An Adventure on the Motatapu Track

The weeks leading up to Motatapu were fraught with stress and worry. The truth is, I don’t really like 50km events, mostly because I’m not that great at the distance. My last two 50km events were pretty disappointing and this race was on a very technical trail with somewhere upward of 2900m of vertical climbing. My coach, Matt, agreed that the distance isn’t my “sweet spot” which in some ways takes the pressure off but also makes me want to prove myself. After my usual freak out 2 weeks before the race, I resigned myself to just giving it a go and seeing it as a good training run, if nothing else.

The morning of the race saw me up at 4:30am, it was a new experience getting to sleep in my own bed the night before a race, but not necessarily a good thing in the end. Being that I am still solo parenting it meant that the night before had been anything but restful, I spent the night preparing everything so my kids would be ok for race day until my friend Rachael arrived to hang out with them and also doing all my usual saturday jobs around the house so I wouldn’t have to do them sunday. In the darkness I quickly and quietly got ready. I left a little early to go pick up another runner, Peter, who had flown in for the race from Sydney and needed a lift and local runner Ruth, who actual won the women’s race on the day. We chatted on the way to the start and I actually found it helped calm my nerves. Once we arrived Ruth and I sat in the car to chat some more, non to keen to get out and stand around in the cold for longer than we needed. Eventually the start line called and we went our separate ways. As I strolled to the start line (obviously not my favourite place) I wandered along side Lucy B, wishing her well for her run and chatting about the views past Fern Burn Hut, the furthest I had been along the trail.

At the start line I found the finish line drop bag trailer and mucked around with my bag, debating whether to start with my fleece or stow it in my bag headed to the finish line in Arrowtown. It was a chilly 7’C but I knew that even at this temp once I got a km or so in I would feel uncomfortably warm and restricted. As they called for the briefing, I made the decision to stash my fleece and rely on my gloves for warmth. As I rocked back and forth trying to keep warm while listening to the RD explain the low river route to Arrowtown I looked around, hoping to see a glimpse of my running idol, Anna Frost. Unfortunately it was not to be. With 2 minutes until the start I found a space, did a warm up routine and tried to quieten my mind. I was worried about the first cutoff, about the run along the dirt road to the trail and about how my body would hold up after it had felt niggly and tight all week.

As the airhorn rang out I was glad we were started. I switched on my headlamp, a little glad for the cover of darkness as it felt easier for some reason. I was ignoring heart rate until I hit the first cutoff point so I settled into what felt like a comfortably hard pace. I let a lot of people go, trying not to let the mind games start and found a few people sitting around my pace and just stuck with them. The road went quickly, all I really remember is my light on the legs of the people in front of me, the dust being kicked up by my fellow runners and the grunts and mumbled words of those around me. Sooner than I thought we hit the trail and I immediately felt calmer. I had run this part of the trail in the dark and felt comfortable, enjoying being able to push a little harder than usual on the trail. I knew the flow of the trail and while others ran past me, working hard, their breath heavy, I felt like I floated finding a flow, a rhythm. I didn’t care that others passed by at this point, I knew it was going to get harder ahead and as I hit the deer gate marking the entry to the The Stacks Conservation Area I glanced at my watch, happy with the time it showed, comforted that I should be able to make the cutoff point if I wasn’t held up too much. At the beech forest the trail became more technical, but I knew that and while I kept things comfortably hard I was buoyed that I was obviously more comfortable than many ahead of me, as I crept up behind and asked to pass here and there. I was delighted as my headlamp flashed upon the big red fairy mushrooms here and there. I hadn’t been on the trail here for over a month and had never seen these delights here in the forest before. I smiled, thinking of my friend Liv, fairy houses deep in the beech forest for sure. As I stepped across a tree root my ankle reminded me that it wasn’t 100% happy and I made sure to watch my footing. We began to climb out of the forest to see that the sky had lightened and I was slowed by a long line of people. Although I knew I could move faster I hesitated to ask to pass, as the line was so long it would have mean asking 10-15 times. I figured a slow in pace for a bit would not make me miss the cutoff and would help with the coming climbs. Eventually people stepped off the trail and I was able to move at my own pace, I came across another runner who was removing clothing and stowing in her pack, she fell in behind me and introduced herself, saying she knew me from Instagram, that made me laugh and we chatted as we jogged along. As we came around the corner Fern Burn Hut came into view and I let out a little whoop of joy, happy in the knowledge that I had beat the cutoff. I wondered what gear they would be checking, as we had been told there would be a mandatory gear check and went through my checklist in my head to see if I needed anything here.

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Views back to Glendhu Bay, where we started.

As we got to the hut we were informed there was no check other than to make sure our mandatory SPOT tracker was on, so I walked on through, excited to see the top of the next climb as it would be completely new territory. As we climbed I pulled my pace back and began watching my heart rate. The sun was just starting to touch the tops of the surrounding mountains. I was trucking along comfortably, being passed here and there but also passing others. The climb continued and suddenly I was aware that I could see my breath, looking at my feet I saw frost on the plants around the trail and mist rising off the small creek I had just hopped over, it was a bit of alpine magic. After a nice little punchy climb I was disturbed by a whirring sound and noticed a drone in the sky, coming around the incline we were greeted by a helicopter. I smiled and said hi to one of the volunteers standing nearby and headed over and down the ridge. On my left was a steep drop, beautiful but a little scary. If you go to the Motatapu Ultra page this ridge is the photo banner.

