Running New Zealand’s Great Walks: hallucinations, frozen extremities and near-drownings

Normally I’d be worried at finding myself fantasising about opening a beer at 6.45am on a Monday – but normal is in short supply this morning, as I blunder along the shores of Lake Waikaremoana with two blokes I used to describe as my running mates. (“Running” doesn’t quite cover the activity Luke, Ben and I are doing any more. We’re zombie-shuffling mates now.)

Time has become an ever more abstract concept over the past week and a half, as we’ve attempted to bend it this way and that. Minutes, hours and days can – according to people far more intelligent than me – be distorted. Go into space or travel fast enough and it’s possible to warp these values, says the theory of relativity. But if your feet are in regular contact with planet Earth and you’re moving at the steadily declining speed of a tired trail runner, there really is only so much you can cram into them.

Which is a shame. Especially when you’re trying to decant four weeks of trail time into nine days. With Luke and Ben, I’m attempting to run New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, one after the other, in a record time. The Department of Conservation (DoC) recommend trampers allow a total of 28 days when walking these tracks, and that doesn’t include travel time between trailheads, which are scattered right across the country and separated by the most twisty roads on the planet (or so it seems when you’re trying to sleep on the go).

Plenty of people will say that this is no way to experience the Great Walks, each of which wend through wonderful landscapes and deserve to be enjoyed over several days, not run in a matter of hours. And I wholeheartedly agree with them – especially this morning.

But, at the same time, just because the central sights and vibrant streetscapes of London, New York and Paris are best appreciated over the space of a week or more, that doesn’t stop thousands of visiting runners legging it around those cities as quick as they can during marathons. And good luck to them. Runners like challenges, and this is no different. These nine tracks are great walks, but they’re also fantastic runs. We might not be stopping to smell the alpine foxgloves very often, but we’re running with eyes wide open and soaking in the sights, without negatively affecting the experience of others.

Actually, in all the huts we stop at to refill water bladders, trampers are fascinated, surprised and amused when they learn of our escapade. All are encouraging, and many insist on sharing their meagre rations to keep us going – thrusting into our often-shivering hands steaming cups of liquid that looks like common or garden Nescafé, but tastes like the elixir of the gods. Every drop of kindness and enthusiasm helps because each day is getting exponentially tougher – which is why I’ve been repeatedly promising myself a beer at the end.

Our mission began on the 32km Rakiura Track on Stewart Island, a terrific tropical trail around an idyllic isle that hangs off the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island. Next came Fiordland’s towering triumvirate of tracks: the 60km Kepler, 54km rain-strafed Milford (the original Great Walk) and the rubbly 32km Routeburn, where rain turned to snow and our extremities to ice, but the vistas kept grins frozen in place.

Each was ticked off on consecutive days, completed within an hour of our predicted times. There was the odd tumble and occasional involuntary curtsey as an ankle rolled, but no one twisted anything serious or had their water bladder pecked apart by keas, the pirate-like mountain parrots that mug many trampers on New Zealand’s loftier trails.

But on the 78.4km Heaphy Track – always an intimidating prospect, made worse by the fact that we started six hours later than planned because of a tortuous overnight drive – the wheels nearly fell off.

My right knee mutinied less than a quarter of the way in, and I had to drag my leg like a dead animal for 60km. With our drivers having begun their 654km journey to the opposite trailhead, my only option was to continue onwards and upwards, in the hope I could run it off. I couldn’t. And, as darkness descended, I fell behind the others. After the last hut, with 17km remaining, I insisted they run ahead and get warm in the waiting vans.

The run out was downhill, along a well-formed track. So long as my headtorch held out and I didn’t trip over and bounce my bonce off a rock, I’d be fine. But stumble I did. Many times. The switchbacks were never ending, my watch ran out of charge so I couldn’t count down the clicks, and my knee throbbed like a subwoofer in a Vauxhall Corsa.

Apparently, Luke met a “sleepmonster” here, in the alarming shape of a masked, axe-wielding man. If I’d experienced a vision like that, I might have been quicker – knackered knee or not – but instead I was visited by several real kiwi birds, a rare sight in the wild and an experience that got me through.

I finished 30 minutes after Ben and Luke, but time was digging its heels in and we couldn’t reach the start of the Abel Tasman Track, run its 55.2km length and make the afternoon inter-island ferry. Instead, my knee got some rest and we tackled one of the world’s greatest coastal trails the following morning – even then, only making the ferry with one minute to spare.

The first track on the North Island called new muscles into action. The 145km Whanganui Journey is a river trail, done in kayaks or canoes. With our need for speed, we’d opted to paddle sleek racing skis, but this – plus the fact that the river was running exceptionally fast and high after days of rain – caused problems. Luke couldn’t stay upright in the rapids, his temperature dropped dangerously, we lost valuable time pulling over and no one thought paddling through the night was a safe option, so we bailed early. This would be a trail-running record if it was destined to be a record at all.

Back on our feet again on the 43km Tongariro Northern Circuit, I was running on empty, but the apocalyptically stunning volcanic landscape pulled me through. Just. The bad news, though, was that – thanks to lost time back on the Heaphy and the first missed ferry – we had to jump straight in a helicopter, race to the trailhead of the 43km Lake Waikaremoana Track and run through the night to try to finish before the ninth day of the expedition clicked over into 10.

Time is ticking. There is no more wriggle room, but the end is nigh. Surely. Just around the next cove. Ben is banging on about murdering a bowl of cornflakes when we finish, but he’s not normal. I can taste that beer from here.

Pat, Ben and Luke – AKA the Global Adventurers – set a new speed record for running New Zealand’s eight Great Walks–listed land tracks of nine days 23hr 20min. A documentary about their experience, produced in conjunction with 100% Pure New Zealand, will be broadcast next year.

Follow Pat on twitter @paddy_kinsella.

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