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GETTING INTO THE ZONE TO WIN THE TUM - AN EMOTIONAL JOURNEY

February 22, 2021

GETTING INTO THE ZONE TO WIN THE TUM - AN EMOTIONAL JOURNEY

Standing on the starting line of the Tarawera Ultra Marathon this year, I was full of excitement and anticipation.  2020 had been a year of injury for me, from January’s hip injury, to March’s stress fracture that plagued me through to October, a torn ligament in my ankle, that was followed by November's mountain bike crash resulting in a broken rib and busted shoulder. Oh, I nearly forgot about the muscle I tore in my left forearm at work during the year.  It would be fair to say my training through 2020 was patchy at best.  But, with super involved coaching support by Ali at Squadrun, I stood on the start line in the best possible shape despite an extended period of ‘less-than-ideal’ physical and emotional stress.  This left us all unsure of what I had to offer on race day and how things would unfold.  At NO POINT was a top 3 place ever considered! 

Kerry Suter counts down the last 10 seconds on the mic and just like that we are off. I love this bit, the first few km’s of settling into a race, In fact I love all of the stages of a race.  The build up, the night before, the start, mid way through the last third, and especially finish lines.  They all bring a different emotion and feeling.  This year I couldn’t wait to get racing and once that gun went I fell straight into that place I love to go “The Zone”.

What’s “The Zone”?  I think we all have a different “Zone” we go into when we race.  My Zone is all about focus and every tiny small thing that I can control.  It starts at each breath, Is this a good breath? Was that breath deep enough? Am I breathing too fast? Do I have good posture? Is my form efficient? Is my HR too high? How is my Rated Perceived Effort? Is this sustainable? Where am I on the course? How is my Fuelling? Etc… The internal dials are constantly being checked and adjusted by the tiniest of adjustments, the more race experience I get the smaller the adjustments seem to be getting.   Once I find myself on my own in the race I got much more freedom to control external factors.  Can I run in more shade?  Am I running the shortest line possible? Will it use less energy to step up this with one or two steps?  Am I keeping clean momentum? Acceleration is the killer of energy. 

So…… I’m happily racing away at about 25 to 30km (in the Zone of course) and I started to experience one of those very rare moments.  I felt like I was floating effortlessly down the trail, being pushed through the forest by something else. Almost an out of body type feeling.  At the time I could only explain this as a couple of things and it definitely wasn’t my morning coffee, as I always skip this on race day.  

  1. Was it some Maori spirit from these lands that was guiding me through for a safe journey?  The pre-start Haka and Karakia had touched me deep and I had felt honoured to be going on this journey through their lands.

  2. Was I getting the piece of my soul back that I had left out there in 2017?  That was the year of my first ever 100k race, it was run in the reverse direction back then and I was around the spot where I had started to lose it.  With a huge amount of determination and a lack of knowledge I had bonked hard -like real hard, Definitely the worst place I have ever physically been.  I had always joked about running in the new direction so I could go get the piece of my soul I had left out there and bring it back.  Maybe this was it?

Anyway, all good things eventually come to an end, and so did this.  Not like a tap being turned off but it just slowly faded away.

I come into the outlet (41km) a bit behind the lead pack, I hadn't seen them for quite a while. I had decided to carry enough nutrition to get me to the 58km mark.  This turned out to be gold.  As the front pack were scrambling through their drop bags, I just got my two soft flasks filled by the epic volunteers while I scoffed down some banana and oranges then ran out of there on the heels of the pack.  Free gains😊 no energy spent to be back with the lead group, and I knew that they had run hotter than me to get to this point.

