A Long Journey
On 20th February 2021, I ran the furthest I have ever run and am confident that it will be the furthest I will ever run in one go! Let’s wind back the clock about 12 months or maybe even 24 months. In January 2019, Nigel and I with our friends, Jo and Rob, set off on an adventure to do the Old Ghost Road. Jo and I ran/walked it whilst Nigel and Rob mountain biked it over 4 days. It is an amazing adventure, the scenery is just stunning, the history is fascinating and we were blessed with fantastic weather too. It’s 85km long and the recommended direction for biking is from Lyell to Seddonville simply because you get the steep sections out of the way in the first two days and you go down the spiral staircase instead of having to carry bikes up it! Jo and I walked the first two days faster than the boys could ride because the ‘push’ in pushbiking was more in evidence than the ‘biking’. It’s pretty hard pushing a bike with panniers on uphill, narrow, exposed tracks! Much easier carrying a pack and walking.
Anyway, we all agreed it had been a fantastic experience but felt that 4 days gave us the chance to take in the views, enjoy the terrain and each other’s company. The huts are great and we had time to chill at the beginning and end of each day and not be under pressure to move faster than we felt was comfortable.
So that was that. Great memories, appetites whetted to do more overnight tramps and Great Walks, especially in that area.
Well, until February 2020 that is! A message comes through from Jo. “I’m thinking of doing the Old Ghost Ultra in 2021”.
I distinctly remember Jo saying after we finished in 2019 that she really didn’t want to do Old Ghost in one day, it was a crazy idea, why would you run it and not be able to enjoy the scenery?! The conversation went like this;
“Really!?” I replied.
She said, “Well, it’s my 60th birthday on 19th Feb, the race is on 20th Feb. I’ll be up an age group. Seems like a good thing to do for my birthday. Do you want to support me?”
“Of course. A trip down south sounds good. I’ll travel with you, be at the start and meet you at the end. Maybe go for an explore while you’re running.”
“Oh no! By support, I meant will you run with me?”
“Whaaat! But I’ve never run that far before. I’ve always said I don’t want to run that far. I’m happy with short distances.”
“But you’ve done 4 Oxfams!”
“Yes, but that was walking.”
“We’ll do it together, you know you can walk that far. You’ve done heaps of running since. A bit of running, a bit of walking. We’ll be sweet.”
My fatal mistake was not immediately saying no! Maybe there was a little bit of something in my head and my heart that nagged at me to give myself a challenge? So I looked at the course, looked at the times people had done it in. I checked the cut off times. They were scary! Considered how quickly we had done 85kms on Oxfams, compared elevation… maybe, just maybe, I could do it. Bugger! She who hesitates his lost… or at least persuaded. Before I knew it I’d signed up to a Squadrun training program and Jo and I were locked in! Training commenced!
Covid19 lockdown happened. Our training was all local, along the river trail in Kirikiriroa on my own. We still hadn’t actually entered the event as it wasn’t open for registration until June. The event is limited to 300 people and it sells out fast! June 1st saw us in separate houses, at our computers, credit cards at the ready, OGR event page on count down, ready to hit that enter button as soon as the event went live, hoping that we both managed to get a place. My fingers were clearly faster as I ended up with race number 45. Jo was 118 but we were both in!
Now it was real! The Covid rahui was over and we hit the trails with a vengeance. I had gradually been increasing my running frequency from maybe 2 – 3 times a week to 4 – 5 times a week. Runs were getting longer and faster. Weekends were filled, running dominated. Wherever Nigel and I went, I was always looking for an opportunity to run. I became pretty adept at squeezing runs in on my travels for work. Fortunately the days were getting longer and so that made it easier to find time.
We decided to enter the Poronui Passage marathon in September. This is billed as the ‘Luxury Marathon’ and it isn’t cheap. Then again, most events aren’t cheap and we figured we might as well pay for an event on trails that we wouldn’t normally be able to run on. It was to be my first ‘official’ marathon; whilst I had run further than that before (Taupo 50 in 2019), I had never actually entered a marathon event. It was a harder day out than we had expected but amazing, big scenery. I struggled with cramp in my quads and calves from about halfway but plodded on. It was all very runnable – not my sort of trail at all! I much prefer some gnarly hills either up or down to allow me to walk! But we finished mid-pack in 5hr52 which was within our target time. The freezing cold knee deep stream a km before the end was bliss on tired muscles, and the beer went down well too! One of the luxuries was a hot shower and then delicious burgers and fries and as much beer or wine as you could manage! (Not much after a day dehydrating in the sun!)
