When Gerry first told me about the Ultra Interval Challenge, I was very excited as this sort of thing is right up my alley. It is a worldwide initiative where everybody started at the exact same time, irrespective of where you are in the world. In NZ our starting time was 10am on 23 July. The idea was to run 10km every three hours over a 24-hour period. Therefore 8x10km, totalling 80km. Our initial intention was to turn it into a wee event, by having a base camp with supplies, access to toilets, etc, and hopefully, manage to lure some friends into joining, but then we got busy with other stuff and all but forget about the challenge.
In the back of my mind, I was humming and hawing and agonising about taking part, often being almost convinced by the little voice of reason telling us we should not be doing it. For starters, our weekly mileage has been less than 40km/week for the past two months, and with a foot niggle, it would be quite simply irresponsible to try and run 80km in 24 hours.
But who listens to reason! In the final few days before the event, I think we both knew we wanted to do it but still could not make the final decision and commit. And with the weather forecast predicting some horrid weather for the timeslot of the event, it was only after we’d already completed a couple of laps that it finally sunk in that we’re busy doing it!
We didn’t have any race plan or grand strategy and were also not really prepared. Gerry quickly wrote down the starting times the night before and over a few shots of whiskey we tried to think of possible laps that might be 10km long. Still not taking the situation seriously, having whiskey and all, laughing (probably in hysterics!) about the silliness of it all.
Saturday rolled over like any other Saturday. We got up, unawares (or maybe in denial) about what lay ahead, had our usual yogurt and apple for breakfast, before heading into town to start Interval 1 (in 1:11) which felt just like our usual morning run. We started and finished at Bledisloe Park, covering roughly our time trial course, but made a tweak halfway through just to spruce things up a bit. Afterwards, we did a bit of gardening and took a quick shower, snacked on some left-over rice-tuna-peas-onion-gherkins-tomato-cheese-dish before heading to our next venue for the second lap. This meal might have been nutrition mistake number one (too much cheese and onion?). And just for good measure, we had it twice during the first few laps.
Parked at the Esplanade Cafe, we thought we’d do two laps in and around the park while we still had daylight. For Interval 2 (1:17), the weather was still okay; just a bit of wind, dark clouds looming, but not cold and we even had the sun coming through at times. Happy to be done with our second interval and with an hour and forty minutes to kill, we opted for a snack at the cafe. After a huge glass of apple juice (probably too much fructose in liquid form?), we got carried away with all the food around us and ordered a plate of fries. Greasy fries!!! Not my best decision in life, but that’s how it was – nutrition mistake number two and probably three, all in one go. And just for good measure, we shared an apple before heading off on Interval 3 (1:12), in the hope that it would “cancel out” the chips and apple juice. Unfortunately, I never recovered from this nutrition faux pas and spent the next 17 hours with agonising pain in my guts.
Gerry also took a turn for the worse on this lap (and he can usually eat just about anything on runs), so we ended up taking short walk breaks to try and compensate for our lack of a nutrition plan and subsequent lack of energy, not to mention my GI distress.
As anyone who’s ever done an ultra before can attest, long-distance events become an eating game, more than a running game. Hydration and nutrition make the difference between making it to the end or quitting halfway through. But, on the upside, this event is perfect for trying out stuff you wouldn’t normally do on a 100km or 100-mile run.
As the sun started to disappear over the horizon, we headed home for a shower, some dry, clean clothing and to nurse my plantar fascia. Whenever time allowed between laps, I rolled and iced the area and did some light stretching in the hope of maintaining the status quo rather than worsen the situation. It was also at this stage that it started to sink in that we might need to do something about our nutrition for the remainder of the event. So, I boiled some spuds as sustenance for the following laps.
Since it’s the middle of winter in NZ and we only have about 10-11 hours of daylight, we realised that at least half of our runs would be in the dark. For Interval 4 (1:16) we opted for circuits around the Massey ring-road, which we thought we might do again at a later stage. But it turned out a bit too dark and we decided to rather head into the Summerhill suburbs for the next three runs.
