Images Courtesy of Tarawera and Kurt Matthews photography
About the Author: Naomi Brand is a Mountain Ultra-Trail runner, a painter, a vet and an all round badass human with a big heart and even bigger grit.
A month ago I had the privilege of taking part in the Tarawera Ultramarathon in one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited – Rotorua, New Zealand. A fern-forest and turqoise-lake wonderland.
A lot of people have asked me why I spent all the money to race all the way on the other side of the globe… And to me the answer is threefold. I’ve dreamt of going to New Zealand since I was little after seeing photos of it’s snow-capped mountains and forests. My goal this year is to follow the UTWT, and it was part of my “strategy” to start racing early in the year. And I hoped to see a kiwi (I actually saw one in an enclosure, and nearly died, but that’s not the third reason. My family moved there a week before the race, and I helped them settle in).
As expected, the event was world class. The registration process was as easy as ABC (I even bumped into some Afrikaans-speaking Saffas, and chatted so much that I was in front of the line before I knew it!). The day before the race we received a special welcome from the local Maoris through song and a haka, and with the Te Puia geyser spewing hot water and mist in the background. It was a fantastic cultural experience and something I will forever treasure. They also performed a haka right before the gun went off for our race and the energy and confidence of the dancers put my mind straight into beast mode.
The race itself was fairly flat, and as a result – friggen FAST! In my mind, much like what comrades would be like on a dirt road. 10kms in I looked at my watch, and I was running at threshold pace trying to keep up with the lead girls (of which one is an Olympic marathon runner…). And right there and then I knew it was going to be an exceptionally long day. Or, as the Kiwi’s say when they’re surprised or shocked – the finish was “far out”! But, thanks to the support from my lovely hosts, friends and family, I was in a really good head space going into the race, and managed to maintain both my drive and sense of humour.
The race went through everything from pine forests, farm land, Newlands-like forest, MTB parks and through villages. Most of it was so astonishingly beautiful that, although I hit rock bottom a few times, I couldn’t help but smiling. Of course the views weren’t the only things to smile about. The many signs put up by the local trail community with the best, dry humour jokes (like the words of the song “Up on the hill is a lonely goat” complete with jodles) was another reason. I also left every aid station smiling and feeling invincible thanks to the incredible food (something the race is known for) served by anything from clowns to boy scouts to Spiderman, and my superb seconding team (two trail runners – Helen and Sean – from out local Cape Town community) who serviced me like a Ferrari in a formula 1 race.
The rest is blurry. Except for the finish, where I very clearly remember Sean pacing me and pulling me to the finish line (and literally shoving people out of the way to make way for me). And that surreal finish line feeling; the relief, the joy and the knowing that the hard work paid off. All in all, a dream coming to life.
I highly recommend the race to any ultra-runner. It’s worth saving and travelling around the globe for. For me it was certainly worth every penny. Apart from a bank card that went missing during a layover, losing half my hair while untangling a post-race dreadlock and losing a toe nail, it has been the most hassle-free and enjoyable international race I’ve had to date.
What really stood out though, is how well my body performed despite 53 hours of travelling to NZ and the significant time difference. I certainly haven’t always been this lucky when it comes to travelling and racing…
Last year when I travelled to UTMB I had, what I would call, an award-worthy travel fiasco (I’ve got other f-words to describe it, but cursing is frowned upon). It was the result of a very limited budget, a lie on a flight booking website about hotel accommodation and some proper bad luck on my end. But (long story short) I picked the most affordable flights and ended up spending a 14-hour layover at Dubai airport twiddling my thumbs. I arrived in Geneva at midnight, 30mins before the airport closed, with no lift to Chamonix (the busses had already left). I spent the next day sitting at a train station in a small Swiss village waiting for a bus-train-bus-taxi deal to get me to Cham as apposed to the cheap backpacker bus that all my friends took, putting them in centre Chamonix in less than 2 hours.
I’ve also had my share of travel disasters heading to local races, arriving at mignight before the race with airport vending machine food-induced diarrhoea. And so on and so forth. But, the way I see it, it wasn’t all for nothing. I learned some valuable lessons through all of it. And, recently before travelling to Tarawera, I did my homework and applied those lessons. I’m convinced it paid off!
Lessons Learnt through Trial and Error
PLAN THE PLANE RIDE:
It’s not always possible to plan too far ahead, and life happens even when you do. But as far as you can, try to book your flights way in advance to get shorter/direct flights within the price range you can afford and on the dates that fits in best with your race. Minimize layovers, except if it’s going to benefit you. In my case I knew the flights between SA and NZ are some of the longest, and the time zone difference is about 11 hours. So I picked a flight with a long layover in Bali (a country we don’t need a visa for), and had the best sleep I’ve had in years in a cool, quiet hotel room and a run the next morning before heading back to the airport. For me the rest and movement made the world’s difference, and helped me to adapt to the time change quicker.
Booking early will also allow you to reserve a window seat (the best seat for sleeping), and your meal preferences.
Investing in a quality neck pillow, a soft and comfy mask and some noise cancelling headphones doesn’t hurt either.
