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The Flying Valente

Adventures of a kiwi trail runner

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flyingvalente

Wellington Urban Ultra (WUU2K)

The Wellington Urban Ultra (or “WUU2K”) was held for the first time this year.  The race was organised by local runner Gareth Thomas, who put in a massive effort to pull off a spectacular inaugural event.  (He has also now been dubbed “evil” – in an affectionate way – in light of his choice of course, but more on that later).  With 60km and 42km options that handily start and finish in the same place, it deserves to go on the bucket-list of any ultra or marathon runner.  Or at least those who like hills!

I was excited about this event, not just because I would get to race on my local trails, but also because of the strong community vibe that surrounded it.  Gareth had a lot of support from local runners, especially WoRM (Wellington Running Meetup).  The volunteers were as excited about the race as the runners were.  The anticipation building up in the weeks prior, and at registration on the Saturday, was palpable.  As proud Wellingtonians who love our local trails, we couldn’t wait to show some off them off.

After a slightly dodgy forecast in the week leading up to it, race day arrived with fine weather and warm (for winter) temperatures.  I got to the start line with a bit of time to spare.  I milled around chatting to a few fellow racers, and Chan and Orsi who would spend the day speeding around to take photos at various locations on course and give updates on our progress.

The start was a casual affair.  There was none of the usual press of eager racers toeing the line; instead a fairly spread out gaggle of runners setting off at their own pace, head lights twinkling in the winter-morning dark.

The race starts at the bottom of Mt Kaukau, and after a short section of easy gradient it quickly turns into a decent hike up steps.  I had decided in advance not to take it too hard up here, to avoid blowing up early.  I chatted to Ash (running with his dog, Scout) for awhile before continuing on.  Before long the top of peak #1 (of 6) loomed as dawn started to break.  Now it was on to the Skyline track, where the real race started.

Conscious I had some time to make up after the hike, I picked up the pace along the undulating Skyline.  I’ve run this trail often (being close to home for me), but never at dawn.  It was beautiful to watch the sky turning pink while the city lights still shone.  Luckily there are sections of the trail that are smooth enough underfoot to take in the view without face-planting!

About two thirds along I passed Chan with his camera out, who snapped me as I was eating my breakfast (peanut butter Gu – a brilliant new discovery).  He told me I was in third with the leading ladies, Jo Johansen and Jean Beaumont, about 7 minutes ahead.  I’d seen their names on the starters list and knew they are both seriously impressive runners, so I wasn’t about to try to chase them down.  Instead I focused on staying in third and not pushing too hard early in the race.  As a relative newbie to ultras (this was my second after the 60km at Tarawera in February) I am still figuring out pacing, so I wanted to run my own race.

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Soon I was at the end of the Skyline and the first aid station came into view.  I still had plenty of fluid and was in the groove, so carried on straight through.  We crossed Makara Hill road and the climb up to peak #2, Makara Peak, began.  Makara Mountain Bike Park is home to some beautiful single track.  After winding our way up Varley’s and the 4wd track to the peak, we began the descent.  The race took in some lesser-known trails out in Nikau Valley that I hadn’t run before, so the next part was new territory.

As we neared the intersection with our next single-track adventure I began to hear bagpipes.  An impressive multi-tasking marshal soon came into view, pointing the direction while playing sombre Scottish tunes.  I grinned and waved before plunging down Leaping Lizard.  I had heard people refer to Possum Bait Line, the trail climbing back out of the gully, with some trepidation.  I actually loved Nikau Valley (climb out included) and made a resolution to run there in future.  It feels much more remote than the rest of Makara and there is some nice kanuka forest on the climb out.

Once out of Nikau Valley I was back into known territory.  Soon there was a fast descent down the 4wd.  As I almost flew past the entrance to Sally Alley, I caught sight of a small yellow ribbon (the course marking colour) on the sign.  It was easy to miss so I wondered whether it was in fact the course, but peering down the trail I saw another and veered down to follow it.  As I continued, though, the yellow ribbons stopped, and I realised the guy who had been running behind me on the 4wd was no longer there.  I was pretty sure I’d taken the wrong turn.  I knew this trail did meet back up with the 4wd though (via a more winding route), so I carried on rather than back tracking.

