Multi-distance solo and relay race Ring of Fire takes competitors on an epic alpine adventure around Mt Ruapehu. Tauranga’s Debbie Currin tackled the 72.9km solo ultra – for the second time.
WORDS DEBBIE CURRIN / PHOTOS PHOTOS4SALE + MARCEL CURRIN
Leg 1: Chateau Tongariro to Ohakune Mountain Road, 23.9km
I’ll be running on two hours of sleep, but tell myself, ‘Don’t panic. It is what it is.’ The first wave of runners starts at 3.50am – and these are the serious athletes. I feel like a bit of a fraud joining them, but the five-minute start on the field will count for a lot at the other end of the day.
Last year, I was the sixth woman home and second in my age group, but it’s a much tougher line-up this year – there are three times as many international entrants, and world junior skyrunning champion Lucy Bartholomew has entered. How cool to be running in the same race as her!
Okay, let’s experiment with the first leg. My husband, Marcel, says my superpower is pacing myself so that I get faster toward the end of the race, but that means I potentially lose most of my time in this first leg. What if I push it here, just a little? It might bite me later, but I won’t know if I don’t try.
Amazing night running on mixed terrain. Silence. The shadow of the mountain in the moonlight. Just me and the world – and all these other runners. I have no idea where I am in the pack. I talk to someone on an undulating section, and we form a natural rhythm, chat a little and enjoy the camaraderie. She’s American. Her legs are amazing.
Miss America is strong and daring on the technical downhills. It’s fun to zoom along with someone of similar ability. I want to beat her, though. Make friends and then destroy them – that’s ultra-running.
I love the desolate beauty and the colours on the horizon as the sun comes up. I’ve pulled ahead of Miss America and I’m feeling strong. My splits from last year are written on my arm. I need to beat 4.01 minutes/km, but as I get to the waterfall climb, I look at my watch and see I’m nowhere near 4.01. Damn. I guess I’m not as awesome as I thought I was.
I’ve fallen over, skidding while running down a steep descent of gritty sand and crashing hard onto my leg, leaving a massive stinging graze up my thigh. I take a moment to check it out and it isn’t a race killer. I’m good to go.
Last push upwards to the first pitstop. “Wahoo, go Debbie!” I hear Marcel shout in the distance. Thank goodness for that man. He tells me I just smoked last year’s split. What? I’m confused. The numbers on my arm are faded. “Last year’s split was 4.41, not 4.01!” says Marcel. “You just smashed your first split by 23 minutes – you’re the fourth woman in.”
Ego restored! Maybe I’m awesome after all. We’re scrabbling to get my pack and food sorted, losing time at the pitstop. Bugger, my newly refilled drink bladder has just leaked and is dripping through my backpack. I pour in a bit more, seal it tight this time and hope it’s enough.
Leg 2: The Missing Link, 25.5km
The second leg is my nemesis. Here comes the hurt. I’m taking it easy down the long road – there’s absolutely no way I’m hammering my quads on this big downhill with 50km still to run.
Miss America is closing in. She’ll pass me soon, but I’m at peace with it – for now. A friendly word or two as she passes me, but I know she’s making a statement. And she knows I know.
I let her go. Marcel sees it as he drives past and calls out the window, “Run your own race.” Yep, I know, I’m good.
Back into the bush now, and it’s a constant grunt up. I slowly reel in Miss America. We stick together for quite a while, but I can tell she’s trying to pull away again. We reach a one-person swing bridge; she crosses first and I lose her in the dense forest. Damn it, all that work wasted – she’s pushed herself to get out of my view at the other end.
Over the bridge. I get glimpses of her every now and again, but now I need to crap. Not now! Every runner knows this feeling and I don’t think I can run this off; I need to find a toilet soon or it’s not going to end well. The race organisers gave us little compostable bags for emergencies, but I don’t want to use a bag. A volunteer at the next little hut tells me there’s a long drop 50m down the track. I hate long drops, but I’m more scared of the bag.
I’m in the long drop for way too long, dry retching then throwing up with the sheer grossness of it. I can run an ultra, but can’t cope with a long drop. I make it out of the loo only to see another solo lady in purple shorts shoot past. She spots me and I’m sure she puts on more speed.
