The Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon has welcomed runners from all over the world to challenge themselves over Ben Lomond Station’s demanding terrain. Dubbed as one of the ‘must do’ off road events on the global marathon calendar; the sheer variety of terrain will both test and entertain any runner whilst all the while blowing them away by middle earth scenery on the journey from Skippers Canyon to Moke Lake.
Does anyone sleep soundly the night before a big race?
5:30 am: My alarm goes off. Jess is already up, I can hear her shuffling around the little foyer, organising and reorganising her race bag. My gear is all laid out and ready to go, so I groggily get dressed and absentmindedly slap at a sandfly that seems to have been lying in wait all night. It’s clear, not a cloud in the sky, and cold. I put my long sleeve thermal on and head to the lodge for breakfast.
6am: The team at Ben Lomond lodge have cooked up a “stick to your ribs” porridge of rolled oats (which, incidentally, performed as promised) and a cup of coffee so strong just one whiff woke me up.
7am: The helicopters land on the green outside the lodge, ready to start taking us in batches to the start line. Every moment it gets more real that we are about to embark on a backcountry, off-road marathon that’s said to be one of the most difficult in New Zealand.
8:15am: Gingerly walk across the swing bridge, staring down, down, down at Skipper’s Canyon below. A herd of butterflies are beating their wings in my stomach as we walk down into the canyon to the start line.
8:45am: Skipper’s Canyon, 450m: After a brief delay, the horn sounds and we are off! Very slowly off, that is. We climb part way out of the canyon and wind our way along the river. We’re mostly walking along the valley floor, preparing for the first real climb. We begin to gain elevation fast, but then it levels off and we’re jogging along rugged goat track, hugging a rock face on one side and a sheer drop on the other. People are regularly losing their footing and sending a pile of dirt down the cliffside. We all start spotting one another – making sure we’re ready to grab the person in front of us if they trip and begin to lose their balance. Pro tip: if you’re confident running on tight single track, and trying for a competitive time, make sure you’re closer to the front of the pack when you start the race.
9:45am: Stony Creek Siphon, 570m: We’ve run through beech forests, gotten our initiation with wet, muddy feet. The sun’s already out in full force, the chill of the morning long forgotten. It’s going to be a hot one. We climb steeply up from Stony Creek, getting some fire in the ole quads and glutes now but generally feeling pretty good as we head toward Murphy’s Creek at around 813m.
11:30am: Twin Spurs Summit, 1180m: We’ve just climbed up the spine of this mountain on goat trails. At this stage, Jess and Hayley are ahead of us and Jason and I stop and take it all in because it’s absolutely breathtaking. Like it has literally taken my breath away, climbing it, and now my figurative breath is gone looking at the epic scenery around us. Time to run down some Tussock to the saddle. There’s no trail at all here, I’m literally jumping over grassy clumps and sliding and yeeeehawwwing down to the saddle. At the saddle, glistening like a mirage, is a tanned, shirtless hunk. I blink and he’s still there, standing next to the water barrels opening the spigot for us to refill our bottles / camelbaks / hands (there are no cups). He’s blaring some hip-hop that seems incongruous with the fact that we’re all in the middle of nowhere on a mountain top. As we jog away, a middle-aged woman behind us says: “Wow. Just wow. I already know that will be one of the major highlights of today.”
12pm: Death Ridge, 990m: From here the decent back down towards the Moonlight Lodge is very steep and technical. It is hot as hell up here, it’s like being right next to the sun’s fire. I reapply sunscreen at the “aid station” (note: the aid stations in this race are water jugs and some Jelly Bellys. there are no cups, food, or shelter). It’s probably just going to sweat right off of me but I feel I have to make an effort. Then I brace my core, glutes and quads and begin winding down, down down. One of these “downs” was a big scree slope – skiing down that was one of highlights of the day!
12:45pm: Back in the valley, 500m: we clean our shoes in the river and then press on, pursued by sandflies. Here a little host of adventures await: wade through the river (thigh deep on me!) up a ladder tied to tree roots, back into the beech forest, river crossings and waterfalls. Grateful for shade and the cool rivers inside the forest, I dig out a Pic’s Peanut Butter slug – one of my favourite running foods. We’re gradually climbing towards the Moonlight Lodge at 770m. It takes longer than expected, and by the time we burst out of the forest and onto the fire road leading to the lodge, Hayley and I are on a mission. Running up to the lodge, however, we realise we’ve been fooled. We were expecting Ben Lomond lodge, where we knew there would be food and shade, and instead we’re at the Moonlight Lodge, next to which towers a rocky spire with tell-tale pink flags telling us we’re going up there. Hayley and I down a cup of water, then tackle the climb without hesitation.
1:30pm: After running down a steep slope, a fire road and a goat trail, we finally arrive at Ben Lomond Lodge, 520m. There are bananas and boiled, salted potatoes, in addition to Jelly Bellys. This is the first time there’s been actual food at an aid station. Here too are spectators cheering us on – we haven’t seen any for the whole race thus far. My stomach’s off, it has been for awhile, so I eat a banana. I have a headache, probably from the caffeine in the Tailwind, I’m kicking myself because I didn’t bring any non-caffeinated Tailwind so I’m stuck. In the bathroom mirror I am relieved to find I don’t look as bad as I feel, and I’m not sunburned as of yet. Because of my injury, I haven’t been able to train properly and my endurance has suffered. My legs are telling me: stop here, stop and rest. You don’t have to keep going. My mind is saying: another 20kms with over 1,000m of elevation still left? You can’t do it.
To be continued…