With my eyes shut I picture runners storming Mt Kaukau. I can hear their frosty breath as it swirls in puffs through the wintery gloom. The pack moves eagerly along the skyline. The lights of Wellington twinkle below. The white blades of Long Gully wind turbines catch the dawn light. The South Island appears blurry at first but progressively crisper as the morning light yawns, stretches and warms up. I’m too excited now to get back to sleep, may as well get up.
A cursory check of social media, the weather forecasts and poking my head out the front door all confirm that the WUU2K weather charm has worked its magic again. Tomorrow I’ll lie in bed watching lightning flash across walls chased by thunder fireworks fading to the drum beat of heavy rain. Today is sunny with the promise of a gently rising northerly to guide runners to the finish line. More vindication of the bold decision to stage an ultra that features exposed ridgelines in mid-winter.
‘I will be closer to 9am at yours is that okay? Bit worried about finding a park near the windmill.’
‘Oh shit…maybe 9.10am?’
When Mike and I arrive at the windmill the northerly is already busy tangling hair, freezing fingers and casting goose bumps on the exposed limbs of the waiting relay runners. I try hopping from side to side, pacing up and down on the spot and conversation as a distraction from the cold. In all of five minutes I’ve succumbed to the comfort of gloves and rain jacket.
Grant hobbles to the aid station with a blanket draped around his shoulders. He is accompanied by volunteers touting drugs and bandages. An entourage of glamorous women in matching white t-shirts with ‘Grant’s #1 support crew’ emblazoned across their chests are hot on his heels. Grant sinks into a deck chair.
‘I rolled my ankle, it’s getting worse. My race is done.’
Sweaty runners zip by Grant’s puffy foot a steady rate. I recognise Dave and Stu on their way to clocking up the full 62km and Sumudu doing the 43km. They’re exhibiting the relaxed demeanour of competitors travelling well.
Ghosts and Maniacs
I almost bump into Matt. We attempt a high five but he’s nearly past me already so my gloved hand glances off his bare one. His pale face has a slightly haunted, spaced out expression. Coming into a bustling aid station after an hour or two of relative solitude and focus it’s a struggle to navigate the sensory overload of crowds overlaid with the imperatives of refuelling. Sarah’s a classic focused ghost. Like Matt she’s recovering from illness and barely registers family members hovering nearby. Tim who will eventually finish the 43km in third place is ghosting too.
Ghosts and Maniacs. Maniacs surf an endorphin high and mainline sugar extracted from lollies and gels. Mal and Andrew are pumped and happy to clown around. We decide to shoot Mal resplendent in his purple race shirt and event short shorts curled up in the foetal position. It’s a recreation of a photo I took at the top of the tip track two years ago. Rewind two years and Mal’s more ghost than maniac. Trail running is transformative. Spotting my camera Andrew attempts something between a fist pump and Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ before rushing onwards, a shooting star ablaze with colour and energy.
Gareth’s ghost appears ten minutes ahead of his estimated arrival time. I congratulate him and check his intentions. At registration Gareth said that if he felt good he might run with me across to the south coast and back to the base of the tip track.
‘No. That was optimistic.’
I take the timing anklet from him and set off towards Barking Emu leaving Mike to show Gareth where the car is parked. It feels good to be moving in a specific direction rather than simply as a means of keeping warm. I pass a few long course participants.
‘I’m doing the relay. You are doing great. Keep up the good work.’
By the time I meet Brad dressed as the Grim Reaper at the top of the tip track I’ve shed both gloves and jacket. Brad is accompanied by Alex whose smile is so big, warm and genuine he needs no costume.
It’s all downhill
The undulating trails beyond the tip track leading to the south coast are some of my favourites. They feature well drained paths with few tripping hazards and expansive city, sea and snowy mountain views. Everyone gets a helping of wet feet crossing the stream at the base of the hill followed by three kilometres of coastal running straight into the northerly while dodging four wheel drive vehicles and walkers.
