A Picture in a Thousand Words
10th of September, 2020
Explanation: This post is inspired by a challenge created by Tim Hein and Brady Haran in an episode of their Unmade podcast. The task is to take any picture you took and describe it in exactly a thousand words. I chose one of my favorite moments of the recent few years, just before my win at the Te Houtaewa ultramarathon. At the time I also wrote a more detailed blog post about this race.
And as it’s a podcast, I recorded myself reading this post and sent it to Tim and Brady, maybe it’s interesting enough for them. Here’s the audio.
There’s no such thing as an easy ultramarathon. But if there was, this would be it.
The location is New Zealand’s North Island, somewhere between the town of Ahipara and the island’s northernmost tip, Cape Reinga. It’s a flat and straight beach which is about 55 miles long and is known by the name of Te-Oneroa-a-Tōhē, or, the 90-Mile-Beach. The European settlers in charge of naming it clearly didn’t have proper measurement techniques sorted out.
Running marathons and ultramarathons is a hobby of mine. It creates peace of mind, keeps me fit, and actually helps me recharge from busy day-to-day life with our four little daughters. When I heard there would be a 63 kilometer footrace along this beautiful and mythical beach right during the time we had planned on taking a vacation in this pretty country, I just had to sign up.
Before Europeans arrived at the two islands of New Zealand, conquered them and settled, it used to be only the Maori people who took care of it. The 90-Mile-Beach has a special place in Maori culture. It serves as one of the pathways the souls of deceased Maori use to travel towards salvation north of the country, the mentioned Cape Reinga. It isn’t only special in this regard, the beach is also classified as a country road, because the sand is compressed and flat, making it possible for most cars to drive on it. Occasionally you can see the odd tourist in a rental car stuck somewhere in the dunes, though.
On March 16 of 2019, the beach would be mainly used by runners instead. Including me.
The race has a traditional background. A long time ago, the native man Te Houtaewa used to live in this area with his tribe. Living off the flora and fauna the country had to offer seems to haven’t been a particularly tough thing to do, but one time he and his kin ran out of Kumara – a New Zealand type of sweet potato. Knowing there was a fellow tribe down south from where they lived, and him being a fit and avid runner, he decided to race down there. The only problem was that the two tribes were not on good terms with each other. So he had to steal a few Kumara and reach home in time for dinner without being noticed. He ran the long distance, managed to pick up a bucket of Kumara, but was spotted, attacked and wounded. Still, he ran and made it home in the end, able to now feed his kin.
Today’s task would be to reconcile the tribes by returning the Kumara.
Early in the morning, a shuttle bus would take the 25 people who were feeling confident enough to give this a try up towards the place were Te Houtaewa’s tribe used to live. After a Maori ceremony, every runner including me would receive a symbolic Kumara to carry with them for 63 kilometers and return in the town of Ahipara to make peace.
And off we went.
For the next half of the day, we would see mainly a beautiful flat beach in front of us, some hilly dunes to the left, the slightly stormy Tasmanian Sea to the right, and a blue sky with a few shady clouds above us. It felt like being in paradise.
I am not a gifted runner but today was a good day and I made my way towards the front of the field of about 25 runners over the course of the next few hours. Because of the flat sand and straight beach, I could use this time to estimate the distance towards the next runner in front of me right when they appeared as a black dot in the distance. I remembered that you could apply the Pythagorean theorem because the polygon between my eyes, the horizon, and the center of the earth is a right triangle. My eyes sit about 1.8 meters above the ground, so when you enter those numbers into the formula you arrive at about 4,800 meters until the horizon.
Every three kilometers, a few volunteers would have set up a table providing food and drink for us, and those little stations were hard to see from that far away. So my guess was that I could see about 3 kilometers until the curvature of earth would make it impossible to spot another runner.
Reaching second place, I wondered if there would be a chance to pass the front runner and claim a victory today – my first ever in a race, not to mention an ultramarathon. I was looking forward to the aid stations, one of them pictured in the center of this photograph. This one consisted of two four-wheel drive cars, five helpers, a table with water and a rubbish bin. One of the helpers, the central one, is kneeling to take a picture of me at this very moment. A few hundred meters behind this spot, there’s a darkly dressed person, running away from me.
That must be the current leader, I thought. At the aid stations, I asked how long ago he came by. Every time, the distance decreased. I was gaining on him.
I saw him getting tired and switching between walking and running, looking back at me a lot of the time. And then, he made a critical mistake. He omitted one of the last aid stations before the finish, probably just to safe time. Over the course of the next few kilometers I could see his form deteriorate until he suddenly fell. He must have collapsed due to dehydration. Thankfully, right then a tourist drove by. I stopped the tourist and asked him for help which he did. Half an hour of running in first place was left. Right then, I won my first ever ultramarathon race. I later learned that James, that’s his name, had to spend four nights in hospital afterwards due to dehydration complications, but fully recovered.