Emerging at the next intersection I saw runners coming down the 4wd and confirmed I had, indeed, taken a small detour.  Not to worry.  The next trail was beautiful, smooth downhill and I pushed the speed to make up for lost time.  Soon I was at the bottom of Makara and at the next aid station, which I bowled straight through.  Crossing the road it was time for the next climb up to Wright’s Hill via Salvation, one of my favourite trails in the area.  It’s the most runnable climb on the course and I decided to push it a bit here to make up for lost time.

Just below the summit of Wright’s Hill (peak #3) we cut across to join the Fenceline track. This undulates its way around to the iconic Wind Turbine (on peak #4).  As I approached the Wind Turbine I began hearing snatches of music.  Wait – was that Star Wars theme music?  As I got closer I confirmed that indeed it was.  I rounded the corner to see Cam in a wookie suit yelling my name through a loud speaker, a brass band in full Star Wars dress behind him.  You couldn’t make this stuff up.

At the Turbine aid station I finally caught up to the guy who had been behind me at Makara, about an hour after my wrong turn.  I guzzled some water and flat coke, grabbed a biscuit and continued on to the next section of beautiful single track heading along the ridge toward the South Coast.  Along here I passed a few marathoners, until we reached the top of the Tip Track where the two courses split.  After that I was on my own all the way to the coast (aside from seeing Chris Swallow coming up from Red Rocks in the opposite direction, who gave some encouragement as he passed).

Dropping down to the South Coast I reached the next unfamiliar part of the course.  Shockingly I had never run along Red Rocks before.  I don’t think I’ll be back in a hurry.  The flat, slightly sandy track doesn’t have much variation and seemed to drag on.  By this time my body was starting to register the fact that I’d already run a marathon.  I was looking forward to picking up my wonderful pacer, Emma, at the Owhiro Bay aid station for a bit of an emotional pick-me-up.

Emma had been manning the aid station while waiting for me to arrive, and as I came in she and her fellow aid station crew jumped into action.  My bottles were filled and gel supplies replenished while I removed one of my shoes to empty out some stones.  We set off again at a decent pace, the short stop and excited cheering of supporters having done wonders for my energy levels.  Emma’s ever-sunny presence was a huge boost.

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As we ran the short section of pavement from Owhiro Bay to the Tip Track we caught up on how the day had gone.  Emma told me I was only about 12 minutes behind Jean, which was a happy surprise – I’d assumed the leaders would be further ahead by now, especially with my accidental detour coming down Makara.  I was making good time and realised I was on track to come in under 7 hours 30 mins (having originally estimated about 7:45-8 hours).  We settled on a new goal of hanging on to third and sneaking in under 7:30.

Tip Track soon loomed and a group of WoRM marshals at the bottom cheered me on up the hill.  This part of the course is what earned Gareth his “evil” descriptor.  The Tip Track is the longest sustained hill near Wellington City, climbing at a reasonably tough gradient for about 4kms.  It’s an out and back from the main course – we had already run past the top of the Tip Track earlier in the race (where the marathoners split off), and we would be going in the opposite direction to finish on Mt Victoria.

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Weirdly I actually kind of enjoyed the Tip Track.  I had resigned myself before race day to hiking it, so I saw it as a break from running and a chance to get some fuel down.  Emma and I chatted all the way up, providing a nice contrast to the solitude of the previous hour or so.  And because it was an out-and-back it was quite social: friendly runners coming in the other direction shouted encouragement as they passed.  Around half way up we saw Jo coming down, and about three quarters of the way up we saw Jean, giving a good indication of where I was in the pack.

I decided to storm the descent, not attempting to spare my quads, since the Tip Track was the last sustained downhill.  This worked out in my favour, as it turned out, as even with that my quads were in pretty good shape by the end of the race.  I had great fun hurtling down the hill and probably had a huge grin on my face!

Next, though, I had my roughest patch in the race.  Crossing the road at the bottom of the Tip Track we climbed up through Tawatawa reserve.  My legs were having trouble kicking back into uphill mode here, and I walked a bit.  After running down the other side and through the golf course we began the steepest climb in the race, up to Mt Albert (peak #5).  It’s short but extremely tough – even on my best days I would never attempt to run it!  It was hands-on-knees grunting and I was starting to wane.

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But we were rewarded for our efforts with the last aid station, full of cheering WoRMers and… CUPCAKES!  I downed some coke and took a cupcake for the road.  Once I’d got that down I felt (almost) good as new, and was able run most of the rest of the course.  Sometimes the strangest things work during ultras!

