100km/hour gale wind.  I was so prepared, and I went into the race with that mentality of “you can do this, your mind and body is ready.”

In a nutshell: It was a tough day, but an amazing day.  I had my dark moments, but not nearly as dark as I expected.  I realized that my mind isn’t as tough as I had expected – that nothing can properly prepare your mind for an ultra marathon.  But in saying that, I also had some amazing highs and great experiences.  While I was disappointed to have taken 9 hours 33 minutes to finish, I had to remind myself “You signed up.  You ran it.  You finished.  You are amazing – who cares about the time!”  It was also my first ultra marathon.  And my first off road event.  And really, to put my time into perspective, I was 19th woman out of 132 that finished.  I was 101 out of 322 men and women finishers.  The 19th woman last year finished in 8 hours 32.    So I feel pretty great about that.  I was in the top 30% of all participants, and the top 15% of women finishers.

IMG_0952So in light of that background, for those who are interested, here goes my attempt at recollecting that day:

The night before:  Race jitters.

After attending the race expo, registering, attending a race briefing (where the overall message was: be prepared for rain and bring compulsory gear), checking out the start line and taking it pretty easy otherwise, I realize that I need to wake up at 4am.  That meant that dinner needed to be eaten around 6pm, and ideally we would be asleep at 9pm.  I cook dinner around 6:30pm: a tofu, broccoli and mushroom stir fry, with quinoa, washing it down with lots of water and electrolyte drink.  Hydration hydration hydration.

I received text and facebook messages of good luck – I can’t thank everyone who messaged me enough.  It was so uplifting to go into the event knowing I had so much love and support around me.  It helped tremendously.  I also received a message from my Mom about my race number – it was the same as her birthday.  So that in itself made it a bit more special, as I felt like I was carrying a piece of her with me along the day.

IMG_0919I set out everything I need in the morning, having already packed and sent off a drop bag for the Okataina aid station (which had clean socks, a fresh buff, a change of shorts, singlet, underwear, extra gels, extra frooze balls, face wipes).  I didn’t want to forget anything so I write a list of what I planned to eat on the day, ensuring I had enough.  I give a spare pair of socks to Rob for the Blue Lake aid station (if needed) and pack a bag of clothes for after the race.  I make sure my watch is charged, my iPhone playlist is up to date and I foam roll and stretch.  Then at 9pm, Rob and I hopped into bed, I watch part of a TV episode to try and keep my mind calm, and I was asleep around 9:30pm.

2am:   I wake up, wide awake, only to find I am awake too early…time to go back to sleep.

4am:  The alarm goes off.

I wake up, don’t want to get out of bed, one because it is so damn early, two because I am nervous about what the day will bring.  I finally get up, shower, and get dressed.  I taped my big toes to prevent blisters, put on sunscreen (just in case) and also the bracelet my sister gave me for my birthday, which is my name in morse code, and a little keepsake reminding me of her, to help me through any dark times I may experience.  I have a cup of coffee, two pieces of Burgen toast with peanut butter (one with jam the other with banana) and some water.  I watch part of an episode of The Bachelor to try and keep my mind off the race and to help me eat.  I make a PB&J sandwich (no crust), pack a banana into my pack, double, triple and quadruple check that I have everything I need. Hugs, photos and positive words are shared by all in our house as us three girls get ready for the 6am start.

IMG_09235:20am: Rob drives us to the start line.  The traffic is crazy, it is raining, and there are so many people.  I’m nervous but excited.  Not scared.  Not worried.  Just apprehensive.  Rob gives me a huge hug and gives me positive, uplifting and motivational support before he leaves me at the start line.

5:40am: I weave through the crowd towards the front of the pack…trying to get my Garmin watch to connect to the satellites.  No luck (tip for next time – connect it at the house the night before, and the morning before, not 20 minutes before the race amongst 1000 other runners trying to do the same thing).

I stand there nervously, keeping my legs moving, feeling the rain falling down.  Paul Charteris gives a safety message, and words of encouragement for the day.  I love the feeling at the start of a race.  My first marathon, in Jacksonville Florida, it was pitch black, and we all sang the national anthem.  It sent shivers up my spine.  At Tarawera, there is a Maori performance of sorts, and a buzz that you can almost feel it running through your body.  I’m no longer nervous, I’m excited.  I can’t wait to run off into the forest ahead.