This put us into 17km of the most technical single trail of the course, my favourite type of running. I could see a few of the runners in front of me were either fatiguing or not running as cleanly on this terrain.  I knew this bit of trail well and that it can eat away at your energy levels without you noticing.  I had respect for this bit of trail, but also knew there was a good possibility of some good gains with not too much of a spend in energy.  This section was always going to be about finding the right balance.  It was time to start making some moves.  I slowly asked to pass each one as the pack started to fall apart. This got me on to the heels of Ruth Croft while climbing the biggest climb on Northern Tarawera.  She politely asked if I wanted to pass, but I had met my match on this terrain and said “I would just be honoured to be following in her footsteps” #fan.  I knew this chick could run and do it smart.  We had dropped the others and I was happy with the spend rate I was at.  We chatted for a bit which was cool #fan eventually her shoelace came undone, or so she claims, or was it something I said? #stillafan.  This put me on my own for the descent on Northern Tarawera.  The next time I saw Ruth was as I was leaving Humphries Bay at 48km.  The kids volunteering here were awesome.  They were full of energy, excitement and the LOLLIES, they mentioned I was in 2nd place and were big on offering the lollies, they seemed a bit surprised I wasn’t taking up their offer, which I totally got, they did look good. It was just that I was still in “The Zone” and the lolly dial unfortunately was turned all the way down, Damn it! Maybe next time.  My bottles were filled and I was out of there to run the next 10km on Eastern Okataina.

Wait! Did they say I’m in second, Holy S#!T! 

I knew I was doing well but thought there were a few more guys still in front.  Maybe she got it wrong? I just settled back into the “zone” and pushed on through this familiar bit of trail.  Ruth pulled into me about half way along Okataina and we ran a chunk of this together.  A few km’s from the boat ride I felt the energy levels start to drop and the fuel and lolly dials go up. Damn it! If only that was up back at Humphries I could have feasted on bowls of lollies.  Luckily I had a few snakes in my pocket for moments like these. I ate half a snake and upped my nutrition, water intake, and dialled off the gas a bit.  Ruth passed me looking good. I had a feeling this was the last time I would see her so I wished her luck and said “go smash it”.  Her boat was just pulling out when I got to the beach, maybe it was something I said? #stillafan

The boat ride to get around the slip that had blocked the track was actually a really nice experience.  I usually never take the time to stop and regather myself in a race.  I stood on the boat chatting to the driver as my heart rate came right down.   Did some stretches as the legs were starting to hurt a bit.  While I'm doing some stretches and chatting, the driver casually mentions that I'm second male (the lollie girls did know what they were on about) and that the leader Michael Voss spent about 7min in the medic tent and his leg wasn't looking good.  OK, WHAT THE HELL! At that moment I knew there was a chance I could get a sniff at the lead.  Michael is an extremely good runner and has speed that I could only dream of.  I knew before the race that the only way I could beat him would be if he blew out his first 100k race.

The boat pulled up to the jetty at Okataina Aid station and I got a sense of the scale of how my day was unfolding.  There were so many people there and damn they were cheering and yahooing a lot, it was crazy.  That's when I saw Murray Sparks, A mate who was out supporting people all day.  He looked seriously pumped and excited to see me.  He was a great asset at this aid station getting my drop bag and sorting out the nutrition I was going to take with me while I scoffed my face on some more fruit.  The media team was there with cameras in my face and wanted to know how I felt about the big hill (WOW) I was about to climb over.   I wasn't too bothered about it to be honest, my legs were hurting a bit but I had run WOW plenty of times and had just planned on running my own pace up it,  this was going to be easy out there on my own.  The top seemed to come reasonably quickly and the energy levels had definitely dropped and the legs were hurting more at the top, but it was time for my specialty, some down hill trail.  I just settled into a good rhythm and started doing my thing.  I had run quite a few km’s of down hill and came around a corner to see Michael struggling to run.  I really felt for the guy.  I pulled up next to him and checked in on him. He was having a hard time keeping his nutrition down and the leg didn't look good.  I shook his hand and told him that I really felt for him.  This was a great stage for him to launch his running career and I really felt sorry for him.  I had my money on him to win this thing.  There was nothing else I could do but run on.

The Lead!

