Smudges of khaki rainforest clot the swirling mist as we surge upwards and circle to the north. I’m without headphones so the burly medic sitting beside me shouts over the chopper noise asking whether we prefer Murchison or Nelson. The closest hospital is at Westport but there is no way the pilot can fly through the thick wall of cloud. I exchange a raised eyebrow with Sarah seated opposite. “Nelson is fine” I respond and settle back for my longest chopper ride ever.
Thirteen months later the only obvious evidence of our abrupt exit is a raised scar the length of a large safety-pin on the centre of Sarah’s right knee. Before dawn at the southern end of New Zealand’s longest single track it isn’t raining so hard you can barely see in front of you, our raincoats aren’t sticking to our arms like selotape, and we’re not pre-fatigued by five consecutive days of fastpacking. Admittedly we could do with more sleep but so could the rest of the colourful crowd. Athletes dart around in jittery circles feeding off the collective energy. Enterprising sandflies snatch an early breakfast courtesy of exposed calves, bare arms, even your eyelids if you don’t blink often.
The forested path is flat, rocky and attenuated as we squeeze beside the bony ribs of the Mokihinui gorge. Soft columns of alabaster mist rise like steam as if the placid Mokihinui river has put the kettle on. Runners stumble as they adjust their pace to match the dim, bobbing head torch lighting and uneven terrain. The river glides in and out of view, its tranquillity has a calming effect as the herd struggles to settle into a rhythm. Clusters of bridges with a two person limit necessitate stopping and restarting. The bridges themselves are dynamic, unpredictable beasts serving up a mini bout of motion sickness as they jerk up and down in response to our weight, sometimes bouncing away from our feet and at other times jumping up to meet them.
It’s flat all the way to Specimen Point and for a good period afterwards. Horizontal trails drain me, I dislike their bland character. In training I spurned their company in favour of more alluring rough, rocky hills, the flat trail is about to get its revenge. The 25km segment to Stern Valley is the crux of the race, if you can do it at a steady conservative pace the second half which is both hilly and more technical will be fun and fast. As with my last visit I’ve burned too much energy too soon. I want to slow down when I should be speeding up.
Forest plays tag team with scrub and grass as we traverse the headwaters of the Goat Creek catchment and pass through the Hanging Judge. I scavenge some stale, crunchy water from a sediment filled pool. Thirty seconds later we pass a stream stocked with fresh, clear liquid. The cloud cover that dominated the dawn is fading faster than I am. I estimate it will burn off by noon just in time for the big exposed climb. It is already uncomfortably humid.
The switchbacks channel us back into mature rainforest which is both a welcome sight and welcome shade. I’m joined by a chap from Adelaide. We converse partly out of curiosity but also to switch our minds away from discomforts. The Earnest Valley opens up below us, the upper reaches nicknamed the Boneyard are dominated by alien rock chunks that look like they’ve been rummaged through then discarded by someone looking for treasure. Here switchbacks thread their way in lazy loops down the rubble taking us on a tour of the twin lakes Grim and Cheerful.
It was still raining in the late afternoon as I shuffled down these switchbacks grimly ticking off my complaints. I can’t keep up with Sarah, I’m wet, I’m so tired I keep shutting my eyes and tripping, the chaffing on my lower back hurts even with a hut towel wrapped between it and my pack, the hut towel is soaking wet, my right ankle hurts, I can’t see anything when my eyes are open. Stern Valley Hut can’t be too far away, one more day before I can stop running I promise myself. Then I see her.
Sarah is sitting awkwardly in the middle of the saturated track. Her big pack lies crumpled next to her, her first aid kit is half-open its contents leaking onto the gravel.“Are you okay?” I ask. “Sharron I’m so glad you’re here, I’ve done something really stupid, I’ve managed to trip over on the smoothest trail we’ve run all week and cut my knee on the only sharp rock we’ve seen all day.” Her breathing is shallow and rapid, her face is pale. “So stupid!” she exclaims. I walk up to her. “Show me.” Sarah gingerly removes the makeshift bandage from her ghostly white knee cap and looks away wincing. I take a brief look noting the gash goes to the bone. I feel queasy though I take care to keep my face blank. “It isn’t a break or a blown tendon or ligament. It looks worse than it is” I think as I push the image of the knee to the back of my mind. I reassure her anyone can trip at any time especially after so many days on the move. I point out I have stumbled numerous times and that we are both feeling fine, we have plenty of food, shelter nearby and a locator beacon. I suggest more bandages, more clothing, food and rest.
Sarah has already put on more clothes. “You will get cold Sharron. It’s going to take me ages to get down the hill, I’m so sorry for being so clumsy!” I let her bandage the knee herself as she is a nurse and I figure it will give her something to focus on, a sense of control. While she does it I assure her I’m toasty warm and that the rain is easing. I ask her if she thinks she can get up and walk to the hut with my help. I tell her the hut is close by and if we go there we will be out of the rain and cold and we can rest and decide what to do. It would be best to try to go there straight away or after a short rest before the adrenalin wears off and darkness arrives but there is plenty of time.
The bandaging coupled with the sound of my voice has the desired effect and Sarah gets up without my assistance. I want to take her pack which is heavy but she insists on carrying it herself. I want her to walk but she insists on jogging. I follow her concerned about the additional damage she may be doing to her knee. I ask frequently how she is feeling and whether she wants to eat something but Sarah is on a mission to get to the hut, I have to summon every ounce of energy to keep up.
I’m on a similar mission now. At Stern Valley the volunteers who are vastly outnumbered by hungry sandflies fill my drink bottles while I down coconut water and swap my sweaty cap for a dry one. It is already noon as I return to the forest and the second half of the trail. I’ve been on the go for just over 6 hours which means there is little likelihood of finishing in less than 12. I’m disappointed but the best part of the trail starts now and I resolve to enjoy it.