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A small dirt path lead down into the shadowy valley, the runners ahead of me looking like colourful specks, yes it was that far and steep. I concentrated on my foot placement, not really looking at the drop worried that fear would overtake me. I slipped once, just slightly and reminded myself to breath, to watch my feet and keep moving, stopping was not an option. We hit the valley floor and crossed the creek to be met with a wall of mountain. I knew that after this climb we would descend again and then be at the second checkpoint. I reached up to move some hair from my face and my hand banged my headlamp, I quickly added that to the list of things I needed to deal with as I began the climb/scramble up the hill. I chatted to other runners, talking about the views, the steepness, the way we had to hoist ourselves up the trail using the branches and grass – it was so freaking fun! At around this point I caught up to Ricky who had overtaken me awhile back and along with a female ultra team (there is also a race for teams of two over the ultra distance), we jogged into the second checkpoint at Highland Hut. My GPS was reading 17km, although I knew from the website that the Hut was meant to be 15km, so I made a note to add 2km to the distance for each following checkpoint.

At the checkpoint, the volunteers welcomed us and pointed us in the direction of the water. Ricky and I set up side by side. I removed my headlamp and swapped it for my hat, tying my buff onto my front pack straps for use later on and set about refilling my bottles. Ricky made a comment about my “elicit white powder” and we had a little laugh. Filling my bottles I got my pack on and moved to leave, as the vollies shared that the lead male had just gone through the last checkpoint – holy crap that’s fast! Across the creek, I jogged along the flat enjoying being able to move with more rhythm I started to catch up some others. The next 2 big climbs are a a blur of chats, of watching my feet, of looking across mountains in awe of the space I was in, watching lizards run around my feet and butterflies flying across my path, basically feeling like I was the luckiest person in the world.

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Valley views from the top of one of the climbs

In between the two climbs there was a steep descent down into a valley of beech forest and some welcome shade. The sun was now high, the highlands have no cover other than the waist high tussock grasses and due to past experiences of heat stroke in races I was very mindful of my temperature. As we hit the bottom of the valley and crossed the creek flowing through it, I removed my buff and drenched it in icy water, washing my face and neck, I plunged it in again and then reattached it to my pack. As we climbed I would use the buff to keep me cool whenever the breeze dropped and I was left in the belting sun. At the top of the third climb a dirt road far below came into view, I could see very (very) small figures and the woman just ahead of me commented that it was probably the marathon runners and mountain bikers, whose paths we would cross up ahead. Soon we were descending and on a small scramble, that reminded me of one of my training runs, I managed to overtake two women, another ultra team. Further down the descent I overtook two men and was caught up by one of the women I had just passed. She commented on the guy with the deck chair on a flat section below, as we got closer it became apparent he had a camera. The woman I was running with decided to hang back and wait for her team mate as I ran ahead. As I passed I thanked him for being out here and I sincerely meant it, generally the photographers have packed up and left when I run through.

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Happy to see the photographer!

I could now see Roses Hut and behind it the final big climb to Roses Saddle. Trying not to dwell on the climb ahead, I made my way to the road below. At the road we headed right against the flow of marathoners and mountain bikers. Making sure I smiled and said hello to each person, I was starting to feel the tiredness creep in, the hello’s and hi fives helped buoy me along to the checkpoint. Greeted once again by cheerful volunteers, I took off my pack and busied myself refilling flasks and my bladder with the help of one of the volunteers. There were a number of others sitting on the steps, one person dealing with some large blisters, others eating or resting. The checkpoint had the usual chips, crackers, lollies and also a big tub of chocolate brownie. As I shoved everything back in my pack I contemplated the brownie but decided that just before a big climb it was probably not a good idea. I set off again as quickly as I could, I was hot and tired and was worried that if I paused it would be for longer than required.

I took the next climb slow, mostly because I was tired. I focussed on the people ahead, making sure I wasn’t falling behind and trying to catch them if I could. Around now two things started happening. A slight cramp had been developing in the middle toe on my left foot and when I placed my foot in a certain way pain would surge through the ball of my foot, so I watched how I put my foot very carefully in each step, thankfully my ankle had stopped hurting. Despite staying on top of my nutrition I was starting to get dizzy whenever I looked up or around. As there was nothing I could really do about it, I decided that I would rather be dizzy at the top than half way up the mountain and kept my head down and kept moving. The last climb started out fairly easy, then halfway up the mountain we proceeded straight up the ridgeline. My fellow runners were all also battling the mountain by this point, with people pulling off to sit by the side of the trail, some shaking their heads, others with their head in their hands. Despite my tiredness and the heat, I actually felt ok, just a bit out of pep. At the top I was excited to see the river below and the thought of sinking into it helped me find the energy to run down the mountain at a decent trot, overtaking a couple of people.