IMG_09916am: We start.

It only takes about 30 seconds to get over the start line – some races it takes much longer.  We head off in a pack, and before I know it our flat section starts to go uphill.  We climb through native bush, up and down, and experience mud for the first time in the race.  People’s spirits are high, there is laughing, joking, talking, people are going at full speed ahead (me included).  It is pitch black and our headlamps guide us.  My eyes surprisingly work well in the dark, probably because there are so many other headlamps around me.

After about 5.5km, I am forty (ish) minutes in, and my Garmin FINALLY connects and starts tracking my run.  We come out of the woods and throw our headlamps into a box.  We also see our first spectators – a group of people cheering us on.  I’m feeling good.

Hour 2:

We go back into the woods, and soon enough hit Blue Lake (about 10km in).  I’ve been running for about an hour and twenty minutes now.  There are more spectators, standing in the rain, with umbrellas and rain coats.  People cheering and saying “Go Jen”.  Rob is there too – so good to see a friendly face, even though at 10km, I don’t really need it.  Just nice to know he is there.  I then see the lake – man the lake looks huge.  I know it is only 5-6km around, but really, we have to run it all!

TUM_2016_007750We join up to well-formed walking tracks, which are slightly undulating, mostly narrow, and run the entire way around Blue Lake.  About 7/8 of the way around, we pop out at the road and there are volunteers checking our seam sealed jackets – Mine is in my bag, I have to stop and say “in the pack in the pack, that zipper!” hoping he doesn’t ask to take the entire jacket out and view it.  Luckily he pulls a portion out, and says I am good to go.  I keep running, reaching the Blue Lake aid station at 16.4km (which requires a few 100m running along the beach).

24901093855_4e47378093_oI grab a cup of water, I fill up one of my water bottles and grab a banana and a watermelon.  I then drop the banana and watermelon, so have to go back for more…I say hi to Rob (no real niceties here…it was “Hi, open this pocket, grab my SOS, don’t need socks, yes it’s wet, all going well.”  Poor thing) and kept running.  I am at two hours now. 

Hour 3 – Blue Lake to Millar Road (2:04 to 3:03):

This portion was a lot of road running… I begin to struggle mentally, knowing that I won’t see a familiar face until the very end, as Rob won’t be at any of the next aid stations.  That in itself is a blow that I have to get over.  It helps that there are people standing on the road and outside their houses cheering us on.  There are flat portions which are great, and I take this opportunity to push a bit harder.  I’m focused – the first 15km I was caught up by what was going on, now I focus internally to carry through and keep going.  I see a friendly face, Alan, and run up to him and say hello – we chat briefly, and it is nice to see someone I know.  He tells me to push on and not be held back by him, because my strength is the road (I remember to tell him later my strength isn’t road…it is flat, whether on road or off road!) but with those words I push off ahead, knowing how much off road running is to come.

TUM_2016_000893Millar Road aid station (22.8km) – three hours in:

I reach the Millar Road aid station.  It is manned by people dressed as Santa Clause – and it is such a party! I grab a cup of coke, deciding ‘why not’ and guzzle that down, just as a photographer is yelling “Jen Jen look here Jen!” (with me thinking “oh god please don’t take a photo of me eating or drinking coke!!!”.  However I look up and smile – laughing in the process.  It’s crazy how little things like that stick with you, and make your day.  Alan catches up as I am eating some watermelon and filling up my water.  We grab a photo with the photographer, and Alan sets off ahead of me.  I am soon after, running past Austin Powers before entering into the forest – I pass a sign that says 18 kilometers to go – mentally that sign and warning haunted me for the next portion, knowing how far there was to go with no one else around.

TUM_2016_000858Hours 3, 4 and 5 Millar Road to Okataina (aka the worst three hours ever where I decided I never wanted to run another hill in my life) (3:03 to 5:50):

We set off into the woods and the scenery and landscape is quite different in this section. It also changes at various points – we are in the woods, we are in the open, we are on mud, dirt, then a very light clay section – and there are two solid and gradual climbs.  In other words – I was in hell.  I set off good, running pretty strong, happy, focused, and I put my playlist on – cue “Midnight City” and “We Own the Sky” by M83.

