Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon
February 20, 2016
To be clear. Before I begin, to explain why what I suspect will be a very fragmented race report is that way, I DNF’d on this one. Did so spectacularly. And yet I’m not embarrassed to say that this marathon kicked my ass.
My very first marathon was the Lost Dutchman, my 50th birthday present to myself. Another milestone, for my 55th I treat myself to a few days in Tahiti, where it proceeds to pour rain for the next three days. I spend most of the time reading and drinking coffee on my balcony overlooking the restless ocean, but do manage a short road run up the hill behind the hotel, in half an hour soaking my gear to where it takes 24 hours and the application of a hair dryer to undampen them.
Thursday & Friday
A little apartment on a hill overlooking Lake Wakatipu is my home for the next few days, or rather it’s my luggage’s home. After packet pickup and the mandatory gear check, I drop my rental car at the finish line at Moke Lake and join the other runners, Kiwis and Aussies all, taking the overnight option at Ben Lomond Lodge. The marathon is run on the massive Ben Lomond sheep station in New Zealand’s South Island, the only time this private farmstead is open to the public.
Following a hearty family-style dinner and convo at the Lodge, complete with venison vindaloo and other delights, we toddle off for the night to the A-frame cabins, across a meadow that cries out for you to recreate the spinning Julie Andrews Sound of Music opening scene. NZ observes daylight saving time so it’s still dark when I get up the next morning and I’m not prepared for the sky full of stars here in the heights of the Remarkables mountain range, far from the lights of Queenstown.
With the pinkening of the cloud scraps in the eastern sky come the helicopters bearing those who stayed at Moonlight Lodge further up the mountain. In short order we’re all packed up and flying down Skipper’s Canyon towards the start line, the green-and-yellow hills, so similar in form to the mountains of the Sonoran desert, rising up from the grey foaming Shotover River, the pilot pointing out highlights of the race route as we go. We’re still under a weather watch, a big storm system poised to break rain across the mountains sometime today. If the race officials decide it’s too risky, the race can be halted or the marathoners told to drop to the 30K course at any time. For now the morning is gorgeous, sunlight turning the tops of the hills, and I’m feeling ready.
I haven’t been able to practice on all the same terrain that this marathon covers – in particular, the river crossings in Arizona generally don’t have water in them – but between driving up to Flagstaff over the summer and working my way up to 20 miles at the Aravaipa trail races around Phoenix, I feel like I can handle this. I expect to be slower than my training runs, but that’s OK. I can finish.
The race starts on the rocky beach below Skipper’s Canyon bridge. A hundred-odd runners surge across the stones, then bottleneck on a short, steep, narrow trail bounded by thick vegetation; it levels out and is very cruisy for a few minutes, then opens out onto another beach, mixed stones, grass, and brush: not so cruisy. Up another steep hill and then single track along a barren ridgeline, scree slopes falling steeply off to either side and nothing but the sky above. After a while the course, marked by pink ribbons, moves to a trail halfway down a steep green slope. A sheep, unseen uphill, bleats, and I laugh. The field of runners towards the rear spreads out, and I’m mostly on my own with the occasional companion. AWe dip down into a wooded area straight out of Middle Earth, and some minor stream crossings that are nothing compared to what will be coming up later.
Somewhere around the 10K mark, I think, I discover that the companions I’ve been keeping pace with are running the 30K, as they split to go ahead on the level, and I’m directed right to climb up to another ridgeline. I find myself on a near-vertical slope covered in huge tussocks of saw grass taller than me, with no track other than occasional glimpses of pink ribbon at the top of long wires. It’s a time-consuming and sweary struggle to get through, and I’m exhausted by the time I get to the top. Nevertheless I pick things back up and run the length of the ridge to the drinks station at the far end.
This is the top of the world, the view of green hills stretching beneath for mile upon mile, a brisk gale snapping the pink ribbons and spitting rain. The gal at the drinks station gives me the pep talk, points out the road that I’ll be dropping down to, and will eventually take me to Ben Lomond Lodge, the slightly-past-halfway point. I’m concerned; there’s a cutoff time I have to meet at the Lodge, my time’s not been great and I’ve just lost a bunch of time coming up that slope. I head down the slope towards the road, and it’s just as steep as the ascent, and although the tussocks are far smaller I’m terrified of rolling an ankle and sprawling head over heels for hundreds of feet.
…and here is where my memory gets muddy. I think there were some more forests, some river wading, more climbing up to ridge trails. Suffice to say this course doesn’t really have any “easy” bits. At the next checkpoint the volunteers aren’t as encouraging. “Do you want to drop down to the 30K course?” they ask. I consider. How far to the Lodge if I keep going? 5K is the answer. The cutoff is really looking unlikely at this point, but for 5K I’m game… except it isn’t 5K. It’s 5 miles. There’s another dip down into forest, a mud pit where I sink to my knees and fall over, thoroughly coated, a river crossing higher than my knees, a ladder…. It’s raining, I’m too drained to keep up a running pace, ready to pack it in… and still no effing Lodge!
Finally I see a farm building up ahead and drag up to it. It looks different somehow. A voice calls out, “Do you want a ride down to Ben Lomond?” FML, this isn’t even Ben Lomond Lodge, it’s Moonlight Lodge!
And so the injured, the weary, and the less fleet of foot cram wetly into a couple of ATVs for the moderately scary ride to the finish line at Moke Lake, where there is coffee and sushi and a place to change into dry clothes; and where I give another runner a lift back into town in exchange for helping me keep on the left hand side of the road.
I hope this recap doesn’t discourage anyone. The course for the Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon is breathtaking, but way out of my league. Note that the 30K option covers the same territory, but without the climbs up to the ridgelines. I spent the week following the race exploring the white sand beaches of the southern coastline, an area known as the Catlins, nursing the nasty head cold I got from my frolic in the Remarkables, and revising my 7 Continents plans, since I wasn’t able to tick off Australia/NZ this year.
Tips if you go
On the mandatory gear list, “thermal” means thermal underwear aka longjohns, like you’d buy from WIntersilks or Land’s End. “Survival bag” is an insulating silver mylar bag (not a blanket) large enough to crawl inside. There are shops on Shotover Street where you can pick up anything you’re missing.
There is no cell phone coverage at Moke Lake and no transport provided back to town from the finish. You can drop a car at the finish like I did, or bum a ride with someone.
The event is established and well-run, but there was apparently some problem that kept race confirmations from going out to some entrants, and blocked email from certain servers from reaching the director. This wasn’t a problem with the Ben Lomond Lodge or any of the other NZ businesses I had email contact with.
The course map for the marathon is released only a few days before the event, and then only in person (in order to discourage runners “scouting out” the route on private land), but here’s an elevation profile to whet your appetite: