I had high hopes at the start of 2021. Covid seemed under control in little old Aotearoa, events were back on for the summer and I was finally back into the swing of work, training and (part) owning a small business after having our first child in 2019. The beach cottage we had been renovating for half a decade was finally almost finished and we had figured out how to maintain our privileged outdoor lifestyle of tramping and trail running despite having started a family. I'm going to be honest, I was feeling pretty smug. About the only thing that wasn't going to plan was trying to get pregnant again although we had just met with a fertility specialist and I was cautiously optimistic about our options there too.
So in this strangely, for me at least, positive state of mind I signed up for my first ultra marathon a fortnight before the race. I hadn't specifically trained for it or even intended to run that distance anytime soon but there was a free entry on offer through work and I thought what's the worst that could happen? The James Stampede is one of several running and biking events that are held together on the old St James station out the back of Hanmer Springs each January. It brings together all manner of endurance athletes looking for an opportunity to suffer together amongst the beautiful scenery for very little recognition and a trophy that comes in the form of a cowboy whip. Like the kind you might use on a high country station, not at Christian Grey's place. It seemed at the very least like a great place to test my fitness where very few people would see me failing.
My husband dropped me and a hitchhiker we had found standing on a dark corner in Hanmer off at the start line early on what was to be a pretty hot day in the hills. I watched on from the back of the group as I clocked several "serious" runners I follow on Strava and tried to blend in as naturally as possible to the huddle of cold nervous bodies awaiting the starter. I had dutifully lathered myself in anti-chafe that morning and listened to as many dirt church radio podcasts as possible in preparation for this moment. I was ready.
The race began with minor fanfare and we headed straight into a long, slow climb up to Fowlers Pass in the soft, cool light of the early morning. I love hills. Most of my training had involved running straight up the steep ridge behind work in my lunchbreaks so after a while I started to pick off a few runners at the back and find a comfortable rhythm in the middle of the pack. The route from Fowler's Hut to Stanley Vale is lovely flowing single track that makes its way up the Stanley river over the first ten or so kilometers of the course and spits you out below the picturesque Lake Guyon. I'm always fascinated by the idea that people actually lived whole lives in these valleys far away from the nearest pub all those decades ago. What we were attempting seemed a bit soft in comparison to raising your family in a hut in the middle of the New Zealand bush at the turn of the last century.
We were still in the shade of the surrounding mountains and I was conscious of keeping my pace up to get as far through the course as possible before the sun was directly above us and we really started to bake. The route took us to the bottom of the lake and the first aid station before looping back past the historic Stanley Vale Hut and back onto the Stanley River. I was feeling good but had no idea how to pace myself for 50km so I tried to pick a speed that felt easy and just stick to it. As we made our way down the valley I could see one woman ahead of me but several guys in front and just behind me. I guessed I was still about halfway in the pack so focused on just slowly gaining on the group in front of me over the next little while.
The sun started creeping over the ridgeline and the water flowing along the valley floor stopped looking so cold and more like a bloody good place to have a swim. I had run every metre of the course so far but I knew the climb up to the racecourse was coming and I would probably be more efficient walking that section. I hadn't caught the trio in front of me but I also hadn't lost any ground on them as we started the climb up. As we hit the racecourse (picture big open plateau halfway up a mountain) I finally drew even with the woman I had been chasing for the last hour or so. We were both ready for a walk so I chatted to her for a while and we kept up a good pace walking and jogging this section while discussing all the important topics such as where I got my fantastic ear flappy hat from. The course moves off track here and a hard slog uphill through dirt and scrub brought us out to a horrible ridge traverse with sparsely placed markers and no obvious way to get down to the valley far below. I figured I wasn't in a hurry so I helped my new friend navigate this section as I worked my way from arrow to arrow while avoiding the nastiest of the local flora.
I dropped down the last section of steep tussock covered ridge slightly ahead of her and into the next aid station. Whilst simultaneously lathering a bit of SPF50 on my red hot arms and stuffing jet planes down my throat, the eight year old in charge of the lolly jar casually mentions that I'm the first woman to go through. Excuse me? Yeah you're in first place she says while looking at me like I'm an idiot. Oh shit I thought. I like to think I'm a good sport but I'm also hopelessly competitive so I belted off down the gravel road jamming my refilled soft flasks back into my vest in a total bloody panic. It's one thing to not care where you come in your first ultra but it's another thing entirely to lose the lead when you have a chance at winning your first ultra. I pondered that thought with horror as I clocked over 38, 39 and then 40km. It was about then that a small but significant ping happened in my right hamstring.