Our next big adventure was the Squadrun Old Ghost Camp.We would run half the course on Saturday, the 2nd half on Sunday. Great back to back training. That was another fastest fingers first experience! This time only 12 places so we really did need to be quick. I was so quick, I inadvertently managed to book two places! Fortunately, it was very easy to sell on with some help from Ali. It was a fantastic weekend away in December, just 2 months out from race day. It gave us the opportunity to test the cut off times and gain some confidence that we could actually make them! I had a horrific time on the first day – my calves tightened and then my quads about 15km away from the hut. I couldn’t really run, so limped my way down the Boneyard and along the valley to the Stern Valley hut. We were running with some cool people and we all chivvied each other along, having fun taking photos and waiting for each other at wee stops! The 4 of us arrived at the hut and went to put our legs straight in the river where the fast guys had also stashed the beer supply – what a welcome treat! – before getting changed. I then spent some time with my legs up against the wall after massaging with magnesium oil and then Omrub. I was dreading how they would feel the next day and wondering how on earth I’d be able to run another 42 km! Doubt had really set in.
It’s amazing how well our bodies recover, though! A hearty feed (thanks to Ali), plenty of fluids, a long sleep and the next day, I was as good as gold. There’s a big climb in the second half to Ghost Lake Hut but after that it’s 24km of downhill. Jo tried out her poles. I had forgotten to bring mine. However, she soon gave up on them in frustration and I ended up using them thinking that they might help my legs. Downhill might be less taxing than up but I was still worried that my cramp might flare up. Using the poles took some of the pressure off, I think or maybe it was just in my head but either way, it worked! I definitely got slower, legs were tired, there was probably more walking than running but we kept up a steady pace and made it down with plenty of time before the cut off (when the shuttle bus was leaving to take us back to Westport!)
So, that was it. All we needed to do now was keep the training steady and maintain frequency. No need for any really long runs now just a couple of 30km shuffles and in no time we were into tapering!
We had done really well all through training – one of the mantras of trail running is about getting to the start line. You can’t finish if you don’t start! OGR Ultra has a limit of 300 runners. There were nearly as many as that again on the waitlist. Every year almost everyone on the waitlist gets in because so many people sign up and then get injured. We had been sensible, trusted the programme, and we were still injury free (apart from the usual niggles of nearly 60 yr old bodies!).
Then, after a short run around the lake – one of the speed sessions in the last 3 weeks, Jo complained of her Achilles hurting. Rest was in order. She rested a couple of days then tried again. Still sore. Her brain went into panic mode. We’d trained for this all year, we were almost there! Physio sessions revealed both tendons were inflamed. Nothing could be done except rest. We had done enough training, two weeks rest would be fine – physically but not mentally! So much messing with a head that didn’t need it! Jo is an amazing runner and a true friend. She has supported me all through the year, encouraging me, telling me I can go faster and further. But she is always a head case leading up to an event! (self-confessed!) Having a niggly, painful injury was a disaster.
In the meantime, Jo had been also wondering whether to use poles or not. There had been lots of discussion on the Squadrun FB page. Most people recommended using them for the 2nd half. Nigel had bought me some for Christmas and so I was planning on using mine – I’d practised with them whilst we’d been on holiday up north. Jo needed to practise with hers if she was going to use them. We planned a run up Maungatautari solely to practise. It seemed to go well. We weren’t any slower than usual and were probably a little bit faster. With the Achilles flaring up, the decision was made for her. Poles looked like they were going to be very useful for protecting her ankles.
More stress when Jo went to check our accommodation booking to find that it had seemingly been cancelled by BookaBach!! Manic messaging went on, rabid internet searching to find an alternative and we ended up with what we decided was a better deal. Serendipitously, there was a spare 4 person room at the Rough and Tumble Lodge where the race actually started from. That would mean we didn’t have to get up at silly o’clock to get a bus from Westport! Result. Panic over.
