Updated: Jan 23, 2020
The sky was dark and the waves crashed over the cragged rocks, spraying salty water everywhere. I was clinging to the side of a rock, waiting for a break in the waves.
“Lucy! No! Come back”
I turn to see Tommy, fear etched across his face. I retreat quickly and immediately start bawling my eyes out…. again.
It’s day one. I’m three kilometre into my 3,000km run across NZ and I have already cried about six times. Geez, this is going to be a long trip.
Day one disaster
I would love to say my first day on the Te Araroa was triumphant, exhilarating and exciting. Finally making my dream a reality. How amazing! But to be honest, I was a ball of nervous energy who was on the verge of bursting into tears at any moment.
From Cape Reinga, the trail heads down past steep cliffs and over rocks to the long Te Werahi Beach. It is highly recommended to do this at low tide, to make the rock scrambling safer and easier. Unfortunately it was close to high tide when I set off so Tommy kindly accompanied me for the first four kms to ensure I safely navigated my way around the rocks. After the drama described above , I managed to pull myself together and head off on my merry way to our first meet point – the 40kms mark.
After a couple of kms on the beach, I climbed up to run along the muddy cliffs. It was slow going – made even slower by a storm which drenched me to the bone. I finally hit the beach again after a couple of hours and was looking forward to chewing up the kms. Little did I know how soul destroying running on the beach is. You literally are running to nowhere – just to a whitish haze in the distance. Yes, it is definitely beautiful but after five hours, this fades.
I reached the meet point and hiked over the sand dune to see Tommy. But no-one was there. The campsite was empty. Thankfully I got one bar of phone reception and received a message from Tommy, saying the road was blocked so I needed to keep running along the beach. He would meet me further down, hopefully in 10kms or so.
So, I kept running towards the haze. I was getting tired so implemented a 2.5kms run/500m walk strategy. After what felt like a lifetime, I saw a lone figure running towards me with his arms open. Tommy had driven to the end point (km 70), hitched a lift 10kms up the beach and then run a further 10kms to meet me. After feeding me a croissant, we headed back together to complete the final 20kms. There was now a massive headwind, so I cowered behind Tommy the whole way, running 8 min kilometres.
We reached the campsite at 5:30pm and I had run 69kms – the longest I had ever run in a day. I was totally wrecked. How the hell was I going to keep this up for 70 days?
Every step is one step closer
The first week was tough – both physically and mentally. Every morning started with tears. I was struggling to eat. I was stressing out about getting lost, about the upcoming estuary crossings. I felt lonely. I had blisters – something I never had during training. I was worried I would fail. I wasn’t enjoying myself.
But as the days went on, I started to have moments of joy. Running through the muddy Raetea Forest on Day 3. Seeing the beautiful Rainbow Falls on the Kerikeri River trail on Day 4. Wading through the peaceful Papakauri Stream in the Russel Forest and meeting Natalie Gallant, who is running the trail self-supported, on Day 5.
I stopped focussing on the whole 3,000kms. Instead I focussed on just getting to the next meet point in 10/20/30kms time. Every step was one step closer to Bluff. Eat the elephant one bite at a time.
I had a big turning point on Day 8. I ran 57kms and I felt strong. It wasn’t an easy day by any means – I started off on a dreaded beach followed by sealed roads and undulating, exposed fire trails. But I powered up them. I finished off running along the beautiful Mangawhai Coastal Track and whooped with joy. I was mentally in a good spot and was having fun.
I think this was due to the fact I had a really relaxing evening with Tommy the night prior. I had finished relatively early (4:30pm) and instead of pushing out a few more kms, we opted to head to the campsite. We had plenty of time to shower, stretch, have a leisurely dinner and I got 10hrs sleep. This set me up for a good day the next day.
Rolling, rolling, rolling
The days just started to click by after this point.
Don’t get me wrong, there were still plenty of terrible moments – like the final 6kms into Te Kuiti where the route went up and down every single hill in the region or getting zapped by an electric fence, when straddling over it, on my you know where. But I was able to cope with these moments better, knowing they were temporary.
I also started having people join me, which was a real highlight. The first were Paul and Tracey in Owera, then Stu in Silverdale who accompanied me across the Okura Estuary. Rusty, Mary and Brendan in Hamilton and Jenny in Auckland. Sharing the trail with these new friends made the kms fly by.
