The German customs officer wasn’t buying it. ‘All the way from New Zealand, for a run?’ Narrowing his eyes, he looked at my passport and back to me. If it seemed like a cover story for dubious activity, the white powder stashed in my bag wouldn’t help the case. ‘Why so far for so short a time?’
I blame Wayne Botha. When expressions of interest opened for NZ team selection in the World 100k Championships, I wasn’t initially going to apply. Thanks to cancellations, slow Covid recovery, and busy life, running a half-decent 100km on the other side of the world in two months’ time seemed ambitious. However, Wayne is a persuasive man, and somehow at the last minute, it happened. I also slightly blame Martin Lukes, who was on Dirt Church Radio podcast around that time mentioning the unique attributes a road hundy offers.
There’s unfinished business there too. Back in 2010 I was keen to rock the World 100k champs in Gibraltar, after inadvertently qualifying with my first 100k. Instead, I had a child, and later the qualifier got tougher. Despite NZ having some solid history in the distance, including two silver medals at Worlds, we hadn’t mustered a team for over a decade. So when the congratulatory selection email arrived 12 years later, it felt like a full-circle opportunity that should be seized. Besides, who wouldn’t want to be on a team with Fiona Hayvice and Mel Aitken?
“It’s only, like, half of 200k,” said the aforementioned Gibraltar-busting child with slight derision. “You’ve done more before.” The problem was less the distance than the speed. Unlike in a 24 hour, I wouldn’t be stopping for any meals or massage.
A road 100k is a head game, a pure pacing challenge. To be in a position for a PB, I knew I would ultimately need to feel good running metronomic 5-minute(ish) kilometres for most of the event. When you’re used to doing a 2-3 hour run at 5.30-5.40 pace, the idea of going faster than that for several times as long can be hard to compute. It comes down to a combo of work and faith.
I wrote a programme to gradually convince my body that running that pace for that long was a reasonable undertaking, and got into it. Out of 8-9 training weeks, I think I lost two to random viruses, which is par for the course, but gradually built up some fitness again. Marcus from Connect Osteopathy helped me stay in one piece, and Trek’n’Travel kept me fueled and clothed (three cheers for awesome supporters). A long run around Tamahere at race pace was a key confidence builder. I set myself a selection of cascading goals. Beating my PB of 8.42 (set 8 years prior), running sub-9 hours, getting under the NZ team qualifying time of 9.20, or just finishing, to ensure a team score.
The trip over was a bit rough, with 10 hours of turbulence on the 16-hour flight to Dubai. I was relieved to finally emerge in Berlin at midnight after about 300 hours on planes. In the morning, I set out for a jetlag-beating run and was wowed by the city’s cycle culture. Loads of bikes, bike lanes, and bike-laden balconies, and the cars seemed to happily coexist. This was probably my favourite thing about the city. Along with the 9-euro ticket that entitled you to go on any train or tram or bus for a MONTH. (Hear that, NZ?)
It was good fun to room with Fiona Hayvice and son Spike (AKA Strike, according to his accreditation). We settled in and went exploring. Berlin is a stunning city and we were only occasionally distracted by an underlying sense of anticipatory dread about the run. I mean, excitement.
The imposter syndrome was intense. Looking out over a sea of fit athletes at meals knowing just how fast they are is a tad freaky. It was also hot, my achilles niggled, and I felt fatigued from the minimal sleep, so there was plenty to work on in terms of staying zen.
On Friday we went to Bernau for the opening ceremony and parade. The bus dropped everyone off early and left, leaving slight chaos as everyone wandered in different directions or sheltered in doorways from a rain shower. Once organised, the parade was a blast. The South African team were in fine voice singing ‘Shosholoza’, and we could shoot fangirl glances at Patrycja Bereznowska just behind. (Note – she ran under 8 hours here (as a warmup?) and won the European 24-hour champs 3 weeks later with 256km. Boom). When it was NZ’s turn to be announced, the band launched into lively oompa music.
Afterwards the summer weather broke, and it poured. The weather on Saturday was meant to do this:
It did not do that. It was kind of misty, and then got warmer.
