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Mental Tougness - in the mind of an Ultra Marathon Runner

On Saturday 23rd February, 2019 at 6am, the start list of 296 runners took part in an 85km journey across an historic gold mining area located in the north west corner of New Zealand’s South Island. One of those runners was a Melbourne based ultra marathon runner by the name of Gayle Cowling. I have trained Gayle for over 6 years and have seen her complete some amazing events, please enjoy the story told by Gayle.

There are a couple of house keeping tasks that I need to address with you all before we get into the nitty gritty of my race report.

Firstly, the race was at risk with the recent Cyclone OMA threat. Phil, Race Director, has some pretty good connections with one of the worlds most iconic weather predictors. Noah called in some favours with the man upstairs and the day resulted in perfect clear blue skies with a slight breeze – no rain in sight. A true godsend which made for many happy runners.

Secondly, I’m not going to give you a history lesson on the making of the Old Ghost Road but this abridged version will certainly help set the scene. Considered one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, The Old Ghost Road is not a ROAD. Say What! In the late 1800s it was a dray road that led onto the Lyell Range from the Gold Mining Township of Lyell. That dray road ended on the watershed of the Mokihinui River which flows to the west coast near Seddonville. When the gold ran out, Lyell became a ghost town, the old dray road was abandoned, and the forest reclaimed it for more than 100 years. In 2007, an antique map of the old dray road and a planned extension of it to the west coast was discovered. Eight years later the Mokihinui- Lyell Backcountry Trust, reclaimed the old dray road (18km) from the forest and about 50km of new track was carved out of the steep slopes and open high country to join it to the old trail built by miners through the Mokihinui gorge upstream of Seddonville - voila, The Old Ghost Road was born.

Thirdly, hindsight is a wonderful thing, we should figure out how to bottle it and make a small fortune. On the Thursday before our flight to NZ, I came down with a chest and head cold. It turned pretty nasty in the coming days and I was determined to do this run, knowing full well there was no access to get me off the track without the aid of a helicopter at my own expense. This race has an amazing reputation as a community-based event and I did not want to miss one minute of it. Being the responsible person I am, I would never recommend to anyone else who is injured or sick, that attempting an ultra is a good idea but for some reason I never heed my own advice. This should not surprise anyone reading my race report.

One last thing, I wanted to try a new technique with my race report and see if I could intertwine many of the random thoughts I had during the day. So many people ask me what I think about over such long durations of being alone and this time I thought it would be a good exercise to capture them. I did this using the video on my phone as there was no way I could make a mental note to remember them all. They will be numbered for ease of identifying them throughout the race report, but I can’t guarantee they will make sense or be relevant to any place or time of the day. However, they are my private thoughts which will give you a sneak peak into how my mind works when the body is putting itself through such an event.

Now that the formalities are out of the way, lets begin. The alarm went off at 3:45am and I went through the ritual of dressing from the neat pile of racing gear I had laid out the night before, taped my ankles and prepared my hydration pack with the mandatory gear, water bladder and enough food to feed a third world country.

1. OMG it is not even 2:00am back home

2. I wonder if anyone is awake back at home – I don’t think Dad would even

be awake at this hour

3. I think we are heading into banjo country

4. I’ve got time to make a cup of coffee to take with me - woohoo

It was a very dark 50-minute drive out to Seddonville, down a narrow dirt road that ended at a small enclosure nestled beside the Mokihinui River was where our adventure was about to start. I was kindly reminded by Phil at the race briefing the night before that Ultras bring together a unique and special type of person. There is less than 1% of the world’s total population that even consider attempting something as ambitious as an event such as this and I felt privileged and very happy to be one of them. I also failed to study the course map in detail and realised once we were at Seddonville instead of Lyell the 30kms of ascending was now at the back end of the 85kms instead of at the beginning. I was going to be in for a very tough day.

The course profile, aid station cut off times and water sources are detailed in the map to give you a rough idea of what my day ahead looks like.

5. OMG what have I got myself into

6. Shit I haven’t done enough hill training

7. Can we just start the run already!

Once check-in was completed all the runners made their way to the start banner and formed a long line up the road in readiness for the quick ten second count down to the race start. As always, Nick kissed me, wished me luck, told me there was no shame at pulling out or turning around after the first aid station, then took off up the road a bit so he could film the start, not sure how much he was going to capture since it was so dark. However, I took a moment to capture the energy and nervous tension of the runners waiting on the start line.

