From the foot of New Zealand’s highest mountain – Mt Cook – to Oamaru at the shore of the Pacific Ocean.
Two days before the start 135 runners – from all corners of the world and almost 50% women – gathered in the little town of Oamaru at the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand.
Before heading west by bus, we received an emotional Hakka welcome by the local school kids at what will be the finish line in 7 days from now.
During our 4 hours drive from Oamaru to the foot of NZ highest mountains we got a real good impression of the terrain we will be running through in the coming 7 days.
Once we arrived at Mt Cook village we settled into our tents and got acquainted with our tent neighbours. We all enjoyed the warm sunshine and clear view to Mt Cook and the surrounding mountains. And it was only after dinner and once the sun set, that we became aware of the temperature dropping and the dark clouds creeping over the crest of the mountains.
With a planned 5am start on Sunday, we soon retreated to our tents and sleeping bag for a good night sleep, only to be kept awake all night by a ferocious wind and rain storm. The weather forecast for Sunday was right after all!
It was a relieve to hear the organiser’s voice through the hauling wind at 5am, letting us know to stay in our tents for another 2 hours as the situation was too dangerous to start a race.
So instead of getting up at 5am for the first short 7km Stage 1, we stayed in our bag till 7am for breakfast, followed by a 9am bus ride to Mt Cook Airport, where we boarded a helicopter bringing us down a bit further along the planned race route. We quickly saw why – what was yesterday a small, almost dry river bed to run through, became a roaring river over night. Every 15 minutes or so, four helicopter loads of soaked, wet and shivering runners assembled at the made-up new start line for the first day racing.
My 5 ½ hour run today over 45km was in a mix of strong, cold wind, two hail storms and some blue sky and sunshine….I was, like everyone else, glad to arrive at our stunning campsite ‘au board du lac’ Pukaki. After a quick and cold wash in the fresh water, I was ready for my first freeze dried meal. Today’s menu was 850cal of delicious Coq au Vin with mash followed by 450cal of even better Mousse of Chocolate…..who said camping food was boring (may have to consider that freeze dried red wine for next race). I was well and truly fed and ready for the next day’s 50+km stage over what looked like a few hills along the way.
Wake up at 5am to a brilliant, cold and fresh morning of blue sky and sunshine – the backdrop was equally glorious – a snow capped mountain range hovering over a brilliant turquois lake. Going to be a great day for running.
Stage 3 went over 50km and started with some undulation along Lake Pukaki until we passed through a wee town called Twizel before reaching our second lake of the day – Lake Ohau. This section of the stage was made for great running, some up, some down.
Even so the running was great we all had to make sure to ‘’keep some in the tank’’ for tomorrows long stage and slow down a bit. The last section was along the scenic shore of Lake Middleton which was nice would it not have been for the rugged and loose rocky shore line we had to run along to the finish…my feet where hurting at the end of that 3 km stretch…
Stage 4 – the King Stage. What a day it was to be….getting up and starting to run into another cold but ultimately glorious day. Running out and up from Lake Middleton towards the first CP at km 20 I caught up with my friend Maik from Switzerland. After a few minutes of chatting I realised that there was nobody else ahead of us so I took the chance to lead once in my life a race and off I went…for the next 42km I enjoyed ‘open’ road to myself and it felt great!
Eventually just after CP 2 I got caught during the first steep uphill section. Once we reached km 70 it got really hard – we had to climb out from 400m up a short but steep hill to 800m altitude offering spectacular views – it was a drag of a climb – countless turns and twists and I ran out of hope to ever reach the elusive top – after every turn I could only to see other runners climbing further around the next corner and next hill. But eventually what goes up had to come down and down it came….steep and quick (was glad I could run this section still in day light) – typical for the race director the last couple of km to the finish had to be special – if not rocky shore lines then at least another steep hill to finish up an epic stage. Today’s efforts, especially in the first half of the stage, meant that I could hang on to the leading group but I kept to my plan of never looking back and never checking my results until the finish in 5 days. Best of all today was the fact that I made it to the tent in day light with spare time for a quick wash in the nearby river. I was well and truly fed and tugged in my sleeping bag whilst there were still runners coming in. We have to give some real respect to these guys, struggling along for twice as long as many of us, in the dark and in the cold through the night!
