Into the Dawn - Mt Difficulty 2019
By Kat Bulk on 22nd July 2019 Race Reports
Into the darkness. Inky pre dawn.
Runners assemble. Tumbling Lycra and Gortex, bright colours under industrial lights, bobbing and dancing, trying to shake coldness from early morning limbs. It’s a clawing and aching cold. Cold borne on the wind. Cold from up high and far away.
Behind us on the hills, the Norwest crouches, brimming with damp and ferocity. It stamps back and forth along the ridges, threatening, menacing, never quite making the leap into the valley to envelop us entirely. But from time to time, it opens its throat and roars.
Terry warns us that the wind will be strong up top, teases us with the prospect that we may have to crawl on hand and knee to safely negotiate the wildest most exposed sections. Brilliant. Hands and knees seem rather fitting for the Mt Difficulty Ascent
Off. Off. Into the dawn. Belting along with the tumbling colourful runners, all brightness and laboured breathing in a world still steeping in the grey of night time.
Nipple Hill. Strong climbers streaming by. Lungs scream and legs ache from ankle to armpit, tendons and ligaments protesting heartily at the onslaught in the cold.
The brooding sky splits into a wide, toothy, sunrise grin. Into the morning.
The air is brimming with the scent of crushed thyme. The first descent is fast and loose, marble scoria, rumbling rock over rock. Skitter downward. Barely under control, pitching forward, off balance. Stumble. Nimble. Scramble. Ragdoll. Recover. Run.
Some are masterful. Some are lucky. The successful whoop. The ill-fated bleed.
Into the climb. Up. Up. You must press on up. Don’t stop. Don’t traverse. Don’t let your heart rate drop below 170. The masochist beast twitches an eye lid, unfurls its tail. Crouching. Interested. Ready.
Drop through the rocky gates signalling the relative end of the climb. Water race. Undulating track. The route nestles into tussock, meandering upward. Search memory banks for recollection of having run this section years ago. Memory suppression. Repression.
Into the descent. Legs whirling simultaneously ahead and behind. Wonder if its too early to be hammering at quite this pace. Hammer anyway. The road diminishes. Belt across the spur, tossed between the rock, and the tussock and the Spaniards. The earth pitches suddenly away beyond my toes; Really-quite-steep becomes sheer and treacherous. A balance between balance and speed and courage and sanity. Push as hard as you dare. Skin in the game. Skin on this hillside.
Grab the safety line! Rope whips through my fingers, melting patches of glove against my palm. I trade the million manic footsteps for a ski-over-loose rock and slippery tussock approach.
Into the second climb. The cliff-side cresting above. I have to crank my head right back to spot my destination. Glorious warmth blossoms as the sun drenches the landscape. Golden. Rich. Barren. Bald. Over my shoulder the slick pounamu Kawerau smears its way out of the Gorge. I climb through the only sort of vegetation that can eek out an existence clinging to this arid mountain face; sharp, gnarled, hardy plants push back at me; precarious over all this cavernous space. Hands, elbows, ankles, knees.
Over the lip and into the pale, billowing sky – stretched taught, and filled to bursting with the mighty Norwest wind. Its quiet and calm here. But overhead the clouds are dashed to shreds, tatters streaming out silently. Endlessly.
The climbing is easier now. Onward upward. Into the snow.
The air becomes steely and brilliant. Sharp light. Cold, bright air, a stark contrast to the warmth of the cosy climb. Bursts of achingly icy wind seek solace between garment seams.
Cresting the ridge, the ribbon of snow track spirals around the mountain tops ahead of me; swooping, undulating, sneered amongst rocks, anchored down with orange-capped waratahs.
Now into the run.
I swoop off. Soaring along the ground. The hours, the weeks, the miles, the grind, the training all in my legs, all coming to the fore. I feel strong. Half the race to go. A third of the climbing. I feel strong. The masochist beast is poised, ready to leap. I have been holding it back. Now free, we begin to run.
My legs windmill down the switch backs. Underfoot the snow is the texture of best sort of Braeburn. I hurtle downward. I cannon upward. Legs and lungs pistoning, madly competing for the privilege of pumping the hardest.
The climbing continues, surging to the final arcing ridge. The wind develops a steely edge and a renewed ferocity, paring back the heat from my bones, chilling tired muscles, beckoning forth tendrils of cramp around my knee caps.
Run into the pain. It hurts. Oh it hurts so good. But not in my head. I haven’t reached those intoxicating depths yet. My mind is the puppet master – cajoling, chastising, encouraging: juggling the strands of muscle and neuron, urging all of the bits of me on and on. Dig a little deeper. Work a little harder. Find that extra half a percent. Push. Push. You must. You MUST.
As I pitch and roll my way into the final climb, I teeter more and more precariously along the precipice of full crampy agony. Manage the discomfort. Drink. Eat. Place your feet a little more carefully here. Creep around the edges of muscle spasm. You’re almost there.
Into the final descent. Leave every shred of yourself on this final flight to the valley floor. Sunlight dipping to the west, harsh and bright; casting a barcode of alternating molten brightness and blinking gloom across the trail. I try my very best to thrash my quads to bits, pushing my limits over the steep terrain, and trying to run sub 4 minute Ks where the gradient is more forgiving. I will be sorely disappointed if I can negotiate stairs tomorrow.
The air is turning hazy and lavender by the time I reach the Bannockburn Sluicings. I pelt between the towering ribcages of ravaged sunset earth. The finish line, nestled in evening, just a handful of metres away. I sort of sprint the final straight – too much still in the tank – crossing the line comfortably under my 8 hour time goal.
Into the inky evening. Into the darkness.
I LOVED Mt Difficulty Ascent – just my sort of race, nuggety, steep, and challenging and with plenty of scope to hurt. I had such a good race, feeling strong and well prepared, nailed my nutrition and hydration (those Spring Energy gels are incredible), kept on top of my mental game, and really enjoyed the hell out of each of those 44km.
Massive thanks to Coach Daniel Jones from DA Endurance for helping me to prepare to thoroughly and effectively for this race. Thanks to Annabel and Dan for looking after me so well before and after the race. And thanks to QLDC Sport & Recreation for the ongoing support.
Terry Davis, this event is exceptional – thanks for having the wicked vision and sense of humour that makes Mt Difficulty the perfect combination of Type 1 and Type 2 fun. (Although I was slightly disappointed that there was no necessity to traverse a ridge on hands and knees…there is always next year though)
Ed*: these rock strewn, time-folded, wind battered hills will always remind me of the love and respect you had for this slice of gnarly paradise. When the brilliant golden sunlight bursts free of brimming clouds, and these mountains are bathed in all of the colours of warmth and comfort; a Toast to Ed - you are fondly remembered.
* Ed Stevens was co-founder, along with Terry Davis, of Highland Events. He bravely battled cancer for a number of years but sadly passed away earlier this month. RIP Ed, the world is a lesser place without you in it (note added by Mal Law)
Have you taken part in the Mt Difficulty Ascent at some time? We'd love to hear what you thought of it. Please Rate & Review the event to help other Wild Things looking to follow in your footsteps. Thanks.