At the base we were greeted with two signs, one pointing to the “High Water” route, the traditional poled route and the “Low Water” route. At the briefing we had been advised to take the low route, which looked a lot more inviting at this point, we were also told that while we would be in the river there would be streamer markers to show where we could hop out and move along the bank. I stepped into the river and was soon in up to my knees. There were no visual markers and the two people ahead of me were slowly picking their way along close to the bank. I figured I was wet anyway so I waded along the river, I had the biggest grin on my face as it was just so damn fun. The water was that clear alpine blue, with a rocky, pebbly bottom, it reminded me of rock hopping at the creek back in Australia. It was slow going, every now and again we would see some pink flagging tape and jump out of the creek, gingerly pushing our way through the spiky matagouri and rose bush only to be back in the river in 20-50m. Did I mention fun! I absolutely loved this section, although it was slow going between finding footing, keeping an eye on the river banks for tape and making sure I stayed upright. Tiredness had well and truly set in but there were people around me constantly, which made it easier to keep moving. After about 4km of this we hit the next checkpoint. From here on we were only crossing the river, running predominantly on 4 wheel drive tracks. My legs were starting to hurt, the pain in my glutes reminding me of the latter stages of Alpine Challenge. My mind was also turning to my kids and my bus home, which I was obviously not going to make. I had an hour to get to the finish to be within my own expectations for the run and to catch the bus, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I was jogging along ok when around the corner I spied a pole marker. Unsure of whether to follow the poled route or the 4 wheel drive track I stopped to get out my course map to check. Before I could properly check another runner came along and confidently announced “this way” and in my tired state I just went “ok”. I should have known better. 200m in I knew it was the wrong way and turned around after shouting these thoughts ahead. The other runner came charging back, apologising as he passed, I jogged along, feeling a little defeated and silly for my mistake. I began to spiral a little here. The length of time on feet, combined with worry about how I was going to get home plus my steps off course were building up in my head. Seeing it as another sugar low I started into my emergency m&m’s and willed myself to jog everything I could. The last 7km were tough, the lengthening shadows were a constant reminder of how long I’d been out there and although the 4wd track had pretty outlook on the mountains I was finding it quite boring after all the mountain majesty of earlier in the day. I was running well on the downhills but ups that I would normally run were now being hiked and the flats were a constant negotiation between my head and legs.

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Charge to the finish!

With the finish line in earshot, about 1.5km away, I resolved to run the rest of the way, I was happy that I did but so very tired once I crossed it. It was also kind of bittersweet. I had just been on a most amazing adventure, but it was the first ultra I had run without having anyone I knew waiting for me at the finishline. Instead of revelling in what had just happened, I walked as fast as I could to the info tent to find out if there was another bus I could catch and where my drop bag was. Once the bag was found, I had changed and the bus was sorted I sat down and was greeted with messages from family and friends who had been watching. That made it a little easier. When I got home I also got a hug from my friend Rach, who had given up her saturday arvo and evening to look after my kids – thats just how awesome she is.

Despite the amazing fun I had out on the course (seriously, I was so happy out there until the last 8km), by Sunday afternoon my run time had clouded my joy. I was disappointed, I had had higher expectations of myself and my ego was a little battered by the result. Luckily I have an amazing support network. Thanks to my dear friends, who indulge my mental frailties, and my wonderful coach who always hears out my whinges and then tells it like it is to give me some perspective, after a few days I was able to move past that detail. In fact the joy has come flooding back and I am really looking forward to heading back out on the Motatapu trail over the coming months of training (or that could be the recovery induced lack of training talking).

So, to sum up, Motatapu Ultra was a most amazing adventure. It was everything I expected and a little more. It is easily the hardest race I have ever done (including Shotover and the 50km legs of Northburn and Alpine Challenge) but also the most fun I’ve ever had running a 50k race and was stunningly beautiful. In fact if I had to encapsulate it in three words it would be epically, brutally beautiful. You should totally run it!

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Having the best fun ever

Gear
Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 2.0
Injinji socks/hat/buff
Derby Skinz skirt
Aldi compression shorts (seriously my favourite!)
Inov8 trailroc 245’s
Suunto Ambit3 Peak

Nutrition
TrailBrew
Clif Bars
Snickers
Potato Crisps
M&M’s
Fresh red apple
Fresh Pineapple

Thanks to
Injinji Performance Products and TrailBrew for their ongoing support on my adventures
My coach, Matt from Judd Adventures
My hubby and kids for encouraging and supporting my running
My support crew who were with me in spirit all day long
My friend Rach, who looked after my kids so I could go have an adventure.
The crew and volunteers from Motatapu for such an amazing event.

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2 thoughts on “An Adventure on the Motatapu Track

  1. Jane Powell

    OMG Jo what an amazing adventure that race was!! I am in awe of what you achieve and it gives me the drive to continue to go out of my comfort zone. You are a special lady. Well done on this amazing race.

    Much love Jane

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