Thursday, May 2, 2013

Routeburn Classic 2013

The day dawned slowly, the light seeping into the sky, the mountains and lakes emerging in a muted shades, and dozens of runners peering through foggy bus windows, itching to see what the weather was doing.

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.

After a few zig zags, the track leveled for a short while before descending to Howden Hut.  I streamed down
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
The track climbed again, rougher and muddier than  before.  I found sections of this area too rough to run, having to resort to a ragged power-walk (why, oh why had I not added some walking to my training regime).  Most of the clearings were hemmed in by cloud, but as the rain-foresty bush started to give way to more alpine foliage, I could feel warm patches of light starting to filter through the fog, the sun was trying to shine!

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.

Earland Falls
Approaching the Earland Falls I could see sheets of waterfall mist drifting horizontally out from the base of the falls.  Runners paused to don jackets, or took the flood detour below the fall zone.  I nearly took the detour, but at the last minute, changed my mind, and plunged head-long into the roaring, freezing air, and the icy water.  Breathing in the frigid down-draft shocked my lungs in the same way as diving into cold water.  I felt as though my chest might collapse (rather melodramatically in retrospect), and I gasped away, splashing through the thigh deep pools and slithering over rocks.  Looking up I could see the water plummeting towards me from what seemed like miles away, a weird sense of reverse-vertigo took hold, and I focused on following the path of the runner ahead of me, until I could exit the thundering void and return to the track.  The magical side effect of the Earland Falls was that the cold water worked wonders for my sore legs, and I had no more pain for the remainder of the race.

"The Other Side" after passing under the Earland Falls
The track continued to climb for a while, and I scrambled over rock cuttings and increasingly rougher track, running the sections in between.  Runners and walkers were compacting back up again, and as the track started to descend I found myself trapped in a single-file snake of about 50 competitors, all caught behind someone that wanted to take the down hill very carefully.  Passing was impossible and futile - dodging past a couple of people ahead, only to tuck in behind more people that were heading slowly downwards wasn't helping anyone make faster progress.  Views of Lake MacKenzie and the surrounding peaks emerged during the slow climb down,  the weather seemed to be improving all the time.  Shifting patches of sunshine highlighted the brilliant pallet of the surrounding bush and geology.  I was so glad that it wasn't raining.

Lake MacKenzie

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
I vividly remember the climb from MacKenzie Hut to the Harris Saddle from one of my high school tramping trips.  I recalled a hellish and never ending ascent , that at the time had seemed inordinately steep and difficult to negotiate.  But whether my fitness had improved, or my memories had been skewed, I found the ascent quite runnable, and not as steep as I had been anticipating.

Traverse above Hollyford Valley
One of the things that I love about the Routeburn is the vast and vivid colour pallet that the whole landscape is drenched in.  I don't know if it is some sort of exercise-induced oxygen deprivation, but rich colours of the alpine plants, the brilliant blue of the sky and the shock of white snow contrasting against the blackest peaks always takes my breath away on this trail.  It is always stunning, and as the weather continued to improve, the valley below and the mountains around were revealed in all of their awe-inspiring glory.

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.

Hollyford Valley
Rounding the top of the climb and beginning the undulating traverse along to the Harris Saddle, I was exposed to the alpine wind, which was freezing despite the sun.  The view of the mountains across the Hollyford Valley continually changed with the shifting clouds, and I could see the valley floor winding away towards the distant ocean.  Trotting along the towards the saddle, I felt as though I was making good progress, as were a lot of other runners.  I found that I had to concentrate hard to watching my foot placement on the track, while simultaneously keeping an ear and an eye out behind me to ensure that I could let the faster runners pass.

Snow-dusted Peaks
Cresting the Harris Saddle, the wind was at it's most bitter, sapping my energy levels, just before the technical descent to the falls hut.  Here, draped in plastic, with just the lens of his camera peeking through, was an intrepid and hardy photographer, bravely snapping photographs of the runners against the alpine back drop.  By God he must have been freezing!

Harris Saddle - note the stream running down the trail
 The final section of the track is one that I have walked many times, and thought I was familiar with the terrain, but the loose rocks, rivulets, and rough bed rock made this section the most challenging for me.  I had thought that I would be able to maintain a cracking pace from the Saddle out to the finish, but my lack of training on such technical terrain made me very slow (and a little demoralized).  I battled on downwards, wrestling with the hunger induced daemons in my head that were chastising me for my ill-preparedness, and my pitiful progress.

Valley below the Falls Hut
Finally, after slithering over the last exposed rock section, I reached Falls Hut.  A table laden with lollies and water greeted me, along with a band of smiling and friendly marshals.  I took stock of my fueling supplies and refilled my hydration pack.  With knees and ankles protesting, I started off down the track to the Flats.  I spend the first five minutes tucking into my Awaken bar and Em's Power Cookies that had been included in our race packs.  Up until this point I had been mainlining Gu Gels, but the last couple just hadn't given me the energy hit I needed.  I have never actually eaten solid food while running, but the chocolatey, oaty and flavorsome goodness of this new fuel certainly hit the spot.  I started running again, looking forward very much to reaching the valley floor.

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.

The prize giving dinner at the Skyline in Queenstown was lovely.  This was the first event that I have attended with a more formal prize giving, and it was nice that so many competitors came together to congratulate the place getter's and to acknowledge the runners who had completed the Classic 5 times.  A special Perseverance Award was presented to honor the first runner to have run the Routeburn Classic 10 times: Mark Douglas who ran this year on an injured hip and is a machine and a hero!

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 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!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting such a great report Kitty, and well done on your result! I'd really like to do this next year!