Mt Difficulty Ascent 25km
Heading into the race I knew it was going to be a tough one. I mean it’s all in the name right! It had been freezing the day before the race so I was really worried about keeping warm for this event. But we woke to an awesome day, about 2deg at the start line and no wind. I started the race wearing 3 layers of merino, an extra fleece top, a Thir and gloves and was quickly way too hot.
The 44k and 25km races start and finish at Mt Difficulty Wines in Bannockburn. We all lined up together on the road out the front and with no real fuss or ceremony, we started and headed off onto a wide track next to the road. One thing I have noticed with these steep South Island events is that everyone goes out super-fast at the start and this race was no exception. The idea is you get to the front and then you don’t get held up on the skinny uphill. I ended up quite near the back and just settled into an easy rhythm. When races are going to be long, I know I am better off to just chill at the start and finish strong and so I did not feel the need to try and keep up.
We ducked off the roadside track pretty quickly and onto the trail, there was a fair bit of congestion as some walked the uphill bits, but overall, this bit was pretty easy going. I jumped ahead a little bit here and moved up the pack. I also awkwardly took some time walking to get my extra fleece layer off and shoved it in my pack (where it stayed thank goodness). There was some nice undulating running for a while here, a section of road and you could see the first big climb to our left as we made our way to the base of Nipple Hill. From here the uphill is quite abrupt and things got really slow, really quickly. The runners looked like ants winding up the trail and when you looked up the hill the line was relentless. It can be a real mental game when you can see where you have to go and how much more climbing you have to do. There were a few spots to get around runners, but we basically all just kept in line and worked our way up. Once at the top we had to then go down the other side, which was hairy in places and not much quicker. As discussed in the race briefing if that first up and down was at your limits then it was strongly advised to turn back at the bottom as things were about to get a whole lot harder.
I was quite enjoying the run at this point and went through the aid station to tackle the Mt Difficulty section and second big climb. There was some nice running along by the river and it felt good to stretch the legs out and move a bit faster. Then came the climb and oh my goodness it was epic. It went on and on and on and then just when you thought you were at the top you weren’t! We got up into the cloud layer and it was incredibly pretty with frost on everything and some snow on the ground. The temperature dropped at this point and I put my gloves and Thir back on as we followed the trail along the top. Then as we climbed just a little bit more we got above the clouds and it was spectacular. The sun was warm and with a dusting of snow on everything it felt like we were in another world. I felt a bit choked up at this point, marveling at how beautiful NZ is and how fortunate I am to be able to move my body up a mountain to see it. I reached down a couple of times and grab some snow to make snowballs and threw them around a bit while running.
Next up there as a good section of farm tack downhill, it was a little icy in places so I took my time and settled into an easy pace. We eventually turned off the track and onto the ridgeline, it sort of snuck up on me and my stomach did a bit of a flip flop when I realised just how steep the drop off was to the side. This section went on for a bit and took some extra concentration to navigate around the narrow track and rocks. If you looked over to your right you could see people snaking up the final climb, which was a bit soul destroying though too. At the end of the ridge was the rope section and it didn’t disappoint. I used both hands on the rope and sort of leant out and moved down the hill, it worked well and aside from my hands starting to burn I was proud of getting through it without freaking out. I would recommend wearing your gloves for this bit, I forgot to put them on at the top! I am not scared of heights, but hanging off the side of a cliff can be quite confronting, especially on tired legs.
Once at the bottom I passed through the aid station and all I had to do was get myself back up and over Nipple Hill and along to the finish. I must say there were some swear words on this part of the climb, my calf muscles were burning and it was hard going. I actually thought to myself as I was climbing, come on you have birthed two children, you can do hard things, keep going! I did pass a few people on the up though, which gave me a little confidence boost to keep pushing. I may have even told a terrible joke to a couple of runners I passed; I barely made them laugh which I am trying not to take too personally.
Coming down the other side my quads were toasted and I was so very happy to finally get off the hill and head back to the finish. There is a small section of road which I powered down, enjoying the freedom of being able to run again. We ran along past the vines on a gradient that normally would be easy, but most people were walking. I ran most of it, passing quite a few runners along the way here too. The legs although knackered were still working well and the final couple of km’s was a fun undulating, but mostly downhill trail which popped us back out at Mt Difficulty winery. I picked up the pace and ran in strong to finish, so proud that I had made it back in one piece!
There was a fair bit of swearing at the finish line and it took me a while to process what I had just done. It ranks up there with one of the hardest races I have done to date and my mind needed time to just soak it all in.
If you are ok with heights and looking for a tough race then I would really recommend giving the 25km a go – or the 44km if you want even more adventure. Be prepared for lots of climbing as there really is a lot, like heaps and heaps!