MAY 2, 2012

“Shit, I think I have bitten of more than I can chew” I recall saying to myself the early stages of the Routeburn Classic. And I mean the real early stages, like 20 minutes into the run.

As a life-long road runner who was having a crack at trail running for the first time I was expecting hills and some tricky terrain to negotiate. I just suppose I was not really anticipating hills that long or that steep, or terrain that technical.

Biting off more than I can chew seems to be something I have a habit of doing this and my time on the Routeburn track gave me plenty of time to soul search about this character flaw of mine, this eternal “she’ll be all good” attitude.

You see, without doing much more research on this run other than watching a couple of you tube clips, I reasoned that if I can handle a 42km marathon on the road then I could handle a 32km run off the road. Using a mathematic formula based on nothing more than a hunch I determined that I would be fine if I trained for a 42km road marathon. This trail run was a whole 10km shorter so even will the hills of Routeburn I should still finish with a bit of petrol in the tank.

What can I say but, what a learning curve. I was wrong. I AM AN IDIOT.

The training I did was woefully inadequate. I got off the road and onto the trails around Aucklandas often as I could in anticipation of this run but, to be fair, there is NOTHING around Auckland that could adequately prepare a first timer for the Routeburn classic- Not even the most challenging trails of the Waitakeres come close.

I ended up hobbling to the finish line in 4 hours 24 minutes, making me closer to a “rooster” than a “horse” in the time groupings (sigh). Also making it the longest run I have ever been on in my life.

And there I was sitting at the briefing at TeAnau the night before with visions and expectations of being a “leopard” or a “hare.” Again, using a mathematic formula based on nothing more scientific than I hunch. I figured that if I can run 32km on the road in 2 hours 20, adding an extra 40 minutes to that time should be plenty enough to allow for the hills and terrain of Routeburn.

Once again, I was wrong, I am an idiot.

Now, here is the funny thing- despite all of this I LOVED IT!

I loved everything about it; the views, the pain, the difficultly, the camaraderie, the early start, the long bus ride, the cold Speights at the finish, everything. But especially the beer.

I got to meet some really cool people. Including a bunch of inspirational pensioners who I road the bus with from Queenstown to TeAnau. I think their names were Mark, Podge and Graham (my memory is probably worse than these guys). These blokes still get amongst it and do these endurance events. They don’t train as much anymore, they just do runs and events they enjoy. I could not think of anything more rewarding, quite frankly, than being in my mid 60’s and still being about to run 32km in the mountains.

I joined these guys for tea at a place called Moose’s in TeAnau the night before the run. Me with my plate of spaghetti carbonara while these guys all got greasy fish n chips. Brilliant. I thought they were mad but I was in no position to pass judgement- one of these guys had done the 60km Kepler challenge 17 times- if he wants to eat a big plate of greasy takeaways as his pre race meal who the hell am I to stop him?

On the run there were numerous periods of walking on my part. I have never been shy of hills, I love them. But some of these inclines on Routeburn are so steep they are just taking the piss, it is nature and Evan McWhirter having a laugh at the competitor’s expense. The plus side of these stints of walking was that I got to look around and pay attention to my surrounds. I’ve never been a tramp guy. Quite frankly, the idea of spending a few days walking in an area with no cell-phone coverage or wi-fi gives me heart palpitations plus I start to get a nervous tick if I go for more than a day or two without seeing a sign for a Westfield mall. Add to that the prospect of sharing a smelly bunk room with a bunch of snoring foreigners and you pretty much have described hell for me. But after running Routeburn I think I now get it. The reward for the walkers of these tracks is the views which are unreal. It is a part of New Zealand I had only ever seen before in photographs inside books and on postcards at airport bookshops and on my nana’s fancy place mats.

But back to the run, so after the first 20k’s which felt like about 15km of that was inclines! The fun part came, the 12km to the finish which was predominately downhill. This should have been fun, a chance for me to get my long skinny legs working, a chance to make up some time and tear past a few people. None of those scenarios actually took place! In fact, the downhill’s proved even tougher than the uphill’s for this wide eyed rookie.

From road running long distances I have developed a skill of getting myself into a zone of, I suppose, concentrating on not-concentrating, in order to help pass the time.

With this run I had to focus on each step as it came. Which was a pisser, because it meant I missed admiring some beautiful scenery. But if I risked looking up instead of down I would very likely suffer a bad fall. If I’m being honest, I thought I was caning the downhill’s. I felt like I was a nimble goat gracefully bouncing from rock to rock with speed and agility. Then, the runners started passing me, one by one by one and I realised just how technical these tracks are, and just how un-technical I am! I got passed more on the down’s than the up’s which was humbling.

The clincher was when I heard a soft voice from behind me; “Passing on the right.”

She was very soft on her feet and appeared from out of nowhere. I moved over to allow this runner to pass and it was a lady who must have been in her early 60’s. She then FLEW past me and bounced down hill. Very well aware of the gap in our ages and physicality, I did my best to keep up but my effort was futile. And within a minute or two she was out of sight never to be seen again.

In fact, attempting to keep up with this skilful old duck delivered a timely warning that I had to pay my dues and learn the ropes- I rolled my right ankle with about 10km to go. I experienced a sharp numbing pain in my right ankle that shot up my calf muscle. I could still run, well, hobble more like. But I was in a shitload of pain. After 4-5 minutes the pain subsided a bit and I knew I would still be able to finish. As much as I love helicopter rides I did not really fancy being ‘that guy” that was airlifted from the track with a sore ankle.

I kept running on the sore ankle without too much discomfort but every now and then my right foot would land on a bit of an angle and I would get a lightening bolt of pain up my right side.
Before I could see the finish line I could hear a muffled public address system with about 1km to go which was encouraging. I have never been so pleased to see a finish line…or a bottle of Speight’s Summitfor that matter.

After a couple of hours at the finish just taking stock of my day, the things I had seen and the lessons I got taught. I managed to scab a ride back into town with Kate, a fellow competitor, and her family. This is not something that would ever happen at the end of a city marathon. Ever.

I got to ride in the front with Kate’s husband, Philip. While Kate rode in the backseat with their 3 kids. We stopped off at Glenorchy for another beer then continued the road trip back to Queenstown. My legs ached, my ankle throbbed, I worried about whether the injury was serious or not (it sure looked gnarly), I smelt real bad and had dry salt caked on my face. But I could not help but smile. What a day.

Like a famous Austrian action movie hero once said, I’ll be back. And, who knows, maybe next year I will be a leopard or a hare. But one things for certain, I won’t be going into the run just assuming I will be a leopard or a hare. It will be a label that is hard fought and earned.