Damn it. How many other women have passed me while I’ve been heaving up in the long drop? And Miss America just scored an extra 10 minutes on me. I’m now at least sixth, if not further back. So much work wasted and I’m trying to get my rhythm back when we hit the insane rocky mountains. Spectacular rocky mountains. I love these rocky mountains.
I hate these rocky mountains! Someone please move these rocky mountains.
‘Just keep going, keep moving forward,’ I tell myself, over and over in my head. Stupid mantra. I’m angry at it for being
so uninspiring, but it’s all I’ve got. It’s functional and it works. I even put it to music.
Long desert plains, hills, sand and scoria. Scoria sucks. I’m running down a particularly steep section, trying to land on anything solid instead of skiddy scoria. Trying to make up some time, I skid out on a loose patch, twist and grab a boulder with both arms to stop myself tumbling down the slope. There’s a pang in my lower back.
F-bombs in the desert. Can you break your back grabbing a rock? I’m not invincible. I take a moment to check everything’s fine. Get up. Keep going.
Everything hurts. Even my arms hurt. When I complained to my strength coach and physio Craig Newland about my piddly upper-body strength, he joked, “You don’t need your arms for running, Deb.” Sure, Craig, you try running up this bloody mountain of rocks and tell me you don’t need your arms!
Every now and then I spot Purple Shorts and Miss America in the distance, but they’re teeny tiny dots. I’m pretty sure I’m in sixth place. It looks as if Purple Shorts is gaining on Miss America – interesting.
Danger – I’ve run out of fluid, the sun is burning and I’m still about an hour from the second pitstop. I must have lost more liquid than I thought when my drink bladder leaked – not good.
Despair: it’s all over. I ease back a bit and try to hold out till the next pitstop.
Ooh, a little hut and two smiley volunteers – surely they’ll show mercy and give me a cup of water to skol? Bless, they’ve got a massive teapot of cold water and they’re refilling my bladder! Five minutes lost, but I have fluid and some words of encouragement. Mental note to thank the volunteers when this is over.
I find my rhythm again. This hurts. Why am I doing this? I’m so slow. Why did I ever think I might be good at this? I’m not strong after all. I can see a couple of kilometres ahead. Ooh, Purple Shorts just caught Miss America. Wow, you go, Purple Shorts.
They’re getting further and further away. Okay, I can do sixth. I must be slowing. I’m too slow. Why did I ever think I might be good at this?! My leg hurts. I should pull out at this next pitstop. That would be nice and the pain would stop – imagine that.
Don’t be a loser, Deb. You’re not injured and you don’t quit. But it hurts. I’m going to sit down at the next pitstop and cry. I’m also going to change my socks to get rid of all the muck and gravelly bits that have got in under my feet.
My feet are so sore. Yes, I’m going to cry, and I’m going to change my socks.
There’s the pitstop and Marcel cheering me on! One last uphill push.
Thank God for this seat. Marcel has thrust food into my hands and is taking over. “It’s so close,” he says. “There are only five minutes separating fourth, fifth and sixth, and you’re in sixth.”
I tell him I don’t care and I just want to finish. I’m spent. Everything hurts. “Only five minutes,” he says. He’s rinsing my feet so I can change my socks.
Chia pudding, flat Coke. I look across and see Miss America – she’s still here at the pitstop. She’s been keeping an eye on me. Suddenly, I don’t want to spend too long in this seat.
Encouraging words from strangers on the sidelines. Miss America has gone. Don’t panic, drink the vege soup. These new socks feel so damn good. My coach Rob Bathgate of Foundation Run will be watching all this online.
Leg 3: The Tussock Traverse, 23.5km
I walk toward the massive gnarly descent in front of me and look out at the vast, barren landscape beyond. The runners in the distance are like tiny ants. I’m more than nine hours into the race, with another 23km to go. A contradiction of peace, awe, brutality and rawness washes over me. This feels like one of my life’s defining moments.
I see Miss America already running along the plains at the bottom and she looks solid. I start descending and it occurs to me that I just made my choice: I came sixth last year – I want a different number. My game plan is to push the pace just a little. If the gap reduces, stick with it to try to close it. If the gap grows, well, good on Miss America, she deserves that fifth spot.
