“You will most likely loose the will to live”, were the comforting words provided by Old Ghost Race director Phil Rossiter, a mere 12 hours before the starting line count down of the Old Ghost Ultramarathon in Seddonville.
I smiled, a nervous, excited smile.
I remembered last year, I smiled. He was full of shit. It was beautiful, it was challenging sure but magical, wasn’t it? Oh crap, what have I done?
In 2019 I ran the Old Ghost Ultra for the first time. I loved it and hated it. I loved the community that the race organisers had created and I equally hated the ballast rocks covering the trail. (Read last years race report HERE).
At the prize giving the following day, a list of the Most Improved athletes was read and each runner acknowledged. The runner with the greatest percentage based improvement on last years time won a prize from the host of generous local sponsors.
The prize was great but I wasn’t fussed about the swag, this was the first time I’d seen real runners, who weren’t the top 3 of something, acknowledged at an event and I wanted to be a part of it. Then and there, I set the goal of making that list.
12 months later, I was back in the same movie theatre in the small west coast town of Westport on the South Island of Mew Zealand, hanging on every word of the charismatic captain, feeling a little like I had just signed up for a voyage on the Titanic knowing full well there was only enough space on the door for one!
But I was ready. I’d worked hard (mostly) over the past year (mostly), adding in cycle classes and strength training to my weekly training plan and including more hiking and stair work. Sledge hammer jokes aside, there was no backing out now.
We boarded the last bus to the start line at the sparrows fart time of 4:25am and just over an hour later we joined lines for registration and the porta loos with about 280 other runners.
There was a slight drizzle as runners checked and double checked their drop bags and mandatory gear.
Off to Specimen Point
The first 17km of the course is a lush, green single track that winds along the Mokihinui River. Well at least that’s what I’m told, the first hour all I saw was the circular patch my head torch created on the soft wet trails beneath my feet. With the recent heavy rains, the trail and my feet were very wet. The waterfalls were raging and the air moist.
My goal for this section was to shuffle at my own pace, to take it easy and not get stuck with either fast people or slower people as there is no where on the trail to pass. I didn’t want to get stuck in the conga line like last year and be too nice to ask for pass.
I came into the aid station at specimen point 20 minute ahead of last year. I was stoked and saturated but I filled up my bottles, put my head torch away and shuffled off into what I think is the most challenging part of the course.
To Stern Hut and beyond
I remembered this section being the hardest of the lot last year and boy did it deliver this year. My will to live index plummeted to beyond normal limits.
That lush green forest that is just so stunning and captivating in the beginning becomes soul sucking and the endless switchbacks sends you up into the Bone Yard.
I was lucky enough to chat with Jeff and Mark who I also chatted with last year until they ran off into the distance, chasing PB’s and Edward Brockway who ran with his dad last year as we shuffled along.
Mentally this section is hard. At 25km, it’s the longest section of the course but it’s quite runnable if you have the mental fortitude. I didn’t and I cursed each ironic sign I passed. (Seriously, Lake Cheerful?! I’ll show you Lake Cheerful)
I was so relieved to hear the Stern Valley hut aid station that I let out a joyous woot woot but not confident enough to drink from the ominous whisky bottle placed between the water and the TailWind electrolyte mix.
I smiled and profusely thanked the volunteers, who had to camp out overnight at the remote aid stations and then there it was, a stinging fire of hell at my left ankle. What the actual f? I looked down and there was a giant wasp of some description, attached to my running tights, face or I guess butt first into my ankle. I smacked it away and started to hike out of the aid station.
I could feel my ankle swelling under my compression tights. I’d be Kilian-ed (not sure that’s an actual thing but I’m going with it, for those not paying attention, in 2018, arguably the greatest ultra runner of all time Kilian Jornet was forced out of UTMB in due to a bee sting).
I was a bit worried about whatever had just bitten me (couldn’t be anything worse than at home in Australia right?!) but it actually was a good distraction for a couple of k’s as I started the long, 20km or so, climb up to Ghost Lake hut and beyond.
At the bottom of the skyline stairs, I ran into fellow Squadrun runner and Old Ghost “original” (completed all 5 Old Ghost Ultras) Geoff Higgins. Geoff was having a tough day out with his Achilles giving him endless grief.
