Oxford, NZ – 21 May, 2017
Mt Oxford Odyssey Mountain Marathon – My first marathon event!
I met my fellow marathoner Kevin Grimwood at around 5:40AM on Sunday the 21st of May when he picked me up and we headed out of town toward Oxford. We were on our way to the Oxford Odyssey mountain marathon, an epic mountain run in Canterbury with around 3500 metres of elevation gain. The start time change from 6:30 to 7:30 helped with getting a better sleep before the big event. It was pretty dark as we arrived at the carpark near Cooper’s Creek and not just a little chilly. After a gear check, nervous bowel evacuation and waiting as long as possible before ditching the extra warm clothes, it was time for the race briefing. The weather had not quite done enough to cause a route change so we were in for the full 3500 metres as promised.
It was quite a small field, 33, and it was such a huge day ahead so the start wasn’t as much of a rush of adrenalin as is perhaps the case with other events. It still felt good to finally be there on the day getting underway and not having any niggles to complain of. It was a cruisy start from me as I was keen as to not burn any matches early. Dean Karnazes has a saying “in the first half of your race don’t be an idiot, in the second half of your race don’t be a wimp”. I had decided that it may be best to delay the onset of “don’t be a wimp” mode until the start of the third and final big climb back over Oxford.
It wasn’t long before we were into the first big climb. I had discovered on my Mt Herbert training run that being sensible and walking the really steep stuff right from early on allowed you to save more exertion than you might have thought possible for the later sections of a run several hours later. The conditions meant that you couldn’t really run this stuff anyway as there was plenty of snow and some ice to be wary of. It was nice to pass a few people during this fast hike and I thought I may have been pushing it a little but I felt pretty good and stuck with it. Nearly an hour and a half to the summit, but things were going pretty well. It was nice to move the legs a bit faster across the top but the snow didn’t make it that easy. Soon enough I was pointing downhill and taking some careful steps again.
The descent towards Wharfedale Hut was nice in the upper section but the lower part was really steep. My quads were taking a pounding like I don’t think I’ve felt much before. Also, in my mind was the realisation that this would be the start of the third big climb and the “don’t be a wimp” section.
At the track junction I passed the third Oxford SAR team and was pleased to be treated to some gentle undulation before the second climb up to Black Hill Hut. This climb went well for me and I passed some more people. I was feeling good and decided to be a bit more aggressive with this part of the run, even though I knew there was a long way to go. I was grinding away pretty happily and the only issue was that I knew I would eventually get too hot for the light fleece I had been wearing from the start. It was a nice day overhead and the sun was starting to heat up. I was going well and didn’t really want to stop but fortunately as I climbed higher it started to cool a bit and once I was back into the snow there was no problem. There was a short out and back section from the top of the loop to the Black Hill Hut. I was excited to see a few people pass in the opposite direction as they were not too far ahead and amongst them was one of the joint female winners from the Three Peaks race in Dunedin. I thought maybe I’m not doing too badly. Once at the hut I took a couple of jet planes and collected a card as instructed. It had a little star on it and said something encouraging that included the words “you are half way to becoming a legend”. At the half way point I was feeling good.
The descent to complete the Black Hill loop part of the course felt quite long and included some nice flattish undulation and some rather steep stuff. I was navigating the steeper stuff quite well and passed a couple more people on this section. Overtaking on downhill sections is a bit of a boost for me since I’m not typically very fast downhill. On the lower part of the loop it was clear that I would need to stop to stow the fleece as the sun was not letting up, despite the relatively low temperatures. Two stops on this part of the course, one to stow the fleece, swap to my second muesli bar bag and go number one, then one to refill my hydration reservoir, I think were my two longest stops in the event, which felt like a success and like I had judged my pre-race nutrition well. Back to the Oxford SAR team at the end of the loop and I treated myself to a small cup of cola and 3 jet planes. One more big climb to come. I was at about 4 hours 40 now.
