If you have been following this blog, you know how little Chan and I enjoy winter. Considering that we don’t actually live in places where winters are particularly cold, this may seem absurd. I’d be a rich person if I was payed a dollar for each and every time someone commented on how it was possible that I was not better used to the cold when I come from a place where winters are harder. Fair enough, winter temperatures in both A Coruña (Spain) and Wellington (NZ) are way milder than in Hungary, but you cannot judge the hardships of winter based solely on the probability of ice and snow. You’d need to factor in humidity and, especially, the lack of proper heating.
That said, I’m sure I’d felt colder elsewhere, but I’m also quite positive that never in my life I’d felt cold for a longer period than in my adopted homes with oceanic climate. And by long I mean days, weeks, months… If you grow up somewhere where central heating is the norm, you’ll think it is barbarian to dine in a pub wearing your winter coat, type in the office with fingerless gloves or to have to wrap yourself in a thick layer of fleece blankets while watching your favourite TV show. When heating is taken from you, you’ll start appreciating how all of the above constitute a luxury. Add to the ever-present sensation of cold a high chance of rain and some torrential wind, and what you get is me almost in tears when out on the third rainy-windy run of the week.
Set a goal to survive
I probably don’t need to emphasize any more how hard I find it to keep motivated under these conditions. Of course, the often unpleasant weather also makes you appreciate sunny days, especially when they fall on the weekend. It is somehow similar to the way an injury makes you appreciate being able to run or even walk. But that is another story.
One way to somehow train through winter is to set yourself goals. And the goals that will provide you with the most solid motivation are events. You’ve paid the money, you have to go, if you go you have to be able to finish, and, once you go, you might as well do well, so you train. It’s a recipe that’s bound to work.
For us, there was no question about what these motivation-boasting events would be. Two years ago I met Chan through a friend in an art gallery tour. I was desperate to find people to hang out with during my brief stay in Wellington, and he was desperate to find somebody to share a long drive with to Taupo in the weekend. So over a beer he popped the Question: Do I want to run an off-road half marathon in the weekend. Of course I wanted to. The rest is history. And historical moments are to be relived.
That particular race two years ago was the Tauhara Trail Run/Walk, which is in fact the first of a three-event series running through the winter. Just so, you can run one half marathon (or even one half and two full marathons) each month from July through September.
Race 1: Tauhara Trail Run Walk Challenge – From the Portaloo to the Finish line
The Tauhara Trail Challenge took place on the first Sunday of July. To be honest, I was looking forward to it with somewhat mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’d cherished the memory of two particular features of this run for the past two years. A long and gentle downhill section nicely winding its way through the forest. The kind you can just relax into and run. And, most importantly, a fun downhill sprint finish through paddocky terrain, where, if brave enough, you can fly down to the finish line spooking fellow runners and walkers on your way.
On the other hand, I’d been slowly recovering from my somewhat mysterious foot injury since February, so I was neither in top form nor feeling overtly confident. My worries we accentuated by the fact that by lower back and my foot appeared to be overly stiff after the long drive from Wellington to Taupo. This lead to an intended easy jog along the Huka Falls track turning into a rather angry walk.
On race day morning I spent a considerable amount of time doing stretching exercises both in our motel room and the car, nervously contemplating my options in case my foot decided not to carry me all the way. However, the whole tension of the event was blown away as I heard the start horn while in the Portaloo. I incredulously looked at my watch, and there were a whole of 5 minutes until left until the official start. I still thought the horn had been for some other distance event or for the walkers when I jogged to the start line, only to find that my fellow runners had effectively started. That was a confusing and a more than unglamorous race start for a group a confused runners, including me.
I was silently reflecting on the fact that I was quite fortunate to be caught by the mysterious early start inside the Portaloo instead of still in the line as I started the timer on my watch and broke into a jog. What a dilemma it would have been! Keep waiting or set off and risk a midrace emergency… Now at least that was out of the way, and all I had to focus on was to catch and overtake as many runners as I could before the trail narrowed to single track.
If in need of a confidence boost, one should be told to start from the back of the pack in a race sometimes. It is indeed fun to zoom past the slower runners, almost like a game. How many can you pass before you encounter those running at your pace? I felt confident enough when I reached the steady mid-race climb at the end of which you have to turn back and run down the same way you came. This is a good place to get an idea of where you are respective of other runners. I saw Chan coming downhill and estimated that he should have about a 5 min lead.
As I continued I seemed to finally find my pace pack in a group of male runners. They would pass me on the climbs, while I would be faster on the downhill sections. I knew we should be coming to my cherished long downhill bit, but it never seemed to arrive. Downhill we went, but it was slippery and covered in a thin layer of mud-tree leaf mixture and scattered with fallen branches. Not so relaxing. After this we came to the last big climb. This is where you grit your teeth and swear not to walk despite the burning feeling in your screaming calves. And, at last, that final stretch! I couldn’t believe I made it here, looking down at the finish line. Deep breath and sped down dodging other runners, walkers and lumps of cow poo on the way. The first of three half marathons done and free beer well earned.