At Red Rocks aid station I top up my water bottle. Eddie and his kids cheer and wave. Ash grins.
‘You’ve done the downhill 10km.’
From the toilet queue I spot Zac, with his arm in a sling.
Zac nods and congratulates me, asking after mutual friends. I tell him I have only seen Sumudu who is looking strong. Later I learn Zac tripped while on a night run two days before the race and broke a finger. A sample of the race supporters are injured or sick runners who’ve nevertheless come out to show their support for the participants and the event itself.
Gareth has come to meet me. As we run together up Happy Valley Road we chat about how I’m feeling ‘good’ and tip track tactics. To conserve energy, preserve posterior chain muscles and avoid hip and knee pain I plan on mostly power walk the ascent running only on the downhill sections and where the gradient flattens half way up. Gareth endorses this plan and peels off at the base of the hill.
Postcards from the Tip Track
For many the tip track is the crux of the race. It’s long, relentlessly steep and if you are doing the 62km it comes when you already have a marathon worth of hills on your legs. It’s not so evil if you’re doing the 43km event as you simply run down the hill but running up to the top in order to run back down knowing you still have another couple of climbs to come is a daunting prospect.
I love the tip track. I love the tip track even when I’m in any particular moment not particularly feeling the love for it. Denial/reframing works for me! There are three principles of tip track management. The first is know your enemy. An intimate knowledge of every dip and curve is an advantage, (see chat about strategy above). The second is know your friends. Basically these are all other foot traffic, cyclists too. There are always plenty of supporters and lots of runners heading up and down in various states of excitement or agony. I like to identify the ghosts and the maniacs as opposed to those simply having smooth day out. This act of classification provides a distraction while greeting everyone you encounter generates positive energy.
I make a point of acknowledging and yelling encouragement, (I interpret the term broadly to cover all forms of banter), to every runner I see. I thank supporters. Judging by the number of runners teasing me about our team name I’m not the only one who practices principle two.
‘Mustlovehills. How are you loving this hill then?’
Occasionally a runner passes me.
‘You do know that overtaking me is grounds for automatic disqualification?’
A highlight of participating in a local event is you’re guaranteed to see lots of familiar faces, some multiple times. Stu comes running towards me.
‘Go faster, Jon is just in front of you.’
Checking out the race results on Sunday, Stu crossed the finish line just ahead of Jon.
The theme for the tip track is hallucinations. Cam in sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt is drinking out of a pineapple shaped vessel. Kate is performing a Hawaiian welcome dance in a long white dress with red angel wings. Orsi and Sandi are more warmly clad in devil costumes complete with pitchforks.
At the top of the tip track the black cloaked figure of the Grim Reaper stands ready to deploy his scythe to separate my soul from my dead body. He nods his head.
‘Good work Sharron.’
Brad’s costume idea is so inspired I disregard principle three (no stopping) and ask Richard who is on tail end charlie duties to take a photo.
‘Don’t tell my relay partner.’
On the downhill I meet runners struggling up. The colloquial term for this predicament is ‘in the hurt locker’.
‘You’ve got this!’
Mark P glides past the poster boy for pale and determined. If he’s in the hurt locker I want the key. He will end up beating last years’ time by ten minutes. Further down, Mark T and Holger grimace and strain as they toil and scrap their way up. They both recognise me which I take as a good sign.
I spot Geoff from the Opportunities Party. He is hobbling, one of his knees appears to have taken industrial action.
‘This is harder than politics aye?’
Mike, his poles and I exchange waves and wry grins.
I recognise Eugene and Matt walking up the tip track as I near the bottom.
‘It’s the Dirt Church Radio guys! Keep up the good work!’
Case of the Slippery Snickers
‘Do you want anything?’
‘New legs. Have you seen them? I guess the fresh set are stashed up at the aid station aye?’
Tawatawa Aid Station is a riot. There are multiple rainbows and piles of fudge. A colourful frame emblazoned with the words ‘I made it to Tawatawa’ is positioned so competitors can have their photos taken. Gareth emerges from the chaos.
