Saturday, March 29, 2014

Whirinaki Long Run

People keep telling me I have a book in me.  Despite countless x-rays it's never shown up and I certainly don't recall inserting one.  More likely I'm full of tall stories and bullshit and since I have a terrible memory I should probably take note of the occasional tale least I forget it.

The alarm sounded at 4:50am for what promised to be a lengthy adventure in the Whirinaki Forest with friend and fellow manic Michael Hoogeveen.  We were on the road by 5am and I spent the journey randomly tossing odds and ends into my pack.  It seemed little thought was put into what I took with me in the car as I had 3 headlamps, a box of Girl Guide cookies, a fist-full of gels, some school-lunch-box nutbars and very little clothing.  "I'll take the piddly little headlamp" I thought as I tipped it into my pack, "we'll be done by nightfall".  I pushed around 500 lumens of unnecessary headlamps into the glove compartment of Michael's truck assuming I wouldn't miss them.  Heh.

Through Rotorua, Murupara and Minginui by 7am, we were on the trail and running at a quarter past the hour.  The plan was a clockwise loop of the park, a journey that would blow past 7 DoC Huts over the course of what we hoped would be a 10-11hr run.  A roughly drawn line on Google Earth told me to expect at least 66km.  I assumed this might make 70 but I'd taken a GPS anyway.

The trail was in incredible condition having been upgraded for mountain bikes in recent years with a wide benched surfaces over gradual rolling terrain.   The dawn hours passed without incident, Michael and I detoured to take in first Moerangi Hut then Rogers Hut.  We were moving slowly which I thought best given the long day we had ahead.  The steady start to our day gave me some confidence that we'd still be moving well that evening.
Michael rolling down a section of nice benched track mid-morning.

Mangakahika Hut
I was surprised when around 11:30 as we came unto Mangakahika Hut that Michael was talking of early fatigue and it seemed behind the conversation there were some thoughts that maybe he wanted to turn back. "Let's roll over to the next hut which should be about half way.  Have lunch, then reassess" I said.  Knowing well that at halfway there would be no reason to turn back and completion would be the obvious option.

Leaving the hut we climbed steadily toward a low saddle.  The nice benched track gradually faded to become a more 'standard' NZ back-country trail.  Wading through Bracken, Fern and 'Bastard-Grass' we'd attempt to navigate the occasional Ongaonga though frequently found ourselves in all-too regular couplings with the plant.

Do not high-five the Ongaonga.
It does not want to be your friend
For those not familiar with Ongaonga, it's a native stinging nettle like any other only much worse.  It's embrace will send you into uncontrollable bouts of twitching and shouting like if Michael J Fox had tourettes.  Pain so exquisite that you often wouldn't feel it for the 1st few moments like a really good nut-shot.  To put it another way, when Adolf Hitler, Malaria and Couscous get together for drinks they don't invite Ongaonga because he's a bit of a dick.  That plant is proof that there is a god and he hates us.

The jog just went next-level.  As well as concentrating on foot placement and the usual challenges of not falling on my face, I now had to identify the plants as they flew towards me and establish in an instant whether or not touching one of them would make me throw up on myself.

Cresting the saddle we were greeted with a loud Stag roar in the near proximity to our left.  I seldom hear large animals in the bush so it was cool to know we were sharing the terrain with wildlife of some significance.  It reminded me too that we were in a heavily hunted area of NZ and our presence only added to an already 'target-rich' environment.  To this end I'd regularly pause to ensue Michael was close-by and decided now was a good time to remove my novelty moose antlers.

Central Te Hoe Hut.  Beaut spot.
At 1pm we pulled into the beautiful clearing that housed the Central Te Hoe Hut.  Roughly halfway 'round this was a good opportunity for a lunch break.  Hurried calculations meant at our current speed we'd likely not see the end of the trail before 8pm and certain darkness.  We ensured our stop was a brief one taking only as long as required to demolish a box of Girl Guide cookies and make a short note in the Hut Intentions book before we once again took to the trail.  Ahead was a 500m climb on what we assumed would be the worst of the track.

Expecting pretty ordinary trail I wasn't disappointed.  Too overgrown to run it became a slow trudge into the hill before Bracken and Fern lousy with Bush Lawyer eventually gave way to tree roots.  The ascent lessened into the regular undulation of any given ridge-line.  We weren't making good time and I felt a slight sense of urgency as we fell further behind schedule.  Neither of us had any real concerns with this other than the obvious discomfort of a longer and harder day than anticipated.  I carried a light thermal, a few spare gels and that shitty headlamp so what did I really have to worry about?