We were getting close now and I could feel the finish line pulling me.  We passed the zoo and a cheery Sharron marshaling, then trotted up the last hill at what felt to me like a reasonable pace.  Emma was counting down the kms to go for me, and glancing at my watch I saw I would easily beat 7:30 and maybe even crack 7:20.

The finish line of this race is probably the meanest – yet most fitting to Wellington – that you’ll ever find.  There’s a final steep ramp of about 80 metres or so that is hard work on a good day, yet alone at the end of an ultra.  As a Wellingtonian I knew this was coming, but I felt sorry for the out-of-towners rounding that last corner.

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Stationed near the bottom of the ramp we came across a heard of cows.  No, I wasn’t hallucinating, it was in fact a bunch of WoRM runners dressed in cow onesies!  They proceeded to “pace” me to the bottom of the hill, hollering as they went.

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Soon their shouts of encouragement were replaced by those of the spectators waiting at the finish line.  That last little climb was painful but it felt amazing to reach the top.  I gratefully accepted my medal, along with sweaty hugs from Gareth and announcer-extraordinaire Margo.

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What a finish line!  We could see all around the skyline to the peaks we had scaled that day, framed by a glittering blue harbour.  The sunshine encouraged us to hang around for awhile, seeing in more runners, eating delicious burgers and comparing notes from the day.

After a quick shower and spot of legs-up-the-wall the day was rounded off with a prizegiving at Tuatara Third Eye.  A fitting end for a race in the craft beer capital.

All-in-all WUU2K was an excellent day out.  I have high hopes it will become a regular and prominent fixture on the New Zealand race calendar.  For me, it was part of my build up to some bigger things on the horizons – the Kodiak Ultra 50 miler in California in September and the inaugural Taupo Ultra 100km in October.  Watch this space!

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T42 Marathon

T42 tested my determination (or stubbornness) more than any other race.  Not because of the weather – it was beautiful and sunny, not too cold or too hot. And not because of the course – a 4wd track with very runnable hills and long descents, which should have suited my strengths.  The track was muddy, admittedly, but mud has never phased me too much.

It was hard because my stomach tried to sabotage me. (Traitor! …I didn’t mean that, I promise I’ll be nicer to you next time).  I got a bad case of the stitch that started about 1km in and never left.  Sure, I’ve had the stitch before in races, but for half an hour or so perhaps.  This time no matter what I did (long out breaths, hands in the air, core tensing, and various fuelling strategies or, eventually, nothing at all) it just wouldn’t go away.

So it was a battle of a different kind.  Not between me and the other runners, but between me and my stomach.  While I willed my feet to propel me forward, my squirming insides willed me to stop.  It was a “character building” race, and I tried to treat it as good mental training!

The day started off well.  Waking up in a cute-as-a-button railway cottage with a contingent of cheery Wellington running friends, my race preparation went to plan.  The sky outside was clear and the air surprisingly warm.  Emma and I strolled down to The Park Hotel and loaded ourselves onto a bus full of excited marathoners making its way to the start line.  On arrival we discovered the mandatory gear list had been shortened in light of the balmy weather, and it became warm enough in the sun to strip down to our singlets for the race start.  After a last pit-stop at the porta loos, we were off.

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The race starts with a short loop around farmland before joining the 42 Traverse trail.  It’s a slightly mean start, with lumpy farmland ground, mud, fences and short steep ramps making it difficult to get into a rhythm.  But within a few kms we were onto the trail and the going became a bit easier.  I could see one woman up ahead and was fairly sure she was the only one in front of me.  By this stage the dreaded stitch had arrived, and rather than trying to keep up with the front pack I decided to take it easy until my stomach calmed down and give chase on the long downhill (which is usually my forte).  The track undulates for a while before the downhill starts in earnest around 10kms or so in.

Unfortunately, when the downhill arrived the stitch still hadn’t subsided.  Where I would usually thunder down steep descents with reckless abandon, I was instead reduced to a pitiful shuffle as the added jolting made me almost double over.  On the bright side, I provided some entertainment for various passing mountain bikers as I tried all sorts of interesting manoeuvres in an attempt to stay upright.  Mountain biker: “why are you running with your hands in the air?”  Me: “I’m just so excited!” (mountain biker looks dubious – clearly my excited face is unconvincing).

By this stage I had given up on my original rough goal of under 4 hours, and focused instead on clinging to what I thought was second place.  Much to my surprise, no one passed me on the downhill.  Then the uphill arrived.  Not usually my strongest part of races, but today I knew it would be my only chance to make up ground.  The reduced bouncing of the uphill meant my stitch almost went away for a while.  Yes, my horrendous stitch experience did have an upside: I learned to love the uphills!  The uphills on this course were particularly nice, being a gentle “runnable” gradient most of the way.

