Trail running is enjoying a surge in popularity in New Zealand. This is a trend enterprising event organisers have been quick to capitalise on, effectively monetizing some of our most iconic trails. Scarcity value means some events sell out within minutes and relatively high entry fees can be charged as would-be participants compete just to gain access.
Staging trail running events can be a significant commercial enterprise with a single company organising a series of events around the country, Xterra and the Coastal Challenge Series spring to mind. I have no problem with these large-scale commercial undertakings. They all foster the sport of trail running and many contribute valuable regional development dollars and boost conservation efforts in the areas where they are run. But, it is great that there are a range of event options available.
In this context I have always felt lucky to reside in Wellington where we have a great collection of local events run by local running enthusiasts on a shoestring for local runners and others keen on running in wild places on rough trails where you might get the odd prickle or scratch and you will get wet and muddy. These events or garage projects rely heavily on collaboration between like-minded, practical, go getting enthusiasts, volunteer labour, local knowledge and creative logistical arrangements. There are no major headline sponsors and consequently no PowerAde or Leppin gels every five kilometres and sponsored professional competitors are unlikely to show up. These are community events that generate high levels of local identification and a sense of collective ownership. People pitch in on the administrative side. Competitors support each other during the event and stick around afterwards to watch people finish or do their best to finish.
For the Wellington region the Tararua Mountain Race, Jumbo-Holdsworth, and Mukamuka Munter are classic garage projects. These events are organic, and like a hearty home-brew, full of character and soul. Messy to develop, the key ingredients must be experimented with to find the right mix and even then they are likely to be an acquired taste. They evolve through trial and error and a collective determination to make them better but not necessarily bigger. They are a joy to be part of and with their focus on stewardship and giving back to the local area they represent more than just another race.
So when I heard that there was a new trail running event called the Aorangi Undulator, by-line “not for the weak,” I was intrigued and keen to participate. The Undulator is a 33km run in the Aorangi Range in Wairarapa. It comprises five valleys and four undulations. It is the centrepiece of a much smaller three-day stage race starting in Eastbourne and finishing at Waikuku Lodge dubbed the Aorangi 100. The idea for the event was dreamed up over a few beers down at the pub by Chris Martin and a collection of running mates, who collectively form the Wellington Big Sunday Run Group by line “getting out of family duties since 1995“. Proceeds from the Aorangi Undulator and Aorangi 100 are donated to the Aorangi Restoration Trust. The Trust was set up to undertake conservation projects in the Aorangi Forest Park including predator trapping. You can check out the Trust’s website (http://www.aorangitrust.org.nz/), though the best testimony to its’ work is the birdsong throughout the park.
You can check out all the details associated with this garage project, including the winners, their times and links to other blogs here: http://chrismartinc.wix.com/aorangi-undulator.
Friday night we leave Wellington and cruise over the hill to the Wairaprapa unwinding as we go. After a week of faux mountaineering I am keen to put the frustrations of poor snow conditions behind me. After identifying the starting point for tomorrow’s adventure we soak up a stunning coastal sunset after pitching our tents in the free camping ground in the heart of the small fishing village of Ngawi. Ngawi is famous for its’ extensive collection of bulldozers. They come in all shapes, sizes and colours, parked up like aisles of giant liquorice allsorts on the village’s seaward curb. The bulldozers are used to drag fishing boats in and out of the water as there is no wharf.
As dawn breaks on Saturday morning we park at the entrance to the Mangatoetoe Valley, a spot already overflowing with vehicles and lycra clad trail runners. In less than an hour the Aorangi Undulator will kick off. The Managatoetoe Valley is one of the main gateways into the Aorangi Forest Park and is situated roughly half way between Ngawi in the north and Cape Palliser, the southernmost point of the North Island in the south. The coast round here is isolated, rugged and compelling. Despite living in Wellington for some time, like many other competitors, I had never visited Aorangi Forest Park before I heard about this trail run.
We join the throngs of competitors checking in and having their gear checked by good-natured race officials. There is a buzz of enthusiasm and anticipation. The atmosphere is warm and friendly. Trail running may be on the rise but it is still a fringe sport so you see many of the same people at the events, plus everyone has something in common so making new friends is a certainty.
I’m participating in Mal Law’s High Five-0 Challenge, a project whereby this inspirational trail runner will attempt to run the equivalent of 50 mountain marathons in 50 days starting in February 2015. The objective is to raise as much money as possible for the NZ Mental Health Foundation. Runners like me have signed on to be support runners for Mal on one or two of his mountain runs. As well as train and run with him we must fundraise for the cause. Mal’s army all have red shirts enabling us to be mobile advertisements for the project. I spot some fellow red shirts and a group photo is quickly organised for posting on social media to spread the word. If you want to donate, see my fundraising page: http://www.fundraiseonline.co.nz/HighFive-0Challenge.
It’s only several days later when a friend sees the picture that I learn I was standing next to Steve Neary. Steve is a trail running superhero of double Hillary Trail fame who, along with a couple of mates, has travelled all the way from Auckland to compete in, and as it transpires, win the three-day Aorangi 100.
