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!

The top ways to waste your time at aid stations

tarawera50 (4 of 12).jpg

AUTHORS: Andrius Ramonas and Gediminas Grinius (Trail Running Factory)

With major international (Transgrancanaria Ultra, Hong Kong 100 Ultra Marathon, Tarawera Ultra and 100 mile Endurance Run) and local NZ races (The Ultra Easy Ultra, Old Ghost Ultra, Motatapu Ultra, Northburn 100 miler) just weeks away it is time to think about how you will deal with transitions through aid stations during your race.

1.       Go gourmet! First start with the pretzels, then move on to the jam sandwiches, followed by grapes, gummy snakes, then wash down with coke. Repeat at all aid stations.

2.       Pull out your cocktail shaker and Worcestershire sauce to fix yourself a Bloody Mary for your hydration pack. You’ve got to take hydration seriously.

3.       Hide the critical gear your support crew is supposed to be ready with in the bottom of your bag so they can't find it.

aid stations (2 of 5).jpg

4.       Assume that your crew have studied the course map in minute detail and has a superhuman recollection of every part of the course.

5.       Pose to all photographers and cameramen and give short half an hour interview, be the star, this is why you started trail running, isn’t it?  

6.       Go totally mad on your support crew and/or volunteers if they mix things up and don’t have your favourite snack - dried Antarctica monkey kidneys, because you are the BOSS and they are working for you, right?

7.       Aid stations are warm and sheltered, so it is the best place to wait while the rain or snowfall will stop and running conditions will improve.

8.       Explain in great detail to anyone who will listen how you took a wrong turn from the course.

9.       Change shoes and socks at every aid station. Because you like to keep your feet dry.

10.    Pray for trail running gods and ask for the autograph of every Jim Wamsley you meet.

11.    Whip out your iPhone and call your friends to inform them of your progress, and post your on-trail selfies to Facebook and Instagram.

12.    Perfect skills with the gear you have never trialled before.  Didn’t learn how to operate your headlamp or use your poles? The aid station is an ideal testing ground!

13.    Number 13th, really? You should ask for the new number at each aid station, as it is the unlucky one and you are damn slow and tired because of it. 

Ok. Seriously. Here you go:

The fastest way to get through aid stations

1.       Have a nutrition plan and know precisely what foods you are going to be eating during the race. Know three natural foods and three processed ones (e.g. gels) that work for you and stick to your choice during the race. It is not the best time experiment with your stomach. In the months leading up to the race, train your gut to tolerate higher carbohydrate intake. Stomach comfort while ingesting higher amount of foods during long running events can be trained, and frequency of gastrointestinal issues reduced.  

 Gediminas Grinius during Tarawera 100 and his support crew Grant Guise

Gediminas Grinius during Tarawera 100 and his support crew Grant Guise

2.       Rehearse your race plan before race day with your support crew.

3.       If your support crew are crewing you for the first time, educate them:

-   Familiarise them with your aid station routine

-   Show them which pocket you prefer gels to be put in

-   Teach how turn on and switch on headlamp for easier transition

-   Teach them how to make an ice scarf and how and when put it on your neck (useful in hot-weather races)

4.       Don’t stop at the aid station if you don’t need to. However, have a good reason for not stopping. If you are compromising your hydration, you will likely pay the price later in the race.

5.       The aid station is not the finish line, so don’t relax too much. Stay sharp and focus on what you need to do. Have a mini action plan for each aid station and rehearse it in your mind before arriving. For example: “I will hand my two soft flasks to fill with water, while these are being filled, I will drink another cup of fresh water, empty pockets from trash and will put two gels into my front pocket. After taking filled soft flasks I will grab a piece of banana and eat it leaving the aid station.”

6.       Open your handheld bottles before you enter the aid station so that they can be filled even quicker. If rules allow and volunteers can help, don’t fill your flasks by yourself. Use that time to do other things.

7.       In some races, you may be permitted to exchange bags. If so, consider having a twin bag prepared to that you can make a quick exchange and keep going.

aid stations (4 of 5).jpg

8.       Have your most important compulsory gear (waterproof jacket/pants and head-torch) at the top of your bag, because it is the most likely gear that could be checked for a compulsory gear check. Or put it in a transparent bag as it is easy to pull out and show all the mandatory gear.