This was a long slog.  I expected it to take me two hours – it took me just under three hours.  I tried to focus on all the hard work I had put in during training, telling my legs they were strong enough and could do it.  But they were tired, they knew how much there was still to go.  I passed a few people, a few people passed me…it was hard to keep going mentally and physically.  I had to force myself to stop looking at my watch because it was depressing how slow this section went.  However, I needed to keep tabs on it to make sure I was eating.  During this section, I had a gel, a banana, another gel, some frooze balls – I was beginning to feel sick, the gels were messing with my stomach.  The coke was also playing up, a bit too bubbly.  My shoulders hurt, my legs were tired.  I also missed people.  There were no supporters, no one cheering us on – it was getting hard.  I want to stop but know I can’t = I am in the middle of no where.  Even if I want to stop and pull out, I have to keep going to get out of the woods. I  have a brief moment where I want to cry, but I tell myself to pull it together.  While this feels difficult, it is nothing compared to the despair I felt in Makara MTB Park a month ago.  That helps.

At about five hours in, I see pale pink balloons hanging from the trees – that little moment is magical.  I look up.  I smile.  A feeling of happiness and joy floods into my heart and mind.  Just ahead are two people who had hiked 5km in from the next aid station, with a sign that says five km to go – they were cheering us all on, despite the rain.  I can’t explain how good it feels to see people – to know that this part is nearly over.

After that came the descent – we pretty quickly come down 450ish meters.  This was the hill I had been warned about – the one that ruins knees – the one I had been training to beat.  It is muddy, but it is also (finally) fun.  It is a symbol of that portion being over, with people, and an aid station, up ahead.  The trail itself reminds me of Wilton Otari Bush, and I hoon down.  So happy to go down hill – I speed past others taking it slowly, just wanting to get it over.  I feel great – no knee pain, no soreness, no tightness over those kms.

Okataina Aid Station: YES.  I was out of the woods!! To a HUGE crowd – the biggest and best aid station yet.

24807609041_1deda7726b_oMy knees hadn’t given in, my TFL and IT band hadn’t played up.  And there was food! I had salt and vinegar chips, watermelon, a banana, ginger beer.  I found my drop bag and sat down, wiping my face (best idea ever to include face wipes in my bag!) and changing my socks. Oh my gosh – fresh socks.  Magic.  Brought my mood up so much! And just to sit down! I was in heaven.  I took my camelback bladder out of my back, knowing I only have 9ish km between each aid station to go, so I can rely on my two water bottles.  I chatted to some other runners here, I was taking my time.  I then asked for a peanut butter sandwich, I grabbed this and set off.

Hours 6 and 7 (Okataina to Humphries Bay):

As I leave the aid station, people cheer “Go Jen” “You got this Jen” and “doing so well Jen”.  My legs feel great.  Better than they had felt all day. I am also very happy that I removed the camelback from my backpack – my bag feels lighter, I feel faster, and I feel more mobile.  I feel great….that is until I try to eat my peanut butter sandwich.   The volunteers used Pics peanut butter on white bread, instead of Fix & Fogg on wholemeal bread (what I had trained with).  And there was too much peanut butter in it.  I bite into it and chew…and chew…and chew…for a good five minutes until determining there was no way that I can stomach it….I can’t swallow it.  It was heart breaking – what do I do? Do I hold this sandwich for the next 10km? Do I throw it and litter? Do I keep trying? I drank more water to help wash it down with – to no avail.  I then freaked out – I need food, I need fuel, I need to eat this.  I decide in the end, to discard it – the peanut butter was dripping onto my hands, and I couldn’t digest that.  Bye bye sandwich.

Hours 6 and 7 I pass a lot of people.  I stop caring – we are all struggling, passing is no longer a win.

Hours 8 and 9 (Humphries Bay to Tarawera Outlet):

This section is beautiful.  I am running along a lake, through the forest – and some parts in the forest make me feel like I am in a fairy tale.  My right hip flexor starts to feel tight, so I stop to stretch it – someone stops to ask if I am ok – I am, just stretching.  I am also dying to pee – but the track is so narrow – there is a hill on my left and a lake on my right…no where to hide.  I keep going – my music helping my mind escape as much as possible.  I reach the Humphries Bay aid station at 49.2km – about 7 hours and 50 minutes into my run – this aid station is 70s galore! There is all the usual offerings, plus pizza.  I can’t think of anything worse! I told my friend Lauren I would have a bite of one, for her, but there are no vegetarian options.  I pass.  I eat a bit more solid food here than I had planned on doing, just because the gels are starting to make me feel ill, and starting to get too sweet for me.

