The day before I was meant to run the 85km of the Old Ghost Road, the strap on my running watch broke.
I'm not super spiritual or religious but that's a big fat neon sign that maybe I wasn't all that prepared to run. And to be honest, at that point, I'd have taken anything as a sign not to run. Yet, there I was, in the middle of nowhere in Seddonville (a town I'd never heard of til that very day) getting ready to run all the way to Lyell (another place I didn't have the faintest idea existed), all in one go, through one of the most remote trails in the country.
"Why?", you might ask. That's a really good question.
For the last few months ("couple of years" is probably more accurate), I've been terribly out of love with running. I signed up for the Old Ghost Ultra in June last year, hoping that having that goal on the horizon would get me motivated to get out and run but, instead, proceeded to put it right at the very back of my mind.
Weeks went by without me even trying my running shoes on for size.
In the last couple of months, scared by the daunting mark on the calendar, I'd forced myself out on a few run/walks, only to return home, exhausted, bored and defeated, wondering what the point of the whole thing was.
I was trying to come to terms with the reality that I just didn't like running anymore.
Still, last weekend, I made it to Seddonville and the start line of the race.
I went mostly for two reasons: non-refundable fees and a need to double-triple-quadruple-check I was really done with running, after all these years of it being so important to me.
I patched up my watch with some tape from my compulsory first aid kit, and got myself to bed, the alarm set for 4.30am.
At 6am on Saturday, at the start line in the pitch black before dawn broke, I let out a "why the f*** do I sign up for these things?", thought of all the things I could be doing instead of running, and started running anyway.
Three hundred runners took off on the Old Ghost Road, navigating creeks and puddles in the dark. The drizzle reflection on my headtorch made it all a blur and I couldn't see anything in front of me. I couldn't see what the hell I was doing, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense.
The first cut-off for the race means runners have 2h45 to run the first 17km. I thought I was going to take longer, get pulled out of the course, score a free helicopter ride back to the hut and make it back just in time for a cooked breakfast and a hot shower.
I'd never run 17km on a trail in that time. I'm a proud back of the pack runner and my running/walking strategy has always served me just well enough to get through these things, but this cut-off was a bit too tight for me. Just a couple of weeks earlier, I'd taken a whole 2h30 to do 14km, on a flat piece of road - so you can see why I didn't fancy my chances.
But then something weird happened.
I ran and ran and ran. Not fast but steadier than ever before. The kilometres ticked by on my broken watch and they all appeared more consistent than anything I'd ever done - and all well within the average pace I needed to keep to make it to the first hut in time.
I followed the footsteps of fellow runners and, to the same beat, we stepped on creek after creek as the drizzle continued to fall.
Night turned to day and I was so deep into this zen-like cadence that I don't know how long it took me to realise I didn't need my head torch on anymore.
At the first view of the splendid Mokihinui River and all the hilltops around it, and realising I could still run and breathe, I was once again sold on this whole running thing again.
There's something about covering this kind of distance in remote backcountry under your own steam. And in the case of Old Ghost Road, a fairly new trail, literally carved out of the rocks by passionate local people who wanted to turn that dream into a reality, there's even more of an appreciation for the ground you stand (well, run) on.
The Old Ghost trail, and all its history, somehow snapped me out of my misery.
So I put on the headphones I'd packed in my running bag "in case" and flicked to the playlist from the last ultra marathon I'd run, back in 2016.
It was banger after banger, I tell you. The kind of music I'd be embarrassed to tell you I listen to, if it wasn't for the fact that I'm writing about having run 85km and, therefore, do not care about anyone's opinion on my music choices.
Taylor Swift's "Out of the woods"? Come on, she's gotta be a closet trail runner.
Next one, a banger too, keeping me right on pace. Hailee Steinfeld's "Love Myself" which, I realised, is definitely not a song about empowerment through the means of ultra running but more of a song about masturbation. Whatever, it was doing the trick. I kept ticking along my 8min/km and feeling, for the first time, a fair degree of commitment to doing this thing.
I was doing the thing.
It made no sense to me. A few things were going objectively wrong. At 15km, I tripped on a rock, rolled an ankle and sliced my arm open on a bit of wire. My knee also popped fairly early on and made running downhill (the only kind of actual running I ever do) a damn near impossibility.