Inside Stern Valley hut we high-five each other, we’ve made it! Sarah is delighted to see a big first aid kit attached to the hut wall and immediately sets about examining its contents. Her knee seizes up as soon as we stop moving, bending it is impossible. By the time she wrestles her long johns on I have changed, rolled out my sleeping bag, climbed inside it and eaten my dinner. Sarah sits on the bed and attempts to remove gravel from her knee using materials from the hut first aid kit as well as her own stuff. I can tell this hurts from the way she screws up her face. “I’m so clumsy! I can’t believe I fell over up there beside Lake Cheerful what an ironic name for a lake, I should have fallen over by Lake Grim!” I try again to persuade her to take some painkillers, she refuses. Sarah worries that she hasn’t removed all the gravel. She thinks she will be able to run again after a night of rest. After she has redressed her wound she eats her dinner and inches into her sleeping bag. The rain has stopped for now replaced by mist rising off the warm grass. At first light I will need to activate my personal locator beacon and figure out what is going on with my right ankle. But now I need to sleep so I do, Sarah does not.
In the bush again I’m feeling reinvigorated and focused on the task before me, the familiar routine of getting up a hill and down the other side. I chat with a Kiwi now resident in Sydney who did the race last year. He has not let go of his sub 12 hour goal and soon breaks into a run. We will leap-frog each other all the way to Lyell Saddle.
The trail highlight is the climb and view from the Skyline ridge. Row upon jagged row of bush clad ridges fold below us like sandpaper origami creased with slips the work of new erosion and old earthquakes. The Tasman sea glows an inviting shade of swimming pool blue. The single track is narrow and exposed, not for those susceptible to vertigo or light-headed from the heat.
Everytime a helicopter flies overhead my thoughts switch to Sarah , she must be close to the finish line by now. I pass a chap standing motionless on the trail. His eyes are glazed, his face pale. “It’s not happening” he responds when I ask if he is ok. I carry on but then change my mind and double back to get his race number. I tell the race photographer I meet nearby and he radios the hut. Later I encounter marshals with water bottles dispatched to assist the guy. As a drone buzzes overhead I quiet the nagging thought that my previous experience here is making me over-cautious. “What if the marshals pull the guy off the course? It’s not my decision” I tell myself. The final section to the hut passes Ghost Lake which is smaller and browner than I expect. On the last climb I’m passed by two youngsters running down to meet their dad, the Kiwi expat based in Sydney.
There is no shade at the hut. I stare at the big helicopter parked nearby and my thoughts turn back to the feeling of uncertainty I experienced while figuring out how to activate the locator beacon. I should have read the instructions before I packed it. I grab a few crisps and slather myself in thick, white sunscreen. The next 6km are up and across the open tops of the Lyell Range past Heavens Door the high point of the course at around 1300m. It is cooler back under trees but the descent feels more flat than downhill. I anticipate the final aid station long before it arrives. A couple I pass are clearly of the same mind. Even as I offer words of reassurance I’m wondering why they have stopped when they looked so strong earlier. I find out later in a dramatic switch in luck their IT bands have blown making even walking painful.
At Nelson Hospital Sarah is examined by another medic and then we wait. The knee needs more gravel extracted in order to minimise the risk of infection, then stitches. The hospital is busy and Sarah’s condition is not life threatening. After an hour or so she has been given a local anaesthetic and I’m clutter in the tiny waiting room so I head down to the cafeteria for food and to book us flights home. At Nelson airport I accept my ankle is probably sprained. Sarah’s knee is strapped into an immobilising knee brace and she is sporting a pair of crutches. After finally doing the gravel extraction after her anaesthetic has worn off the nurses have pulled out all stops with home care gear. Typically Sarah can see the funny side and is already thinking about her next adventure. We don’t know when we will run again, just that we will be finishing the Old Ghost Road.
Finishing is top of mind at Lyell Saddle. I grab some crisps and a mini moro bar. I should really eat more but my stomach feels like a washing machine stuck on the spin cycle. The last 18km is the hardest of the day. I would like to run it as fast as I did the first 18km but accept that pigs won’t fly today. I visualise my friends patiently waiting for me at the finish line, tormented by sandflies and desperate to catch the bus back to Westport for a shower and food. I think about all the running Sarah and I had done together without incident and the running we have done since our chopper ride. I notice the sickly sweet aroma of honeydew that permeates the beech forest as the switchbacks take me past historic remnants of once bustling mining towns.
Switchbacks are trails that turn back on themselves in order to make travel easier although not necessarily quicker. In much the same way our thoughts switchback along well-worn grooves that can make travel easier or more painful.
Numerous streams cross the trail their cold water feels wonderful on my hot tired feet. I’m starting to stumble in spots that I’d normally glide past with ease a sure sign of fatigue. I curse under my breath as I’m passed by runners who I’ve been keeping pace with for much of the day. Adelaide man is one of the last to shuffle past. Like me he is counting down the kilometres using the track markers. My spirits rise once I’m down to single digits. “Anyone can run 10km” I tell myself as I force down another gel that tastes like condensed milk and increase my pace.
Almost 13 hours after I set out I arrive at Lyell camp where a cluster of runners and supporters cheer me across the finish line. Phil Rossiter, the friendly, meticulous Race Director seems genuinely happy I’ve made it and gives me a big hug before draping a medal round my neck. Phil used to be the Environmental Manager at Solid Energy, he’s switched to tourism now. I hug my friends. Sarah and I share a big grin. In the brief hour or two before we resolve we need to return and run the trail faster we simply enjoy the fact that we have completed it.
Photos by Stephen Healey and Sarah Fisher.