I have wanted to have another crack at the Ultra Easy ever since I ran it in the inaugural year back in 2015. I was chased down in the last 13km along the river by local legend Grant Guise, having totally underestimated the intensity of the last downhill section, and ended up coming third. Injury kept me away in 2016 but by 2017 I was rearing to go again.
For those that are unfamiliar with the Ultra Easy it is a 100km race located in Wanaka, NZ. There is 4700m of ascent across the course climbing over two big peaks, Roy’s Peak and Mt Pisa. The race start is a very early 3am, but the silver-lining to this is the amazing sunrise on top of Roy’s Peak looking down over Lake Wanaka.
Now for the boring stuff about how my day panned out. We were counted down in the dark but our loyal supporters and took off towards Mt Iron. The climb up was quick and soon we were looking down on Wanaka’s lights twinkling below. Already we had formed a lead group of three 100k runners, and were joined from time to time by some of the relay runners. As we ran through Wanaka township we passed a few people heading home that looked a little worse for wear, and were pretty surprised to see us flying past. Settling into a steady pace along the lakefront we bantered away until we reached the first challenging part of the course.
At the Roy’s Peak aid station I was met by my support crew/girlfriend who quickly switched out my bottles and handed me my poles. It was my first attempt racing with poles, so I was interested to see how they would perform. We stayed as a group of three to the top of Mt Alpha, before I dropped back a bit while I attached my poles to my pack. This suited me as I was planning on taking the first big descent easy, having learned from past mistakes of pushing the pace a little fast too early on. I knew that we had made fast time up to Alpha because it was still pretty dark and from memory it was already light when we hit the top of Roy’s Peak back in 2015.
I arrived at the Cardrona aid station a few minutes behind Martin Kern and with West Hill right on my heels. Time for a quick bottle change, gel restock, and exchange of head-torch for stylish Ultra Easy cap provided by race director Terry and some Julbo sunnies. Just wish I’d remembered to put on some sunscreen. As we made our way up to Little Criffel West and I slowly caught Martin. When we reached the “top” of the ridge before it undulates along to Bob Lee hut I decided it was time to put the hammer down. I managed to get a couple of minutes ahead of Martin and West. One of the disadvantages of being on a course with such good views is that there’s always the temptation to look back and see how far behind you the next runner is. I tried my hardest to just focus on running forward but every now and then my fear got the better of me. My goal was to try and put 10 minutes on Martin by the top of Mt Pisa because I know how strong he is on descents, and I wanted to give myself a decent buffer. However, as we made our way to Bob Lee hut and then up to Mt Pisa he was still close enough to give me a cheeky wave.
I was left with no choice but to give the descent everything that I had, and then just hope to hold it together for the final 13k along the river. I was glad I chose my Salomon S-Lab Wings at this point as they have a little bit more protection than what I normally race in, so I didn’t destroy the soles of my feet on the way down. On my first attempt at the Ultra Easy I went in with the mentality that once I got to the top of Mt Pisa there was only 30k to go and mostly downhill, so I could just roll home. But oh boy was I proved wrong about how “easy” the downhill was, and when I reported this back to Terry at the finish line he seemed to get a fair amount of satisfaction from it. The descent is utterly brutal – It starts out at a nice gentle gradient and slowly increases in steepness as the legs fatigue. There are also a few little climbs mixed in just to make sure that you can’t settle into a nice rhythm. But this time around I was both more mentally and physically prepared for the 2000m descent.
I was pretty happy and surprised to arrive at the Woolshed aid station in one piece, and thankfully I hadn’t seen Martin behind me for a while so I was hopeful that I had managed to build on my lead. A quick restock and some ice in the pack to keep cool, and I was off again. Not long after the aid station there is a dogleg on the course, which gave me a chance to scope out the extent of my lead, and unfortunately it wasn’t nearly as big as I had thought. Martin was still on my heels and not wanting to suffer the same fate twice, I made a break for the line. Running at my redline meant that I couldn’t take in any food, so I was taking a risk that I would make it to the finish I bonked. Fortunately, I managed to hold myself together (just) and cross the line in first place in a time of 10hr 24 min 33 sec, setting a new course record. I gave Terry the mandatory sweaty hug and then collapsed into a chair. Martin crossed the finish line 6 minutes later and it was great to relive the highs and lows of the race with him.
What made the Ultra Easy so awesome for me this time around was the people, and I think the best way to sum it up would be to say that it was a day of racing with passion and respect.