Race Review: Old Ghost Ultra 85k

When I signed up for both the Old Ghost Ultra and the Shotover Moonlight Marathon I had just listened to Rich Roll interview Jessie Itzler. I don’t remember the actual quote but the essence of his story still haunts me.

He said that he was about to turn 50. The average person in America lives to be 78 years old which means he only has 28 summers left, give or take, if he’s lucky.

He sees his elderly parents, who are in their 70’s, twice a year. Maybe he sees them 6 more times before they pass, give or take, if he’s lucky.

It’s simple, rational math, but his words hit me like a tonne of bricks. How many summers do I have left? When was the last time I saw my family? How many adventures can I squeeze into this life?

I know I sound like I’m having a midlife crisis at 34, but it really got me thinking.

So when two bucket list races popped up within a week of each other it seemed too good to be true, I could squeeze two summer adventures into one!

But then the Old Ghost Road screwed all that up by being so good that I’ll have to come back again and again and again! Never mind how many summers I have left, how many Old Ghost Ultra’s do I have left?

This is the tale of my Old Ghost adventure.

We arrived in Westport at around 2:30pm on the Friday before the race, plenty of time to register, have the mandatory gear checked and head out for a super early dinner before the race briefing at 6pm.

I was stoked to be told at gear check that I didn’t need to carry the long thermal pants and water proof pants as any extra weight in my pack would only make the day more difficult than it needed to be.

All the mandatory gear!

The race briefing kicked off with race director Phil thanking his mate Noah for pulling some strings with the weather gods and a quick, yet concise and comical, course review. I’d heard on the grape vine that race director Phil was the McDreamy of race directors. I’m not about to argue!

I left the briefing feeling hopeful and a little scared. I was told the course was quite runnable (which it is if you aren’t cooked from a 10 hour marathon the week before) so I was confident I would get it done but cut offs of any description give me more than a touch of anxiety.

I’ve always had this story I’ve told myself, that it’s ok to be slow and at the back because those people who are 15 minutes faster than you don’t look like they are having as much fun as you, they look like they are hurting, I’d rather be slow and happy, I would tell myself, that was my get out of gaol free card for every missed PB and excuse for every speed workout missed.

This run/race was no different.

The alarm sounded at an ungodly 3 am and by 4, I was on the bus with 20odd other runners for an hour trip to the start line.

When the bus pulled in, we registered, dropped our bags and headed off into the forest at 6am on the dot. I did what I always do and found a comfy spot at the back, with my people, only to 500m later find myself stuck in a 17km conga line that would never end and at a pace that I did not desire.

It was pitch black, each step I took was guided by the foot steps half a metre in front of mine and lit only by the light of my head torch. My shoulders started to ache under that weight of my 2.5kg pack and the back of my neck from looking down at my feet.

As the sun rose, the trail revealed itself. Lush green, fern rich forest, so dense in places you could only see the 30cm trail in front of you and nothing but trees to either side.

A rare break in the trees

We crossed a few swing bridges, some strong enough for 2 people, others up to 5. It took us a few bridges to realise that if you stuck close to the person in front of you the bridge didn’t try to double bounce you like a 90’s trampoline.

One of 21 swing bridges

Frustrated at the conga line and my own politeness at not asking to pass, I exited the first aid station only 11 minutes clear of the first cut off. Not ideal, especially as this was the first main runnable section.

Out of the aid station, I packed away my headtorch and continued into the forest and back into a conga line. This one wasn’t as long, only 5 people rather than 15, but I still felt bad asking to pass on the single track and continued to plod along.

As I entered the infamous Bone Yard, I pulled out my hiking polls. The area was super rocky under foot and the bottom of my feet and tender ankles from Shotover were feeling the effects. The extra large NZ bumble bees buzzed around me with one even getting stuck in the front pocket of my running vest where my drink bottle goes, Nz bees like mandarin flavoured Tail Wind, noted.

I came into the second hut to the sound of a helicopter. I grabbed my drop bag, some more Sour Patch Kids and my special half way treat, a handful of ginger nut snaps. I was about to scoot on out, when the smiling face of coach Ali popped with my hubby who had been choppered in to take up tail end Charlie details. It was a nice surprise but I was too perplexed by the bottle of Johnny Walker on the aid station table and the risk of being cut off that I was focused on getting out of there. I left at 12:24 PM, 36 minutes ahead of the cut off.

