I took up running a smidgen over four years ago and approximately 14 months later managed to drag my sorry ass around three laps of Ursvik in the middle of Sweden’s winter…. you can read more about that escapade here. At 45km long I had skipped the usual marathon route into Ultra Running finding that trail running, hills and weather conditions (snow, mud, extreme heat) (facets that seem to be common denominators in most Ultras) suited both my physique, personality and most importantly – my fun factor. Well, more than a 42 km tarmac slog would anyway.

Running alongside the 45 km Ursvik Ultra was a 75 km event; a distance at the time that seemed wholly insurmountable. I soon discovered that there were scores of 100 km and 100 mile Ultra running events (as well as seemingly ridiculously impossible ones involving thousands of non-stop kilometres over some of the most extreme environments in the world). If Ultra Running wasn’t a way to test the absolute limits of human endurance (and potential) then I don’t know what is! However, even after completing the Ursvik Ultra; my longest run previously being a 30 km slog, even though I entertained the idea of going a lot further, I seriously didn’t know if I had it in me. It’s all in the head right? But realistically I knew I had been running at my limits training for Ursvik and the legs seemed too prone to small niggles and injuries to really increase mileage any more. The ‘real’ Utra (aka 100 km+) seemed like it would simply be a step too far.

After returning to New Zealand, I figured running would once again disappear into the realms of ‘things I had done’ and the bikes would once again reign supreme. It didn’t quite work out like that though. The flowing single track, long grunty climbs, sweeping descents, and long since pined after riding circuits – all within spitting distance of my back door, once again, awaited. But that buzz… the kind that sees the whole world melt away when the garage door is closed, the feet clipp in to the pedals and the forward momentum that starts taking one to the happy pain infested place as soon as the track or road inclines… it just wasn’t there. Why, I’m not too sure but as the 2017 summer started to come to an early end I found myself mixing my spare time equally between running and cycling. I enjoyed the variety and the flexibility around not really having a monogamous relationship with my choice of fitness (and the hills) for once or having a set training schedule to adhere too (I actually haven’t really had one of those in twenty years but my brain works like a training schedule at times). Once again I slowly re-found my running legs on the plethora of tracks on the Port Hills I never knew previously existed. Slowly my body adapted to running up and down the steep long climbs of my back yard.

That winter the running progressed well. Never did I do the same run twice. The Port Hills were a maze of tracks – admittedly a lot of them were disused or seldom used – but they were more than runnable. The weekend runs ended up half exploratory in an area I thought I knew like the back of my hand. Combined with a couple of longer days out involving mountains blizzards and torrential Nor-Westers, I felt like my body was gearing up mentally for both distance and extreme conditions. It was time to find another Ultra challenge.

Fast forward to October 2017 and the inaugural Crater Rim Ultra. Like the Ursvik Ultra, the Crater Rim Ultra was run practically on my door step (albeit on the antipode of Ursvik) and was a pretty low key event. Race day saw everyone rise early in order to be at Hanson Park by 5.15am. Coincidentally, Hanson Park, was the start and finish location of Le Petit Brevet (an event I started way back in 2011 Le Petit Brevet) and the four times I have competed it, the terminus to a gruelling 24 odd hours of riding (usually continuous). Maybe Tina and I have a gravitational pull to the area because of that?

A Family Day Out – Crater Rim 2017

At 52 km in length, the Crater Rim was probably the perfect follow up to the Ursvik Ultra. Collapsing over the line in a time of 5 hours and 40 minutes and fourth place overall I was very happy with the days efforts. As a family, it was a great day out. Tina had finished the 25 km race an hour earlier and I managed to scrape myself off the comfort of the grass to watch Ana and Louise sprint around the field in the kid’s dash. A combined family effort of 80 odd kilometres for the day.

Maybe it was too soon (it was), but six weeks later saw me lining up for the Kepler Challenge in Te Anau – an iconic 60 km mountain run on the periphery of the stunning Fiordland Mountains. Since completing the Crater Rim things had not gone so well. I had picked up a niggling knee injury and I had been battling some cold / flu on and off for a month. In fact in a desperate bid to be rid of the ‘bug’ I was still on the tail end of a course of antibiotics when I turned up on the start line. However that all palled in comparison to my mental health at the time which had been rocked by the sudden death of two people quite close to me within the space of a few weeks. I ummed and ahhed whether to go at all, but ultimately chose to go and do it anyway. More as a chance to escape for a long weekend and breathe in some fresh mountain air as an antidote to my troubles of sorts.


Kepler 2017 – Before Disaster


Kepler – Post Disaster. Check out the knees.