Shared experiences are better experiences
I had been counting down to Day 19 from the beginning because that was the day that my friend, Caz, was arriving from Aus. We ran a blissful 44kms along the Timber Trail – chatting, laughing and taking in the amazing suspension bridges along the trail. We drank beers and ate burritos in the evening sun that night, and I felt like I was on holidays.
Caz ran with me for four days, including taking on the Tongariro Crossing which was meant to be one of the highlights of the trip. Unfortunately, we woke up to grey, drizzly skies and gale force winds. The first 5kms of the hike was lovely but as we got higher, it got more barren and we could smell the sulphur. It also got windier and the visibility dropped. Soon we could only see 10m in front of us and could only just make out the directional markers.
As we summitted the final section, we were reduced to 30min per km pace. It was like a scene out of a mountaineering movie as we inched forward and the wind battered us. It was scary and we just wanted to get done asap. After four hours, we were finally down far enough that the wind dropped and we could start to relax.
A welcome break
I had a mini melt down the day that Caz left. The only consolation was that I only to had to run 54kms that day and then Tommy and I would get three days kayaking the Whanganui River together. This was a well earnt mental break for both of us – particularly for Tommy who had literally been doing everything for me for the past 23 days.
There was no reception. No logistics to worry about. Just floating down the river. It was hugely refreshing and needed, although my pencil arms were dead by the end of it.
A wrong turn
Our next set of temporary crew flew in on Day 28 – Ez and Steve. These legends stayed with us for five days and were a massive help as they shouldered the responsibility of cooking, driving and generally mothering me. Ez ran the trail with me (which was main road at this point, which is her nemesis) while Steve kept Tommy company. But having a second driver also meant Tommy could do some running with me, including taking on the dreaded Tararua Ranges.
The Tararua Ranges have a reputation for being hard. Steep, muddy, rooty and notorious for having weather which deteriorates rapidly. Thankfully the weather gods were looking down on us and the forecast said three sunny days.
Packing for three days in the mountains took us a lot longer than we thought so we didn’t hit the trail until 9:45am. The first section was lovely shady forest with little stream crossings, which we leaped across trying to keep our feet dry.
There was around 5km of road before entering the Ranges. As we sped hiked, a car pulled up with the owner of the local outdoor centre inside. We had a great chat with him, as he was super friendly and helpful. However, when we told him we were aiming for Te Matawai Hut, he put his head in the steering wheel and with gritted teeth advised it was normally an 8 hr hike. It was already 4pm. We didn’t have a tent and there would be no other shelter on the way. We could tell he wanted to advise us strongly against it, but he was also trying to be considerate and appreciated we sounded pretty serious with our endeavours.
We put the foot down and smashed out the next few kms. We hit the base of the climb at 5pm and started heading up – confident we would get there at 9 or 9:30pm. At 6:30pm, I checked the map. We were off the trail. Uh oh. The trail notes had warned about going up the wrong path, towards another hut which was on the old TA trail. We had done just that.
I started to panic but Tommy stayed calm. We bombed our way back down, reaching the bottom at 7:30pm. We had lost 2.5hrs. We didn’t really have any other option but to push on because we didn’t have a tent. We restarted the correct climb.
It was getting dark but we didn’t have to pull out the head torches until 9pm due to a full moon. We suddenly reached a ridge where all the trees dropped away and we could see right out to the coast. It was peaceful and beautiful and we took a moment to enjoy it.
The final 2 hrs were hard. Dodging roots and mud in the dark. We reached the hut at 11:30pm, had a baby wipe shower outside, changed into pjs and snuck into the hut. Thankfully there were a few spare beds. Unfortunately, there was a snorer so I had a crap night sleep.
The following day was also memorable but for positive reasons. The trail was hard – only 20kms which took us 11hrs but it was stunningly beautiful as it ran primarily along ridge lines with magnificent views. We arrived at the wonderful Waitewaewae Hut at 7:30pm, jumped in the river to wash off and ate salami and cheese wraps for dinner.
Farewell North Island
The final few days on the North Island were fun. Erin and I ran the spectacular Escarpment Track and took in windy Colonial Knob as I headed towards Wellington.
Another highlight was meeting, and running with, Mina Holder, the previous FKT holder for the TA trail. Mina and I first connected over two years ago and she has been a major source of inspiration and help when planning this trip. Mina and her hubby, James, welcomed Tommy and I into their home, fed us bangers and mash, and even gave me a massage. It felt so fitting that I finished the North Island with her beside me.
One island down. One more to go.