Tussock Traverse – A Slower Runner’s Report

Report by Clare Montgomery

The day begins in a very foggy National Park village. We meet the bus and set off at 7.25am. The bus moves us out of the mist and around the mountains to our start point on the Waihohonu track at a plodding pace. As we crawl around the mountain and onto the Desert Road side of Mount Ruapehu the immensity of the landscape becomes apparent; I question whether I’m really going to make it from the Desert Road all the way across to the other side of the mountain?

An hour and twenty minutes after starting out – with one emergency stop made for an over-hydrated runner – we arrive at the bottom of Tukino road in the Rangipo Desert.  We wait for other vehicles to take us up the road to the start point but none are in sight. News eventually arrives of delays caused by a bus stuck in the sand. Sometime later a series of vans arrives and takes us bumping up the ‘road’ to the start line.  Arriving at the start we learn that the first half of the field who arrived prior to the bus beaching disaster has left, placings for those concerned with such things will have to be worked out by timing mat.  After a quick race briefing we line up at the start and not long before 10.00am we’re off.

The hill stretches out before us looking gravel covered and vicious, and a cloud-covered Mount Ruapehu rears up beyond. I take it easy while still trying to keep up a running pace. Fellow Hawks Kevin, Glenn and Maureen become small specks in the distance further up the hill.  Back in my pack people around me are already walking, the energy of the group seems to take over and for a short while I walk too – I’m walking within the first two kilometres of the race start!

Making it to the top of the hill with relief there’s a steep downhill. Not being the most fleet footed of runners I make my way down the rocky slope carefully, others with no such fears gallop past.

Down on the flat the terrain remains technical and I take it easy until the ground levels out.  I speed up to a reasonable run and make my way across the mountain valley.  After a  couple of kilometres the valley opens out in front of us, I can see the Kaimanawas stretching out before me and Mount Ngauruhoe rising up to my left.  The landscape is majestic and the running easy, I really start to enjoy the journey.

We cross a clear mountain stream, walkers (perhaps from the first group to leave) are already taking the opportunity to cool off in the water below the bridge.  After a couple of short steep climbs we meet some course marshals who tell us we can expect a change of scenery from here on.  Sure enough the foliage becomes greener and we find ourselves running amongst the flowering hebe bushes.  I’m still feeling fresh and find I’m passing many of the runners I remember speeding by me on the first downhill.

The Waihohonu Hut turn off appears on our left, I know there are fresh scones waiting at the hut for those willing to take their time to eat them but I’m keen to press on.  The hut marks a change in direction and we turn towards the saddle that runs between Mount Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.  Around the 12km mark I’m beginning to notice the air feels dry and the heat of the sun on the desert landscape is beating down.

By 14km I start to feel less than fresh, I’m making the action of running but I’m moving at no more than a crawl. I pass a fellow entrant having a lie down beside the path while her buddy stands beside her waiting for her to recover.  The field is thinly dispersed now. The person moving in front of me seems to be going very slowly and yet I am not catching up, only 15km in!

I plod on and somewhere around the 17km point something miraculous happens, there’s a fresh wind blowing and I feel the energy in my legs return. I quicken my pace and start to enjoy the view again. I watch a bird soaring high above a huge basin below Mount Ngauruhoe.

I run past the turn-around point for the 13km and I know there are only two largish hills to go. I get through these as quickly as I can (some walking involved) and at the top of the second hill I see the Chateau appear in the distance.  From here on there is plenty of downhill and I run as fast as I can without tripping.  A girl in front seems to be doing a good pace and I decide to settle in behind her, that is until she turns to me and says ‘game on’, now I have to pass her. I chase her to the bottom of the hill and manage to overtake her on a small uphill.  I plunge down steps into the beach tree filled gullies appreciating the shade and taking in the Taranaki Falls.

The last two kilometres are undulating through a series of little gullies, my legs are jelly now. At the top of a flight of steps a runner is bent over double and breathing hard, I recognise him as a fellow entrant in the Queenstown Marathon back in November.  I check my watch, ‘only 1km to go’ I tell him, ‘I know but it seems so far’ he responds. He is right, the last kilometre is tough.

I cross finish line with the encouragement of Glenn, Maureen, Kevin and Shona who are all relaxing on the lawn in the sunshine. Three hours and twelve minutes…not too bad.  Out on the Chateau lawn there are ice baths, sausages and drinks on offer.

I know I will be back next year, to run across the amazing landscape once again and better my time.