It has taken a while but life gets busy (and I misplaced my notes). Time to catch up on a race reporting. Good thing I don’t do this for a living!
The inaugural running of this event traversed the south island from the base of Mt Cook to the ocean at Oamaru. This event is long, fast and the scenery is spectacular. It basically follows the popular mountain biking trail of the same name and conditions under foot are good. There were both supported and self-supported categories with about an even split of racers between the two. I should also mention there was an even split between males and females, something you do not typically see in ultra events. Many participants were newbies (most competing in the supported category) getting their first dose of stage racing. If you want to give the sport a go this may be an event you should look into.
The adventure started of course with travel. Basically fly half way around the world, lose a day, have some of my uncured jerky politely confiscated at customs and land in time to catch the remnants of tropical cyclone Gita. Rain everywhere in Christchurch. In fact the weather stranded a couple of racers due to flooded roads, they barely made it to race check in.
So, after a soggy night we caught the bus to Oamaru, a fun town on the east shore of the south island with penguins, steampunk, and lots to do. Michael Sandri (Race Director) and his crew of volunteers met us upon our late arrival and got us all installed in our lodging. Since my wife Lisa was on the volunteer crew, we were hosted by John and Jacque Crombie at their residence. They were the most gracious hosts, thank you!
Thursday began with an early run around town with our local running guide (and future tent mate) Wendy Fallon. Got to see the sights so to speak before things got too crazy with race check in. The day also allowed for catching up with various racers, some of which you just bump into on the streets!
Friday morning was spent finalizing my pack along with Ian Chidgey. With that done we hiked down to go through equipment checks and the mandatory race briefing. All ready, now it was time to relax and get set for the race!
There were many things to see and do in Oamaru and you can spend quite a bit of time taking in this fun town. One place that I found totally fascinating was Adventure Books, a bookstore in the historical district. It had the most impressive collection of mountaineering and arctic exploration books I have ever seen. Additionally there was a replica of the James Caird, the boat used by arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton during his harrowing sea journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia whaling station to seek help for his stranded expedition. I could have spent days in there.
Additionally, Oamaru is also known for steampunk so you have to visit the creepy Steampunk HQ to round out the sights.
The A2O race itself has more of an “event” vibe to it than a competition. The staff pulled out all the stops and did an exceptional job of producing quite a spectacular affair. The night before our departure we were treated to a wonderful welcoming dinner with a complementary ride on the town’s “wee train”. The excitement was very evident and all were pumped up to get going.
Everyone was up early for a 0700 bus departure to the bivouac. We had to walk down the historical part of town to board the coaches where we faced off with members of the local boys school who gave us a traditional Maori Haka war chant/dance send off.
Once we boarded, the coach ride was via the scenic route and multiple stops. The first nights camp was in a vacation area with lots of cabins. My tent mates included some old friends and new ones.
Our “last supper” consisted of steaks on the grill, chicken skewers, salad, bread, corn, brownies and ice cream. Mighty nice. Unfortunately that night the mountain winds really picked up with gusts in excess of 50 mph (81 kph) . Not a whole lot of sleeping going on even with ear plugs!
Day 1 / Stage 1:
Day one consisted of two stages, the first was a quick 4.1 miles (6.6 km) somewhat treacherous stage over lots of rocks. This was to take us from the start which was a short walk from camp to an airfield on the plains below. The reason for this short stage was so we could get a hop over the river by helicopter. Yep, everyone was moved to the start of the second stage by air. This was quite a treat for those how have never experienced rotor flight. For those of us on the early birds there was a lot of shivering in the bush waiting for the rest of the racers. Temperatures had dropped and the wind was picking up.
Day 1 / Stage 2:
This stage was considerably longer but none slower. The start was at 0900 and the wind continued unabated for the remainder of the day. Fortunately it was from behind but the buffeting took a lot out of you. While there were many miles of dirt road, there were several miles near the end with fist size pebbles which necessitated a slower pace. By the end of the stage everyone was quite spent. Being older I took a thirty minute nap soon after crossing the finish.
Day 2 / Stage 3 (32 miles / 52 km):
This was a clear and calm day (thankfully). Everyone slowed their pace somewhat but it was fast on early road sections. As the day progressed the weather heated up some. The last two miles were over beach pebbles to camp which was by a nice little lake that allowed for a quick wash up. Everyone was getting into the swing of it and the early jitters had abated. Even so it was now apparent that there was going to be some serious racing at the front of the men’s self-supported field. Not any room for mistakes.
Day 3 / Stage 4 (54+ miles / 87+ km):
The Long Stage. It was cold for the start. Of course, the pace was fast at the beginning since it was on a road. Fortunately, a long hill climb slowed it down. Brendon Thompson was chomping at the bit but he held back early and we ran most of the day together. Curly Jacob went out fast be we eventually reeled him in when his group missed a turn. Since this was the stage to do or die at about the half way point it turned into a real race. I was having a good day and by the time the last aid station came around I was only about a minute behind the overall stage leader and tent mate James Kohler. All that remained was a hand full or so of miles and one big climb which I was looking forward to. Unfortunately, half way up I hit the wall hard. I had been managing my nutrition well all day long but just basically underestimated my caloric needs. While I wanted to push thru to the end it just wasn’t in the cards. I had to stop and dig out some more food and by the time the sugar levels were coming up Curly and Brandon had passed on by. I limped into camp and enjoyed my evening meal of apple crisp and coconut oil. Most of my tent mates made it in during the wee hours of the morning. No problem sleeping that night!