Race 2: Taupo Marathon and Half Marathon – Frozen rigid
Fine, my wobbly foot and I were now officially able to finish the half marathon distance on trails, but were we going to be able to do so on the road, especially without earning myself a ridiculous time? The Taupo Half Marathon on the first Saturday of August would settle the question. For Chan the challenge was more about setting a new PB of his. We had also run this race two years ago both earning PBs, in my case a tiny 11 seconds. It had not been the most pleasant of events with some heavy rain seeing us off at the start, but now we were about to find out how much worse winter running can really get.
The forecast for race day was a lot of rain, freezing cold and SNOW! My personal goal of not starting the race from the Portaloo this time was accomplished, with the help of a kind gentlemen who lead us through hidden passageways to a secret ladies’ restroom located in the Taupo Event Centre. That was in fact the only improvement my race performance would be able to show for that day.We waited in our car as long as we could just to avoid spending any unnecessary minutes in the wet and cold. As the couple in the car parked next to us crawled out of their shelter, we also decided it was time to face the elements and line up for the start. The horn sounded at the right time and off went Chan, leaving me behind.
All I was aiming for was to settle for a comfortable pace I can hold to the finish. But it just never really got any comfortable. With the incessant rain it was impossible to get warm and my legs were simply refusing to run. It was as if my body remembered the awful feeling of the mixture of cold and an upset tummy from the Budapest Marathon, and I had to remind myself to keep running ever so often. Meanwhile, I couldn’t but feel for volunteers and runners competing in the full marathon distance, as they would have to endure the cold much longer.
Given the conditions, I didn’t care about times anymore, I just felt more than relieved as I was splashing through the swampy grass area leading up to the finish line. And I couldn’t think of anything else but a hot shower as I marched back toward our car with giant chocolate fish in hand. On my way I shot an incredulous look at the few solitary runners who were mad enough to pick up their free (cold!) beers.
It took a few hours of sitting in bed with numerous blankets on top while watching the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympics to regain our normal body temperature. It was as if race organizers somehow knew what was coming, gifting us a voucher to a nearby hot pool spa.
Race 3: Kinloch Off Road Challenge – Fallen for you
The last of the three winter half marathons was the Kinloch Off Road Challenge, held on the first Saturday of September. Unlike Chan, I had never done this event before, but having mountain biked the trail earlier in April, I knew it was promising some serious fun. If the weather behaved this time, that is. Also, by now I was quite confident that my foot wouldn’t prevent me from fully enjoying the race.
Another thing that would be quite different from the previous two events was that this time we were not going to spend the weekend by ourselves. A copious group of fellow Wellington runners – members of the Wellington Running Meetup Group – were also heading to Kinloch and a surprise birthday dinner, involving football socks and fake beards, was planned for the evening after the race.
To our great relief we woke up to a chilly but sunny morning in our Kinloch batch. As we were munching on our breakfasts in good company, we were reminded that some of our friends were already running in the marathon event. After having donned our gear and diligently taking turns for the bathroom our cheerful flock set out for the start line, which was no more than a 10 minute walk away this time. On the way we saw more familiar faces and took the obligatory group photos.
Chan, our friend Laura and I started off in the first wave of runners. After a very brief road section we were already forced to single file on the mountain bike track as we started the first climb of the day. Naturally I lost sight of Chan after just a few beats, but this time I was determined to do as well as I could, so I focused my attention on a girl wearing a Tarawera Ultramarathon shirt, who passed me on the first half of the climb and decided that I could keep up with her.
On the single track it is hard to pass others and easy to resign yourself to just keeping behind the person in front of you. Nevertheless, after a few kilometres the girl in front, I and a guy running closely behind me managed to get separated from other runners. We were slowly catching up to another male runner when I suddenly found myself on the ground. I’m not quite sure how this happened, at that moment, we were cruising along a rarely flat and non-winding section of the trail. I’m sure the runner behind must have just avoided falling all over me, but he still looked more concerned with my well-being than anything. Ashamed, I jumped to my feet, and, as he leapt away he said “oh, you were running so well” – as in “it’s a pity you are out”. To the credit of the soft mountain bike trail, there was no major harm done.
Now I was left alone with the guy we were just catching up to. A bit shaken, it took a little while until I found my pace again, and, when I tried to drink, I realized that my hand-held bottle was covered in soil. With no one in sight it was slightly harder to keep a good rhythm, and as I shortly dropped the other runner who now was behind me, I was left completely alone for a while. Of course, with on the winding trail with many switchbacks it was hard to tell how far ahead or behind the next person would be.
As I came to the next downhill section, I thought I caught a glimpse of the girl with the Tarawera shirt and the other runner following behind. I was quite sure I was faster than them running downhill, which gave me confidence that I would catch them before the end, as there were a few kilometres of good downhill running ahead. This of course meant winning my own “personal” race. It turned out to be a fun finish, as eventually I overtook a few more male runners and raced down to the final flat section with the other girl. She seemed to take competition quite seriously, not letting me go in front, while I was in no mind of beating her at all costs. All I wanted was to catch her and that was already done. While I passed her briefly just before the home stretch, she sprinted past me a few meters before the finish line. That’s how competitive I am.
This time we happily took not one but two free beers each and were happily sipping them in the sunshine while waiting for our all our Wellington friends to finish. What a difference. Winter is over at last!