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Have you been to see the gannets? Cape Kidnappers Trail Run

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Have you been to see the gannets? Cape Kidnappers Trail Run

By Rich Barter on 23rd October 2018 Race Reports

Have you been to see the gannets? Cape Kidnappers Trail Run

An old bond. A new adventure. Rich & Dave knock off the Cape Kidnappers Trail Run.

In 2003 I married the woman of my dreams in a two-hundred-year-old church in south-east England. Louisa wore a fairytale white dress. We rode in a vintage Rolls Royce. We drank champagne. The future we had laid out before us was exciting, limitless.  But one thing was beyond certain; neither of us were runners. In fact, when I look back at those heady early years together, running was about as far removed from either of our consciousness or intentions at that time as, say, emigrating to the other side of the world.

But six months after that wedding day, we set in motion a sliding-doors moment that would define the rest of our lives.

It's here, penning my thoughts on the quite magnificent Cape Kidnappers Trail Run, that I find myself humbled, reflective. As I look back on my life laid out in the loom of time, and the threads that have connected special moments and special people.

Louisa was still a medical student when we married and in this, her final year, she had the opportunity to choose whether she would pick somewhere overseas to spend 12-weeks placed in a hospital as a junior doctor. It was optional, but we decided it was an opportunity not to miss, so picked a few destinations and then waited. The dice of fate had been rolled... 

By New Years Eve, we were some 18,000 kilometers away from leafy South Bucks (our routines and our lives as we knew them) and were unpacking our bags in shared accommodation in Napier - a coastal city on New Zealand's North Island. Napier is not intuitively the kind of place a couple in their mid-twenties would gravitate towards. Less of a vibrant, modern city with a bustling nightlife. Instead, a sleepy, wine-producing region, with Art Deco buildings and tree-lined promenades. But it is undoubtedly a joyous place. A beautiful region basked in sunlight. 

Louisa was only required to work a few days a week, so much of our time was taken up exploring and we'd often ask people, "What should we do here?" The resounding answer was always the same, "Have you been to see the gannets?"

This became a bit of a running joke with us. Really? The gannets? Gannets?! Are you sure this is the best your region has to offer?

The weeks passed and (despite our obstinance towards seabirds) a love story was forged between ourselves and Aotearoa. We returned to the UK, but a fire burned brightly. Four years later and we were back in New Zealand, this time in Rotorua, with our life in a shipping container. Life would never be the same again.

We never did see the gannets.

In the weeks leading up to us leaving the UK for the second time, a friend of mine, David Finlay, approached me and asked me if I wanted a place in his charity running team. He and some pals had entered the London 10km. "Are you joking?" I asked. I'd never run 1km let alone 10km. But I found myself drawn to the idea and before I knew it, the sight of an uncoordinated mess of a man could be seen (and heard) breathing heavily and heel-slapping his was way around the pavements of Amersham.

There's no denying, that when I trace back my running journey to a moment of singularity, it begins with David. He is the reason I run now. In the same way that when I trace back my love affair with New Zealand, it begins with those early connections to Napier. So when David surprised me to say he was visiting me this October, and the running calendar threw up the Cape Kidnappers Trail Run, it felt like a 'return to origin' moment. Two beginnings coming together in a cosmic, predetermined collision.

There were two distances to chose from at the event, the 45km "ultra" or the 32km. David and I opted for the shorter of the two on the basis that we'd earmarked the Abel Tasman Coastal Classic the following week and wanted to keep our powder dry. Or at least, only slightly damp. As always a decent contingent from the Rotorua Trail Running Club joined us, almost all of whom were doing the 45km. This included my long-standing event husband Ben Alton, as well as trail badass Sue Crowley and Russell "the Russ-Train" Perry, to name a few.

Research into the event had proved fruitless. No course profiles could be found, no GPX files existed. Messages to the organisers, while swift in response were mischievously non-committal. I don't remember feeling particularly nervous in the days leading up to the event, but sudden toe-curling details started emerging. The website gave enough information that we could ascertain the race would begin on the beach - 8km of beach to be precise - and then see us climb rapidly. A climb which we guessed would be somewhere between horrific and nightmarish. Beyond that it was guesswork really.

With the race due to start at 8am, our wives were forced to find ways to amuse themselves and the multitude of children we had in tow. Top of Google search results for things to do; gannet tours.

A wry smile.

But do you know what... kids, big red tractors, the beach. And a free taxi ride to the furthest point where they could convene to cheer us on. It actually could not be more perfect! At last, gannets it was!

David (or D.A) was a parkrun enthusiast with half marathon tendencies who had done most of his training on the streets of South London. Dodging pedestrians and cars as he wound his way through the tarseal of Brixton and Crystal Palace. He was light of foot, but with little vert in his game. For me, I was broadly the opposite. Trudging out vert with regularity but completely bereft of meaningful pace. We agreed to run together, so it was going to be interesting how we faired. Reason dictated a 'hare and the tortoise' situation may unfold, but there was a general lack of certainty as to who would adapt best. As we sat and discussed the race the night before over a glass of wine and an unhealthy amount of fish and chips, we devised a simple coded metric. We called this the "balls out" system.