But I’m getting ahead. My brain’s habit of pinging awake at 3am was finally useful, as we had to be up early. A breakfast of mashed potato, a reflective bus ride in the dark, and then it was time to queue for the toilet, and queue for the toilet again just in case.
Start time came at last. We felt proud to be in the mix in our NZ singlets. Group hug – kia kaha – let’s go! I tucked in and relaxed into the first few kilometres, keeping an eye on the pace. It was fun to see all the action and cheer each other on at the out and backs.
There was a noticeable judder after the 30k mark, where things felt tricky sooner than expected. I was managing my stomach carefully, swapping nutrition where needed. I was thirstier than the temperature would suggest, but suspect this was also the humidity (over 90%). One lap I didn’t take a drink due to a niggly tummy, which was a mistake, but was able to rectify it with a bigger drink on the following lap. The setup was quite handy – we’d come past the tents approaching a keyhole lap of sorts and make an order with Steve (‘Small Nuun bottle, gel, sponge over head, Royale with cheese!’) and then he’d have it ready when we’d gone around the small loop and were heading out again.
I went through the marathon at 3.30 and halfway at 4.10. This started to get my hopes up a little – if I can slow the slowdown enough, a decent PB is possible. However, it’s after 60k that a 100k gets real, and this proved to be true. It gradually took more work to hold the pace. I did not manage to follow Wayne’s advice to run negative splits. Next time!
Many runners cheered each other on during the event, but if there was an ‘athlete’s athlete’ award, I’d give it to Joanne Murphy from Great Britain. Not only did she run a smoking 7.38, but she did it while enthusiastically cheering and encouraging every other athlete in the race en route, even those of us coming in an hour later. Goals.
The laps ticked on. Two steady laps and a bell lap push left, I told myself repeatedly. How did the laps get so much longer? Then the bell lap became a keep-moving-forwards lap, as things started to feel fragile.
When the end came I turned down the NZ flag Steve offered, as carrying it seemed…too much to think about. This is a cause for minor regret. Brains can be in their own world at these times! However, it was a blast to cross that finish line and hear ‘Dawn Tuffery aus Neuseeland!’ one more time.
Mel came in soon after, and we lay on the grass, with a collective mixture of bliss, nausea and cramp. I was pleased that I managed a PB – by a meagre 20 seconds, but still a PB. (These things are satisfying when you’re about to be 40.) Somehow everything held together, despite the niggles and fears, and I felt I’d managed the best result I could muster. There could still be more potential in there too, though the me below probably vowed ‘never again’.
My stomach had held out, just, but finally rebelled. It might be too much information, but I was intrigued to see that the Maurten gels came out looking like a glittering pile of crystal rain, the water storage stuff that you put in plant pots. This does imply it wasn’t doing much on the latter laps.
Fiona came in for a PB also, and we revelled in the relief and joy of finishing. When all was done, I’d come 6th in my World Masters Games age group, 53rd woman in the IAU World Championships (solid halfway) and our NZ team was 13th. Here’s my Strava stats and here are the results.
It was a mission at times, but I’m definitely grateful to have had the opportunity. It was a privilege to be part of the NZ team, and spend some time with a couple of lovely wahine toa.
Huge thanks to those who’ve supported this undertaking. Marcus at Connect Osteo, Trek’n’Travel, Hamilton City Hawks, and Mary Rogerson, Uncle Russ, and Charlie Evans for offering spontaneous donations. Heather and Carl made the biggest contribution and kept the home fires burning. Martin Lukes offered some great encouragement and advice. Steve was a fantastic and indispensable crew person. Cheers to Athletics New Zealand for deciding to send a team too. It’s a special experience to be part of. Thanks to that customs chap for eventually letting me into Germany too.
I’d encourage others to consider this event, especially keen marathoners or ultra trail runners. It’s a race that rewards patience and consistency, and it would be great to see NZ teams become a more regular fixture at the World Champs.
Besides, you too could attain this level of adulation from your family.