JIPPO THE JET LAG
“Jet lag”, i.e. the fight between your body clock and the destination time clock, causes sleep loss, headaches, dizziness, fatigue and stomach issues (to name a few). All are things you want to avoid shortly before or during a race. I’ve found it helpful to set my alarm to the destination time as soon as I get on the plane, and to calculate the best time to fall asleep/ wake up accordingly. If the time difference is quite significant, it also helps to start adjusting your body 4-5 days before the trip. For example, if you are travelling to the East, get up 30min earlier and go to bed 30min earlier every day (and the other way round for the West).
It also helps to “bank” on sleep a few days before you plan to travel (which is easier said than done if you stress about everything, like me! But still worth a try).
MOVE ON THE MOVE
In theory it’s good to move as much as possible during a long flight, but if you’re squished between two big guys in a middle seat and they’re both sleeping there’s only so much you can do. My rule of thumb is to try to stand up, and walk if possible, every 2 hours (in between movies). If I’m stuck, I try to at least do a few butt clenches, and move my legs as much as I can in a sitting position. It promotes blood flow and reduces stiffness and soreness. During a layover; take the stairs, walk and stretch. During my marathon-layover in Dubai I covered every square centimeter of the airport, thrice. It didn’t help for sleep deprivation, but my muscles were grateful.
EARLY IS EVERYTHING
I’ve read up quite a bit about adjusting to time zones, because I’ve personally struggled quite a bit with this. Even when racing in Mauritius where the flight is fairly short and the time difference is only about 2 hours, I felt like a zombie for days. One article said the rule of thumb is a day to adjust for every hour of difference. So for a place with a 3 hour difference you will need about 3 days to adjust. Another article said a minimum of 3 days are necessary. Like everything it’s probably different for every person, but the more time you have at your destination before the race, the better the chances of adjusting.
Arriving early also takes a lot of the race day stress off your shoulders. I’ve never heard any athlete say that they’ve been bummed that they arrived too long before the race. On the contrary, the horror stories are the “I only arrived the night before” ones. It gives you time to familiarise yourself with and enjoy the surroundings, recce parts of the route so you know what to expect, or to buy those gels or batteries you forgot at home.
It’s difficult to stay hydrated during a flight – who wants to stand in queue for the loo every 10 minutes? But every athlete knows the importance of hydration. In struggling to find a solution for myself, I read that some olympic athletes snack on salty food before their flight to help their body retain water. I’m yet to test this, but providing you have access to enough water inflight, this makes sense.
Minimising coffee and alcohol (however temping they may seem), will help you to better manage your sleep and avoid the loo queue.
FOOD THAT’S GOOD
Let’s face it, aeroplane food is not always athlete-friendly. It’s not necessarily bad tasting, but can lack in nutritional value or just be too little for those with fast metabolisms. I think the problem is that it’s just so different from the food we normally fuel ourselves with. I eat mostly plant-based and requested vegan meals for my flights to NZ. But ended up getting bread, rice, pasta, cake, plastic spread and some very dodgy expired soy milk on one plate. Not exceptionally healthy (especially for someone who’s also gluten intolerant). On my flights back there were no vegetarian meals for me, even though I had requested them.
I’ve found that eating a big, healthy meal at the airport before I jet off and packing healthy snacks that are familiar to my stomach helps. It also means you don’t have to stay awake for whenever the food trolley comes round. After receiving a carb-bomb on my first flight, I got some healthy snacks at the airport and skipped some of the inflight meals altogether. I felt ligther and better on arrival.
Helpful tip: vegetarian/ vegan options on most flights, but they’ve become quite popular so you have to remember book these at least 24 hours before your flight!
DON’T DO DRUGS
I have spoken to doctors and fellow athletes, and everyone seems to agree that sleeping tablets should be avoided. They can take days to eliminate from your system, and have significant side effects. I, for one, take 2 days to wake up after one sleeping pill! If you really deem it necessary to take medication, melatonin (a natural hormone secreted by your brain during darkness that promotes sleep) is a safe choice. Consult your doctor beforehand.
My achilles heel as an athlete is stress. And so, when I travel to race, I try and manage things within my power to avoid unnecessarily adding to the stress. Like starting to pack a few days ahead (remember to look at the compulsory gear list – they can have unexpected requests like 3 headlamps or a safety body bag…). Printing out flights and accommodation bookings and itineraries, and keeping copies of my personal documents in several places incase something gets lost/stolen also provides some peace of mind. I also try and book accommodation and transportation ahead for at least the first day or 2, and clearly mark and wrap my check-in bags. And, as I have visited the Lost Luggage counter one too many times, I pack the stuff I simply cannot do without (like my race vest and shoes) in my hand luggage.
Travel Take Aways
In my experience you always come back a richer person after travelling (even though you might be broke and broken). Even if the race itself doesn’t go according to plan, at the very least you can say that you’ve seen a new place, met people from across the globe and got a stamp in your passport. I’ve travelled to Mauritius for Dodo Trail only to get lost and disqualified at a race, but I learned to windsurf on the same trip, and I can honestly say I’d do it again if I could!
So if you are considering international races, don’t let the actual travel there hold you back – plan ahead and minimise the stress and negatives, but also enjoy the chaos, novelty and unpredictability of it. It’s part of the experience, and it’s how you grow!