From 2004 until 2008, we lived in Cromwell the shadow of Mount Difficulty. During that time we spent plenty of time exploring the Central Otago terrain and tackling iconic local events such as Gold Rush. A few years after we moved up to the North Island, Terry Davis dreamed up the Mount Difficulty Ascent. I’d heard rumours from my former training buddies that it was an epic challenge and a real grass roots event, so I quickly added it to my “bucket list”. In January 2019 I passed through Central Otago on a family holiday to explore old haunts and visit old friends. The Mount Difficulty Ascent was mentioned again and I casually declared that I’d be back in six months time to do the event.
I spent the early months of 2019 taking part in several 12 hour adventure races and building my fitness for Xterra Rotorua. When some cheap flights to Queenstown popped up in March I was feeling brave enough to think about heading south. A quick check on dates revealed that this was Rob’s (my better half’s) birthday weekend, so I reasoned that he would be fit enough from his GodZone efforts to join my adventure. I booked the flights and the grandparents for babysitting duties.
April and May disappear all too quickly, I’m running well enough to tackle the Rotorua Half but as winter starts to kick in and I research more about the Mount Difficulty event, everything starts to feel a bit more real. I tell myself it’s not a race, just an adventure.
We arrive in Queenstown a couple of days before the event on the back end of a southerly. Snow is already coating the mountains and the ski fields are starting to open. As we head to Cromwell the day before the race I’m thinking hard about what gear to take and Terry’s warnings of snow and cold winds.
The Mount Difficulty event has two distance options, the “Half” nominally 25km and the “Full Marathon” 44km. Neither are for the faint hearted. The event starts and finishes at the Mount Difficulty winery.
We are told at the race briefing the night before that entries in the marathon have reached their highest ever level (80 runners) and for the first time more people have entered the full than the half. The race starts at 8am (dawn) and the cut-off is nine hours later at 5pm (dusk). The shadow of Mount Difficulty looms large out the window of our accomodation (good mates) in Bannockburn, the forecast is improving, but could go either way.
We wake to chilly (feels like) gale force winds and spend some time huddled in the car before joining old friends and fellow competitors in the winery and then on the start line. Previous competitors warn us that the hills in the second half are not to be taken lightly.
The race starts a few minutes late. The initial pace is frantic, until the first (tiny) hill in the Bannockburn sluicings checks the more realistic among us. We start to find out rhythm as we reach he end of Felton Road and Nipple Hill appears in front of us. This is the first of the three most significant climbs and a good introduction/warm-up for what is to come. I focus on the heels in front and try to make up ground when I get a chance.
As we crest the hill the first spectacular views start to open up, but it’s onwards and downwards. Back down to the Kawarau River, past the first aid station (another old friend), I’m running ok. Several runners fly past, lamenting a wrong turn in the Sluicings which caused them to run an extra 5 km loop at the start.
At the Goldfields Mining Centre we turn upwards again. Several hundred metres of elevation causes many to pause for breath, we make good ground on the brutal climb but when we reach the water race at the top I’m feeling pretty average. There are several poorly covered barbed wire fences to clamber over which add to my anxiety. Many of the runners we caught on the climb sail past us as I struggle to find my rhythm. I can’t help thinking that there’s still a LONG way to go. I wonder if maybe I should “accidentally” slip and injure myself, then we could just struggle home in the half. I quickly tell myself that that’s not why I came here.
Some food and drink makes the world seem like a better place and then we are back down the steepest descent in the race, sliding and clinging to a well-positioned rope. Back at the aid station (the turnaround for the half) and I’m happy to continue. I take the opportunity on the flatter terrain to refuel again before the biggest climb.
Back opposite the Mining Centre and the real fun begins. A different ridge leads all the way to the summit of Mount Difficulty, 1000 metres above. The climb is so steep that we are reduced to crawling in places. Rob’s altimeter and trekking poles are a welcome relief to help me keep perspective as many of our fellow competitors sit and stare vacantly out at the stunning views below. Some wander slightly off course from the orange tape markers, I focus on finding the shortest (and quickest) route up.
Without the altimeter the numerous false summits would be a real metal challenge. I find my rhythm and push on. We reach a fence line and the first signs of snow as I tell myself to “just keep moving”. At last the top.
No time to pause, it’s cold but not as windy as I expected. We break into a shuffling run on 4WD track. My legs feel ok. We have covered half the 44km distance.
The remainder of the race follows 4WD track. The scenery is stunning, to our right we can see down into Gibbston Valley and the Nevis Bungy, framed by the Remorkables. To the left the 4WD tracks wind into saddles and climb into the distance (are we really going over there?). We find our own rhythm on the relentless ups and downs and the kms tick away.
There are a few other runners around us, some in a better state than others. The salty chips and chocolate biscuits at the aid stations are a godsend. On the race profile, the hills in the second half seem almost insignificant, but in reality there are still several climbs of 200 metres plus to tackle. The climb out of Slapjack Saddle is relentless, with more ups and downs to follow.