Three years ago I headed off to Tāupo with some of my oldest friends to race the 2017 edition of the Taupo ultra 100km. I’d previously raced the inaugural event in 2016 which doubled as my first stab at 100km. You can read about it here but suffice it to say my fail was epic in its proportions.

When Ed, a school buddy who had been working overseas for 20 years, suggested coming back to race the event, I jumped at the opportunity. Third mate Paul stepped up to race the 50km, his first ultra, and Yonni came along to attempt his first 100km.

That race saw a mixed bag of results. Yonni and I ran together for 30km before I trotted off on my own coming in at 6th place in around 10:42. Yonni did superbly given he was only 17 years old at the time and took 16th overall. Paul knocked off his first ultra in typically relaxed style while Ed had a hard day and missed the cutoffs at 76km.

Roll on this year and new goals were set: Ed was adamant he’d finish the race, no matter what. Paul agreed to pace him for the last 24km and Yonni, in his inimitable style, was full of smack talk and claims he’d beat me and run a sub-10-hour race.

We all convened in Wellington from our respective homes and, joined by Jo, Paul’s awesome partner, we began the long road trip to Taupo.

Everyone was pretty relaxed – Paul’s job was physically easy, but potentially psychologically tricky depending on Ed’s mental state after so many hours. Yonni was relaxed after some good training runs in the weeks leading up to the event and my only concern was based around my ambition to stay with him for the entire race and have another father-and-son, start-to-finish, outing.

Dinner pre-Taupo is traditionally Pauly’s burger joint (Pro tip: when in Taupo, visit Pauly’s at least once) so our fat and carb levels were well primed for the race.

 
 
 
 
 
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All set. Burgers consumed 🍔. Lets go! 💥 Tracking link in my bio 🏃

A post shared by Yonni Kepes (@yonnikepes) on

 

A 3 am rise on Saturday, pre-race breakfast and a drive to the start line ensued and we lined up ready to go. With a swing bridge to cross after only a few hundred metres, Yonni and I agreed to start on the front line and hit the bridge near the front, which we did successfully. In what was potentially a dangerous move, we kept up a similar high pace from there in, consistently running well under 6 minutes a kilometre and hence upon our goal pace for a 10-hour race.

The first 10km was lovely – running in the dark across beautiful buttery trails. As we crested the initial climb, we were rewarded with a bright red sunrise that looked like fire in the sky.

Headlamps off and we settled into our pace. The field was already spread out at this stage and, other than one or two other competitors, it was pretty much just Yonni and I running together and chatting about our race strategy.

After 15km I stacked it going around a gravelly hairpin corner and hit the deck relatively hard grazing my hand and leg. I also felt a fair amount of pain in my left knee that had me hobbling for a few kilometres. Luckily the damage was minimal and I loosened up relatively quickly.

After around 25km of single-track, we embarked on a pretty dreary short section of farmland which was long, straight and surprisingly tricky to run over with big clumps of grass to roll unsuspecting ankles. After this section, we came to the first real aid station where Paul and Jo were waiting for us. It was awesome to have their support and encouragement and the spectators generally were amazing – the fact we were near the pointy end and were wearing matching Hagley Hombres bright yellow tops provided some entertainment, I guess.

From this aid station, there is a section of farmland and forestry roads. We were nearing a marathon already and, while we were still relatively fresh, there was a degree of fatigue creeping in. I recall a few comments between Yonni and I questioning the pace we were going at – we were not only blowing away my time splits from the 2017 race, but we were also well under our A target pace for 10 hours.

Coming out of the forestry we embarked on close to 10km of gravel and then sealed road. On the one hand, it was nice to be able to run on a good surface and hence relax a little and not worry about foot placement. On the other, this section has no respite and any descent into walking pretty much means your race is going south. Luckily we both felt good enough to run this entire section (even joined at one stage by Paul and Jo running alongside us) with some decent pace and we came into the halfway mark well under our five-hour time goal.

At this point we bumped into buddies Kerry and Ali, coaches at Squadrun and, as has become a tradition when I see Kerry at races, I dropped to the ground to do a few press-ups.

From the 50km mark, the race heads downhill for about 15km along lovely flowy single-track. This was a chance to really get the legs rolling and pick up some good time. We, unfortunately, arrived at the 50kn mark only a few minutes after the competitors in the 50km race left and so we had a huge number of people to pass. It’s actually really draining to have to call out to people to let them know you’re coming through and the stop/start nature that a congested trail cause is difficult. Everyone was great, however, and gave us much support as we passed.

We both had a slight low point at this stage of the race – 60 kilometres in well under 5 hours was taking its toll and we were looking forward to getting to Kinloch.

