Has the weather ever completely rewritten your experience? Kel ran the Crater Rim Trails around Christchurch twice with shockingly different results, it was as if they had two different personalities…
The wind was gusting to around 25 knots. Lashings of icy drizzle were coming in sideways, numbing my exposed hands, and the visibility was less than 30m due to the thick blanket of fog that wrapped the top of the hills.
As we ran past a dead sheep lying exposed on top of a ridgeline my running mate Sam yelled over his shoulder ‘If we were Bear Grylls we’d cut that sheep open and sleep inside!’ Even though my mind felt frozen, several thoughts pulsed through my head at that moment: ‘Have we bitten off more than we can chew? Why am I even running out here?’ And my other random thought… ‘only one of us can fit inside that sheep… and the one that can fit isn’t me.’
Catching The Trail Run Bug
Running had always been a chore for me and to be honest, a couple of years ago I absolutely abhorred it. I was 6’4 and close to 100kgs then, so it was no surprise to me that running wasn’t my thing. I was built for power and that’s why I was right into dragonboat racing. Short bursts of everything you have over roughly 1 to 2 minutes. Sprint racing was my jam!
But after representing Australia at the World Championships in 2015 I retired and took up SUP racing which was a big adjustment as even the shortest of sprint races lasted roughly 15 to 20 minutes. The thought of doing a sport that wasn’t some sort of paddling and one that might last for 1 to 2 hours (or more) had never occurred to me until a couple of months ago.
After suffering from a shoulder injury earlier this year I had about 4 months off the water and started doing a bit of road running once or twice a week to keep in shape. In May, I climbed Mount Tibrogargan (or Tibro as we lovingly call it) in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland with a friend who had always wanted to do it. At the lookout on the top of the mountain there was a ragged assortment of outdoorsy looking people sitting around chatting and enjoying the view.
A bloke appeared not long after we got there. He was huffing and puffing and someone asked ‘How fast mate?’ ’25 from the carpark’ he replied. Right then I made a plan to go and buy some trail shoes (whatever they were) and see how fast I could climb that mountain… because I’m totally not a competitive person. A couple of days later I went to my local Kathmandu store, had a chat with one of the lads then walked out shortly after with a brand new pair of Salomon Speedcross 4’s with some seriously aggressive looking tread on the bottom. I was going to run up mountains then run down them as fast as I could.
Crushing Mount Tibro
I went back to Tibro the next weekend and got to the top in about 27 minutes. Boom! The addiction had commenced. Smoking Mother Nature’s trails got me high for days. The raw and pure joy I felt when doing it was something I had never experienced before. I thought about it when I was going to sleep at night, in the morning when I woke up, and throughout the day. When I was running my mind was in a trance-like state. I like to think of it as very active meditation.
Fast forward a couple of months and I’d done the King of the Mountain race up Mt Cooroora, Pomona and also discovered that running 15km of trail was totally doable. My new trails shoes were soon looking dusty and well-worn. Quite a turnaround for a bloke who used to say ‘I’m not built for running!’
Crossing The Ditch
With a work conference in Christchurch in late August I had the perfect opportunity to hit my first overseas trails. First things first, I went back to the shops for a wind/rain proof jacket to run in. It’s the South Island of New Zealand, bro, of course it gets cold.
At that stage I had no idea just how useful that jacket would be.
I flew in at lunchtime on a Monday, checked into the motel, threw on my running gear and caught an Uber for a half-hour drive out of Christchurch to a beachside village called Taylors Mistake, one of Christchurch’s premier surf breaks. What a beautiful little place with a couple of historic seaside baches (the NZ term for holiday shacks) that were postcard images for sure.
I hit the trail starting at the beach and headed out around Godley Head Coastal Walk. Godley Head is called Awaroa by the Maori. The winding trail was at least 2 people wide, incredibly well maintained and passed from the surf of Taylors Mistake to a number of World War II historic sites. These relics are part of the Godley Head coastal defence battery and feature on a list of New Zealand’s top 10 coastal defence heritage sites [niche list! – Editor]. The track skirted around the headland above sheer 120m cliffs and every time I turned a corner another stunning vista opened up before me.
