The Goat - a race like no other!
By Rich Barter on 6th December 2017 Race Reports
Being a Rotorua-based trail runner and part of the community of trail junkies out this way, I've been convinced, coerced (and damn right bullied) into picking off most events in the central North Island.
The Goat, however, was one that I'd not crossed off my bucket list.
I was pretty excited to see what this one was all about. It seemed different somehow; more notorious. Anything that has limited spaces, sells out quickly and has people puffing their cheeks at its mention, deserves closer inspection.
I am an enthusiastic amateur and no more. This is not a review from a pro athlete. Reach down into that barrel further, way further. Keep going.. that's me. I do however run with some incredible people (and very encouraging people) and sometimes you can forget yourself and your limits.. and get sucked into events, chasing down times by flying out the blocks early. And that's been me in my previous few events. Pushing hard from the go and ending up disappointed and broken. So on the back of a few shaky events lately, I went into this one - camera in hand - with one single objective. To enjoy it.
I would walk when I had to, smile, take photos, move aside for people and breathe it all in..
The cafÃ© at the Whakapapa Ski Resort before the start was packed with people enjoying coffees and hot chocolate. The new Goat mascot posed for photos and the mixture of buff headwear, fancy dress outfits, hipster beards and trucker caps, meant I knew I was in the right place; a place that didn't take itself too seriously but was full of legends. Battle-hardened warriors of the circuit and slightly deranged Aucklanders escaping their office jobs and unleashing the fury of a thousand commutes.
The race, we were briefed, would begin with a 1.7km section of tarseal road before entering the trail. Each wave of 50 people was sent to a 'cage' which whilst I'm sure was intended to represent something like a pen, had instead more of a gladiatorial feel to it. As if entering the Coliseum to certain death, or eternal glory.
I was in wave 2A which meant I was the third wave to be released. There was plenty of room in the cage, but unlike any event I'd previously been in, no-one stood forward towards the start line. Mischievious grins and knowing looks were passed, and it was left to me to occupy that furthermost point of the cage. I stepped forward.. and the horn sounded.
Within 100 metres I'd dropped to about 40th in my wave, as scores of people passed me with the mountain road winding its way towards the vast landscape ahead. At this pace, my knees were taking a beating and I was reminded of everything I'd told myself about running at my own pace, but the tone had been set. This was it, and I was being carried on a wave of valor.
As we hit the volcanic sprawl of rocks on the opening of the trail, the relentlessness of the masses, eased not. Following the DOC posts through the openness, over streams and up inclines, runners around me were finding their own paths to overtake and seize a few precious seconds. I half expected to turn around and see a zombie apocalypse hearing towards us. The speed and chaos of the group had a sense of flight about it.
The pace was fraught, and the concentration required to avoid planting a foot on loose rock, or turn an ankle, was eye-watering. The climbs however provided much-needed rest from the intensity of not being steam-rolled, but hands on knees were required to keep moving at a pace that felt courteous. My Britishness still finding time to revert to apologetic politeness.
The first few river crossings were shallow. You could pretty much leap across boulders to avoid getting wet or plant a foot mid-stream up to your ankle. As the course reached the 5 or 6km mark, I was still smiling. Maybe I'm tougher than I think? Maybe I'm pacing myself really well today? Maybe this isn't THAT bad?
Now, I'm not the most thorough at studying course profiles and I'd taken the announcers word on face value when he said that the first 4km saw the most injuries. Surely then, it stands to reason that, this was the hardest terrain?
But this was just the aperitif.
This was not the close, winding trails of leaf litter that I'd find at home in Rotorua, but despite the open expanse of the course, the focus required on my own footing led (on more than one occasion) to suddenly being confronted with something quite unexpected. Climbs emerged and rose out of the ground like skyscrapers and as you glanced up; runners like little luminescent ants of orange and yellow scaled their heights.
Climbs even had their own climbs. On several occasions I'd reach the top, only to realise it was not the top at all, but rather one of perhaps three or four steps of a greater climb.
My wife, all beautiful 5 foot 1 inches of her, said to me before the race "Let me know what it's like as it's the first leg of the Ring of Fire relay." She was keen to do this leg and this was foremost in my mind as I hit rutted climbs that required me to somehow bring my knee up to shoulder height to pull myself up. Or when I dropped 8 feet into a hole of rich oozy mud. Or as I clung to brittle plant life to prevent myself sliding down natures muddy abyss. This was not a running event, but very much the adventure race it proclaimed to be.
One section of sharp downhill had runners tumbling forward amidst a deluge of granite. The force of determination outweighing all sense and reason! I was certain I was about to perform the worst slide tackle of a soccer career littered with terrible slide tackles. Or worse, get cleaned out by someone else..
Most of the race was spent with the acute realisation that someone was right behind you desperate to get past. On uphills people made their move, and on downhills I made back the places. And this was the cut and thrust of the event.
As the race continued, there was no let-up in the terrain itself; the next section, harder than the previous, though the final quarter saw us hit native bush and traverse over wooden walkways through marshland which softened the brutality of the earlier segments. But there was still the odd cravass of boulders or knee-deep river to traverse, one of which saw me lose my balance mid-stream and plant an arm down, drenching my base layer just as the heavens opened to ensure I remained fully wet for the remainder.
The finale to the course was really special. At around 17km a huge climb which extended itself alongside a waterfall took us up and up. The views back across the plateau, for those who took the time to look back, were as breathtaking as the climb itself as the light broke through black clouds to drape the horizon in light. Fingers clung to rock to pull myself up and halfway up that mountainside there was even one last chance to enter water, as a mid-waterfall pool provided the setting for another selfie and some perplexed looks from more determined goats.
One final push got us back to the main road, and from there, on towards the finish line.
The last 1.6km climb on tarseal brought relief but the incline itself was brilliantly cruel. My watch ticked over the 3-hour mark and at that stage I confess to walking this runnable section. As Kerry Suter's voice over the microphone became more and more audible, I started lifting the legs again - I daren't not be running as I come into view. The 'red carpet' finish came into view and the supporters were offering plenty of encouragement. The good vibes at the end complimented by the free beer and larger-than-your-average sausage sizzle.
Anyone who wants to go out and do something really challenging, spectacular, like very little else and where you can push yourself on a course that doesn't let up, this is for you. If you're a stats junkie and all you care about is your km times, you're gonna have a bad day! I think I had a 17:30 km in there - how is that even possible?! This was an event that stood out as different and with its own unique personality which I loved. I want more of these events.
I think I want to be a goat more often. I might even grow a beard.