I discovered Tongariro National Park not long after arriving in New Zealand. I had no idea that the Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand’s most iconic walk, attracted most visitors to the area. Instead, I ran up to the Red Crater and to Mt Ngauruhoe. I distinctly remember my new trail shoes looking like road shoes by the end of the run. This was my first encounter with volcanic trail of this kind. The terrain was how I imagined the moon to be; eerie and barren, populated by a silent army of stones. National Park’s open and uninterrupted landscapes are humbling. You are a slow-moving speck on this vast horizon of immovable mass. Despite any sensations of loneliness or displacement, you become a necessary and integral part of the environment.
I returned to National Park during different times of the year, and explored the Northern Circuit, and various other tracks with friends. The Tussock Traverse taught me again that the trails are unforgiving on running shoes: they were brimming with grit and sand by the end of the run. I also have fond memories of summiting Mt Ruapehu with a fellow Lithuanian friend, Gediminas Grinius. We slid down the snowy slopes, an unlikely mid-summer adventure before the Tarawera Ultra in 2016.
The Ring of Fire 73km solo event appealed to me because it represented a true adventure, it wasn’t just a competitive event. I had never completed the circuit around Mt Ruapehu in one hit. There is no easy way ‘round the mountain, and the course captures the true ruggedness of National Park.
The Friday evening before race day, I went for a two-kilometre jaunt to stretch my legs. It was amusing to think that we would begin racing before the night was over. This demarcated a mental shift into race mode – in my mind I had already crossed the start line. Having this mindset had its advantages, but it also cost me some sleep that night. The 4am start-time of the race was reminiscent of ultra-races in Europe. I am no morning person, but on this occasion my excitement overrode my sleepiness. I felt fresh and sharp.
The first ten kilometres were familiar and the leading pack was not overly aggressive with pacing. A race start like this is a gift: normally the first stages are quick and it becomes a matter of hanging on until the finish. This wasn’t because we weren’t capable of a quick start. The first leg (infamous in its own right, and fondly known as The Goat) is technical and is followed by an equally challenging second leg. Taranaki runner Rudi Smith and I finished the first stage together. My body had warmed-up nicely and the legs felt good on the uphills.
Rudi and I continued to yo-yo for another few kilometres, when I managed to catch a break. It was a gentle lead, and I could spy Rudi running behind. In order to begin the last section with a reasonable lead, I worked on making a series of small gains. My running was relaxed and confident. Running with confidence, even under pressure, means you stay aware of your body’s needs. When you address these needs (i.e. hydrating correctly, eating the right amounts), you have fewer reasons to be concerned or stressed.
In the days before the race, I tried to memorise the elevation profile. Committing all of the ups and downs, huts and aid stations to memory added another layer of confidence. It may sound extreme, but I try to minimise any actions that may drain time, energy, or cost me a mistake. In the final leg, I visualised the exact stream that I would stop at to fill my water flask. It was two extra steps from the track. I didn’t take my headlamp off until Tukino Rd at the compulsory gear check, so as to not waste time. This practice of minimisation or simplicity also translated to my nutrition plan. I chose a few food options and did not stray from them. From memory I consumed nine energy gels and a small piece of banana during the run. Simple practices don’t compromise your flow.
At the final checkpoint I was feeling positive. The third and final leg was undulating trail, and I felt I could sustain a decent pace. Sjors Corporaal from one of the relay teams breezed past, and I felt like I was standing still. I could feel him approaching and I could tell by his speed that he wasn’t a solo runner. Nonetheless, I did feel slow in comparison.
The beauty of the race is that you can see the finish line, the Chateau, from a distance. I had time to savour the last kilometres running on well-formed track. The final moments of a long-distance run are similar to the feeling of walking out of an exam room. Hours of study and intense concentration tumble from your head and fan down your neck and shoulders. Your mind releases itself from the task of calculating, scanning and maintaining focus. Instead you give yourself over to the emotions of the journey, and the simple joy of crossing the finish line.
Place: 1st male overall / Time: 8h 46m
Training for the Ring of Fire
My advice for training for the Ring of Fire can be summarised quite simply: get to know the course, and tailor your training to suit the terrain.
As part of my training, I acquainted myself with the course. I was lucky to be able to go to Tongariro National Park to train over a weekend. If you have the chance, go and try different sections of the course, even hiking is helpful. As you are running or walking, memorise certain features of the track. It builds confidence around how you will expect to run during different sections, and how long it may take you.
Be specific with your training
Trail runners can work on different skills at once because they are training for a variety of events. Leading in to key events it is wise to concentrate on particular skills (e.g. technical or uphill running). For the Ring of Fire, it meant investing more time on feet.
The technical terrain drains a lot of energy from musculoskeletal system so it was important to build sufficient power and strength. To achieve this, I completed several strength and conditioning sessions in the gym each week. In terms of running, I incorporated various high intensity and uphill sessions, mixing technical, road and even treadmill workouts into my training. The treadmill was the experimental part of my training – exploring the possibilities of uphill training in the simplest way possible.