Where: Mt Ruapehu, National Park Village
Distance & Time: 50km, 13 hours!
Take: Water, trail shoes, sunscreen, water, snacks, jacket, walking pole
Amenities on route: A couple of DOC huts with fresh water and bathrooms.
Cost of the walk: Accommodation, transport, and the cost of entering the Ring of Fire race!
This wasn’t a typical walk. It was a 50km mountain race around a volcano, that started and finished in darkness. I’d gone into it knowing that I’d already completed a 50km before (and that included running and walking, whereas this one was only walking), so mentally I knew I could do it. It was whether I could physically do it again.
I hadn’t done nearly enough training for this event, and I was in the midst of a super busy period at work. The day before the event, Julie + I drove the five hours up to National Park Village, in the central plateau, for the event briefing. I was feeling ok, all I could hope to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other until I either crossed the finish line, or my feet stopped working (I was hoping for the former rather than the latter!) The videos and photos of the race they showed us made it look completely doable. Ha, little did we know!
At our briefing a competition was announced for all competitors – to facebook live a section of the race, with the best one winning free entry and accommodation to next year’s race. The winning video was shown at the prizegiving and going by the laughter in the audience, he was the well-deserved winner of the facebook live competition (this was the first section of the race, the part we didn’t do!) I’ve watched this video a dozen times and it still cracks me up each time I watch it.
I don’t know if it was nerves, excitement, or stress, but I could barely sleep the night prior to the race. Knowing we had to get up at 3am to catch the bus at 4am didn’t help either. I remember looking at my watch at 11.30pm, drifting off and then looking at it again at 1.30pm, where I stayed awake until the alarm went at 3am. So knowing I managed to complete this race on less than two hours of sleep makes it even more impressive!
Just before 4am we walked down to the Chateau, where we waved off the 72km runners and the leg one relay runners. Then it was onto the bus for the 80 minute trip to the 50km startline in Ohakune. We only just had time to get off the bus and go to the bathroom before we were called to line up at the startline, and just like that, we were off!
The first section was 4km downhill on the road. Easy! Almost too easy, when we considered what was to come!
At the 4km mark we veered off in the bush, the sun had come up by this stage so off went the headlamp, and on went the sunglasses! This was just like any other bushwalk – nice wide paths, easy to navigate stairs, and pleasant surroundings. I was lulled into a false sense of security – I could totally handle this for 50km!
This part of the track was mostly narrow boardwalks. This was where we found the one and only official photographer on track – not ideal as we all had to squeeze past him to stay on the boardwalk!
There were loads of swingbridges on this part of the track too, all only allowed one person to cross at a time. We thought nothing of it until we rounded a corner, thinking we were ages away from anyone else on track to find this:
Yup, a queue of runners/walkers waiting to cross a swing bridge. I’ve got no idea why the queue struck at this particular bridge, but we were here for over 20 minutes! Only one person could cross at a time, and each person seemed to take between 30-45 seconds. It was also here that we were first passed by some of the 72km solo competitors, holy moly they were quick! Everyone was incredibly generous though, and stood aside to let the 72kers through.
Approximately every 4-6km along the course were people who’d been out overnight, so they were in position when the first competitors came along. They were equipped with first aid, and a cheery hello as we passed! Some of them had the most glorious spots they’d spent the night in – the guy in the photo above would have had the most spectacular view of the sunrise!
We never quite saw the peak of Ruapehu while we were on her, as the angle was never quite right, or she was shrouded in cloud, . Not that I’m complaining, as the weather gods were seriously looking favourably upon us – the race weather conditions were absolutely perfect. Clear, not too hot, with wind in exposed areas. Considering the forecast was for snow three days later, we lucked out big time!
Around the 12km mark, we were being overtaken (again) by a 72ker. Every competitor on the course was incredibly lovely, they’d all have a quick chat, ask how you were finding the course, and comment on the stunning views. I was distracted trying to figure out what colour the name tags were for the solo 72kers, and the relay 72kers. I ended up asking one guy, and then recognising his accent, Julie asked him if he was from Wellington. It turned out he was, and he was the guy we’d run into a few weeks prior, when we were training in the hills around Brooklyn!
Around now is where we started to strike the volanic landscape. Up until now it had been like any other bush walk – a mix of trees, bush, and river crossings, all on dirt tracks. I’d look back on these kilometres/tracks with fondness when I experienced what was ahead of us!
It’s also here that the MVP of the entire event came into play – my walking stick. Yes, that makes me sound like a 95 year old granny, but that stick saved my skin on so many occasions on this walk, and without it, I have no doubt that I would have injured myself and most likely had to be helicoptered off the mountain (which wouldn’t have necessarily been the worse thing, helicopters are awesome!)