After wishing everyone around me the best of luck for a great day of running we were off down the dirt road to the entrance of the Old Ghost Road archway and the official start of the trail.

It is impossible to describe the surrounds of the first hour because it was pitch black, but you knew you were hugging the side of the river as you ran along the gorge listening to the raging waters below. The number of swing bridges and wooden boardwalks were limited to two persons so on several occasions you were held up waiting to cross them.

The first aid station was 17.5kms away at Specimen Point with quite a tight cut off time and I was concerned I was not going to make it in time. I had failed to check the sunrise time but anticipated first light would be around 7am and we would get to see our surrounds for the first time and what amazing surrounds they were. We were deep in a rain forest with low fog sitting below the mountain tops as dawn broke and we could see the Mokihinui River below us.

It was time to turn the headtorch off and trust my instincts as I ran along the rocky single trail with just a tiny bit of hesitation. There were enough runners still around me to gauge my footing placement although my ankles didn’t seem to be co-operating today and I was a little unsteady on my feet.

I won’t apologise for bombarding you with pictures even though they don’t truly do justice to the scenery I was entranced by – but it felt like a real Lord of the Rings moment.

8. What if I slip and fall over the edge

9. NZ do the best corn fritters for breakfast

10. At least I don’t have to worry about snakes in

the bush when I need to take a pee

11. I wonder if I’ll see any Mountain Bikers today

12. These swing bridges are making me feel sick

13. There goes my lunch

14. Those helicopters have been busy this morning

Then out of the blue was a photographer just waiting to catch the days first light and mist through the valley as a back drop for each of the runners as they passed by.

It also meant that we weren’t too far out from the first hut at Specimen Point which gave me a short burst of energy. The cut off time was 2hrs 45 mins and when I went through in a time of 2hrs 10 mins it didn’t feel as comfortable a gap as I would have liked going into the next long section. With how I was feeling I was quite happy to have completed the first 17.5kms. I filled my water bladder knowing it was another 25kms to Stern Valley hut where my drop bag full of goodies awaited me.

The cut off time was 1:00pm which gave me well over 4½ hours to complete but I was struggling with both energy levels and breathing, and I knew that slowly but surely, I would get slower and slower.

I also knew we were in for lots of undulating terrain because till now it had all been very runnable with a bit of elevation gain thrown in. For what was meant to be the flattest section of the course, I was surprised when I checked that we have done over 1500 metres of climbing. The weather had been great so far with cloud cover under the canopy of the beech trees and ferns keeping it cool for us but as the sun began to peak through you could see the cloud burning off exposing a clear blue sky.

The first few swing bridges forced all runners to stop and adhere to the load capacity. It gave me time to rest, breathe and smell the sweet scent of the rain forest before I bounced my way along the swing bridges like a kid on a trampoline.

The next 12kms was very similar terrain criss-crossing over the river then steadily climbing to our next vantage point looking back over the mountain range. As I hit 22km I felt completely done, lethargic and unable to focus with a runny nose and constant cough and those dark thoughts crept in. They lingered for a few kilometres but as the Garmin clocked over 30kms in 3hrs 53 mins, I had subconsciously made the decision to continue forward even though my body was screaming for me to turn back. The one thing that kept me smiling were the number of small robins that would fly around your feet as you disturbed the earth, hoping they would pick up some grub.

15. I’m getting too old for this shit!

16. I don’t think I can do this

17. Man, 85kms is a long way in a day!

18. It really annoys me that the guys just stand on the trail and take a pee as you run by

19. Where is that bloody aid station

20. Coconut water and Powerade here I come

21. I’m never going to solve world peace or fix world hunger

I was very encouraged to see the 50km marker as it meant I had now completed 35kms in a time of 4hrs 49 mins and were we about 7kms away from Stern Valley Hut. The ground was becoming increasingly rocky as we zig zagged up through the valley to the top of the mountain the amazing views just took my breath away. I struggled with the incline but with the encouragement of a fellow runner that sat behind me, we emerged at what was called The Hanging Judge.

We were not done with the climbing as we entered back under the protection of the forest canopy continuing to zig zag up to Solemn Saddle exposing us to the open valley and twin lakes. The body was starting to reject fuel and I knew I needed to find a safe place for a toilet stop before I began my descent down the rocky land slide into Earnest Valley. At least I knew there were no snakes waiting for me in the brush. If you look at the highest ridge in the background with no tree cover, that is our destination of Ghost Lake Hut still about 20kms away.

