Friday, 8 April 2016


I’m trying to rediscover an enthusiasm for running in time for an event next month. But I can’t do worse than I did last spring…

'Run through the jungle' (Image copyright Breadcraft Wild Challenge)

I'm an occasional runner and cyclist, but not especially talented at either. Really more of a hobbyist, I occasionally like to enter a race event with actual athletes. Setting a goal - even if it is as simple as turning up on time, on a given day, always feels like a good idea.

So last year I had another go at the Pukaha (Mt Bruce Nature Reserve) Wild challenge, this time not just doing the 10k run up and over the bush-clad slopes behind the reserve, but also the 32k cycle ride back to the starting point.

The dawn of the big day was full of promise, the first clear day after an unrelenting week of spring rain. And so the sunrise drive north to drop off my bike at the transition point was a very pleasant experience. Unfortunately, this was overlaid with a much less enjoyable factor as a few hours earlier clocks had been wound forward an hour for the beginning of daylight saving. Climbing out of bed cheated of an hour's sleep after a late night laced with champagne and whisky in celebration of a friend's birthday might have been one of the day's biggest challenges.

Resigned to the fact that a recent brush with the flu virus meant it wouldn't be my best work, I decided just to try and enjoy the experience instead. It's surprising how liberating this can be; we males are afflicted with obsessive competitiveness, something which can presumably be traced all the way back to ensuring our genetic line would prosper in more desperate prehistoric times.

Mammoths and sabre tooth tigers are not among Pukaha's bounty of exotic species, so I was determined that testosterone poisoning need not play too big a part in the day’s gathering (but it probably would).

The starting line. The serious competitors have little rubber tubes on their shoulders...
Like all races, the starting line scramble very quickly resolved itself into three distinct groups. The serious athletes in body hugging black 'superhero' outfits were already out of view in a flurry of wet leaves; as usual I was loping over tree roots somewhere in the middle group and the more casual, recreational participants were ambling happily somewhere behind us, enjoying the beauty of the surroundings.

The recent rainfall had mixed with the leafy ground-cover to create a slippery vegetarian paste infamous for its reputation to delay trains, and as the track turned steeply upwards my breathing started to rasp in my throat almost immediately. It's dispiriting to be out of condition and only too aware of it, but the fact that some of the steepest, greasiest sections were literally impossible to run over, slowing you to a careful walk, was actually a breath-catching blessing.

A spectacular view across to the Tararua range opened up very quickly behind us and I sacrificed any last slim hope of a respectable finishing time to stop and take photographs at each of the recording points on the way up. This caused the race Marshals some amusement, and a couple of them even posed for me. 

One of the day's true heroes: a Race Marshal.
 It also instigated a weird game of leap frog with the runner closest to me. She ran past me as I clicked away like a tourist, and then I’d eventually overtake her before stopping again at the next photo opportunity. No doubt I’d discovered a new way to irritate a fellow competitor.

This stop-starting might be anathema to an adequate finish, but did mean that the summit was reached relatively painlessly and there was only a small pause before joining everyone else in flinging myself down the descending track. This would have been an opportunity to regain a lot of ground if it wasn't for the extremely treacherous terrain, and I slid and fell more than once.

We broke out into open farmland surprisingly quickly, and I was able to use my stride to edge far ahead enough of my group to stop and photograph them pounding past me again.

The slippery slope downhill.
Reaching the bottom of the hill irresistibly registers in your psyche as the end of the on-foot section, so the slowly unwinding, dusty farm road making up the final couple of kilometres just felt like extra homework.

Interest was added by a shoelace malfunction and the unseen presence of another runner matching pace with me, their breathing and crunching footfalls issuing an unwanted challenge as the finishing line comes into view at last. Although I'm tired and in imminent danger of being taken down by my own loosening footwear, a tiny spark of competitiveness kicks in at last and I decide not to relent, or even turn my head to see who it is, until the end.

My ‘shadow’ turned out to be a very petit mother of two who quickly disappeared under congratulatory hugs from her family once past the finishing line. Mounting my bike, I cycled off off into even greater ignominy.

The fact that there would be a head wind for the entire journey back to Pukaha, supernaturally shifting to hit me in the face no matter which direction I pedalled in, was a given. But what I couldn't blame anything else for was my decision to bring my cross-terrain bike, a sturdy 'draft horse' quickly left behind by super-light racing bikes; buzzing fluorescent hornets quickly disappearing around distant bends on the sealed road.

Being too concerned with the run and not checking the cycle course details properly had led to me bringing a proverbial knife to a gunfight.

I tried to enjoy the scenery, which was rolling and verdant in the new spring sunshine, but became hugely disconcerted by the complete absence of any other cyclist after that initial swarm had vanished. Was I lost? Or was I so far behind that the race organisers would have to make accommodation arrangements to wait for me?

This distinctive road sign means the end is nigh. (Copyright Breadcraft Wild Challenge)
I wasn't last; no doubt some terrible catastrophe, or at least flat tyres, had befallen those few behind me. The ragged, sympathetic cheer which went up from big-hearted spectators at the finishing line gave me my first cause to smile for the last 32km as I coasted into the car park.

Talking to a regular event competitor afterwards, I admitted that although I couldn't take much pride in my time, I had genuinely enjoyed myself.
"Enjoying it is the main thing”, I was assured.

I vowed to beg, borrow or steal a road bike when I attempt this event again, but now need to come up with something else to blame my performance on, next time.

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