Pacing onto the Kepler Podium

After my successes in trail running over last summer I wanted to chase the competition higher this summer and so lined up Kepler Challenge and Tarawera Ultra 60 km. Training has remained largely the same as last year and I still follow my calculated progression rates from week to week to attain consistency and reduce the chance of injury. The recipe is working and training has been pretty much perfect for 9 weeks out for the 19 to Tarawera Ultra. This half way point was the perfect spot in the training block to try out another 60 km race, to get a better feel for how to pace myself for 5 hours of running and how much to eat.

The addition of new sponsor Trailblazer Nutrition could not have been more well timed. Tom Shand from Trailblazer has learned about where I am at with my running and made me a race day plan for Kepler which I followed very closely and formed the foundation for this pacing exercise. If I didn’t get the nutrition right it may have been hard to know whether any slowing down at the end was due to incorrect pacing or just running out of fuel. Since I’ve only done races under 3 hours I am used to using only gels and it was good to get some clarity on how many carbs I will need for the intensity and duration of Kepler and what mix of products provide the right release of energy. I ended up using 5 SIS gels because I like how they are runny and easier to swallow, 2 Awaken Energy bars, which are mostly fruit and provide a slower, more sustained release of energy and are also very tasty, 1 cup of sports drink at each aid station and about 300 mL of water at each aid station.

The 60km course with its notable climb and long valley finish

The start was much faster than I expected, so I stayed well back from the action at the front and did my best to keep my heart rate around 165 bpm (86%). This was my estimated heart rate for a 5 hour race using my modified version of Jack Daniels’ formulae, although I expect 5 hours might be outside the range of durations on which he collected data. I needed to have a good reason to push above this intensity, and in the early stages of a 5 hour race on non-technical trails, with no risk of bottle necks, I didn’t, so I chilled. I would have drifted back to around 20th and took some interest in how heavily those around me were breathing. Starting a 60 km mountain race as a tempo effort? Ouch.

The bottom of the climb was also interesting. I dialled back my pace as much as possible without compromising my efficient climbing style which had my heart rate mainly in the range of 170 (89%) to 175 (91%). I justify this period of raised effort, clearly visible on Strava, to maintain a reasonable climbing efficiency – any slower and I would lose the bounce from my calves. As a bonus, I really enjoy this intensity, which is slightly below my race intensity for 2 hour races. It wasn’t until half way up the climb of Mt Luxmore that I began to reel in those who were in the process of reassessing the sustainability of their early efforts in this long race. Perhaps some were just having a bad day and weren’t on the form they were hoping for but I suspect many got caught up in the rapid start.

I was in 14th at Luxmore Hut, and still in my groove, only now this came with additional rewards as I pulled in the runners ahead of me who I assumed had been dropping off the small group I could see few minutes up the mountain. I tried to preserve my quads by not taking the downhills as fast as I would in a shorter race and I also held back a little on the climbs, satisfied I was slowly gaining and would catch the group ahead in due time if I kept to my strategy.

This mountain top section was definitely my favourite on the course. The trails were narrower and the short descents were technical. The view over the neighbouring valleys and mountains was magnificent and the powerful wind sweeping up the slopes and over the line of tiny humans dotted along the exposed ridgeline trail was thrilling. Despite this, I was very happy to drop out of the alpine tussock into the beech forest for some shelter from the elements.

Lonely on the stormy alpine ridgeline. Photo cred: Good People Run

On the long descent into the valley I caught up with the now splintered pack ahead of me. I was surprised to see multiple-time Kepler Champion Vajin Armstrong off the back of this pack, but he soon demonstrated his experience with this race once he was on the flatter sections of the course. He knew his current form wasn’t the best of his career and hadn’t cooked himself on the climb nor was he interested in shredding his quads by taking the descent any faster. This was also my approach for the descent and I was well within my limits with my heart rate averaging 150 (78%). Once we were on the flatter sections, Vajin set the perfect pace and we pulled in the rest of the splintered pack one by one. Robert Rawles was pulled in too but looked pretty strong and happily settled in with pace maker Vajin and I. We stayed together for an hour and a half just ticking off the kms. This was a new experience for me and I was somewhat apprehensive about what might be to come. My heart rate averaged 157 (82%) for this section. I would describe this intensity as moderate but slightly conservative for a race and this intensity was just below my average for the race. I was too far from the finish to risk picking up the pace.

At 4 hours the 3 of us came into the Moturau aid station. I did the usual cup of sports drink and filled my soft flask with water, Robert took on even more food as he was beginning to feel a little worse off and Vajin barely stopped, gapping us immediately. I left Robert at the aid station and didn’t look back. To catch Vajin, my valued pacer, I had to increase my own pace and soon found a nice rhythm, a little faster than that of the previous hour. I liked this rhythm so much that once I caught Vajin I just kept going. I felt just the same as I had an hour ago and with an hour to the finish I decided I was ready to take things into my own hands. My heart rate moved up to low 160s (83%) as I pulled away from Vajin, feeling empowered but also in well over my head and mindful that I was pushing into unknown regions as far as distance and duration were concerned.

The next 30 minutes were the greatest of my race; I was pushing, but I was in control. I was asking myself my favourite coach question: “Can you sustain this intensity for the remainder of the race?” My answer was yes, so I held on. At 4 and a half hours I downed my last gel and I felt I was on the finishing stretch. I took on more water and sports drink at the last 2 aid stations and kept drinking to minimise the chance of a disaster in the home stretch. I flew past 3rd place, he was done for and moving very slowly. I closed in on 2nd place just as rapidly; we were moving slowly too and I expected to slide on past with ease, but to my surprise he jumped on for the ride. Not only that, but 2 km later he then accelerated as I topped up at the final aid station. I wasn’t overly concerned at the time because he was looking fragile only a few moments earlier, but I was very wrong. Stuart Gibson earned his second place without a doubt and put over a minute into me in the final few kms. I was already on my fastest sustainable pace and had no room to move so have to be satisfied, even if I thought I had 2nd wrapped up. My average heart rate for the last hour was 161, practically the same as my average for the course. Sam McCutcheon was well off the front and posted consistent splits all around the whole course, well done Sam!

Happy top 3 at the finish line. Photo cred: Kepler Challenge

So once again consistency was key for me. And I’m happy with my approach to my first ultra marathon and expect to be back to the Kepler Challenge in the near future.

A breakdown of my heart rate on each notably different section of the course. Gradual downstream is all paced by Vajin and Flat to the finish is my move to go solo.

Thanks where thanks is due:

Trailblazer Nutrition for the consultation and race day plan, Sports Lab for the continued injury prevention support, Awaken for the bars that kept me fuelled on the course, Icebug for the shoes, GKO for the rest of the gear and Mum, Day and Imy for being the best supporters. Making things happen!