I now found myself with 35km in a place I could have never imagined.  I had a moment of joy but knew there were some very classy runners behind me and a long way to try to defend it.  Any excitement was swept under the rug and buried straight away.   I told myself a few times “just don’t mess this up”.  I knew all I could do from here was to keep running my own race, in my Zone, making all the small adjustments to suit my needs and my body.   I had to make sure I stayed extremely focused.

WOW leads you into Miller Rd.  I have great memories of Miller Rd as last year with the hip injury I had to pull out of the 50k race and as my kids school was running the aid station I put my hand up to take the lead in running the station.  I was there for every runner that came through and what a cool experience it was to be on the other side helping out all these amazing people.  If you had Spiderman help you out, well that was me.  This year my wife was there for the first shift so she could catch me coming through and there were so many familiar faces of kids and their parents.   It was an amazing lift to see everyone here we were all excited to see each other.  They got me sorted really quickly and I was out of there in a flash.

As I was passing the shores of lake Okareka about (75km in) I found myself sinking into a bit of a physical hole. The legs were really hurting now and my energy levels were starting to fade.  It was at this point the finish line felt unachievable. To run 27km in this state was going to be impossible.  I had been here before and knew the dials I had to start turning to make sure I got the thing done. This is one of the parts of racing I really like, not enjoy but like.   I  have always run a little through my life but did not start racing until 2016,  my whole life I have been curious to know what I was capable of, not just physical, but more mental.  Trail running  turned out to be the sport to get some answers I had been looking for and the last 3rd of an ultra is always the place to find out.   You get so stripped down here that there is no place for any ego or ………. it's just you and your mind,  this is where you find who you really are and you come out of this place a better person for it.  I always view my body as two things in a race, my Mind and my Body.  This makes it far easier to detach from any signals and messages the body is trying to send upstairs to the management team in the mind.  The body gets to make NO decisions and because of the stubbornness of management the body sometimes gets quite pissed off but cant do ANYTHING about it. The first thing I gave myself when I hit this hole was a Nodoze, a hit of caffeine in a pill.  This helped both mind and body a little.  Then I upped my fuel intake.  I also gave my mind some motivational fuel to help block out the annoying messages that keep coming from the body.  I thought of my coaches, my aim was to make them proud today and I had been given an opportunity to go beyond that,  I wanted this win for them.  Ali and Kerry had played a huge part in my life through 2020 helping me through some depression, supporting me with family life and of course my running,  Both of them helped so much to get me through a very tough year.  I also wanted Ali to get the credit she deserves as a coach. She had given me one on one coaching into TUM and I wanted this win for her.  I now had the mental fuel my mind needed to give this my best shot and push through some dark places.

From Okareka to Blue lake the legs just started to hurt more and more the energy levels were just manageable and I could feel the day heating up.  As I came out of the bush to enter Blue lake aid station (16km to go) I first saw Murray again, I already had my bottles out ready so gave them to him and he sprinted off to fill them.  The next person I saw was Ali standing up at the aid station.  In my head I’m like “why is Ali here?  shouldn't she be at the finish line Emceeing”.  As soon as I got there I could see she had her game face on.  She had all the stuff from my drop bag layed out and was ready to get me out of here as quickly as she could.  As things were handed to me and Murray showered me in cold water with sponges my legs all started to spasm and cramp, calves, quads and hammies. It was like fireworks going off in my legs.  Little did she know that she was my mental strength, the thought that was pulling me through this, I had been carrying her in my thoughts, every time I wanted to slow down I would think of Ali and Kerry and how much I wanted to give them this win.   I always try to have some third party mental fuel for the backstage of a race.  I find it so much harder to quit on someone else than quit on myself. To have her here now was just awesome.  I didn't want to stay still any longer than I had to as my legs were locking up.  “I’ve got to keep moving” and so off they sent me into my most well known bit of trail, the Whakarewarewa forest.