At the top of the 300 skyline stairs is the most insane view out over the range and this year a bit of a cool breeze, but nothing to be concerned about just yet.
The sun was still shining as we climbed up to the Ghost Lake Hut, fuelled mostly on whinging and Geoff’s encouragement.
After the Ghost Lake hut, the course climbs a little more up onto the Skyline ridge across to Heavens door and then back down into the forest, via hundreds of ballast covered switch backs to Lyell Saddle.
It was up on the ridge that the weather came in. It started with cool air lots of cloud and turned into a bit of sideways rain.
I probably should have put two and two together at the Ghost Lake but as I watched everyone putting their jackets on but I didn’t and I got pretty wet (again).
Towards the end of the ridge line was a unmanned hut. I stopped undercover and out of the rain to put my poles away and was promptly informed by my fellowship (Geoff and Ferruccio) that we weren’t going anywhere until I put my jacket on. The boys waited in the cold whilst I got dressed and down we went to Lyell Saddle singing “we’re going to Lyell!” I told them all about going for a PB and we plodded our way down, and down and down.
We pulled into Lyell super excited knowing there was only 17 downhill kilometres to go. Turns out Fitz (the husband) was sitting right there wearing literally every piece of his mandatory gear except the space blanket. He was having a tough day but we told him to join our fellowship to the finish.
As we left the aid station, I yelled out to the boys. “That guy back there sitting on the bench, that’s my husband, I’ve never beaten him before so we need to go!” Everyone laughed as we barrelled down the hill.
“Lift you feet”, Geoff yelled back at me, “you’ll be tired, lift your feet”. It was tough but I kept repeating, lift your feet, lift your feet.
Ferruccio tripped and fell a couple of times on his right hip and insisted we go on without him and chase the PB. I felt terrible about breaking up our little group but it wasn’t too long until Geoff started playing mathematician. We need to run 6:45 min/km for the next 12km to get under 13 hours, he said, I’ll set my watch”. What an absolute legend.
Last year, I averaged 9:06 min per kilometre over the last 17km. The bottom of my feet felt like they had been pummeled with a meat mallet. I knew 6:45 would be a stretch but I didn’t want to let Geoff down. I tucked in behind him and took it one kilometre at a time. As Geoff tapped each kilometre marker with his running pole as we passed, I breathed a sigh of relief. I honestly had no idea how long I could hold it for.
With 5km to go, Geoff told me to go, to run a Parkrun as fast as I could go, it’s downhill he added, I’ll try and keep up.
My Achilles and calf’s were felt like they had fused into one solid muscle and my feet smacked loudly on the rocks. I opened up and just ran. I focussed, I lifted my feet.
I crossed the finish line in 12 hours 52 minutes, about 1 hour and 27 minutes faster than 2019 and with an average of 6:36 min/km over the last 17km.
I received my medal and went back to the start line to wait for Geoff, Ferriccio and Fitz.
I was so grateful I thought I was going to cry as I thanked Geoff for all his help. I couldn’t have done it without him.
In addition to the insane trail, part of the fun of the Old Ghost Ultra is the pre race briefing, the bus rides, the finish line festival (did I mention food and beer is included in your entry) and the Prize Giving the following morning.
So after getting home on the last bus and throwing all our muddy wet clothes in the wash, we got up early the next day for the Prize Giving. I don’t want to spoil the fun for future runners of the Old Ghost but let me leave you with these two prizes from the 2020 Old Ghost, The Big Rig award and the unofficial Best Chafe!
I didn’t make the most improved list, but I am still beyond stoked with my PB.
Special thanks to Ali and Kerry from Squadrun, my PT Megan, the puppies and Fitz for the love and adventures and of course to Geoff and Ferriccio for their support and encouragement out on the trail. How good is trail running?
Last year I left Westport knowing three things for sure. Those three things still apply.
1. The Old Ghost Ultra is the best running event, period.
2. Phil Rossiter is a real life McDreamy (but he needs to mend his relationship with the weather gods)
3. I need to do speed work if I’m going to reach my new goal of being on the 2021 Old Ghost Ultra most improved list!
See ya next year
- Shoes- Altra Olympus
- Socks- Injinji trail
- Head torch- Petzl Nao +
- Watch- Garmin Fenix 5X +
- Poles- Leki
- Pack- Ultimate direction Adventure Vesta
- Race nutrition- Spring Energy