Back in November 2014 I ran the Aorangi Undulator, a choice local event in the Aorangi Forest Park on the outskirts of Wellington.
I enjoyed it so much I resolved to return in 2015 for the three-day version. The A100 is run by the same group of trail running enthusiasts who organise the Undulator. The 2014 attrition rate seemed high and the survivors appeared to pick up more than their fair share of injuries. The uncertain nature of the challenge appealed to my sense of adventure. I thought it would be a good test of my endurance and organisational skills and a great way to support an innovative local event while contributing to conservation in the Aorangi Forest Park. The fact that many of my fellow entrants were mates helped. I wouldn’t be doing a strange thing surrounded by strangers.
Nature of the challenge
There are not many multi-day running events (MDREs) in New Zealand. The Godzone Adventure Race takes place over the course of a week but that is an interdisciplinary team event involving live tracked running, cycling, kayaking, rafting, tramping, a lot of navigation, ex All Black captains and not much sleep. The Coast to Coast is another iconic Kiwi multi-day event that embraces multiple disciplines and can be done as a team.
MDREs are more common overseas. The inspiration for the A100 is the Dragons Back. This race follows Wales’ mountainous spine from Conway Castle to Carreg Cennen Castle. The journey spans five days, 300km and 16,000m of ascent.
The A100 is more modest in its intent but a significant challenge nonetheless. Starting in Eastbourne south-west of Wellington the course takes you into the East Harbour Regional Park past the Parangarahu Lakes, through the Rimutaka and Aorangi Forest Parks to finish at Waikuku Lodge near Martinborough. This three-day journey covers approximately 105km and 4,800m of elevation. The scenery is spectacular featuring several beautiful lakes, a stunning stretch of rocky, isolated coastline, some big river valleys and plenty of hilly, breath-taking, (literally and figuratively) native bush. For an event that takes place relatively close to New Zealand’s capital city it is surprisingly remote with scant settlements, no corner dairies, very limited cell phone coverage and few roads. In many ways organising the event is more challenging than participating in it. Competitors just have to turn up and eat, drink, run, repeat.
How do you prepare for a multi- day event that is largely unsupported, attracts less than twenty participants and takes place in the wilderness? Fortunately Wellington provides plenty of scope for practice runs with no shortage of trails that mimic the course, Tararua Forest Park being the obvious example. If you are a local, and most of the participants are, there are opportunities to train on the course. Training is made easier by the existence the Wellington Big Sunday Run Group, by-line “getting out of family duties since 1995”. As the name suggests the group organises long runs usually on Sundays. It is no coincidence that the driving force behind this group, Martini is also the A100 race director.
Martini schedules runs on the A100 course which allows potential competitors and the race organisation team to familiarise themselves with the course and weather conditions. This invaluable collaboration between event organisers and competitors doubles as a track marking exercise and provides opportunities to “get the word out” via pictures posted on social media and tall tales of exploits told at local watering hole the Southern Cross.
As well as course familiarisation competitors gain fitness and provide feedback on hazards that need managing and ideas for improving the course/race experience. In problem solving mode they nominate others who have the right skill set for jobs that need doing – be it website design, access to sponsors, a suitable sports masseuse, photography or project planning. The colour of the race t-shirt was hotly debated and settled in the end by an informal vote. The race organisers are runners. The roles are interchangeable. One year you may run the next you may be a marshal. On race day some marshals will run almost as much as race entrants. There is a strong sense of collective stewardship of the event.
Although I didn’t make it to any of the course specific runs I did manage to run the Mukumuku-Orongorongo circuit a couple of times and to get in plenty of long back to back runs to ensure I had the necessary endurance to give me confidence that provided nothing unexpected happened I would finish. Running ultras doesn’t just happen, even if you happen to be athletically gifted. There is a strong ethos of preparing, sharing and supporting. The journey is at least as important as the destination. Tim, who eventually went on to win the event probably did the most training of anyone. He practiced extensively on the course and in the Tararuas, he mapped out the routes, he worked out what splits he needed to do, his nutrition was meticulously planned. His shorts were colour coordinated with his sunhat. His sun tan did not come from a clinic. He generously shared his beta and offered support and advice to anyone who wanted it.
