In reality the morning had started much earlier, in my case with a buffet breakfast in the harsh light of the hotel dining room (light, of any variety is always harsh at 5am). At the race briefing the previous evening, race director Evan, warned of impending weathery doom, with forecasts so severe as to require potential race postponement. It was quite a relief to hear the announcement on race morning that the race was going ahead. Let the excitement begin.
Alighting from the bus at The Divide, I joined ques of other nervous and shivering runners waiting for the port-a-loos. The air was chilly, but there was no rain. Steep, bush-clad mountains rose on every side, their peaks shrouded in dense mist. Everything dripped in that characteristic way of Fjiordland. Runners pondered the eternal question of jacket or no jacket. Lollies were passed around. Helicopters dramatically descended like giant insects, disturbing the stillness of the morning with their thumping blades The keenest and most serious of the runners trotted back and forth across the parking lot, lunging and stretching. My pre-race warm up included a port-a-loo hover. It was a pity that I drank so much Powerade before the race, I had to visit the facilities twice!
We all trotted off down the road, lining up against our "Classic Character" race finish time projections. Each of the half hour finishing times named after a super hero from "Flash" at three hours, to "Elton John" at seven. I was hoping to finish in around 5 hours, making me an "Autobot". One of the runners near me had the coolest running leggings I have ever seen, a bright flame pattern in reds and yellows on a blue background - very cool!
The starting horn sounded, and we were off! This was it - I was running in the Routeburn Classic. All of the training and planning and preparation all came down to the next few hours. I knew I could do it. It was time to get stuck in. We all surged off up the hill. The 500m road start was designed to spread out the field before reaching the narrow track, but there was still a bottleneck at the start.
The first part of the track climbed steadily through native bush, the track here wasn't steep, but lots of the people in my vicinity were choosing to walk the uphill sections as a part of their running strategy, and for long stretches my pace was forced to match theirs until I could find a spot to pass. I know that walking parts of a race is an excellent plan, and can help to increase stamina and exertion time, but I really wanted to run. I had focused all of my training on being able to run up and down hills, and although I am the first to admit that I am not very fast, I really wanted to be able to put that training to good use, especially on such a runnable section of trail.
hill really enjoying being able to pick up some speed, and pleased to find myself a little "bubble" of running space to myself. At Howden Hut the first of many smiling, clapping and encouraging trampers lined the trail, urging everyone on as they passed by. The trampers were fantastic. I came across heaps of trampers from all age groups and nationalities, and with out fail they smiled, offered encouragement, and were careful to let the runners pass. It was really lovely to have such a thoughtful and mobile cheer-squad for the day.
|Heading out from Howden Hut|
My calf muscles had been aching for the entire run. I had hoped that as I warmed up the pain would subside, but nothing seemed to ease them. I attributed the burning to having not run (and consequently stretched) very much over the week preceding the Routeburn Classic. I hoped that stopping at MacKenzie Hut and giving them a descent stretch out might help.
|"The Other Side" after passing under the Earland Falls|
The group of pent-up runners snaked its way towards MacKenzie Hut. Upon arrival (at just under the two hour mark) I took the opportunity to shed my outer layer of longer leggings and check on the water levels in my bladders (both physiological and hydratory - har har). I figured that lagging back a bit might give the field ahead a chance to spread out, and when I set off, I was alone, and could enjoy setting my own pace, and soak up a bit of the beauty.
|Climbing above Lake MacKenzie|
|Traverse above Hollyford Valley|
Even though the track gradient was not too steep, the mountainside we were climbing reached cliff-like proportions towards the top, the drop away from the track so sheer, that it almost felt as though I was running along on nothing.
|Harris Saddle - note the stream running down the trail|
|Valley below the Falls Hut|
For the first km after reaching the bottom, I was making quite slow progress. A few other runners passed me by, each one kindly checking on my progress, making sure I was doing OK - something I deeply appreciated, it was nice to feel that everyone was looking out for each other. Crossing the swing bridges was weird, the wobbliness of my legs and the wobbliness of the bridge making me grasp for the guide wires to steady myself. Then, for no apparent reason, my second wind came and I was off.
My energy burst, no doubt thanks to the food I had eaten, co-coincided with a particularly exhilarating song on my iPod, I pushed repeat to ensure that my auditory exhilaration carried me a long to the finish. Even the lyrics seemed to get into the spirit: "Even though it hurts I can't slow it down, Walls are closing in and I hit the ground, Whispers of tomorrow echo in my mind, Just one last time". The last few km flew by and I raced along through the bush (and loving the now gloriously smooth track), taking great long strides (and possibly looking like some sort of run-away windmill). I really loved those last few km, I was feeling good and strong and energetic, I kind of wished that it could go on an on forever (while also looking forward to reaching the finish).
And then all of a sudden there it was. I hurtled across the final bridge, and then ran uphill towards the finish line, crossing in 5hrs 30min 12sec. I had freaking done it - and I felt as though I still had energy to keep going (though probably not as much as Whitney Dagg, who ran all the back to the divide straight after the event!). I nearly cried with happiness. This was my longest official distance, and it was over one of the more challenging courses in NZ. The race director, personally congratulating each runner (so very cool!), and handing out the medals shook my hand, and then my sister grabbed me in the biggest hug, shortly followed by my parents. It was so good to have my family supporting me at the finish - I am so grateful to have had them there.
And then it was all over. Except that it also kind of isn't. Back at uni no one knows what I secretly achieved, although I do feel like dancing around a shouting out "I ran 32km over a mountain range in the Routeburn Classic". I secretly wore my medal under my shirt for a couple of days. I think that the whole experience is still sinking in a bit. It was such a privilege to share the 2013 Routeburn Classic with everyone who was there, and especially with my family. And it isn't over, because through all of the training and prep for this race, I have grown a love, a passion, and an addiction for trail and mountain running. I am inspired to run further and try more challenging events. I don't think that I will ever be a particularly fast runner, but I know that I can go the distance...and I fully intend to...watch this space.
A massive thank you to the race organizers, marshals, photographers, sponsors and other runners that made the Routeburn Classic such an amazing event - you guys and gals did a sterling job.
I would like to dedicate my achievement to my wonderful family who have supported me so much - here's to you Mum, Dad, Annabel, Laura, Ben and little Oscar dog - Cheers!