Day 4 / Rest day:
The day was spent visiting, washing clothes in the river and recovering as well as cheering others as they arrived. Most everyone was raving about Lisa and how supportive she is. All look forward to her aid station (especially me)! For those who had to drop out, many were coming back to finish the race in an unofficial capacity or to volunteer. It is great that there was these options! Ice cream treats were provided later in the day and since I am addicted to ice cream this calmed my withdrawal symptoms.
Day 5 / Stage 5 (28 miles / 45 km):
One of the shorter stages of only about 28 miles. While there were some road miles, there were also nice trail sections and some climbing towards the end of the stage. Are you getting the picture here? Be ready for some hard miles at the end of each stage! The finish was down by a river and for some reason camp was not. Oh well, I didn’t really care at that point and just laid down in it to cool off since it was hot and humid. After a bit Curly Jacobs, Paul Hewitson and I were rounded up and put into the alternate form of transportation for the trip down the river to the campsite. We were being conveyed to our tents via the New Zealand designed water craft, the jet boat. The video says it all.
The surprises just keep coming!
Day 6 / Stage 6 (34 miles / 55 km):
This was the last long day and as such there was a 7:00 am start. The race was neutral for a couple of kilometers to get us off a road and onto a trail. The sky was very overcast at the start but not raining. The track took us along a vineyard for a while and as we rounded the corner we hit the first aid station. No water but wine and cheese! So European. We had our choice of a pinot noir, rose or a white along with various fromage and crackers. The temptation to hang out and (over) partake was very high even though it was before eight in the morning.
Unfortunately the pace was again fast and one could not dawdle too long. Late in the stage I became aware of a din up ahead that I could not figure out. Turned out to be a small grade school where class were let out and all were lining the track to cheering us on. It was impressive! They were all so excited to see us, high fives everywhere.
Day 7 / Stage 7 (18 miles / 29 km):
The last stage! Basically downhill back into town and since it was only 18 miles, everyone thought sprinting was appropriate. The staggered start was in three waves and all were eager to get going. I hung on for as long as possible but at about the half way point just throttled back and enjoyed the day and the company of those along the way. The finish was rocking and the crowds were excited. Subway sandwiches and coke were available as well as the local brew pub about 200 meters away. All was good and everyone was happy to be done and reconnecting with friends and family.
After a wash up we congregated for the post race party and awards in a old converted wool shed in the historical district. Food was plentiful and lots of fun was had reliving the week. It is amazing how different people look when they are cleaned up. Hard to recognize some of them! I enjoy these post race bashes because everyone is already friends and you can get down to partying!
While I gave the non-linear fueling strategy a go in Patagonia, this time around I was much more rigorous about it and found this actually may be something. Since A2O was an exceptionally long race I opted to bring along more calories than typical. Some thought is was overkill but in the end I believe that it helped out immensely. Even though I had sufficient food to compete overall, I did lose 3.4 kg (7.5 lbs) of weight. Some other self-supported competitors lost over 4 kgs (8.8 lbs)! I totally believe that this strategy was key to my performance.
I wound up not being able to eat some of my food on the rest day and the last day’s breakfast of Expedition Foods Scrambled Eggs and Potatoes was unpalatable. (note to self: never bring this stuff again). I estimate I did not consume about 1,000 calories of my 19,220 that I brought.
Final notes on this subject is the need for more on the move food during the long day. I was planning on about 100 kcals/hr for each estimated hour I was running and for stages less than 30-35 miles this estimate worked out fine. As stated above I was short on the long stage. Based on that experience anything over 35 miles I would up the planning number to 125-150 kcals/hr. This underestimation wound up costing me about 20 minutes.
Some Final Thoughts
Alps2Ocean has a relatively inexpensive entry fee and all profits went into trust to benefit the youth of the community of Oamaru. Michael wanted to have an event that would not be unduly expensive when combined with the cost of air fare to NZ. The Alps2Ocean crew got huge buy in and support from the locals to make that happen and for a first time event they really hit the mark.
The group of volunteers supporting the race were outstanding and it was obvious there was significant effort put into this event. Even though they were understaffed at times, everything came together. One big hit was the camp Psyio. He worked some long hours and helped many through some injuries that would have typically knocked them out of competition. I even took advantage of the service with some dry needling on my calf for a bit of release for a swollen Achilles tendon.
Total mileage for this event exceeded the advertised amount. Between several of us the consensus was a total distance of right around 200 miles (325 km). All the more reason to consider extra calories! I would say count on 2,500 per day.
Scenery, awesome scenery. The south island is stunning and everywhere you look there are beautiful sights. That is enough to consider taking a trip to this part of the southern hemisphere.
In closing, I find this quote by a famous Kiwi to be appropriate:
“You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things — to compete. You can be just an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals.”
Sir Edmund Hillary
Attempting Alps 2 Ocean is a challenging goal and those who toed the starting line, they are truly fantastic. I am grateful for being there with them all.