24533326649_4a5004f899_oI set off knowing there is only 13km to go, and only one more climb.  It is nearly over.

I reach 55km and think “Yes! Home straight! This is the longest you have ever run – enjoy it!”  I get a bit teary.  It is overwhelming knowing that I am now running more than 55km, and also that I only have 7ish km to go.  I can’t explain that feeling.  Those emotions, and that feeling of achievement, helped me power the remaining 7km.

Hour 9:

I get to the Tarawera Outlet aid station at 57.3 – There are only 5km left, so I don’t bother stopping – I have enough water, I can do this, my mind is completely focused.  I run straight through the aid station, actually bumping into people and a volunteer yells out “Clear the way runner coming through” before giving me a high five.  My mind is completely focused now – I am going to finish this.  I know I should probably eat or have a gel, but I only have 30 minutes left (by my calculations) – I tell myself I have enough fuel to get through.  And I do.

From that point on, I run my heart out.  I give it everything.  It is mostly down hill, with a few short sharp uphills – I run straight up those and straight down.  I am doing 5 minute kms at some points.  I am on fire.  I think back to the 3km race pace run I did a few days previously – I now know why I did that – to help me smash out the last three km today.  I feel happy, positive, determined.  I feel like I am in a race against the clock.  And I want to win.

I pass so many people – yelling out “on your right” – they stop and let me go by, telling me good luck.  I am on cloud nine.  I then hit stairs – who on earth puts a set of 20 steps in the middle of the forest! Only to walk up, go across a bridge of 5m, and then have to come back down again.  And in the last few km of the race! WHAT IS THIS!!! I race up, but get stuck behind someone coming down.  I try my best to hold back and be polite, but in my head I’m thinking “hurry up hurry up hurry up MOVE MOVE MOVE”.  Soon we are down the bottom again and I’m off.  I look at my watch – only 1km to go.  You got this.

I pass the falls on my right – I think how beautiful it is, but I don’t have time to stop and take a photo, I have to finish.  I stop listening to my music, and I hear people.  I hear Tim speaking on the microphone.  I see a few pacers who have walked into the forest to meet their runners.  And I start seeing signs – 500m, 300m, 100m, 50m…I run.  I run hard and fast.

9:33:10: I come through the forest, past the finish line and into the crowd of people.

I can’t stop! I run right past Tim and the woman giving out medals, and have to be called back!!!! I turn around, and receive my medal.  Rob jumps over the fence and gives me a hug – I am so glad to see him.  Tim asks me how my day was.  I (believe) I tell him it was tough, but I enjoyed it.  And that I am really glad it is finished.  I am all smiles, I am so happy. I can’t believe I am living this moment – I am standing at the finish line of the 62.7km Tarawera Ultra, with a medal around my neck.  A finisher.  A happy, uninjured, strong finisher.

IMG_0937I can’t remember much from that moment – what I said, what I did.  I just remember being so incredibly grateful to Rob for being there, standing in the rain for two hours waiting for me.  Knowing he was at the finish line helped me run those last kms faster – I was dying for a big hug, and the faster I ran, the faster that happened.  I also remember feeling so grateful to everyone I ran with on that day, who put themselves out there, and tested their own limits.  And to my friends, family, colleagues and supporters – everyone who believed in me and put up with me.  And to the volunteers, the organizers, the supporters.

IMG_0953Thinking back to the info night that I attended mid-2015, Paul Charteris was right.  It is a tough day.  It is amazing in parts.  It sucks in others (he didn’t lie or sugar coat it).  But it also changes you.  It sticks with you.  And in many instances, it is life changing.  I learned so much about myself in the process.  Immediately after the race, I decided there was no way I was going to do it again.  But I’ve already decided I am returning for 2017, to complete the 62.7km once more.  Who knows, one day I may do the 100km.  But now I know what to expect, I know what the day entails, and I want to go back and take it on once more.

Remember why you started

I recently moved offices at work, albeit temporarily while a colleague is on maternity leave for the year.  This meant I got to upgrade from an internal office to an external one (YAY!) with a beautiful and very distracting view of the harbor.  In doing so, I had a big tidy up, and found a post it note that I had written to myself some months prior. Post it note

I  wrote this note the day after I attended the Tarawera info night on 17 June 2015.  One of the speakers, I believe it was the Tarawera founder, Paul Charteris, told us to think about that very question: Why do you run?

