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Welcome to my blog which I hope to develop with some interesting material on ultra running both on the trails and road including reports on races and interesting training runs, views on kit and equipment as well as anything else I find of interest. I love running for adventure, opportunity and well being. Enjoy!

Monday, 31 December 2012

Being Jez's North Face Trainer: Day 18 - By James Ashwell

Start: National Park (1,113km)
Finish: Bridge to Nowhere (1,191km)
Distance for the day: 78km
Cumulative distance: 1,191km

That's me....in the centre. I'm his favourite!

2200 - Outside the camper van: I hurt. I really hurt. Mentally and physically. I have pounded the mud, gravel, Tarmac, and today even volcanic lava, for over 14 hours a day, every day for 17 days. I have covered 1113km with hardly any rest. My rubber is inflamed, my laces stretched, and my insoles sore. Why can't he just stop and let me dry off in the sunshine and rest?

Running in the cold and rain around 8pm
2330: Thank goodness he at least had the sense to put me under the camper van step to shield me from the heavy rain. I got wet enough today, the last thing I need now is rain. It's almost midnight, and we started at 0630 this morning, why are the lights still on in that van? Why doesn't he just sleep so that I can stop worrying that he might come out and use me? It's that blog. After a full day of running he comes back, drops me off outside, showers, eats and then writes his blog. I don't understand why he doesn't just forget the blog and give in to his deep and overpowering fatigue.

0000: Finally the lights have gone out. Thank goodness. I have the next 6 hours off duty. Sleep time.

0300: I was told it was summer in New Zealand, so why has it been raining every day for a week. I just want to be dry.

My view of one of the buildings along this remote track

0630: There it is again - the clicking of the gas cooker. They are up and making breakfast. It's almost time. At least he won't use me to go to the shower block. That's what his sandals are for. I get another hour to lie in.....yawwnnnn. I doze off again.

0700 - Leaving the car park at National Park: No, no. Be gentle, I'm sore all over. He has put those feet back into me. I am a mess and I'm made of tough stuff, so how are his feet not a rotten mess? It's not even 0700 yet, it's cold, raining heavily and this guy still wants to run. At least it's Tarmac. Tarmac is clean.

1000 - Crossing the Erua Forest, East of National Park: Not more mud, please. There
we go, wet and muddy again. We have covered another 14kms through forest and over a
ridge. At least it's downhill a bit now.

1200 - Following the Retaruke River North: As I'm bashed relentlessly against the ground, with a never endless rhythm, I wonder why is he doing this? As I look up each time I'm swung forward I can see that he looks strong and determined today.

We have covered another 18km along this gravel road and his pace has not slowed. The valley, from what I can see of it from this low perspective, is stunning, yet littered with decaying colonial outposts. I heard that the New Zealand government tried to build a community here by giving large plots of land to soldiers returning from WW1, but that it was too remote even for them and the community collapsed with the last settler leaving in the 40's. However, don't quote me on that. My eyelets are very small and so I can't see or hear too well.

The trail is littered with these decaying colonial houses

I can see the camper van in the distance. Van = rest. He sits. I swing freely. Such bliss. He always sits on the plastic sheet that the blond guy with the beard keeps putting out in haste every time that we arrive. I think he is trying to protect the seats in the camper van from Master's sweat. I don't get that luxury, it pours down onto me all day. He has yet another Coke, more chocolate and a Sprite. I feel sick watching what he forces himself to eat, and I don't even have a gastric system.

1400 - Heading East along Oio Road towards Whakahoro Camp: The sun has taken the place of the rain. Sweat has replaced precipitate. Either way, I am still wet. The run has been long today, but he still looks strong. Every 8kms I get a brief rest when the blond guy turns up in the camper van and forces Master to drink yet more Coke and eat yet more chocolate. Except this time it was different. He ate half of a fruit cake with a tub of crème fraiche. Disguising.

I hurt, it has been a long day already, but this trail is picturesque. We (by way, when I say 'we' I mean the three of us; me, master and my twin. I don't get on well with my twin, we are identical, but he does everything I do but the opposite. We are always passing by each other in such a rush, and never have time to talk) have been running along a trail that follows a river for the past few hours. The valley sides are steep and impressive with jungle spilling down onto the trail, after which the jungle clings to the side of the trail above an impressive drop to the furious river below. I am enjoying this stretch.