To my dismay the 4km marker was missing and soon after another runner Keith came up behind me. I stopped to move over for him to pass but he was content to sit behind me and chat as we adopted the walk/run approach for the next 3kms. Truth be told there was less walking and pretty much all running – the company was just what I needed as I led Keith across that final swing bridge and up a short flight of stairs before running across the finish line in an official time of 12hrs 44 mins and 57 seconds. The medal was placed around my neck and Nick was there to greet me with a big hug. Would I do it again? It was too early to ask me as I was not in the right frame of mind to answer it without being influenced by how I was feeling. But maybe, just maybe next year I should come back and see how I go when I am feeling healthy.

The views captivated me on the way down as I saw ahead many other runners traversing the rocky descent but knew I had to concentrate on my own footing so as not to fall and slip.

The rocks were loose and moved easily under foot making it a prime situation for a rolled ankle. Any runner that came up behind me I stepped aside to let them pass so as not to feel pressured to descend too quickly.

The landscape was aptly name, The Boneyard, because it was so baron and devoid of much vegetation, it could have passed for a grave yard. But then there were two beautiful lakes awaiting you as you entered the valley.

22. We all fall on hard times you know, Each day is a hard climb you know, Some days your body has to carry on, So you gotta show a little backbone

23. Need to start listening to some tunes to get me through the next section

24. Wonder how Nick is spending his time?

25. I want to make sure I do the Cape Foulwind walk tomorrow and visit the seal colony

26. What’s the price of Petrol in NZ?

What great names for a pair of lakes nestled in the valley. To be honest I think Lake Grim was more spectacular both from the top of the saddle and as you drew closer to it. The sun was warm now and in Earnest Valley there were no trees for protection at all to help shelter you from the heat. My coughing had gotten worse and chest tight through this section and I was re-assessing my total time for the event. Stern Hut was at the end of the valley and in a time of 5hrs 51 mins I had made it to the half-way point.

Earlier that morning the helicopter had transported all the drop bags for the runners to this location and as I approached one of the friendly volunteers was standing there holding my drop bag for me – what a nice surprise. I took a seat and allowed myself to sit for five minutes as I was feeling thirsty, coconut water went down like a treat and I managed to also get half a bottle of Powerade down as well. I didn’t really need any food, but I grabbed the chicken and cheese roll Nick had packed for me earlier and stuffed it into the side zip pocket of my pack. I had easily made the cut off time for this checkpoint as it was only 11:51am in the morning – over an hour to spare. Next aid station was a 4:30pm cut-off and only 13kms away…that told me my legs were in for a world of pain where would be continuously going up. I also knew that in this section were the infamous 302 skyline steps and, if you weren’t already exhausted, then this would be sole destroying.

27. Feeling more positive that I can finish this now

28. These swing bridges are still making me laugh and feel nauseous

29. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday

Not too far out from Stern Hut we crossed Stern Creek over a couple of swing bridges – still feel like a little girl holding on for balance as I crossed each of them with a huge smile on my face. I was beginning to get anxious wondering where the skyline steps were as it felt like we had run for miles – in fact it would only be 8kms. As the Garmin displayed 12:30 pm I had managed to complete about 48kms and my mind started to wander as my breathing became more erratic and I wanted to concentrate on something else.

30. I under estimated my ability to do this run

31. I can’t even think random thoughts as I try and breathe

32. That’s it - NZ petrol is $2.19

33. Pak n’ Save – Whittaker’s chocolate on shopping list

34. Where are those god dam steps!

35. Hope the seal colony was worth it for Nick

36. No chips at the aid station – I wanted salt

37. Wonder how the ETA migration is going

38. Hope Adrian’s little girl Arrabella is over her sickness

39. Damn cold

40. Need to listen to some good music

41. This is really lonely

42. 10:30 back home and wonder how Dale’s training sessions

are going

43. Barry will be getting ready for his daughter’s wedding

44. Hope the weather is perfect for them

Then out of the blue, the base to the step climb appeared and new thoughts of dread quickly crept in. I shouldn’t fear this climb, regardless of how much the race director had talked it up. I just needed to take them in my stride, so my approach was, keep my eyes down, don’t look up, take one step after the other and before long you’ll be at the top.

