Mt Difficulty Ascent

Cromwell, NZ – 9 June, 2018

Pre-race banter

“This is a serious mountain mission”, so the website for the Mt Difficulty Ascent (MDA) boldly states. And for good reason. I had wanted to do this annual event for just over a year. After my marathon debut at the Mt Oxford Odyssey last year I wasn’t in a position to manage the 3 week turn around to have a crack at MDA the same season. This year I targeted MDA and had a great build up at the MOO half. It’s difficult to formulate goals for big scary events like this, but I was aiming for a sub-7 hour finish.


The Lindis Pass, en route from Christchurch.

A large room with big fermentation tanks, and a slanted floor with excellent drainage, at Mt Difficulty Wines made for an interesting registration venue. After picking up my race number and having my gear and shoes checked, I enjoyed a fantastic briefing from the ‘proprietor of pain’ Terry Davis. Terry’s description of the increasing difficulty of the course as you progressed was a great way to build excitement. It is worth noting that he was disappointed with the video of the course that had been prepared for him as it didn’t really capture the suffering well enough.

Other highlights of the registration included committing an additional, extremely optimistic race goal to paper (top 10!) for a survey for a research student at Otago University studying flow and grittiness in endurance athletes, and an introduction to Altra Distributor and Ultra Badass Grant Guise.

The big day

Getting there in plenty of time, hanging around for a nervous portaloo visit, fretting over starting layering… it was the start of another big day out. The weather was looking good on the day and so I started with just a jacket over my usual compression top. There was time for one more wise crack from Grant (“why is there a shitting dog on the ‘crush the Cargill’ poster?”) before we were underway.

Unfortunately, I was almost immediately too hot in the jacket so promptly stowed it and was running in just a single layer. “Don’t panic on the ‘not flat’ through the water sluicings” Terry had said. This section didn’t qualify as a climb by comparison to what was to come, and it was just the beginning of a very long day so taking this part pretty chill was essential. Studying the course profile, I had determined that the four main climbs of the event approximately doubled in elevation gain each time for rough gains of 125m, 250m, 500m, and finally the VK.


The MDA course! Image credit: event website.

There was plenty of walking on the first climb before an encouraging, but ‘deceptive’ flat section. It was too tempting to push the pace to around 5:00 as others were commonly doing, but I just knew there would come a time later when that energy would be more valuable. Oops.

Around a slight incline on the way to Nipple Hill I heard someone amongst the supporters saying “get ready for Grant to come past”. This was significant since I didn’t see Grant come past me, and subsequently I was thinking for most of the race that I was ahead of him and doing well and just wanted to keep going to stay ahead. Well, we can all check the results and conclude that this little delusion was rather far-fetched. I was grateful for the encouragement that it gave me throughout a big chunk of the race though haha.


This cheeky bugger thinks he’s ahead of Grant Guise.

Continuing on, the second climb was steep and the descent was just too steep to open up the legs too much sadly. Steep climbs and gradual descents are the dream really, but this wasn’t a fluffy cloud, this was MDA. Heading north you could see a line of ‘ants’ rising up into the distance as you approached the 500m climb on your left. I was soon to be one of those ants. Not for the last time, I experienced the feeling of never quite being able to see the high point of the climb. It was a day for patience.

The cheery company of the 25km runners added to the fun early on. Coming down after the 500m climb was again pretty slow going, but the section with the rope was great! Some others weren’t using the rope much, but it made things way easier so I kept a hold of it all the way down – very stable and reassuring. At the bottom of this descent, the 25km runners headed for home and the marathon crew headed further along the river. I immediately felt the more spread out nature of the field.


Are you having fun yet?

Just after passing the ant hill again, it was time to restock the water supply. This was the last aid for around 10km, which would be well past the end of the VK. Damn those ready salted potato chips tasted good. The photographers and aid staff on the course were all great! They were really encouraging and added to the experience.

OK, this was the part I’d been waiting for. As Terry said, “no need to chase the VKs in Europe when we’ve got one right here!” It was going to be tough, and I was feeling the hubris as I pondered how many people I wanted to pass on the VK. Next minute, shit this is steep. I had the exhilarating feeling of needing to take a moment to rebalance to avoid a fall backwards more than once. Ever upward we surged. (and in my confused mind I was stoked to still be ahead of Grant!).


Getting high.

I had been hoping to be able to see the whole VK from the bottom to see where everyone was and put the task in context right from the start. It wasn’t to be. You could perhaps see up another 200m or so at a time. This is where some patience and ‘just putting your head down and getting on with it’ pays big dividends. I think this was the toughest single climb I’ve ever done. On the bright side, after the VK we would be almost halfway haha. About 600 metres up the VK there was the first traces of snow. The wind was picking up now as we ventured into ever more exposed territory. An update on that big passing plan I had for the VK: I had passed two people and been passed by one. It was hard work.


Good honest work.

