Race 7 of the ANZ Skyrunning series: Mt Difficulty – Cromwell, New Zealand – 45km/3200m+/-
A quick summary… Race starts and finishes at a winery, the RD recommends wearing footy boots on course and his final words are ‘make sure you close any gates you come through. We don’t want to lose any sheep out there’.
I was definitely looking forward to this play!
The run starts with about 5-6km of single trail/farm trail with a couple of gates to jump over and a short little steep climb (known as nipple hill) of a few hundred metres up AND and pretty steep, rocky technical descend on the other side. I quite often like to taste the air of the mountain on a new run, so found myself up front in a good pack with some classy runners. After an initial little play, we begin the first real climb of the course… and ‘climb’ it was. About 500m gain over 1km, pretty steep country but was quite easy to get grip on and smelt – amazing!
The mountain sides here are lined with Thyme and because your body’s so close to the ground, you sure get a good smell of it. Once up, you get some amazing scenery and sheep track ridge running which I should say was some of the most scenic I have been on in Aus/NZ trail. Pretty much a 360 degree vista of the Cromwell valley.
A steep technical downhill and you finish a 10km loop back where you started climbing.
At the 16km mark there is a nice undulating run along the river but it only lasts a short while before you begin the second climb of the day. I am not great with numbers but I remember Terry (the RD) mentioning it something like 1100m ascent over 3km. Pretty much a VK race at the half way point of a marathon…nice!
This was without doubt a climb unlike any other mountain marathon I have done before. Steep, sheer and straight up. Trail non existent – you are following a well flagged course marking up through what is called true wild and rugged goat country (although, I think there are sheep here… and flamin’ fit ones at that!).
Reaching the high point of the course at about 1,500m, you feel like you could be at about 3,000m! Amazing ridge lined, snow capped peaks all round. Still a dusting of snow on top but nothing requiring any real snow technique. From here, the actual running really begins. About 14km of undulating cattle road (grassy kinda 4wd trail) along the higher section of the course. The kind of trail on fresh legs you’d run easy but on legs that have seen the previous steep ascents… a little harder.
The top 5 of us where all pretty close to each other at this stage still.
Aid stations are a plenty on the run, all about 5-8kms apart, pretty minimal with just the necessary water, electrolyte mixes (some offering potato chips/hot chocolate). A note for runners looking to take this event on, take Terry’s word in packing the right gear (as per the mandatory list), as although these mountains aren’t too high, being this low in the Southern Hemisphere it doesn’t take much to get a blistery cold wind cut through you on the top section.
At about the 35k mark, everything starts to look a little more colourful as you find yourself at the top of a long descent back down to the finish line. Pretty much mostly cattle 4wd trail, pretty smooth going finishing with a ‘twist’ – literally where the final 2kms weave in – out and around old mining grounds that give you that sense of single trail playing one last time.
For me, crossing the finish line in 5;12hrs (well ahead of where I thought I’d be at this stage in my training and not such a good nutrition plan), placing 5th behind some amazingly strong runners including Chris Forne (4;49hrs), Martin Kern (5;02hrs), Loughlin Kennedy (5;04hrs) and Sam McCutcheon (5;08hrs) I was definitely happy with my time out in the mountain.
In the ladies race it was on for young and old with 1st going to Louise Clifton (6:28:18), 2nd Sandrine Douarin (6:34:08) and 3rd Maureen Stachowicz (6:43:43).
At the finish line – wood fired pizza and local beer kept everyone happy!!! And just a real relaxing mountain style atmosphere was on abundance.
Well done to Terry and his whole Mt Difficulty team for a great event this is one that should be on all skyrunners lists! A well marked course with good aid stations and above all just a magic trail.
Will I come back again – YES ? Special note. first race I have ever finished where my shoes actually smelt better after the race… Thankyou NZ mountain thyme.
Some recommended gear- good quality thermal wear options, footy boot style runners (I used Salomon S-lab Speedcross) and as light a pack as you can go (Salomon S-lab Sense Ultra set). Perhaps also some arm protection as there was quite a bit of thorny bush on the steep climbs.