And yet, instead of quitting, I kept moving forward, every new corner bringing a new - but just as spectacular - view. I'm not often lost for words but the Old Ghost Road, did leave me speechless in places. The scenery is just downright ridiculous, like something out of a Disney movie. I couldn't believe how obnoxiously positive I was feeling about this whole thing.
We are so very spoilt in New Zealand. Not wanting to sound like a massive wanker (just your average run-of-the-mill wanker, I guess), I felt a huge wave of gratitude for where my life had led me, for the fact that I got to be out there experiencing that trail, seeing those views, smelling that air.
I made it to the first aid station with only with 30 minutes to spare and the next cut-off was looming so I refilled my bottle and carried on running. The trail was going to start turning uphill a bit more, which was going to slow me down.
Head down, I kept going. If I made it to the next hut, I'd have done one out of my two marathons for the day. I chose to focus on that and nothing else. Forget that daunting "85", I'm only running to the next aid station.I kept thinking of that old saying, something like "How do you eat an elephant? One bit at the time".
It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, though. It was a good thing I made the 42km aid station when I did because, I tell you, the whole single-track path is stunning as hell but, constantly running along a cliff edge means there is absolutely nowhere to pee. Things were getting, ahem, a bit desperate.
A quick hover over the long drop, three cups of coke and about eight mini-Snickers bars later, I was off. I'd put my poles in my drop bag for that aid station so was ready to put my head down and tackle the big hill that was coming up ahead.
The uphill felt like it went on forever and I must have walked about two hours straight, in a panic over how my walking pace would affect my chances of making the next cut--off.
Then, once I'd already dragged my body along 50km of that trail, I hit the sign that announced the start of the "Skyline Steps". If those sound terrifying, it's because they are. With 50km on your legs about 35km still to go, you're meant to now climb hundreds of ridiculously steep steps all the way up to the top.
I will admit I may have lost some of my gratitude on one of those.
Luckily, the steps led me all the way up to some of the most beautiful ridgeline running I'd ever seen. I got a bit of a high from being up so high and believed again that I could get through to the end of this.
The beauty of the Old Ghost Road is that it's a point-to-point trail with no access at any other stage of it. Once you're in, you're in deep. Only a missed cut-off or an injury or medical event would grant me a helicopter ride out but, at this stage, I'd worked so hard for so much of the day, I was going off the whole helicopter idea. I deserved to finish this trail on my own two feet.
The lack of training began to really show on the second half of the race. I started adding more and more niggles to the list of things that hurt. Right knee, left calf, both feet, my lower back …
So many things going wrong and yet so many more going right. The incredible volunteers at every aid station (who were spending their weekend in those huts just so they could be out all day looking after everyone). At every aid station I "ran" into, a volunteer immediately offered to fill my pack for me, while I emptied out their supplies of mini Snickers.
They knew the answers to all my questions. How far to the next aid station? How far to the next cut-off?
Each and every one of them much better people than I'll ever be.
I left every hut with a renewed determination to get through the whole thing, even if it made no sense to me that I could run 85km.
I mean, if you're tired of reading this, imagine running the damn thing! So why was I enjoying it so much?
The only plausible conclusion I could get to, in between bouts of burping Coke along the trail, was that I needed this challenge. My body didn't know it but my brain was starting to get the hint.
People draw strength from all manners of things - strength that they can then apply to different aspects and situations in their lives. Some get their strength from religion, I get my strength from running long distances and overcoming the fact that running long distances absolutely sucks.
The strength you can find from pushing your own limits goes way beyond running. You file it away in a little drawer in your brain and draw from it as needed, like a bank account of badassery.
Like … Remember the time i was in pain and it was pissing down but there was no way out but to keep on running another 40km? Suddenly, tricky situations seem less impossible to overcome. At work, at home, wherever. We remember how strong we are because we've given ourselves sheer undeniable evidence of that strength. When things in life suck, we get to remember they don't suck forever. Ultra running teaches you to look at the sucky bits of life and break them down into chucks so they don't feel so overwhelmingly impossible. You learn to eat the stupid elephant one bite at a time. Like an ultra marathon, I am able to break them down into chunks and eat the damn elephant one bite at a time.
One step at a time. One minute at a time. One hut at a time. One cut-off at a time. One mini-Snickers bar at a time.
In the end, I didn't run 85km in one go. I ran 1km, 85 times in a row.
And then I was done.