Why do I do this?

Because logically, why do we put ourselves through physical exercise, exert energy, put strain on our muscles and joints, take time away from our families, spend money on an event where we essentially pay to put ourselves through hell? Have I sold it?

Because really, there are so many reasons to run, that you forget about the above, about the pain, the hard times.  If you run, you don’t think of any of the obstacles or the terrible things that may come with running.There are so many reasons out there: stress release, getting out and enjoying nature, to explore new places, to get a tan, to look good, to exert built up energy, to collect medals and tshirts from events, so that you can eat cake, drink beer and not feel bad, because it is a chance to catch up with friends, for the competitive aspect – there are so many reasons, and all of those apply to me in one way or the other.

FullSizeRender(12)For me, there are so many reasons why I run.  But when I truly thought about it – why I have the urge to run, versus why I run when training for an event – it is the thrill, the achievement, the internal challenge and struggle against the little voice in your head saying no, and that great moment in life when you overcome that challenge, you surprise yourself and carry on.  That moment when you realize that two weeks, two months or two years ago, your body and your mind could not do what it just did.  Those moments, running faster, running further, overcoming a tough time or a dark  moment, running a familiar course with more ease than normal – that is what it is all about.

To me, running is empowering.  If you are in the zone mentally, with the right music to listen to, perfect weather, a beautiful day, and you are in the zone physically, where you feel good before, after and during your run, you can get to a point where you are on cloud nine, you smile, you laugh, you feel like you are a machine.  You feel powerful, inspiring, energized, and like you can do anything in the world.  I’ve had a number of these moments, where I am out running and feel unstoppable.  Like the world is my oyster and I can tackle whatever it throws me.

That is what was behind the post it note.  And that is what I tried to capture in so few words.  And funnily enough, it really helped me to actually formulate those reasons in writing.  To put it down on paper, to look at it and think ‘huh’.  It helped put running, my passions and goals in perspective, and because I wrote it down, that passion and reason for running has stayed with me throughout my training for Tarawera.  It helped me through the dark times, it helped me continue to believe in myself, it helped me go running when it was raining or when I was tired, because I had to.  I couldn’t give up – my post it note wouldn’t let me. 

And it is so fitting that I find it now, with four sleeps to go until Tarawera.  Essentially, that info night convinced me that I wanted to run an ultra marathon.  I wanted to do Tarawera, it belonged to me.  I wrote that note, and that made it even more concrete: I could do it. And now, half a year later, and after three months of intensive ultra-specific training (and 375km of running in those three months!) I am about to finally run that event.  And those words and the passion behind them have stuck with me so strongly.  Even more so this final week, excited and nervous, waiting impatiently for the big day to come round.

IMG_0782And recently, I have found new reasons to run, and to run the way I do.  To sacrifice parts of my personal life to work towards an ultra marathon, to make changes to my life in terms of diet, work, socializing, drinking, exercise – because I have discovered how powerful your own determination, your own goals and your own love to run can be to others.  Inspiring others through a simple act of just getting out there and running.  Doing what you always do, but for a bigger cause, on a larger scale.

My first marathon, I felt the pressure to run for others, not just for myself.  I was so scared and nervous the morning of the race that I became upset and worried that I couldn’t do it, I doubted myself and my abilities.  My Mom told me that I could pull out if I wanted to, or walk if it got too hard.  My response? “But others expect me to do it! To run it all! To do well!”  That is not the right response.  You can’t run for others.  You should never have external pressures on your performance.  Because running should be a passion, you should have internal reasons for doing it.  You may have an audience, and at times you may want to beat others or impress others.  But you should always be competing against yourself, not anyone else.

FullSizeRender(11)In saying that, your running can inspire others.  I have received such positive support from friends, family and colleagues during my training.  I have received messages from old friends that I haven’t spoken to in years, who have been following my blog posts and are “blown away” by what I am doing, wishing me luck.  I also have close friends who are now challenging themselves to do something they never would otherwise, like a half marathon.  So thank you to everyone for reading, for supporting me along the way, and for being part of my journey.  The love and support help so much, as do the messages of support, and the comments that I myself have inspired you.  It is overwhelming, and it helps make the struggle worth it.

