Good Vibrations

Good Vibrations

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.

‘You’re hurt?’

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.

‘Smash it.’

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.’

‘Yeah, nah.’

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/.

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The Long Hello

‘I’m an activist not a race director.  I don’t have any experience at this. What I propose is that I shout one, two, three, go! Sound okay? Anyone got any tips?

‘One, two, three, go!

Hallo rutted four wheel drive, chocolate button grass, scratchy scrub. Wind that banged and howled so energetically through the night seems spent, its breath a feathery tickle on our cheeks, its gentle stroke trembling the silver dollar leaves the eucalyptus like to wear. I run erratically wrestling off my pre-race clothing as I go. The trees calmly shed their bark in giant potato peels.

Earlier we walked the road guided by moonlight and the translucent pinprick pattern of the milky-way.  I’d glanced across at Alice wondering if living in London she misses the forest animals, this fresh air, clear sky, the Southern Cross. At the Arthur River Visitor Centre runners fidget with their gear, hair and introductions.  Late arrivals bring news the school buses delivering us to the start are trapped behind a blockade of empty white utes. The nearest police are stationed at Smithton, an hour away.

‘That’s Tassie for you’.

‘Should I take some group photos?’ I ask Alice.

‘Good idea.’

Arthur River Visitor Centre

Jen, Campaign Manager for the Bob Brown Foundation has us do a reverse road walk to the nearby campground which has a marquee where the organising team confer and cold runners escape the wind. There’s cell phone coverage here unlike the start where the Patagonia athletes and film crew wonder and wait or in the case of Grant, a fellow Kiwi, take a nap.

Support crew need little persuasion to return for carpooling. We squeeze two extras into Karen’s rental.  James and his girlfriend have recently returned from running in the Annapurna region. Karen has ridden in a mountain bike stage race in the same area. Alice recalls an incredible half marathon in Costa Rica. Hearing I’m soon to walk the Overland Track. James’ girlfriend laughs.

‘James works as a ranger up at Cradle.’

In a couple of days I’ll encounter one of James’ fellow rangers who reveals ‘Jimmy’ came third in the 2019 Cradle Mountain Ultra. The 85km race across the Overland Track held each February.

Through the car window the ghostly outlines of tall trees are coming into focus. They’re close relatives of those we drove through yesterday on the way to Marrawah, Tasmania’s most westerly town.  We could be on the west coast of the South Island on the way to Haast, millions of years ago the two tree sets were one.  

Arthur River

The Aussie version, Takayna/Tarkine is the largest remaining tract of temperate forest in Australia and one of the biggest in the world. A stronghold for the Tassie Devil, a critical habitat for the Wedge-tailed eagle, Spotted-tail Quolls, Masked Owls and Giant Freshwater Crayfish. It serves as a vital carbon sink helping to counter global warming. The area is also a heritage rich cultural landscape significant to the aboriginal people. The isolated coast contains once common but now rare, rock engravings, middens, burial grounds, hut sites and other cultural artefacts.

Crucially this country remains wild, raw and self contained. A wonderful misfit in this age of capture, process and tame. Change is inevitable, but I sense a tipping point. We’re here on urgent business, a small but important skirmish in a much larger, global battle. Soon our actions will determine whether this remote ecosystem and precious cultural landscape will be conserved or irreversibly transformed by more mining, logging, off road vehicle damage and cattle grazing.

Patagonia, the Bob Brown Foundation and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre collaborated to produce a documentary to raise awareness of the Tarkines’ plight. It’s narrated by Nicole, a rural doctor who runs ultra marathons to connect with nature, a passion that morphed into mapping logging operations to document the scale of forest destruction taking place out of sight. The film is the inspiration for the Takayna Ultra an event encouraging people to visit this wilderness to raise funds and awareness. All the money raised will contribute to the Bob Brown Foundation led campaign to get the Tarkine greater protection via a World Heritage listing and return to Aboriginal ownership.

