Mount Difficulty is situated about 5km from Cromwell in New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a stunning location, close to Queenstown and surrounded by snow capped peaks and lakes. Late last year I was looking at the ANZ Skyrunning events as I wanted to do one in NZ. I read Beth’s race report which said the Mount Difficulty event lived up to its name and it sounded really tough but really fun and a huge challenge. However I liked the look of the Ultra Easy too and as it was in January it was a bit easier for me with work so I entered that instead (a fantastic course). But by the time May came around I was thinking about Mount Difficulty again. I’d missed a marker on the last race I’d done at Mount Buller and been lost for 45 minutes so I still had an urge to race. I watched the videos on the Mount Difficulty website and was completely sold. This race has some serious scrambling which appealed to the rock climber in me. The race director Terry Davies also directed the Ultra Easy and I had loved the whole vibe of that event and the toughness of the course so that was it. I booked my flights.
I arrived on the Thursday before the race traveling with Loughlinn Kennedy who also lives in the Blue Mountains. There was loads of places to stay in Cromwell but I stayed in an Airbnb place with a local family. We had a very pleasant shake out run around the lake at Cromwell that night and spent the next day wondering around ‘the sluicings’ close to the Mount Difficulty winery where the race starts and ends. This is the remains of the gold mining that was prevalent in the days of early settlers. An odd location it looks like a mini Utah desert with cut out canyons. The were markers out but as the Rustic run was on the same day as Mount Difficuly and that involved laps around the sluicings we were a bit unsure where we would actually be going the next day. There were pretty cool tracks through the sluicings so we hoped we’d be running them at some stage… at the briefing we got a bit of a slideshow and a few warnings from Terry not to randomly jump sideways off the trails as this might cause death. He was quite sad the masses of snow that had fallen had mostly melted. I was not unhappy about that news.
The Yachtbot team gave me a free tracker so that Steve my husband could follow my race from home as he hadn’t been able to come. We had met them on our January trip and there were other runners we had met who were at Mount Difficulty all really friendly. It was good to see them again.
Race day had a civilised start of 8am and although the sun had just come up it was light enough to start without a head torch. We knew the start would be fast as it was mostly flat to the first ascent. I went close to the front so I didn’t get stuck through the single trail at the sluicings and ran close to the leading half marathon girl through single trail past the vineyard and through the sluicings until the first big ascent of the race. As she ran ahead I mostly hiked because this 250m climb in 1km was the first of three that progressively got harder. At the top was the barbed wire fence which another runner kindly held for me so I didn’t need to stop and take my pack off to get through. I did the same for him. The first of maybe 10 gates for runners to jump over.
The descent was steep and a bit rough, the wild thyme I had read about in Beth’s report was incredible. It was everywhere and the air was filled with the smell which was beautiful. I got passed by a bunch of guys smashing down which is usual but I wasn’t worried. We’d only done about 6km. We ran along the river a bit on a slightly undulating track and I caught a few of them back up. Then the second ascent. This time 500m. Much more of a scramble than the first ascent and seemed a lot longer. Andy who I had met at the Ultra Easy and run with during that race for a few km had passed me on the first descent but I’d caught him on the river. He passed me going up and I thought he would probably beat me in this race and get me back for leaving him at the 60km mark in the Ultra Easy. This was the first of two climbs up Mt Difficulty, the second yet to come. Close to the top two girls caught me, one with a red bib (half) and one with a blue one (full). Damn!
I stayed with them and passed them on the single trail at the top where they seemed to slow. I ran a bit with Sarah who was doing the marathon and we had a brief chat, this was her third Difficulty! She told me she was on track for seven and a half hours and I felt a bit worried as I had hoped to run under 7. She also told me there were two girls with poles who were fast on the descents and had caught her but she had passed them on the runnable sections. This turned out to be good beta for later.
As the trail undulated we passed people walking including Andy. We hit a good downhill and the half mara girl smashed past us at super speed. She was gone. At the next steep descent I was able to move fast because of the rope that had been fixed. I turned backwards and practically abseiled down with my gloved hands. Fun! It was a good feeling to be able to get down fast for a change, but close to the end a girl with poles caught me.
At the aid station at the bottom (17km) I had to stop to get water for the next big ascent but she didn’t stop and was gone. Sally Law was volunteering and it was great to see her. She gave me some words of encouragement and I headed off. Sure enough on the runnable bit I closed the gap on Andy who had passed on the descent again and then managed to pass the girl (Sandrine) on the super steep sections where I bear-climbed up but she seemed to struggle with her poles. Unfortunately as it got less steep at the top the poles became more useful and when I had to stop using my arms and only use my legs she got ahead of me again and I watched as she got further and further away. I wasn’t too worried though.
We hadn’t yet got to the top of this last major climb, 1020m in 3km, and we were only halfway into the race. I knew some fast running was ahead so aimed to keep her in my sights. The climb went on and on and on and my water was gone. The wind was strong and icy as I got close to the top. There was a volunteer by the track but no water. I asked where the next aid station was (at the top) and he said it was still a little way. I ate some snow and ice until I got there. I could see Sandrine in the distance for most of the next section. There was some excellent downhill running on rough four wheel drive track, not too steep. Then we hit some hills, some I walked until I looked at them and told myself they were not very steep and I’d run a lot steeper. I started running them all slowly. At the next aid station Sandrine seemed closer. Suddenly the gap was not so big and I caught up to her. I could not believe it. I passed her and expected a chase. She had looked super determined every time I’d seen her!
By chance my timing could not have been better as just as I passed her there was a long downhill which I thought would continue to the end. Because of that assumption I ran as fast as I could. But then I hit another climb, some single trail. Another climb through a field. My visor blew off and I let it go. No time to chase it. I could not see Sandrine behind me and now I just had to hold it together.
There was some tricky off track sections where I had to remind myself to concentrate on the markers. I did not want to get lost now. I reached the sluicings and could see tape to the left and right. I swore. Couldn’t think straight. I headed left because that was the way we had come at the start. But the arrows were pointing the other way so I turned around and followed the arrows knowing I was following the Rustic course and hoping that was right. It must be. There surely wouldn’t be two courses marked out! This section was interesting but went on and on. I had seen the winery a few km back but it took an age to get there. Finally I was climbing over a stile and down hill to the finish line. I finished in 6:28 which was more than an hour and a half after the winning guy but I was stoked.
The male field was very strong as the women’s field had been in 2015 (the women’s CR is held by Whitney Dagg 5:54) Loughlinn had finished third which was an incredible achievement. It was pretty cool that we both had made the podium and survived the race. Plus we hung out with some awesome runners at the end, including Sandrine who finished in 6:34 and gave me a massive hug.
If you like crazy courses with spectacular scenery and awesome people I can’t recommend this enough. I haven’t yet savoured the bottle of Mount Difficulty pinot noir I won but I’m looking forward to it. Thanks Terry for another cracking race.
Louise Clifton – Skyrunner