Otago Central Rail Trail Miler Mission
By Isaac Walker on 9th September 2019 Trail Reports
Training for the Great Naseby Water Race 100 miler was tough. I’m not used to a lot of ‘flat running’ as living in Hawea we usually take advantage of the predominant landscape – the mountains. But after completing the 100 mile at Old Forest Hanmer with minimal training and the subsequent pain during the event I decided I didn’t want to go through that again – and I really wanted to sneak under the 24 hour mark for the distance. So I trained reasonably well and was happy with where I was at, I felt ready. Naseby would have been the no.3 race for me in the Southern Seasons Miler Challenge, Krayzie Ks in Christchurch in November would have been the last.
However life took an unexpected turn 5 days before the event. My son Josh was a little bit crook over the weekend and started having a few unique symptoms (swollen red lymph nodes, rash, fever) and on the Monday, after 3 visits to the doctor over the previous 4 days, we were told to go to Dunedin Hospital immediately. Things started to get a bit blurry from here as we knew this was a little more serious than we first thought. We were admitted into the children’s ward pretty quickly and he was diagnosed with a rare illness called Kawasaki Disease. The doctor’s said they maybe get 1 or 2 cases a year and he had the ‘classic’ symptoms so it was a straightforward diagnosis. Kawasaki Disease causes an inflammatory response across multiple systems in your body and basically makes your body attack itself. The only treatment to help kick the illness in the butt was an infusion or two of a special type of blood product called immunoglobulin. This increases the body’s defence and gives the patient a much better chance of ongoing damage. The main damage that they worry about is damage to the coronary arteries around the heart which can be immediate or later down the track.
So after a pretty rough week in hospital, highs and lows and infusions we were allowed to go home later the following Saturday. Josh was doing so much better after the treatment and the staff at the hospital were amazing. Naseby came and went and I had no doubt were I wanted to be – beside my boy and wife and daughter. On the Saturday night we stayed at my parents' house – they own a B&B in Lauder. My brother Ben had just got home from his first 100km at Naseby. Retelling his experience I was pumped and excited. I loved that feeling after a longer run/race. And that’s when I thought “I’ve just done all this silly flat training, and it will be put to waste a little if I don’t do something”. My mind grabbed a hold of this seed and went nuts (as usual), analysing possible run routes and opportunities to do something a little bonkers. Across the road the Otago Central Rail Trail ran right past mum and dad’s place. I’d been curious about running this before but was put off due to so much horrible flat stuff. But now, I was reasonably prepared (not counting the emotionally and physically stressful week we had just had). Chatting with my dad and brother we came up with a rough plan, and the seed germinated. It was on.
The next weekend was the date. I wanted to do it as soon as possible to take advantage of what ‘flat fitness’ I had left. Josh was bouncing back super quick and was already trying to run around and explore, so I knew he would be ok and in safe hands with my wife Sue. Mum and dad stayed during the week to look after Josh, who was off school, and I got a little jog in with the old boy which was cool and it was great to stretch the legs. Friday crept up very quickly and since my gear was still packed for Naseby I didn’t have to do a hell of a lot to prepare. Apart from this was not a race, with aid stations and people. I was planning this as a solo self-supported run. And I was also wondering if anyone had actually run the trail in one hit before and the possibility of setting a FKT (fastest known time) occurred to me. I also figured if I parked my van in Alexandra I could run the 8km back from the end of the rail trail in Clyde to hit 100 miles – hopefully sub 24 hours. I had to calculate what I needed for food and hydration at each supply drop (Kokonga 42km, Wedderburn 73.5km, Lauder 108km and Alexandra 144km) and also how to carry all my rubbish. There were no rubbish bins anywhere and I was not going to leave my crap everywhere. My pack was going to be heavy, little did I know how heavy it was going to get.
So Friday 30th August, after a 5am start and 9.5 hour day at work I drove to Lauder, picked up dad and we drove towards Middlemarch. I was going to be running from Middlemarch to Clyde as we thought the longer ‘less exciting’ sections could be done in darkness. We hid my second supply drop under the rail shed at Wedderburn and the first supply drop in the grass in Kokonga near a railway sign. After a quick photo my dad, ‘Brucey’, waved me off and I took my first steps on the trail at 7.30pm in Middlemarch. Brucey was going to drive my van up the trail a little way and ride his e-bike back to keep me company for a few kms. I was happy about this and although this meant I couldn’t officially class it as ‘solo’ anymore I didn’t really care too much. Having dad to chat to was great. The stars were amazing and the first kms ticked away like clockwork. Dad rode about 4 kms with me to the Rock and Pillar Station, we said our goodbyes and best wishes and I watched him drive off into the night as I headed down the trail.
