After an incredible experience at the Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon (SMMM) in 2014, I was very excited to return to the South Island of New Zealand for the inaugural Sky Rock n’ Run Marathon (SRnR). My excitement only grew when I was once again gawking at the beautiful Southern Alps as I flew into Christchurch.
Having come from 30+oC weather back home in Brisbane, I was feeling the morning chill as we mingled at the start line before the race. Once we got going it didn’t take too long to start warming up as I chatted to Grant Guise while John Winsbury set the initial pace. After less than a kilometre of running along a 4wd path, the course turned off onto single track (the rest of the race would all be single track — YAY!).
Following 15 minutes of gradual climbing, I moved into the front as the route started to steepen. After spending a while ascending through forest I found myself above the tree line and in open, tussock covered terrain similar to that which I fondly remembered from SMMM. I could see the aerial at the top of Mt Oxford that I was running towards and every hundred meters (or so) there was an orange post marking the trail. However, I still managed to head up false goat-tracks from time-to-time!
I reached the 1364m summit after approximately 57 minutes and looked back to see runners scattered along the mountain, each a couple of hundred meters apart. The open stretch that the course proceeded to follow along one the ridges was very windy and I ended up wearing my Compressport visor around my neck to avoid it being blown off!
After several minutes of running downhill into the wind, I was back in the shelter of trees on a rocky narrow path and it wasn’t long until another runner caught up with me. The forest thickened and the track became covered with roots and mud. Just as I was passed, I tripped on one of the roots and took my first tumbled of the day. The soft ground meant nothing was bruised (except my ego) and after dusting myself off it wasn’t long before we were at the intersection that separated the marathon and half marathon courses. The helpful guide from Oxford Search and Rescue sent us off down the right track and we descended into the valley below.
I moved back into the lead on a short but sharp climb that broke up the descent. The lush forest filled with lichen covered trees that we were running through seemed so different to anything back home. However, I couldn’t spend too long admiring the scenery as the many obstacles on the track demanded my attention.
At the bottom, a short stretch consisting of multiple creek crossings lead me into the ~15km checkpoint 1hr45min into the race. After refilling my bottles with Tailwind, I set off on the climb up Black Hill. After a couple of undulations the real climbing began, and while it was somewhat gradual at first, by the top it had become quite steep.
I was surprised at how fresh I was still feeling when I turned around at the hut at the top of Black Hill, and I knew that the second half of this out-and-back race was theoretically easier than the first (since it would be net downhill rather than net uphill). After a few minutes of descending I passed second, third, fourth and fifth in quick secession and they all appeared to still be moving well.
For the rest of my way down I was receiving encouragement from all the friendly runners coming the other way. In these remote events (which by their nature don’t have many spectators), it’s always nice to receive these little boosts from other competitors. It didn’t feel like too long before I was back at the aid station (after 3hr01min) and refilling my bottles for the final leg back up and over Mt Oxford.
While I’m sure fatigue plays a part in this opinion, the final climb seemed by far the toughest of the day. The bottom section was particularly steep and I was having to really focus on running any parts that I could as my legs were telling me to back off. I was aiming, at this stage, to cover the last 15km in the same time that I did for the first 15km (in the opposite direction), and I knew I was going to have to work considerably harder than I did the first time to achieve this.
Very soon after passing the marathon/half intersection I started seeing runners from the half marathon coming in the opposite direction. More cheers gave me strength on the final push towards Mt Oxford’s summit, although equally as nice was the gusty tailwind that was blowing above the tree line!
The rocky start of the final descent was probably the most technical part of the course and I was being fairly cautious though still having a lot of fun. When I got back below the trees and onto the softer track I started to open up a little more, pushing towards the finish.
After 4hr30min I could see that I didn’t have too much further to descend and glanced up to check if I could catch a glimpse of the finish line…and then BANG! I was on the ground and had rolled the same ankle as I did in July (over in Europe). I had a moment of panic, desperately hoping I wouldn’t have to walk to the finish like I did at Interlac. After a few tentative steps I plucked up the courage to start running again, though I was still nursing it a little bit. Such is this course that one really cannot afford to look away from ground for very long at all!
For the last 15minutes I was mentally checking off all the various landmarks we had passed on the way out and was very happy when I reached the 4wd track without sustaining any further damage. Even with this slight slowing down at the end I still accomplished my goal of running the final 15km in 1hr 45min, and finished in 4hr46min. While I was compressing and icing my ankle, Grant Guise came across the finish in second place and in the process became the male winner of the Skyrunning Oceania Series for 2015. After a year of consistent, great performances he had been unlucky not to wrap up the series at Hounslow (only the flu could stop him!) and I was very happy to see him take out the title. Fellow Aussie Kellie Emmerson took out the women’s race (the Series had already been won by Beth Cardelli at Hounslow) in a time of 6hr31min.
Despite the sore ankle, I walked away from the SRnR incredibly satisfied with my day out in stunning New Zealand mountains. I loved the fact that the entire course was either climbing or descending on single track, with a beautiful mix of running through forests, crossing creeks and open mountain summits. It’s always a pleasure running in New Zealand and I am thoroughly looking forward to my next visit!