I had the pleasure of trail running in the South Island for the first time last week (I know – crazy that it’s taken this long!). I popped the cherry with a crack at the SkyRockNRun Mountain Marathon, held in the Mt Oxford Conservation Area about 1 hour North West of Christchurch.
This was the Australasian Skyrunning final for 2015, which meant I was expecting the course to be brutally steep, and there would be some real speedsters in the mix. True on both counts.
The charismatic race director, Adrian Bailey set us off at 6:30am on a perfect race morning with a little bit of cloud and low winds. I was planning on being quite conservative until we hit the turn around (out and back course). So I was happy trundling along just inside the top 20 as we took in the flat-ish first km.
We crossed the river and the hill climb started. We were at 400m elevation and I knew that I had to climb 1000m in the next 6km of running/hiking. Hiking hasn’t really been a strength of mine, but I was glad to see that I could hold onto my position without compromising myself with too much effort. We popped out of the cloud at about the same time we popped above the tree line and the view was spectacular. The sun was out and you could see alpine tundra lining the ridges and the Canterbury Plains beneath, still green from the Spring rains.
I hit the summit of Mt Oxford in 1:11 and after stopping for a pic (tourist!) I kept moving as the wind was rather bracing up there. On the way down the other side I had dropped behind two fullas who had been company on the climb, and managed to miss the poled route for a minute or two while I got lost. Back on track, I navigated the equally steep and gravelly descent off Mt Oxford. The X-talons weren’t really necessary for this course. It was dry, and a less intense trail shoe would give sufficient grip but more comfort I reckon.
The course is three massive climbs, and three massive descents. That’s it. This first descent ended with a super steep and twisty final couple of ks down to the river. I was overtaken by a speedy senior dude here, which I must say came as some surprise to me.
The flat trail along the river felt great, finally a chance to run! It took us over to the bridge at 14k and the only aid station on the course. I survived just fine with 1L (2 x 500ml bottles) but if you like to guzzle a bit more, than be prepared.
Leaving the aid, you re-cross the river (a bit more mucking around with difficult to find trail again here) and then go straight up the Black Hill track. This is another steep, rooty trail through Beech Forest. I saw the front runner barreling down the hill ages before I reached the turn around (63 minutes it took me). The turnaround came as a relief – 2nd big climb done! Legs a bit tired but not too bad. I was able to pass the speedy old dude down this hill and got back to the bridge and aid station in 37 minutes. Took on some more water and then enjoyed the river running section again.
The enjoyment ended as we turned back up Mt Oxford. It was about 24k by now, but the real killer was that we had another 1000m to climb over the next 6-7k and that is hard to comprehend when your legs are feeling like they have done more than a week’s worth of climbing already. The next 1.5k or so of climb was absolutely grueling. I was hands on knees the whole way, gradient between 25-45%, tiny switchbacks with no view of how far to go. It was real mind-battle time. I had kept lots of energy for a strong finish, but now my leg strength was being sorely tested and it made me feel like giving up on that plan – and instead just take a few rests and mope home. I was sure I would be passed. Its hard not to feel this way when you knock out a 21 minute km. However, I disciplined myself to not think of anyone else and just give my own best effort.
I was so glad to leave that miserable hill climb behind. It was now more of the twisty beech forest, but at least punctuated with runnable sections as we made our way back up Mt Oxford.
Finally, I broke out above the tree line and it was like a tonic. I could see how far to go now (250m climb and a couple of km to the top) – and I could see there were people ahead! Invigorated, I ran more and more of the trail, working closer to the targets up ahead. It felt great to catch a pair of them right on top of Mt Oxford!
Time for a quick lace tighten to protect the toes over the punishing 6k descent and then I went for it, as best my legs could go. It wasn’t anything outstanding, but I was glad to pull away from the guys I had just caught. I hoped to see the Matt the pole-carrying Otago local I had met early in the day, but he was long gone. I enjoyed the run down and felt sweet relief as I finished in 6:18:31 for 10th place.
You will earn your supper on this one – I logged it as 39k and 3000m climb. Well organized (hot chips and soup for me at the finish – top marks!), glorious vistas, and savage trails are yours to be had.