Last year I was fortunate enough to race in the inaugural Old Ghost Ultra, an incredible 85km mountain trail race run between Seddonville and Lyell on the West Coast of New Zealand. The story of the Old Ghost Ultra is really the story of The Old Ghost Road. This track was only completed 18 or so months ago, and was the realization of an almost decade-long idea that a handful of incredibly visionary West Coasters had.
Designed as a mountain biking and walking track the Old Ghost Road follows some of the trails that the gold miners would have used in years gone by. As I said, 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.This year around 140 (over double the number who ran last year!) people lined up to challenge the ghost. But the amazing thing about this race, is that one can’t help but feel the love that has gone into the track. The race director, the ever-reluctant to take credit (although absolutely deserving to do so) Phil Rossiter, also heads up the Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust and, in his spare time, looks after a full-time job and a family. Rossiter is a legend in a place where legends are aplenty, and I can’t say enough about how special this guy, the track he helped create, and this race, actually are.
So. Onto the race. Having raced The Old Ghost once before, and running (albeit very badly!), a slightly longer 100km race late last year, I knew what 10 or so hours on my legs would feel like. I also reminded myself over and over that my race approach last year worked well – and hence recreating it made sense. Last year’s approach was pretty simple. Run fast for 30kms, hopefully tucked in nicely behind someone that was setting a nice even pace, then hunker down for a fair amount of walking on the steeper middle section. In doing so, the theory was that I’d have fresh-enough legs to bomb the sweet final 25kms or so which is beautiful flowing bush track that also has the added advantage of being pretty much entirely downhill.
A few km into the event. Pic by (obviously) Katabatic
The first few kilometers saw me join a small bunch of runners including old Ben Williams, fresh from racing in the winning school team at the Coast to Coast. Like my son, Ben is 16 years old, a couple of years younger than the minimum age for this race but both the lads got special dispensation to run the event. I was a little worried that Ben was at the front of our bunch pulling off nice 5:30min/kms – that works well for a shorter race, but is a bit suicidal for an ultra. I didn’t say anything to him (teenagers never take advice, right?) but sat at the back enjoying a catch-up with another veteran from last year, Jim McIllraith. Jim is another integral member of the Old Ghost Road crew, and has probably run these trails more than anyone. He’s also a really handy trail runner so it was fun to be with him. After a few kms, Jim decided to break for a call of nature, and I used the opportunity to go past the rest of our small bunch and up the pace to see who was ahead of me.
The young feller, still looking fresh at this stage! Pic from Katabatic
As it turned out, I found that awesome pacer I’d been looking for. And who would have expected it to be the same person I spent the first 30kms behind last year? Stu Cottam is a legendary runner – he’s a decade or more older than me but has been running competitively all his life. Stu races everything from short athletic sprint events, to road marathons and on to ultras. He’s a nuggety runner, with a very distinctive running style (some would saw hot coals, other would say a strategically inserted broomstick – whatever, it works!)
I almost felt bad sitting on Stu’s shadow for close to three hours – but he prefers to set the pace himself and so who was I to object to that? In any case, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before the pace set by a runner of Stu’s caliber would be too much for me, and indeed it was, at 30km I decided to button off and run on my own.
The next 30kms were a bit of a mixture – a fair amount of walking, some worrying early signs of oncoming cramps, and some good yarns at the aid stations. I met up with one other runner in this section but he was doing his thing and I was doing mine. We ran together for about 5kms around the Ghost Lake area but after that, I managed to shake him off (despite having a style that included frequent stops as cramps locked me rigid.)
Last year I had an amazing run for the last 20kms, feeling remarkably fresh and able to open up and let the distance flow. Alas, this year I wasn’t in such good shape and as the numbers below (for the obsessive compulsives among us) attest, every section saw me running either a similar time or faster than last year – except for the last section. Something tells me that with better luck in the cramp department, a sub 9 hour is attainable.
The Old Ghost ultra is my favorite event on the calendar – the spirit, the amazing scenery and the fact that it is still small enough to feel like a family event. I’m already looking forward to going back again in 2018. Thanks and love to Phil Rossiter and the rest of the organizing team – you guys are amazing!
|Start-Specimen||Specimen-Stern||Stern-Ghost Lake||Ghost Lake-Saddle||Saddle-Lyell||Overall place||Category place|