Trials and tribulations of the KSR trail running team.
Well I think I will keep things brief in my recount the race, both Dave and Ben have done a fabulous job detailing the experience and below Dan’s report is perhaps the most intriguing one of all! So here we go……
12 months ago while standing at the 50km checkpoint of the 2012 Kokoda Challenge I saw what I thought to be utter trail running gods run into and out of the checkpoint under course record pace…. the team of course was that of No Roads Racing. It consisted of the very cream –de la-cream of NSW trail running. They had won the Kokoda Challenge in the previous 3 years and despite the best efforts of our pervious QLD teams they could not be toped. I watched the presentation ceremony later the next day and standing there in the mud of finish line thought to myself “That’s enough, it’s time we did something about this” (fuelled in part by the current Football State of Origin that was taking part) I made the decision to put together a winning QLD team that could come back next year rival NSW’s and bring the title home, where it belongs.
Fast forward 12 months and there I was standing on the start line of the Kokoda Challenge 2013 arm in arm with some of the best trail runners QLD has to offer but more importantly 3 of my closest mates! To say the process of getting 3 other top level trail runners to the start line was easy is equal to saying the race itself is like a walk to the shops! However thankfully enough when I looked abroad for team support companies like Kokoda Spirit, Ron Hill Down Under and Compressport where all too willing to help and made our preparation and competition that much easier.
As for the race itself unfortunately the No Roads team were unable to compete this year which was a bit of a disappointment but none the less our eyes were still firmly fixed on the prize…the Kokoda Title. We set ourselves a reasonable goal 12hrs 30min which we figured (without No Roads) would be enough to win without taking any unnecessary risks. For me the race was perfect, I felt strong on the ups, fluid and controlled on the downs. It wasn’t all beer and skittles though, as I had a little rough patch between 40-46km where we hit a long section of flat running, the sun was out and I hadn’t been drinking as much as I should, nothing serious my pace didn’t drop I just felt a bit rubbish. Thankfully when we rolled into the 50k checkpoint our well-oiled crew where there with a cold coke waiting (the drink not the powder!).
The rest of the race was a battle of the climbs as Dan struggled with his cramps on every little rise, however in true Kokoda Spirit Dan never complained about how hard he was doing it, he never once said he wanted to quit…it just wasn’t an option in his (or our) eyes, no matter what happened or how long it took the 4 of us where going to finish, win or no win. In the end we helped Dan nurse his wreaked legs to the finish line and towards the 2013 Kokoda Challenge Title.
I’d like to thank the boys Dave, Ben and Dan for sharing this experience with me, for listening to what was a distant pipe dream 12 months ago, believing in my craziness and helping it come to fruition. Our crew for your outstanding performance on the day, our sub 3min checkpoints were not achievable without you…and we needed every minute. La Sportiva, Ron Hill Down Under and Compressport for your belief in my running and finally to my ever understanding and patient wife Tymeka, without you none of this would have been possible.
Nearly 15 years ago, I listened as local ultra running legend Don Wallace gave an impromptu pre-dawn lecture on the amazing Antarctic journey of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. Just moments from starting a three-day relay race, our team would soon be battling the stinging heat and crippling humidity of late November as we bolted through the Gold Coast, Scenic Rim, Toowoomba and Ipswich. Team captain Don, who would go on to set a number of Kokoda Challenge course records with his team Nike Hammer, had clearly intended this history lesson to inspire us through the long weekend.
But as Don talked of ships cracking under the strain of encroaching sea-ice, frostbite-induced amputations and the perils of an all-penguin diet, it became harder and harder to see the connection between Shackleton’s polar exploits and our own sweaty endeavour. After rounding up the story of the crew’s (well, most of them) remarkable survival against seemingly impossible odds, Don abruptly changed tack.
“So if any of you think this weekend is going to be tough,” he barked, “you don’t know what tough is about.”
I’m not an incredibly experienced ultrarunner, nor am I a natural on the hills like my Kokoda Spirit Racing teammates are. I’ve completed a 100km race before, but on a much more forgiving course, so I knew going into the race that despite being four kilometres shorter, the Kokoda Challenge was going to push me harder and for longer than any race I’d ever attempted.
Pushing yourself is never comfortable. It can be rewarding, inspiring and even exhilarating, but it is never comfortable. We all face times when we could take the easy way out, or the flat way around, and the temptation to take the path of least resistance can be extremely persuasive. But as Don reminded me, the best cure for this condition is a healthy dose of perspective. On the Kokoda Challenge, the brutal reality of the campaign that gives the race its name is all the perspective you’ll ever need to push yourself through 96 kilometres.
If you’ve read Ben, Dave’s and Caine’s report, you know how the story of KSR’s first Kokoda ends. We set out to finish as a team, win and come in under 12hr 30min, and we ticked all three boxes. You’ll also know that in the latter stages of the race, I started cramping badly in my calves, slowing us significantly. In any team race, you’re only as fast as your slowest runner, and two weeks ago that slowest runner was me.