As race day approached I got busy with work and other life stuff and planning food, gear and logistics fell by the wayside. With race kick off fast approaching I checked in with my bach mates, (at least our accommodation was sorted thanks Gareth!), to see what they were doing in terms of nutrition and logistics. I discovered that they were similarly disorganised but a lot more chilled out about it. In the end I opted to keep things relatively simple, one pair of trainers, my trusty Salomon Speedcross 3’s which are light, comfortable and superb at gripping in the mud and on wet rock.
I also packed that Kiwi staple and Podiatrists’ worst nightmare jandals for when not running. For nutrition I decided to stick with what I knew – cheese toasties, a few electrolyte chews and a caffeinated gel or two in my first aid kit in case the cut off times were looming (there were no cut off times). I generally save running on gels for real races. I was not planning on “racing” the A100. My goal was to enjoy the experience and finish injury free.
Given the multi day nature of the event recovery nutrition was the priority so I planned to have a protein drink and an electrolyte drink on hand at the end of each stage for refuelling. I took heart from the fact that a few people were repeating the A100 including defending champions Steve and Marta as well as Karen. When I asked Karen why she was doing the A100 again she pointed out what a luxury it is to leave a stressful life behind for three days focused solely on eat, drink, run, repeat.
Good morning sunshine
The forecast for the event looked unbelievable – three days of sunshine and no wind! With great excitement Gareth, Megan and I headed for Eastbourne early on Friday morning for the start of Day 1. After stashing our gear in one of the race vans we set about the business of keeping warm while chatting to the other race participants. Twenty of us in all and a good sprinkling of supporters and marshals who had generously gotten out of bed obscenely early to drive us to the race start and see us on our way. While most of us were locals Steve had come down from Auckland and Suzanne had come all the way from Dubai for a trail running holiday. The most local local was probably Ash who lives in the Wairarapa, organises guided local runs and offers accommodation from his small business aptly named Thrive.
Accompanying Ash for the event was our honorary 20th team-mate Scout the dog.
After the race briefing and some team photos, (I made sure to position myself next to Tim as I was sure I would not see him again during the race), we finally got underway. I had run the first part of the course previously, albeit as an after work run in winter and hence by head-torch. The landscape looks better in daylight. Initially we follow a four-wheel drive track towards the Pencarrow Lighthouse enjoying stunning views across the harbour and Cook Strait. The sea is full of container ships. Wellington’s tall buildings shimmer on the horizon. Up single track and around the first of the Parangarahu Lakes, Kohangapiripiri, and its surrounding wetlands. The lake glowers sullenly in the early morning sunshine with its rusty tussock beard providing a nice colour contrast. Up the second hillock of the day James ticks me off his list at the first checkpoint and I follow the ridge before dropping back to the coast.
I’m starting to find my rhythm. Recalling the race notes I head down to the beach following footprints in the sand. I hear a voice calling my name and turn to see Ewa running towards me. Ewa is staffing checkpoint two and tells me I must be faster than I think as only seven people have been past. I tell her I’m pretty sure I’m at the back. We figure the missing runners must have stayed up on the main track. Ewa runs with me for a bit then heads inland in search of her charges. I cross the Wainui River where it meets the sea in ankle-deep water and continue along the coast towards the road and the Orongorongo river mouth.
I look up from the footprints in the sand and glance inland towards the river. To my surprise I see a small figure wading through chest deep water towards me. Karen emerges dripping water everywhere. We proceed together to the newly installed Orongorongo River car park and the third marshal checkpoint. Shermin and Thom offer us jelly beans and other treats while advising us to stick together and consider taking the four-wheel drive track as the river is still running high. This suits us. Karen is wet enough already and we haven’t done the track before so it’s a chance to explore a new route. I’m feeling lazy so it’s good to have Karen on hand to gently suggest maybe we should run this bit, (the flats and downhills), while we powerwalk the uphill bits. Eventually we emerge near the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Clubs’ Paua Hut. We have just a few kilometres of river crossings to reach marshal station four near the bottom of South Saddle.
Ben and his mate look very relaxed lounging in the sun. They have a nice picnic all laid out after spending the night in a nearby hut. Somewhat belatedly we apply sunscreen. Ben assures us Tim has a big lead and looks very comfortable with a big bunch running together behind him. After a bit more chatting we decide we better get going and head into the bush for the days climb up to South Saddle. It is a short steep slog with great views out to the coast and over the Orongorongos as our reward. The descent down the Mukamuka is far easier than ascending the valley. A little sketchy at the top as the rest of the field has cleared out all the best hand holds then the travel is good all the way to the coast.
