“Gimme booze gimme drugs gimme dazed and confused or gimme death” is not the most positive or prosocial race mantra around, but it’s mine. I don’t listen to music when I run but inevitably lyrical phrases and snatches of melody sneak into my awareness and bounce around slowly like a 90’s screen saver.
For some reason this nihilistic statement from Trash Talk, the ferocious hardcore band from Sacramento California, springs to mind whenever I line up to race Total Sport Riverhead Xterra. If you are going to race to smash yourself to pieces then I guess you need a fitting soundtrack.
This desire to RUIN myself on this particular event comes from the fact that Riverhead is my home. I live in the village and I’ve spent more time in the forest than I remember. Amongst the pines is my place of calm. I work shifts and run at odd hours. I’m often alone (either literally or perceptually) in a forest the size of Rangitoto Island. No matter how much I challenge myself, how taxed my cardiovascular system is, how tired and sore my muscles get, running in Riverhead is inherently restful. Except for the Xterra. The Xterra is something different. The Xterra is a race I feel I owe a debt to, and every year since 2012 I’ve returned to try to pay that debt back.
Overall I’m pleased with how things played out. I’m not gutted per se that I didn’t meet my goal of two hours.
Those last sentences may sound a touch dramatic, but the 2012 edition was a lesson in humility. I showed up, having no respect for the distance or conditions. I was 15 kilos heavier than I am now and sporting a brilliant white pair of Nike road shoes. It was July. I was competing in the super long course. I rumbled over the line three hours later, tired, cold and embarrassed. I’d had a real beating. The best lessons are hardest learned I guess, and I became determined from that point on to become stronger, more efficient and to better my initial starting time by as close to an hour as I could.
Every subsequent year I became stronger and faster, crossing the line 25, then 35, then 45 minutes faster. With the increased training, skill and speed came an increased sense of satisfaction and a deep enjoyment of the sport. This year, having partnered with Kiwi Trail Runner magazine and James Kuegler Coaching to document the effect that consistent training and coaching would have on an otherwise average athlete I felt both better prepared and more nervous than I have previously. Better prepared because, well..running. You know, a lot. More nervous because I’d written about my desire to succeed in this race in a magazine. Want to feel a sense of pressure and (self) expectation? Publish your goals.
So we fast forward to the morning of the event. It’s been RAINING for the last 10 days and I’m ready to get amongst the Super Long course. At registration, a crowd had formed, The time-honoured pre race rituals of BS and sandbagging that runners undertake were in full effect. This always increases my anxiety so I avoid it as much as possible. I do little things like leave my gear bag in the car, walk to the registration, get my bib, walk back, change, then walk down again. Moving around eats up my worry and gives me time to mentally prepare. I met some friends before the start who commented kindly on the amount of training I’d gotten in prior to the event. This only served to increase my anxiety further. I found myself standing on the start line nearly beside myself with nerves.
Off goes the gun, 150 people start their watches and we’re off up Barlow road. I’m guilty of starting most races a touch too hot and guess what? A 4 minute km out the gate possibly wasn’t the smartest idea. So it goes. As we hit the first of what felt like many climbs the old mantra was replaced by the advice I’d been given by James before the race “Run smooth, the pace will look after itself”. Thinking about my form and running efficiently calmed me greatly and I began to enjoy the experience, not pushing myself too hard on the ups (climbing isn’t a strong point) and descending as quickly and elegantly as I could. The gravel sections provided an opportunity to push the pace as well. I found myself locked in a passing battle for most of the course with a group of guys who were marginally faster than me on the fire road but slower than I was on the rough stuff.
If you were a first timer doing this then I could see how it could feel endless.
I’m part of the team that puts on the Riverhead Rampage. The OTHER half marathon that happens at Riverhead. When I designed the course that included the Cobbler’s Lane climb at 19 km (affectionately dubbed ‘the wall’), I laughed for about three days thinking how difficult it would be. Man, I’ve been called names over that little course addition. Imagine my surprise when 7km in we turned left down Cobbler’s lane (which is a brilliant little trail, the perfect downhill grade to let it all hang out) and then inevitably swung up to the right and up, up, uppp. It’s two hundred metres long and a stone cold bastard. Near the top I somehow found the energy to turn back to yell at “Riverhead HARD!” at Nicebug Tim and Graham, who were starting up the climb. At the top, with the words “You’ll get yours, Rayment!” ringing in my ears I set off hard knowing that the next three km were a fire road descent. Tim and Graham are both solid dudes, but I was determined to put some time on them, so I put in a strong move to the start of the forestry road climb at 10 km. Oh, yeah, for those of you reading who’ve run the Rivram 21, and are thinking that now I’ve raced up the wall and hope I have empathy with you all into next year? forget it. I regret nothing. If anything I’m looking for ways to add MORE challenge.
The difficulty with race reports is you can get wholly bogged down with minutiae. Now, I love me some minutiae and knowing the forest as I do, I’m loathe (sorta) to break it down into 100m sections, so bear with me if things from this point get more ‘thematic’ in nature.
The 1km long climb from the forestry road gate sucks when it’s wet. It always has and always will. I put this into the “this is 9 minutes of my life I will never get back” category and pushed on to the top. That this climb is a regular route of mine really helped, as I knew exactly when it would finish and where it was going. If you were a first timer doing this then I could see how it could feel endless.
From there it was through about a kilometre of primo Riverhead single track, up another steep pinch to the last Long/Super Long split. More gravel road leading to a fun clay descent down Cry Baby Hill (That’s its proper name apparently. I always call it the Devil’s Thumb). I’d been pushing hard for the whole time and was playing some mental games to break the remaining distance down into achievable bits. About the time we hit Gary’s Hill on strip road my legs were sore, but the rest of me was fine, so I kept pushing as hard as I could. At this point it was about trying to get the balance between blowing up and winning at running just right.
4km from the finish is a single track descent that goes on for approximately a kilometre and I had the pleasure of running with Claire Atkin-Smith. It was an energising blast taking turns off the front, passing people left and right and marvelling at Claire’s form as she danced down the slick and rutted trail.
From the bottom of that trail until the finish it became about getting it done. This is the point where all the courses merge, so you’re running on incredibly muddy single track with the Long, Mid and Short course runners. My strategy of “only race yourself’ was amended to “only race yourself…and that guy! Screw that guy!”. The knowledge that I’d not met my goal time didn’t distress me as judging by the amount of people I was running with, the lack of Super Long course bibs I was seeing I knew that comparably my performance was stronger than in previous years. And, just like that, we’re running across Barlow Road into the field where the finishing chute is. Done. 2.11.52 for 14th open male (for the last time), 20th male and 22nd participant overall, which is a satisfying result.
Overall I’m pleased with how things played out. I’m not gutted per se that I didn’t meet my goal of two hours. Challenging conditions (it was the muddiest I have ever experienced at Riverhead) and the fact that the course had been altered from last year (much more trail/climbing) put that out of reach as I’ve still got a long way to go in terms of pace on climbs. I’m excited to race next year and see how I can better my time. That’s fun. One big area for improvement is starting more consistently. Running a fast first Kilometre is cool and all, but is of little utility in the grand scheme of your race. I really enjoyed the technical nature of the trail. As a local it’s good to see Riverhead’s amazing trails being showcased, rather than stereotypical clay and puddles.
As I said at the start, I work shifts so it’s difficult to get to most of the Xterra series. Riverhead is one event that will always get me down off my perch to race. Thanks Total Sport, I’ll definitely be back to repay my debt next year.