The Ring of Fire

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.

RoF report #2.jpg

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.

Rudi Smith and I running together

Rudi Smith and I running together

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. 

The Ring of Fire ULtra Podium. From the Left: Rudi Smith, Rhys Johnston and ME photo from photos4sale

The Ring of Fire ULtra Podium. From the Left: Rudi Smith, Rhys Johnston and ME
photo from photos4sale

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.

Excerpt from training program to prepare for The ROF. Training Peaks

Familiarise yourself
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. 

Sweet finish line!

Sweet finish line!

Ultra-Trail Australia 100

Photo: Lyndon Marceau

Photo: Lyndon Marceau

Photo: Lyndon Marceau

Photo: Lyndon Marceau

After a successful finish of a 50K in 2015 event edition, I immediately knew that I would be lining up for the full 100K in 2016. It was a serious upgrade, but  necessary for me as well. I've always enjoyed "short and fast" racing – what I was mostly doing in the past two years, but the idea of 100+ was lingering in my head, waiting for the right moment. And "the right moment” for me was (and is) – being prepared, injury free and ready to fight. Finishing 5th overall male was a real confidence boost and a big step into the future long ultras.

Training in the four months prior to the UTA100 went as planned – I managed to increase weekly mileage. The NZ summer was ideal for travelling to mountainous places for a vertical training sessions, and in the final month before the race, I introduced more road running and even a few track sessions, in order to refresh efficient running form and stride. For a science guy, covering various aspects of performance is important. Making it to the start line of UTA100 was a real joy, and with all the training behind me, the remaining 100 kilometres of running felt almost like a straight finish.

The Race.
And we started – with a rising sun. The first kilometres were quick, but I felt comfortably and easy – a good wake-up stretch on the road before hitting a set of stairs and a single trail. There was one rule I set myself for this race – keep it easy until the 50-to-60-km mark. I based this decision on advice from fellow runners, and because I was not overly familiar with the course and terrain of the first 50K lap. For that reason I tried to dismiss any urge of racing from the first kilometers (a competitive mind is always ready to shoot), and rather concentrate on good and efficient stride without overloading still relatively cold muscles. The lead guys were out of sight already, but that didn't concern me too much at this stage, mainly because of the distance left to run. Jordi, Ryan, Yun and Ben were close, and in the following kilometers we moved faster or slower against each other, mostly by the preference of trail we liked – it seemed that I was strong climbing uphill, but was giving time away on the downhills or more technical terrain. Only in post-race review of the results I found that all race I stayed comfortably in the top 10, moving from 8th to 4th positions – right where I wanted to be!

A few big moves happened on the comeback to Katoomba, at the 57-km markFirstly, the checkpoint was a good spot to check how close everyone was. Scott was just leaving when I ran into the Aquatic Centre, and while I was filling my bottles Ben flew into the building and left in a few seconds. That was an ultra-smooth transition, and shows how important it is to have a support crew for races like this. I ran with Ben and Yun for the following kilometres, but as the pace increased I started to feel the first unpleasant muscles twitches, so I had to back off a little bit, even though energy-wise I was still feeling good. Running at a slower, conservative pace prevented any major problems from developing, however I paid the price and lost Ben and Yun from my sight the price. Even with the fatigue starting to creep into my mind, I was having a good time running those final 30 - 40 kilometres. I began to recall tracks I ran last year, and I knew what was coming next and what to expect. Meeting the 50K kilometre runners along the way felt like we were all rushing to the same party at the Scenic World, and that was literally the case.

The checkpoint at Queen Victoria Hospital was – again – a big energy boost. A quick water refill, a few energy gels in the bag and I was off for the long descent on a gravel road. At this point I didn’t know how far ahead I was from Ryan, but I suspected that I would lose a few minutes on the descent anyway – yes, on the downhill! Knowing the toughness of the final 10-kms I decided to save my legs, go slower and hopefully increase my chances of a solid finish. That didn’t work so well at the end – with my muscles failing, Ryan passed a few minutes before the finish. Not the scenario I was looking for. But knowing that I put everything I had in my body on that day, stepping aside was just as positive of an experience as crossing the finish line a couple of minutes later.

I loved the competitiveness of the UTA100. This applies to the other UTWT races – they make you fight until the end, and proves the point that “it’s ain’t over till it’s over”. Every race teaches you something, and if you can take this lesson, and use it to make you a better runner, there is no end of how good - as a runner (and a person) you could be. I am extremely grateful for the support I received on course from people I know and to those I shared trails with. A special thanks to my sponsor Gull NZ for fuelling my training in the most epic locations in NZ and making my sport more visible amongst others. And for The North Face AUS/NZ- for gearing me up from head to toe with the most visible, lightweight and top-end gear, and for the support during the race.

Photo: Lyndon Marceau

Photo: Lyndon Marceau