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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!