Rest Day! Wooo Hooo. Most of us got a good day of rest to recover with the last runners coming in just 24 hours after the start in the early mornings!
Stage 5 – as the race manual states – every stage event will have a day of climbs and today was the day. A shorter 45km stage with several category 1 climbs along the way…with a total elevation gain of 1,218m. I thought I signed up for a down run from the Alps to the Ocean.
This was probably the most spectacular stage of the race – again a cold morning to start but a glorious sunny day of running with a couple of windy peaks to conquer and a very cool finish in every word…
The view from the first peak all the way back were we started our race was spectacular – snow-capped mountain ranges and turquoise blue lakes. After a short road section along another lake, we entered a narrow gorge which opened up to a beautiful plain – crossing a few cold rivers and up some narrow sheep track offering again sensational views down Waitaki River and into the Hakataramea Valley. After reaching the last top it was a quick but steep downhill to the shore of the river where, after crossing the finish line, we were ushered into one of those famous speed jetboats shooting down the very shallow river to our camp!
Another great running day and after a short swim and wash in the cool river, I felt fresh and ready for day 6. Like in my past multi-stage run – after a couple of days of conservative running I usually find my pace and I feel like I could go on for days to come.
I am also happy about my decisions not to run with a watch but to listen to my body instead and not to be bothered by ranking and times every day but just enjoy each days as it come – I simple ran and enjoyed my days in stunning sceneries usually only to be seen in movies and out of reach for most of us.
Finally some downhills…..the second last racing day was made for some good, strong running – 53k m of mostly flat country tracks and roads. I had once more a brilliant relaxing day allowing me to ‘fly’ along those flat and soft tracks. After 8 km first surprise – some local winery opted as the Check Point and we could sample their white, rose and reds with some great cheese before running on.
Every day along the race, the organiser threw in some kind of surprise – helicopter flight, jetboat ride, tasting of wine and cheese or today, abseiling down a cliff. When I saw the waiting queue together with my unease about height’s, I decided to give this a miss (all runners times got stopped for the abseiling so no risk of loosing time).
I was happy to just keep going – with a few strong runners now behind me, I felt like having a phycological advantage and I continued flying down those tracks towards the finish line.
Day 7 was a sprint to the finish line in Oamaru at the Pacific Ocean…and a sprint it was….the organiser wanted to have as many of us finishing together, so the slowest walkers started early at 7am with the fastest only starting at 8:30am. I ended up in that last group and it was really a downhill sprint which I enjoyed ver, giving it all I had left in me, running into town and through crowed filled streets towards to harbour, where I reached the final finishing arch after just 2:46hrs for the last 29km of an epic 323km raxe!
And finally, after dreaming for 7 days, we were rewarded with an ice cold Coke followed by an equally refreshing local beer – Ahhhhhhhh!
After 7 days of freeze dried food anything fresh must taste great but we made sure it was a day to remember by splurging on a great lunch with wine to be followed by some beers in the pub and a vibrant dinner ceremony at night.
My two friends from Sydney – Katy and Maude – did brilliantly themselves, both finishing on the podium. KT first (forth overall) and Maude third (female supported category) and myself was more than happy with my 8th male ranking and 20th over all finisher position.
323km, 7 days, 41 hours, no blisters!
In every race you learn and try to get it better next time. For this one getting a bigger sleeping matt and investing in some additional food paid off in some good night’s sleep and hardly any weight loss. I really have to give that freeze dried wine a go next time around.
My friend Maik captured the week perfectly “Many think we are a bunch of crazy people, but to use it’s simply spending a week of running with other normal people.”
Some photos by Maik Becker, Maude Ruest and Alps2Ocean