A variety of expletives crossed my mind as I gingerly tested out the leg to see how bad the injury was. No pain but something was definitely wrong. I was looking back over my shoulder and wondering how much of a lead I had on the woman in second since I'd gone sprinting from the aid station about 5km earlier. I couldn't see her anywhere but if she was running it was only a matter of minutes before she caught and passed me. More than a bit dejected I started power walking off down the 4WD track trying to only look back every 500 steps. I tried running a little but after less than a minute the pinging sensation would come back. I kept moving like this for kilometre after kilometre, running then power walking, then limping, then running again. Finally we hit a steep climb through the bush not far from the end of the course. I still hadn't been caught and I knew no one would be running this section so late in the race so I powered up it as best I could and was finally within spitting distance of the end.
The last hour was pretty miserable. I was exhausted, my feet hurt, my head was pounding and I was still convinced there was no way I would hold the lead until the end. The last three kilometres were a series of disappointing corners all promising to be the end but never were. In the finish I crossed the line to no friends and family (my husband was expecting me an hour later at the earliest and hadn't even left the bach yet), no congratulations and no way to get home. But I did win. The woman I had run with and then run off from was also gracious enough to drive me back to Hanmer after she finished about 5 minutes behind me after all those hours. Trail runners are just nice people.
It was the hardest thing I had done, and to cap things off I realised I had gotten my period some time in the last few hours of the race. I was vaguely aware that based on our meeting with the fertility doctor that would mean certain things would be starting this month. It's strange now that one of the first question many people ask us about the triplets is "are they natural?". It sounds like they're asking if you've had a boob job but what they really mean is have you had IVF because that's the only way people get pregnant with multiples right? Just look at octomum, surely that's not "natural". What had actually happened was my cycle was a bit sporadic and based on how long it had taken to get pregnant with our first I probably wasn't ovulating regularly. There's a drug you can take that will help with this and this month was the first cycle I was to take it on the off chance it might help us while they booked me in for all the more serious investigative procedures to find out why I wasn't getting pregnant.
There was about a 15% chance we would get pregnant in the first month on this drug and a 0.5% chance of conceiving triplets. They did mention multiples was a risk but a very low risk, kind of like winning lotto or finding jeans that fit perfectly the first time you put them on. In February we took the pills, had a lot of sex that weekend and just hoped for the best. A week later I took a pregnancy test and it was positive. Great right? I was excited but also trying not to get too carried away as the risk of losing the pregnancy was still pretty real. I called the clinic and they congratulated me before booking me in for an early scan at 7 weeks to check on everything. It was such a surreal experience by then already, thinking we might actually get to have another baby when it had looked like that just wasn't going to be on the cards for us.
The excitement dwindled a little within a matter of days as I started to get sick and then more sick. The nausea felt overwhelming and the first trimester tiredness hit me hard. I got through work by sneaking to the bathroom to dry retch every 15 mins and eating a lot of toast. I tried short runs to see if my hamstring was getting any better but I could hardly breathe properly. As the days went on I knew something was a bit off. I hadn't been nearly this sick when I was pregnant with Max and that casual warning about multiples started to weigh on our minds more heavily. Eventually we convinced ourselves it was twins. I thought if I mentally prepared myself for the possibility then it wouldn't be such a shock at the scan if that really was the case.
It was a Friday morning and I had taken a couple of hours off work for the appointment but we both had to go back straight afterwards. They took us into the consult room and I lay down for an ultrasound of my tummy. The very first thing we saw on the screen were three very distinct little black and white bubbles and a surprised looking Doctor. She confirmed what we already knew we were looking at but also that she needed to check for individual heartbeats to be sure that we had triplets in there. I don't honestly remember what I was feeling other than shock as she zeroed in on each tiny blob and located one, two and then three heartbeats. I do know that I burst in to tears, apologised profusely for crying and then proceeded to cry even more.
It wasn't just the realisation that our family of three was about to become six or that we would have to sell our house and buy something bigger during a time when the housing market was going crazy. It was the fear that this insane thing that was happening came with a pretty massive disclaimer. Multiples pregnancies are often much more complicated. The risks are higher for Mum and the babies and even if you carry them as long as possible (34 weeks for triplets) you will be delivering premature babies who have more chance of medical complications if they manage to survive in the first place. I didn't go back to work that day and 24 hours of google searches later I was not in a good headspace. I was terrified of having triplets but even more terrified of not having triplets.