And to those who do run, or have any form of passion – remember why you started it in the first place.  Get back to those roots, because you never know what that might lead to.

Exhaustion

I was originally going to write a post about how training for an ultra marathon has been invigorating and life changing, about how it has really helped me deal with work stress and other issues that pop up in everyday life, and about how the discipline and focus that comes with running applies to all areas of life.  Essentially, I was going to write about how I feel that I am winning at life – winning at work, winning at exercise, winning in my personal life and winning in self esteem.

Rob and me having coffee

This is me winning on a Sunday morning in the sun 😀 😀

However, that was before Sunday night’s unexpected emotional breakdown, where I was definitely in no winning state, and realized how utterly exhausted I was after bursting into tears for no reason at all.

Well, it wasn’t for no reason – I will admit, I was tired, I was hungry, and I was involved in a heated debate that I didn’t really want to be part of.  It was a Sunday evening and I had a week of work to ‘look forward to’, I hadn’t eaten in six hours and I had been socializing for several hours (outside, in the cold, and not drinking whilst others were) when all I really wanted to do was curl up on the couch and watch The Bachelor and fall asleep by 8pm.

Most people would have been fine in that situation – they would get by or they would even enjoy their evening and have fun.  They might have a drink, or two, or three, they would have a smile on their face and get involved in the debate or remove themselves from it and start up another conversation elsewhere.  But most people haven’t been training for an endurance event 6 days a week, with 6am starts most mornings and getting home after 8pm (to run, gym, yoga, stretch, foam roll etc) as well as working a full time job (40 hours per week, but more like 60-70 hours last week) and trying to keep their relationships (boyfriend, friends, family) alive.

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Finding time when I can for restorative yoga at home – legs up the wall

I am in the latter category…the category of crazy people who one minute is running on adrenaline and ‘runners high’ and the next is exhausted and can’t string words together.  I am the person who on Sunday couldn’t handle the totality of the situation – whether it was the lack of food, the tired mind, the tired body, or the stress I was feeling about needing to organise my week and make sure I had lunch planned the next day – I just lost it.  And afterwards, I realized why – I’m not that regular person just getting by.  I am an endurance athlete training for an endurance event.  All of my energy is going into that event.  My physical, mental and emotional energy is being drained daily and replenished by the love and support of those around me (as well as through gels, protein shakes, quinoa, bananas, peanut butter, smoked tofu, frooze balls and other edible goodies) and it is a finely tuned balance that is difficult and tiring to maintain.

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SO MANY GELS

A byproduct of this is that I require much more sleep than I ever used to, and a restless night really affects me.  Being awake past 10pm affects me more than it ever has. Not only do I get tired but I stress about being tired and how that will affect my performance the rest day and my training run on Saturday and what’s more, if that will affect my performance on the big day.

I also can’t make decisions in a rational way or in a hurry – on Saturday evening I popped into the grocery store to buy pumpkin and eggplant for dinner (in order for Rob and me to make a DELICIOUS recipe from Deliciously Ella –  I purchased her first cookbook and our goal is to cook one meal out of it every week and make our way through the entire cookbook, this week was her Coconut Thai Curry with Chickpeas…SO yum.  Sorry where was I…).  Oh yes in the grocery store.

Rob texted me the shopping list (pumpkin, eggplant) and said that he also wanted cookies…and popcorn.  So I then spent over five minutes in the cookie aisle agonizing over what cookies to buy because (1) Rob wanted cookies but (2) didn’t specify the kind of cookies he wanted and (3) I don’t buy cookies because (4) really I like homemade cookies and (5) I also didn’t know what type of cookies he felt like but (6) if I did buy cookies then even though I didn’t feel like cookies at the time I might want cookies later so (7) I had to think about what type of cookies I might want to eat as well even though (8) at that moment in time I didn’t want any cookies (this is the kind of thought process that went on in my head while standing in front of the Tim Tams…).  I ended up calling him and asking what he wanted because I didn’t want cookies and none of the cookies were on sale and so I asked him to decide because I couldn’t make a rational decision.  In the end we got Rolo chocolate and no cookies…

On top of this, I have become even more weird about my food than ever before, as I make a concerted effort to ensure I get sufficient levels of protein, natural carbs and good fats in me every day.  I log my food, I log my exercise, I log my socialising, I log my work.  My log is the fun police.  My clothes are too big due to the running and gyming and subsequent logging of controlled eating.  I stretch in my office, I have a foam roller at work and I wear compression clothes 80% of the time – even wearing compression calf sleeves underneath my work pants the Monday after a big weekend run.