Compulsory start of the trail selfie.
Everything went smooth for the first 20-25kms. A few spooky ‘check behind you’ moments but otherwise felt pretty good. Then I started feeling the inclines. Now the inclines and declines on a rail trail are hardly worth noticing, if you are running a shorter distance. I noticed a tiredness was creeping into my legs as I drifted into Hyde at 27.5km. These inclines were telling me to take a walking break, I didn’t and pushed on through them. Just after Hyde the trail got a lot more interesting. Huge rock bluffs rose up from the left hand side and so did the wind as the trail wound its way through a valley. I knew the first tunnel was due and I wasn’t familiar with this one (the other tunnels and 2 main viaducts I had done many times near my parent’s house in Lauder). I was a little intimidated with the though of cruising through a tunnel by myself in the dark but after entering it was actually pretty rad. Plenty of stonework and time to appreciate the craftmanship and work gone into it as it was 151m long.
The next period was tough. I was stoked to get to my first supply drop in Kokonga as it meant I could have a little break. But because I had to re-fill my bladder it meant taking everything bulky in my pack out and then re-inserting the bladder back in etc. I also made a minor miscalculation in my calorie intake. Drinking Tailwind and trying Trail Brew (from Australia) I forgot how many calories my hydration also gave me. So I had plenty of calories, enough for a party run and more. I had strategically placed coke at my first stop and coke/ginger beer at subsequent stops as I knew these were liquid gold for me. The coke didn’t disappoint. But I had a little issue, carrying all this gear and extra food. I tipped out any extra hydration I couldn’t fit in, packed my pack to the brim and threw what now felt like a 60L hiking pack on my back.
The Interplanetary Cycle Trail planets along the way
Feeling a little better I trudged on. 42km down, 119km to go. Great. Negative thoughts spun around for some time now, the trail just seemed to go on and on and on and on. From Kokonga to Ranfurly to Wedderburn the trail was simply relentless. In the worst way possible. At times I craved the daylight as at least I could see the views around me. The stars had now almost disappeared as cloud cover moved in. I also adapted a new mantra. I have never been one for creating a mantra prior to a longer event or run. During Northburn one thing I kept telling myself was “Get it done, just get it done” then during Hanmer it was simply “Move!” I hadn’t had many good patches on this run so far but when I did get a glimmer of goodness or any type of motivation I said “Take advantage!”. This became my mantra for the rest of the entire run. “Take advantage” and I did at every chance I got as I knew I had so far to go. By now I was having numerous power hiking breaks but still moving at a reasonable pace – around 7.30-8mins per km. Actual running was sporadic.
One funny thing happened in Ranfurly. I sat down at the station and had a little stretch as my quads, hips and hamstrings were all getting pretty tight. Now just before the run I created a Facebook messenger group with my wife, my parents and good mate James. Mum is a worry-bot and I knew she would be sleepless tonight. I had been updating the group at different points so they knew I was all good. However in Ranfurly mum must have been a bit sleepy and after I messaged my location my phone started calling, in the group. So this started calling everyone. James answered thinking the worst and then mum thought James was me and things got a bit confusing. Mum had accidentally tapped the group call button on her iPad in the dark then freaked out trying to cancel it. Dad rang me after and was cracking up laughing. My sweet and caring wife Sue simply put her phone on mute. Clearly sleep is more important than my wellbeing! haha
I was stoked to get into Wedderburn as I knew this marked a change in direction for the trail and also my second supply drop and a GINGER BEER! I grabbed my supplies from under the rail shed and laid out everything on the seats inside the shed. I had so much food. I had hardly eaten much from the last supply drop now I had even more to deal with. So I worked out a few things that I could throw into the paddocks (a few lucky sheep got some chocolate and dutch waffles). I also attached a dry bag to the back of my pack for all the bottles I used for hydration. If my pack wasn’t heavy enough before, it bloody was now. But, my mood had improved and it was around 5am. I was around 1 hour behind my goal time and I knew daylight was approaching and some fun sections of trail. By fun I mean really flat but there were some cool things to look at. At around 80km is the highest point of the trail – a huge 618m above sea level.
