Tongariro Crossing – running up volcanoes.

So….After Lara Pinta, the Trail Series, and the rest – all the running, all the hills…I decided to  do the 4 Peaks Alpine Challenge.

Four days, four mountains. Sorry legs.

I didn’t write about it because it was more of a journey than a race – a journey that involved four runs up four mountains, but most importantly dancing to Nutbush City Limits and deciding that it was the perfect pre race warm up.

That kind of journey.

Having said that, from each mountain I learnt four different things:

  1. Always respect the mountain. Because it’s a mountain.
  2. Trail runners are legends. They will tell you to keep going, tell you when the last hill is, and most importantly, they will know when you’ve hit a wall and pick you up and throw you over it.
  3. Time your pre race toilet stop. Starting five minutes behind everyone else because you’re stuck in a queue means it’s likely you will get stuck behind the people who want to…enjoy the scenery more than they want to run.
  4. Nature is amazing. It is free and all around us. I’m allergic to most of it, but I still love it and am super grateful for it.

Semi profound statements over.

So I rested. And Christmas happened. The combination was quite dangerous.

I noticed knocks and aches I hadn’t felt before until I stopped running, and of course, ate and drank more because it was Christmas, but also because I love food and wine.

January came around fast so I devised a loose training program for the impending 26km in New Zealand.

Excruciating knee pain at any distance over 10km – and a quick trip to the physio – told me I had ITB Friction Syndrome (much better than anything related to the meniscus or collateral ligament as first thought).

The rehab for it involved dry needling…given the choice between dry needling on the ITB and giving up wine for a year, I’d choose the latter.

That’s how much it sucked.

Anyway, there was little training as a result. But I was confident that I could put in the rehab required to get my wayward knee back to good….in the eleven days I had.

We flew to New Zealand. Bloody amazing country.

Anyway….the race.

The course changed a few days beforehand due to some storms, resulting in park closures – instead of a variety of ups and mostly downs, it was 18km up then 8km up and down. Yikes.

I rested completely for the two days leading up to it – this was the second longest distance I’d ever run so I figured I owed my legs that. And yep, carb loaded with wine…because I was on holiday….?

The evening before the race we sat and enjoyed the sunset, even though it was behind us….so we sat and enjoyed some New Zealand wine and thought about how pretty the sunset behind us might be.

I headed to bed early. Then spent the night dreaming about missing the race. So no sleep for me then.

5.30am. Up. Bleary eyes, but awake.

Breakfast as standard – pumpkin, avocado, eggs and beetroot. All cooked in complete darkness and (attempted) silence to not wake everyone else in the house doing the later 13km.

Coffee (yep, tea bag)

It took over an hour for all the buses to get from the Chateau where we’d finish, to the start line in Rangipo. We drove along winding New Zealand roads a little like the Great Ocean Road but not near a sea line, or trees. So actually nothing like it. But just as beautiful.

As soon as I got to the start line I stretched and rolled (not literally), then took the time to take in the scenery.

Beautiful, rugged, hills and volcanoes, and blues skies and sunshine.

Perfect for a picnic.

Less so for a race.

5 minutes.

I took a gel and my heart beat echoed in my head louder than my music, then did some weird jumping lunges to try and keep my nerves at bay. And also scare fellow competitors of course.

I formed a plan – 5min/km on the flats (or faster if I could), aggressive lunging on the hills and flying as fast as my legs would take me on the down hills.

The whistle went and we began. The terrain – soft mud-like sand. Not good, not easy. More suited to being on a horse in a movie about hobbits in fact.

My knees hated me, and my thighs, and calves. I told them to shut up and run, and so we did.

I didn’t count the females. I made a point of making this run about my own race, and so it was. I sped up to the 5min/km, sometimes quicker as I found my place in the race, amongst the sand. Sorry legs.

5km passed and I was loving life, the sun was shining, my knee was fine and I had a good pace.

At around 8km we hit the uphills…steady gradual inclines of soft mud, and the heat began to beat down on us. Hello struggle town. A runner passed me in the opposite direction, and I wondered whether he’d gone back for someone, or had seen the impending volcano we would be climbing up. Then another passed me, and one more.

It dawned on me. This soft mud we were running up was an out and back. An out. Then a back. My mind went mad.

Out and backs are not my favourite – seeing who is ahead of you, and knowing you’ve got all this trail to run back over again before you hit new trails.

The first girl passed me in the opposite direction, flew by, then another not so fast. But no others, just one directly in front of me, probably also wishing she was on a horse.

Damn. Now I knew I was fourth, now I wanted more.

10km came and I took a gel. Out of practice so largely choking on it rather than swallowing it.

I picked up my pace….which wasn’t much in the sand. And made a move to over take the girl ahead of me and passed her.

We hit 12km. The out and back was over and we hit fresh and not so sandy terrain. I saw second place girl. Mine.

I stayed behind her for a while as more hills came. Stuck in between running and a farmers shuffle.

We hit undulating single trail. I think I shrieked.

I overtook. and pulled away. Second place. Still shrieking.

At around 17km we hit more soft sand, and I subsequently hit a wall. Not even hit it, ran full force and took a flying leap into it.

I was in trouble.

My knee flickered with a familiar someone-chopping-it-with-an-axe pain, and my legs suddenly felt very heavy in the sand. I almost wanted to cry, and stop.

I definitely wanted to stop.

I had a few words with myself. Stretched my knee out (in a half hop so I wasn’t technically stopping)

Then it happened. A female over took me – not one from the top four I’d seen.

I’m not sure why I was so surprised, I had dropped my pace so much.

This was not happening, I was not letting this slip away. I now wanted podium. If she had caught me, then the others weren’t far behind.

I took a gel, I slapped myself (it happened) and I took a moment to appreciate that I was in New Zealand, amongst volcanoes and beautifulness. This was not happening.

I sped up with the female still insight. Far away but in sight.

And then I saw some friends, walking the 13km walk (obviously) that was on the same route. I screamed out to them, more shrieking.

We laughed and I ran on, steeper ups but not so much sand. I ran.

At the top of one of the hills I asked a woman where the highest peak was. She smiled.

“You’re on it. It’s downhill from here”

If I could do somersaults, I would’ve done one there and then. Instead I did jazz hands – which is of equal calibre in my eyes.

I ran, my legs ran. I ignored my body aches and followed my legs.

We smashed it. Into trees, down steps, through beautiful forest.

I had lost sight of the female but had energy back in my legs and blood pumping through my veins, or something.

We went through rainforest, descending down into it and I caught sight of the chateau. I did a skip and a jig. Yep, happened.

1.5km by my watch, until the end. Until I could stop and sit down.

I ran, I encouraged. Then I ran som more and a guy called out to me. “200m”

I sprinted (most likely did not speed up at all), and crossed the line.

Third female in category, and overall.

24th finisher across both genders – from 480. I was happy.

But bugger me.

That was hard.

I shook hands, high fived, drank water and tried to cool down and stretch. But mostly ate my body weight in everything and anything I could. My watch said 1300 calories. Thank you watch.

We waited for the walkers to finish, and we celebrated in the sunshine, holiday time.

A friend turned to me.

“Jess, we can wait here four hours for presentations, or we can drive back to our place and drink wine and celebrate”

Wine won.

26km done.

Sorry legs.

And next?

The UTA in NSW is full this year, so that will have to wait until next year. UTMB calls me, but I’m not sure I can manage 50km, or even train for it right now.

So….adventure it is. Racing I mean, adventure racing.

Run, bike, kayak. Hells yes.

Sorry legs.

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