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My 2016 planner which essentially contains my life. It is both color coded (green = exercise, pink = friends and Rob, blue = travel and public holidays) and detailed (it includes my kms, what exercises I perform at the gym, what I eat and what I drink).

Let’s just say, all of this, even taking out the running and gyming itself – it is exhausting.  Thank god I have a training schedule to keep to because if I had to decide on a day by day or even week by week basis what I was doing – I wouldn’t survive.  I barely get by as it is.  I mean, I have been too exhausted to even sit down and write a blog post – not emotionally exhausted but just the fact is I have no time, after working, running, eating, logging my eating, unpacking my gym bag, repacking my gym bag, prepping lunch for the next day, doing laundry, texting my boyfriend and messaging my Mom and sister every so often (but not often enough) and trying to see one friend per weekend if I can fit them in.

There is so little time left for anything else.  And obviously when I do fit in those other things…my mind can’t take it.  I can’t take five hours of socializing on a Sunday evening, My body has  had enough and is saying no, no friends, no drinks, no fun.  Not for the next 19 days at least, until the run is over.

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A carefully constructed, nutritious and delicious (and non-fun) dinner – smoked tofu, broccoli, peas, coriander, sunflower seeds, avocado and tahini lime dressing

I knew that cardio could negatively affect your immune system, and I have experienced that when training while sick, how weaker you are when you try to exercise, and how much slower you are at recovering after.  But I never expected it to be such an emotional rollercoaster, not while out of my running shoes at least.  Nor did I expect it to have such a big flow on effect into my personal life – but I guess part of that is because I am determined, stubborn and focused, I don’t do things at half speed, I go at things 110% – if I am training for a 60km race I am going to train the hardest I ever have and put everything into it.  Really it is my stubbornness and my drive that made me exhausted, and led to Sunday’s demise of ‘rational normal Jen’.

So I guess in the end…training for an endurance event like Tarawera really has taught me something that I can translate into every day life.  Yes it has taught me discipline and focus and has been an amazing outlet to let out some steam and a way to explore more of New Zealand’s beautiful scenery and nature, but it has also taught me to learn to say “no”.  To learn that I don’t have to say yes to every opportunity, to every person that wants to catch up or have a drink, to every piece of work that comes through the door, or to every extra curricular activity that comes my way.  To learn to look after myself, cherish myself and my one body, because it is the only one I have.  Learn that it is ok to be selfish, it is ok to put myself first, and that people will understand.

More than anything I need to keep my eye on the goal, the main goal, the one goal, and I need to change my mindset and learn to think in the following way: “Jen, you are in training mode.  You are training for an endurance event, an ultra marathon.  Live your life with that in mind.”  Because there are only 18 days to go, and once it is done, I can do whatever I want and live my life however I choose.

So world, I am giving you notice now, for the next 18 days, I am putting me first (so please don’t take offense!!).

The day I ran 55.5km

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.

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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?

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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.

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My gear for the day – 8 gels, 4 packets of SOS hydration, two PB&J sandwiches, 2 muesli bars, sliced orange and a banana, plus the 2L of water (1L plain, 1L with electrolytes) in my pack.

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.

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Thirty minutes in, how could you not be inspired with this view!?

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).

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The intended route – in and out from home to Wrights Hill

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).

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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.

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My mistake in Makara where I took the largest (and most unnecessary) detour in the world.  I should have gone directly SE from Makara Hill, not SW and completely off track, away from the car park, Karori Park and the Skyline

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.

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The damn track that was the cause of my (near) demise!

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.”

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Post run, post dip in the ocean, all smiles 🙂

The Art of Bribery and Running

Running can be a bit of a game.  A game that involves bribery and making promises to yourself.  It is an art really, the art of inventing new ways to reward yourself for running that extra km or running up those 200 steps ONE LAST TIME.  It is also about having a ritual of reward, such as treating yourself to a large piece of cake after each half marathon – it can be the little things that get you through.