I’d kept pace with the guys (still slower on the descents, but not worryingly) pretty well until around the 60km mark, but the alarm bells had rung in my head within the first hour of running. At the top of the first off-road ascent, my calves were screaming. My lungs, quads, everything else felt fine, but that steep hike had exposed a weakness. I’d hiked more than ever in training but at the end of the day, it hadn’t been enough. I had a potential solution though – to break up the hills into hike-run segments to take the heat off the calves. At a very slow pace and with high cadence, running steep hills still isn’t as efficient as hiking but it’s not terrible. I used the combination method for 50km without incident.
But when we hit the longest climb of the day, the loose dirt, overgrown foliage and treacherously placed rocks made running virtually impossible. I hiked out of necessity, and my calves simply weren’t up to the task. The fatigue slowed me dramatically towards the top, despite Dave’s appreciated encouragement, and as the trail levelled out I found that I was unable to go from hike to run without stretching, regardless of the pitch. Sharp cramps grabbed at my lower legs, jolting me out of rhythm and forcing me into an awkward stumble. The shallow climb out of the bush into Checkpoint 8 should have been a relieving jog, but I was reduced to a stilted march.
Thankfully, a long downhill and subsequent flat section allowed us to keep moving pretty swiftly. I couldn’t run fast, but I could sustain the pace we needed to be at between ascents. The longer we ran, the more I could run freely, but the more we climbed, the worse the cramping got. Our advantage on the clock was being whittled away with every ascent, ‘20 minutes ahead of schedule’ turned into ‘breaking even’ in a single leg.
We were losing the battle, and I was holding us back. Had the primary objective been a sub-12hr30min race, I’d have dropped before the last supported checkpoint (CP12) and let the guys go at their own pace. I had enough energy to keep moving, but fuel in the tank isn’t enough to get weak and cramp-fatigued muscles from getting worse with each step.
I’ve very nearly dropped out of more ultras than I’ve finished. I’m not proud of it, but looking back on each event I’d have made the same decision to stop and avoid real long-term damage each time. While damage is a possibility in every race, pain is a certainty. Pain will be there whether you’re in danger of injury or not, and the most painful races I’ve ever run, I’ve finished.
At around 80km, my left calf seized up violently, involuntarily pointing my toes and contorting my calf into a solid ball of contracting muscle. Caine and Dave took turns forcing my foot back until the cramp subsided, the pain disappearing almost as quickly as it had hit. Caine wasn’t wasting any time.
“Good to go?”
I knew that the cramps were going to happen again. The further we went, the worse it would be. But cramps are just cramps. They hurt like hell but they don’t really damage you. At the end of the day, I was a pampered athlete wrapped in world-class racing gear and full of the best race nutrition products on the market. So my leg hurt. Big bloody deal. They’d get better. Nobody was shooting at me. This Kokoda hurt, but it was nothing compared to what the soldiers went through in the highlands of PNG seven decades ago. Nothing. Sheer perspective informed me I was good to go, so I went.
Shortly after we left CP12, the math started. How many kays to go? How many genuine big hills? What angles were we talking about? Could we run sub-6min kilometres on the downhills? I tried to block it out. I still had energy but my calves weren’t going to let me get to a pace that would use it all, so I was going to run as fast as I could until we hit the finish line. That equation was simple.
Ben had mentioned along the way that you have to run the last part of the race with your head, not your legs. My legs were definitely not going to help me if I slipped into autopilot, so a strategy was developed. I hiked the hills, trying to let my hamstrings and glutes take on the strain usually taken by the calves. I quickly stretched at the top of each climb, built up to a run pace gradually, easing back for a few steps with every big muscle twitch. Caine, Dave and Ben kept the encouragement up and did their best not to break my strange rhythm, which appeared to be working.
We didn’t know we were going to go under our goal time until the final kilometre, when Caine and Dave’s local knowledge of the last twists and turns of the Nerang firetrail kicked in and the equations sounded a lot more favourable than they had at CP12. I don’t know how, but even with my awkward jolting action we had slipped under goal pace again in the very last stretch.
The patience and support shown by my teammates was incredible. We set out to finish as a team and even when it looked like that might cost us the win or our goal time, they kept to the plan. This was an exercise in mateship, and Ben, Caine and Dave showed true Kokoda Spirit in staying the course and making sure we achieved what we’d set out to.
Without the sensational support of Kokoda Spirit, Ron Hill Down Under and Compressport, I wouldn’t have made the startline, let alone finished! A huge thanks to our crew of Delina, Matt, Caroline and my dad Greg, the support of my mum Lisa and the entire Lazzaro clan was also greatly appreciated. Finally, a huge thankyou to my wonderful Krista for putting up with this silly running malarkey!