At the coast I insist that Karen forge ahead as she is much quicker than me. I tread the final six kilometres alone soaking up the sun, sand and surf, admiring the flowering flax and dramatic cliffs. As the finish line looms Martini and Marta come to cheer me on. The first half of the field have departed. The rest of us, with the exception of Suzanne who is still on the course, head off to Lake Ferry Pub where Steve is staying. In the afternoon sun the pub looks so inviting we make a spontaneous decision to stick around for a beer and some hot chips. On account of our sweaty attire and in consideration of the 20th member of the team, we pick a table outside and enjoy the wonderful views of Lake Ferry while reliving the days’ highlights.
Vicky arrives sharing the fantastic news that her Kiwi Trail Runner magazine is going to be sold in book and magazine stores well ahead of when her publishers had originally thought would be commercially feasible. This is great testament to her vision and hard work. If you have not checked the magazine out you need to do so!
In the future the plan is to arrange a ferry across the lake and end Day 1 of the A100 at the Pub. It will be a nice touch and a fabulous end to Day 1. Arriving at our bach which is located a few minutes from the Mangatoetoe Valley entrance and the start of Day 2 we have plenty of space to chill out and cook our evening pasta. Later we are joined by a few Undulator runners – Lauren, Pete, Viktor and Jan.
If you don’t know where you’re going NOT every path will take you there
Rhys, Gareth and I get up early and prepare our race nutrition while the Undulator crew enjoy a lie in. Rhys and Gareth run on perpetuem a protein/carb/fat drink that you mix up. It looks suspiciously like a beer smoothy but seems to work for them, they both aced Day 1. I’m sticking with my toasties.
We head to the start line with Jan who is taking official race photos. The Undulator is growing in popularity with over 60 competitors. The organisers have implemented a staggered seeding system whereby the A100 competitors start first followed at half hour intervals by waves of runners organised according to estimated race times with those hoping for the quickest times starting last. The idea is that everyone will finish within a few hours of each other.
After a bit of socialising and a quick gear check, race briefing and photo the A100 team are off up the Mangatoetoe River. After yesterday’s slow start I hang back with Karen, Suzanne and Bernie. We meet Chris Swallow returning from a route recce. He helpfully points out a good shortcut on the left hand river bank. A bit later while crossing the river I slip and crunch my left knee on some rocks. I wave the others on as I stop and wait for the pain to subside before proceeding.
The river travel is always tricky with orange triangles more of a hint than an actual guide. I weave in and out of the river trying to pick a good line, sometimes having to retrace my steps when I make a poor decision. This early travel sets the tone for the day. While the track seems less well-marked than last year I have only myself to blame for navigational mishaps. Those who helped with the track marking report no difficulties with route finding.
I mostly run alone enjoying the lush bush and the cheerful songs of the native bird life that is thriving here thanks to the work of the Aorangi Restoration Trust. At regular intervals I’m overtaken by faster people in the later waves. They shout words of encouragement as they fly by. Sometimes they return having gone the wrong way. I’m not alone in finding the route finding challenging in places. Eventually I pass Karen and Suzanne. One of the undulations, possibly the first is heralded by a sign advising competitors “you have the key to the hurt locker, time to open it”. Overcast conditions give way to full sunshine and the day heats up. Confused by some orange markers I start heading back the way I’ve come. It doesn’t feel right though and I stop as Mark approaches. I do a u turn and follow him. One place lots of people get caught out is where the stream forks just before Pararaki Hut. The hut and the marshals are hidden about 50m up the NE fork, behind a grassy bank.
From the hut there is a big climb, (undulation 3), to a knife-edge ridge followed by a steep, slippery scree descent to Washpool hut.
Just before Washpool Creek a loud whooping noise signals the arrival of Chris Swallow. I’ve been waiting for this. He started last and is rocketing along though he claims he is suffering from a lack of endurance. Despite pausing to chat with almost everyone he passes he will go on to take line honours in an impressive time of 4.14 with Tim only a few minutes behind.
