After missing the 2015 Pomona King of the Mountain race while travelling around the European Alps, I jumped at the chance when Pomona race director, Barry Stewart, offered me the opportunity to be a part of the Aussie team at its sister race, the Kawerau King of the Mountain. Having run in the event in 2013, I still regarded that descent off 820m Putauaki (a.k.a. Mt Edgecumbe) as my most fun running experience. While the track is amazing by itself, it is the local community spirit that really makes the event so special. With 2015 being the 60th anniversary of the 7.5km Kawerau race (and 30th anniversary of the trans-Tasman challenge with Pomona), this was always going to be an exceptional year.
Along with the other Aussies (Leslie Saunders, Neil Labinsky, Amos Saraber and Lachlan Challis), I checked out the “Prince/Princess of the Mountain course” (which is the rather impressive kids race, but also forms part of the King/Queen course) on Friday (the day before the race). Rain on Thursday and Friday resulted in the track being quite different to what I had experienced in 2013. The dampness meant the thick layer of black, volcanic soil was a little sticker when going uphill, which I found allowed me to run sections I had previously hiked, while on the descent the footing was a fraction slipperier and the dirt wasn’t quite as thick; these seemed like fast conditions.
A pre-race Haka had all the runners fired up on the starting line, though we were also starting to feel the midday heat (Kawerau is New Zealand’s hottest town after all!). Having gone out too hard and blown up halfway into the climb in 2013, I started my race very conservatively and was back in (around) 20th place along the first climbing section of road leading from Firmin Field to the trail head.
By the time we reach the steep trail I was with the front pack of six (or so) runners and comfortably tucked in behind defending King, Shay Williamson. When I had gone up this section just the day before I had run every step, but this time I found I was walking amongst the pack. I forced myself to stick to my plan of waiting until we reached the clearing up head (which wasn’t too difficult as the track is very narrow, which makes passing a little bit difficult).
As soon as I reached the flatter (but still uphill) clearing I opened up and quickly went to the front, saying hello to Sjors Corporaal and Lance Downie (who I had met at the 2013 race). Course record holder (45:54, which was set in 1988) Barry Prosser had told me stories the night before of how he would run every step of the ascent and so I kept this thought in back of my head when I hit the steep, loose single-track that leads to the mountain summit. I was running every step that I could (the damp ground being greatly appreciated!), but I found many sections were still too loose to run and it was much more efficient for me to switch to hands-on-knees hiking (or “gorilla mode” as Leslie referred to it!).
For the rest of the climb I was trying to “ride the red-line” of pushing hard without blowing up. Although I felt like I was moving as quickly as I could, I also felt quite comfortable. The clouds had now covered the sun, so heat wasn’t an issue, though I did appreciate having water thrown over me by one of the many helpful volunteers around three-quarters of the way up the mountain.
After reaching the summit in 32:13 (well short of the legendary ~30min ascents that Barry Prosser would do!), it was time to start the descent that I’d been looking forward to so much! I wish I could put the experience into words, but (due to my inadequate literary skills) anyone reading this will just have to go and try it out for themself 😉 The best I can come with is describing it as feeling like a mixture of skiing, an obstacle course and going down a water slide. A quarter of the way down, after leaping off a ledge, I clipped a branch on my right side that left a gash on my torso and arm, but at the time I had too much adrenaline to feel a thing and just kept on skipping down.
I reached the clearing to the resonating sound of bagpipes and tried to pick up the pace even further on this less technical stretch. Just before I headed down the final section of single track I glanced back to see Shay pop into view. This spurred me on to attack the final section with extra vigour!
Just before the bottom, when back on the road, the course threw in one final small rise; normally such a climb would be hardly noticeable but after charging down the mountain, my legs were feeling each vertical meter of ascent! This stretch was soon over, and I gave the final few hundred meters everything I had left.
Cheering locals lined the finishing chute, and I enjoyed the final 100m before crossing the line in 46:27. Local heroes Shay and Sjors finished in second and third respectively while Corrinne Smit took the Queen title in her first attempt at the race, with (Aussie) Leslie Saunders finishing second and (Junior) Evelyn Barton in third.
I feel so privileged to have played a part in the history of this magnificent event and so grateful for the wonderful Kiwi friends that I have made along the way. Whether it’s talking at the local primary school assembly or simply mingling with the locals after the race, I am blow away by how warmly they welcome us into their wonderful community. Thank you so much to all the event organisers and volunteers for keeping this race going for 60 years, and I hope it lasts for many more (I’d love to take part in the centenary event). A special thank you to those who welcomed us Aussies into their homes, especially the fantastic Surtees family for looking after me once again. See you all next time!