The course has a few ups and downs in the middle section, and each time we started to descend again my stomach tied itself in knots.  On a more positive note, each “down” came with a river crossing at the lowest point. These were my favorite part of the race.  Since the rest of the course was a bit boggy, I left each crossing feeling refreshed after a good dousing!

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On the second (longest) uphill, I actually managed to pass 2 male marathoners.  They looked a bit worse for wear and I suspect they had tried to cling on to the lead group a little too long.  But passing some people after a long period of seeing no other runners still gave me a bit of a much-needed mental boost, and I carried on pushing upward.

My stomach woes meant I had hardly taken on any fuel.  I’d had about one gel’s worth from my gel flask early on, which my grumpy belly did not like, and I tried to nibble on an aid-station banana but that similarly failed.  At about 40km I resorted to my secret weapon: a soft flask full of flat ginger beer.  While it didn’t make my stomach feel better, it didn’t make it worse either, and the sugar provided at least a little energy to keep my legs moving.  I just had to keep sipping regularly – each sip provided an instant boost, but the crash came almost as quickly!  I was like a small, temperamental child on a sugar high. Not the best long-term race strategy, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

After the last painful downhill that felt like it would never end, we entered a short but sweet section of beautiful single track.   Then came the final climb of about 2km to the finish line.  While I would usually resent finishing with a climb, this time I could hardly wait for it to arrive.  The pain in my legs was nothing over the stomach pain I had on downhills and flats!  So with renewed purpose I set off up the hill, and actually enjoyed the last couple of kms.  As the terrain opened up I could see another runner a hundred metres or so behind me, which provided a little motivation to keep up the pace.

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Soon I could hear the finish line, but my watch said I still had about one and a half kms to go.  I figured it must be one of those cruel finish line tricks where they make you loop around the field before finally making it to the finish line, so I deliberately saved some energy for the last km.  But, to my surprise, I rounded a corner to see the line right ahead of me!  I sprinted over the line, grateful to be finished but also slightly miffed I hadn’t had a chance to use up the last bit of juice in my legs.

I was greeted by a contingent of cheering friends (who had done shorter distances and already finished).  Happily, I realised I’d come in under 4 hours despite giving up on that goal early on in the race.

The prizegiving for the shorter distances was in full swing, so I wasn’t announced over the line.  No one seemed to know what place I was, although I was fairly certain I was in second.  A couple of minutes after me Emma arrived, stoked with a good day out and fast time given the muddy conditions and her recent break from training.

I couldn’t help but get over my sour mood quickly – the sun was shining, there were smiling people around me and soon I had a burger and well-earned beer in my hands.  A short while later Emma confirmed we were indeed  second and third females, which we were both chuffed with. As James later pointed out, not a bad result for two invalids!

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The rest of the day was spent scrubbing the mud off, snacking and beer drinking on the deck of our cottage, and eating a very large steak at the local pub after putting in a brief showing at prizegiving.

All in all, despite a hard race that could have been a complete disaster, it ended up being a fun weekend away with a great crew of Wellington runners. And the race did a lot to build mental resilience and help me learn to love the uphills! I’ll have to return next year to experience the course properly (fast and loose descents included).

Tararuas Run – Sayers Hut and Cone Ridge

It has taken me awhile to get around to this blog post.  Life has been busy.  But I wanted to share our Easter weekend adventure, particularly because there isn’t a lot of information about trail running in the Tararuas.  So, here goes.

Usually James and I go away climbing or travelling over Easter, but this year it fell just after several weeks away in Japan (snowboarding) then in Nelson (for a beer festival and to see my sister who was visiting from the States).  So we decided to do something a little closer to home for Easter and venture into the Tararuas.  I had previously run two of the better-known and more runnable routes in the Tararuas, the Jumbo-Holdsworth Loop and the Southern Crossing.  Both are excellent runs, and I had been meaning to explore some other parts of the Tararuas for some time.

(As a side note, I highly recommend the Jumbo-Holdsworth as a relatively achievable 24km-ish mountain run, or the Southern Crossing as a big day out for anyone capable of being on their feet for 7-9 hours.)