The race briefing is an opportunity to meet Nicole in her capacity as Medical and Emergency Coordinator. She tells us to wear sunscreen, refrain from drinking too much and to leave the animals alone. Bob shares love stories about rafting the Franklin River and Tasmanian Tigers. Lincoln the Race Director talks us through the course.

I’m finally running in real time in a place I’ve only previously seen in pictures, read about and imagined. A long hello.

‘Have you got anything for chaffing?

‘No sorry, they likely will at the aid station.’

The early running should be easy but the ground’s uneven and land mined with hidden holes, prickly bushes and deep but narrow trails. These conditions demand deployment of tiny, seldom used and quickly fatigued support muscles.

Scrub and eucalyptus give way to sand dunes as the first glint of sunlight on water catches my eye. The vast expanse of blue-grey southern ocean confronts us as we veer straight into the path of the resurgent westerly. The wind is bored with harassing rocks, seaweed, Oystercatchers and shells, eager for new playthings. It greets us with enthusiastic face slaps using white sand and salty spray. With my tongue I can feel grit coating my teeth. Squinting I fall into step with a bearded guy. As we chat he keeps his eyes downcast then slows and drops to pick up a pebble but his hips are stiff, it’s a struggle, he hesitates and pulls back up.

‘My wife collects heart shaped stones but that one wasn’t quite the right shape.’

Temporary relief from sanding comes in the form of the four wheel drive tracks at Bollock Hill. On the uphills I pass then repass an agile, long haired runner. He’s moved here from Perth, Western Australia, (there’s another Perth in Tasmania). Agile Guy is recovering from a knee injury. The up-hills and flats are fine,  the downhills painful. I ask him how long he’s lived here.

‘Three years. They say if you last three years you’ll stay for life. Guess that makes me a lifer.’

I hear footsteps behind me, turn and smile at Chaffing Girl.  She grimaces back pointing to the plaster flapping ineffectually against her moist arm. I sip on my camelbak tube, nothing.  Almost immediately I spot a small dam of undrinkable water dotted with dead tree trunks. I confess my plight to Pink Shorts.

‘How far to the aid station?’

She consults her watch.

‘Three kilometers. Congratulations we’ve run a marathon. I have plenty of water you’re welcome to take some.’

Together we scan the dunes for course markers. They have appeared at regular intervals till now. On one hand we’re confident we are heading in the correct direction, on the other we’re addicted to the security afforded by their presence.  Pink Shorts pulls out her phone and logs into the race app confirming we’re on course. Later we learn some markers were removed by locals. For now spotting a scrap of pink tape fluttering from a fence delights us. In the distance we see the Edge of the World Aid Station.

Among the volunteers greeting weary runners I spot a bearded figure in a long sleeved plaid shirt and khaki shorts, the same clothes he wore in the track marking videos, the race briefing and for checking my compulsory race gear.  With one hand I stuff a slice of watermelon into my mouth, with the other I pat Lincolns’ forearm.

‘Good track marking.’

The edge of the world. Where the Arthur Rivers’ tannin stained water flows under a modest bridge into the embrace of the southern ocean.  An ocean stretching without interruption to Argentina, 15,000 kilometers away.

Waves rise up part wrecking balls part roller coasters, curling before crashing into sand, onto rocks, pulling back then crashing again. In the distance runners clamber over giant logs that river and ocean have swept up and stacked on the beach. It’s been done with more artistry than heavy machinery in a busy port. Markers tease our weary legs up a rocky outcrop then invite them to scramble down the other side. Orange lichen coats the renovated rock formations, the wind has sandpapered, painted then varnished. Beach sections are interspersed with narrow trails winding through the dunes. The dunes are landscaped with banksias, wattles, epacris and heath.

The beaches are more mentally taxing than the dunes. Sand marches in beige uniform for long kilometers marked only by the ocean’s ebb and flow and the fading footprints of runners who’ve already said hello. In the distance a couple of figures lug surf boards back up the beach.  Agile Guy runs past me for the last time his arms lifted in delight, a picture of fluidity and grace. As I add my footprints to the collection I think of the friends who have supported my journey and the Tarkine campaign by donating through my fundraising page.