The Washpool Marshalls, (Paul and Gregg) are camping in the sun by the river. A gaggle of runners are standing round refilling water bottles looking a bit dazed. For some, running trails is a relatively new experience and they are struggling to adjust to the highly technical trail which requires patience, balance and agility as much as speed. As I climb the hill past the hand written sign “they call this undulation the grinder” I spot Richard, looking a little tired. We exchange some wry banter. Fewer runners are coming through now and the route is getting more familiar.
I pass Lilla who is offering gels from her marshal vantage point in a sunny grassy clearing. I lose the route again and expend precious minutes back tracking and trying a few options before spotting the correct ground trail. Patience and humility really pays off here as you can waste energy getting grumpy or charging ahead only to have to spend more time back tracking. Another marshal eventually appears and assures us there is only a few kilometres to go. I know better. Most people think the Undulator only has four hills but there is a fifth that provides a bonus mental challenge. Having ascended undulator five you must descend gorse ally. Aorangi gorse is always in robust health. Jan has cunningly positioned himself half way down the ally so he can capture people with bloody arms grimacing in pain. Beyond the gorse I head up the Pinnacles single track and down to the river and the finish line.
I finish to cheers from the crowds of supporters and runners enjoying the sunshine in the campground. The Undulator is only 33 km but it takes me about as long as the previous days 50km. Lou the women’s winner is one of the first to congratulate me and recommend a massage. I head to the river to soak my legs before letting Nishil, who works at the aptly named Sports and Pain Clinic in downtown Welly, loose on my tight quads. This is followed by the usual routine of protein shake, eat some crisps, rehydrate and chat to competitors and supporters about a great day in the hills.
After the prize giving we retreat to our bach for dinner and rest plus a quick visit to the marshals’ bach just down the road. Another beautiful red sunset promises another perfect weather day to follow. The bach is strangely quiet now all the Undulator competitors have headed home. Lauren later wrote a cool blog on the day which you can read here.
Definitely not for the weak
The by-line for the A100 is “definitely not for the weak”. The final day we are definitely all feeling a bit weary but determined to finish with just 25km to go. Having received some navigation advice from Marta the night before I’m feeling confident I won’t get lost. We pack up, and head back to the Pinnacles car park. Some hardy A100ers have camped here overnight. After the usual round of photos and briefing we set off. The first section involves a climb back up above the Pinnacles to the bottom of gorse ally where you turn left and follow the signs towards Sutherland’s Hut.
My left knee is swollen and bruised after yesterday’s rock collision making descents a bit painful so I have a good excuse for settling at the rear accompanied by Shermin who was acting as tail end Charlie. Shermin has left his family behind to travel up from Nelson to help with the event. Each day he has run with the last competitor to ensure they finish in the right place. He does a stirling job keeping me company both distracting me from the pain by engaging me in conversation and by instinctively knowing when it’s best to keep quiet. If he is bored by his role or wishes I’d hurry up he hides it well. We admire the views at the top of hills. After descending to the valley it is a long gradual climb back up onto the tops followed by some steep descents and more undulations all the way to Sutherlands hut. Sherm has run in from the finish line to the hill above the hut last year so he knows the route well. We meet a couple of quad bikers on the steep descent to the hut, the gradient seems too extreme for such clumsy vehicles which could be why one of them is stationary. Just past the hut there are a few stream crossings and the first opportunity of the day to pick up some water.
From the stream the course ascends then traverses as we aim for a gum tree-lined ridge which marks the top. From here it is just a few kilometres to the end and at Sherm’s urging I start running in earnest. The last few kilometres are the fastest I run in three days. From the bottom where some cars are parked I head up to Waikuku Lodge and the finish line where a sea of yellow shirts provide a colourful sign, I’ve made it.
Nobody seems to be in a hurry so I take a shower and down a protein shake and electrolyte drink. Prize giving duly over we pose for a group picture in our undies emblazoned with the race by line. Congratulations to Tim, race winner and Lou, first women. Both clocked up impressive times on each leg. Congratulations to the organising team, another successful A100 in the bag. Everyone is tired but euphoric. Everyone made it to the end without major injury. Many of us will return next year, if not as competitors then as part of the organising team. It’s time to eat, drink, celebrate, repeat.
Gareth has written a great blog about his A100 experience which you can read here, he is a far better editor than me so you won’t need three days to do so! Also check out his Wellington Urban Ultra happening July 17 2016.