At Kinloch, competitors pop out into the village and head off on a short bush loop just out of town. Thereafter they come to the next big aid station at 76kilometres. On the bush loop, we were joined by another 100km solo competitor and, spurred on by this competition, upped the pace a little bit to stay in front of him.

Kinloch was a final chance to fuel up before the big climb of the race signifies the final 20km or so to run. We didn’t hang around long – just enough to down some food and guzzle some Coke.

The next 5km saw me at the lowest I’d been in the race. Energy levels were low and the legs were a bit fried. Yonni was a bit annoyed when the 100km solo competitor we’d gotten ahead of near Kinloch passed us and I wasn’t keen to try and stick to him. At this stage, we were shuffling pretty slowly and I was the weakest link. In part because of the way I felt, but also being mindful of what we still had to do, I cautioned Yonni that we should stick to our pace and not try and run ahead.

Luckily we were joined by Scotty Stevenson, a buddy we’d raced with earlier in the year at the Old Ghost Ultra. Scotty is one of the most positive people around and between him and a Taupo local who was running with him, we had some awesome pace setters to run behind.

At this point, the race does a 10km loop on the headland. It’s a really demoralising feeling having to do what is essentially a 10km detour 85 kilometres into the race. I was feeling pretty good but the wheels were falling off for Yonni a bit. We managed to stick with our pacing mates for most of it but it really wasn’t pretty. I had a fall (after which I inexplicably reached out to shake Scotty’s hand) and Yonni started locking up with cramp. For anyone who hasn’t witnessed it, seeing an ultra runner go into full-body cramps is wildly entertaining, but plays havoc with pacing plans.

At the final aid station with 8km to go, it was obvious that Yonni’s tank was empty and we just had to nurse him to the finish line. There wasn’t a lot of running from this stage, and what with frequent cramping episodes, our split time for the last section was pretty slow. Yonni made a valiant effort to start running again with about 5km to go since our 10-hour goal was still doable, but he really didn’t have anything left and reverted to a walk pretty quickly. With about 1500m to go, runners exit the bush, cross a cattle stile and have a short gravel road section up to the finish line. As a video that was helpfully taken by our buddy, Leslie, shows, Yonni kept up his cramping episodes right into the last few metres.

 
 
 
 
 
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Good times out on the Lake Taupo trails yesterday 💥🏃

A post shared by Yonni Kepes (@yonnikepes) on

 

We crossed the line together, with a final time of 10:05 – slightly over our A goal, but still awesome nonetheless. For a father and son pairing (in which one is too old to be good anymore and the other is well short of peak ultra running age) to get 8th equal place out of a field of a couple of hundred racers is awesome and I hope a few parents got some ideas about doing these sort of things with their own progeny.

 

 

We quickly jumped in Paul’s truck to head back to meet Ed at the 70km mark in Kinloch. He was still running well and looking really good. Jo did the bush loop with him before we got him fuelled up and sent him and Paul off for the final 24km. We then headed back to Taupo for a shower before going back to the finish line to await their arrival.

Unbeknownst to us, Ed had given it pretty much his all to make the final cutoff at the 18km to go mark and, with this goal attained, things started to fall apart. His body started to fail and Paul was pretty worried about the sanity of his continuing. After a few deliberations via text message and the realization that there was no real bail out option, Paul committed to coaching Ed through to the end. Eight or so hours later, Ed stumbled across the finish line looking pretty corpse-like. The team from Totalsport, the race organisers, kept the party going to wait for him and at around 3 am, after being awake for 24 hours, he was done and buried the demons from his 2017 DNF.

It’s important to recognise the epic nature of Ed’s race. To be able to keep going when the body is so blown is no mean feat and he should be proud of what he did.

Paul richly deserved the finisher’s medal he was given. It is actually physically challenging to walk at the pace he needed to in order to support Ed and, as I have remarked many times over the 35 years that we’ve known each other, his positivity, can-do attitude and simple common sense is inspiring and I feel privileged to call him a friend. Jo absolutely deserves a shout out here – spending an entire weekend with smelly guys talking about ridiculous sporting quests and farting a lot isn’t most women’s ideas of a good time. You’re a good ‘un and Paul is lucky to have found you.

Lastly an acknowledgment to junior. While I’m absolutely justified in hassling you a bit for your smack talk that proved to be well off the mark, to be achieving top 10 finishes in national-level races is epic. Even more so when one considers that ultra running is generally a sport that people only get good at in their 30s. You’ve got awesome ability and I’m looking forward to watching you from the sidelines when I’m too old and broken to keep up (probably next year, I suspect.)

Thanks to everyone who supported us during the race – either from the sidelines or online. The race volunteers, spectators, social media followers and race organisers were all awesome.

And finally, some words inspired by Ed’s quest: “if you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

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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