Running ultramarathons is a weird thing. My wife, while being massively supportive of the hours I spend training and racing, can’t quite work out what would motivate someone to go out and smash themselves for hours and hours running around the place. The word “obsession” gets used a lot, and while the clichéd response to that is “some people call it an obsession, I call it motivation”, that’s probably a little too simple.

I wasn’t a runner when I was younger, and I never understood the kids in high school who were athletes – partly because I never had the physical ability to be one, and partly because I never understood the fascination with trying to run fast, jump high or lift heavy.

I’ve been thinking about the “why” in relation to the Taupo 100km Ultramarathon that I ran in this past weekend. The fact that my 17 year old son, Yonni, completed the event also and, in doing so, became the youngest ever New Zealander to complete a 100km ultramarathon, got me thinking about the motivational aspects. Aaron Carter, who runs the TotalSport company who organized the race, summed it up nicely in the prizegiving while taking a moment to remember a well-loved trail runner who died last year. As Carter said, we get to run – we’re alive, healthy and have the ability to go out for a run. There are many people who aren’t so fortunate, so having the ability is a gift we should cherish.

But that’s only part of the answer and so it is probably appropriate to channel the response Ed Hillary gave when asked about why he and Tenzing Norgay attempted to climb Everest – “because it’s there” he replied. Which, in his own understated way, likely also included the theme of testing himself to see whether he would, when the going got tough, be capable of doing something epic. It is interesting that Hillary’s daughter, Sarah, is a stalwart of the trail running and ultra running community – those self-exploration genes run deep. [Edit – It was, of course, George Mallory who said “because it’s there” about Everest. Perhaps more poignant since he and Irvine perished trying to achieve their goal. Hillary, in inimitable Kiwi style, upon returning from the summit quipped, “We knocked the bastard off.”]

And so it was for me at Taupo. I ran the event last year, as my first ever 100km race and, while I finished, it wasn’t pretty. I’m mindful that it might sound a little dismissive to bemoan simply running a bad race, but testing oneself isn’t just about completion, it is about completion at a level that one is satisfied. And after spending close to 15 hours mainly walking a death march around the shores of Lake Taupo last year, I certainly felt that I had some demons to deal with.

Down to the nitty gritty – starting out with the young fella

Last year’s event can be summarized in one sentence: I started way too fast and slowed down to a crawl over the course of the race. This year I was determined to race smarter. I started near the back and decided that I’d run at least the first 10km or so alongside Yonni – partly to keep him company, but mainly to moderate my own pace. This race is an interesting mix – with some lovely single track sections in the bush, and a few less appealing sections including a long road section and some muddy farmland bits.

The first 35kms or so was relaxing and refreshing. I was running with Yonni the entire way and alongside some other lovely people and so the conversations flowed – it’s funny contrasting a road marathon with a trail race. In a road marathon, people hardly talk but simply focus on the pair of shoes in front of them. In a trail race, people are always talking, supporting each other and generally reflecting on life – I know which one I prefer!

As the road section started, Yonni slowed a little and, without any real intention of going out on my own, I moved away. I train a bunch on roads and so while I wasn’t looking forward to 6km or so on tarmac, I ran this section pretty fast and passed a large number of runners.

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Getting near halfway – sore feet and competitor camaraderie

The end of the road section coincided with the halfway mark. I’d left a drop bag at the 50km aid station and given that my feet were a little tender, decided to change from my trail shoes into a pair of road shoes that had a little more give to them. After filling my drink bottle and forcing myself to down yet another gel, I embarked on the next section – around 15km of mountain bike track weaving around the bush. Mountainbike tracks are quite taxing to run on – they tend to have lots of small undulations which are quite hard to find a nice rhythm on. This section, while quite pretty from a scenic perspective, saw me suffer a little bit – I was still running, but wasn’t feeling overly motivated.

Fortunately, I met up with another runner, Lee Cartmell, after the 61km aid station, and used him as a pacer. I find when I’m getting a little bit low, having someone to follow behind helps to take my mind off things – it’s both someone to talk to, and a pair of shoes to follow that removes any need to think about pace and direction. We ran together for 10kms before Lee dropped off slightly and I started on the short loop at Kinloch which was inserted to ensure the distance was exactly 100km.