Originally we had talked about doing a proper fastpacking trip, but eventually settled on a more leisurely plan of walking in to a hut, doing a run the following day then walking out again.  That meant we didn’t need to carry much gear with us while running, and could take more luxurious supplies than we might have otherwise.  Looking at a map of the Tararuas we found a plausible looking loop, starting from Sayers Hut and heading past Totara Flats, up and along Cone Ridge, down to Cone Hut and back along the river.

Unfortunately the friends who were going to join us ended up getting sick, so it was just James and I who set off from the Mangaterere road end on the afternoon of Good Friday.  The walk in to Sayers Hut took around two hours, and is a relatively steep hike up onto a ridge and back down the other side.  It starts off open and shrub-like but quickly climbs into some interesting forest, including some of the mossy “goblin” trees common in the Tararuas.  The “fine all weekend” forecast hadn’t quite eventuated – unsurprisingly for the Tararuas – and we set out in damp weather (though thankfully not cold).

You can also get to Sayers Hut from the Waiohine Gorge or Holdsworth road ends.  However, you will need to cross the river to get to the hut if approaching from that side and the crossing point can be tricky to find.  The hut itself is not visible from the river.  Look for a diagonal line of rocks, which is the easiest point to cross, then climb through the long grass / toi toi (it’s not as dense as it looks).

We arrived at Sayers Hut in the late afternoon to find two other occupants – 15 year old hunters from Upper Hutt who were there with their dog and cross-bows.  They were very friendly, even insisting on feeding us sausages made from venison they had caught.  We were impressed to see some of the younger generation are still keen to get out in the outdoors in these times of computer games and social media!  After arriving a little soggy we were thankful to warm ourselves and dry out wet gear by an open fire.

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Sayers Hut is one of the older huts in the Tararuas and is most frequented by hunters, with trampers mainly opting for the newer, flasher Totara Flats hut on the other side of the river.  But Sayers has a wonderful charm about it, adorned with old signage and rustic wood.  Although old it’s still comfortable; there’s an open fire, sink, cooking utensils and new mattresses.  There’s even a well-stocked cupboard where visitors leave left-over food for future occupants.

After a good night’s sleep at Sayers, we woke up in the morning, ate our pre-run breakfast of hot-crossed buns then set off across the river.  A chilly river crossing is certainly one way to wake up in the morning!

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Once across the river we were on the open grasslands of Totara flats, one of the most runnable parts of the loop.  Bounding easily throug the long grass was a great way to warm up for the day ahead.  Toward the end of the flats the trail turns into single track between kanuka trees, before popping out at Totara Flats hut (where several trampers just waking up peered quizzically at us through the window as though wondering what on earth we were doing).

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As anyone who has run in the Tararuas will know, “run” is often a generous term.  The tracks can be very steep and technical, so much of the time power walking is the only option.  But that was all part of the appeal – having signed up for some much longer races this year (an 80km in the mountains and a 100km the following month) I knew some hiking training would be essential.

The first section up from Totara Flats hut toward Cone is the steepest of the loop.  There wasn’t much running happening on this section, but we managed a pretty good hiking pace and passed a lot of trampers in the first hour.  After that we saw no one else for the rest of the day until we got back onto the flats.

After the initially steep ascent, the track emerges onto a ridgline that continues to climb but on a more gentle gradient.  The forest through this section is mezmerising, full of the knotted, mossy old trees I love.  This type of forest also makes for great running, as the ground is covered in spongy moss that is beautifully spongy to run on.  At one point I slipped over on a wet root, but the ground was so soft it felt like landing on a feather bed!

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After climbing slowly up the ridgeline we eventually emerged above the bushline and found Cone peak.  Unfortunately the cloud obscured what I’m sure would otherwise be a spectacular view, and the temperature dropped a few degrees out of the forest, so we didn’t hang around for long.

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Once back in the forest we began a fairly steep descent, made trickier by the wet rocks and roots.  A lot of the downhill was too technical and slippery to run, so it was fairly slow going.  After a quick detour loop to see Cone hut (another of the old Tararuas huts, which also looks cosy though not as well-equipped as Sayers), we began the journey back down the river toward Sayers.

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The section back along the river was a lot rougher than we expected.  A lot of trees and slips had come down, requiring some scrambling.  There was also a lot of mud to contend with.  Shortly before reaching the river crossing point the terrain opened up again and we were able to run for awhile to finish the day.  Back across the river we went, splashing ourselves down quickly to freshen up (James bravely dunked himself in but I wasn’t quite that brave – it was freezing!).

