Caroline Pivetta isn’t one of those names you see repeatedly cropping up in race previews from the go-to resources like Ultra168 (where ultra-obsessed folk like me go in the morning before checking the actual news on TheGuardian). This is mainly because she hasn’t raced in quite a few years, but you may see her name a little more in the future, as with health issues behind her, she is making something of a return to the scene, securing a casual 2nd at Maroondah Dam 30km and making a return to Oxfam Trailwalker with team Jetts Boronia fuelled by Runners Kitchen.
I wanted to do some runner profiles on this blog because I come across these stories that I find incredibly inspiring and would like to share with others. They’re not stories of world class domination (though you never know what the future may hold), but they’re stories about strong runners who find ways to work around the constraints of day-to-day life to achieve great things.
I first heard about Caroline when I was out on the trails, early one Sunday, filled with that special glow you can only get from fresh, mountain air and the exertion of running up hills while chatting. The story was all the more poignant for coming to me from my running mentor, a man I hold in high esteem himself, who was explaining to me that it was never really him that was into running, or good at it, but his partner. He just went along for the ride.
This confounded me. Really?! The guy I had first seen bound past me up the last hill at Rollercoaster Run (which, if you don’t know it, is a VERY steep hill, especially after 21kms of steep hills) during my first ever trail race, cheerily barking words of encouragement as he effortlessly overtook me near the end of my only lap, while another whole lap lay ahead of him? The guy who had run the Western States 100 miler in 22 hours? Oh yes, he told me, he was only entered at WSER100 because Caroline wanted to take it on and he was going to accompany her.
He went on to tell me about the time he was crewing for her at the Glasshouse 100km and started pacing her at one of the later checkpoints. She was still moving fast and very focused, but feeling the pain. She asked him how many were ahead of her. “No one, love.” Brian assured her. No, but where was she in the race? She wanted to know. “You’re leading.” He replied. No, no – what about the men? Who was up ahead? “No one, love. You’re LEADING.” And she went on to win it outright. I could feel the pride and euphoria from that moment as he related it to me. That feeling has stayed with me through the subsequent years whenever I think about it – there’s a little buzzing inside as I write this now, and I feel like going out for a run.
Unfortunately, in the few years I’ve know them both, I’ve only ever had the opportunity to run with Caz once. For a lot of that period she has not been allowed to train due to complications from childbirth and related procedures. What always struck me, though, is the obvious patience and discipline she has brought to these circumstances, and the quiet inevitability that she would be able to resume as soon as it was all behind her: keeping her base fitness up with long walks, cycling, gentle runs and a healthy, vegan diet. I always felt that, faced with a similar situation, I would simply fall into a heap of beer-soaked nachos.
I asked Caz how she got into ultras. Not surprisingly, for such a strong runner, athleticism is in the genes. Her father was both a sprinter and an AFL player, peaking with a few games at the most senior level. Her mother took to running in her 30s and neatly put a number of marathons under her belt. Her sister was a state-league netballer. Caroline was always sporty from the get-go: running (club with Glenhuntly – track and cross-country); swimming; triathlon; duathlon; netball; soccer; tennis; bodybuilding…did I mention she’s a blackbelt in Muay Thai kickboxing? Handy.
Actually, the bodybuilding and kickboxing do make some sense. Caroline is not your typical ultra runner (if such a thing exists), being quite tall and strongly built. She’s not of the Gill Fowler, pocket-rocket model. Indeed, if Caz came across Gill at the side of the trail, bitten by a snake or something, I could imagine her just swapping her pack for Gill and carrying her to the finish for a joint first place (note to trailrunners: this is not the recommended response to a snake bite incident).
Caroline got a taste for the ultra distances from undertaking the Oxfam Trailwalker 100km back in 2003 in a running/walking team taking 24 hours, after which she was quickly hooked (she returned to Trailwalker the next year with a team of runners and finished in 14 hours). In some ways, this may have been unfortunate. Prior to that, it seems from her results that she was on track to get a fair bit faster over the marathon distance. She ran a 3h02m at Canberra in only her third race, but shortly afterwards directed her attention to the longer distances, despite the advice of her running coach, who wanted her to achieve her potential at the shorter distance first.