This is where things took a turn…. for the better! The downhill started and it felt incredible. I had my music playing out my iPod quietly for a few hours now but the songs that came on seemed to match the vibe and I was pumped. I was even averaging sub 6min kms down here and I was on top of the world. Even higher than on top of the world, I was really high. Perhaps it was the glow in the sky behind me, or the gradual slope of the trail but I felt amazing. Then I saw a baby dragon smiling at me on the side of the trail. I thought to myself “hmm, that’s cool…”. I turned away, looked back and it was a bush. This was the first decent hallucination I have ever had. I was pretty satisfied with my first visual representation of my fatigued imagination (little did I know that would be nothing compared to later). The downhill lasted for a number of kms and flattened out toward Oturehua. From here I knew it wasn’t far to Auripo and the familiar Poolburn Gorge section before my parents place.
Now 2km out from Oturehua I had a feeling in my bowels, I needed a toilet. 500m later, I needed a toilet urgently. The only thing was the trail was now raised up above the surrounding properties, it was light and there was houses littered everywhere. I passed a sign saying 1.5km to the town centre so I gingerly moved on. The next 1.5km was a mixture of clenched slow jogging and meditative walking. It was the closest I have ever been to letting go and dealing with the mess afterwards. I literally had to go to a zen state and concentrate so hard not to let go. I crawled into the town and saw a toilet sign pointing right. I went right. I saw a building which looked exactly like a toilet block. It wasn’t. Now there is such a thing when you need to go to the toilet and you get closer to one your urge to go becomes even stronger – it’s called Latchkey Incontinence. Most people have it and I am one of them. I’m not sure how I held on but I did as I scanned the street for the actual toilet. When I was about to give up I saw a small sign above a door attached to a town hall of some sort. I waddled like a penguin smuggling drugs up his bum through customs across the road. I kept telling myself “It’s ok mate, just go slow, take it easy. Easy. Easy” as I knew the urge was now a tidal wave ready to escape and demolish the porcelain. I opened the door and was pleasantly surprised at the cleanliness, but no time to admire the furniture. I very timidly pulled down my bottoms, being very delicate and careful not to release midway, sat down and “YES! GLORIOUS HEAVEN!”. I may have woken a few neighbours up with my guttural animalistic noises. Ok, enough of the poo talk.
Feeling a bit lighter I continued the trail. This portion was pretty cool. The sun had just risen, and the sun was shining on the valley ahead. Then the trail opened up and stretched ahead, far far ahead – at least 6km ahead of straight flat trail. Some more guttural noises but not of the satisfied kind were produced. Oh well “Take advantage” I said as I was still feeling reasonably good. This section did drag on, a lot. I was so eager to get to the part of the trail I knew so well. I passed Auripo at 97.5km and worked out I had picked up a couple of extra km along the way due to toilet and gear stops, my watch was sitting at 98.5km. That 100km mark was a nice milestone to pass and gave me some motivation. I trudged on and soon entered the Poolburn Gorge and familiar territory, which was fantastic. 8km to go until Lauder.
Ida Valley Station – the end of the looooong straights.
The two longest bridges/viaducts and two longest tunnels are in this section and it was just a really cool section to run through. At the last viaduct I messaged mum and put in my order for a cup of coffee and some noodles. Not really self-supported anymore but I didn’t care, coffee sounded amazing. And it was! It was really cool to see mum’s smiling face and welcoming hug. And another really cool thing – I could drop all my rubbish off and extra gear I didn’t need. It was getting warm very quickly, the sun was out and I knew it was supposed to get hotter so a lighter option of clothes was ideal. I re-packed my pack, got down the ginger beer, coffee, some noodles, said goodbye to mum and heading down the trail sipping my coke. From here I could really calculate my timings as well. To hit my sub 24 hour miler target it was going to be close. I had to stay on my game. I had to average 8 minute kms for the rest of the run including any stops or breaks. Hence ‘Take advantage’ was going to become very important.
Poolburn Gorge viaducts & tunnels.
A pretty uneventful section through Omakau and towards Chatto Creek ensued. A few kms out from Chatto Creek I started to get low on my fluids – it was getting very warm and my hydration intake was increasing. I wouldn’t have enough to get me to Alexandra where my van was parked. So options whizzed through my head, Chatto Creek had a popular pub so that was my best option. Now I’m not sure why the trail right before the pub headed straight for it then veered at a 90 degree angle away from it – a little tiring for my poor brain which was now having trouble doing calculations. Heading down to the pub I also managed to spook some sheep who had escaped their paddock and got onto the trail. I was not stopping for sheep so I kept running, and so did they, for at least 3km or so. I kept thinking of Born to Run and how we were ‘long distance hunters’ and I might tire them out. Believe it or not I did, they go slower and slower and when I was close enough I put a bit of speed on, got beside them and made them divert off the trail into some nice long grass. “Now wouldn’t that have been easier 15 minutes ago guys!” I yelled at them.