Getting up into the snow the wind was picking up and blowing my tired body around a little bit. Keep the legs moving. There was a steep section near the top with snow and ice that was really quite difficult to get a good grip on. The old fence nearby came in very handy for pushing up this part of the climb. Passing the masts and onto a slight rise, I could see the trig point not far off the track, but the course didn’t quite go there. No point dilly-dallying up here, so that summit had to go wanting!


Not far past the summit.

Now we were into some runnable grade in not-so-runnable conditions, which is always a pain. This was the gentle descent of dreams, but the snow/slush/ice made it clear that it wasn’t quite a dream. Trudging on we go! It was fun for sure, but the novelty wore off a little at the thought that a half marathon was still required to get home. I had my watch on the secondary setting to save some battery, since I didn’t really know how long I’d be out here. Sadly, as it sometimes does in this mode, it had blown out the distance already and the obvious inaccuracy removed any useful indication of the scale of the task remaining.


No idea of distance, no worries.

I stopped to swap over my food packs and was passed by someone looking fresh and getting it done. By this stage I was starting to get super tired and was happy to start on the jet planes to help get me through. Ed with the hot drinks was maybe not too far away. “Everyone likes Ed” Terry had said, and if he had some hot drinks (as semi-promised), I would like him too.


Along the tops, about to get overtaken.

There was a good long section here of snow running, and walking of course, battling the slush and sliding around a bit. With no good indication of distance remaining, this was a tough section for me mentally. After the big climbs in the first half of the course, my legs were left ‘beaten, but not broken’. I was enjoying running the descents and flats, but anything with a positive grade was now seriously tough.

“Are you Ed?” “No, I’m Joe”. I embarrassed myself in my search for the milo. Joe and company were great and I made the most of my second and final water top up stop. The coke, the chips, the fruit cake, it was all on offer. Joe pointed out where Ed was hiding and guessed it would be about halfway between our current location (approx. 30km) and the finish line.


What a battler.

Now this next part was really tough. I had been shown the peak where I would find Ed, but the route to get there was not so obvious from afar. I could just see a couple of twists and turns at a time and guess which road we might eventually follow. Each uphill grade, even the ‘runnable’ ones, was just a bit much for running at this point. This was the part where Terry had suggested that we harness our hatred for the race director, and use it as energy to battle on. Not bad advice for how you could feel during this part. How could you hate Terry though? The epic-ness of the event was fuel enough! All you need is love, and maybe more training next time.


Epic conditions!

Eventually the path became more and more clear and so my approximations of how long it would take to get to Ed were starting to have less and less uncertainty. I guessed that to make my sub-7 hour goal I would need to be at Ed’s checkpoint by the 6:15 mark. It could still be on! ‘Down here, through this stream crossing, then I could see that windy climb, then a nice descent before a small final climb to Ed’ I thought. 15 minutes up, 15 minutes down would get the job done. It all seemed reasonable.

OK, that climb was pretty slow and now there’s not quite 15 min to get down there. Maybe not quite today buddy. It was slipping away, but there was no point doing anything too stupid when you are this tired. Ok, just that last small climb to Ed. It was small, but may not have felt that way at the time haha.

It felt good to get ticked off by Ed, and I was close enough now that I didn’t ask about that hot drink anymore. Time to get back for the pizza! Ed reckoned about 45 min to go (proving to be on the money) and I was now at 6:27, so a 7:15 looked very achievable. I was looking forward to opening things up on this final descent down into the vineyard! However, the challenges already overcome that day had to be taken into consideration. With a bit of stomach discomfort bouncing around on the descent, and knees that clearly thought they had done enough already, it was a battle right to the end.


So many great photos!

Passing more friendly marshals and supporters, I approached the water sluicings again. This was quite disorienting haha! So many funny little cliffs and windy trails, I couldn’t really tell where I was going more than a hundred metres at a time. Damn it, I wanted to see the finish already! Back down out of the wind I was getting a bit over heated in my jacket, so stopped to take it off. Shit! There was someone coming not far behind and they definitely still had time to pass me. No one wants to get passed at this stage of a race! (or at all I should say!) I stuffed the jacket into my bag and picked it up, adjusting on the move as I took off again down the trail.

Now this last part was a real drain. Feeling so tired, but vigilant of wanting to maintain my position, I pushed on through the last kilometre of the race. Taking a left turn, I was now suddenly on the road down to the finish line! Not an impressive pace for this grade, but I was about to get over the line. I heard someone say “you’re about to get caught!”, but couldn’t do much about it. I managed to just hold off Andy (who I met at the finish line) by a few seconds, finishing in 7:12 and taking 21st place (completely AWOL Strava data here and results here). Terry was at the finish line for a handshake and congratulations, and much appreciated directions to the pizza.

I was stoked to be finished! That sub-7 hour goal went wanting, but Grant did tell me that the snow up there was worth at least 12 minutes. After a few more laughs at the prize-giving, I left Mt Difficulty with a flash new drink bottle, a deck off-cut, and some epic memories.


Man on a mission.

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