‘How are you feeling?
‘Getting tired now.’
A common side effect of tiredness is irrational cravings or demands. It is very important that I find my snickers bar. I need my snickers bar now. Gareth embarks on an excavation deep into my running pack. Slippery as soap the snickers has slipped to the bottom of the pack.
‘You’ve got a lot of stuff in here.’
When snickers is captured and released into my waiting hand I no longer feel like eating it instead I grab a few crisps and head up the next hill.
I’m overheating but my tired brain decides that I’ve already wasted too much time snickers fishing. There is no time for gutting a layer. I figure the breeze up top will cool me down again.
Three quarters of the way up I’m pleased to see Ben. Ben is recovering from illness and out for a walk, chatting with runners as he goes.
‘The real suffering is happening on the tip track.’
‘I’m heading there next.’
From the top of Tawatawa I look across to Mt Victoria.
‘Not far to go now.’
Not far to go now
Time for the stairs. At least the views over Berhampore, Island Bay and Cook Strait are lovely. Down the other side I give silent thanks to Stu M and the team for the meticulous course marking. During training I went the wrong way coming off Tawatawa every run. When it counts I make no navigation errors and that is down to the pink ribbon placement. I run across the Berhampore golf course with a group of yellow shirted Achilles volunteers who are guiding a blind runner.
The final big climb links Adelaide road with Mt Albert and the southern walkway. This piece of trail is the steepest on the course and nicknamed ‘heart break hill’. It’s unpleasantly vertical and gorse infested but the coastal views provide some compensation. It’s also shorter than either the tip track or Tawatawa and unlike the undulations around Zealandia it curves away from line of sight so the top is not visible from below.
‘Feel free to go past.’
From the top of ‘heart break hill’ I jog to the final aid station at the base of Mt Albert. Wullie and his family are cheering runners on. I help myself to some jet planes. The southern walkway has a comforting familiarity, a fitting way to cruise to the finish line.
‘Here’s our cheeky friend.’
I glance back to see the 62km runner with red shorts and his pacer advancing fast. I make an exaggerated show of putting on a burst of speed.
‘You’ve already been disqualified. If you overtake me again you’ll be fined!’
With the finish line in sight I look around for Gareth. He is just approaching the side line with his young boy in tow.
‘Time to finish, come on Mike!’
I wave a few runners past while Gareth works on persuading Mike it won’t be totally uncool to run over the finish line with his old man and the odd women in the pink top and short blue skirt.
Helen, resplendent in a black and white spotted cow print onesie hangs our medals around our necks. For a few minutes we hug more people than I’d normally hug in a year. Hovering nearby his face obscured by his trademark beard and black hoodie Gareth T either offers a hug or shakes my hand, I honestly can’t recall. My enduring image of him is that of someone well out of the limelight, hunched over a clip board recording finishers and briefing MC Margo on which runners are getting close. Gareth T getting stuff done.
The magic of WUU2K lies in the way it holds a mirror up to the trail running community to reflect the inclusion, love, humility and dream chasing present within. The event provides an opportunity to spend a day in the company of good friends soaking up and spreading around camaraderie and support. It’s also a celebration of hard work, sacrifice, determination and vulnerability. We might not be the strongest or the fastest, the best looking or the most co-ordinated, some of us won’t make it to the finish line and that’s okay. The day offers us a glimpse of what we are capable of both as individuals and as part of a team – for the most part, much more than we imagine although on any given day some of us will inevitably come up short. It’s a chance to train the body and exercise the mind, to experience setbacks and deal with them, to learn about pain and suffering, patience and trust.
Gareth T and his team make incremental improvements each year but in spirit this event feels timeless. Four years on WUU2K retains its good vibrations, its alchemy and its authenticity. We can all be proud.
Next year Gareth and the team will be adding a running festival to the mix. Check out the WAI2K https://www.wairunfest.co.nz/.