Saturday, 13 June 2015

Mt Difficulty Ascent, NZ, 43km 2015

The name said it all. In hindsight I probably should have heeded the warning. My third race for 2015 was in New Zealand at the Mt Difficulty Ascent, 43km'ish with +/-3600m (thereabouts), which was also my third new race of the year. It wasn't necessarily planned that way, however it was just the way things panned out for me. 
Course overview and profile. Mt Difficulty Ascent.
Information about the event was pretty basic if not scarce. I relied mostly on Facebook banter as to what was expected. The two stand out topics were the steep gradients that were "off trail" and the erratic winter weather, both of which lived up to the pre-race hype on race day.

I flew into Queenstown and then headed over to Bannockburn/Cromwell, NZ with Mum as my chaperon. It might have been the allure of New Zealand in winter, or the fact that I was racing once again, or perhaps it was the fact that the race HQ was in a winery! Either way Mum was pretty keen to join me on yet another overseas running foray. Unfortunately for her she broke her arm the week before we headed over, but fortunatley it didn't disrupt her travel plans too much.
The Mt Difficulty terrain was a little rugged. Mt Difficulty Ascent Facebook.

The evening before the race Mum and I made our way to race briefing. The usual items got addressed along with the associated hazards of the race. Note for next time; don't take Mum to a race briefing where she listens to all the possible ways you can injure yourself, as all she will hear is "do this and you'll die". 

As the lazy winter sun started to creep over the horizon I assembled outside the winery, along with the other runners, for the 8am start. It was a group start for the marathoners (ANZ Skyrace) and half marathoners. There was a small list of mandatory gear for this event and looking around it appeared that most runners had not heeded the Race Directors advice to don the whole kit. Being one one of the non-Kiwi runners I was attired in the whole mandatory kit, plus a few extra items.

As we headed off in a group I spotted Whitney Dagg (eventual winner) and Jo Johansen (2nd), both of whom where two runners I wanted to stay in touch with. For the first few kilometers I ran with Fiona Hayvice along a fairly tame section of road and 4WD trail which was a good little warm up. This section was over quickly and the course turned off trail for a short scramble up a hillside known as Nipple Hill, then down again. At the top of the climb we had to climb over a barbed-wire fence. During the manoeuvre I managed to snag my glove on a barb then proceeded to watch it slip off my hand and be taken by the wind back over the fence. The sad look on my face must have prompted a fellow runner to pick up on my distress and he kindly retrieved it for me. I was very grateful for his gesture. 

This mix of trail essentially set the tone for the rest of the course, comprising well defined tracks interspersed with "off trail" sections marked with orange tape and occasional lengths of fixed rope. The terrain on these sections comprised exposed rock with small solid tufts of wild thyme which proved to be a nice form of aromatherapy during the race.
The rope proved useful while tackling the steep gradients of Nipple Hill. Crank Photos.
After the first little up and down section we then returned to a formed trail, it wasn't long before markings took us "off trail" again, this time for a 500m ascent over 1km. This is European skyrunning type grades (50% gradient), which is exactly the reason I was looking forward to this event. I was after a relatively local event that had some stupidly insane gradients. At the top of the ascent we picked up another formed trail for a while before veering off along a fence line and down a steep descent marked with rope.

Some descents looked a little treacherous. Backcountryrunner.co.nz
There was a checkpoint at the bottom of this descent where the half marathoners were directed back towards the finish line (winery) and the marathoners were directed towards the biggest climb of the day up Mt Difficulty, 1020m ascent over 3km. This was a big slow climb that was entirely "off trail". The higher we got the better the views got, but it was difficult to appreciate it with the icy winter wind cutting through me. We had been warned at briefing that there might be strong winds and they were not wrong. I dared not stop moving in case I froze. Near the top of the Mt Difficulty ascent I was joined by Bernard Robinson. I always enjoy making friends on my runs, even in races. The gusty wind made it difficult to talk and I found myself being blown into Bernard on a few occasions. There were times when I tried to run and when I had both feet off the ground I found myself being blown sideways. It was better when we changed places on the trail as he proved to be a useful windbreak, more useful than I was to him.

The steep bits were long and steep. Steve Neary Facebook .

The remainder of the race was a relatively gentle descent off Mt Difficulty on the leeward side of Bernard.  I crossed the line in a fairly casual marathon time of 6hrs 19min for 4th place. I'm glad that the regions wine is smoother than the terrain.


I turned up to the Mt Difficulty Ascent to test myself and test myself I did.


P.S. - "Off trail" loosely stands for, any which way you please as there is no defined trail.
Panic stations. Kawarau Bridge Bungy.
A spontaneous end to my latest trip. This is the wind blowing me back up again.

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