Photo opportunity out-of-the-way I chat with some of the competitors about day one of the Aorangi 100. 46 rather than the advertised 42 kilometres including a chest high linked up river crossing. It sounds epic! In comparison the Aorangi Undulator is a mere 33 kilometres although it packs some serious height gain. We gather round and listen to laconic Race Director Chris Martin (Martini) deliver the race briefing with characteristic dry wit. While this is a fairly light-hearted affair all the serious safety stuff is covered before megaphone in hand he leads us through a paddock to the side of the Mangatoetoe River and on the dot of 7am the race begins.
Stage one consists of several kilometres of river bashing. In true Kiwi style feet stay dry for all of about 30 seconds before everyone is weaving their way through the river finding the best line to maximise efficient upstream travel. There is plenty of shrubbery nestled in and around the river so tall dry sticks and low hanging branches compete with slippery rocks and crumbling river bank for the title of trickiest hazard. I crash into dry sticks frequently in my haste to keep up with the people in front. As I impatiently brush them aside, part of my brain registers that I should protect my face but the thought soon fades as I concentrate on navigation. Fortunately I spent a fun Saturday about a month earlier assisting with track marking so I have a slight advantage over Mangatoetoe valley virgins.
Runners swarm past Mangatoetoe hut situated in a manuka grove on the right of the river. Here the first of several marshals offers words of encouragement as he ticks me off his list and I continue across a grassy section where river bashing resumes. The travel is slightly more interesting now with some weaving in and out of the river as we negotiate a gorge like section involving the odd bit of cliff and rock scrambling. The river flattens out again and we are back amongst the tall sticks and low hanging branches. This time my right eye connects with a tall stick and my contact lens drops out with a neat hole in the middle of it. Grateful I wasn’t travelling fast enough for the collision to damage my eye I carry on. Blurry vision makes travel on the uneven terrain slightly trickier. I’m forced to slow down and lose sight of the group I had been catching up with. Fortunately more people are coming up behind me and I’m able to follow them up the final sections of the river to Kawakawa hut.
From the Kawakawa hut the best part of the race begins – four undulations, each one steeper than the one before. For hill lovers this is a series of giant accumulating roller-coasters. For others it’s a perfectly designed torture chamber. As a hill lover I’m in my element and nothing is going to knock the smile off my face until I reach out to grab hold of a shrub for balance and suddenly remember that the Aorangis are the Nettle Capital of New Zealand. “They sting you here they sting you there; they bloody sting you everywhere” I chant as I pass a particularly healthy looking specimen. At the foot of the hill I strike the first of several signs alerting me to the fact I have a 130m climb and words of advice from local runner Chris Swallow “if you can’t take the pain take the bus”.
From the top of the undulation there is a slippery, rolling descent back to the river. At Pararaki Hut I’m checked off by another marshal who will probably get into trouble if the Race Director reads this and learns that rather than booing me for the sign of weakness implicit in my mentioning my vision impaired state is all sympathy and offers me a sour worm by way of consolation. Feeling slightly guilty I resolve it is time to speed up and prove I’m not weak.
Undulator two according to the sign is a 310 vertical climb and if I make pain my friend I will never be lonely again. “The nettles will help with that” I think but I’m firmly in the grip of an endorphin high as I ascend through some of the most beautiful rainforest in the park and along the knife-edge ridge. “The only thing more fun than a hill is a hill with a bit of exposure” I think as the third undulation hovers into sight. This one is big, 550m of height gain and the sign drolly states: “at least you aren’t bored.” The climb is of no particular concern but the steep descent on slippery scree is a trap for the unwary. When we checked out the track in October this section was treacherous. Since then it has rained lots and the track is even more slippery plus as I’m towards the back of the field I’m paying the penalty for those before me having already worn away what little vegetation was around to supply purchase. I proceed with caution. On the plus side the front-runners have also removed the bulk of the nettles.
At the bottom I follow the river eventually crossing it to be greeted by a shirtless Chris Swallow nonchalantly sunbathing on the sunny bank. “This is the last place to get water before the end of the race” he kindly reminds me before teasing me about a navigational blunder from the October trip. With his final “have fun” ringing in my ears and the vision of a half-naked marshal imprinted on my retinas I completely miss the sign for undulator four just past Washpool hut. But I know I have another 550 metres of climbing to go.
Undulator four is my favourite as once up on the ridge the views out across the Aorangi range and to the coast are stunning. The ridge undulates for several kilometres but the running is good and the nettles on the wane. A happy marshal sits in a grassy knoll offering gels and wine gums and informs me I’m awesome. I later discover the sign at the bottom of the hill conveyed the same sentiment.
Ego boosted I speed down gorse ally – a four-wheel drive track overgrown with gorse. This makes a refreshing change from the nettles and there are no marshals close enough to boo me if I cry out in pain softly. I would not fancy running gorse ally if sunburnt. For the final section I stick behind the Polish Greyhound who is having achilles issues and is in a lot of pain. Down the well- formed track past the Pinnacles Lookout to the river we go passing lots of day trippers now. It’s a short scramble down the river to the Pinnacles car-park and the finish line. I feel simultaneously sorry the race has ended and sure this is the just the beginning of something pretty special.
Huge congratulations to everyone who completed the race, particularly the runners who did the three-day event which by all accounts was well worth the effort. Big thanks to the race organisers for dreaming up this wonderful garage project and implementing it in fine style. In just its second year of running and its first official year of taking place the Aorangi Undulator and the Aorangi 100 have already achieved legendary status and I’m confident the event will be a highlight of the Wellington trail running calendar for many years to come.