It’s not all bad, though! In her shoes, I don’t think I’d have many regrets about getting to represent Australia three times: the World 100km Champs in Belgium, 2009 (9h24m) and again in Gibraltor 2010; and the Commonwealth 100km Champs in England in 2009 (9h04m). These were achievements I was completely unaware of until I started to write this profile and asked her for a more complete list of races she’d done! Another great achievement I was drawn to – having recently finished the arduous 82kms myself, somewhere in the second half of the field – was her win at the Cradle Mountain Run in 2010.
As I tend to be, given my own life of juggling children, work demands and partners (that sounds bad, I only have one), I was interested to get a feel for how parenthood has impacted her. Of course, as I touched on above, a major downside was from the health perspective, which obviously set her back a few years regardless of other travails. But she noted that it’s the peripheral, value-adding activities that fall by the wayside. Taking time to stretch enough; get regular massages in; conditioning through pilates, body-balancing and yoga – all items that some swear can make all the difference…and I’m personally inclined to believe them, which is convenient for me, because I don’t really do any of them right now and can hence hope for better performance in a theoretical future where I have the time to incorporate them more. Yay future me!
Back to Caroline. I wanted to get a sense of how a typical week might pan out, in terms of allocating time to run between herself and hubby; between raising their son; between providing valuable respite foster care to other children; between running a suite of small businesses. Naturally, for organised people, it involves a spreadsheet. Caz reckons her typical training week is a shadow of what it would have been four years ago (although it looks okay to me!): she’s happy with her long run being 25-35km, one speed session and three other runs, with one of those being on hills. She only recently got herself a GPS watch for the first time, but she reckons she’s averaging about 80kms per week.
As in my house, there are some standing allocations of days for training, Caroline gets Tuesday and Saturday mornings and thanks to some childcare gets a midday oppo to hit the Dandenongs on a Wednesday. Other than that, with the variability of small business ownership meaning start times, meetings, due dates and the like are ever-changing, everything is worked out as they go. “If one of us is with Kynan doing his bath and bed, then the other is in the study working. If one of us is cooking dinner, then the other is in the study working…” Somewhere amongst all that, one hopes, someone gets to go out for a run.
The upshot of these time constraints and negotiations is that Caroline has a much greater appreciation of the time she does get to go out running and hit the trails. We all know that these often strenuous activities can be at risk of seeming like a chore, but when the opportunities are hard come by and preciously nurtured, you only really feel the love.
In terms of her comeback to ultra running? In response to my speculation that Jetts Boronia might have a chance at first place for an all-girls team, she pretty much shot me down. “We are a team comprising of: Lisa, who is finishing her PhD two days before; Femi, who is coming back after injury and doesn’t have a load of recent kms under her belt; Donna (who’s a gun, but time poor); and myself, who has not run consistently since 2011 and just started good training in January this year, after major surgery (post baby medical problems).” Ah, excuses, excuses! *wink*.
Despite the rational tempering of expectations, Caroline does acknowledge their strengths: “We know what to expect and how badly it will hurt. We can prepare mentally for this and won’t be surprised with the physical and psychological ups and down an ultra serves up.” I asked her for her ‘dig-deep’ mantra. It’s quite a famous one she borrows from Dean Karnaze: “Run when you can. Walk when you have to. Crawl if you must. But never give up.”
To wrap up, I asked Caroline about her favourite event or result, but was quite surprised that she chose not to name any races at all. “I love every event I do with BJ (her husband). He is supportive and amazing to run with. If I have a bad day he never cares what time we finish in and will slow as required just to stay with me. If I’m having a good day, he steps up and pushes me to maintain a strong run. He has been my training partner and best friend for over ten years and whilst having children has forced us to regularly divide and conquer in regards to our training, the absolute best training runs and events I do are with him.”
Postscript: another question I put to Caroline but didn’t exactly get an answer on was what her gnarliest, biggest goal would be if she had no constraints. To that, she left me with a bit of a teaser that will hopefully be clarified somewhat in my next runner profile, on Donna Urqahart, Caroline’s Oxfam team member and winner of last year’s Rollercoaster Run 43km. She alluded to a “running project…which will take place in the latter half of 2015”. Intriguing!