9.       During the race and between aid stations carry only as much as you need:

Don’t fill all the bottles and don’t take all the gels you possess in first aid station

Use flasks rather than a hydration bladder if there are frequent aid stations

Estimate your water and calorie intake and remember that your digestive tract can only tolerate and absorb approximately 1 – 1. 5 l/h and 60 to 90g of carb/h (depending on composition of carbohydrate meal or supplement), so don’t take unnecessary weight with you

Trash (used gels etc) weighs several grams, so don’t forget to get rid of it at each aid station

The lighter you are the faster you can run and the higher your VO2max :) 

10.    Be grateful to your support crew, as they are doing an important job. Your smile and positivity will boost their confidence, which probably means that fewer mistakes will be made and your run through the aid stations will be quick and smooth.

11.    Having a nutrition plan and supporting race plan is important, but things can go amiss, so it is wise to develop a contingency plan:

-      what if your support crew isn’t at the aid station? Should you wait in hope that they arrive soon, or continue and meet them at the next one? What if the nutrition that you expected to have isn’t available? It doesn’t matter what your decision is, but you must know it in advance.

12. Thank the volunteers before you leave the aid station!

aid stations (1 of 5).jpg

How to become better at running in 2018 (or just any year you like)

armstrong uphill (1 of 1).jpg

Maintain consistency. Running is a skill and needs to be practised regularly. All great distance runners become successful through consistent daily practice. There is something we can do every day to improve performance, even if it is simply reading an article about nutrition or listening to running science podcasts.

Explore and be open to try new things. Another element of your success is to be excited about running, which will keep your spirit high even on rainy days. Once a week try a new path or trail. Check out topomap.co.nz and discover trails, or check the Wild Things trail running directory (https://www.wildthings.club/trails/) for ideas. For dedicated trail runners, be brave and enter a road race. Training for a speedy road run will benefit your pace for trail races. What new event I am trying this year? The Ruapehu Ring of Fire Ultra (http://rof.co.nz). Check it out!

Articulate your goals. Cement your running ambitions with events, or plan “a mission”, and work towards that goal. Kiwi Trail Runner magazine has a comprehensive list of events for 2018. If you are looking for European or worldwide events, see: http://www.i-tra.org and http://www.ultratrail-worldtour.com

Remember that your goals don’t have to be centered around events or going further or faster. Running is also about self-exploration and discovering nature. Perhaps there is a National Park or a trail that you’ve always wanted to explore in your own time and at your own speed.

 Exploring Tongariro National Park (NZ) with Gediminas Grinius

Exploring Tongariro National Park (NZ) with Gediminas Grinius

Run with others. For some of us, running is our daily escape, but don’t become a hermit. Join others for a social run! There is an incredible amount of combined skill and experience in most running groups - share your experience and learn a lot. And on other days keep running just for yourself.

Get a coach. With so many events to choose from, your racing calendar can easily become overcrowded. A qualified coach will help you to prioritize your goals and simplify your life by preparing your training schedule. Your coach's role is also to identify your strengths and areas to improve and structure your training program so that your strengths are reinforced and your weaker areas are addressed. Being able to see your progress as a runner will help you to achieve your goals and give you confidence in setting even more audacious targets in the future.

Join social groups of fellow running geeks. There is nothing better than claiming a course record, and seeing your friends achieve their goals is also a good motivator. Join clubs on Strava and keep track of your progress.

Strava groups for Kiwis: The North Face Trail Running Club – NZ, Skyrunning ANZ, Ultra-Trail World Tour, Tarawera Ultra Marathon, WILD THINGS NZ Trail Running Club

You can also follow my Strava profile: https://www.strava.com/athletes/2090964

 From the left: Andrius Ramonas, Ryan Sandes, Yun Yanqiao, Ben Duffus and Pau Capell

From the left: Andrius Ramonas, Ryan Sandes, Yun Yanqiao, Ben Duffus and Pau Capell

Winning the battle against the heat

raeana heat (1 of 1).jpg

Whilst the summer months grace us with dry trails and a renewed desire to explore, there is one battle runners must face: the heat. Dealing with heat in your training sessions can be a real issue, and if you are (like me) not an early morning runner, then it is likely you will have to face midday sun. Heat poses an extra challenge for the body, but training in the heat can also be beneficial for the endurance athlete. To reap the benefits, it is important to be aware of the risks involved with training in hot conditions, and how to mitigate them.