I'd jog ahead, take some pictures and wait for Michael who was painfully losing the bottom of his feet.  At some point I tired of waiting and just decided to cruise on to the next hut.  Rounding a bend to cross a creek I startled a buck in the scrub just below me.  I was hardly moving quietly and he'd taken his time to respond to my approach before crashing through the undergrowth to put space between us.  It was the 1st time I'd startled a deer in the bush before and it was quite a special experience seeing a large wild animal like that so close.
Wise Mr Owl thinks we're insane

About a kilometer on I passed a hunter who had just helicoptered in without his rifle.  Upon explaining my recent encounter I could sense him regretting his decision to be unarmed.  After hearing our run-plan he very quickly pointed out that we wouldn't make it.  Thanks for the vote of confidence mate.  Stopping at Upper Te Hoe hut at a quarter to four with a little over half of the circuit complete I was getting a little anxious.  I knew we'd be moving in darkness at some point and I was eager to get as much done before nightfall as possible.  Separation wasn't an option and if one or both of us were to have a misadventure of some sort, being very lightly equipped, this could lead to certain tragedy.

Tracks in high places.  Cliff hanger trail running.
Michael rolled into Upper Te Hoe and mentioned several of his now countless ailments.  "That boy is made of Bulsa Wood and Sandpaper" I said to myself, "though he never really complains about his suffering."  I waited while he refueled and made some quick 'running' repairs.  If you ever get the chance, ask Michael why he was wearing only 3 socks.

Another 500m climb awaited us, this one made exciting by a narrow track cut into the side of a cliff-face making for spectacular vertical drop-offs.  Moving quickly I'd often not assess a dangerous section until after I had passed it. At one stage clearing a narrow slip on lose stones with maximum penalty for failure I looked back and thought how much my brothers 'worry-gland' wouldn't have enjoyed this section of track.

The previous hut book had emphatically highlighted peoples disgust of the condition of the trail through this and previous sections of the track.  To which I had written "Yeah-nah, it aint that bad. Harden up peach xx oo".  All the same, I was aware that I was heading into another slower leg with the likelihood of more bush bashing than Dirk Diggler.  To my surprise cut grass greeted us at one of the junction tops and plainly some maintenance had recently been done.  I explained to Michael that I was thirsty having only drunken a little over 2l of water in the 10hrs we'd been moving.  The map showed it wasn't far to a stream so I pressed on in search of water startling a few more deer along the way.  I was feeling surprisingly good after hydration.  Other than some lingering tingling from the Ongaonga, thorough exfoliation of my legs at the hands of the Bracken, a few spills of claret courtesy of Bush Lawyer, and more bastard grass than seemed necessary,  I was in great shape.

Bastard Grass being a bastard.
The descents weren't entirely awesome however as my shoe for the day was a pair of saucony's trainers not at all built for trail use.  Comfortable; yes, though anything beyond about -20% and they turned into Saucony Road Ski's that would see me slide so frequently I could've been at Sochi.

As I continued toward Upper Whirinaki Hut light was starting fade and direct sunlight had long since fallen to shadow but the track was becoming more runnable.  Leaping down into a creek bed I almost landed on a deer which took off with significant motivation into the thicket.  I could still easily pick out the trail and planning foot placement was no real challenge. The last 2km to the hut had been 'realigned' and I covered it comfortably within 15 minutes.  I was greeted by 2 likely lads standing on the deck listening for wildlife in need of a lead injection.  The last signs of daylight were extinguished and the first stars could be seen as we talked about the section of trail separating us from Michael's car.  I explained that my companion was suffering a bit though the only appearance of it was in his speed, he'd likely not make a fuss but if they could help ensure he was alright I'd be grateful.  To this end when Michael did arrive having covered that last 2km in almost 45 minutes he was served with hot noodles, painkillers, strapping tape and the encouraging news that the next hut was only about 8km away.  A thick cloud greeted each exhaled breath and it was plainly too cold for me to be without a thermal.  A stationary moment would be followed by shivering so I taxed a spare polar fleece from one of the guys who also gave me a couple AAAs for my headlamp and before long we were back on the trail.

My GPS was starting to show fatigue too and it read 65km before I decided to retire it to my pack.  Signposts indicating around 24km remained meaning we'd see close to 90km for the completed loop... ..Though it wasn't yet completed.

