This beast of a race takes runners from Whakapapa Skifield to Turoa Skifield via the savage Round the Mountain track, which is mostly either a boulder field or an eroded rut, and occasionally a track. The 19.4km of this race feels more like 35km once the 1000m of vertical assent and rough terrain is taken into account. When things go wrong, the time lost on the steep finish of this demanding course can be staggering and it’s always interesting to see how these tough races unfold.
Yesterday I took the start line of this iconic race for the 4th time with the dream of winning and going under 2 hours. Also racing was my closest training partner and friend Matt Ogden, who would provide a great test as we have been performing at a very similar level this year. Although my build up to this race wasn’t great, some really good periods of training earlier in the year had put my fitness on a new high, and I would rely on that to pull me through. So my strategy was to stay relaxed for the first half and then gauge how my under-conditioned right calf was feeling, and pick up the pace if I felt it was sustainable.
Nothing can be won from the first 2km which is all downhill on the road, but I knew that I didn’t want to get caught amongst other runners so made sure I moved forwards as soon as we hit the trail. A group of 7 of us pulled away on these early stages, and although I would have liked to set my own lines on the rough terrain I felt it was best not to accelerate to the front at this stage and instead wait for and easier opportunity to get ahead. Matt took a more aggressive approach here, and moved from the back of the pack to the front, and set his own blazing tempo, which no one was interested in holding. I made my move at 4km into the race on a broad downhill section where it was easy to slide past the 3 runners in front of me.
And so, the long time trail began, with Matt already a minute off the front and Dan Clendon slowly slipping away behind me. Matt’s lead an hour in was impressive, but closing and I felt a surge of motivation to catch him. I picked up the aggression from here on, hitting the stony downhills harder and pushing just that little closer to the limit over the top of each steep ridgeline. I could see that I was reeling Matt in slowly. I focused hard and threw everything I could at the final tricky descent at 14km but did little damage to Matt’s lead. It was in fact, the uphills where I was gaining and with almost exclusively uphill to go, all I had to do was hurt.
I was really excited to hit Mamas Mile at 1:53 because I knew a sub 2 hour race time was on the cards, but looking up the road at Matt’s arms pumping strongly, I didn’t expect him to falter on the final stretch. Matt finished in 01:58:25 and I in 1:59:17. We were both thrilled at the result, and also thrilled to hear that another younger orienteer, Tom Spenser was in a battle for 3rd, but narrowly missed the podium after a strong finish from Dan Clendon.
Looking back on the previous years (2:17 in 2010, 2:11 in 2011, 2:04 in 2015 and 1:59 in 2016), I have improved close to 6 minutes between each attempt, and with 2012 and 2013 being mostly a write-off through injuries these improvements have come at a relatively consistent rate.
I’d love to thank Icebug New Zealand and Sports Lab for their support this year. I raced in Icebug Zeals yesterday and the aggressive tread pattern paid off on the slippery surfaces and steep descents. Sports Lab has helped me through a very drawn out recovery from a seemingly simple tendonitis 6 months ago, and have assessed me very thoroughly as we worked through the layers of the complex biomechanics. With the physio’s guidance I have adjusted my running-cycling balance at different times and hit race day with the best combination of aerobic capacity and muscular conditioning possible given the injury’s history.
Time for an easy week now!