The short version
I ran the entire race with Yonni and we both managed a sub-9-hour run with him setting a new junior course record. I’m a very proud dad.
The long version
For those who don’t know the “lie of the land” here is a quick intro to the race. Competitors start off from Seddonville in the dark and slowly make their way along the Mokihinui River. As the sun gently rises they’re treated to some incredible views of bush-clad gorges. After some lovely forest running, the track heads up and competitors navigate the infamous Skyline Steps and a series of switchbacks to Ghost Lake. From there one enjoys some incredible rocky ridge running to the high point of the course at Heaven’s Door before heading back down through the forest to Lyell.
How it played out
After a couple of years away from the race, son #1 was back in New Zealand and was all set to return to the Old Ghost Ultra (OGU to save my fingers). He ran the event as a 16-year-old and got to the finish, albeit not in great shape. For months he’d been talking about this year’s race and had been laying down some pretty ambitious goals – much banter had been had with the Hagley Hombres running club about Yonni’s stated ambition to run sub 9 hours – not something that many people do. Still, young and dumb and putting it all on the line is something that sometimes pays off.
A group of us travelled over to the West Coast – Yonni and I joined by club mates Andy and Lee, as well as new recruit Jarrod Cook. Race briefing was, as always, an entertaining affair with the race director and personal hero of mine, Phil Rossiter, introducing everyone to the Whitley Index (WTLI), a recently developed methodology which tracks runners will to live at various stages of a race. Phil’s race briefings are the stuff of legend and, even if you’re not into running, it’s worth coming along just to watch.
Race morning called for a 3 am rise in order to make the roughly hour-long journey to the start line at Seddonville. The busses are always full of nervous individuals and there is that early morning, pre-race smell of deep heat, anti-chafe cream and crisp, clean (but not for long) running kit.
Yonni and I had discussed race strategy and we both agreed on two things: first, that it was important to get a decent start to avoid congestion on the runnable first 20km section and secondly that thereafter we’d run conservatively. We decided it was better to get a good time through a steady race than to go out too fast and risk blowing up.
Yonni has a tendency to get excited when he’s leading but I was pleased that all day he managed to curb his enthusiasm and keep it steady – the odd suggestion from me to back off a bit was all it took to keep him in check. It was also important to recognise that after a fair amount of rain, the trail was actually more taxing than one would have thought – there was quite a lot of water underfoot and we had to be pretty careful about foot placement.
For the first section, all four Hombres were pretty much together, with Lee slightly ahead of us. At the aid station, Phil and Squadrun honcho Kerry Suter welcomed us and gave us some intel on other runners. We’d decided not to hang around here for long so after grabbing a bit to eat and letting Phil take a quick pic of us, we headed off for the longest section, the 25kms from Specimen Point to Stern Valley.
Soon after Andy dropped off the pace a little bit and so it was just Yonni and I running together for the next three hours. This section was in great shape – almost no surface water and a slightly soft trail that made it quite pleasant. At about the 36km mark runners start the Hanging Judge climb up to Solemn Saddle. At this point, we caught up to a reasonably-sized group of runners which included our mate Lee. It was nice to see him and run with him for a bit.
By the top of Solemn Saddle, it was just Yonni and me again, all ready to attack the amazing descent down the moonscape of the Boneyard and across to Stern Valley.
It was nice getting into Stern Valley, the aid station which signifies the halfway point in the race. While the hard stuff is still to come, it still feels good to be halfway through in terms of distance. Phil and Kerry had shuttled to the aid station by helicopter and once again gave us the lowdown on where everyone else was.
We took a little bit longer at the Stern Valley aid station – a chance to refuel, reset the legs and mind and get ready for the section ahead. It was interesting replaying the livestream, and seeing that, despite what felt like a pretty long aid station visit to us, we were still speedier than most other runners – different strokes for different folks, I guess.
The section from Stern Valley to Ghost Lake hut is the shortest section of the race, but also the most difficult and iconic. After a few kilometres spent winding one’s way through the native bush, the track pitches upwards and climbs for a while before depositing runners at the bottom of the Skyline Steps – 300+ (but I didn’t count) steps of varying heights that take runners up to the Skyline Ridge. The steps are awaited anxiously by all, and many a competitor has seen their race fall apart as the climb elicits cramps – we did OK, however, and popped out on the ridge in good spirits.
From there the track climbs some more and becomes a bit more technical – I’m always pretty cautious in this section as one misplaced foot can spell disaster. Yonni got away from me a bit here – 19-year-old legs are far better suited to technical running than 48-year-old ones!
We regrouped ready for the final section of switchback that takes runners to Ghost Lake – I quite like this section since the views are amazing, the track is pretty smooth and the gradient is fairly doable.
At Ghost Lake, there are only a few hundred metres to run through the bush before one gets to the Ghost Lake aid station and can have a few minutes to relax. Perennial supporters Phil and Kerry were there as well and we spent a few minutes discussing strategies for the rest of the race and whether Yonni’s sub 9 hour was actually attainable. It was also a chance for some sustenance with Coke, chips and a sandwich providing fuel for the final 30 kilometres to the finish.
From Ghost Lake, there are a few kilometres left to climb to the high point of the course at Heaven’s Door and then runners face a sweet 25km descent. Initially, this descent is across an exposed ridge, but later on, it enters the bush and moves from hard, rocky ground to softer more pleasant conditions.
The final aid station at Lyell Saddle was a chance for a quick bite to eat but, since we’d picked up (and been picked up by) a bunch of other runners at this stage, we didn’t want to hang around. While time was our primary objective, there was still the thought of podium and overall placings and we were mindful that being passed by runners wouldn’t help with that objective.
There was a bit of back and forwards with different competitors in the last 15km or so – it was somewhat amusing to see Mr Chilli pants run past at a million miles an hour only to have us pass him as he was crouched down with stitch a few minutes later. Grant Guise, local trail running legend and importer of a bunch of trail running brands had run the early stages with another competitor as a training run and decided to smash out the last half at pace. He saw us in the distance and for a few minutes, we heard the dulcet tones of a screaming Southlander regaling us about how stupid we looked in yellow shirts. That lasted all of a couple of minutes before he blasted past on his way to the finish.
The final bridge and steps to the finish line were a pretty sweet sight to see and we ended up crossing the line together in 8:41. That got Yonni a junior course record by some three hours, a reduction in his OGU time by close to four hours, the pair of us 17th equal and me third vet for the second year in a row. All in all a good haul.
The Old Ghost is always the highlight of my racing calendar and, beyond that, it is a chance to spend a weekend with good friends – both old and new. This year was no different and being able to spend the day running with Yonni, and to help him to such an epic result, was really special.