Back at the hut the boys had left and we had the place to ourselves for the night.  We settled in with some wine, made a gourmet dinner of enchiladas over the fire and enjoyed a relaxing evening of well-earned rest.

The next morning we woke to find the weather had cleared.  On the walk out we were able to see across the valley to the ridge line we had climbed the day before, getting a sense of where we had travelled (and why the first climb had felt so steep!).  We arrived back at the car to find a hot, summery day in full swing.

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Unsuprisingly on that kind of terrain, James and I had very different distances recorded on our watches.  But we think it was around 24km and around 1500m elevation gain.  It took us a whopping 7 hours (with a few stops) – never underestimate distances in the Tararuas!  It might be a little faster in the dry, but allow plenty of time.  By way of comparison, if it’s useful, it took me about 8 hours to run the Southern Crossing (36kms), also with the odd stop, and about 3 hours 40mins for Holdsworth – Jumbo (24km) in the race.  Both of those trails also have a reasonable amount of elevation but aren’t as technical so more running is possible.

Happy to answer any queries if you are looking at running any of these trails.  The Tararuas are such a good training ground for Wellington trail runners – get out there and explore!

 

Autumn Feijoa and Apple Cake (refined sugar-free)

There has been a definite chill in the morning and evening air this week.  The weather seems to have finally decided that autumn has arrived (now that it’s half way through April).  It’s not all bad news though.  The crisp, still weather makes for stunning morning runs as the sun rises.  What’s more, with the cooler weather comes autumn produce, like pumpkins and – my personal favourite – feijoas!

My partner’s mum has been dropping off bags of feijoas from her trees, and while we’re pretty good at eating them, even we couldn’t keep up with supply.  So I decided to try baking with them, something I had never tried before.  I’m chuffed with how this cake came out.  It’s delicately sweet, beautifully fudgy, and the bursts of gooey feijoa make it extra special.  The ginger is very mild so it doesn’t overpower the feijoa, but seems to enhance it somehow.

For any non-New Zealanders reading this, you may be wondering what a feijoa is. Although the fruit originally came from South and Central America, it seems to be widely cultivated in New Zealand and little elsewhere.  This is a mystery to me, as it is a fairly sturdy plant and grows well in temperate climates.  There isn’t really any comparable fruit you could use as a substitute – so you best plant a tree!

Ingredients

2 apples (skin on), grated

1 cup feijoa flesh, roughly chopped (you still want some chunks)

1/2 cup dates, chopped

1/2 cup boiling water

35g butter

40g rice bran oil

2 eggs, whisked

1 cup wholemeal flour

1 cup plain flour

2 tsp powdered ginger

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

Pre-heat your oven to 180°C.  Prepare a cake tin (approximately 23 cm) by greasing the surface or lining with baking paper.

Place the chopped dates, boiling water and butter in a microwave-safe bowl or glass measuring cup.  Bring to the boil then simmer for 2-3 minutes until the dates are soft.  (You can also do this in a small pot on the stove, if you prefer, just keep the lid on so the liquid doesn’t evaporate too much).

Combine the apple, feijoa, date mixture, oil and eggs in a large bowl.  Mix well.  Add the try ingredients and fold in until just combined.  Pour the batter into the cake tin and bake for about 45 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre *just* comes out clean (be careful not to overbake – this cake is meant to be moist).

Allow to cool on a wire rack for as long as you can resist.

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Mocha energy gel

It didn’t take long after I started running long distance before I started playing around with gel recipes.  As any runner will know, gels quickly become expensive ($3-$4 a pop, which adds up when you go through 4 plus per long run).  Many are also sickly sweet and/or too thick, making them difficult to choke down.  Not to mention the amount of rubbish they produce!

I’ve tried changing up gel recipes with a few different flavours and base ingredients, but I always end up coming back to this one.  It’s easy to make, works well for my sensitive stomach, and tastes good.  I find the coffee and cocoa, and the use of maltodextrin instead of simple sugars as a base, makes for a bitter-sweet rather than sickly sweet gel that is far more palatable (for me at least).  The coffee also adds a welcome caffeine hit (although you could use decaffeinated coffee if you prefer).

I like to make my gels relatively thin so I can drink them out of a small sipper flask (if you’re based in NZ and want to find a flask like the one pictured, Macpac has them).  This cuts down on waste, stops me from getting sticky gel on my hands, and means I can have small amounts of gel at a time and easily re-stow the rest for later. But you can adjust the amount of liquid to make your gel whatever consistency you like.  You could keep a thicker gel in a small snaplock bag in a pinch – but I’ve found sipper flasks are by far the least messy option!