Stunning scenery

1500 - Arriving at Whakahoro Camp: Its lunch time and we have already ran 55km in 8 hours. I was hurting when I woke up, now I have gone beyond pain. Master is a machine.

This is most definitely a frontier hamlet. We are several hours drive down a dirt road to even reach the nearest town, and that town is a frontier town with just a few houses. This is remote.

An example of the buildings in this remote outpost

He sits in the van, on the sweat proof sheet, and has lunch. This is good. Lunch means 15 minutes without his frame pressing down on me. I'm hungry. I look up and see that the blond guy has made him an enormous pasta dish covered in melted cheese. Master eats a lot. Today he has had a large bowl of porridge with banana and honey, a tea, a cooked English breakfast, four cans of Coke, two cans of Sprite, a bottle of sparkling water, another bowl of porridge with another banana and sugar, two 400g bars of chocolate, a fruit cake, a huge bowl of pasta with ham, bacon and cheese and a pint of orange and lemonade....and it it only lunch time.

Normally he makes me run 68km a day, so that means I should only have 11km left. Except, I've seen the sign to today's finish point - Mangapurua Landing - and it's over 40km away. Is this guy crazy? Can't he read the sign. "Look" i try to shout, but he has tied my laces so tight that my tongue is pressed firmly against the ridge of his foot gagging my speech. The sign says that this section should take 13hrs to walk or 6hrs by bike. It is 1500, so he can't possibly think about running this section now. I can hear him tell the blond guy that he is going to go for it. This will mean that we run 95km today, over 15hrs. Master is very tough.

My view of the sign - suggested 13hrs - Master and I achieved it in 6hrs

1530 - Leaving Whakahoro for Mangapura Landing: He says goodbye to the blond guy that keeps making him eat. Just as we are off down the trail we meet a local cowboy. He has 5 sheepdogs. Master is enjoying talking to the cowboy. I am not enjoying the dogs. 5 dogs means high statistical probability of dog pooh. I am running almost 100km today, having my back pressed into dog pooh would be the last straw.

Don't ask how I took this shot - he must have taken me off to get some fresh air to his feet....

As he says goodbye to the last person that we will see for 40km, and we run into the forest, I am thinking about that sign. It says that this section will take 13hrs, it's now 1530. It's going to be a long night. I'm pleased that I saw him pack the head torch. I hate stepping on things that I can't see.

Day 20: Atene to Koitiata

Start: Atene (1,263km)
Finish: Koitiata (1339km)
Distance for the day: 76km
Cumulative distance: 1,339km

A day of two distinct halves, in more ways than one. We spent last night at a basic campground right next to the river. It was pure coincidence the site was exactly at our target paddling distance for yesterday, a nice little omen, and it was a peaceful place with a nice feel to it. The early night was very welcome, and to get a full 8 hours sleep, pretty much unheard of on this trip so far, despite my best intentions.

Mark and I planning the day ahead

The first half of the day was about completing the Whanganui River paddle, and then I hoped to get back on two feet to rack up a respectable total distance for the day. Mark and I made an early start on the river, launching around 7am. We both felt a little creaky after the long paddle yesterday, and it wasn’t the greatest feeling to be back in the kayaks once again. Mine in particular had a rock hard plastic seat which was about as comfortable as a park bench.

Back in the kayak for a second day

We anticipated a distance of around 40 kilometers would be achievable from researching the tide times affecting the lower reaches of the river. The guide book recommends several get out points – we wanted to get down as low as we could – but we knew that getting right down into Whanganui City itself would be near impossible and probably counter productive. In the end we settled on a get out at Upokongro Landing, about 8km shy of Whanganui, and from there I could pick up the road running completely parallel. To be honest, it was a good effort to even get there because the wind was blowing erratically – often against us – and we were also pushing against the tide. The final 12km or so were a real grind. Mark and I both had our heads down, desperately trying to get the job done. It certainly took a lot of focus and determination from my point of view but we eventually made it to Upokongro Landing just before lunch.