Compared to my previous ultra-running experiences, The Kepler was huge. Helicopters, cameras and competitors – 600 of them! After my usual fast start (I say that tongue in cheek due my exceptionally short association and experience with the Ultra running world!), I was 62nd over the top. My body didn’t respond though and I knew it was going to be a pretty long and hard day. On the twist rocky alpine path I stumbled several times until I eventually tripped over myself and skidded to a halt on the rough stony surface. Picking myself up, I was a mess. My knees had taken the bulk of the impact and after scraping off the larger of the embedded stones, I struggled my way to the aid station at Forest Burn. There I was helped to clean my mess up a bit before heading back off into the elements. I only had 41km to go!

I did finish, but was disappointed with the time and the experience (even though I made the official calendar and movie; the latter mainly on account of the volume of blood!). Compared to the first two Ultra’s, everything seemed to be against me this time. However I did take confidence in the fact that I had managed to finish and picking up the scraps, headed back to Christchurch.


Running in the Swiss Alps… amazing!

It was time to hang the running shoes up for a bit and I savoured the bike over the summer until the days started to recede and the weather started to turn once again the following year (2018). The running shoes once again beckoned and the miles slowly built up so that by the time we landed in Germany in July, my legs had the ability to put in some big back to back days. This culminating in a three day 100 km stint in the mountains of Switzerland where I ran / hiked some incredible trails and high mountain passes while savouring the joys of the Swiss Mountain huts and their freshly baked bread.

Back in Christchurch again, the training went well and as the Crater Rim Ultra once again approached, this time doubling as the NZ Trail Running Championships. My as ever competitive nature started to get the better of me and I started setting my sights high.

Three weeks out I finished my last final big effort before race day. My running felt stronger and more fluent that it ever had and with a long taper to look forward to after all the hard work I felt I was set. I then picked up a cold. Nothing to worry about here, just a minor cold. Except it didn’t go away. In fact it kind of mirrored my pre-Kepler disease and turned into something more akin to a flu. Still, I was confident I could shake it. Unfortunately two weeks later I was worse than ever. The Friday before race day (Sunday) I was sick off work and barely got out of bed. I pretty much wrote myself off even turning up to the start line. By 12pm on Saturday I still didn’t feel flash but as the day turned into evening I got everything ready anyway figuring I would simply set my alarm for 4am and see how I felt.

In the previous 3 weeks I had been on one short run. It really wasn’t my idea of an effective taper but I found myself once again, two years in a row on the boat over the Diamond Harbour for the start. The race…. well it was kind of miserable to be honest. Once again, I pushed myself through and finished. I somehow got awarded the age group gold medal from Athletics New Zealand. It was a joke though, 6 people had beat me fair and square – they just hadn’t bothered registered and therefore were not eligible. I went away despondent.

However, within a few days I was running again. Something I had not been able to do so quickly after my previous Ultras. Perhaps it was the fact that I hadn’t been able to push myself very hard and therefore hadn’t picked up my usual niggly injuries; or that fact I had blasted out my cold / flu and actually felt good for the first time in a long time? I suddenly felt strong; or – and this is probably a combination of all the others factors, I was actually enjoying myself.

Suddenly, heading out for a mountainous 30km Saturday morning started to feel normal, and once more I could still function for the rest of the day which was a bonus. My knees and feet seemed to have built up additional muscle tolerance and my niggling injuries seemed to be a thing of the past. By now I was going through 4 to 5 pairs of running shoes a year. Yes, people may gasp at the expense, but to put that into perspective, I probably used to spend more money on tyres for my bikes annually to feed my cycling diet. Not to mention the other bits and pieces and the bikes themselves. I did a few long day trips with friends and managed to plod out an ambitious alpine run in Arthur’s Pass which nearly surpassed the 24 hour mark (A Big Run for a Pie). My confidence was growing and with it my ambitions started to rise. The 100 km was suddenly within my target. It was time to give it nudge!


Start / Finish Area of Ultra Easy. Nothing very Easy about it.

Roll on 3am January 26th 2019. I am in Luggate, about 10 km from Wanaka. Forty keen men and women are lined up in numerical order under lights in a famer’s field as Terry (the race organiser) counts us off. 105 – 108 km (no one is really too sure) of mountains (4500 m of them apparently), trails and who knows what else await us. Last year the race was run on the hottest day of the year with the 3am start temperature of 28 degrees Celsius. All four of my Ultra’s and the bulk of all my running to date have been done in winter. Luckily the forecast this year is overcast and we aren’t dripping with sweat on the start line.

Suddenly it’s three o’oclock and we are off; Ultras are definately not for people who like to sleep in! Within a hundred metres we are traversing a stream via a wonky wooden bridge. We were warned in the briefing the night before but the swaying under the weight of forty runners brings out a cheer of laughter. “Lucky we are all skinny buggers” someone yells out.


Over the top of Mt. Alpha

We head toward the Clutha River via a series of farmer’s fields and slowly the headlights distance themselves further and further apart. I can hear the raging waters below, but the night is dark and the only other noise is the soft padding of runners. My focus is on the spotlight 10 metres ahead of me from my headlamp. I’m on my way and yes…. it is quite some way. I already know I will make it, it’s a just a matter of what shape I am in after 100 km.  It is quite a nice feeling.