Now the only way was up. Ali said the climbing was worth it because at the top it was like Christmas but to be honest it wasn’t that bad. When you look at the elevation profile of the race and physically look at the “hill”, it looks massive. There’s no denying it.

But the beauty of the course that Phil and his mates have created is that because you can mountain bike it, the up hill is all switch backs and at any time you can only see 30 or so metres in front of you, then the track turns and you go up again for another 30 and another and another. It feels like it’s never going to end but because you can’t actually see the end, it’s easier for your brain to comprehend or just bull shit you that you only have to go 30 more metres. And just when you think you have got to the top, you reach the stairs, all 300 of them.

At the top of the stairs you let out a woot woot and continue up and across an epic ridge line.

The photo above doesn’t really do it justice. From this spot you can see the ridge line, the little yellow rail running from the very top of the left hand side of the mountain all the way down as it switches back and forth.

On the climb! Photo by Photos4Sale

In the opposite direction, you can see the Ghost Hut, the hut that symbolises the metaphorical but not actual top of the run.

After this hut, there’s one more climb up to Heavens Door before you reach the point that the rest of the course is down hill. This was to be my next runnable section but my feet felt like they had been tortured with a meat tenderiser!

The views are beyond incredible. No picture could ever do it justice and to that end look photoshopped they are that good!

I made it to the last hut well ahead of the cut offs but no where near my goal time. I tried to run but my feet wouldn’t have a bar of it so I power walked and shuffled, still managing 10 minutes per kilometre.

To put that into some pace perspective for me, my fastest 5km post injury has been 22:36, which is 4:31 min/km. My slow training pace is 6 min/km and my walk is about 12 to 14 min/km.

The back end was a struggle, there wasn’t many people around and I watched the kilometre markers tick down. With 10 km to go, my watch said I still had 13 and I wasn’t sure who to trust. I didn’t know if the race finish line was actually at the end of the trail or if they had tacked on some extra for logistical reasons.

I couldn’t see the bottom of the valley and I couldn’t hear the usual debauchery of a finish line, yelling, drinking, music, nothing. All I could hear were the wekas scurrying about and the occasional bird in the trees.

When I passed the point I thought it would end and rounded a corner, there was a handful of people leaning against the wall of the trail. “Number 33”, one said into his walkie talkie. “Not long to go”, said another.

Running rule number 458 is that you never believe someone who says “2.5km to go” or “just around the bend”, they are always lying!

“How far?” I said, knowing the answer could break my heart.

“200m”, was the reply.

“Well what the bloody hell am I standing here talking to you guys then”, I yelled as I bolted around the corner, smack bang into a final swing bridge and a handful of stairs.

I could hear Kerry announcing my name and then it was done.

I hugged Phil and one of the original runners of the race, Ben Kepes who was hanging around at the finish line and received my medal.

Getting my finish line hug from race director Phil Rossiter

“You’re an arse hole”, said my mouth to Phil without consulting my brain. (Seriously did you just call McDreamy an arsehole at the end of the most epic run of your life!)

He looked at me a bit puzzled.

“You know there’s a big hill out there right?”

His face cracked into a smile and we all talked delusional shit for a few minutes before I wandered off to die.

Race original Ben Kepes explaining how the mountain used to be bigger!

I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d been hit by a small truck. My feet and hip flexors ached all night and there was an impressive amount of chafe in the shape of my running pack all around my mid section.

The motel room looked like a bomb had gone off with pieces of gear spread all over the place. We packed up, checked out and staggered down for the race prize giving. Being in the bottom half of the field, I wasn’t about to “win” anything, it was more about supporting the race and the community, to thank the sponsors and volunteers and hear all the stories of the day before.

But it turns out the Old Ghost prize giving isn’t just about the people who finish at the pointy end. There were prizes for fastest local, most improved and prizes for the bottom 20 runners. Even reusable coffee cups for all the international competitors which was about 1/3 of the field. Everyone was included.

There were lots of jokes and stories from the day before.

I walked out of that room knowing three things for sure.

1. The Old Ghost Ultra is the best running event, period.

2. Phil Rossiter is a real life McDreamy (and obviously not at all an arsehole!)

3. I need to do speed work if I’m going to reach my new goal of being on the 2020 Old Ghost Ultra most improved list!

Special thanks to hubby for waiting around at the finish line and volunteering as tail end Charlie, Ali and Kerry from SquadRun for their plans and patience and Phil Rossiter and everyone involved in the Old Ghost Ultra. It’s truly amazing and I can’t wait until next year!

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