SK attempt – 0300 Sunday 23/12/18. Tom Middlemiss
‘If you know you will succeed it’s too easy’
We had history. Two years ago, I had tried and been defeated due to a mixture of bad weather, ‘alternative’ start time, under-fitness and not being 100% mentally committed; the latter being a critical component both for the training and on the day itself. ‘Turn right at Bridge Peak for shopping’ they say. I’d turned right at Junction Knob. It was pretty deflating and there is still a lot of track between Junction Knob and Otaki Forks to contemplate what you are going to do with your time other than long mountain runs.
A year ago near Waitewaewae after descending down Junction Knob after a rough wet night a chance meeting a BSR party on way into Tararuas
Yet here I was. Fired up for another bash at it. The desire had never really gone away and I felt it was something I had to try and do – a monkey on my back. I love running from the Southern Cross on Tuesday nights and so many of those runners have successfully managed the main range SK (at least!). That was the company I wanted to put myself in and felt that it was within my capability.
I did quite a few things differently this time. On top of a good base fitness, I started focused training about 6 months out. Coming from the UK fell running scene, the best session of the week for me had been a hill interval session and I decided to start that here. I got Al Shelton and Simon Wills along for the first session and Thursday nights became the regular night. Usually accompanied by at least one other masochist, the session became something to grimly look forward to. If you are bending over, hands on knees, gasping for breath once a week it has got to be doing something good.
I would also highly recommend moving to a house with 70 steps to get to it, and then deciding to remove and re-lay the concrete path by hand. I was only the apprentice for the work, but I can’t thank my strength and conditioning coach Dave Eastgate enough for all the buckets of sand, gravel and top course he let me carry to the house. By the end, as well as having a shiny new path (thanks again Dave!) my very weedy upper body had expanded to now only quite weedy. It was good enough for me though and in my opinion upper body and core strength does make a big difference for the route.
Other than that, I stuck to the Bob Graham maxim that 3000m or 10,000ft of climbing per week was sufficient and the kilometres would take care of themselves. I built up my long runs while carrying approximately 7kg of weight and managed to get into the Tararuas a few times. A Southern Main Range loop in early December with Chris Swallow gave me good confidence that I was in the right condition.
Before describing the day itself, I want to mention my pre-attempt anxieties. Despite my training, and having some good results to show for it, in the two weeks before my rough attempt date I felt very flat, tired, lots of niggles and generally thinking I should push the date back a bit. But then, if you have started to taper, do you up the running load again and tail off again or keep tailing off? Are the niggles serious issues that will flare on the climb up to Herepai or just a bit of tightness? It is very hard to know and that is the difficulty with a challenge that has no specific date. With a race, you might just start and see how you go – usually because you have paid a lot of money to do it. With an SK attempt, it is all down to you and those you trust around you as to when to give the green light to go.
The end of December was the time in my mind – probably just after Christmas but possibly just before. My training schedule told me that before Christmas was on. Cue about seven days of persistent weather chart fixation. I had watched the fat high pressure areas sit over the whole of the lower North Island for the previous two weekends and for two previous successful attempts at under 24 hours. A third weekend of calm weather couldn’t be possible could it? (Spoiler alert: No)
Chris Swallow and Laurence Pidcock had both offered their support if I wanted it. Chris ‘Martini’ Martin was also available for all driving duties – a critical factor in an attempt. The topic of supported/unsupported/solo/pair etc is a good one while nursing a dram or a pint with others – something I had done myself on several occasions. Eventually, for me, I decided that the best times are the shared times and I took them up on the offer. I also felt that if I was struggling they would be a good back up to take a bit of weight from my shoulders. Getting down the range in under 24 hours was a big challenge for me. Doing it and carrying all my own gear was right into my unknown capabilities. As it turned out, they were great company but didn’t need to carry any of my stuff.
The ‘Rig’ My Marathon Des Sables pack
On planned day of going up to Putara, I decided to postpone my attempt at least twice. Sound advice from experienced quarters and my own gut feeling was telling me to wait for better weather. Neither had reckoned for Chris Swallow’s persistence. We decided to go for it at lunch and by 4pm, myself Chris Swallow and Martini were heading up to Putara Base Camp. When we arrived, a sprightly looking chap was also staying there. Rudi Smith was over from New Plymouth to recce the Northern section for his own SK attempt.
Me Rudi and Swallow
An evening of packing, ‘lightly toasting’ 10 pittas and one green tea found me in my bed at 2100. The next five hours until the 0200 alarm didn’t involve much sleep at all due to excitement, nerves and the bright full moon. We had persuaded Rudi to bring forward his start time by two hours to come with us and it was a real pleasure to share the hills with him. Chris and I were able to show him a few pointers for when the weather is not good on the Northern section and his easy manner on top of a bedrock of formidable form and talent made him a great companion for six hours. I wish him and his group the very best for a super quick time.
The mandatory pre-start photo. I was only joking but anxiously looking skyward was actually quite pertinent for what was in store later on in the day.
The Northern section was a complete joy. The medium wind dropped and we were left with pin-sharp visibility. In these conditions the route to Arete is pretty benign with no challenge at all for following the trail. I’d highly recommend it! I felt strong, all niggles melted away and I was hitting my splits with comfort. I had jotted down the splits of Al Shelton and Lou Beckinsale as my guide for the day. I was determined to start well within myself and if I was a few minutes down on them I was confident I could pick it up later. For what it is worth, I am of the opinion that most people go out too hard for the first half and fade badly later on. I’ve always been a slow starter in races and wanted to keep that principle here too. I was using poles for most climbs and concentrated hard not to push myself at all for those first 6 hours.
