Leaving the Ghosts Behind
By Brook Van Reenen on 8th March 2018 Race Reports
When I first started trail running roughly 3½ years ago it was only a matter of time before I learned who Malcolm Law was. I met him and his wife Sally at the 2015 Kepler Challenge and we have been friends ever since. Something that he said to me in those early days stuck with me… “Why do something that you know you can already do? Where's the challenge in that?!” And so along came The Old Ghost Ultra 2017.
I remember Sally putting a photo on Facebook at the inaugural OGU (2016) saying how impressed she was with the event. The race photos followed and I knew I had to go and do it! It looked stunning. I looked a bit more into it and discovered the story of how they made the trail, which only whet my appetite further.
I trained pretty well, joined the Running Wild tour, and soon race day was upon us.
52 km in I had had enough. I still don’t really know why I pulled, it just all got a bit much and the chopper ride out seemed like the easiest option. Sitting at the finish line I was gutted. The support I got was unreal. People like Mel & Steve Aitken, Grant Guise, Kristian Day, Mal & Sally and Race Director Phil all felt for me and tried to cheer me up. I knew I would be back!
February 24th 2018. A year had passed and I hadn’t thought about a lot else other than this day! I was back on the Running Wild tour with another awesome group of like-minded trail runners from overseas and all around the country. At around 4am I rolled out of bed at the epic Rough and Tumble lodge, got into my gear and had a light breakfast. Before leaving Sally said “don’t worry about anything else but yourself - this is yourday run your own race!” We took a few photos with big smiles on our faces, wished each other a good day and walked the 800m from the lodge to the start of the race.
At the start I got a good luck hug from Becky ‘machine’ Nixon and for some reason remember hearing the song “Sail” by awolnation cranking on the stereo. At this point I moved to the back of the field, as I ‘d been told more than once that I needed to keep the pace down at the start. I had a massive day ahead of me and hard to curb my natural inclination to go out a bit too hard!
We got the 10 second countdown, I started my watch, switched on my head torch and we were off! 800m from the start, before you head into the bush, I heard Mal and Sally cheering everyone on. I started to find my rhythm and looked forward to the big day ahead. 5kms in I tripped but saved myself. Not long after I did it again and saved it again. Then further up the trail I did it a third time and fell to my knees. I got up pretty quickly and told myself to calm the F&%@ down or it was going to be a really long day!
Watching the daylight break as we ran through the bush next to the Mohikinui River was special and soon I reached the first aid station, easily beating the cut off cut off time. I didn’t expect the Race director Phil there but he was happy to see me and topped up my water bottle. I was also reminded to keep the pace down – yet again!
It was 26 km to the next aid station at Stern Valley. I found my rhythm again, put on my tunes and cruised this sensational west coast trail. The scenery was epic! 30 km in the fun starts and we were into a solid climb to the top of Solemn Saddle. I was hiking at this point and yarning to a guy called Kevin from Christchurch. It was good to keep my mind off the task at hand. We reached the top and from there it was some nice downhill running through the Boneyard, past Lakes Cheerful and Grim, and then into the Stern Valley Checkpoint. I reached this by 12 p.m. I sat down and the awesome volunteers brought me my drop bag. We were 42 km in at this stage so I changed my socks and pulled out a ginger beer, which tasted pretty amazing! Another guy sitting across from me looked at it and said “Dammit why didn’t I think off that!! I poured the rest in my bottle, topped up my Tailwind, got out my poles for the next big climb, had a quick toilet stop and applied sunscreen. Then I noticed a commotion around me and wondered what all the carry on was. Then a chopper landed and out bounded world class trail runner Lucy Bartholemew, along with my coach, Ali. It was the first time I had met Ali in person, but it wouldn’t be the last time I saw her today! She gave me a hug and was stoked at how well I was doing.
Feeling confident I started the next section up to Ghost Lake hut. About 20 minutes later Lucy cruised passed me and said I was doing a good job. I was pretty stoked to hear that! Onwards to a huge climb with lots of switchbacks and then came the dreaded Skyline Steps - around 270 of them! At the bottom of the steps I chilled out and had a wee rest. My friend Miriam caught up to me and told me to tag along with her - it was primo to see a familiar face and soon enough we were on the Skyline Ridge together.
This is where it gets tough. You can see Ghost Lake hut - the next aid station - in the distance, but you can also see how far you have to go before you will be there! I was still drinking regularly but probably not as much as I should have. Miriam is super-strong so she cruised into the distance, but before she left it was cool to share with her the place where I pulled the pin last year. She took a photo of me flipping the bird at the heli pad sign! “Not this year!” I said.
I don’t know what happened after that but it seemed to get a bit much. I started over-thinking things. I had gone 52 km and was slowing down a lot - walking and stopping walking and stopping. Whatever I was getting down didn’t seem to want to stay down! I wasn’t far from Ghost Lake hut now, so tried to sort my shit out and slowly pushed on.
It was a nice feeling reaching Ghost Lake Hut as I never got there last year. The volunteer who helped me last year recognised me, shook my hand and said “glad to see you back mate!” I told him I wasn’t doing too good and sat down – again! The aid station crew gave me fantastic care. One lady told me to put my legs up and have a lie down while she bought me water. She gave me 5 minutes and went away. It seemed like a very fast fast 5 minutes when she reappeared and I said I needed 5 more minutes! I told her “I’m NOT pulling out, I just need to rest and get it together.” She seemed to understand. But when I stood up things weren’t too flash. I told her I needed to have a spew, so she showed me where the toilet was. It was good to get whatever it was out and I felt better once it had come up.