Ingredients

(Makes the equivalent of 2 gels)

60g maltodextrin (I buy mine online, but you can also find it at beer brewing supply stores. There are various “chain” lengths available, but I’ve found about 10-12 DE is good)

2 tsp cocoa

The powder from 1 salt/electrolyte cap (or use 1/4-1/2 tsp table salt if you don’t have any)

Few drops natural vanilla essence

1/2 tsp maple syrup or liquid honey

Strong freshly brewed coffee (use decaf if you don’t want the caffeine)

Method

Combine the maltodextrin, cocoa and salt in a glass measuring cup.

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Add the vanilla, maple syrup and just enough coffee to make it all into a very thick paste when stirred.  I find starting with a thick paste is best to get the lumps out.

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Once the mixture is smooth, add more coffee until it reaches a consistency that you like. Note if you’re using warm coffee, the gel will thicken slightly as it cools so err on the thinner side.  If, like me, you are using a flask and want the gel as thin as possible, you can pour a relatively thick mixture into the flask, top up with more coffee and shake to combine.

Allow the mixture to cool.  Best consumed within 24 hours.  I haven’t tried freezing it but I imagine it would probably work – let me know if you attempt it!

Have you experimented with home made gels or energy drinks?  Feel free to share your experiences below.

Pumpkin energy bars

After the success of my potato bar experiment, I decided to try making a pumpkin bar as well to mix up my running fuel options.  These might just be my favourite running bar to date.  They’re very mildly sweet without being sickly, and the texture is amazingly fudgy even after being frozen and thawed.  If you like pumpkin pie, you’ll love these!

Ingredients

2 cups of mashed or pureed pumpkin

1 egg

1/2 tsp natural vanilla essence

1/4 cup sultanas

1/2 cup plain flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp cinammon

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp ginger

1/8 tsp cloves

Method

Preheat the oven to 170°C fan.

Make sure the pumkin is cool enough not to cook the egg.  Combine the pumpkin, egg and vanilla well, before stirring in the remaining ingredients until just smooth.

Spread the mixture into a 20 x 20cm baking tin lined with baking paper.  This step will be a little tricky as the mixture is quite thick and sticky – but it’s worth persevering!

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Place the tray into the oven.  Cook for about 20 minutes or until the top is relatively firm.  Remove from the over and slice into squares or rectangles.  Carefully remove the bars one at a time (the middle will still be a little gooey) and place them up-side down on a lined baking sheet with some space between them.  Return to the oven and cook for a further 15-20 minutes, until the outside is firm and beginning to brown.

Cool the bars on a wire rack.  Store for 2-3 days in an airtight container, or freeze in a snaplock bag and remove as needed.

Enjoy before or during runs, rides or any other workout – or even as an afternoon treat that’s low in sugar and fat.

 

 

 

 

Banana and Carob Recovery Muffins

Protein powder has become an indispensable part of my post-workout recovery.  It’s easy to add to smoothies and provides a quick solution to the body’s need for protein after a workout (a time when more traditional protein sources can be difficult to stomach or too time consuming to prepare).  But for a long time I used protein powder exclusively in smoothies and unbaked snack bars.  Why?  Not long after I bought my first bag of whey protein, I tried making some post-workout recovery muffins.  To say they were a disaster would be an understatement.  They were dry and dense, somewhat akin to how I imagine munching on cardboard would be.

Recovery smoothies are a great option most of the time, but there are occasions when something more easily portable (or that doesn’t require refrigeration) is needed – for example, after races or longer workouts finishing somewhere other than home.  I wanted something I could take with me in these kind of situations and munch on after my run. So, with some apprehension, I decided to give the recovery muffins another shot.  This time I tried using pea and rice protein powder, which I read retained more moisture than whey and gave a better texture to baked goods.  To my surprise and delight, this time the muffins came out brilliantly!

These little packages of joy are delicious, have a great texture, provide easy to absorb carbohydrates and protein, and are refined-sugar and dairy free.  What else could you ask for?

Ingredients

3 medium to large bananas, mashed

1/3 cup coconut oil (about 75g), melted

2 eggs, whisked

1 tsp natural vanilla essence

1/3 cup dates, chopped

1/3 cup walnuts, chopped

3/4 cup plain flour

1/2 cup pea protein powder

1/4 cup brown rice protein powder

1/3 cup carob powder (you could use cocoa instead if you prefer)

1 tsp baking powder

Pinch salt

Preheat the oven to 200°C.  In a large mixing bowl, combine the first four (wet) ingredients.  Add the remaining ingredients and stir until just combined, being careful not to overmix.