Map not required. The Dundas ridge in full splendour.
Chris was his usual self of encouragement, chatter and all-round great company. We parted just after Pukematewai. Him off to Poads Rd – me off South for a bit longer. We hooted at each other along our respective ridges for a while. The track for me was really muddy and slow going. I got to Drac Biv 15 minutes behind Al and Lou and was a bit downbeat, however I pushed on after a quick water refuel and was back on splits for Nichols.
From about Dundas, the Southerly front that we knew was coming became more evident. Distant peaks started to get some clag on them and the clouds started forming above. After Nichols I stopped to put on my jacket and before long I also had on my gloves, thermal leggings and waterproof trousers. The clag was in and that was it for views for the rest of the day. The wind started to build and rain was intermittent. I’m not familiar with Crawford and it seemed to go on for a long time – with successive false crests. Throughout the day, you think you are going to be 15 minutes up on a split, only for that to come and go until you are pondering being down on a split – just one of the rollercoasters of the day. I got unexpectedly to Junction Knob and was happy to see a large rock on top of the sign. It meant Laurence had been past and I knew he would be waiting for me in Anderson’s Memorial hut. We’d agreed he would get there an hour before my split time – just in case of missing him. Suffice to say it was a pretty chilly hour for him! I stopped to pull on my fleece – all the clothes were on now – reload with water and we were off. 8 minutes. No hanging around.
Rather wet out there
The fist-pump of greeting. ‘We’re in this together for the next six hours’
For there until Kime was six hours of grind. It was windy, medium clag and patches of rain. The track is well formed for almost all of it, we knew it pretty well and in the patches that are a bit sketchy – such as the descent of Aokaparangi, there was always the visibility of one further waratah to keep us right. It was just a question of head down and get on with it. There was not much chance for chat and the weather worsened as we went on. However, cooler weather means you don’t need to drink as much – so a lighter pack and I also think you don’t get much time to think about being tired as you are just focused on getting through it. Despite that, I knew I was slowly getting colder.
We got to Kime inside my splits and my legs were still feeling really great. Bridge Peak had not been the fabled grind at all and I was fired up to keep going. There wasn’t much doubt I would carry on but I did need a bit of reassurance from Laurence that once I was in the bush line beyond Alpha the majority of serious weather threat was over. Two and half hours and the worst would be over. Which was just as well. I was shivering as we combined our four fairly useless hands to get a bit more water and food into me and I was out of the door in about three minutes. Those steaming bowls of ready noodles from other trampers did look tempting. Laurence had been the perfect companion up there – such big thanks – but it was time to get on with the rest of it on my own.
Again, my legs did not let me down. I was at Mt Hector in 25 minutes and at Alpha in just under two hours. I stopped once to check I was on the right track and even in that short time I cooled down quickly. I was fully aware that the weather and my condition in it was beyond marginal and any twisted ankle would have had pretty dire consequences. The wind blew strong and the clag did not let up. So, to see the bush line and soon after it, smell a fire at Alpha was a great delight. A couple with their teenage son from Hawkes Bay were more than a little surprised that a soaking, shivering, solo traveler was not stopping there at nine at night. But their offer of a hot cup of tea and a quick dry of my hat on the fire was a very welcome one for me. ‘Just five more hours’ I told myself on the way out of the door.
By this stage, I knew that getting under 24 hours was in the bag. Maybe I could even get under 23 hours? However, the motivation to push on was sucked out of me by the fabled Marchant ridge. I trudged and trudged through the mud and puddles. Having got through to Alpha in such bad weather, once I got to a point on the route where I could walk out and still make it in under 24 hours, I couldn’t really be bothered to do anything other than finish. As for all others before me, it was tedious and way longer than I hoped.
Alpha to Kaitoke took 5 hours 17 minutes but so what! Chris Swallow had come up the track for a bit and we jogged/walked the last few kilometres. I’ve been at the car park for people finishing and I’ve come in with others. I knew that sound of having someone hooting from the car park and for me Martini was doing the honours. A great pleasure to hear it and see his head-torch. I came over the line in 23.19 and was delighted. The training and prep had paid off and the monkey was off my back. The simple comforts of post run rolled in. All I had been thinking about for many hours was getting out of my wet clothes and soon I was dry . I happily accepted the combination of beer, watermelon, hot tea and whisky. Although tasty, the beer didn’t do wonders for my already cool core and I started to shiver pretty badly. The heat was cranked up in the car on my way home and I crept into the house at four AM. Christmas Eve morning never felt so good!
Best watermelon and beer combo I’ve had.
Huge thanks on the day to Chris Swallow, Laurence Pidcock and Martini. What a support crew. Thanks also to the Thursday night hill rep crew – get some of this into your life – you won’t look back. Pain shared is worse and better at the same time. The wise men such as Tim Sutton and Dave Allen also deserve a mention for many chats over the years. And to my wife Rachel – for the support to allow me to get out there while she took the hit at home with family duties – Brownie points have been banked and are slowly being repaid.
I am really proud to be the 18th person to successfully cover the SK main range in under 24 hours. I am also really proud to be only the third person to have done both the Bob Graham and the SK. They are 24-hour challenges in hills and countries that I love with fables and history to go with them. We really are running along the paths of the greats before us. See you on the hills ya bas!
East Peak 1.16
Drac Biv 1.34
Block XV1 2.02