Once I arrived up the top at Godley Heads carpark I took the track that becomes part of the Crater Rim Walkway. Now this was a real trail in my eyes — windy, narrow and hugging the sides of steep, rock strewn mountains that fall straight to the sea of Lyttelton Harbour/Whakaraupo. The hills were incredible and again the views were insanely beautiful. I expected Frodo to pop up from somewhere because it looked like scenery straight out of Lord of the Rings — well, it was filmed in New Zealand I guess. This little track was where I felt like I couldn’t run fast enough and I got the runners high. I found myself smiling and laughing out loud regularly. To the casual observer I would have looked like some type of lunatic running along there.
I continued to climb onwards and upwards to a little peak at the top of Broadleaf Lane which is on the northern side of the Tauhinu-Korokio Scenic Reserve and the small port town of Lyttelton. Not long after I got to the top, my phone battery died rapidly as a result of having Map My Run going for a couple of hours, combined with plenty of photos and shooting a video or two along the way. I had just enough time to check the distance back to my motel — the display read 29 minutes… drive. Oh well, nothing for it other than to start running! At least it was all downhill. I got a couple of kilometres down the road when I thought I may as well try my hand at hitchhiking. I had run further than any distance previously and I was getting a tad tired!
The second car to pass me thankfully pulled over and a couple of lovely English tourists picked me up and dropped me all the way back to motel. Legends! The Dr Jekyll adventure was completed with about 17 kilometres of amazing trails and incredible views behind me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it or talking about it for the next few days.
During the conference I managed to convince Sam, one of our important business clients, to come for a run on the same trail at the end of the week before we flew back to Oz. And didn’t the South Island deliver a bell-ringer of a contrast on this second run. Introducing the evil Mr Hyde.
Dr Jekyll, Meet Mr Hyde
Sam said he would be good for about an 8km run, so I had the idea to do the run from earlier in the week in reverse and just get the Uber to drop us off a few kilometres short of the peak. When I woke up that morning I checked the weather forecast which said drizzle. I didn’t think much of it and didn’t check the wind forecast. Rookie error.
As our Uber driver headed up the winding roads to our drop off point I did notice that there was fog blanketing the mountain. Still, I didn’t think it looked too bad — until we stepped out of the car and felt that icy wind smack me in the face. Cold immediately attacked my body, Bone-chilling, mind-numbing cold.
We decided we had better get cracking as it would be the best way to warm up. So off we headed up a pretty steep climb for the first 10 minutes or so which definitely got the blood pumping. Pity my arms are so long because it didn’t feel like the blood was actually making it all the way down to my fingers. At the top of the rise and down the exposed ridgeline the wind was blowing so hard that I could barely see — the temperature was causing my eyes to water like I was cutting onions.
We took a little wrong turn in the fog and got lost for a couple of minutes. It was about then that I started imagining telling my boss that I took one of our clients out for a run and nearly killed him with hypothermia. Not a good career move. We pressed on, past the sheep I mentioned at the start of this little tale and eventually came out below the fog line. The entire time we were up on those hills I was berating myself at the same time as focussing incredibly hard on the trail and my foot placement, as I knew if one of us went down injured it would be a rough wait up there for help to arrive. We did have full mobile signal the whole way and I had an emergency space blanket in my pack that I always run with, admittedly quite a handy thing to have should we have needed it.
The Runners High Returns
Needless to say, we cut the end of the run off a bit and headed over the hills towards Taylors Mistake. It was during that last leg of the run, when we were heading straight back into that belting wind again, that the runners high struck me. Turns out the evil Mr Hyde run couldn’t dampen that euphoric feeling. I found myself running along laughing as I thought about what we’d just done. We’d played Russian Roulette with New Zealand’s notorious weather and thankfully come out on top.
Not surprisingly, I can highly recommend thoroughly checking the weather conditions before going for a trail run in an area that’s foreign to you. A little local knowledge may have also been a big help. Eventually we arrived back at Taylors Mistake and hailed a Uber that took about 25 minutes to arrive. We were cold and wet but instead of being miserable we were pumped to have done the run. Would I have done it alone? No way. Would I do a run like that again? Well, yes, but with a bit better preparation and maybe a much warmer jacket!
The Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde experience on the crater rim trails of South Island New Zealand will be two that I definitely won’t forget in a hurry. I can’t wait to see what waits for me around the next bend in the trail. Happy running!
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