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Kinloch – remembering Steve

By this stage I was passing many people racing in the 74km and 50km events and it was great to have a friendly wave and some encouragement from them – it’s the little things that give you a boost. I thought about this as I came into the Kinloch aid station at about 77km. It was here that that Steve Neary, the trail running stalwart who died last year, was marshaling in the 2016 event. Steve (being the generous, friendly and supportive bloke he always was) saw me and ran with me (which was, to be honest, more of a walk) for a couple of kilometers – I’m not sure if I ever told Steve how much his smiling face and supportive comments helped me last year and so he was on my mind as I quietly made my way through Kinloch.

Forcing down one more gel to avoid any late-stage cramps, I headed off, relatively comfortable in the knowledge that I had only slightly more than a half marathon to run until the end.

Coming home – picking off targets and calculating times

At Kinloch, I saw a 100km runner, along with his pacer, in front of me (this event allows 100km competitors to have a pace runner for the last section.) I’ve never used a pacer, preferring to go under my own steam, but having a target like that in front of me motivated me to increase the tempo a little bit to reel him in. I passed the runner before the climb really started – he was walking it out and I was still jogging most of the flatter sections.

A few minutes later I came across another 100km racer who also had a pacer (dude with “Shalom” tattooed on your leg in Hebrew – thanks for all the encouragement – it really helped) – I was tiring a bit so again this was a situation where having someone to follow behind was useful. The runner I was ahead of was taking quite a few walk breaks and, to be honest, I was actually quite pleased when he did and I had the excuse to also walk.

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The final downhill

For the last 20 or 30 kilometers I was looking at my watch and trying to calculate what my finishing time would be. After last year’s debacle (14:38 final time) I really had no idea, but was pretty comfortable that I could go faster. I kind of thought that somewhere between 12 and 13 hours would be about right, while Yonni, ever loyal and positive, suggested that I’d finish in under 11 hours. Up to about 15kms to go that target looked somewhat unobtainable but a combination of my watch slightly under-measuring the course, and a second (or perhaps third) wind that I found in the last 10km made the 11 hour target a reachable stretch goal.

With this in mind, I upped the pace and moved ahead of my fellow competitor. From the last aid station, it is only 7kms or so to the end, and most of that is downhill. I knew what I had to do and simply focused on getting there as quickly as I could and not doing anything stupid like falling. I managed to pass a large number of competitors in the other events in this section and I think it gave me a psychological boost to see people in front and slowly run them down.

Coming out of the bush, I knew I only had a climb over a farm stile and then 1km or so on a gravel road. I had a few twinges of cramp in the last few meters but managed to cross the line in 10:42 feeling sore but very satisfied. My run was enough to get me sixth place overall in the 100km race – a bit of a change from the year before.

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Nervously waiting for the young fella

I’d left Yonni at around the 35km mark and so I had no idea whether he was just behind me, or was having a race like I did last year and was hours and hours back. Luckily it was the former, I only had an hour and a half or so to wait before I spotted his unmistakable form running up the road (and passing, I must add, lots of people who were reduced to a walk by that stage).

Yonni ended up crossing the line a smidgen over 12 hours – a remarkable effort – two and a half hours faster than my last years time, and good enough for 16th overall in a quality field of well over 100 runners. He will no doubt write a race report but it’s hard to not be “that parent” and gush on what he achieved. To be the youngest ever New Zealander to attempt and complete this distance is an outstanding performance. To do so in a very, very respectable time gives a good indication of his future potential.

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Good times, good friends.

Alongside my own redemption and my pride in Yonni, this race marked the first time that my two best friends from High School and I were together for any real time in around 30 years. Ed, a guy who has inspired many with his journey from a 120kg, chain-smoking sedentary office worker to a slim and trim ultramarathon runner, was attempting his first 100km and Paul, always the first person to give something a go with supreme confidence that it would work out was attempting his first ever ultramarathon in the 50km. It was awesome to spend the weekend with these chaps, and to do so in middle age but as fit and healthy individuals – not old dudes suffering the pangs of mid-life crises.

An awesome weekend, with some awesome people and some awesome results for good measure. It really is good to be alive.

For anyone who is interested in the finer details, my GPS trace from Strava is below. For the eagle-eyed among you, it traced short but was exactly 100kms…

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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