What did my head in was that I’d gingerly manage to make my way down a rocky cliff, following no clear path, just white poles to show me I was going in generally the right direction, to reach the bottom only to have to then head back up a cliff on the other side. So much pointlessness going down just to come straight back up again!
Watching the professionals do it was something else though. I don’t know how in the world they did it, but they ran, stumbled, jumped and somehow managed to reach the bottom of these cliffs (ok, that may be a slight exaggeration but that’s what they felt like at the time!) seeming at complete ease. I know some of it must be practice, but the confidence they showed in just running down a rock face was absolutely outstanding.
We had to keep reminding ourselves to stop and take in the view because my goodness, it was incredible. The event did promise outstanding views, and boy, did they deliver.
Mum, Julie and I had agreed that we’d never be more than 100 metres apart, so wheneve:r one of us reached the top we’d always wait for the others to catch up. It was good for me as I was usually at the back so I could see what path they’d taken to get to the top and follow that. It also meant I’m in an unusually high number of photos because they’d turn around and take photos of me while I was still walking.
See what I mean about the rocky cliffs? There were a few unfortunate hikers and hunters we passed on route heading in the opposite direction to the 600 odd people who were all trying to get back to the Chateau as quickly as possible. I don’t know how they managed to lug their huge hiking packs up those rocky valleys, I was struggling with just my day pack! Admittedly, I doubt many of them were planning on walking 50km that day, but still!
More rocks. And valleys. I was rreaaaalllllllyyyyyy getting my cranky pants on at this stage, with all the tricky up and down navigation of these damned rocks. Plus, we’d been walking for six hours and weren’t at the half way mark, and we’d been hoping to have completed the race in 10 hours. Ha!
Around here is where I had a wee cry. I was sore, I was tired, I was hangry, and I was constantly tripping on the uneven terrain (thank god for the MVP walking pole), and I was just over it.
My fitbit was playing up and was trying to tell me I’d walked further than I actually had, a sign and volunteer on the course had told us we only had 5km to go but we’d been walking for what seemed like forever. I was hungry and cranky and 80% sure I was going to finish my race at the aid station, as I was adamant there was no way I could keep doing this for another 25+ kilometres.
Amy’s Advice: Take a walking pole on this hike. It was worth every cent on the tricky rocky sections of this walk (of which there are loads). Some people used two, but it’s personal preference, I found one to be suffice.
In the interest of capturing content for this post, but really it was just an excuse to rest and try to stop the tears for a couple of minutes, I filmed just how windy it was on this section of the track, and how rocky!
While I was feeling sorry for myself, a man passed me in jeans. Jeans! I instantly perked up, knowing that he must have walked in from the much-needed aid station, therefore it couldn’t be too far away! I eagerly accosted him asking where in the world it was as I couldn’t see anything in the distance. He pointed out the pylons in the distance and said it was there, approximately 10 minutes away. Ten minutes – ha! It probably was, but in my state of mind it felt like triple that, and when it finally came into view, there may have been a few more tears, as well as a few swears, that came from me (and apologies to anyone who was near me in this section of the race, it was unbecoming of me, I know)
Ohmygod. Crossing into the aid station and just feeling both the sense of relief that I’d made it this far, but knowing I had to cover the distance again to get to the finish line – it very nearly broke me. I told Mum and Julie that I was seriously considering pulling out of the race then as I just didn’t have the energy to keep going. I was hurting and at the pace we were going, I was still going to be on the course long past sunset.
Thankfully Mum and Julie know me well enough to know that what I needed was some food, to change my socks, and to just have a wee think. Which I did. I also asked one of the aid station ladies what the terrain was like going forward and she swore that it was nowhere near as difficult as what we’d just done, and it was the easiest relay leg. I also knew from the map that it was nowhere near as hilly. After downing a v, and a few vegemite and chip sandwiches (so good!), I made the decision that I was going to keep going, and that was that. I wasn’t waiting for anyone. I told them both I was going to keep going but had to go now – so I just started. They both caught up to me within five minutes though, as I knew they would. I also knew that if I’d waited until they were ready I would have likely changed my mind to keep going!
This section of the track was so much easier. Within half an hour I knew that if I’d finished my race at the half way mark, I would have been gutted. While there was a brief downhill right after the aid station, it evened out after that as we followed a dry river bed.
What didn’t help the mindset was having all the fresh relay runners speed past us. They had fresh legs while ours were jelly from the 25km+ we’d already done!
This was also where it became obvious that no one knew how many km we had to go to the finish line. We heard so many conflicting distances! While we thought we were on track to be finished by sunset, that didn’t quite end up being the case.
Mum and Julie really looked after me on this section of the walk. Every five songs that played, we’d stop to hydrate and have something to eat. It meant we kept our energy up and my hanger disappeared. It’s something I have yet to get the hang of in racing, I tend to not eat or drink consistently throughout, it takes me getting to the hangry stage before I feed by body. Not ideal, for me, pf for those who have to deal with my crankiness!
