There was a chill in the air, the low cloud was obscuring the tops of the surrounding hills and it was persisting it down with rain; causing the competitors to seek refuge under the little shelter that was being used as race registration.
Does this sound like a typical fell race in January? Well, it was like a typical January fell race - apart from one minor difference. It might have been January but this was in mid-summer, being 11,700 miles from my usual stomping ground in Derbyshire. This was the Jumbo Holdsworth Trail Race, a strenuous mountain race in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand’s north island, an event I’d Googled upon a few weeks before heading to the Antipodes.
An inquiring email to the organisers, Rob and Helen Barber, couldn’t have produced a more helpful response. Not only did they fill me in with all the details of the race, their hospitality extended to meeting me at the local railway station and offering to put me up the night before the race!
So, with the clock fast approaching the 8am start time, I found myself in a forest clearing on the edge of one of the many mountain ranges in this spectacular country. Although, at 24km, the race ahead was far from the longest I’d tackled, the experience I’d gained from running and walking in other parts of the country over the previous week told me it was likely to be a challenge.
After a briefing from Rob the 100 or so competitors were off into the forest. The front runners were off at an incredible pace, perhaps with the incentive of $600 for anyone who could reach the first check point in under an hour (which Rob had just announced) ringing in their ears. I opted for a steadier start; mindful of the tough terrain ahead.
The first 7km were ‘relatively’ flat as the trail undulated along the side of a valley following a river. There were plenty of rocks and tree roots to ensure concentration stayed high though.
But the highlight of this first section was an ‘I’m a celebrity – get me out of here’ style bridge across one of the tributaries, which had a limit of one person at a time. The rule here was to be fair – queue up orderly and anyone arriving in a group should wait for the others at the far side. ‘And’, said Rob at the briefing, ‘there will be a large Maori guy there to keep watch!’
For the brave, going through the river was allowed. But I chickened out as the sides looked steep and the water fast and deep.
Thirty something minutes in the trail turned left and UP – almost vertically through the thick rain forest. Within 50 metres the gradient had me walking and I realised that it would be sometime before running was possible again. No cushy zig-zags here to reduce the gradient – just straight up the lung and leg busting mountain side. And without the deforestation like in the UK, I had no idea how far away the top was because all I could see was trees. But despite heavy legs from previous days’ exertions, I was soon in a steady rhythm and moving up the field.
The hour mark came and went and there was still no sign I was anywhere near the first checkpoint at Jumbo Hut. A couple of time the bush thinned and I thought I was almost at the tree line, but a few metres further it was as thick as ever. Anyone who got that $600 would definitely deserve it!
Eventually, the trees ended and I emerged into tussock covered moorland high on the mountain and a few moments later reached Jumbo Hut – a good 30 minutes beyond the $600 bounty. After making sure the marshals, who’d had to spend the night on the hill to be there in time, had noted my number, it was upwards again into the mist towards the first of the two summits.
I soon found myself alone, unable to see anyone either in front or behind me. It was therefore time to concentrate hard to keep on what was becoming a fainter and fainter trail. Running was in fits and starts due to the many hindrances. Even where the gradient wasn’t too severe there were rocks, ankle deep bogs and cliff edges to contend with.
As the route started to undulate along a ridge I realised that I’d passed the first summit in the fog without realising it. So I knew that it was less than 2k to the top of Mount Holdsworth, the highest point of the race at 1470 metres (4822 Feet), from which it was all down hill – hopefully!
It seemed like a long 2k though as I stumbled along the ridge trying to stay on course; fortunately I only strayed once and quickly realised when I found myself waist deep in a bog. Progress was slow although I was pleased to note that there weren’t a procession of runners overtaking me.
Eventually the summit trig point emerged from the mist and the descent began. Very steep descents, particularly rocky ones, are not my strong point so I knew I’d have to work hard and concentrate even harder to prevent too many from catching me, and stay on my feet. For the next kilometre or so I think I was doing more jumping than running as I scampered down to the last checkpoint at Powell hut, narrowly avoiding a pile up with group of ascending walkers who seemed incredulous at the lunatics that appeared to be falling out of the sky at regular intervals.
After a brief pause at the hut to refill my water I was plunging down past the tree line again, and back into the land of mud and tree roots. I’d been going for just over 2½ hours so knew I ought to be done in less than an hour, provided nothing went wrong. For the next few kilometres the downward gradient was relentless though and seemed almost vertical at times. But I was starting to gain confidence, particularly when I realised I was catching someone up.
After a couple of minutes of banter with my adversary he said I better go on, because he was (apparently) saving himself for another race tomorrow. So I was alone again heading down down down through the forest, thinking how similar the path was to the route of race at Totley (Sheffield). Hard to believe how many miles I was from there.
A hill race isn’t really a hill race without a sting in the tail, so it was somewhat inevitable that after the very long quad busting descent I found my legs going to jelly as the route started to climb again. Fortunately it wasn’t for long before the descent resumed though.
All of a sudden I emerged on the trail we’d set out on along the valley bottom and spotted the 1km to go sign, and five minutes later I was shaking hands with Rob having crossed the finish line 3hr 19min after I’d set out.
After getting my breath back it was time to tuck into the magnificent spread of food that had been laid on at the post race barbeque, and swap experiences with some of the other runners, while we waited for the eagerly anticipated prize giving. Rob and Helen’s philosophy is to only guarantee the first male and female prizes, with the remaining prizes going as spot prizes. With around 60 of those on offer, which included such things as running shoes and weekends away, very few people sloped off early.
Back at Rob and Helen’s house there was just time for a welcome shower before the after-party started to swing into action, as many of the race volunteers (marshals, radio communicators, etc.) descended on their garden for beer, BBQ, more beer and all the telling of all the post race tales.
All in all a fantastic event, organised by some great people, in beautiful place! If you ever find yourself in that part of the world in late January you should definitely give it a go.
And, in case you were wondering, the $600 for getting up the first hill in under an hour was safe. Despite finishing first on his first attempt at the race, and setting a new course record, the leading (racing snake like) runner, James Coubrough, missed out by just 90 seconds. I gave him a good race though……he only managed to beat me by 59 minutes, and 22 positions!