Finally, we were on the plane. This was it! No more to be done just turn up and run! Except that the pesky Achilles raised it’s ugly little heel again! On Thursday evening’s gentle jog on the first part of the trail, Jo struggled. On Friday, Jo’s birthday, we spent time trying to find a physio in Westport. A vain hope! I think Jo’s brain went into overdrive again. Walking was fine – we wandered out to the seal colony and distracted ourselves by watching the baby seals lolloping over the rocks and playing in the waves. Then we headed back into Westport, registered, met up with all the other Squaddies, had dinner and then went to the event briefing. Various people were singled out for thanks for their contributions to the event organisation. The oldest and youngest competitors were identified, those who were running for the 3rd, 4th, 5th ….. times, and those whose birthday it was! Just Jo – Happy Birthday was sung! Back to the Rough and Tumble and pretty much straight to bed after laying out all our gear, food, water, ready to put on when we woke at 5.30am. It was going to be a long day next day!
At breakfast, Jo broached the subject of what we would do if her Achilles were so sore she couldn’t continue. There wasn’t really a choice – the only way off the course is by helicopter for those who are injured, or who don’t make the cut offs. If you are uninjured and make the cut offs, then you stay on the course. But we had to voice it, and have a plan. It might just as easily be me who wouldn’t make it given my history with cramp. I hadn’t allowed that thought to really take hold in my head, though it was always there nagging on my shoulder! We agreed that the other would carry on. Then we ate breakfast in silence both struggling with our thoughts and doubts.
On the start line, we bumped in to other runners who we knew. Nervously chatted, wished them all luck. Jo disappeared off the the loo and I lost her 5 minutes before the start! She had missed the actual toilets and gone in the bush! We’re both pretty blind without glasses and in the dark with lots of torchlights glaring! Then the countdown started and we were off. There is never a surge at the start – well not unless you’re a front runner! We went with the flow of the crowd at the back, jogging gently up the first 500m to where we went under the entrance to the trail. At this point, it narrows to single track and we pretty much stopped – as 5 lanes merged into one! We then settled into a steady pace, Jo chatting to all and sundry by my side, me just in my zone. I’m not a great talker on the trail – mainly because I don’t have enough puff – but also because on this day I needed to steady my thoughts and focus. I found myself running with someone else in the dark; I could still hear Jo behind me but she wasn’t right behind me. Then I realised that I couldn’t hear her voice anymore. I thought that the footsteps behind me were her but when we reached a swingbridge – one person at a time – and I stopped at the other end for her, it wasn’t her! I waited. She was only a couple of minutes behind, still chatting to a lady who we were going to play leapfrog with for the rest of the day!
As we ran along the river it got lighter. The sun didn’t really make it out until we got higher, so it was actually quite pleasant running in the cool of the valley. The kms clicked by steadily. We were a little under our target as we had probably underestimated how long the first 2kms were going to take as the field spread out and then the waits at a couple of swingbridges. But we were still on target and we reached the first checkpoint at Specimen Point (17km) with about 25 minutes to spare. What we hadn’t factored in was that the cut off was when we left the aid station not when we arrived, so we needed to be swift. The volunteers were fantastic, they took our bottles off us and filled them while we chomped on the food provided, then helped us put them back in our bags. 10 minutes later we were out of there. 15 minutes leeway and we had 4hrs15 to run the (25km) to get to and then out of the next cut off at Stern Valley at 42km. There was a fair amount of climbing to do but we knew we just needed to plug away at it. Then, a few kms out of Specimen Point Jo mentioned she had some hotspots on her heels. Should we stop and deal to them? No, she reckoned she’d be ok, we’d get to Stern and then sort them. We’d always worried about the first two cut offs because they are pretty tight but we reckoned if we could make them the next ones were more achievable. As we climbed up from Goat Creek to the Hanging Judge we got our poles out. Jo’s hotspots were getting hotter. Should we stop? We decided again to carry on. Down through the Boneyard. The terrain is unforgiving – built for mountain bikers, it is made up of 3-4cm stones that are angular and shift under your feet. We were getting closer to the cut off time but still ok as long as we could get through quickly. We had bags to pick up at Stern Point with food supplies in, we needed more water and Jo really needed to sort out her blisters. Should we go through fast and then stop on the other side to do the blisters or stay in the checkpoint? We decided to stay in as there was somewhere to sit. I fed Jo food while she took her shoes and socks off to reveal huge blisters that had already formed on her heels. The volunteers again were fantastic, kept giving us time checks and helped however they could.