Leaving the toilet I ran into Jenny Hirst who I had just met two days before. She was also part of the Running Wild tour group and wondered what I was doing there! I told her I wasn’t great but keen to keep moving,so we Left Ghost Lake hut amongst cheers from the awesome aid station folk! This is why Jenny is an all round good sort - she should be on TV1 News’ Sunday Good Sorts! She gave up her race to plod along with me and make sure I was ok. I would have carried on regardless but I don’t know how far I would have got if it wasn’t for her telling me to put one step in front of the other and keep moving. Life saver!
And the trail rolled on… with around 27 km to go we got to a place where I had to grab a photo! Heaven’s Door! You could see forever into the distance - the views there were unreal! We plodded on up to the Lyell Saddle and I had another quick spew! Past the Tombstone and finally, we reached the very highest point of the course! Hooray, the climbing was done! It was now about 6 p.m. and we had about 3 km to get to the next aid station, where the cut-off was 7 p.m. The downhill along the top was pretty epic .Jenny mentioned that it reminded her a lot of the tops of The Kepler and I agreed.
I felt a little better and started running again, but too hard! I didn’t pace myself and soon enough felt like crap again! We slowed down and went through the bush and made it to the last aid station at the Lyell Saddle hut. What a relief it was to get there with time to spare! I took a seat and we had a good break.
There was still 18 km to go, all of it downhill. I had beaten the cut-off time and was determined to keep plodding! So PLOD we did. And sit. And PLOD. And sit. At one stage I was sitting on a stoat trap contemplating life, telling Jenny I don’t know how I’d get to the finish, while she was taking a photo of me with a cheeky robin next to me wondering what the hell I was doing in its neighbourhood!
Then along came Good Sorts numbers 2 and 3 - Ali and Maree! Jenny explained my situation to Ali and they said the best thing for me to do was hold my head up high and keep moving. Jenny was getting cold so took off to the finish - I didn’t blame her in the slightest, just thanked her, my Trail Angel!
The last kilometres with Ali & Maree were interesting! I was in good hands with the boss but I still wanted to sit down every 500m. Ali took no shit though and I was told to get up pretty fast! They were trying to talk to me but I wasn’t up to it and was giving pretty blunt answers. Ali said “I reckon when we get near the finish magic will happen!”
Soon enough it got dark. I had never expected I would need my headlight for a second time that day but looking back it was an awesome experience running through this section at night. We heard Kaka calling and we could see the moon rise through the bush! 10 km to go… I was still walking and not stopping as much! I could feel that finish line getting closer and I had perked up a bit. Maree decided she wanted to get going too, so cruised off, leaving me with Ali. The trail never got dull and towards the end we cruised next to waterfalls, around massive slips and even got to see glow worms - something that those fast people who finished in the daytime never got to see!
5 km to go and the magic happened. I felt like running! Well, I did a very slow walk-run thing! Then the best signpost came along. Throughout the whole trail there were 85 posts 1 km apart counting down the kms. Sometimes it was hard to look when you realised how far you had still to go, but this one said ‘1km’. I told Ali “I’m going to finish this thing” and she said “hell yeah buddy!” A bridge came along and I thought it was the finish - but nope! We cruised along a bit more and I reached the real last bridge! I just needed to cross that and I would be home free!
I ran through that finish with a huge smile on my face. Phil (the Race Director) and Mal were surprised - they thought I was still 6 km away! Phil gave me a massive hug and put the 85 km Old Ghost Ultra finisher’s medal around my neck. It felt AMAZING! Next came another huge hug from Mal, Jenny and then Ali! A few other guys were stoked for me! Christchurch Kevin was there and even Lucy was still at the finish!
The magic had really happened! It was around 11 p.m. I’d had a big day out - around 16 and a half hours by then - so without delay we headed back to Westport where at the motel I was greeted by Sally, who had waited up for just this moment. She was over the moon for me and gave me a big hug – I was liking all these hugs!
After missing out last year on the finish line, this is a moment I will never forget. I imagine it’s exactly how Phil and co. felt after they completed building The Old Ghost Road. I met some amazing people, and this is why I’m a trail runner! I did something I didn’t think I could do! After completing something so massive, little things in life seem a lot easier.
I got the opportunity so said a few words at the prize giving which felt harder than the run! Last year I bought an Old Ghost Ultra t-shirt and barely wore it because I didn’t feel I’d earned it, but at this year’s prize giving I was wearing it proudly! I had to thank everyone who had helped, without them it would have been a bloody tough day! I can’t thank Jenny enough and all the others - they know who they are!
Back at work on Wednesday and back to reality I got a visit from Mal and Sally asking me how I was going after my big day out. They wondered why I wasn’t wearing my medal around work (it hangs proudly next to my other ones but this is the one I have had to work the most for) and for me that just shows the pure class of those two human beings! Hopefully they both listen to the advice they gave me when they head to Northburn in a few weeks!
Last year the ghosts followed me home and haunted me. This year I left it all out there and left the ghosts firmly in their place on the Old Ghost Road.