There were two runners a little in front of me and a guy behind me who was a bit of a talker. His breathing washed out the sound of my own as he struggled to get to the top. This ain’t no Thousand Steps in Ferntree Gully but it turned out not too bad after all, and to be honest the reward of seeing views back over skyline ridge made it all worthwhile.

It’s better that I warn you as I’m probably going to go a bit nuts with photos at this point. As we emerged out of the tree line and up on to the ridge it was at this moment I realised no matter what the challenges, constraints or duress you are putting your body through I am at my happiest when I get to experience views like these ones.

The scenery over skyline ridge was incredible and I was so in excited by the remote Wild West coast I nearly did a small pee in my pants. Surrounded by high mountains with deep rain forest valleys in every direction was just stunning. The climbing was not over yet as we still had about 5kms to reach Ghost Lake Hut.

45. It doesn’t get better than this

46. I’ve got this in the bag

47. Not far to the top now

48. Ghost Lake Hut looks miles away still

My mindset had changed dramatically over the course of the last 30 kms and it had everything to do with the scenery. I had to remember it was not just about that final destination but the journey I was going to take to get there and I knew the best was yet to come. I had seen so many amazing images of The Lyell Saddle which was what convinced me to try this event. I wanted to be the one in the photo on that ridge line, but it would be another tough 8kms that stood between me and Heaven’s Door. I could see a number of runners ahead of me traversing the ridge and beginning yet another granite rock and tussocked grass zig zag up to the summit. On the way up I passed the 30km marker and took the time to look back across the mountain range and take in the beauty and magnitude of the trail I had just completed.

Then the ground flattened out and I hit boardwalks as it took us past Ghost Lake and a trail up to the hut.

Both the helicopter pilot and photographer were doing a great job capturing the smiles on everyone’s faces. We all knew the hardest part was nearly over with about 27kms to the finish line. The perfect action shot of a helicopter sitting beside an alpine lake as I ran past yelling to the photographer that I loved running in NZ.

49. I could live here

50. What job could I do in NZ?

51. Please let me finish in daylight

He replied with a barage of words shouting no snakes, no crocodiles, no sharks, no leeches. It made me laugh.We were greeted by a couple of volunteers and some one filming the reactions and thoughts of the runners. He asked me how I found

Skyline and I exploded with excitement of how stunning it was that I almost pee’d my pants – it had them all laughing. It was going to be roughly 13kms to Lyell Hut so I filled up my water bladder, grabbed some chips for the salt and a couple of lollies for the sugar and headed off on the last 3kms of climbing to the highest point of the run. I had now been moving for 8hrs and 50 mins and had completed a staggering 55kms. Looking back at 5am this morning it was unfathomable we could run this in a day.

Here comes even more raw emotion because what was daunting for many others who knew what was ahead was pure ecstacy for me as the tree line disappeared

and the alpine mountains of granite and tussock grass was all I could see. Don’t get me wrong, the loose granite rocks under the feet were a pain in the butt as you carefully navigated them, which over time caused the bottom of your feet to become quite tender but who cares when you were on top of the world.

52. Enough with the rocks already

53. It truly feels like the top of the world

54. I love these views

55. Don’t run with a chest infection

56. Thank god I taped my ankles

57. Please don’t fall, Please don’t fall

58. What if I took a running leap off the side

Even if you tried, there was no way you could convince me that this wasn’t the most incredible place in the world right at this point in time. It really did feel like we were close to the Gods and Heavens Door proved it.

59. Knock Knock Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

60. I am so high I can hear Heaven, I am so high I can hear Heaven, Oh but Heaven, no Heaven it don’t hear me.

61. Pancake rocks and blowholes are on the agenda tomorrow

Another runner was kind enough to stop and take a photo of me at The Tombstone. I did not want to hold up his run but he figured 15 seconds was not going to impact his time all that much.

We followed the Saddle pretty much out to the point on the righthand side of this photo before passing an emergency hut just before the start of our 24km descent to the finish line.

We had been sitting at over 1200 metres for a good 15kms and my breathing had turned into weezing along this section of the course. Thank goodness for these views as a distraction.

At 1340 metres above sea level this was the highest point of the course. From this point it was all downhill but I was certainly over the loose granite rocks under the feet shifting with every step you took.

Traversing the last section of Lyell Saddle I reached the 25km marker with great views back towards Bald Hill and the ridge line I had followed.

I needed to get to a lower altitude to help with my breathing but I also knew it was going to be tough on the quads for the next couple of hours.

As I past the small shelter hut at Lyell Saddle, the helicopter had dropped off the photographer, nestled in the tussock grass out of view, and out of nowhere came a voice asking me how I was going. I replied ‘doing great, but don’t have the energy to do a jump for you’. He laughed and as I ran past yelled to him ‘this is a perfect day for a run in the mountains’.

It did not take long before I had descended back below the tree canopy of the rain forest and the single track had once again returned to soft soil, tree roots, fern leaves and the tweating of the little robins flying around your feet. The psychology of the distance now came into the equation for me and the next goal was to get to the 21km marker – indicating I only had half a marathon left to run. I could do that…I do it every weekend as a training run.

9hrs and 47 mins down and I was still in touch for 13 hours to the finish. I had been reduced to walking as my right thigh/hip was niggling me, my left hammy was sore and breathing wasn’t getting any easier. From indications Lyell Hut was only another 3kms away where I could fill up with one last water stop before the final 18kms to the finish line.

62. OMG I am chaffing between the butt cheeks

63. A shower is going to sting

64. I’m going to lose a toe nail on my left foot, I can feel it

65. When is this down ever going to stop

66. I can’t wait to see Nick

67. I hope those kilometre markers are true to course

The trail did not deviate much from dense beech forest and ferny hugging the side of the mountain as I made my way back to sea level. It was a slow grind for me with more walking and shuffling than what you would call running so I broke it down into digestable 5km sections and listened to some tunes on my ishuffle to keep momentum.

As the Garmin clocked 10 hrs I was pretty sure I had about 19kms remaining – still on track for a sub 13hour finish. I was now measuring my distance by the hour along with 5kms increments. I was through the last aid station at Lyell Hut in 10hrs 21 mins and had completed 67kms. My Garmin was measuring about 3½ kms short so I was hoping I had lost distance in the mountains due to the elevation gain and it wasn’t going to be a nasty longer distance than the markers were suggesting. I was truly buggared by this stage, I had made all the cut-off times so there was no fear of not completing the event within the 17hr cut-off time but I still had a long way to go. The hours were going past seemingly quickly as it was now 5pm and I had been at this for 11 hours, passing the next marker with just 13kms to go.

At one point, around 73kms I looked down at my Garmin to see the low battery message and on my next glance it was dead, it had barely lasted 11hrs – time for a new one I think. Now I had to rely on the post markers and my phone to keep track of how far I had left to go. I had set myself the goal of coming into the finish before 7pm – under 13 hrs and if I managed to keep my current pace I was going to come close. Maybe I should consider not stopping so often to take photos but what would be the fun in that….

I was elated to get into single digits in a time of 11hrs 28 mins as I passed the 10km marker. The colours are now starting to change as the sun is lower on the horizon and it is getting darker in the rain forest. I had re-estimated a 12hr 45 min finish based on my current time. Thoughts of contemplation were now running around in my head, this event had been quite a challenging run for me, being sick has not helped and with five ultras in five months, it may have been a bit ambitious for me to tackle it without properly resting the body – the cumulation of training and races was starting to take its toll on the body.

The robins continue to fly around my feet delighting me with their cheekiness trying to find bugs as I disturb the earth. It would have been great to capture them on video at some point. I have a minor set back as the next marker indicates 8kms to go when in my mind I thought it was 7kms – no worries each step gets me closer to the finish regardless.

68. Shit how am I going to do a 4hr rogaine next week after this

69. What am I going to eat when I finish

70. A chocolate milk sounds good

71. I need a big hug from Nick

To my dismay the 4km marker was missing and soon after another runner Keith came up behind me. I stopped to move over for him to pass but he was content to sit behind me and chat as we adopted the walk/run approach for the next 3kms. Truth be told there was less walking and pretty much all running – the company was just what I needed as I led Keith across that final swing bridge and up a short flight of stairs before running across the finish line in an official time of 12hrs 44 mins and 57 seconds. The medal was placed around my neck and Nick was there to greet me with a big hug. Would I do it again? It was too early to ask me as I was not in the right frame of mind to answer it without being influenced by how I was feeling. But maybe, just maybe next year I should come back and see how I go when I am feeling healthy.

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