We made it out of there with 3 minutes to spare! Definitely not what we had planned but we were still in the game! Jo’s blisters were still very sore – they hadn’t popped so the pressure was huge. Every step was painful. We had 3 and a half hours to go 12km which included a huge climb to Ghost Lake Hut. It had taken us less time than we had thought on the training camp weekend so we thought we should be ok.
The sun was out and it was hot! Even in the shade through the forest the heat was overwhelming. I meant to grab water from the streams and waterfall on the way but was conscious of keeping moving so didn’t. Jo was getting slower. She was in so much pain. I know when Jo stops talking that things are getting bad. We focussed on putting one foot in front of the other. I tried to keep the pace steady but not too fast but I was constantly doing the maths in my head. I knew Jo would be doing the same. Would we make the next cut off? We reached the Skyline Steps, up and onto the top and across the ridge. The photographer greeted us here – what an amazing spot for a photo! I told him that the last twice I’d been up there, I’d done a handstand. He asked if I wanted to do one today. I said no! I sort of wish I had but it just didn’t seem the right thing to do! We paused for enough time to have a photo taken together. That ridge seemed to go on a lot longer then we remembered from last time! Then we reached the end and could see Ghost Lake Hut across the valley in the distance. It still seemed a long way away! And we had to go down and then up again to get there. By this time Jo was really struggling. She normally romps up the hills leaving me in her wake. I found myself needing to keep up my own pace but then stopping to wait for her. We have always run together but we have different strengths and so we go at our own paces ups and down and on the flats and then wait for each other. The sun was blazing by now. We passed a runner who was pretty much flaked out on the path. We asked if he was ok and needed some help. He said he was fine and then started moving again. (He ended up being helicoptered out attached to a drip – apparently the heat accounted for a lot of people)
As we climbed the last 2-3km to the hut, Jo said she didn’t think she was going to make it. I think up until that point I had been shutting out that possibility from my mind. We were only here for Jo – it was her event, for her birthday and I couldn’t really contemplate her having to drop out. I think I blithely said, “it’s ok you can do it, you’ve coped with worse blisters on Oxfam, you’ve been here before, we can do it together.” But in my heart, I knew that at the speed we were going we wouldn’t make the cut off at Lyell Saddle. She did too.
We got to Ghost Lake Hut. The guys on the FB live feed were there chatting to people, sharing messages from friends and family. They tried to talk to us, passed on messages from Rachel, from the Cambridge Crew. We didn’t engage like we had at Specimen Point. We were in a whole new world of pain – emotional and physical. We got Jo up to see the Medic to get her feet looked at. I went to get bottles filled and some food and took it up to her. It didn’t look good. I accidentally touched Jo’s ankle with my foot as I moved close to her, she almost hit the ceiling. The medic was concerned about the blisters but also about the severe tenderness under Jo’s feet and the sensitivity of the Achilles. She wouldn’t pop the blisters. She dressed them and then Jo tried to put her shoes back on. No go. At that point the Medic took the decision out of Jo’s hands. We wept, clinging on to each other. Bloody blisters!!! After all the worry about Achilles, blisters were going to end her day.
I set off from Ghost Lake with 10 minutes to spare. Apparently, Nigel and Rob were watching the live feed willing us to get out before the cut off. As I was getting ready to leave, the guys on the live feed asked me where Jo was. Rachel was wondering. I said she was with the medic. I didn’t want to say on the live feed that she wasn’t carrying on. They asked if they could go up and talk to her but the medic cut them off and told them to stay away. I’m not sure what happened after that.
