The origin of my S-K attempt dates back 2 years, to when I was involved in Chris Swallow & Laurence Pidcock’s epic sub-24 run. I met them at Dracophyllum Hut and ran with them through to Nicholls before they took off into the thick cloud and gale force winds. The fact that they made it given all that happened on that day it is pretty impressive, and it inspired me to give it a crack one day – provided I could get some slightly better weather of course…
It all went on hold for a bit when I moved overseas in 2014, but when I arrived back in New Zealand in July this year, my thoughts turned pretty quickly to making an attempt in the summer. After a couple of good recce runs through the northern section and the southern main range I’d now covered each section of the route at least once. I was feeling confident about the navigation side of things and pretty sure of my fitness for long days in the mountains. I planned, re-planned and re-re-planned how I would tackle it, made a fairly detailed schedule with splits and breaks, and organised all my food and gear. Basically I was as ready as I’d ever be, so by December I decided it was time to give it a try.
There are a few other crazy people who want to give this run a go, so when I heard that Lou Beckingsale was looking for someone to run it with we decided that we’d try it together. We made a solid plan, got a great support crew in place, and on 11 December we were at Putara road end ready to make an attempt. Sadly the weather gods weren’t smiling on us that weekend. We got as far as Herepai peak, but were met with a gale force northwester and horizontal rain. After agonising for a few minutes over whether to push on or not, common sense prevailed and we retreated back to Putara. It was a tough call to make, but definitely the right one.
Tararuas one, Al and Lou nil.
But the S-K bug wasn’t going away, so the following weekend it was back to Putara. Lou came back up from Christchurch, we prevailed on Chris Martin again to be our transport, and at 3.30am on Sunday morning we were at the road end with what looked like pretty clear weather, warm and still. With a mix of excitement and a little bit of fear (on my part at least) we set off into the darkness.
The first section up to Herepai went off without a hitch and we hit the hut pretty much on schedule. After a quick water stop we pressed on up the hill and hit Herepai peak just as it began to get light. In contrast to the previous week the conditions were quite benign, with light cloud just sitting on the tops, very little wind and we could see the sunrise out over cattle ridge.
The cloud stayed with us over most of the northern section, which meant a bit of compass work to be sure we were on course, but nothing demanding. I was feeling in a great space at this point but conscious of the need to take it slow and easy, focus on eating and drinking as regularly as possible and try to keep the mind on just the next section rather than the huge amount of time and distance ahead.
Over East Peak on schedule, across to West Peak and then on towards Dundas things were going great. We kept expecting the cloud to burn off and we had a few moments of sunshine and views out to the east, but it was stubbornly clinging to the high points. Coming down off Dundas the way seemed pretty obvious, but I was reminded of Swallow and Pidcock’s bonus trip out to Triangle knob (always trust the compass folks…) so we took time to slow down and double check. Yes, sure enough
we were out on the wrong spur, so back up to Dundas again and carefully down the right one this time – I don’t think we lost more than about 10 minutes in total.
The next little section to Arete went pretty well although I was a bit nervy about keeping on track after our little error. Seeing the top of Arete felt fantastic. It’s a really significant milestone as it marks the end of the Northern Tararua section and the end of the trickier navigation. Everything from here onwards is pretty straightforward, especially once we hit the well-marked Te Araroa trail heading down off Pukematewai and towards the Dracophyllum ridge.
Heading towards Dracophyllum Hut it was really warm and the cloud had cleared briefly, giving us great views of the Park River valley, the Carkeek ridge across from us and a cloud covered Mt Crawford a way off in the distance. Going through the bush to Drac was a bit of a drag – both of us kept expecting to see the hut long before we did – so it was a relief to finally get there, refuel and refill water. We were still hitting our splits nicely and feeling good, although I was aware of the beginnings of fatigue after more than 7 hours on the move.
The section straight after Drac was the first little low point for me. I was struggling to keep up with Lou on any of the uphills and it was hard to get a sense of progress through the bush. My mind kept going to how much was still ahead compared to what was now behind and it was a challenge to just focus on the next split. But then all of a sudden we popped out at Nicholls slightly ahead of schedule and my mood immediately turned. The run over Crawford suddenly felt great, despite what is a pretty significant climb, and the thought of getting to Andersons and closing in on the halfway point was hugely motivating.
The descent to Andersons (with some motivational messages in the mud – thanks Tim Sutton!) and the little bush section after just flew by and then it was onto the southern main range. A long grunt up and over Kahiwiroa, then a shorter, sharper one over Aokaparangi (I really hate that climb) and we were heading towards Maungahuka. Arriving at the hut shortly after 4pm, we’d now gone past 13 hours running, which meant it was now Lou’s longest run ever, and not far short of mine. With a mere 10-11 more hours to go…
Another quick food stop and water refill (Lou is amazingly efficient at the pitstops – we never stopped for more than 10 minutes throughout the run), a quick conversation with some trampers at the hut and the predictable look of confusion/surprise/these people are crazy when we explained what we were doing, and we were off to the Tararua Peaks.