Lately, running has been ALL about bribery for me.  A few weeks ago I had to do a 35km run around the bays – my reward was a banana smoothie at the end at Maranui.  The last 5km all I could think about was that smoothie…but also the thought of a chocolate milkshake as well…smoothie or milkshake, milkshake or smoothie? Both!

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That is how I got through the last 5km.

Last Monday was similar – the plan was 10 repeats up the top of Majoribanks Street (a super steep hill in Wellington).  It was about 20 degrees out, 6:30pm, and all I wanted was to be on the beach.  But Rob and I pushed through, mainly because at around about the 5th repeat I decided that we would be having fish and chips for dinner as a reward. We completed 11 repeats followed by a few repeats of nearby stairs (single run and double runs up it).

Unfortunately it was a public holiday, so no fish and chip shops were open (I tried five!). But we ended up with Ekim burgers, fries and beer, which we enjoyed on the water front watching the sun set around 8:30pm. TOTALLY worth it.

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And again, part of signing up to Tarawera was the promise of new shoes!

Even on a gorgeous day like today (sunshine, not a cloud to be seen, and a high of 21 with no wind, meaning that I could walk down Lambton Quay at lunchtime in a scandalous singlet and shorts and be warm) it is bribery that gets me off the couch and hitting the road at 6:30 to do my dreaded 8x500m repeats with a 90 second rest.

Part of me wants to get out and enjoy the sun, go for a run and get out amongst everyone.  Then I realize that my ‘run’ is actually a training session where I will be pushing myself, feeling tired, short of breath, potentially in pain, and wanting it to be over.

But today, I actually loved it. Not because I promised myself cake, chocolate or new Lululemon items, but because I was out running and being active, totally killing it (if I can be modest) on such a stunning day.

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I ran around Clyde Quay (it is just over 500m to run around the building) eight times, starting at Mojo Poneke each time.  The place was buzzing with people eating and drinking and soaking up the sunshine.  Each time I finished my repeat, and would slowly walk around to Poneke and watch the time count down, setting myself up for the next round, I noticed more and more people look at me, notice me back for more, and talking about my efforts.

I took it as admiration, good on me for running on this glorious day, pushing hard and running super fast, coming back for more and not giving up until the very last one.  In reality, they were probably thinking ‘What the hell is that girl doing running around this building?”, “She’s back again, seriously!” and “man that is the last thing I would want to be doing right now” whilst holding their glass of rose and lounging about with platters of food in front of them.  But I took it as admiration, as appreciation for my efforts. And that is what fueled me today – knowing that people were there, watching me, waiting for me to give up and stop.  So I didn’t.  I had an average pace of 3:58 min/km, with my best time being 1:45 and my worst being 2:00 even.  Times I am super happy with, especially as I was only at 2:00 once and even on the very last one finished with 1:56.

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But even so, it wasn’t easy. You do it in steps, sometimes it is about saying to yourself ‘I can run another 30 seconds, don’t stop yet’ and then repeating that over and over again.  Today it was: “Get to half way, do 4.”  Then “Ok you’ve done 4, that was easy, get to 6.  After 6 you can give up.”  I got to 6 and mentally pushed myself to do 7.  Once I did 7, I couldn’t end on an odd number, and such an ugly odd number at that, so I had to do 8, for my sanity.  But I only got to 8 because I pushed myself to do 4, to do 6, to do 7.  Baby steps.

And can I say, I came away feeling inspired and reinvigorated.  It’s crazy how much having other people around can make a difference to your training – another reason why running with peers, even if you are faster or slower than them, will help, because you automatically push yourself harder.  We have this internal fear of being judged – if I had done my intervals slowly or not appeared ‘hard core’ people might have held negative views about me. For all I know they held negative views of me, thinking “What a show off”.  But in my mind, I was proving how awesome I was, and they were on par with that, appreciating my awesomeness.

Weirdly, it helped me feel a bit more at peace with myself, with running and with Wellington in general.  Wellington (on a good day) is one of the most inspiring cities in the world (to me), and today’s session made me grateful to live in such a city, to be able to get out and enjoy such a city, and to inspire others (yes I truly believe that my 8x500m repeats totally inspired at least one person at Poneke to get up early tomorrow morning and work out…).  It also helped me feel back on track with my training, and OK with the next month of training hard.

I just need to find a few more things before this Saturday to bribe myself  to complete this Saturday’s 8.5 hour run/walk.  Ideas?