I left feeling very sorry for myself but more sorry for Jo. As soon as I was out of earshot I let the floodgates open and I belly sobbed. Tears streaming down my face and taking big gulps, I let it all out! Then I turned to anger. The unfairness of it. This was Jo’s event. Everything we had done was because this was her special goal. I wouldn’t have been here, fit enough mentally and physically to do this thing without her. Why was it that I was still on the trail and she was sitting waiting (in far more grief and anger than me) for the ‘helicopter of shame’ as she called it. I shouted at the world, then I opened my eyes. I had rounded the corner and was looking at the trail curve out in front of me. Magnificent mountains and valleys, a cloudless blue sky. What a place! What a privilege to be here. I still had 30km to go, another cut off to make. No point in wasting time on crying or anger. I had also trained hard for an event that had become a goal and now I could either wallow in self-pity or I could get on and do this thing for myself and for Jo. I did some more maths. How fast did I need to go to get to the finish before it was too dark? Our half unspoken goal of 13 and a half hours was well gone, so we’re the spoken goals of 14 and 14 and a half! I’d been out there for 10 and a half hours already. Daylight would be gone, especially in the forest, by 8.30 at the latest. If I could do 30km in 5 hours then I’d be in before 9.30pm. 10min kms. I didn’t even factor in the cut off at Lyell Saddle, I was going for the end at this point. I took a deep breath.
I tried in those 30kms to appreciate the whenua around me. The trail along the ridge to Heaven’s Door and beyond is stunning, dropping down into goblin forest, the forms of the trees are beautiful. The steady downhill was hard on tired legs and the unrelenting stones that move underfoot were murderous on my ankles. Eventually I made it to Lyell Saddle. I had overtaken a couple of people and some had overtaken me but on the whole it had been a lonely section. Somehow though I had settled into my rhythm; I’d watched the kms tick away at under 10mins so was happy with my progress. At some point in the forest I had decided to put my watch on charge, worried that the battery wouldn’t last the distance. At Lyell I checked to see if it had taken some charge to find that it had plenty of charge but that it had stopped recording my run. Bugger! I unplugged it and set it going again.
At Lyell there were people who Jo and I had leapfrogged in the first part of the event. They asked where she was. All of them said they were sorry to hear that she had been forced to pull out. I refilled my water, had a few lollies. Once again the volunteers were so kind. They held my poles, helped me unscrew my bottles when I didn’t have the strength to do so myself. I was in danger of crying again so I decided I needed to get out of there! I had made up some time and left Lyell with half an hour to spare. 18kms to go.
All downhill from here. I motored on half walking, half running. I warded off the cramps in my quads and calves that threatened by trying to relax my legs as they swung through and concentrating on letting my poles take the weight. I overtook several lone runners, was overtaken by a couple of greyhounds who I then overtook further down the trail. It started to get darker and the km markers counted down. I remembered from our training weekend that some of the markers were missing. I wondered if they still were missing. I got to 5kms to go. I was still doing calculations in my head. It was pretty dark by now but not dark enough to stop, take my pack off, rummage for my torch and lose my rhythm. I let my eyes get accustomed to the dark. It was just like caving!
I caught up with a couple with teddy bears in their packs, who had overtaken me earlier. He was trying not to use his torch but his partner had hers out. I walked and talked with them for a few minutes but the light distracted me so I pushed on. Then I saw a bright light in front of me. It was someone coming up the track. About 3kms to go. It was Ali. We exchanged a few words – not sure if she realised it was me. Not far now. I felt lights behind me and some mountain bikers came past. I still resisted stopping to get a torch out, it was fully dark by now but I only had 2kms to go.
I could hear the noise of the finish line. It spurred me on. I wondered who would be there. I was feeling quite emotional by now. The reality of running/walking 85km – actually finishing this thing that I had been training for for the last 12 months – started to hit home. So did the fact that I was on my own and not with my running buddy. She should have been with me. She was the only reason I even did this bloody thing! She had supported me everytime I had struggled on training runs. I faltered. How could I cross the line without her? Well, I had to, didn’t I otherwise I wasn’t going to get to my bed tonight and boy, did I need my bed! I heard a voice tell me that the bridge was just round the corner. I was nearly there. Yeah, right! People always tell you that and they always exaggerate! It was probably still ages away. But no, there it was, looming out of the darkness. Just as I reached it so did some mountain bikers and they overtook me. Onto the bridge in front of me just as I was about to cross the finish line! Seriously!? Did they not know how far I’d come and that this was my endpoint?
I followed them across the bridge and then they stood to one side to let me pass as they lifted their bikes up the steps. A couple were just crossing the finish line so I waited until they were over and then I came across. Standing blinded in the lights under the arch, I was a bit lost. Trying to hold back my tears, I smiled maniacally! I felt someone come towards me, put a medal around my neck and give me a hug. It was Jo. We clung to each other and I sobbed.