After 13 km the first blimp on the map – in the form of Mt. Iron appears and it’s nice to be not running on the flat. It’s over before we know it and the flat returns for the traverse around Wanaka’s lake front in the very early morning hours. As we pass, a drunk asks us in an intoxicated slur “What drives you?” I feel like asking him the same question.

By six it is starting to get light and with 28 km in the bag we finally leave Lake Wanaka and start to climb the lofty heights of Roy’s Peak. It is a relief to be going up again to be honest and over the next hour and half with a combination of running and walking we are over the top and heading towards Mt. Alpha on a sweet and at times technical single track. Lake Wanaka, the town of its namesake and the pin prick of Mt. Iron loom far below us and it’s satisfying to know we have come a long way already.

Then it’s down all the way to the Cardrona Rd. For the first time I run with someone for a few minutes. Turns out I know a friend of his… New Zealand is so inbred! However my Achilles heel – my descending, lets me down and I am left to descend through the dry barren landscape on my own before utilising a rickety ladder draped over a deer fence to get to the second main aid station and the half way point. We have already run 50 km, an ultra in itself. Somehow the thought of running that distance over and some more doesn’t faze me anymore.

The next leg to Snow Farm some 21 km distant seems to be the most feared and un-liked. However as we ascend steeply I relish in my speciality (steep and up) and pass several people. After Little Criffel the terrain flattens somewhat and the four wheeled drive road we are on loops over the ranges like a piece of string far into the distance. The run suddenly seems never ending.

Into the early afternoon the day drags and I am glad of the cloud cover on the exposed ridges. Then Snow Farm eventually comes into view and slowly we edge towards it many ugly structures which probably are not much of an eyesore in winter when they are covered in snow. However they blight the landscape in summer and I look forward to arriving at the final major aid station and leaving them behind.

Eventually the last main aid station arrives and I take my time reordering my bag. I chuck out most of the food – after nearly 80 km I can’t eat much anymore, and stock up on liquid supplements and lollies. The leading woman arrives and I end up running with her for a bit when we leave until I pull away on the once again ascending road.

It’s a long drag up to the high point of Mt. Pisa. The Marathon runners who started at Snow Farm fly pass me as if I am standing still. It puts some perspective on my shuffle – which before they came past actually felt pretty fast. But the reality is, I am now doing the Ultra Marathon Shuffle to its full extent. It’s a tough Marathon course and a Marathon in itself is not to sneeze at, but I can’t help but viewing it as a bit of sprint as the 85km+ mark (for me) ticks over.

Just below the summit of Mt. Pisa we run over Sally’s Pinch and at close to 2000 m in elevation, the wind buffets over it (and us) at gale-force pace. With the wind to our sides I have to stop and walk as I can feel my feet being swept out from beneath me.  In one hand I hold on to my number and in the other I hold on to my hat while my poles – attached via straps to my wrists, simply fly out horizontally to my right.  At the top, a wind-swept four-wheel drive awaits and on my approach a cold and windswept lady emerges. We yell at each other over the howling wind while I use the shelter of the car to don my jacket and eat a banana before beginning the long 20 km descent to the finish.

The rocky technical descent was a slow affair and the ever present wind beat us relentlessly the whole way. Far below sat Lake Dunstan and in the other direction, far-far away, mountains of earlier in the day – Roy’s Peak and Mt. Alpha. Even Mt. Iron and Lake Wanaka came in to view with time and their presence, far off in the distance, gives some perspective to just how long the day had been.

Then the finish is there, far below in a green valley. I attempt to speed up the cadence on the never ending and steep descent. By the time I had hit the flat run into the finish I am positively (or should they be relatively?) flying. When I finally see the actual finish line, I even summon up a sprint of sorts!

At the line, race organiser – Terry, is waiting. I grab him in a hug more to stabilise myself than anything and am led over to an awaiting chair where I finally get to rest my poor legs.

All up, I had stopped the clock at 15 hours and 2 minutes and was pretty happy to complete my first 100km+ event in reasonably ‘good‘ shape to boot. Sure I had pretty sore legs, some nasty blisters on my feet, one lost toe nail (stories of losing 5 or 6 are common), I could barely walk, and all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and die. OK, I felt terrible, however none of my ailments had really held me back too much.

Tina and the kids soon arrived, they had missed my finish by 5 minutes. The kids, not wanting to be upstaged by my exhausted state play their part; Louise gets stung by a bee and Ana attempts to drown herself in the nearby swimming hole. Tina soon bundles us all in to the car for the drive back to Wanaka. A nice warm bath helps relax the tired body and I even manage to stay awake – yes I have fallen asleep in the bath before!

What next? Don’t ask.