The river continues to offer scenery that humbles us

We feel so small and insignificant when surrounded by such awesome scenery

Despite the tough paddling – the heavy plastic boats didn’t help – the lower sections of the Whanganui were a real treat. The views were constantly changing, from exposed cliff faces to beautiful meadows, native forest and plantations. We will definitely look back on our river journey with fond memories; epic paddling to add to the epic running. 110 kilometers in a day and a half is pretty good going in plastic boat……

The landscape becomes more picturesque as we approach Wanganui Town

The landscape becomes more picturesque as we approach Wanganui Town
James was ready and waiting for us when we got out – within 15 minutes of being off the river, we were sitting down eating a pasta lunch. I was a feast-and-a-half, but well needed after 5 hours paddling and at least the same of running ahead.

After a day and half of running, I was eager to get back to it, but unsurprisingly I was feeling a little rusty to start with. Unfortunately it was all road to my target destination. The section down through Whanganui was really enjoyable, just because there was lots going on, and the river was always there as a backdrop. It was certainly strange to be back into civilization after a long period out in the wilds. As an added bonus, I even got the chance for two pass throughs of the town. I managed to leave my iPhone on a park bench just as I was coming into town, and only realised 3km further on when I went to take a photo. Gutted. I decided to go back and see whether it was still there, and thankfully my faith was repayed when it was. But that meant a total extra distance of 6km, just at a time when I wanted to be making meaningful progress. I don’t think there’s anything worse than consciously going the wrong way on a route.

Running along the boardwalk in Wanhanui

From the south side of Whanganui it was another road diversion (whilst they complete a planned section of link trail) however it wasn’t a particularly nice one involving 20km down the shoulder of Highway 3. From the perfect serenity of Whanganui to the horror of running far too close to big cars and trucks – what a contrast. It was head down and get it done time again, and a relief to eventually turn off down the beach road to Koitiata.

So we are now right on the south west coast of the North Island which is a great feeling. Four days from now I should be in Wellington, right at bottom, ready to cross. Oh yes!

The scenic beach in Koitiata!

Mark and James commented on the end of the world feeling on the beach

Didn't fancy a swim here

The only other thing to report today is that the wind is picking up and gales are on the way. That won’t be a problem tomorrow, but the day after I am due to hit the Tararua Range where it may get interesting.

Day 19: Bridge to Nowhere to Atene

Start: Bridge to Nowhere (1,191km)
Finish: Atene (1,263km)
Distance for the day: 72km
Cumulative distance: 1,263km

A day off! Well from running….

This was a major milestone for me; reaching the Whanganui River for the 120km downstream paddle. I worked hard to reach this point ‘cleanly’ – i.e. ready to start it on a fresh day, having established that was possible to do so around a week ago. Boy did I have to work hard to achieve it. It was a fairly meaningless thing to target really, but it certainly worked to drag me through some of those remote and rugged North Island sections.

To me, have a significant ‘water’ component to the trail really adds something special, and particularly appeals as I’ve become a passionate sea kayaker over the past couple of years. Thankfully it’s a real strength as opposed to a weakness, so not just a thorn in the side of my expedition plans as some may initially think.

So as a kayaker, a big river journey like this is pretty mouth watering prospect, particularly as the Whanganui River is such an iconic river for it’s size, remoteness dramatic gorges, exposed rock faces and incoming waterfalls.

Mark and I made the journey together. Neither of us had paddled anything like this distance before, but after the first hour we realised a 10km/hr pace was achievable, so we targeted a 70km day – which would certainly break the back of the journey. Mark and I have paddled a lot together before – in fact he got me into the sport and has taught me most of my skills – so it was special for us to be making the trip together. There were plenty of nice sections of fast water mixed in with some slacker stuff, and a huge amount to take in all along the way. I didn’t feel very comfortable cramped up in the cockpit of a kayak, and my legs didn’t really know what was going on after 18 days of consecutive running and suddenly finding themselves horizontal, but apart from that it was a pleasure to be doing something different. The main challenge was actually staying awake – I was a nodding dog at times – far too sedate this kayaking lark - so plenty of sugar was required to keep me going.

Mark and I both enjoyed the challenge of the distance, and it was far from easy, but the lure of an early finish dragged us through the tough afternoon session. It was the first time I have been finished for the day before 7pm, so to have eaten dinner by 7.30pm and be writing the blog before 10pm is a real, real treat.

