My goal event for Spring ’18 was the wee trot through the Port Hills of Canterbury known as the Crater Rim Ultra. It had been designated as the Athletics NZ trail running champs so I was keen to see how I fared nationally as well as try out the Christchurch trails for the first time.
Training had gone well. A nice winter of local cross country races then capped off with my fastest 10k in a dozen years. I then got a six week training block in averaging 75k and 1700m vert gain each week. A brief taper with the Takahe to Akaroa Relay giving me a rollercoaster 9.9k 8 days prior to really test the legs at effort up and down hill.
The course is a 52k point to point trail run with 2500m of vertical gain (similar loss). Going by previous year’s race results I set myself a goal of a 6:30 finish and hopefully 10th-20th place.
Dave Clark from Glendowie, as well as Lucy and Connor the MEC refugees in Timaru and Tom Hunt my Wesley club mate were also taking on the event, so it was great to share some time on the course with these familiar faces.
Logistics are sweet for this one. You get yourself to the finish line at Hansen Park in Christchurch City, then a bus takes you to Lyttleton, then a ferry takes you to Diamond Harbour, then your legs take you back over the Port Hills to Hansen park. Easy.
It was very cold, like 3 degrees when we first got up at 4:30. There was a gusty Southwesterly blowing, and plenty of cloud with the odd bit of light rain as we waited for the bus and then the ferry. Fortunately the wind was a bit lesser at Diamond Harbour, sheltered as we were by Mt Herbert, so we warmed up a scratch before we were sent running at 0715.
The first 9km are from near sea level to the summit of Mt Herbert at 921m. So its a solid, enduring climb that starts on residential streets before heading into green pasture and then a 4WD track through high country tussock. I was wearing plenty to keep the fresh wind from stealing all my heat. The MEC singlet was over the top of a merino T, with arm warmers, gloves, a beanie and a cap all doing their part. Even with this, I was very much considering getting my jacket out as we got over 600m and the wind really started to pick up and push us around. The cold had certainly made me take the start more seriously, and more conservatively. I was in about 30th place after the first 5 or 10 minutes and then held my own as we picked our way up the hillside.
The summit of Mt Herbert was wild. Melted snow beside the trail, grey cloud obscuring most of the view and a gale of a wind buffeting you around. Check Dave’s report for some video of the conditions at the top. I checked in with the marshalls at the top, gave them my respect for hanging out up there (and overnight too!) then packed up my poles and headed down the trail in a hurry. After the 70 minute climb the legs felt great running free on the gradual downhill. I caught back up to several guys who had pulled away earlier.
We moved through the cloud and I was stoking on the beauty of the trail, the steep grassy hills either side, the harbour below – even the gorse looked good. These trails were very pretty and also very runable. The section just off Mt Herbert on the south side of the hills was technical, rocky and wet. I took a tumble while trying to keep my feet clean – and quickly learnt my lesson. The trail winds back down from the summit at 9k, to the first Aid station at Gebbies Pass at 20k (approx 150m up). You pass the Packhorse Hut on the way, and spend a bit of time under plantation forest cover on your way down the easy gradient. I came into Gebbies at 2:19, about a minute up on my expected time, despite a conservative start. I was feeling great and loving it.
After Gebbies you get onto some private farmland on the Eastern side of summit road. This drops you down down down before you trudge up up up back to Summit road. This was the only part of the course where I lost site of the trail and course markers, but only briefly before finding them again around some of the pine trees. The climb up had some of the steepest grades of the day – real knee-kissing hiking work. This second big climb section would take us back upto 450m and I was drawing on the poles for grip and leverage. You then traverse some more technical single track as you make your way along the Eastern side of the ridge. Some good vistas down to Lyttleton Harbour would be expected here, but a lot of cloud obscured the best of those on race day.
