The trail running community is a close knit one so when ultra running stalwart Steve Neary was tragically killed in a motor vehicle accident earlier this week there was an outpouring of grief and, equally, memories of the larger-than-life character that Steve was. I can’t attend Steve’s funeral and so decided that, in true Steve style, my run at the Queen Charlotte Track ultra today would be dedicated to him.
The Queen Charlotte Ultra is an unofficial race, in an effort to reduce the issues around health and safety compliance, the race has no entry fee, no registration form, no aid stations and no trail marking. Despite this lack of formality, the race has been running for a number of years and always gets a small but committed bunch of entrants. I’ve not done the race before, and neither have I run the beautiful Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds. The track runs for 71kms up and down and alongside the sounds and, for those North American readers, feels a lot like the sounds around Seattle.
I only really decided to race this week, since it was a long weekend for us and I could visit with family up in Blenheim – made sense to kill two birds with one stone.
Up at 4am and down to the boat for an hour-long ferry trip out to the start at Ship’s Cove. The forecast for the day was, frankly, horrendous with gale-force southerly winds and torrential rain. Add to that the fact that it had been raining in the area all week and the expectation was that the race would be as much an ultra swim and a run!
We alighted from the boat and all got ready to run – and within the first few minutes, it would be obvious it wasn’t going to be a fast day. Where the track once was, there now flowed a river – pretty much all day we’d be running through rivulets of water running off the surrounding hills – a good test for my generously applied Gurney Goo foot lubricant.
From the gun, one runner moved to the front. It turned out that the speedy guy was another Ben, one who I raced at The Old Ghost 85km earlier in the year and who beat me by a healthy margin. The expectation was that we wouldn’t see him again all day. The fact he possesses legs that would appear to be about six feet long seemed to help him keep up a fierce pace.
I spent the next five hours or so running with another chap and swapping stories between the two of us. The track conditions were pretty trying, I took a couple of falls as my feet lost traction on the slippery clay – the downhills were particularly difficult with a loose layer of pine needles sitting on top of the clay which did a perfect job of having us slide meters with every step – luckily I didn’t fall on any of the descents – but it was a close thing.
We kept up a good cadence up and down the track – over roots and rocks, rivers and the interminable clay. And then, at about the 45 km mark we came upon Ben stretching his cramping muscles. As someone who suffers from bad cramps myself, I did the decent thing and offered him some of my magnesium tablets. Ben decided to gut it out and, quietly I thought that my chance to do well in a race might have just presented itself.
At about km 50 we had the final climb of the day, up to Torea Saddle. It was steep and slippery and, without really pushing things, I could feel that I was stronger than both Ian and Ben. With 15 km to go, I pushed the pace a little and got a gap on the other two. I spent the next hour or so spending a lot of time looking backward, fully expecting that at least one of them would run me down. Luckily I managed to gain some time and ended up coming in first with a handy 15-minute buffer to Ian in second with Ben another half hour or so back.
I’ve never won a race outright before and, given that I spent much of the day thinking about Steve, someone who was a far better trail runner than I’ll ever be, it was kind of appropriate to do so today. Had Steve been there, he would have obviously kicked my arse, I can only assume that he was watching, having a chuckle at the mad buggers out in the rain and enjoying a good craft beer somewhere up in heaven.
Run well, Steve. You’ll be sorely missed.
The Strava trace is below, true to form, bush, bad weather and switchbacks made for a pretty abysmal GPS trace – actual distance was 71km