The big bend towards Chatto Creek.
I got to the pub, walked through the back door and got some strange looks. I asked for water, the barmaid kindly said have as much as I want as she could see I was in need. She asked me how far my run was today, I didn’t think she expected me so say “Umm, well I started last night in Middlemarch 128km ago”. Needless to say she looked a little bewildered. I sculled down a litre of ice cold water and filled up my 500ml flask in my front pocket. With a good amount in my bladder I thought it was enough to get me through I thought. It was now 17km to Alexandra. This is were I gave a call to James as him and another friend Rachel were coming down to run the final section to Clyde and back with me. I gave him my time estimates and kept moving along. I was definitely clock watching at this point and every time I felt a bit of time pressure I had a little jog. Time passed slowly and the sun was hot. The wind was a head wind. I saw the first people on the trail I had seen for the entire trip here, it was nice to acknowledge other trail users for a change. I was going through my liquid again and I was starting to crave plain cold water. 10km out from Alexandra James messaged and said he had a ice cold water for me and iced mocha milk – absolutely gorgeous.
James and Rachel started to head towards me when I hit 7km to go and I meet up with them around 5km to go. It was fantastic to see them both and have an actual conversation with friends. Definitely a good distraction from how sore my legs and feet were. I had been rubbing voltaren on a problem spot on my feet in the arch of my foot behind my big toe. This had me in tears at Hanmer due to the pain and I didn’t want that to happen again – the voltaren seemed to be keeping it under control although the pain was coming on sooner and sooner after each application. The van in Alexandra was such a welcomed sight. I felt like collapsing there and going to sleep. One leg to go, 2 x 8km. Piece of piss. I now had under 3 hours to complete the 16km and I was pretty confident I could do that without too much difficulty. Some warmer clothes were packed as it was getting on in the day, refuelled and restocked and on we went.
Having friends on the trail makes a world of difference. Chatting away I didn’t even realise the kms ticking away. Rachel may have been a bit put off by some of James and my conversation topics but in trail running – anything goes! It’s just the way it is, sorry Rach hehe Before I knew it we were approaching the end of the rail trail in Clyde. We found a sign that represented the start/end of the trail, got a quick photo then headed back the other way. Official time for the 152km Otago Central Rail Trail was 22 hours 2 mins. Plenty of time to make it back to complete the miler. Now, things were getting tough. My mind was almost done and I started to fade a bit. I knew I could take it a little easier, and I did. The company I had made that last section so much better than it could have been. I ticked over my 100 mile mark a couple of kms from the van with a time of 23 hours 20 mins. I got my sub 24 hour miler time. I was done. But there was still a little walk to go and I wasn’t about to make James go and fetch the van.
Rachel, myself and James at the end of the rail trail – VERY HAPPY!
We arrived at the van, 162.km in 23 hours 40mins. That was the longest day I have ever experienced. Such relief, such gratitude. And I was also super stoked I didn’t have to drive the 1.5 hours or so home! James was my driver for this evening. A beer on the way home and iced mocha topped it off. I felt incredible, just very broken. Now on the way home there is a section past the Clyde dam where you drive beside Lake Dunstan and there are several large rocky outcrops between you and the lake. Looking ahead I saw a huge rock quickly morph into a dinosaur (an Apatosaurus to be precise, my son is into his dinosaurs). It was crouched on all fours and looked straight at me. Not long after an elephant appeared. Now this was the good stuff I thought – finally some decent hallucinations! At least I wasn’t by myself on the trail in the dark when this happened.
So that was my experience over the last few weeks. A pretty full on emotional and physical roller coaster. When I arrived home last night, I was the most crippled I can remember. I could hardly stand let alone walk. I can’t really remember getting home and talking to my wife, it’s all a blur. And today has been interesting. Father’s Day. I was actually very happy it was as I was cooked breakfast and didn’t have to do a hell of a lot. Thank you, Sue, Josh and Scarlett, – one of the best (and most painful) Father’s Day’s I’ve ever had. It was definitely the best, no, the worst idea I’ve ever had. I will never ever ever ever ever ever ever do that again. But, my itch for something crazy has been scratched…. for now.