Rhys Johnston

The day was really heating up now,  I had no idea what was happening behind me. I had thought of asking at Blue lake but decided I didn't want to know.  I was just assuming that I was being chased down and was running everything at as maximum as I felt I could.  It really feels like running on thin ice at this stage of the race the spend is always on the verge of too much and you know a wrong foot and you will crash through the ice.  There was one last climb in this section, a short punchy one up to Tokorangi Pa.  Once at the top I knew I was in with a fighting chance as there was no sign of the pack behind me and the down hill into Rotorua would play to my strengths.  The first section of down hill is steep and very washed out.  As I started the descent I realised my legs didn't want to bend and the fireworks of pain started up again. I looked down the slope and wasn't actually sure how I was going to manage it.  Thoughts rushed through my head, “do I go down backwards” “F*$K it, pain is only temporary” I just started legging it down as fast as I could, it felt horrible and must have looked really odd.  I couldn't keep quiet in this section, the messages coming up from my body started to be released out of my mouth.  I'm not sure exactly what I was yelling but I'm glad there were no kids around.  The trail soon became more runnable for me. I managed to find some form and speed again.  As I turned a corner I saw Matt Rayment (from Dirt Church Radio), he looked full of energy and excited for me. He told me that Kerry had already cried.  I tried really hard not to let the emotions creep in as I knew the job was far from over.  

Redwoods, the last Aid station, 6km remaining.

The location of this aid station is magical, it is set in amongst the most beautiful huge Redwoods.  The reception I received here was massive, there were so many familiar faces and I could start to feel the scale of what I was doing.  Out on the trails I wasn't getting this emotion,  I was on my own and these were my local trials, it felt a bit like another day out there but just hurt way more. Once surrounded by friends I could see it in their faces, I was actually doing this thing.  Ali was there again to get me through as quickly as she could.  She mentioned I was up 10min at Blue lake. That was 9km ago.

"Have they pulled in?” I asked,  

“I don’t know, just run your best from here” she replied.  I could hear a real uncertainty in her voice.

I knew my legs were letting me down and there was a high chance the guys behind were making time on me.  The last 6km to the finish is all flat and hot without any tree cover.  From this point it is 95% mental and 5% physical.  I set off 500m from the Aid station. I checked my pace on my watch, I was sitting at 4:30 per km.  This was good, like really good, I knew if I could hold this pace it would help to seal the deal.  The danger was the candle was burning really hard and there wasn't much left of it.  The urge to stop or slow down was overwhelming.  Each km closer to the  finish my pace was slowly dropping and my effort was going up.  I knew I was running at an unsustainable rate and the heat was really taking its toll, the finish line couldn't come soon enough.  Any sharp turn I would do a quick check to see if anyone was chasing me and to my relief each time I looked it was clear.  

Rhys Johnston

With about 1km to go I saw a guy that looked like Tim Day  running towards me.  “holy S**t! I thought as we got within eye contact, he looked over the moon for me but had a serious energy about him.  I felt honoured he had come to run me in.  He was so encouraging but had a real sense of urgency in his voice, he never let on but he knew my lead was being eaten away at and with 1km to go this still wasn't done.  He ran in front of me and set the pace he was trying to get me to run at.  Well we were both trying to run at,  I have no idea if I actually sped up with Tim.  I thought I had the foot flat to the floor but while trying to sit with him for that last Km the internal alarm bells were going off like crazy.  All I could do was just keep trying to hang on with him. 

Then I could hear it!  The finish line!

It was the best sound in the world.  Tim looked back behind us and said “there is no one there, you've got this”.  The relief as I entered the finishing chute was exhilarating,  It was not until this point that I felt confident to keep the lead, I had been running scared for well over 3 hours.  I could hear Kerry’s voice down the mic, there were so many familiar faces that I knew, hanging into the finish chute.  I stepped across the line with so much joy and disbelief that somehow I had managed to win the 2021 Tarawera 102km Men's Race.

Rhys Johnston 





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