Benefits

Improved thermal comfort

Better sweat response = Better cooling

Lower core temps during exercise in the heat

 

Risks

Overheating

Loss of fluid (dehydration)

Higher glycogen use

Delayed recovery

Compromised exercise intensity

 

Acclimation. Unsurprisingly, training in a naturally hot environment or a controlled environment (like a sauna) primes you to run efficiently in hot climates. For runners that are travelling from winter to compete in a summer race, training in a controlled environment can be beneficial. Performance can decrease by around 10% when competing and training in the heat. Lack of proper of acclimation could affect performance even more, and present health risks. Many endurance athletes complete 7 to 14 days of repeated workouts in temperatures above 30C in moderate to high humidity to adapt. If you have just arrived in a hot environment I would suggest starting from easy intensity (e.g. 60-90 min running sessions), and after completing 2-3 sessions, adding some high-intensity workouts.

Sports science looking at other means of controlled heat acclimation strategies have found that sauna and hot-water immersion could substitute naturally hot environments. Both strategies reduce core temperature and cardiovascular strain after several days of exposure and bring desirable physiological adaptations.

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 7.46.01 PM.png.jpg

Choose the best time of the day. Avoid midday heat by training early in the morning or late in the afternoon. If this is not possible, consider modifying the duration and intensity of the session, to shorter and easier on really hot days.

Pre-cooling and cooling. If running in the full heat is unavoidable, pre-cooling could mitigate risks of overheating. Beginning the session with a lower core temperature may prolong the session’s duration. This can be achieved by applying ice towels or taking a cold shower or bath before running. Partially freezing your water or electrolytes is a simple way to get some reprieve from the heat during your run. 

Hydrate beforehand. If you feel thirsty before leaving home, make sure you drink a few glasses of water or electrolytes. Sweating rate varies from c.1 to 3 litres per hour on a hot day– (a significant increase to the c.500mL – 1.5L that one would sweat on a cool day). Sweating is the most efficient cooling mechanism that your body can offer. Assuming normal hydration levels before the run, there is little risk of getting into serious dehydration if your run lasts about 1 hour. Plan your water access points if you are running 1.5+ hrs. I like to take one or two handheld bottles, or a small and light hydration pack with me, and always check whether I will have an access to water. Streams that you can see on the map are sometimes dry during the summer season (and if they run through farmland you should not drink from them), so it pays to be prepared. For city runners, water is more accessible and if you plan your route to pass by water fountains, you can complete even a 40km training run without having to carry all your water with you. 

tongariro day2 (4 of 5).jpg

Re-hydration. Restoring fluid loss during exercise is an important part of the recovery process. Adding electrolytes to water improves fluid palatability and natural thirst response, as well as fluid retention in kidneys. Drinking 100 to 150% of fluid for each kilogram of body mass loss during exercise will ensure full rehydration. If you don’t know how much water you lose during exercise in the heat, measure your body mass prior and after the exercise (best naked). Controlling your alcohol consumption is also important. Alcohol has a diuretic effect (that is, it washes water from your body), so consuming alcohol in an already dehydrated state could put you even in worse condition and seriously impair your recovery.

Modify your diet. Training in the heat burns more glycogen (i.e. muscle carbohydrate stores), so it is important to replenish these stores to aid recovery. To ensure good glycogen recovery, do not delay your post-exercise meal. Muscles absorb glucose much faster in the first 2 hours after exercise, so have something ready after you are back from your run. I like foods that are energy dense, nutritious, have electrolytes and fibre in them. Good examples are: fruit smoothie, raw or dried fruits, salad with added kumara or sweet potato, etc. Add some protein to your meal (fish, eggs, cheese, meat or similar) to aid muscle recovery and protein synthesis. If you want to be diligent with your nutrition, it is recommended to consume 1-1.2 grams of carbohydrates for each kilogram body weight during the first 4 hours of recovery. *Note, if you are following low-carb dietary program or “train low” strategy this advice may not apply to you.

Finally, don’t forget your hat, sunscreen and sunglasses. These will help to minimise the risk of sunburn and sunstroke.