The race is on. Miss America is still running well, but the gap is closing – very slowly, but it’s closing. I will myself to not slow my pace despite the pain. She won’t look back. Respect – I wouldn’t either. I’m stoked to be in the open rather than the bush right now.
About 7km in, I catch her and tuck in behind. Game time, Miss America! I don’t think she’s happy to hear me. A bit of friendly chatter, yet we both know we want to beat the other. We find a silent, steady rhythm, but I need to bide my time – I don’t want to blow a gasket, nor do I want a sprint finish after 70km. Once I pass, if I pass, there will be a whole lot of pain and no turning back.
She’s not giving an inch, damn it. She’s picked up her pace and is surging every now and then in the hope I drop off – smart running. The first to be demoralised loses, but I refuse to be dropped and stay on her heels.
A few minutes later, I decide it’s now or never. I don’t want to settle for sixth again – I want to look back at this run and know I threw everything at it. I pick my moment and pass decisively on a descent. Push hard, don’t look back. I don’t want any question in her mind that she can go with me.
I’m in fifth place! What have I done? It hurts, don’t know if I can hold this. Have I pushed ahead too soon? No, it was the right thing to do – I needed to pass her before the open marshlands. Every time I hit a bend, I push hard to try to get out of her sight. I find my painful rhythm and hold it.
Insane – that’s Purple Shorts in front of me. As I pass her, she gives me a resigned smile of acknowledgement. She knows she’s beaten, but there’s mutual respect. I think she pushed too hard on the second leg. I’m no longer concerned about Purple Shorts. Miss America is still running strong behind me – she’s the one to beat.
Shit, I’m out of energy. I’m supposed to be eating a power cookie right now but I can’t afford to slow down and get it out of my pack. I need fuel. I hate this big stupid pack; I’m getting a new pack. I hadn’t planned for gels during this last leg, but then I didn’t
plan to be ‘racing’ like this either. My gel bottle is at the front of my pack and accessible, the cookie is not. Gel it is, and caffeinated Gu Chews – whatever gets me through to the finish without slowing down.
Maybe I should stop and walk for a bit? No way, don’t be a dick, you can’t do that now. This isn’t all for nothing. Keep moving forward, don’t stop. Do. Not. Stop.
Here comes the open marshland. Run as hard as you can on any open space where Miss America might see you. Don’t let it enter her head that she might be able to catch you right now.
I don’t feel fast anymore, I just try to keep running and block out the pain. There are formed tracks towards the end, and some good downhill sections coming. I’m exhausted, yet buoyed by the mounting excitement. I finally allow the thought to creep into my head that I might actually come fourth.
Two kilometres out and I see the Chateau right there. Emotion and exhaustion are roaring. Mum, Dad, Marcel and my cousin are at the finish. I can hear Marcel cheering as I zig-zag down the hill and round the last bend.
Final push over the line. Done! It’s unreal. I can’t believe I’ve done it. I can barely stand and I’m hyperventilating. The medics are all over me, but I tell them I’m fine. I’m just spent, utterly spent. Marcel’s assuring Mum and Dad that I’m actually okay.
Katherine (Miss America) arrives not too long after me and Hannah (Purple Shorts) a while later. Hugs and respect – we all understand what we’ve been through.
My goals for this run were to break 14 hours and make the top 10 females; my unspoken goals were to make the top seven females and squeak into the top three in my age group. I ran 12 hours 40. I knocked 80 minutes off last year’s time; 30 of those minutes were made up in the final leg. I’m first in my age group and the fourth woman home.
I’m trying to process what’s happened. I just came fourth in a race that Lucy Bartholomew won! It feels like I won my own race. It’s the first I’ve fought and won. Man, I fought so hard. I’m shattered.
Dedication + dessert
Mount-based Foundation Run coach Rob Bathgate trained Debbie for the Ring of Fire and says, “Deb’s been training with us for about two years and has been in our gym twice a week pretty religiously. A lot of runners don’t realise the importance of gym work in building strength and conditioning, but it really helps avoid injury. Of course, Deb also runs every week, including in our weekly group run. This is always our fastest run and it’s a really social one; there’s cake on our birthdays, and with around 20 people in the group, that means a lot of cake!”