Sorry for those folks who come here wanting to read about tech, here is one of my somewhat irregular running race report posts.

The Old Ghost Road is a new mountain biking and walking track that was only completed and opened at the end of last year. The track runs from Seddonville to Lyell on the West Coast of the South Island and follows some of the trails that the gold miners would have used in years gone by.

The track is the realization of a group of visionaries who poured immense amounts of time and effort into literally carving a trail out of the rock and bush. Over the 85kms, the Old Ghost offers up steep gorges, lush bush, exposed alpine ridgelines and incredibly beautiful alpine lakes.

A bunch of the people involved in building the track are also trail runners and hence the idea was mooted to run an annual event on the trail. Around 65 people lined up at 5am in the morning all primed and ready to go.

My race

I’ve never raced 85km before so didn’t know what to expect. My previous 50km outings have all featured horrible cramping after about four hours so I was concerned about the nutritional aspects. Because of this, I was pretty careful with my eating and drinking – I took Magnesium tablets for the week before the event and popped a couple of extra during the event. For food, I mainly relied on gels, with the odd treat at the aid stations thrown in for good measure. In terms of drinking, I stuck to water other than a bit of electrolyte at the first aid-station and some flat Coke at the 55km mark.

As I said, I had no idea what to expect. My only guidance was a comparison with Steve Neary, an uber-experienced trail racer who completed the Tarawera 50km race last year an hour or so faster than me. I’d been watching (trolling?) Steve on Strava for the weeks prior and had assumed that given his experience and fitness if I could get to within an hour or two of his finishing time I’d be happy.

Realistically I figured somewhere between 10-12 hours with a stretch goal to possible nudge under the 10 hours mark if I was having a very good day.

I managed to find a great pace group to run with for the first 30 or so kilometers. Stu Cottam did a great job of keeping a beautifully steady pace. Stu took 15 minutes out of me in the Hanmer Alpine Marathon in December, so when I started to tire a bit at 30kms in, I figured it would be suicidal to keep trying to stick with him. The next section mainly consisted of a lot of walking and a fair amount of uncomfortable hobbling on the downhills. There is a reasonably taxing climb at about the 30km mark and then a sweet descent which leads to the half way mark and 42km aid station. Jim McIllraith, a coaster and one of the more experienced runners on this track was at the aid station and he and I traded places for the next 30kms or so.

Me nearing the top of the stairs. Kudos to Stephen Roberts for the amazing photography.

The climb to Ghost Lake hut is hard, but more than made up for with its incredible beauty. The hut sits on the top of a sheer cliff, the only problem being that runners approach it from the bottom of a sheer bluff on the other side. There seems no obvious way to get between the two sides but a steep climb followed by a valley traverse saw us arrive at the hut and the 55km aid station.

The Old Ghost Hut – photo courtesy of The Old Ghost Road

From here the trail opened up and we enjoyed a 15km or so section of incredible alpine ridgeback. Conditions underfoot were a little hard, with small stones making up the majority of the trail. Road shoes (or well-cushioned trail shoes) are the order of the day for this run.

After the alpine section, it’s all downhill with around 18km left to run to the finish, mostly in the bush with springy ground underneath. Taking it easy on the middle section meant that I went into the final descent with essentially fresh legs, I actually managed to get the fourth-fastest time of the day for the final section – I wouldn’t have expected to be able to run 4:30 minute kilometers after 75 on the clock but somehow I pulled it off.

My final time was 9:21, far better than I hoped for. Joint winners were local coast lad Ben Aynsley and Napier-based trail running wonder-woman, Ruby Muir. I spent some time at the end chatting with Ruby who is a refreshing departure from most elite runners in that she is in no way a prima donna and eschews the commercialization of the sport that other elites seem to feed off.

A bigger cause

Massive ups to Nigel Muir, CEO of Sport Tasman who had the inspired idea to get a group of refugee kids from Myanmar together to run the race as a relay. Nigel has set up GoWild, a group focused on helping rekindle the joy of adventuring in the outdoors into young people. While most of my generation spent their childhood doing stuff outside, that is a trait that has, in the space of a single generation, been lost by a huge proportion of society. Go along and support what Nigel is doing at GoWild, it’s an awesome cause.

Nigel Muir and Pakham stride out on their final approach to Ghost lake hut – photo Old Ghost Road

The Old Ghost Ultra was pretty amazing on a number of levels, and I’m looking forward to going back to race it again, but also heading back to the trail to ride or walk it in the future. Final word from a note I wrote to the organisers on their facebook page:

Still fizzing after the weekend. I’m not sure what it is about that event that made it so special… actually, I think I am. It’s that the race reflected the passion that created the track. Other races take part in some incredibly beautiful locations, but they do so somewhat removed from the place itself. When you run the Kepler or the Tarawera, you take part in an event in a magical place, but don’t spend much time thinking about the creation of the place itself.

The Old Ghost was different. The people organizing the event sweated blood to create the track. Hell, even some of the people running in the event sweated blood to build the track. Everyone I talked to at the event came away feeling like we’d done more than run a race, we’d been a part of something that is bigger than a race, bigger than a path between two points, the making of a community.

When Nigel talked about the fact that GoWild was created out of his concerns that kids today don’t experience the outdoors the way previous generations did, he touched a nerve. That same concern about experience extends to us all – the reality is that most of the trails we run on have been there for a long time and hence the stories of their creation have retreated into the mists of time. Not so with the Ghost, in which we have a modern lesson in hard work, overcoming obstacles, prescience, and community.

Hats off to Philip Rossiter and everyone involved in both the trail building project and the Old Ghost Ultra. You guys are special and Phil, despite your words about being honoured to have been witness to the athletes who came to run the event, it is we who were privileged to be there

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.