The “balls out” system was pretty straightforward and would help us get our bearings in the cut and thrust of the event. Two balls meant we go hard.. one ball out and we tentatively push.

Dave talked about the potential for a top 10 finish and podium placements. He was encouraging and excitable. Positive beyond reason. I almost believed. 

Pic: Photos4Sale

We stood at the very front of the pack as we readied ourselves. Fully balls out. "Nothing silly” we said “Swiftness only - it's a long run”. As the buzzer went to start the race, swathes of people drove forward towards the beach and we found ourselves lurching forward, but also dropping back. Within seconds we were on the sand, and stone, and rock. People clamoured to find their own path and we stumbled as we adjusted to the varying terrain underfoot that slowed our footwork down. By 500m we were already outside the top 50 runners and the front-runners were disappearing ahead. I checked the watch which read, 4:35/km. What I was seeing unfold around me was frightening; we'd immediately found ourselves in the uncharted, two balls in situation we'd never considered! But my watch and my heart-rate were telling me we were two balls out. Panic. Expectations evaporated. I could physically feel myself retracting as the analogy played out.

Early eagerness settled and soon we were at a more sensible 4:50/km pace. Moreover, we were actually gaining and picking off others. As we climbed off the beach we were greeted by the wives and kids who fuelled our beliefs. The climbs were hard to read; some people were running, others walking. There seemed little difference in material pace. Walking felt like it made sense, so we strode out what we could and caught people up again on the downhill.

The penny dropped and we realised many of the runners were relay competitors, who would, of course, be running faster. We were also by now bleeding into the tail-end of the 45km runners. A quarter of the way into the distance and we had no sense of where we were in relation to the rest of the solo 32km runners.

By 12km we felt high up and had left the rolling green of nestling hills behind, and were confronted with monster panoramas of the Pacific coastline. A couple of gels deep by now and the sugar was pulsing through our veins and some good forward momentum, saw us wind our way down snaking descents, borderline euphoric. This wasn’t too bad.

It was then we were confronted with it.

The mother of all hills. Welcome to "THE HELLIVATOR" read the sign. People stopped and stared. Others took photos, the air was blue with more than the sea-spray that whipped in from the rugged shoreline.

Calf-burningly brutal, we took the climb in stages. Short periods of enthusiastic running on our toes while our calves screamed at us were offset with hand-on-thighs power steps. I paused at one point to let the lactic acid drain away, "You didn't tell me about this" I said to someone beside me who'd just earlier told me this was his umpteenth race. "Ha! You can only see half the hill" he said. Sure enough, a false top greeted us, and up ahead the view of climbers bent over double traipsing up the next climb could be seen.

I'd been lucky enough to be gifted some new gear for this race to try, by trail running start-up Aussie Grit Apparel, who'd read my last race report on Wild Things "The best days of our life". But wearing a brand whose values include mental fortitude, and true grit.. and not displaying those same characteristics - right at that moment - would have been heinous. Two balls out. Let's go.

We climbed and climbed, and climbed some more. Shaking hands reached for fuel, but the adrenaline soured with the elevation and we joined other runners at the peak of the hill, jelly-legged, to breath it all in. 

To this point, David had led the way, but by the 23km aid station I was starting to dig into my stamina reserves, and he was starting to show early stages of fading. We didn't realise it, but the last 10km were to be largely kind with only a couple of kilometers that reached out and slapped you in the face. These sections involved ridiculously steep segments, followed by short sharp downhills on lumpy trail that tested your mental focus. 

Pic: Photos4Sale

Eye-watering levels of concentration got us to the river crossings we had been waiting for, and by now the odd supporter was walking backward down the track, so we knew we were close. David picked up his pace again – a second wind – and I fell forwards trying to stick with him. We only picked off a few in the late stages, but the rejuvenating feeling of water filling our shoes had invigorated us and we finished strongly.

Cape Kidnappers had put on a hell of a show; spectacular vistas and a challenging course. It had also shared something of itself to its visitors in a way that was truly honest. From the natural beauty of the course to incredible local food and beer, and excellent hospitality. It takes a special region and a special people to deliver authenticity so veraciously.

The kids played in the sand, for hours, making things with driftwood. And as I sat there surrounded by such a large number of amazing people, whose lives I’ve shared, either in the now or through the annals of time. And as I quenching my thirst on (oooh, so good) local ale, I found a warm glow of contentment wash over me.

Here I was, connected to this place and to these people in a way that meant something special. The sort of place that could steal your heart.

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Have you ever run the Cape Kidnappers Trail Run? If so we'd love to hear your thoughts on it. Please share your Rating & Review here.

You can follow Rich on Facebook at @NZ Run Guy & on Instagram at @nzrunguy

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