Pro tip: spending a month travelling overseas and doing almost no running (admittedly lots of walking but it’s not quite the same) isn’t the generally accepted best practice going into an ultra marathon. Another generally frowned upon strategy is spending a month in winter, with cool temperatures, only to come home and do a race in the alpine high country in expected 40 degree heat and with strong, dry winds. So it’s fair to say the preparation for the St James Stampede was… sub optimal.
My last race, coincidently also in the same area that the St James is held, was the Hanmer Alpine Marathon. After a fantastic first half, I was reminded of that saying about rugby, that it’s a game of two halves, as my second half turned into an abysmal death march. After that bruising experience I wasn’t exactly confident before this weekend’s race.
The weather provided a degree of comfort – heavy rain and a big storm passing through a couple of days before the race meant that at least the weather would play ball and the heat wouldn’t be there. In fact, that weather necessitated a change to the race. Initially planned as a 50km ultra marathon, the rise in river level necessitated some route changes which meant that there would be two options: firstly a 45km ultramarathon and, for those wanting a little more, a second option continuing on from the end of the 45km back to the main finish line at the St James homestead for a total of 60km. Jumping into a 4wd vehicle to get a ride back to the finish line isn’t my idea of a good time and, hence, 60km was my distance of choice. Or at least it was at the start of the race. it’s amazing how 45kms in the legs can change your perspective…
Yonni and I headed up to the finish line the night before and slept in the car (side note: a sniffing and snuffling 16 year old right next to your ear drum isn’t much fun) and arose at 4:30am to a breakfast of watermelon and OSM bars. It’s kind of handy when your son is sponsored by a nutritional company – thanks OSM! Our buddies George and Stephanie were racing as well, George in the ultra and Steph the 20km. We got a ride with them up to the start line and alongside 20 or so other racers shivered in the cold waiting for the start.
Myself, Yonni and George waiting for the start. It may be mid summer, but it was really cold! Photo credit to Stephanie Grace Berry
With little pomp and circumstance, Heath, the race director, gave us the start command and we were off. The first 5km or so I had the pleasure or running alongside George and Yonni and chatting about all manner of things. Then the road headed upwards and Yonni, playing the part of over-keen teenager, ran ahead of us. I resorted to a walk and George took a break to get something out of his pack – and just like that I was on my own for awhile. The climb over the Malings Pass was lovely – it’s a glorious part of the world (see pics below thanks to James) and the weather was perfect – cool and clear with little wind.
The descent from Malings Pass was more technical than I expected and, never one to hoon on the downhills, I took it easy. I was excited to see a lovely stand of native bush at the bottom and enjoyed the short section under cover, the only time in the entire day that we would have some trees around and above us. I soon caught up with Yonni and suggested we run together for the race. He’s not big on having company while running and fell back a bit – the last I’d see him for awhile!
There was a Polish racer who was using the St James as training for the Tarawera 100km ultra in a few weeks. We traded places for awhile and chatted away. Meanwhile, the 25km or so of relatively flat running we had in front of us didn’t feel too bad, we made our way down a broad river flat and had some incredible open vistas to enjoy. This really is “big country.” Many non runners ask me if I run with music, or if I don’t get bored. Actually, the opposite is true. I never run with music and love the chance to be on my own, without any artificial stimulus and to simply let my mind wander. Life is so hectic these days, and we’re always bombarded but external stimulus. The St James, with its wide open expanses of nature, just the river, the mountains and a few low shrubs, is the perfect place to disconnect.
The St James has a cunning ploy to avoid racers taking too long at aid stations: this area is well known as having some of the most voracious sandflies anywhere. It only took about 15 seconds of being stationary before a veritable horde of these suckers (literally and figuratively) started extracting our blood. Enough time to grab a few jelly beans, have a cup of R-Line electrolyte drink and say a quick “gidday” to the awesome aid station staff. Then back into it.