Glad to be halfway through the Challenge, we headed back home to change into dry undies, have a snack, stretch a bit and head off to our next outing. On the way, we stopped to buy fruit: bananas, oranges, and more apples. Fruit seems to sit well with my tummy on runs, so apart from salty boiled potatoes, I mainly had fruit and the odd dry corn cake with Bovril for the remainder of the event. The latter turned out to be a great snack which didn’t seem to have any adverse effects.
When we started Interval 5 (1:22), the weather took a turn for the worse. The wind had picked up another notch, and less than two kilometres in, it started to drizzle. We didn’t have rain jackets with us, and by the end of the lap we were soaking wet, shoes and all.
Back home we had a quick, warm shower, while the pile of dirty, wet clothing were starting to take on astronomical proportions. Between our laps, for hydration, we also alternated between herbal tea and coffee (the latter might have been another mistake, although I haven’t had issues with coffee before), apart from some water (not nearly enough!), Powerade (only twice), one helping of Barocca and an electrolyte drink (once). This was mistake number umpteenth. When you run only 10km at a time, it just seems like a hassle to carry hydration. We figured we’ll make up for the loss between the runs, which we didn’t. It also caused my pee stops to go out of sync, and on every lap, without fail, I had to search for a bush within the first kilometre. This was particularly tricky on the rainy runs, as Palmy (swamp city) tends to turn into soggy mud and the appropriate bush was usually somewhere soggy and wet.
Interval 6 (1:41) started at one, in the middle of the night. As it was raining and the wind was still going strong, we opted to walk the lap. It’s incredible how many people were out and about, and I was delightfully relieved to see so many taxis on the road. That meant a few less drunks on the road (or pavement!) to worry about.
I was amazed at the amount if people still out chasing Pokemons, in the dead of night! The game has really taken the world by storm as we could spot hundreds of people out staring at their phones, all day and night, everywhere we went. It’s insane. But then again, the skater boys taking shelter at the bus stop shortly before four in the morning obviously thought our sanity needed a check-up.
Interval 7 (1:42) was probably the most difficult as sleep deprivation and sore muscles really started to set in. Leaving the warmth of the house to head out in windy and cold conditions, and to jump puddles and mud in the dark, really tested my resolve. We opted to do the same course as in lap six, just in reverse. By the end of this lap, I picked up a blister. In fact, all the little toes on both my feet felt a bit sensitive from having done, by then, quite a few kilometres in wet shoes and socks.
And suddenly we only had one lap to go. What an awesome, crazy past 20-odd hours it has been. It was still dark when we left home, but by the time we reached the Esplanade, the day started to break. Only to be wonderfully surprised to find two friends waiting to join us for Interval 8 (1:22). Graeme drove all the way from Whanganui and June whom we haven’t seen in quite a long time, both ready and waiting before seven in the morning. The pain almost disappeared as we trotted off on a slow jog chatting away about anything and everything. And although we walked a big chunk of the way, the lap felt so much easier and went by much quicker than it would have, had we not had the great company of friends. Thanks to everybody who supported, encouraged, and chatted and texted through the night (!) to make us keep going. It would have been an awfully lonely experience without the support of friends.
This is fantastic training for anyone thinking of doing a 100 miler (for instance :-)). You get all the ailments of an ultra, without being completely knackered. Sore muscles, painful legs, an upset tummy, blisters, chafing, being over tired but unable to sleep, plus the high of the achievement, albeit smallish in the bigger scheme of things. And the best part is, you get to test and experiment with things like nutrition, hydration, clothing, shoes, equipment, etc, without having your mistakes derail you completely. And even if it does, you haven’t paid a huge entry fee only to end up with a DNF on the race results.
This is definitely something we will do again before our next big ultra. In fact, the next official event from the organisers of the Ultra Interval Challenge is on 8 October 2016. We might just sign up again!