Race Report – Tarawera 102km – Troy Sachs
It has been a busy 4 months since finishing UTA 100 in October, followed 4 weeks later by an expedition to climb volcanoes in Ecuador. This only left a 6-week block of specific training for TUM102.
Preparations for an Ultra can be complex for an OCD control freak like myself. Stump care is my #1 priority pre, during, and after events. This adds a layer of preparation and organisation that involves researching the track surface and terrain to a level which is not available in race event guides or race reports. Gathering this info takes time and energy - emailing and calling the event organisers and educating / discussing the needs of an amputee runner.
Once this intel is gathered for a specific event, I go about setting my prosthetic leg change plan.
Before I go any further, Let’s also clear up one thing Peter Sweeny (dude, guru) is not my pacer, he is my leg runner.
The leg plan dictates what leg I wear on what terrain and for how long. This then sets up the crew / checkpoint plan which in some cases requires approval from the organisers to get assistance outside a designated checkpoint. As you can see, this adds a significant layer of complexity on top of the normal hydration and nutrition plan.
This planning is done prior to departing for an event, so you can imagine the state i'm in when the course gets changed at late notice!
Oh wait, I’ve never actually been in an ultra event where the course has not been changed!
I was aware of TUM102 course being changed before flying out, so I set up a meeting for Wednesday morning with the event, race and track directors.
We arrived in Rotorua on the Tuesday evening and got settled into our accommodation and got orientated with the town. The new course details email came out on the Tuesday morning which gave me something to do while travelling to adjust the leg and checkpoint plan ready for the meeting Wednesday with race organisers.
Wednesday’s meeting was smooth and efficient with ample info been passed on. Approval was granted for the additional leg change spots. Mitch and his team were nothing but accommodating and excited to have an amputee attempt their 102km race for the first time. This provided me the opportunity to showcase adaptive sport and promote inclusion.
Post meeting, my trusted crew chief "the bro" and I set out for a full course recce to all of the checkpoints. This is an essential part of the plan, finding the most efficient way to the checkpoints / leg change sites and to look over the trails.
Thursday was race check in, a couple of cold plunges, and a trip to a hot spring pool. We dialled in my race fuelling strategy and set the order of checkpoint priorities. The checkpoint process is a real focus for Tarawera. By developing this process it will allow runner and crew to enjoy the moment, and provide a framework to rely on during tense and or painful moments.
Stump care = remove leg, silicone liner and sweat sock, check stump for hot spots, abrasions etc then put on a fresh sweat sock, silicone liner and leg. This all happens before restocking fuel and the other items normally performed at a checkpoint.
With all the heavy lifting sorted it was then time to pick up The Guru AKA Peter Sweeny from the airport.
Friday was more cold therapy along with Guru’s race check-in. Dirt Church Radio hosted an event interview that I was included in. These guys are a blast and so very TRAIL RUNNING.
My affection for Trail running is layers deeper than the enjoyment I get from visiting the pain cave and testing myself. It comes from the simple inclusive environment a trail event provides. There are not many events where last place is celebrated and admired possibly more than the winner. The grit and determination of humans entering an event where 98% have no galactic chance of finishing first, yet they still feel like winners when crossing the finish line. Trail running is EQUALITY. A race, a cut off time which is all the same for gender and age, able or not, and the Dirt Church boys are all that.
The afternoon was spent putting together the checkpoint bags and creating the leg carrying bag for GURU.
Saturday was race morning. I had slept well, and felt ready for a good a day on the trails. The race plan was to go out SLOW as the first 10km had a significant amount of the entire races vertical. It was a coolish morning however the temperature was expected to rise throughout the day. The start line was pumping with an enormous amount of human energy and camaraderie, and as I crossed the start line my race plan of SLOW seem to be shared by the other 1000 or so punters. I became swept up in the energy, I was finding it difficult to find a rhythm with the blade so I started floating up the hill, picking the gaps and onto the single track. Despite all the rain that had been around pre-race, the trails were in good knick. I'd been focussing on improving my ascending and felt comfortable on the short pitchy inclines and focused on keeping my footing on the declines. CP 1 is at 16.5km however my crew was waiting at a clearing another 1.5km down the road for the first leg change. Running down the road I hear Guru encouraging all runners (Oh how his tone would change as the race goes on) The CP process was flawless and in no time at all I was back into the race refuelled, re-legged and with a wider brim hat as it was starting to heat up.
Around the many lakes edge we would go for the next 11.7km. I was feeling light and had a consistent groove flowing. All was going easy which was playing on my mind, I kept moving forward, drinking and eating as much solid food as possible. 3km or so from CP2 my nemesis appeared, TREE ROOTS. These things were everywhere, full of moss and slippery. It is really the only time that my race plan of START SLOW was put into action during the first 30km. CP2 is a single track into an opening at the lakes edge and is the first CP crew can see their runners. It is set up like a finish shoot, the atmosphere is electric which gives the runners energy like a bolt of lightning. This energy can mask how a runner is truly feeling. I was feeling good and checked in with The Bro and Guru, another stump sock, liner and leg change, refuelled and off I went. I left the CP is a good state, still floating and moving freely. My only true concern was the heat of my stump. The air temp was rising but so was the ground temp. As the ground temp rises feet swell, shoes provide a small amount of expansion, a carbon socket provides ZERO expansion, so when the stump swells it starts pushing against the carbon socket and this causes me nerve pain.