At about the 30km stage we descended down to the river and crossed a swing bridge over what was a fairly raging torrent. There was no one ahead of me so I couldn’t really see what was coming up and didn’t have the luxury of being anxious about the big climb out of the valley. No such luck for Yonni, as I neared the top I saw him far below in the Valley and shouted and waved out to him to give some support. I suspect all that I really achieved was depressing him about the big climb he was about to face. But as I grow older, any chance to demoralize the young fella is to be taken. As it turned out the climb wasn’t too bad – really a nice excuse to walk a bit after 30kms elapsed, almost all of which was actually run at pace.
Coming off the hill we were 35km in with only 10km to the first finish line. A simple five km along some more river flats, a very short, but very steep climb up to a flat sidle and then a bit more flat before the final climb, up to the last aid station at 43km. All the while I kept looking back but saw no one else, apart from lots of cyclists who were doing the mountain bike race which was also part of this event – not a runner in sight!
The final aid station, at the top of the final climb, was a casual affair. A few more jellybeans and some strict instructions to give Yonni a cheer on. From there we could see the finish line, 2kms on and deep down in the valley. It was a strange feeling, running hard to the finish, while at the same time knowing that if I continued with my intention to do the full 60km, I’d still have 15km to run. Ah well, they do say that ultra runners have to be a bit mad.
I stopped at the finish line and the ladies there told me I finished in fourth place – not bad for this old fella! I was considering getting a ride back from there but the number of sandflies present, along with the information that everyone who had finished in front of me had pulled the pin and gotten a ride back encouraged me to carry on. After all, if things stayed the same I’d win the 60km.
The next 10km would have been a beautiful bike ride but were, to be honest, a pretty horrible run. I didn’t actually run much, my legs were a bit sore and motivation wasn’t really happening – so I simply power walked and cheered on all the riders coming past me. One of the 4wd vehicles that was shuttling people to and from the finish passed me heading back to the 45km finish line. I had a chat with the driver and told him that I’d probably get a ride with him on the way back – after all, I was pretty sure that Yonni would have pulled the pin by then. How wrong was I!
At 53kms I reached the junction where the 20km run met up with our race and turned up a gulley. I chatted with the aid station people there and decided to pause my watch and wait for Yonni to come along in the 4wd. Time seemed to drag on, and my sandfly bite count ran into triple figures. After 45 minutes I was pretty amazed and impressed to see Yonni turn up, still running! He looked at me like I was an idiot and asked me what the hell I was doing there waiting for him? Well, there was no option but to run with him all the way to the 60km finish. At this stage he and I were the only two runners who had come through so at the back of my head I wondered if we could end up jointly winning the event.
We had a pretty tough walk up from Bull Gully to the single track at the top. It may only have been a couple of hundred meters vertically, but it was steep and technical and, to be frank, my feet were sore. The legs were OK but I always get really sore ankles and this race was no different. At the top Yonni and I agreed to amble along to the finish and to finish together.
We kept looking back over our shoulders – lots of people on bikes were passing us, and a few people doing the multisport races, but as yet no one from our event. About 3km from the finish I looked back and a few hundred meters back I saw someone sporting a yellow race number – someone to challenge us to the win!
I asked Yonni is he was up to running it in and admonished him to remember that pain is temporary but glory lasts forever. We broke into a jog and enjoyed the last few kilometers, all along lovely undulating singletrack. All the way along this section we could see the stand of trees which indicates the St James homestead and hence the finish line. It got closer and closer and, as is often the case at the end of a long event, the pain seemed to melt away.
Into the final shoot and a quick look back and it was obvious we were going to take it out. As Yonni gets faster and faster every year, and I slow down, the chances of finishing together get fewer and fewer. And to actually win the race (the second ultra I’ve ever won and Yonni’s first) I have to say that the moment was pretty special. This was his longest run ever (great training for The Old Ghost Road 85km trail ultra next month) and the fourth longest race I’ve ever done. All in all a pretty awesome day at the office!
Thanks to Heath for organizing the race – it’s always a great event. Thanks to all the other runners who showed, once again, that ultra running is perhaps the most friendly sport there is.
For those interested, my Strava trace from the event is below.