The heat of the day kicked in as we marched up the long climb. We were quite lucky with having some cloud cover for most of the day, protecting us from the 30c glare that we have been having here over the summer. I thought about the many friends I had who will be starting the Thames Path 100 in the UK soon. The UK has been hit by snow and blizzards and all involved were going to have a hard time. I felt a little guilt as I splashed my face in a nice cold creek, wet my hat and looked out on the ground for little lizards basking in the sun.
On the way up I spoke to Campbell who I met at the start and had been reading my blog. He said I should have no problem doing this though he and others easily cruised past me on the ascents. The path was much better than in the first loop but it was still hard work. The first climb here was to get to the top of "TW", the mountain top that was the major aid station for the whole race. On the way we were introduced to gale, a furious high speed wind that would be a permanent obstacle in the race. I don't think the video does it justice. I have not felt air rushing at my face this fast since, well erm yesterday. That was when I was in freefall, dropping out of the sky at 200km per hour.
I cowered behind a huge rock, sheltering from the wind to put my jacket back on. I felt a bit silly taking such a big windproof and waterproof jacket with me but now I was very pleased with the choice. The jacket stopped the wind from sucking the heat right out of me but my ability to stay on my feet was rather like Gareth Bale's. I stopped (or was stopped) a few times to regain my balance, looked back and saw other runners behind the same rock putting more clothes on.
It took about 4 hours to finally reach this place and it was a very welcome sight. There were two vans and 4 horse carts. My drop bag was in one of the carts and we were encouraged to spend some time in there getting warm before heading out on the "loop of dispair". I ate some soup and got out of there fairly quicky To try to get as much of the loop done in daylight. The loop of despair was only 13k but it involved a gnarly descent off the mountain and then coming right back up the other side.
The down felt ok. The blisters that I got two days ago from climbing a couple of mountains were starting to burn. Every rock kicked felt like my foot was bleeding. After an hour of descent it leveled out but started to get dark. I tried as best I could to hold out without putting on my torch but with clouds in the sky and the sun quickly disappearing behind the mountains it gets dark suddenly. And it gets proper dark too. I was on my own for this whole loop and with no other torches around if I turned mine off I was in pitch black darkness. Exhilirating but also quite scary.
At the bottom I saw a marshall who reasurred me that I was only 5k from being back at the top. I knew he meant 5k horizontally and that pythagoras would have something to say about it. Realistically I knew I was 2 hours from getting back up there. I slowly wound up the valleys to the top. I had no idea now how to idenfify the top as it was dark. The course was marked with posts and reflective tape, every 50 meters there was another glowing marker to aim for. It was impossible to get lost, they had marked it so well. I was zooming my light in to see further ahead to try and get the shape of the land. Sometimes I thought I saw another headtorch and would get excited that there were others in the race but it never was, just a reflection. I had not seen another runner for hours.
As I crested the mountain I flashed my torch near some rocks and saw a flurry of activity, lots of torches lit and moving side to side. I felt great as the checkpoint had come sooner that I expected. I walked up the switchbacks and headed around to the light but something felt odd. There was no sound. Now I was close to the lights but could not hear anything. I shone the torch at full beam directly at the area and it took a few seconds for me to realise that I was stood about 5 meters from about 12 cows all just staring at me.
We were told in the briefing that we might get freaked out by cows, these big white eyes lighting up randomly in the dark. I have seen how fast cows can run and was very careful about my sheepish exit. Apparently cows magnify things with their eyes and so they think we are bigger than them. That did not enter my mind at the time. I carried on, up a few more switchbacks and looked back, the cows were in the same spot, still watching me climb the hill. I looked up, unable to seperate the mountains from the clouds and sky. Every reflective flash in the distance was another place I had to get to and it looked so high. I saw a dim light way up. It did not disappear wheni took my light off it so it must be a runner. It was so high though and only after many turns and this light not moving did I finally twig, thats Venus. I don't have to go that far.
I was exposed to the wind again near the top as I tried to remember where this checkpoint was. It might be just behind the next rock I kept telling myself. Finally it came and by that time the wind was furious. Blasting me to standstill at regular intervals. As soon as I stopped I froze and had to duck into a horsebox where my drop bag was. I was shivering in three layers. I added my fleece to my layers, put on the thermal tights that I thought were a silly thing to carry. Put on a balaclava that I only put in the drop bag as a joke. I was now wearing all the clothes I had and I was still cold. I had as much hot food as I could manage as I sat in this little wooden box that was rocking in the wind. It was hard to leave but it had to be done. It was only about 11pm and it was only going to get colder.
I headed out of the horsebox and onto the ridge where the wind battered me further. There were 8 types of wind. Headwind, tailwind, side wind (into mountain) and sidewind (down mountain). Each of these can happen when you are heading uphill or downhill. Headwind is the worst, it slows the descents and makes uphill impossible, I was contorting myself into all sorts of shapes to try to get up some of those. Sidewinds are rubbish whether up or down too, most dangerous when pushing you into a ravine. The tailwind going down hill is the worst though, I had to lean back to stop myself getting blown away. The ground is rocky and I could not see very well. I thought I might take off. So 7 of the 8 winds are bad, the wind was 87.5% evil, there was that sweet 12.5% that was glorious, gerting blown up a hill by a gale. Sometimes it was perfect, I could just spread my arms out and use my jacket as a windsail and glide up the hill. Did not happen that often though.
I remained high and exposed for quite a while. After about an hour I came to a junction with a marshall who asked me "have you been here before?" I was not sure how to respond. How does he mean? I think emotionally I have been here before, paranoid that I am never going to get this finished. Metaphorically I have definitely been here before, getting bashed around in all directions by a random force while I try to achieve some goal that I am no longer sure is worth bothering with. Existentially I am only "here" in the sense that you are seeing me here. I could well be over there, or anywhere. But in actual fact he was asking as to whether I have physically been "here", stood by these rocks and looking at this car in the dark. I had not and so had to turn left down another craggy ridge where the wind was 100% evil.
I was a bit confused as to why I had to go in a different direction. I later discovered that we hit the same point on the third loop. He was not 100% certain that I wasn't winning. Awwwww, people almost think the nicest things.
Gemma was in bed now in Wanaka and had put a call out on facebook for people back at home to send me messages. Most of the messages said "I hear you are wearing tights like a girl". I got a lot of positive messages that brought a smile to my face, well the wind didnt let me do that. I did a big circle in the sky and then it was time for the descent, the same one as in loop one though much harder in the dark. I was tired and looking forward to a little sleep once I got to the end of the second loop. I started rattling through the calculations in my head. If I get back at 3, stay till 4 then I have 26 hours to do 60k, that should be easy. However there were sections that I was going slower than that pace. But I was still up high. I figured that it is net downhill from here to the end and though I am only about half way I could say I have already done the hardest bit. I have used this logic many times before and it has always been wrong. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, thats the definition of insanity isn't it?
It seemed harder the second time even without the additional loop with the other hill.On the way a quad bike passed me and said it's only about 2k to the end. I thought that there was no way this was true, I have not covered that distance. Then there was a car with a marshall who said "you'll be pleased to know it's only 6k to the end". Well I would have been pleased for it to be only 2k but I was even more pleased that my brain was still working and could guess distances.
I finally saw the lights of the camp and staggered in at about 330am. I saw Campbell again who said he had called it a day. 100k over that terrain is pretty good going but I was determined to do the whole lot, after a little nap though. The medic team sat me down and asked a few questions before weighing me. I had dropped 3kg since the start and they suggested I ate and drank if I was heading back out. I lay down on the nice soft warm grass and closed my eyes.