The chains and ladder section is always exciting, but the wind stayed down and we got through it very smoothly and turned towards Kime. It was shortly after the Peaks that I began to get into a bit of trouble. All of a sudden I was getting nauseous and I had to stop eating and hope it would pass. All of those little climbs leading up to Bridge Peak were hard work and I was feeling really lacking in energy. This state of affairs just got worse as we hit Bridge Peak. The climb up went on and on and I was having to plod upwards for about a minute, stop for 20 seconds to catch my breath and try not to throw up, plod up for another minute, stop again and so on, all the way to the top.
Staggering into Kime I was in a really bad way and still barely able to get any food in. Lou was much more upbeat and she convinced me not to linger, and that it was just one more big effort to get to
Hector before it was largely downhill to Kaitoke. I wasn’t entirely convinced, but I knew there was no way I was going to bail out having come this far, no matter how terrible I felt.
Getting up to Hector the weather really began to worsen as the wind picked up, which didn’t help matters. The next couple of hours to Alpha were a massive struggle for me and I was in one of the darkest places I’ve ever been to on a running adventure. The cloud was down and the wind was howling in, it was rapidly getting dark, I had absolutely nothing in my legs and I still wanted to throw up. Fun times… Lou kept patiently leading the way and stopping to let me catch up before she’d disappear into the mist again and somehow I managed to hold it together to make it to Alpha hut.
Coming into the hut at about 10pm I had decided I was done. We had dropped time on our splits over the past couple of sections and I didn’t see how I could possibly make it in 24 hours now. I said Lou should push on and I would just stay at the hut and carry on when I was able, but Lou managed to talk me round and convinced me we could still do this. Somehow I dragged myself up and we pushed on again.
Slow and steady to the Block XVI turnoff, just focussing on moving forwards, no matter how slowly. Picking our way down the Marchant was hard work, but helped a lot by having two headlamps and two pairs of eyes to spot the track markers. Gradually my stomach was settling, I managed to get some food in and a tiny bit of energy started to come back. We hit Block XVI at midnight, which gave us 3.5 hours to get to the end. We could still do this…
As we hit the open tops at the southern end of the Marchant ridge I was feeling better than I had since before Bridge Peak. We hit the descent with a bit of momentum and the sense that finally we were on the home straight. With two hours to go, we realised that we really could crack the 24 hours mark, as long as we didn’t completely blow up between here and the finish.
Shortly after that we saw a pair of headlights coming towards us and Chris and Laurence popped up out of the night. This was a massive morale booster and it spurred me on much quicker than I thought I was capable of. Dobson’s went by in a blur and then it was onto the smoother tracks down towards Kaitoke. Down the turnoff to the youth camp and then yes, finally, there was the car park and we were done. Finished – with an indescribable mix of elation, relief and pure exhaustion.
What a day, what an effort. The S-K lived up to and surpassed my expectations of what a challenge it was going to be and forced me to dig deeper than I’ve ever had to go before.
Thanks first and foremost to Lou, who was an absolute legend and just so strong the whole way. There is no way I would have made it on my own. Big thanks also to Chris Swallow and Laurence Pidcock for firstly inspiring me to do this in the first place and secondly for shepherding us through the final hour. Thanks to all of the Wellington Sunday Run community who encourage this kind of madness and are always there to offer company, encouragement and support. You guys are awesome. A very special thanks to Chris Martin for heading all the way to Putara for drop-off duty – twice – and for continuing to encourage/cajole me to give this a crack. You’re an inspiration to many and the running scene in Wellington wouldn’t be what it is without you. Much respect.
As a final word, I’ll point out that I’m definitely the slowest runner who’s done a sub-24 hour SK and I think this goes to show that it can be done even if you’re not super-fast. As long as you plan well, pace yourself, and can mentally push yourself onwards even when the body says no, then you can
get through it. Hopefully we’ll see a few more people give it a shot over the next few months and years, and if anyone ever wants advice, logistical support or company on a long run in those awesome mountains, just give me a shout.
Total time on feet – 23 hours 26 minutes
Total distance – roughly 81km
Vertical gain – somewhere between 6,500 and 7,000m
East Peak 72
Drac Biv 80
Block XVI 120
Total Time 23hr26mins
Gear I carried:
Inov-8 Roclite 295 shoes
Salomon 12L running vest with 4x 500ml soft bottles
Waterproof jacket and rain pants
Thermal top and bottoms
Icebreaker merino mid-layer
Beanie and gloves
Petzl Nao headlamp
Compass and maps (I photocopied maps onto 3 double-sided A5 sheets and laminated them. Highly recommend this as opposed to having to deal with folded paper maps, especially in wind and rain)
Cap, sunglasses, sunscreen (didn’t use these, but you’d really want them on a hot day)
Survival gear – PLB, first aid kit, survival blanket, matches, pocket knife
Food – my plan was to alternative between ‘real’ food and energy gels. This is normally what I do and it’s always worked fine in the past. Not sure what went wrong with the stomach on this one. I carried more and would normally have eaten quite a bit more than this:
About 12 energy gels
6 small snickers bars
1 one square meal bar
4 filled pita breads
About 200g of mixed nuts
Half a bag of salt and vinegar chips
1 bag of GU chomps
Water – about 10-11 litres over the course of the day.