CP 2 to CP3 is most of the scenic part of the race. For 9.8km you get to run through the Redwood forest. It is a trail of 2 surfaces. Forestry roads which are dry, dusty and hot, and single track through the enormous trees clumped together proving a sanctuary from the heat, and a foliage carpeted cushioned path for the feet. 3km into this section you could say the wheels fell off. I started to feel off, but couldn’t really nail it down to just one thing. Slight headache, uneasy stomach, and stump swelling. I kept eating and drinking and moving forward. You can hear the party atmosphere of the Redwoods CP as you descend some enormous stairs. I was focused on the terrain, as we would run this section again in the dark. This helped to take my mind off how I was feeling. These stairs are not like any other stairs, there is no pattern, small step, double step, ½ step, step the size of 3 steps and so on until the CP.
CP 3 to CP4 is 6.7km through the sulphur flats and on to the finish line area called village green. There seems to be a blank spot in the memory bank for this section, possibly due to the rotten egg smell sifting its way through my senses like a nuclear mist, or the fact that the heat was melting me from stump to nose. I was in a world of hurt, a constant stomach cramp pulsating, stump swelling creating nerve pain radiating up along my right side into my right back tooth. It was all glamour, but I was still consuming what I thought was the right amount of food and fluid and relieving the swelling in the stump by removing the prostehtic leg, giving the stump bulb a quick massage and then squeezing the stump back into the socket with a number of stomps.
CP4 to CP5 - As you left the village green a compulsory gear check was completed on the way out. I was really bothered by this as I had just got my race vest back on, situated, tightened, and now had to take it off to get out the required items to be checked. This was a tell-tale sign that I was coming undone at the seams. It was 8.4km back out through rotten egg village and around the outskirts of Rotorua. It was hot and uncomfortable, and I was solely focused on continuing to move forward in steady fashion while eating and drinking foods that have lost all taste. It was snail’s pace into CP5.
CP5 to CP6 - Having a leg runner is a distinct advantage and sits alongside my disabled parking permit of things that I am thankful for being an amputee. The Guru joins the event and it was pre-planned that he will be carrying the leg through CP6, CP7 and onto CP8 a 33.7km stretch. These checkpoints are not accessible for crew. I took my time at the checkpoint changing all leg components, a change of clothes, ate The Bro’s heavy salted potato soup and copious amounts of flat lemonade and dry ginger ale. Nothing had changed with the stomach, stump, or tooth. As I bid farewell to the Bro the weather was turning, and it was cooling off. The Bro’s checkpoint service has been on-point through all components thus far, his acceptance, understanding and devoted support of me inspires me to keep pushing the limits. He has also developed a knack of saying things without saying a word. The Guru and I moved out and started what would be a defining 33.7km solidifying a respect and bond found through hard and gritty times.
We made it to CP6 before dark a total of 9.2km. We fuelled up, changed legs and moved through onto CP7 with quick efficiency. It needed to be quick with the Celtic Warrior jabbering away with a wry smile on his face gaining a sadistic enjoyment through my pain.
Our goal was to keep moving at a steady pace until nightfall hit which would provide a cool relief for the stump. I was hurting not in one specific spot, but all over. Headache, stump, stomach, tooth. I was going deep into the pain cave and sometimes not responsive to the Guru’s questions requests or stories. I kept eating as much as I could from my own pack and also what ever Guru handed me. It was a simple task of move forward drink and eat. I was melting and refused to relinquish the fuel I had been working so hard to put into my body as the stomach cramps raged. CP6 to 7 was hard gritty going.
CP7 was an absolute joy to be at and lifted my spirits like a bolt of lightning. It is run by the scouts. It was around, well I can’t remember, but it was definitely well past the kids bedtime! They were so pumped to be providing nourishment to the runners, with freshly made sandwiches, lollies, tea, coffee, hot soups and an energy that was infectious. We took our time. I changed legs and the Guru patched his feet, probably because he was not use to going so slow on a trail, although he did say that I was doing better than Mark as I'd at least managed to keep my food down.
CP 7 to CP8 was a loop, which lead into the trail to the lake where the bro would be picking us up again, and the last leg I'd have the guru with me. It was pitch black and the guru kept loosing me as I was meandering along on a Sunday walk with me myself and I, head down, wallowing in my misery. There were no complaints, just slowness. This part of the race I will rename flat fizzy as the Guru shoved so much flat lemonade and dry ginger ale into me I was being propelled by belching. We kept moving forward towards the tree root section and into CP8. CP8 had a very different vibe than in the morning. A more sombre mood. Guru found the bro and I got a well-timed hug and did all I had to do with the leg. Guru had done all he signed up to do. He got me to CP8. I was still sitting down and Guru said "stand up!" and I must have given him a look. He then said very calmly "stand up" and he looked me in the eye and said I will stay with you until the next checkpoint if you want to do it my way. I gave him another look and he said it in plainer IRISH which I computed as fall in line solider and follow my lead.
CP8 to CP9 -Leaving CP8 I was still feeling gone but I really felt content and prepared to hurt more than I have ever hurt. I felt the belief, passion and strength from the Bro and Guru that I can do this if I push through. CP8 to 9 is through the Redwoods, up and down short sharp inclines, and down those higgledy piggledy stairs. I was in full follow mode and Guru went back to his scout days, he moved at his pace forward away from me and then hiked as he yelled CLOSE THE GAP. This process was very simple to comprehend and working well as we started moving though the field. As we hit the vert section the Guru parted some more wisdom / motivation by way of asking how mentally tough I was and now is the time to show it, and stated if you have been working on your ascending don’t you also need to come down. Like a red rag to a bull up we hiked and ran down we did. At the top of the stairs you could hear music and a festive atmosphere, I was back from the dead and descended the stairs like a heavy footed Ninja all the way into CP9 and the festival of the dead themed area. It was a lesson filled 8.9km
A final leg change and 6.6 of the longest kms through stinky flats and onto village green and the finish line. 18 hours and 4 minutes for 104km