‘I don’t explore much, so am happy to support others that do, like you.’

‘Heal the world one running step at a time.’

Glancing inland I spy the comforting white beacon of the Bluff Hill lighthouse.  It serves as a useful pacer as I gradually draw level with it then move past leaving it to harvest the last of the afternoon light.

Bluff Hill Lighthouse.

This time yesterday race participants, organisers and supporters received a welcome to country from the local aboriginal group. Speakers shared stories connecting them and their ancestors to takayna/Tarkine. We were asked to close our eyes and recall a special place we particularly liked to visit with family or friends. While we thought about this place our hosts sang a beautiful song.

For the last few kilometers I feel happy, at peace. The welcome to country waiata plays across the memories I’ve accumulated here. Memories intermingled with flashbacks to the craggy cliffs of Tawharanui Regional Park near where I grew up, the site of some of my training for the race.

This run to save wild places took me most of the day to complete but the experience and connections made will stay with me forever. I’m hopeful our actions will ensure Takayna/Tarkine survives. What if running could save a rainforest?

Follow the Sun: Ultra Trail Australia 2018

Follow the Sun: Ultra Trail Australia 2018

The melancholy sound of Xavier Rudd, the steam rising off takeaway coffee cups and the pale mist lifting from the valley combine to offer a hint of warmth against the frosty air as Dave and I descend to Scenic World. We thread through the groups of nervous runners and bags of gear searching for a quiet indoor posse. Amongst the bustle a lean guy with big brown eyes sits quietly, calmness radiates off him . I sit down opposite enquiring where he’s from. Continue reading “Follow the Sun: Ultra Trail Australia 2018”

Switchbacks

Switchbacks

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. Continue reading “Switchbacks”

Endurance

Endurance

The star-spangled curtain of black has a circular window glowing cold white. Dew is busy condensing to frost. We’re so busy talking we fail to take the Taihape turn off and realise only when the sign for Wanganui is silhouetted by our headlights. With renewed focus we feel our way north spurning the main road to Waioru in favour of darkness. My soda water bottle lying on the floor of the car acts as a spirit level rolling left and right as we wind our way between hills. Detaching from the hill cover where the Pukeokahu and Mangahoata roads meet Grethe steers us left towards the Pukeokahu school and our campsite. A home-made sign directs us to a paddock where a cluster of shadowy tents stand to attention flanked neatly by cars.  Viktor, our welcoming party of one, indicates the precise location of our respective tents. With the car engine extinguished the only sounds are Moreporks and the occasional bark of a dog.13007352_10206369099001755_7784460401348216047_n

Camp light. Photo by Jan Ducnuigeen

Continue reading “Endurance”

Melting Moments

Melting Moments

Conquering Everest

It was love at first light. The trail weaves a connecting path through many toanga – the Waitakeres, home to our fast disappearing coastal rainforest including beautiful groves of kauri, rata and pohutakawa. Wild, isolated, rugged coastlines with dramatic cliff faces and the towering walls of sand dunes (black) of Bethells that contrast with the wild surf pasted sand beaches (white) and dangerous rips of Piha. The primordial, green, scrawny spine of a peninsula that marks the way to Whatipu. My childhood hero and adult inspiration, the guy on our five dollar note, Ed. Continue reading “Melting Moments”

Tongariro Northern Circuit

Tongariro Northern Circuit

As child I looked forward to birthdays. What’s not to like? Lots of food of the type normally forbidden, lots of people not normally seen. If the birthday was mine, lots of new books to read. Lots of attention, and lots of mess. I didn’t have to clean up the mess. Somewhere along the way the appeal of celebrations of this nature started to fade. As an adult you get to eat whatever you like whenever you like, you see friends and family when it suits and you discover libraries. You get to clean up your own mess and realise it can be a difficult, stressful, protracted business. While I’d participate in other people’s milestone marking, marking my own milestones just didn’t seem important. Yeah I’m a year older, no big upside, no big deal.

Continue reading “Tongariro Northern Circuit”