At 30k you pass the Sign of the BellBird and I got a water top up, just behind a guy called Nelson. We had a chat and discovered that until recently we were living and training in the same part of Auckland! It was then quickly into the Kennedy Track out and back section. This sees you drop 350m elevation in 4k, get an arm band, and then climb straight back up. Its on a part of the Port Hills that was in the 2016 fire, and there isn’t much in the way of greenery to distract you with. So I counted the people ahead of me coming back up. The front runner was already 6+k ahead at 32k so I was fretting that more peopel were ahead of me than I had accounted for. But I made good speed heading down the wide open track, and saw I was in 22nd place as I made the turn-around about 100m behind Nelson.
The climb up was a bit of a low point, realising how far I was behind so many others, plus the 1500m of climbing had taken the edge of my legs’ enthusiasm. I saw Nelson and another runner pull away while I struggled to get my ear phones in. There I was flailing about as the soft earbuds fell off and onto the trail, poles clanking in the high winds and zero forward movement while I try to stop them blowing back to Lyttleton. A minor palaver made complete when once in my ears the speakers wouldn’t turn on. Great, that was worth it. The guy who was previously 100m back was now just a few metres behind me. A quick self pep-talk was needed “Its OK, you don’t need music to run. You can try to get them going again later, lets just get back to some solid uphill hiking”. I swing the poles at a fast cadence and will my legs to make the best of their third serious climb of the day. It works, the guy on my tail fades back and I am able to hold pace with the two chaps ahead, maybe even catching them a bit. I get to the water station at the top of Kennedey’s track, top up half a bottle and move onward.
I quickly realise that now that I have cleared Kennedy’s at 39k, I can only have a few ks to the Sign of the Kiwi and the second aid station proper (42.5k). A bit to eat, some downhill running and all of a sudden I’m moving well, catching people and feeling GOOD. I manage to get my music on, come into the Kiwi and do a quick half bottle top up, slam some coke, and speed away up the other side. Just 5k-ish to the next aid – then its all down hill to the finish. Things are looking good.
Now I’m catching runners – mostly 30k course people but also a few from the ultra. Its amazing seeing others who were literally kilometers ahead of me on Kennedy’s Bush Track now coming into view and then passing by them, just an hour later. I feel good and move ahead well. I get my first glimpse of Nelson in a while, and by the Aid station at Mt Vernon (46k), I am right behind him with another ultra runner Sam Mowat behind me. We run in a fast 3 pack down to the top of Rapaki Track, 47k done.
Rapaki is a gravel 4WD track, it drops from the summit road near Mt Vernon to the suburbs 335m beneath. It is fast and smooth. Nelson spins his legs and we are quickly running at 3:30-3:20 min/k with Sam off the back. It feels fast and fluid – the body responds well. Then all of a sudden – they are playin my jam! Aerosmith kicks in my headphones and I find another gear, tearing off downhill grinning and singing. I see Tom Hunt, my Wesley pal, he’s not moving as fast as he should be. I check in and he’s done with multiple cramps so I kick on, trying to spot anyone up ahead who might be in my race. I do a few systems checks, as I know this kind of furious pace can undo you in a very short time.
I hit the suburban roads at the bottom of Rapaki and am guided across the intersections by the generous volunteers – this race is full of them (97 volunteers on course – awesome!) A final effort on the flat track around Hansen Park, eyes looking forward an back for possible targets and those who might be hunting me down. I finish elated in 5:48:38, 12th male. This is also good enough for 3rd in the Athletics NZ Masters 35-49 Trail Running Champs, giving me my first Athletics NZ medal!
My race: I’m thrilled with how I executed this one. I feel like I maximised the training that I have been able to do this year. I was well prepared with gear and nutrition and had sensible pacing early on and then an aggressive last third. Its a good feeling.
The event: It’s fantastic. It’s run by the local Port Hills Athletic Club, they put their heart into it, the volunteers are superb and the home cooked food is enigmatic of the great community feel there is. As a location it’s easy to get to, so logistics are straight forward.. Its more scenic then I would have guessed, not far off the epic beauty of a Central Otago mountain run. It’s a gruelling course, with more climb than most 50ks, but it’s also largely runable, if you are strong enough – so is very rewarding. I’m keen to get back.