Tomorrow we will finish the paddle and I will get back on two feet for a bit more distance towards the tally. We should finish the day on the south coast of the North Island – oh yes! Then, it will be a further few days heading down towards the island’s toe at Wellington. Exciting times now and ahead……

Breakfast before the start of the Whanganui River paddle. Bacon and eggs :o)

A classic scene on the Whanganui. Murky water & incredible forest clad walls either side.

Mark taking a morning shower in one of the many waterfalls.

Not the 'slickest' kayak I've ever paddled, but it did the job. I didn't choose the colour(s)...

Day 18: National Park to Bridge to Nowhere/ Whanganui River

Start: National Park (1,113km)
Finish: Bridge to Nowhere (1,191km)
Distance for the day: 78km
Cumulative distance: 1,191km

Big day. It was another case of the official paper/ mapped distance not reflecting the true distance due to a long road diversion (see earlier posts explaining why). We recon my actual distance for the day was more like 94km. Anyway, it was a great day, probably my best day of running yet.

Meeting the local farmer in the remote Wakahoro Camp

The misty overnight rain hung around for the first hour or two of running, but it made for pleasant running conditions – much cooler than anytime since I started the run. The route followed a long distance mountain bike route across a historic mountain route, and it was a real pleasure to running through somewhere so remote, yet with with fast underfoot conditions. After a short climb, the trail descended for a good hour, quickly losing the height we had been at in the Tongariro area. There started a long diversion of around 40km on winding gravel roads, to reach a dead end village called Whakahoro. James kindly followed me down there in the van – providing regular sustenance and company - and we were both pretty blown away by the remoteness and beauty of the location nestled at the junction of steeply sided forest valleys. The area has loads of history to it, and did used to have ‘vehicle’ links to adjoining valleys, but they have since become dilapidated and turned into tramping tracks instead of roads. The main source of income in this area is adventure tourism – cycling, walking etc – but in the height of the summer in the middle of the day, we were the only ones around except the young local farmer who was great to chat to. If this kind of place was in the UK or anywhere else in the world it would be heaving with outdoors enthusiasts. I wasn’t complaining though, it was special to have it all to ourselves.

Enjoying the view

A wild and remote valley

I took the Kaiwhakauka track from Whakahoro which was one of the former vehicle routes, and has been maintained to a great standard by the Department for Conservation (DoC), including loads of the brilliant DoC-trademark suspension bridges across the tributary streams. The route was well graded, climbing steadily, following the deep gorge of the river of the same name as the track (actually, probably vice versa). After 16km it reached a pass where I hung a right, for the final 21km leg down the Mangapurua track to the Bridge to Nowhere. It was more of the same; lovely smooth tracks meandering through woodland, meadows and some dramatic ‘bluffs’ (cliffs/ rocky outcrops). The advice on the signs was not to linger on the bluffs, and you certainly wouldn’t want to with plenty of evidence of recent rock falls. By this point I was feeling pretty much ‘done’, and was starting to count down the kilometers to the day’s end, but I maintained good pace and reached the iconic Bridge to Nowhere about 8.45pm after running hard for over 12 hours. It was a special place, I wanted someone there to share it with me, but I settled for a few self-taken photos. The substantial bridge was built in the 1930’s when the government attempted to open the area up to farming, but the concept never took off. When you see the density of the forests to the steeply sided valleys and how remote the area is, it’s not really surprising.

Planning the long section ahead from Whakahoro Camp 

Leaving the comfort of the van for the long 37Km run to the Bridge to Nowhere

The sign says 13hrs to the river - Jez did it in 6hrs - faster than suggested for a mountain bike!

From there it was a couple more kilometers to the Whanganui River itself, the point I begin my 120km down-river kayaking leg. The area is only accessible by foot, jet boat or kayak. Mark had taken the jet boat up earlier in the day, along with camping gear, kayaks and his incredible motivation and enthusiasm. It was great to see him after my epic run, and he was all ready to whisk me across the river in the kayaks to a DoC camping ground where we spent the night in preparation for the paddle. It was all carefully planned by Mark but had plenty of scope of hiccups, but the whole process went like clockwork. I like it when a plan comes together – well done Mark…..

Wild, super green, forests - as far as the eye can see - Whanganui National Park

Bridge to Nowhere

Cliff faces, bluffs, deep forest-clad gorges. Track cut in to the mountainside. A special place to run.

The NZ Department of Conservation - and of their trademark suspension bridges. If you're going to bridge it - bridge it in style!