Around 5pm-ish we came across a sign saying we only had 5km to go. That was totally doable and our spirits immediately all rose. Until we saw that one of the organisers had come to collect the 5km sign and move it, because where it was currently located was actually 7km to go. Still, that was doable and we’d hopefully still make it just going on dark.
Yeah….that wasn’t to be. It soon became apparent that we were still going to be out here in the dark. But hey, we made the most of it, taking some awesome sunset photos!
What was strange though is that we hadn’t passed any DOC huts or campsites for the last couple of hours, yet within an hour we had at least 20 hikers pass us going in the opposite direction. This was an hour before sunset – where in the world were they going? We spent ages trying to figure out where they were heading to, but did any of us actually think to ask them? No, no we didn’t, which perhaps goes to show just how much our brains weren’t functioning after 11+ hours on track.
There was no way of knowing how many people were behind us, but it seemed as though in the final hour and half that we could see a lot of people on track, both ahead and behind us. When darkness finally fell it was even easier to pick them out, you just had to follow the trail of headlamps in the distance!
Thankfully the terrain while we were walking in darknesss was pretty easy going – it would have been incredibly easy to injure ourselves, with the combination of exhaustion, darkness, and terrain, but I think the excitement of finally nearing the finish line was enough to keep us upright! We’d also finally spotted the Chateau in the distance (after the disappointment of thinking it would be over the next hill or around the next corner, but it was never to be), so we knew we weren’t too far away!
There was a random couple on the course who were blowing whistles and swinging what sounded like a cow bell – they were probably only a km or so from the finish line but it seemed like such a random location in darkness for him to be placed! But they did cheer us up, even if we did initially mistake the bell for the sound of frogs!
And then! We exited the trees to find ourselves on a tarseal road. And there was our accommodation on the left. We were in the final minutes. I think this may possibly have been my fastest km all race as all I wanted to do was cross that finish line, get my medal, and get to bed (after a very long, very hot shower).
Crossing the outdoor finish line was an anti-climatic moment. There weren’t that many people there and they seemed to be packing up. Of course I’d forgotten that once darkness fell, the finish line celebrations were moved indoors. We were directed to a red carpet that started outside, wound through the conference rooms of the Chateau, before making its way up stairs and into the Chateau ballroom! The applause started as soon as we came up the stairs and it was where my traditional finish line tears threatened to fall. There were people dressed in their race clothes, and others who had changed into fancy suits and dresses. It was very cool! We followed the red carpet as it made its way through the ballroom and up on to the stage as we broke through the ribbon, in a time of just over 13 hours.
The medal lady than tried to hand us all the relay medal. Oh hell no, we were getting what we’d come for, we wanted our 50km medal! A finish line photo later and we were making our way back to our accommodation, but in all honestly, this part of the night is a bit of a blur to me. All I know is that my feet hurt, I was hungry, and I desperately needed sleep.
The next morning, after an epsom salt bath (where have those been all my life, they are a miracle worker), and a decent nine hours of sleep, we decided to attend the post-race yoga session at the Chateau. I don’t normally partake in post-race events but I’m so glad we went to this one. Yoga in the Chateau ballroom was pretty rad, there were around a dozen of us, including a guy who nonchalantly put his hand up when the instructor asked if anyone had done the full 72km. When we asked if he knew where he’d come in the race, he casually held up two fingers. Yup, the guy had come second and still managed to make it to yoga the next morning. What a legend.
Prizegiving started half an hour after yoga so we decided to stick around for that too, only after taking photos on the stage, in front of the trophy table, and photobombing other people’s photos. The second place getter sat in front of us and who should be sitting beside him? The Wellington guy! So we all had a great chat about the race, and what events we were all planning on doing next. The convivial atmosphere among adventure racers is pretty cool, and something that makes races like this so much more fun than a traditional running race.
It was cool being able to cheer for one of the place getters of the race (even if we had only met that morning) because holy sweet baby deity, the times that these individuals posted was absolutely outstanding. The woman who ran the 72km solo? It was her first ever adventure run and she casually came first. How can you top that next time?!
So, would I do it again? The jury is still out on that one. The environment is outstanding, the organisation and care we felt from the organisers was incredible, and the Chateau ballroom red carpet finish line is going to be hard to beat. I’d definitely encourage others to do it, and I’m close to signing up to do The Goat in December, which covers the first part of this race (i.e. relay leg one). Then I will be able to say that I’ve fully walked around Mt Ruapehu, and how cool does that sound?!
The best photos were taken by Julie – check out her awesome photos here, and my Mum. I was too busy trying not to fall over to take any decent photos.
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