OK. It was the last climb. The “don’t be an idiot” / “don’t be a wimp” cross over point. But it was really steep! Just keeping the legs moving at a reasonable turnover was quite punishing. I had a snickers bar, but I wanted to be smart with it. I think I waited to get to 5 hours before starting it, and each bite was maybe 10 minutes apart. I could barely see the competitor in front of me on and off as the track weaved through the trees. I wanted to catch up and I was making a consistent pace. She wasn’t getting any closer. Somewhere around here I remember a sign that said “You are NOT almost there”. It had a smiley face too. To be honest, I didn’t really think I was almost there, but something about seeing a sign pointing it out almost made you sigh. Got to laugh. Back up into the snow, but I didn’t need the fleece now. The sun was nice and I was working hard. It was nice to see the Oxford SAR team at the next junction and I was about to absent-mindedly follow the track that seemed to point uphill at that particular place. Fortunately they pointed me in the right direction. This track was losing elevation, but I knew it would come back. A few more slippery bits and I was heading along the top. The final climb was just about over and I was looking forward to unleashing a bit on the final descent back to Cooper’s Creek.
Passing an Oxford SAR team for the final time, I started to head back down the mountain. Any thoughts of “unleashing” were put on hold somewhat by the conditions. And by somewhat I mean quite a bit. My shoes were pretty new and pretty grippy, but that doesn’t help much with ice. It was feeling like a pretty tame end to an epic day. Eventually I was down low enough to enjoy sliding around in a bit of mud. I didn’t fancy my chances of catching any more competitors but it was a little gutting to hear someone closing in on me. But I was in luck. Shortly after passing me, he noted that no one wants to get passed in the final couple of ks and suggested that we finish the race together. This was really kind and I enjoyed chatting as we closed out the last section of the event together.
Upon crossing the line one of the volunteers set out a couple of chairs for us, and offered some rline electrolyte drink (the blueberry one tasted great) and commented that we looked far too good to have just completed the event. It was a lovely reception. The Farmbake cookies were nice (and I took a bag home as there was heaps left) and complemented my chocolate milk well. After that I used my food vouchers to get a bacon sandwich, some chips and a soft drink from the Lions caravan. Hanging around at the finish line I had a chat with Sia, who finished just ahead of me (and was on the winning team at Godzone 2016!), and the race organiser Kerry, as well as the winner Brita. Everyone at these events is awesome and so nice. I also won a spot prize for a 60 minute massage at BodyCentral in Christchurch. This will be a first for me. I’ve booked it in for Wednesday, and I’m sure it will be amazing.
My final time was 7:18. This was good enough for 9th equal, and the winning time was 6:11. Of the 33 starters, 7 missed the cut off time to finish the Black Hill loop (7 hours) or didn’t finish for other reasons. This was a truly epic event! I am so happy that I decided to go for it and stoked with how the day went for me.
It was such a huge mental build up, personally. I had an interest in the event for some time after a friend mentioned it, but out of respect for how serious a task it is, I didn’t want to sign up unless I got a great build up. The Run Canterbury group has been a lot of fun and helped to keep me focussed with pack runs during the week, while I planned trail missions for the weekends. Some short-lived tendon issues after a Wicked Rogaines event made for a nervous first few weeks in the programme, but some rest and a good run at the Three Peaks race in Dunedin put me back on track and set me up for some big Port Hills runs. The most serious of these was a loop from Diamond Harbour up Mt Herbert and around via Packhorse, Gebbie’s Pass, Sign of the Bellbird and Sign of the Kiwi to Rapaki and down. This turned out to be around marathon length and somewhere north of 2000 metres of elevation gain. Still a long way off Oxford, but I would rate this run as great training before the Oxford event. The high potential for a route change in the days leading up to the event due to the weather was another cause of stress for me as I was mad keen to get a run at the full course. Funny how much pressure you can create for yourself! In the end, everything turned out awesomely.
Disclaimer: most of the photos from the course were not taken by me and are from Christopher Innes Photography and various legends who took on the event. Many thanks!