Complete and total darkness making it difficult to navigate let alone run.  I was moving slowly behind Michael with my headlamp held in my hand at arms length to reduce the throw of flood required by the fading LEDs to crudely illuminate little more than his heels.  We lost the trail countless times bashing around in a stream bed with ever growing frustration as we clambered over debris a detritus.  At some point Michael fell and half submerged himself vertically.  I slipped through some tree-fall badly hitting my shin then later off a 1m bank.  Fun times.  We were both working hard on our advanced use of profanity.  This was the certain low-point however there was still a lot to be grateful of.  I still had 2 gels and a nutbar and the weather was perfect for a night of aimlessly bashing around in the wilderness.  At some stage the batteries were changed in my headlamp and sweet relief came in the form of pretty average visibility  We eventually stumbled upon a Permolat that preceded a bridge and track junction that brought an end to the hardship.  The trail now opening up as we closed on Central Whirinaki Hut.
10pm.  Tragedy, Pizza Hut Rotorua is closing.

A few packs on the deck indicated the hut was likely tenanted but being that it was now past 10pm they would all be asleep.  We didn't bother to disturb them pausing only to check the time and signpost that indicated 16kms remained.  If the sign was to be believed around a 5hr walk out, on what we knew would be lovely groomed trail.  Typically I'd run around a third of the posted walk time but being that I had already been moving for over 14hrs and knowing that darkness brings all sorts of complexities to running trail I figured it would be ambitious to assume I'd see the exit before midnight.

I still had a heap of running in me and I'd jog down the track then turn my headlamp off and wait for Michael to catch up.  This happened 3 or 4 times over the 1st 30 minutes after departing the hut before I asked for the car key.  We broke the risks down and there really wasn't much that could go wrong for either of us save a lighting mechanical or surprise injury.  So close to safety we agreed that there really was nothing to fear.  Unrestrained for the 1st time in my day I felt as though I was running sub-5-minute kms. Really flying through the dimly lit forest.  More likely I was running 7s but it felt fast none the less.  A reflective Permolat flew passed me and I imagined seeing "5km" written on it.  Confirmation of this came soon after in the form of a "4.8km" then a "4.6km". "Brilliant!" I thought, "I'm almost there!".

My watch said 23:48 as I flew into the carpark. Not quite midnight I had done the last 14km in around 80mins (5:40s).  Not bad I suppose given I was in the dark with minimal illumination and had been on the move for 16hrs.  The cold embraced me the moment I stopped and the time taken to unlock the car door was enough to bring me to shiver.  My ambitious plan to find a river to wash in and get fresh water was thwarted by my immediate desire to sleep.  Struggling to make any good decisions at all I managed to put on some clean clothes and wrap up in a woolen blankie on the front seat and wait for Michael.  I hurriedly forced in 2 oranges and a Ginger beer before sleep took me entirely by surprise.

A light blue light awoke me just after 2am indicating that Michael had made it out safely.  His final 14km taking something like twice as long as mine.  Made all the more exciting by a slight detour for some extra darkness and misery.  Michael was ok though and even though his feet had fallen to bits some 10 hours prior.  His outing some 19 hours in total, easily a record and worthy of a mention in his 'stupidity' almanac.

Somehow neither of us nor the Nissan Patrol crashed out on the journey home.  Arriving at my house exactly 24 hours after leaving it I dragged myself through the shower and into the spare room for a few hours of much needed rest.

I guess there are lessons to be learned from the experience.  Probably the big one being complacency.  Experienced with long trail runs I have had numerous days out that I was much better equipped for.  The problem with regularly carrying gear you never use is that you begin to forget to bring it.  I should probably have taken a hard-shell, a bivy bag and possibly a 1-season bag as I sometimes do however none of these would have actually helped me in this instance.  Rather, they would have given me alternatives to pressing on in the dark.  I should have assumed it would take longer and be further than anticipated and a good headlamp with spare batteries is the obvious fix.  I really surprised myself with my fitness and running strong after hr 16 is good feedback heading toward a trail marathon in May and a full club season.  I finished the day having drunk less than 4 lt of water which is really not a lot considering it was hot and dry for the majority of the time.  I suspect a wall would have greeted me were I to push this much further.

When I go to do this loop again I think I'll fast-pack it and overnight at Central Te Hoe.  When I do this I'll be sure to invite you all along because if this blog has taught you anything it's how much you'd love to share in an adventure with me.  Right?

More sweet trails from the morning running

I reckon the guy that works for DoC drives to work each day in his bulldozer.  Even the slips are benched.

This tree stand vertically UPSIDE DOWN.  It's not attached to anything, completely self supported by impact from where it javlined itself into the trail.  Very impressive.

That's a river down there.  A good jump and I'd make it.  Approx 100m down.  The track about 1m wide with SWEET drop-offs.

Some crinkly green bits probably so lousey with deer you'd be better leaving the rifle at home and bringing the Border collie in for a muster.

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