What’s the furthest you have run in one go? Me personally, it’s a half marathon (21.1km). My co-writer here at 3585livestayplay? She’s going to run five times that in February. Yes, that’s right. FIVE times that. 102 kilometres. That’s the equivalent of running from Swan Hill to Balranald and then another eight kilometres for good measure. So what drives someone to do something so insanely crazy? And volunteer to do it? I sat down with the ever-inspiring Toni Gracia and tried to find an answer to these questions.
Always being involved in sport from her childhood, Toni’s long-distance running passion only started around nine years ago, after she had her first child. A friend took her out for a long run and ‘taught me to SLOW down! Then I realised I could do it!’ After entering a 10km run at the Melbourne Marathon, she was hooked. Like so many others who run, Toni finds that it helps keep her sane- ‘Everyone in my house prefers it if I run!’ Running trails also provides Toni with the peace and quiet that being in nature often brings, ‘It’s like my mediation’ she says.
But I’m not sure how much meditating Toni will be able to do on the race in question. The Tarawera Ultramarathon, which event organisers describe as ‘New Zealand’s most prestigious ultramarathon’ has distances of 62km, 87km or 102km. Why didn’t Toni go for the 62km race? ‘I’m a sucker for punishment! I like to see what my body is capable of and after a number of marathons I wanted to try a different challenge. I wanted something that scares me, and this certainly does.’ Starting in Rotorua and finishing in Kawerau in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, Toni is going to get to run past four lakes, forests, waterfalls and some of the most stunning scenery in the world. The beauty of the course, along with Toni’s husband being a Kiwi, all added to the appeal. And the course is full of challenges. ‘The terrain is completely different to road running- hills, ditches, rocks, sand etc which burns your quads out a lot more quickly. There’s more risk of acute injury than the road. And fuelling is tricky to get right, especially when your longest run is only 56-60km.’ Even the event’s website doesn’t shy away from the challenging nature of the course; ‘This is not designed to be an event that you know with certainity (sic) you can finish. It is designed to be an adventure that will push many of you to run further than you have before.’
Last year’s event winner was Jonas Buud, completing it in 8:00:53 hours and the first female to cross the line, Fiona Hayvice did in 18th place, with a time of 10:34:26 hours (interestingly, both these runners were in the 40-49 year old category). Expecting to take her 13-14 hours on race day, Toni has spent many months training for this event. During her peak training weeks, she has been averaging 100 kilometres, which requires her to back up day-to-day runs with long runs of 4-6 hours on the weekends. However, this hasn’t all been smooth sailing. ‘I have always been injury prone… I have been making a concerted effort to include two strength sessions at the gym and reformer pilates once a week, to stay strong and injury free.’ And just this week, Toni had to have a toenail surgically removed after becoming infected. ‘It’s all just part of the ultra-running territory!’ she says with a grin. Apart from the physical challenges associated with training for an event like this, Toni explains that the mental challenges can be just as tough. Luckily she has a large group of running companions who are willing to accompany her on sections of her training runs, as ‘long lonely miles can be hard to fathom mentally sometimes.’ And that’s the other challenge come race day. Anyone who has trained for a half or full marathon knows that you never run the full distance before race day, leaving yourself 5-10km that you are yet to cover. But for an ultra-marathon? With her max training distance being between 50-60kms pre-race, Toni is going to have roughly an extra 40kms to get through on the day that her body has not had to do. This makes her a little nervous, but in her typical positive attitude towards life, she is seeing this as an extra 40 kilometres of adventure. Then there’s the food and hot springs at the end to look forward to. But most importantly, the sense of acheivement at completing something you have worked so hard for.
Now I am highly doubtful that Toni’s enthusiasm for running 102 kilometres is going to inspire many others to take on such a crazy feat. But what I do know is that her enthusiasm for running in general is hugely inspiring to many in the Swan Hill community. Starting the “Run with Voyage” class in 2015 with fellow running enthusiast Rach Moloney, these girls got people out there pounding the footpaths of Swan Hill further than they had ever imagined themselves capable of. In 2016, Rach moved overseas for the year, so Toni continued to run the classes solo. Her classes, infectious smile and relentless encouragement of others has inspired people to complete 10km, half and full marathons at a variety of events. And in a totally unexpected token of generosity, these runners who have been inspired to do things they’ve never done before, only thought it fair that they show their appreciation of Toni’s support and efforts to do something she has been inspired to do. Organised by a Run with Voyage participant, contributions were secretly collected from those who wanted to support Toni, to help her cover the associated costs of the race (accommodation, new runners, massages, toenails etc). Since no-one was able to commit to making the trip to New Zealand to see her cross the finish line, this was the least they felt they could do to show Toni her support. In true Toni fashion, she was absolutely shocked by the generosity.
And that’s something that continues to amaze me in country towns. The support that local sporting groups will show to their members. Yes, the running group is part of a gym. But for people who don’t play team sports, that running group is their team. They cheer each other on just as hard as any ball sport team I’ve seen. And so they thought it only fair to support one of their team mates who was willing to achieve something so far out of their comfort zone.
Thinking about giving the 102 km course a go? Here’s what to expect: http://www.taraweraultra.co.nz/the-race/the-course/