Spoon the mixture into a silicone muffin tray until each one is 3/4 full.  The mixture should make 12 smaller or 8 large muffins.  Bake for 15-18 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out *just* clean.  Cool the muffins on a wire rack and enjoy during the next 2 days or freeze in a snaplock bag.

Variation: if you would like to make these muffins as a healthy snack / portable breakfast, you could try substituting the plain flour for wholemeal flour.  As I’ve noted above, you could also substitute cocoa for the carob powder.

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Potato energy bars

Potato energy bars?  Yes.  Potato.

I have always found the sweetness of gels hard to stomach after a few hours of running, but finding savory options that are portable and easy to eat on the go can be tricky.  Those of you who read my Tarawera Ultra race report may recall that for the second half of the day all I could keep down was ginger beer and potato chips.  The potato chips seemed to be just what my body craved.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to carry many at once!  That got me thinking.  Surely I could come up with something with similar ingredients (though perhaps a bit less fat) that I could take with me on runs?

A little Google research persuaded me that potatoes might just be the perfect running fuel. The starch in potatoes is easily converted by the body into maltodextrin, which is metabolised quickly and efficiently, making potatoes an excellent source of fast energy. Potatoes also contain a small amount of protein, a decent helping of potassium and magnesium, and (with the skins removed) aren’t too high in fibre – a good thing for athletes with sensitive tummies!

Enter the potato bar.  These worked out better than I could have hoped, and will be a new staple in my long run diet.  Best of all, they stand up well to freezing.  Most of us don’t have time to bake new goodies before every long run, so being able to pull something out of the freezer the night before makes homemade options much more feasible.

So, without further ado…

Ingredients

4 medium to large potatoes

1 tsp coconut oil

Ground Himalayan pink rock salt, to taste (try starting with 3/4 tsp)

Variations: you can reduce or omit the salt and add other flavourings instead, such as stock powder, soy sauce, marmite/vegemite or miso. I tried a few different flavours and prefer the plain, but play around and see what you like best.  If you come up with any weird and wonderful new versions, please let me know!

Method

Peel and boil the potatoes until soft, or bake them whole in their skins and scoop out the flesh.  Mash until smooth. Stir in the coconut oil and salt / flavourings.  Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.

Form the mixture into bar shapes and place on a tray line with baking paper. Bake at 170° C fan until the top is firm but not brown, then turn over and continue baking until outer is firm all over and very lightly golden. Cool on a wire rack.

These bars will keep for 2-3 days in an airtight container.  Alternatively, freeze them in a snaplock bag and remove as needed.

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Spicy ginger and date loaf

I love anything with ginger in it, and this loaf is one of my favourites.  I developed this recipe because I wanted a moist, spicy ginger loaf that wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet.  It’s dairy free, uses half wholemeal flour (or all wholemeal, if you like) and is low in refined sugar – there is just a little from the crystallised ginger, which I couldn’t bring myself to omit.  It isn’t the prettiest looking loaf in the world, but it is delicious!

You can omit the crystallised ginger if you wish, or replace it with a little fresh or stem ginger.  You could also use all wholemeal flour.  It may make the loaf slightly denser, but this is a moist rather than spongy loaf anyway.

Ingredients

2 apples (with skins), pureed (or grated, but this will change the texture)

1/3 cup molasses, melted

1/3 cup rice bran oil

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup dark or golden rum (optional – can replace with water)

2 eggs, whisked

1 tsp natural vanilla essence

1 cup plain flour

1 cup wholemeal flour

3 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

1/4 tsp ground cloves

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 cup dried dates, chopped into quarters or sixths

1/3 cup crystallised ginger, chopped into small peices

Method

Preheat oven to 170 degrees celcius.

Whisk the first 7 (wet) ingredients together.  Add the flour, spices and baking soda and stir until there are just a few dry clumps left.  Add the dates and crystallised ginger and stir again until fully combined, being careful not to over-mix.

Line a loaf tin with baking paper and pour in the batter.  Bake for around 60-70 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean.  Cool on a wire rack and slice with a bread knife to serve.

The loaf will keep for around 3 days in an airtight container, or you can freeze it and defrost as needed.

 

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